Late-September certainly isn’t the midpoint of the year, but for movie-goers it marks a transition of sorts. From January till then is when studios unload the “rest” of their catalogue – weird indies, broad comedies, superhero packed blockbusters and understated sci-fi masterpieces. Then, come fall, there’s a shift toward the serious and stately. The approach of awards season means our screens will soon be monopolized by biopics of great men (almost always men, sigh) from history and actors transformed into less attractive versions of themselves. Before we get there, I wanted to acknowledge my favorite of the rest, the little gems that will mostly likely start to get overlooked once we’re all busy arguing about the number of American flags in First Man.
10. Love, Simon
Looking at my top 20 films of last year, there’s not a single romantic comedy to be found. But in 2018, the romcom came roaring back (personally, I credit Mindy Kaling), bringing with it adorable mix-ups, swoon-worthy confessions of love, and texting, so much texting. I enjoyed Crazy Rich Asians, Destination Wedding, Set It Up and To All the Boys I Loved Before to varying degrees, but the only one that made it here is the pitch-perfect and extremely heart-felt Love, Simon. I didn’t watch Love, Simon till I was stuck on a 5 hour flight, because while I’d heard good things and loved the idea of a gay character (finally!) leading a teen romance, the “teen” part made me hesitate. Between that and Jennifer Garner’s wholesome mom thing, I was worried we’d have a Hallmark-movie level cheese fest on our hands. I’m thrilled to admit I was completely wrong. Sure, parts of Love, Simon are cheesy, but there are also the parts that heartbreaking and hilarious – all adding up to a nuanced portrayal of how complicated it is to be at that age where you’re between selves – no longer the kid you were, but not yet the adult you’re going to become, and trying to navigate romantic love and relationships for the first time on top of everything else. It’s messy and fun and imperfect, and the reason this movie succeeds is because it lets Simon and his friends be all those things too.
9. Sorry to Bother You
A wild, daring mess of a film, Boots Riley’s first foray into writing and directing a feature film is as far out there as you’ll get this summer without a pharmaceutical assist. As in his almost 30 year music career (as founder and frontman of The Coup), with Sorry To Bother You, Riley fuses his political activism with his pop culture sensibilities to create breed of art that’s all his own. The movie follows Lakeith Stanfield’s Cassius “Cash” Green as he struggles to make ends meet in Oakland. After starting a new job at a telemarketing company, he discover the power of using his “white voice” to shill their products to the masses, and Cassius start a climb up a seemingly perilous and morally compromised corporate ladder. David Cross’s performing Cassius’s “white voice” is just one disconcerting element in a world of many – the world Riley’s created is a twisted version of our own, but not by much. Ads run constantly for a company that sells….well everything, and offers employees a life free of worry or choice in exchange for contractual servitude. Extreme capitalism meets radical dissent in a series of confrontations and Cassius becomes isolated from his former life as he’s drawn into deeper into corporate America. The supporting cast – Tessa Thompson, Steve Yeun and Armie Hammer – are all fantastic, and even though in its final act the film chooses chaos over coherence, the overall impression it leaves you with is one of something new and audacious and extremely relevant to the future of American cinema.
8. Let the Sunshine In
I said Love, Simon was the only romcom on my list, but I imagine that Let the Sunshine In, from French director Claire Denis, could also be considered one. It’s undoubtedly the best love story I’ve seen this year. It focuses on Isabelle, a divorced artist in her 40s living in Paris, played by an almost inconceivably charming Juliet Binoche, falling in and out of love with the men who pass through her life, while in the background her self-love emerges as a thing of singular beauty. Denis’s camera is confident and close, revealing Isabelle’s layers like a simmering emotional burlesque. Binoche lets her be sweet and then petty, moves from tender to callous in a moment, but Isabelle remains the same person – the core of her a woman bolstered by her experiences, not fractured by them. Throughout her encounters with the men she wants to love but can’t, the men she desperately wants to love her, Isabelle is forever attempting to live an examined life – weighing her desires against her needs against her choices and trying to make sense of how they each contribute or detract from her happiness. This might also be the most joyful film on this list – Denis captures a light emanating from her lead actress so that even scenes where Isabelle is distressed feel buoyant. In Let the Sunshine In, the combined powers of Denis and Binoche manage to that rare feat – telling a story of the highs and lows of modern love where we come out the other side (for the most part) unbruised and smiling.
Ok, I guess screaming eternally into the void can’t be my entire plug for this movie, but that was my initial reaction to seeing Hereditary. Ari Aster’s feature directorial debut is that thing that you know will give you the worst nightmares – an A24 horror film. Filled from start to finish with images that will sear themselves onto your eyeballs (you can never unsee them!), Hereditary is a strong entry into the cannon of horror that gets whispered about at summer camp by kids wanting to scare the shit out of other kids. Beginning with a creepy grandmother who’s obviously taken some disturbing family secrets to her grave, the movie only escalates from there. And what it escalates to – well maybe it’s that I don’t want to spoil it and maybe it’s that it’s so strangely terrifying as to be almost unspeakable, and maybe it’s a little bit of both. For my taste, Aster tries to pack in a bit too much – instead of resolving interesting plot threads, they just seem to unravel into new, increasingly vague designs. And yet it all hangs together, though pretty precariously by that ending, on his virtuoso direction. The incorporation of miniatures to create disturbing tableau of the family is a particularly great touch, and Toni Collette’s performance as Annie, the family matriarch who goes from slightly unhinged to something else entirely, is on another level (an Oscar-worthy level if there’s any justice in the world). She screams, you’ll scream, I promise you that.
One thing I did not expect from this year in film was a spiritual successor to one of my most beloved movies of all time 1988’s Heathers. If you haven’t seen it, Heathers is a black comedy starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater at the peak of their angsty youths, and it’s so so dark. Many Heathers remake attempts have been tried – as a musical, as a TV show, but none have worked. And that makes sense – a lot of the stuff in Heathers – Slater’s character blows up the school, there’s a hit song about teenage suicide – just won’t fly today. So what’s brilliant about Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds, is that without literally recreating those triggering acts, it captures the spirit that made Heathers so special. It’s the spirit of a couple of teenagers who are just…over it. Who have stopped caring about fitting in, making their parents happy and all the other bullshit in their lives. And these high schoolers still get into some disturbing stuff – in Thoroughbreds two unlikely friends – Lily and Amanda, plan to murder Lily’s asshole of a stepdad, Mark. While Lily hates Mark, Amanda’s enthusiasm for the scheme is born from her curiosity as a sociopath who can’t feel anything. Deliciously stylized and wicked, Thoroughbreds sees Lily and Amanda dipping their toes into the seedy criminal world, yet those encounters never feel as grim as when they’re inside Lily’s perfectly manicured suburban home. The movie works as an ode to female friendship and the way young women come into their own power by turning a lesson they’re so often taught – to control their own emotions – on the people around them. Still, if you’re expecting a happy ending with them hugging it out, as Veronica, Lily or Amanda might say “How very.”
The history lesson 2018 so desperately needed, Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman injects the conversation about racism in America with a much needed dose of intensity and dynamism. In the time since the 2016 election, incidents of racial injustice, meted out and/or sanctioned by those in the country’s highest elected positions, have dominated our collective psyche. Bigots in our family, anti-semites in our mentions, nazis marching through our streets – they weren’t suddenly there, they were always there, only unnoticeable to comfortable white people who never wanted to notice. But the megaphone handed them by this administration’s rhetoric and policy meant no one could look the other way any longer. And so there’s been an ongoing conversation about how to respond – with marches, with punching, with sheet cake. Blackkklansman is, above all else, a towering achievement of an artistic response. In it, Lee takes one “too crazy to be true” historical incident – the infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan by the first African-American detective in the Colorado Springs police department – and uses it as lens to explore our country’s history, which is also the history of the white supremacy movement. Lee is a filmmaker who believes in the power of storytelling – from the story told within the film of the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington, to the one he tells us at the movie’s end, with footage from the 2017 Unite the Right rally where Heather Heyer was killed. Blackkklansman is ultimately the story of the fractured American identity and the urgency with which we must respond to hate in the present moment.
4. Eighth Grade
In 2017 there was one movie that held a very special place on my list – it wasn’t my favorite film of the year or the one I rewatched the most, but it was the one I couldn’t stop thinking about, the one I burst into tears at the end of. The Florida Project was as tender a meditation on childhood, family and survival as I’d ever seen, and it was the heart of my list. This year, Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is that heart – equally affecting, it follows eighth grader Kayla (Elsie Fisher) through her final week of middle school. To be thirteen in the age of social media – that premise could have easily been turned into a horror film to rival Hereditary. And there are certainly frightening moments as Kayla navigates crushes and cool kids and her YouTube channel – Eighth Grade understands the anxiety and pressures of this age like no other. Yet Burnham never abandons his empathy toward Kayla for a laugh or cutting social commentary. He puts us right there with her, in the trenches of adolescence, and that intimacy assures that Eighth Grade feels both urgent and universal, tender and radical. It also proves that carefully crafted nostalgia – i.e. the current glut of coming of age movies set in the 80s/90s with bitchin’ soundtracks – matters so much less than foregrounding characters who are fully seen, and even loved, by the camera.
3. First Reformed
“Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?”
That question is repeated throughout Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, it’s gravity seemingly felt by each character in this gloomy meditation on faith and despair. Throughout the film we watch Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) contend with his guilt, both personal – for convincing his son to join the army (only to have him die 6 months later in Afghanistan), and universal – for being a member of the species actively destroying the planet. Schrader’s a venerable figure of American cinema, with credits like Raging Bull and Taxi Driver (and also Cat People) to his name, but I have to confess this was the first film of his I’d ever seen. His adeptness at framing a scene – so many of which are just Reverend Toller alone – alone in his small rural residence that adjoins the small rural church he oversees, alone by a shipyard at twilight, alone in his thoughts even in the presence of other people – was so masterful it often left me breathless. With so much focus on that character, Hawke’s performance is integral to the success of the film. And what a performance it is – his face somehow wiped of all the handsome smugness he’s carried most of his career, he gives Toller an angry standoffishness that seeps through every pore, so that even when he’s trying to help – himself or others – it’s clear that he’s actually bent on destruction. When that destruction comes, it’s easy to blame the rest of the movie for not preparing you for its severity. As I sat stunned with my fellow movie goers through the credits the day I saw First Reformed in theaters, I realized I must have felt as betrayed, angry and in awe as the faithful when they hear God’s answer to the above question as a resounding no.
A smaller indie film I feel like I might be the only person in the world to see (just kidding cause I at least made two other people I know watch it), Gemini is criminally underappreciated. A neon-saturated, sexy as hell thriller with all the beautiful people and vistas of Los Angeles as its backdrop, Gemini unfolds as a young actress, Heather Anderson is found dead by her BFF/assistant Jill (Lola Kirke). As Jill becomes one of many suspects on the list of who might want to kill the self-absorbed and difficult Heather, she must begin her own haphazard search for the killer. This isn’t the most profound movie of the year, but it has so many good things going for it, including an epic synth-jazz soundtrack by Keegan DeWitt. But most of all it has something I’ve wanted to see on-screen for years – an ordinary woman forced by circumstances to harness all her intelligence and skills as a badass to solve a mystery. In this case, the mystery is who hurt her friend/employer and all signs point to one of the toxic men in Heather’s life. At the forefront of Gemini is the idea that while female friendships can be perilous, they are also one of the few things that can be depended on in this skeezy world. The first few minutes of the movie are Heather and Jill working together to reject one male advance (personal and professional) after another with the satisfying attitude that they just don’t need or want those dudes around. Instead, it’s Heather and Jill, and then eventually, just Jill, stealing through the glossy Los Angeles night, donning disguises, saving herself.
Not a prequel or a sequel or a remake, my favorite movie of the year (so far) came out in February to mild commercial success and mixed critical reviews. Annihilation, directed by Alex Garland and based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, is a weird AF and completely origial sci-fi movie with an all female-led cast. The story of a group of military scientists investigating a supernatural phenomenon occurring on earth, Annihilation‘s scope – encompassing the source of life in our universe as well as the nature of its propagation and survival – is thrillingly ambitious. Natalie Portman anchors a dream cast and succeeds at a difficult challenge. Her character, a biologist named Lena, is so clinical and taciturn, in a less nuanced performers hands she could easily come off as simply cold, thereby distancing us from the linchpin of the movie’s emotional development. Instead Portman conveys all Lena’s strength without shutting us out from her inner life. While on the surface Annihilation is all “weird alien bubble that causes murderous hallucinations and is filled with mutated bear monsters,” just as important to is the through line of trauma present in each character’s story. Trauma rips open their worlds on scales large and small, and the growth that results is the ultimate focus for Garland. And, wow, that last 30 minutes is really something to look at it. For me, the best cinematic surprise of 2018 came two months into the year with Annihilation, a new entry into the cannon of scifi greats like 2001: A Space Odysssey, a level of filmmaking that changes the way we look at everything going forward.