Halfway through, it’s obvious that this year has so far been a trove of genre filmmaking. Looking at the list our writers have voted as the Best Movies of 2018 (So Far), it’s clear that things have changed a bit since our last go at this. Gone from our list are the big-budget blockbusters like 2017’s Logan and Kong, or even some of the slicker sequels like Alien: Covenant, and in their place we find a host of small horror films, psychological thrillers, and neo-noir (with maybe a cuddly bear thrown in for sanity’s sake). For a film section dubbed ‘Sordid Cinema,’ this is of course a welcome trend, and one we hope continues through December.
It’s also interesting to note that despite a host of sci-fi and superhero movie fans on our staff, some of the biggest ticket sellers of the last six months didn’t make the cut — no Black Panther, no Avengers: Infinity War. We’ll see if that becomes a trend, but in the meantime, if you haven’t seen any of the gems below, please consider giving them a shot — they’re some of the best of 2018!
Editor’s Note: This list is in alphabetical order. While there are plenty of films we wish we could have included, our rules require each movie to have been released theatrically and/or on VOD in 2018. In other words, many of the great films we have seen at film festivals are not eligible.
Alex Garland’s beautiful, uninviting, cold, pulsing journey into the nature of change and destruction is the sleek, streamlined antidote to recent bloated sci-fi. Like the best of the genre, Annihilation is less concerned with giving answers than asking questions, wisely using its time and technology to explore actual humanity instead of the mere facade of it. As former soldier-turned-biology-professor Lena (Natalie Portman) and her squadmates wander deeper into The Shimmer, a patch of swampy forest strangely encased by an opalescent bubble that is continuously expanding, they discover a mutating world full of dazzling beauty and terrible horror — from which no one has returned. Tasked with finding the source of the disturbance (and beholden to their own motivations for accepting the mission), the five women are forced to confront demons from without and within; but what does it all mean?
Like its protagonist, Annihilation offers few explanations willingly. Characters withhold information, often lie, and due to the nature of the phenomenon on display, even what we see can’t always be trusted. It’s certain that there are real psychological issues being tackled here, but what they are is open to interpretation, inspiring the best sorts of post-viewing conversations. Despite occasionally wallowing in its ambiguity, however, the film never loses focus on what’s important, what the real draw is. It knows that even in a story with suspicious meteors, genetic anomalies, and hybrid monsters, humans can still be the strangest, most fascinating creatures on screen.
The rotten dread permeating every aspect of the screenplay is wonderfully reinforced by mesmerizing visuals, but Garland refuses to get lost in them. His direction is consistently inventive, luring audiences in with imagery that entices as much as repulses, but it’s all in service of the characters — not the setting. Still, it’s hard not to be sucked in by such gloriously cinematic compositions, patient editing, and expert use of effects. Add to that a surging, hypnotic score, and you’ve got something that reminds us what makes movies still so special. Tense, captivating, and bold, Annihilation is proof that there’s still life in the sci-fi movie universe. (Patrick Murphy)
It can be hard to see the beauty and good in this world full of filth and depravity, but with blinders on that becomes an even tougher task. Push the universe away enough, and eventually it will push back. Cold Hell (Die Hölle), a taut thriller from director Stefan Ruzowitzky, recognizes that hell may be other people, but it’s also the absence of them — so you better make some friends.
After spending nights ferrying drunken louts around Prague in her taxi cab, fending off insults from macho pigs and evading the leers of sleazy businessmen, it’s easy to see why a Turkish immigrant wants to retreat a bit from society, to fade into the darkness. She is thrust back into the light, however, upon witnessing the results of a grisly murder in the building across from her bathroom window. She does not see the killer’s face, but he sees hers, and so a taut game of creepy cat-and-mouse begins to play out, giving the first half of Cold Hell the feel of a serial killer story where gloom and death lurks around every shadowy corner.
It won’t stay that way for long. Thanks to extensive kickboxing experience and a chip on her shoulder, this young woman knows how to take care of herself, and the latter half of the film becomes more of a tense thriller, awaiting a vengeful confrontation that will surely determine the fate of its hero’s soul. Along the way viewers can check Prague off their travel list, with Ruzowitzky depicting only the grimiest, neon-lit underbellies the city has to offer. Throw in some gruesome murders, and the Czech Republic’s tourist board must have been nervous. To top it off, Cold Hell offers up one of the more satisfying conclusions the genre is capable of, a catharsis worthy of the masterful ticking bomb that precedes it. (Patrick Murphy)
In 2012, the two-man filmmaking machine of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead shot Resolution, a low-budget brain-teaser that few privileged souls saw. But with The Endless, a film that works entirely on its own merits, Benson and Moorhead return to and expand on the world they previously created — and this time, in addition to directing, writing, producing, lensing, and editing, the two also star.
With so much control and involvement, the amount of love these directors have for the process of indie filmmaking is self-evident, but its also obvious on screen. The Endless feels like a film made by people who have fun making films, and for whatever gripes one can summon about the end-product (pretty hard to do), that’s an infectious and commendable quality. (Emmet Duff)
You will be left feeling cold and alone by the time Paul Schrader’s latest film, First Reformed, ends. It’s a movie that demands you go back into it and mine beneath the surface, as it’s more than just a man having a conflict of faith — it’s a man holding onto a dark past, coming to terms with a dark future, and contending with a dark present. First Reformed is a deeply moving film that wallows in its moodiness; equally atmospheric and thought provoking, there isn’t much room for joy in Schrader’s misery — just a constant sense of personal insignificance.
Ethan Hawke delivers one of his greatest performances ever, and surrounded by a small, dependable cast, he burrows deep into the role of a reverend at odds with his beliefs while hurting himself and trying to guide others through their own troublesome thoughts. Hawke feels barely alive, on the verge of collapse throughout the entirety of First Reformed. Place him up against Amanda Seyfried’s Mary, and there’s a kindness to him that fluctuates between genuine and appeasing to her innocence. Put him next to her significant other, and you feel his powerlessness. Hawke runs the gamut to anchor Schrader’s exploration of despair and eternal sadness.
Schrader tackles heavy subject matter with an importance that could endure for a very long time to come. The damage we do to ourselves can be just as damaging as what we do to our planet, but it takes the love of others to give pause to that damage. And that’s just one of many ways to look at First Reformed — a movie that will undoubtedly reveal more of itself with every viewing. (Christopher Cross)
In a year already brimming with a bevy of solid horror efforts, Hereditary is the film that has garnered the most chatter and discussion by far. Even in a genre as divisive as horror, rarely has there been such a split between audience reaction and critical opinion. Of course, this isn’t necessarily without precedent, as some of A24’s other films (most notably The Witch) have drawn similar divides.
However you view Ari Aster’s directorial debut, one would be hard-pressed to find a more shockingly original horror film in 2018. Focusing on the death of the family matriarch and the ripple effects this event has on her surviving family, Hereditary dives deep almost from the outset. It’s a very deliberately paced film, which can make it frustrating at times, particularly when compared to your average genre fare. Those who are patient will be rewarded with one of the best twists in years and a final half hour so relentless that you’ll find your fingernails digging into your armrest if you’re not careful.
With some truly terrifying analogies to the things that our parents can pass along to us, Hereditary is a deeply unsettling film anchored by some of the best performances of the year, particularly from relative newcomer Alex Wolff and a never-better Toni Collette. You might see a better film in 2018 yet, but this writer doubts you’ll see one that lodges itself so firmly in your mind. (Mike Worby)
Isle of Dogs
Director Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is his second stop-motion animation feature foray, following 2009’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox. It’s a dexterous play between dark comedy, perilous action, and the suffering caused by power-hungry politicians. When all of the dogs of Nagasaki, Japan are sentenced to be quarantined on Trash Island following an outbreak of dog flu, a little boy named Atari is separated from his beloved guard dog Spots, and soon launches a solo scheme to rescue him. After crash-landing his small plane, a ragtag group of dogs band together to help him find his pet amongst the trash and disease. In doing so they grow closer, battle government corruption, and learn to care for others from different walks of life.
The sterile, minimalistic interiors of the human world versus the grimy, hazardous landscapes that the dogs must traverse because the humans have cast them aside look technically brilliant, along with the meticulous animation of the dogs’ hair blowing in the wind and the subtle emoting of their faces. The straightforward storytelling distracts from the fact that like most Anderson fare, Isle of Dogs succeeds because of the eccentricities that are allowed into character design and dialogue. These merge with the immense talent of the acting ensemble to create a charmingly powerful collaborative force. It doesn’t feel like a tested product cobbled together to grab the attention of a certain audience, but instead matchless output made by some of the best artists working today.
Anderson’s usual suspects (Jeff Goldblum, Ed Norton, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban) are buoyed by the addition of Koyu Rankin, Bryan Cranston, Greta Gerwig, Scarlett Johansson, and Courtney B. Vance this time around. This storyline isn’t limited to or made strictly for the minds of children — mass casualties, questioning authority, and friendship enduring extreme trials all factor into this absorbing world. Isle of Dogs also speaks to the abuse of the weak and voiceless under repressive regimes, and how resistance is necessary to effect change. The powerful will not police themselves but take all that they can if not checked. The impressive animation intertwined with an acute attention to complex emotions makes for an emotionally and artistically fulfilling film. (Lane Scarberry)
Lowlife is best described as this generation’s Pulp Fiction. Equal parts absurd comedy and surrealist crime thriller, Lowlife is a shocking and often-hilarious story about a beloved luchador named El Monstruo, employed by vicious crime boss Teddy Haynes, who runs his underground crime facility below his fast-food restaurant, harvesting the organs of undocumented immigrants while pimping out underage women. Lowlife is at times hilarious, but for the most part, it is an extremely bleak film addressing current issues surrounding racism, immigration, and drug addiction. Director Ryan Prows manages to not only create a commentary on the current state of affairs for illegal immigrants under a presidency that continually preaches anti-immigration sentiments, but also addresses the horrifying process behind organ harvesting, human trafficking, and the black market. In this world, the cops are often on the wrong side of the law, and everyone else is desperately trying to survive in a place that seems like it’s falling apart around them.
Lowlife is modern exploitation done right, and a film destined to find a cult following. It’s unbelievably entertaining, outlandishly funny, and sincerely touching — and that is what ultimately separates it from Tarantino’s classic. Lowlife truly has heart, and somehow finds the humanity in situations that go from comedic to horrific to over the top within a few frames. Don’t be surprised if you shed a tear or two in the film’s denouement. (Ricky D)
In a world ridden with meanness and cynicism, Paddington 2 is a breath of fresh air. The best film that Wes Anderson never made, it’s also the best demonstration of the virtues of kindness that you will see all year. While the first Paddington was simply an amusing and well-received origin story, Paddington 2 is a flat-out masterpiece and the surprise of the year, managing to turn its central thesis of goodness into a rollicking, very British adventure.
This sequel improves on the first film because it doesn’t have to explain where Paddington came from, simply setting him free to work his benevolent charm on everyone he comes into contact with. It truly puts into practice Aunt Lucy’s statement that “If we are kind and polite, the world will be right” by placing the Peruvian bear in a prison cell (falsely accused, of course) and somehow turning it into a jolly summer camp. Coming in the wake of the devastating Brexit vote, it is a celebration of the positive forces of immigration, and a rebuke to xenophobia everywhere.
It also gives Hugh Grant the revival we never knew he needed. While the 00s saw him relegated to playing the same romantic comedy lead over and over again, Paddington 2 recasts him as an extremely camp villain. In a self-effacing role that sees him turn into a master of disguise, Grant pokes fun at his own legacy while clearly signalling that his career is far from over. This is a movie you want to stick around until the end for, because its unlikely we will see a better scene all year than his show-stopping rendition of “Listen to the Rain on The Roof” from Sondheim’s Follies.
I’m not the only one who was bowled over. With a 100% rating from 198 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, Paddington 2 is technically the best-received movie of all time. That’s some result for a talking CGI bear. (Redmond Bacon)
A Quiet Place
It’s a rare film that can shut up a modern movie theater audience, with viewers so accustomed to irreverence in the church of cinema; if nothing else, John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place deserves thanks for bringing some much-needed silence to the masses. Luckily, this monster movie also succeeds in many other ways, showcasing some masterful scenes of suspense that elevate its Twilight Zone plot above some inconsistent logic.
A Quiet Place keeps things small, and it’s a welcome perspective: A family of four in rural New York has survived some sort of apocalypse brought on by alien invader bugs that have hyper-sensitive ears — the slightest sound, be it the crunch of autumn leaves, or a poorly timed cough, could bring swift death. Life on the farm has required internal vows of silence and strict discipline, with soft sand paths for walking and sign language the only means of communication. It’s almost inhuman to think that anyone — let alone young children — could pull this off without a peep, but Krasinski’s direction is so strong during the first half of the story that it actually seems believable; quite a feat. His camera captures lovely fall images, but never forgets to remind us of the danger lurking in the forest, as his characters’ eyes dart about like prey, searching for a predator that could strike at any moment. These early quiet scenes create a tension unlike that of most horror films. Lulled into accepting the lack of sound themselves, audiences subconsciously bond with the people onscreen, playing into the hands of a director who can then toy with them by unleashing jump scares that feel more organic — not some cheap filmmaker’s tricks.
When things go south for the family in the second half, so too does the effect A Quiet Place may have on those who demand consistency in their logic, but there are still some wonderfully imaginative sequences to be enjoyed, and an ending that while slightly off-tone, still should prove rousing. Its plot may have been better suited to a half-hour TV episode, but A Quiet Place is best enjoyed in the dark, in the quiet — amazingly enough, in a movie theater. (Patrick Murphy)
Revenge is a timely breath of fresh air in a genre that usually results in controversy. While the rape-revenge film is often used just for an excuse to murder a lot of guys, Revenge is perhaps one of the most economical and deeply affecting. Centered around one woman’s violent crusade against three horrible men, director Coralie Fargeat crafts an exercise in tension and style that manages to never feel at odds with itself. The pulp is there (accompanied by buckets of blood), but it’s when the film aims its sights at the male gaze that it breaks incredibly exciting ground.
Smartly keeping things focused on its female protagonist and not getting too wrapped up in its violence until necessary, Revenge burns brightly at almost every turn. From the moment the titular act kicks in, there’s not a single wasted scene. Tension mounts and mounts until each inevitable, bloody outburst. Satisfaction is even more palpable when it arrives because every frame works towards amplifying that feeling.
Revenge is one of the leanest, boldest, and most important films of the year. Fargeat does a lot of what you expect, but does it with such zest that it’s hard not to walk away drained by just how much style is present. Aided by incredible cinematography and a synthwave score ready to pulsate in your head for days, there aren’t many films in recent memory that feel this cool. At its core, however, Revenge is still a revenge film; it just carries itself with an abundance of confidence that it feels like someone near the top of their game doing something new and exciting. That this is Fargeat’s debut feature film means I can’t wait to see what twisted thrill ride she comes up with next. (Christopher Cross)
The Rider isn’t a documentary, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that just from watching it. That’s because the director and writer Chloé Zhao has assembled a cast of non-actors and given them life stories suspiciously close to their own. It’s fictional, and yet it’s as true as any story ever told.
The eponymous rider, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), is an expert on the inner workings of horses, in addition to being a rodeo star. Zhao first met Jandreau after he had suffered a skull injury that had ended his competitive career, and his character deals with that same injury in the film. Brady’s family lives on the edge of poverty on a South Dakota reservation (they’re part Lakota); his father sells horses, and his autistic sister requires significant care. Without his rodeo income, Brady finds work as a horse trainer, but even that relatively mild work threatens to overwork his fragile brain.
Zhao’s fictional version of Brady’s life hits so hard because of how indistinguishable it is from his real life. His disagreements with his father and his loving rapport with his sister are shaded by their real-life experiences. It evokes an almost voyeuristic feeling as if we’re seeing something too painful and honest, something that was never meant to be seen by others. In one of the most masterful scenes of the year, Brady goes to visit a former colleague who has been wracked by a traumatic brain injury that has mostly robbed him of his speech and motor skills. It’s a movingly dramatized scene — except that it’s Brady’s real friend, who was injured in real life and will probably spend the rest of his days in a care facility. The intrusion of reality into the traditionally safe fiction of film is almost overwhelming.
Zhao, a Chinese filmmaker, has lived in the US since the end of high school, but her knowledge and understanding of the lives of rural people is astounding. Not since the early films of David Gordon Green has a director keyed into their dignity so fully. The Rider is only her second film, but it seems sure to herald great things to come. (Brian Marks)
Like another popular horror film released in 2018 (the chilling Hereditary), The Ritual basks in its mystery as it invites its audience to try and piece together what exactly is happening to its central characters.
Centered on a hike undertaken by four friends in order to commemorate their dead comrade, The Ritual sees this quartet face unyielding terror after they choose to take a shortcut through a dense, uninviting forest. While seeking shelter in a cabin for the night, it becomes abundantly clear that they are not alone in these woods, and that there is a force dead set on keeping them there for good.
Taking inspiration from Scandinavian mythology, David Bruckner’s film improves drastically over his previous work (The Signal, V/H/S) by leaving the terror stalking its protagonists to the viewer’s imagination, holding back on anything resembling an explanation of the horrors being unleashed until the final act.
A chilling and evocative horror effort, The Ritual may not be for everyone, but if you find yourself in its target audience, you’re in for a very special treat. (Mike Worby)
The third collaboration between director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody examines the physical and emotional toll that motherhood can exact. Following Juno (2007), a story about a young woman facing imminent responsibility because of accidental pregnancy, and Young Adult (2011), in which a woman returns to her hometown to the relive the promise of youth, Tully explicates the trials that women still face even when they have “settled down.” The thankless whirlwind of raising children while trying to maintain any sense of self is given multifaceted meaning by Charlize Theron, who consistently continues to bring depth to women who behave outside the box. How stigmatized it is for women to ask for help when anything less than perfect enthusiasm and endless energy for one’s kids is met with private or public judgement is taken to task.
When Marlo (Theron) cautiously accepts her brother’s offer to hire night nurse Tully (Mackenzie Davis), reclaiming time for herself gives way to a reinvigoration of purpose and identity into Marlo’s routine. Most of our screen time is primarily spent with women and their concerns, ranging from the degree that they can achieve balance to how they communicate with each other and themselves. Important conversations about self-preservation, the burden of parenting, and the way relationships can be broken by time are had, but not conveyed in a heavy-handed or overly saccharine way. The complete engulfment of time by children and the loss of control over the postpartum body conveys a sense of loneliness within motherhood that is rarely scrutinized.
The script is remarkable for how a woman is the primary evaluator of her changed body, in addition to giving consideration to the strain under which many mothers operate without having time to separate themselves at all from the beings they’ve brought into the world. It’s not a comprehensive story that offers solutions, but the film does take us through much of the menial and often unrewarding work that mothers do without much exaggeration — save for a twist. Reitman and Cody’s Tully renders women as imperfect, strong, and underappreciated while also in need of care, but craving independence — finally represented as fully human and worthy of the cinematic representation that they have historically lacked. (Lane Scarberry)
After the comforting throwback of Logan Lucky, which saw Steven Soderbergh working in a very familiar ballpark, comes Unsane — an abrasive and confrontational thriller that is as viscerally enjoyable as it is terrifying. Shot entirely on an iPhone, it sees Claire Foy changing tack quite dramatically from her regular stately role in The Crown.
She plays Sawyer Valentini, a woman who, despite breaking free of her stalker, still feels his presence everywhere around her. Is he still there, or is she going crazy? Looking for answers to her own mental state, she goes for a consultation at a mental institution. After signing some “boilerplate” papers, she finds herself involuntarily committed to an indefinite stay. The stakes are raised when she believes her stalker has been tasked as one of her caretakers, leading to a desperate scramble for escape.
While it raises interesting questions about the commercialization of mental illness and the wrongful incarceration of otherwise perfectly well people, Unsane does not dwell too much on them, preferring to lay on the schlock with maximum impact. The use of iPhone imagery works perfectly, giving the film a B-movie intensity that might have been dulled by higher-quality lenses. Its great to see Soderbergh trying new things again, providing his most experimental film since The Girlfriend Experience.
Claire Foy, however, brings this movie to life. We can never be sure whether to believe her at face value, forcing the viewer to interpret the film as it goes along. She is a ball of constant rage, railing against her situation and spitting out venomous insults with delicious bite. In a brilliant conclusion, she confronts her stalker in one of the best and most vital moments you will see all year.
With such a simple premise and with such low-grade equipment, Soderbergh has made the most impactful thriller of the year. It should be an inspiration to indie filmmakers everywhere. (Redmond Bacon)
You Were Never Really Here
There are two Taxi Driver-inspired masterpieces so far this year, First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here. They each have their own unique pleasures, but only one comes at you with the force of a ball-peen hammer to the skull. Written and directed by Lynne Ramsey (only her fourth feature since 1999), the film is based on the short novel of the same name by Jonathan Ames.
The famously mercurial Joaquin Phoenix is at his most focused as Joe, the hammer-wielding searcher. He finds and rescues young girls who have been sex trafficked, all while dispatching their captors with his brutal brand of justice. Joe has seen and done things that flash across his brain like searing lightning bolts. He’s also a product of abuse, and part of his need to save the young girls is to spare them the trauma that he deals with on a daily basis.
You Were Never Really Here is a fascinating thriller made in a strangely effective yet disjointed manner. The story is simple: a man who saves young girls sets out to save another who is the object of desire for politically connected perverts. Yet Ramsey constantly muddles that simple story with lightning bolt flashes of Joe’s past traumas and bits of fantasy. Jonny Greenwood’s bracing score adds to our disconnection; it flits between harsh atonality and funky synthesizers at dizzying speed. We stumble through the film just as Joe stumbles through every day of his existence.
Ramsey’s film owes a great debt to classic film noir. She eschews the typical New York landmarks that might pepper an urban crime film, instead luxuriating in the gorgeous neon light that perpetually bathes the city. But more than anything else, the film is a showcase for Phoenix’s gifts. Ever since his pseudo-breakdown in I’m Still Here, Phoenix’s roles have been scrutinized for any signs of madness. He plays up those connections in order to show us a man just barely surviving on the edge. Any performance by Phoenix is electrifying, but here he invigorates the film with his manic energy, pushing it toward its white-hot conclusion. (Brian Marks)