It is July in Phoenix, Ariz., and the monsoons have begun! In mysterious, unexplained ways, a sudden and vicious torrent of Arizona rain can cascade equal amounts of wonder, glee and terror into the hearts of desert dwellers all over the Valley.
Well, speaking of terror, it feels a bit shocking that half of 2018 has already come and gone. How did that happen? Time does fly when one is having fun, because so many terrific movies arrived in theatres this year.
This critic watched 143 movies from January through the first week of July, and after very, very careful consideration, here – in alphabetical order – are my top 10 films of 2018…so far. (Oh, which film just missed the list? My number 11 is Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” starring Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac.)
“A Quiet Place” – Director John Krasinski channels his inner Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock to scare up the thriller of the year, a brilliantly filmed and constructed alien invasion movie. With little exposition, Krasinski utilizes a tightly-wound narrative to clearly outline a family’s current, lonely predicament. The adversarial, unworldly invaders possess extremely acute hearing, so in order to survive, parents Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and Lee (Krasinski) and their children Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe) need to refrain from making noise. Even whispering could be dangerous! Clocking in at 90 minutes, this white-knuckler whips by, as it strangles your voice box and draws out your breath. Simmonds especially shines in a key supporting role.
“Abducted in Plain Sight” (previously titled “Forever ‘B’”) – The Broberg family bravely sits in front of director Skye Borgman’s camera and speaks about a horror show in Pocatello, Idaho during the 1970’s that forever changed them. All five members of this loving family were gravely impacted, but Jan Broberg, the eldest daughter suffered – far and away – the most emotional and physical damage. She was abducted in plain sight. The 2018 Phoenix Film Festival Best Documentary winner reveals deeply troubling, unsettling themes, while it continuously astonishes during its deliberately slow reveal. This unforgettable picture offers very little comfort, but the fact that all five Brobergs are emotionally healthy enough to recount the details of their experiences is a blessing. A miracle, actually.
“Avengers: Infinity War” – For 10 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been building towards “Avengers: Infinity War”, and directors Anthony and Joe Russo do not disappoint, as they serve up the crown jewel in the staggeringly successful series. In Marvel’s 19th installment, a purple, eight-foot titan named Thanos (Josh Brolin) treks across various galaxies to collect six coveted Infinity Stones. Why? To wipe out half the population of the universe, but the Avengers aim to stop him. The Russo brothers construct their movie like a treasure hunt, mix densely-packed blends of action, intrigue and humor, and the on-screen events conjure a certain magic by always keeping us present during every single, individual moment throughout the 2-hour 29-minute runtime.
“Damsel” – In the movie business, when one says damsel, the words in distress usually follow. Obviously, most unmarried women are not in distress, but Samuel (Robert Pattinson) believes that one particular damsel, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), needs to be swept off her feet. Directors David and Nathan Zellner’s (“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” (2014)) latest creation is a hilarious, offbeat surprise and the most unique western to arrive on the big screen in years. With classic genre themes like long stretches on horseback, beautiful skies and hazardous saloons, but also quirky exchanges and visuals reminiscent of a Wes Anderson picture, the conflicting crescendos amuse and entertain. All the lead and supporting players – including the Zellner brothers and a precious, little scene-stealer: a miniature horse named Butterscotch – embrace the picture’s pleasing and darkly comedic tones.
“Eighth Grade” – Writer/director Bo Burnham drags his audience backwards to that awkward time in childhood history that most would like to forget: eighth grade. Elsie Fisher plays Kayla, the unfortunate human being dwelling in this purgatory between preteen innocence and young adulthood, and Fisher and Burnham plop down a chair and give us a front row seat into her social pressures, insecurities, new attraction to boys, and struggle to make friends. Technology consumes a significant portion of her days and nights, and it conveniently provides frequent, easy escapes from reality and chances to forge a new identity. Insightful, hilarious and emotional, this comedy offers plenty of heart, including Kayla’s relationship with her supportive dad (Josh Hamilton).
“First Reformed” – Ethan Hawke deserves a Best Actor Oscar nomination in writer/director Paul Schrader’s muddy picture about a troubled alcoholic unable to cope with the past while fearful about the present and future. Rev. Toller (Hawke) preaches sermons and other life lessons to sparse crowds who sit in white pews every Sunday at his First Reformed Church. Meanwhile, black outlooks fill his soul. By filming one or just a few characters at a time in small and large empty spaces – and with a bleak northeast winter as a backdrop – Schrader piles on gloomy despair, despite a setting of supposed affirmation. Cedric the Entertainer and Victoria Hill contribute effective supporting performances, while Hawke dominates the screen and feeds parallels to Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) from “Taxi Driver” (1976), a film also written by Schrader.
“Sweet Country” – Set in 1929 Australia, director Warwick Thornton delivers a deeply affective western – which won TIFF’s 2017 Platform Prize – as it wraps its story in institutional racism between whites and aborigines. When Fred Smith (Sam Neill) leaves his ranch for a business trip, his hired hand Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) becomes embroiled in a violent incident. Sam and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) find themselves on the run, and an ornery officer of the law (Bryan Brown) follows in tight pursuit. Sam and other aboriginal people depict a collective subordinate bow towards white ranchers and authority figures, and Thornton captures these moments in very obvious and subtle ways. Life has stacked the deck against Sam, but will the legal threads of Australian justice treat him fairly? The parallels between “Sweet Country” and America’s history feel eerily analogous.
“The Best of All Worlds” – Verena Altenberger is sensational as Helga, a mother who tries – and usually fails – to shield her 7-year-old son Adrian (Jeremy Miliker) from her heroin addiction. Set in Salzburg, Austria, writer/director Adrian Goiginger’s film is autobiographical, and he reflects upon that troubling time in their cluttered, unkempt apartment. Goiginger doubles as a cinematic wizard, as he summons two types of demons: human ugliness and imagined monsters. Both feel and look terribly unpleasant, as Helga badly strains to free herself from her compulsions and insidious companionship. Raw, unflinching and unfiltered, “The Best of All Worlds” hopes for the best of Helga’s and Adrian’s combined space, one clouded by an intrusive, chemical haze.
“Thoroughbreds” – “We’ll do it ourselves.” Teenagers Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) decide to take matters into their own hands, but what will they do exactly? Plan a Sweet 16 party? Prepare for the SAT without a study guide? No, they agree to murder Lily’s stepdad! Cooke and Taylor-Joy share sinisterly satisfying, on-screen chemistry, when Lily starts speaking honestly to Amanda, an admitted sociopath. Writer/director Cory Finley’s dark comedy/crime drama purposely repels altruism, but he creates an odd, twisted nobility in each character, as they deliver their own corrosive, hypnotic truth, accompanied by the filmmaker’s equally compelling camerawork. The late Anton Yelchin also stars in his last big screen performance.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” – “He was radical. I know everyone says that, but he was radical,” Elizabeth Seamans says. Ms. Seamans – who played Mrs. McFeely on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” – is referring to the show’s creator and host Fred Rogers. One might not think of Rogers as radical, but director Morgan Neville (“20 Feet from Stardom” (2013)) proves that he was. Neville interviews family and coworkers (and also includes several interviews from the man himself), and they describe Rogers’ genuine, philanthropic nature and ingenuity. For instance, he bravely incorporated difficult news headlines and unpleasant family issues into his show and broke them down into palatable lessons for children. Accompanied by a touching score, the documentary raises general emotion for Fred Rogers and a hope that more individuals in 2018 could be more like him. Perhaps many of us will watch this documentary and remember how to be…radical.
Image credits: Paramount Pictures, A24, Focus Features, and Samuel Goldwyn Films
Trailer credits: A24, Focus Features, Marvel Entertainment, Movieclips Trailers, New Trailer Buzz, Paramount Pictures, Skye Borgman, and Winter Film Awards