A Halfway There Checklist: The Best of the Year So Far

2018 saw me begin my thirtieth orbit around the sun in the sort of anniversary that weighs heavily on the spirit. This was preceded by a seismic shift in my day-in-day-out routine, where the necrotic dullness of my previous job has been replaced, now by a new cast of professionals that have kept me adequately on my toes. The ennui that mounted during the winter months, on the marrow-petrifying cold Chicago days that somehow would still pervade the month of June, have been more difficult to shake; unhappiness and listlessness still ooze through my pores as I attempt to find more energy to make the best of every day.

It’s been in the exceptional films of 2018 that I’ve managed to find a measure of solace and compassion. The best films of 2018 often spoke directly to my personal existential crisis, frequently providing me with a keener appreciation for my time on planet Earth. Optimism, in our current climate, may not be in vogue, but it’s a vanity that must persist if I’m going to survive. It’s a comment that I’m paraphrasing by Amanda Seyfried in Paul Schrader’s major new work, First Reformed, that lingers in my mind most: I may share all your beliefs of doom, but I cannot share your despair. Every hour need not be the darkest hour.

Notable Omissions: Cory Finely's Thoroughbreds, Lucrecia Martel's Zama, Hong-sang Soo's The Day After, Ben Russell's Good Luck, Chloé Zhao's The Rider and many others, I'm sure. 

Noteworthy

Blaze
(Ethan Hawke)

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Blaze, Ethan Hawke’s biopic of Austin folk singer Blaze Foley (played with impressive gumption by newcomer Ben Dickey), is a rambling poem, practical in its intentions but ambitious in execution. I was impressed with Hawke’s directorial instincts from his 2006 film, The Hottest State, and Blaze serves as a marker of considerable growth. Here he captures various narrative threads through Foley’s life, in what serves as a confluence of past, present, and future. The surprising, if not appropriate, sight of Richard Linklater only anneals Hawke’s preoccupations and anxieties with the passage of time. It all comes together to form a film of delicate grace notes; compact, comforting, and thoughtful.

Bodied
(Joseph Kahn)

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As uneasy and quote unquote problematic as Joseph Kahn’s Bodied may be, I find myself frequently thinking about its more kinetic moments. This film, about a white graduate student turned competitive street rapper, is inelegant and unquestionably irresponsible as a social document. And it’s erratic tonal shifts, moving from blunt racial satire to a soft examination of white masculine inadequacy, often registered as false and exhaustingly dogmatic. But every time I’m bothered by its faults, I can’t help but think about Bodied’s virtues. For one, Calum Worthy’s persuasive performance is notable in its authenticity. This lanky redhead with a pale complexion thrusts himself into the role in a manner that informs a subtextual reading on the nature of white appropriation. And while Kahn’s direction can be described as competent at best, his staging of the final rap battle sequence is particularly inspired. It’s a frustrating experience, but Bodied offers certain visceral moments that, as much as I resist, can’t be denied.

Casting
(Nicolas Wackerbarth)

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Admittedly rendered a bit obsolete when compared to Josephine Decker’s experimental Madeline’s Madeline (more on that below), Nicolas Wackerbarth’s Casting does have its share of unique delights. A behind-the-scenes examination of a made-for-TV remake of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, Casting frequently plays like an episode of Arrested Development, observing a crew’s rabbit-hole descent into absurdity. From reverting Fassbinder’s seminal queer film into another heteronormative whitewash, to observing a director’s inability to commit to any decision, Casting is above all an exercise in detailing the differences between those with creative prowess and those without it.

Early Man
(Nick Park)

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While by no means Aardman Animation’s best film, Nick Park’s Early Man remains a welcome addition to the production studio’s library.  Detailing a tribe of cavemen confronted by a society of bronze-aged goons, the film’s straightforward message of acceptance and togetherness may be unhip, but it nevertheless echoes heavily in this age of anti-sentimentality. If this film’s narrative - which more or less devolves into sports film clichés - proves disinteresting, then it’s Richard Edmund’s exquisite art direction that ought to be lauded, as the film proves to be Aardman’s most visually sophisticated effort to date.

Housesitters
(Jason Coffman)

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This shoestring horror-comedy (light on the former, formidable on the latter) Chicago production by film critic Jason Coffman is one of the most thoroughly baffling and charming cinematic experiences I’ve had in a while. Detailing the gonzo escapades of a pot-dealing stoner and her friend, the film delves into the occult with the kind of clumsy happenstance that makes every action and rejoinder unpredictable. A practically deployed mid-film intermission ends up highlighting the sort of befuddling detours Coffman’s willing to take. If anything, give the man a modest budget to produce more weird Chicago-based films like this, please.

Ismael’s Ghosts
(Arnaud Desplechin)

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In Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghosts, the future can be organized, patterned, and prepared for. It’s the past that’s random, chaotic, and riddled with confusion. Here we find a filmmaker (Mathieu Amalric) attempt to escape the mysterious loss of his previous wife (Marion Cotillard) and submit to a new lover (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Desplechin trusts his audience to know that they’ve seen a film of this type before, as Cotillard’s character reemerges from nowhere, disrupting the filmmaker and his new lover after years in hiding. But rather than placate on this messy love triangle, Desplechin opts to upend our expectations, fashioning a narrative that finds his lead character disinterested in pursuing the emotional reckoning that comes with choosing one woman over another. Instead, he indulges in the most absurd of fantasies, yearning for escapism rather than having to confront the harsh reality that’s before his characters. The end result is haphazard, frustrating, and messy. Or: life.

Recommended

24 Frames
(Abbas Kiarostami)

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The final film of one of cinema’s best filmmakers, Abbas Kiarostami, serves as a negotiation of sorts. Capturing 24 static images and animating them with various visual accoutrements, we observe new narratives emerge from once fixed frames. We fade to black every four and half minutes, as we observe another scene in action. The effect here can be equal parts profound as it is frustrating, in a kind of commentary on the durability and legacy of one frame, and by extension, cinema. I saw 24 Frames at a particularly fraught moment in my life, where the existential dread of my day-to-day weighed heavily on me. I found solace in Kiarostami's experiment: life need not be stagnant.

Annihilation
(Alex Garland)

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Anhedonia and despair are given a tactile quality in Alex Garland’s ambitious sophomore film, Annihilation. Following tragic loss and bottomless agony, a cadre of women investigates a mysterious shimmer that threatens to consume the globe. They enter a different dimension, where the interior of this ever-expanding force field sees its inhabitants mutate and decay. Like all good sci-fi, Annihilation can be interpreted any number of ways, whether it be a mediation on grief, an examination of metastasized cancer, or a creation story. I think it’s the baggage we carry that informs and highlights whatever interpretation we hold onto – here’s a film that’s both specific and broad enough to register as universal and personal.

The Death of Stalin
(Armando Iannucci)

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Armando Ianucci’s The Death of Stalin is an astonishing exercise in tone management, as it alternates from violent political fatalism to absurdist satirical comedy often (and effectively) and within the confines of a single frame. The film details Stalin’s sudden death and the swift and chaotic demise of a regime built on brutality. Iannucci leverages one cockamamie stunt after another, where his atypical casting decisions and sardonic wit inform a richly rewarding text on bureaucratic effrontery. The ensemble, composed mostly of British and American actors cast in Russian diplomat roles, may initially come across as a stunt. But as the film proceeds, that concern fades as Iannucci stages much of the film’s action as explosive tête-à-têtes; numerous scenes involving Steve Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev and Simon Russell Beale’s Lavrenti Beria are verbal acrobatics, displaying linguistic acuity of the highest order

Eighth Grade
(Bo Burnham)

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Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is a tenderly observed debut, anchored by one of the most authentic breakthrough performances of the year by Elsie Fisher. Following Kayla’s (Fisher) eighth grade year, Burnham vividly captures a childhood that I don’t entirely recognize: one profoundly informed by our relationship with technology (a vlogging narrative device, an abundant amount of sequences involving scrolling through your phone) and our current sociopolitical climate (an especially timely sequence involving a school shooting drill). Burnham’s visual panache is worth celebrating even if the film’s narratives submits to some fairly rote pronouncements. Though ultimately it all informs what should be a major, summer crowd-pleaser when it’s released in mid July.

Game Night
(John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein)

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Bar none, Game Night is the most efficiently made and compact studio comedy of the year so far. Borrowing extensively from Edgar Wright’s brand of filmmaking, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s craft enrich Mark Perez’s whip-smart, if not excessively twisty, script. Compounded by a deep bench cast (Rachel McAdams and Jesse Plemmons are standouts, but Jason Bateman’s straight-man shtick remains invaluable), you have one of the most enjoyable, minute-to-minute hilarious comedies in recent memory. It should probably bother me that the film’s numerous false finishes amount to nothing more than a series of garbled swerves, but when the jokes are this delightful (“Glass tables are acting weird tonight” or “Can't say I care for that nomenclature”), it’s easy to forgive any missteps.

Incredibles 2
(Brad Bird)

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More discerning viewers will see how Incredibles 2 mirrors The Incredibles, shifting the gender dynamic in a rather subtle though nonetheless profound way. Helen/Elastigirl always echoed most profoundly within this ensemble, whether it be her unwavering commitment to her children in the first film or the rigidity of her moral code in this sequel, her quote unquote superpowers always registered as superfluous to the sacrifices she made for her family. It’s why I found Incredibles 2 so persuasive, in part that it offers Helen a headlining platform. As cumbersome as some of the film’s narrative may be, it’s Bird’s focus on Helen that really allows Incredibles 2 to sing.

Paddington 2
(Paul King)

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Paul King’s Paddington 2 may have been inflated a bit both as a product and subsequent catalyst of a broader cinematic movement (I can’t be the only one who shudders at every mention of the term “nicecore”, am I?) But the tender, never saccharine, sentimentality of Paddington 2 values the tenants of filmmaking that you’ll find in the likes of Buster Keaton films. The silent film giant informs numerous passages of King’s film, where resentment and ill feelings are suppressed in favor of warmth. Mirroring the sturdy composure of Keaton, we find Paddington (voiced with gentle reserve by Ben Wishaw) frequently caught within the crossfires of chaos, framed for a crime he didn’t commit, yet maintaining faith in a system that has let him down time and time again. It’s every Keaton narrative rendered through the visage of a gorgeously realized CGI Andean bear.

Highly Recommended

Claire’s Camera
(Hong Sang-soo)

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The messy, despairing anxieties that permeated throughout Hong Sang-soo’s On the Beach at Night Alone are here again in Claire’s Camera. But Hong shifts locales, away from the icy coastline of Gangnueng and despondent grays of Hamburg in favor of the sunny vistas of Cannes. What’s perhaps most striking about Claire’s Camera is how it functions in conversation with Beach at Night, where personal and professional disappointments are reexamined as not soul-crushing existential catastrophes but rather minor inconveniences in an unarrangeable future. There’s a flightiness to Claire’s Camera, as we observe Manhee (Kim Min-hee) getting fired from her marketing job purely on the basis of her quote unquote honesty, to which she responds by taking a selfie with her boss to capture the brief moment. Later in the film, Manhee encounters Claire (Isabelle Huppert), a French schoolteacher visiting for the Cannes Film Festival and the two strike an immediate friendship. They find a common language in English as they learn from one another, exploring their cultures within a temporal setting that seems to be perpetually in flux. Claire’s mint blue Polaroid camera would seem to have the capacity of altering time and space, rendering its viewer to consider each scene as a transient exchange where the audience is left to question and piece together the sequence of events as they unfold.

Golden Exits
(Alex Ross Perry)

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Alex Ross Perry’s filmography has been filled with flattering gestures of recognition. His films have centered on asshole guys who find their undoing when confronted with their own vanity. I get that. But there’s a sophistication to Golden Exits that makes it harder to isolate. It confronts its characters in harsh, unforgiving ways. It’s bleaker. The film’s happy ending involves Jason Schwartzman’s character confronting some very clinical truths about himself that take him to the brink of oblivion. With something like Perry’s Listen Up Philip, I took profound satisfaction in finding Elisabeth Moss navigating the mess of her relationship and becoming stronger for it. That immediate sense of satisfaction isn’t here in Golden Exits. These characters are broken and stay broken. What’s defective in them remains a permanent feature. Their fates are sealed. This sun-soaked, springtime exercise may be ARP’s most despairing film to date and it conceals nothing – it gets to the truth of things in a way his previous films haven’t before.

Hereditary
(Ari Aster)

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While I remain unconvinced of the direction of the ending of Ari Aster’s Hereditary, the film had developed so much good will up to its final act that I remain committed in joining the reactionary chorus that proclaimed it one of the best horror films of the 21st century. Its brand of horror is one that clings to the spirit, delays the heart, and petrifies you into a sweaty-palmed stupor. Unlike other recent films that examine maternal guilt and anxiety, here’s one that captures that trauma in a way that I haven’t seen since Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, where a sense of formal acuity informs a traumatic drama into genuine horror. Catapulted by an astonishing lead performance from Toni Colette and a profoundly assured formal approach, Hereditary’s virtues may not necessary conceal its defects, but certainly make them forgivable.

Isle of Dogs
(Wes Anderson)

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Wes Anderson setting Isle of Dogs in Japan clearly bothered a lot of people and it’s made talking, let alone writing, about the film feel like a real chore. By the time the film made its way to Chicago theaters, Isle of Dogs had undergone so many critical assessments and revisions that I opted to just let the film’s angry conversation continue without my participation. Because Isle of Dogs never registered as an example of cultural appropriation nor did its quote unquote white savior evoke discomfort from me. Maybe that’s the point? What Isle of Dogs boiled down to, what makes it one of my favorite films of 2018, is its evocation of loss. Anderson examines how our unhappiness and misfortunes tend to make people vulnerable, and how those who wield power can exploit that vulnerability. An immaculate sequence involving the process of making sushi isn’t some throwaway scene – it’s everything you need to know about the movie. There’s the fish, there’s the knife-wielding chef, and there’s the man who eats it; or – the victim, the master, and the self-deluded masses.

Lean on Pete
(Andrew Haigh)

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Unlike with Andrew Haigh’s previous films, Weekend and 45 Years, this is the first time where I found the filmmaker’s penchant for ambiguity to work effectively. More often than not, I’ve found his desire to cloud the clarity of his characters’ emotional tenor as too severe, rendering a lot of his filmmaking to feel too clinical and calculating. But this tale of fraught Americana, disenfranchisement, and abandonment, is not unlike the films by Andrea Arnold, Kelly Reichardt, and early Wim Wenders, in that it conveys a salient point on the anomie that has afflicted an entire generation. The generosity that Haigh affords his characters, however minute – whether it be a waitress offering forgiveness or a woman offering ice cream - is one of Lean on Pete’s most compelling gambits: however dire, however close we observe our main character teeter to oblivion, we’re brought back by the warmth of the human spirit.

Madeline’s Madeline
(Josephine Decker)

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It still baffles me that Josephine Decker’s astonishing Madeline’s Madeline was picked up for distribution. I invite you to imagine what it would look like to see a feature film by Stan Brakhage opening on multiple screens at your local art house. This would be a modern equivalent, as Decker’s film possesses a similar kind of spontaneous, frequently discomforting, energy that I tend to associate with Brakhage. The prevailing sentiment is one of submergence, where watching Madeline’s Madeline frequently feels like you’re drowning, attempting to catch your breath. And like Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving, brief interludes of sunlight give you that warped hope that you’re making sense of the picture before it disorients and betrays you once again. Part of what makes the film so compulsively watchable is Helena Howard’s lead performance, along with her remarkable repartee with Miranda July. There’s not a film released this year, and frankly, most years, that is this unsettling yet empathetic, this emotionally-fraught yet warm.  

Unsane
(Steven Soderbergh)

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Unsane revolves around Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), a financial analyst who abandoned her previous life after being victim to a stalker. She’s first observed calmly dismissing a customer on the phone, offering a piece of ominous advice, as she suggests “taking your frustrations out on me will not alter the result”. She’s subsequently brought into her boss’ office, in an awkward exchange that reduces her to a carnal object. She’s used to it and maneuvers through the conversation with a kind of clinical apathy. Later we find her meeting with a man in a bar, as she seizes the conversation with the kind of confidence and blunt forwardness that reminded me of Gina Carano’s Mallory Kane in Steven Soderbergh’s HaywireUnsane and Haywire share numerous ideological similarities, as Soderbergh contemplates the impossible situation of being a woman in male-dominated worlds. In Haywire, we’re subject to a woman who imposes her physical will on any oppositional force. There’s a guttural, explicitly satisfying feeling that comes from watching Kane dominate every opponent. But Unsane is more cerebral, observing Valentini leveraging her wit with only modest success. Haywire ends well; Unsane does not.

World of Tomorrow Episode 2: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts
(Don Hertzfeldt)

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I resisted writing anything about Don Hertzfeldt’s follow-up to World of Tomorrow. To consider a sequel to one of my favorite short films seemed like an impossible task; everything I loved was on the table in Hertzfeldt’s first film. Not that I anticipated a shallow rethread, but rather that, like with so many sequels, the question of necessity tends to hover close overhead. It was a question that lingered close when I first watched Episode Two in late 2017 (released in Chicago in 2018). But revisiting the film in conjunction with World of Tomorrow, I’ve warmed to it considerably. Hertzfeldt takes the original’s universe and expands on its depths though remains loyal to his two characters, Emily and Emily Prime. The experimental flourishes that ornate the film is compounded by his persistent examinations on the passage of time, where the glimmer of hope that defines childhood combats the disappointments of adulthood. But whereas World of Tomorrow often registers as perfectly contained, Episode Two strikes me as a connective tissue to something larger. The World of Tomorrow does not end here.

Essential

First Reformed
(Paul Schrader)

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The layers of Paul Schrader’s scripting ought not be taken for granted. The filmmaker goes to great and subtle lengths to modulate his essential narrative, grounding it within an antiquated house of spirituality that speaks to the concerns of the present in vital and remarkable ways. It’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Ethan Hawke, with his disheveled and sunken features, as Toller. For an actor who so frequently collaborates with Richard Linklater, one begins to associate him with the passage of time itself. When he remarks to one of his parishioners with a distraught and moving sigh, that he once remembered when everything was ahead of him, it beckons a kind of cinematic source memory that informs numerous passages of First Reformed. Compounded with Schrader’s litany of influences (the film most directly recalls Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light and Carl Th. Dreyer’s Ordet, though numerous portions recall Ozu and Bresson), First Reformed becomes a capsule of decades of cinematic language, funneled through a singular vision that’s both timely and timeless. The more I think about it, the more First Reformed begins to feel like Schrader’s absolute best.

Support the Girls
(Andrew Bujalski)

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Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls observes the staff of an independent “brestaurant,” the eyeroll-inducing Double Whammies. The Houston venue, located within the city’s web of concrete highways, is the sort of place that’s both everywhere and nowhere, an innocuous pit-stop establishment that makes no great claim to the moving world. And from outside the confines of this rundown restaurant we see Lisa (Regina Hall) crying in her car. This day’s going to be a pitiless bitch. We know it and so does Lisa, as she pulls herself together and begins her shift as the manager of Double Whammies.

Episodic and mostly gleaned from Lisa’s perspective, Support the Girls may initially seem too much like a situational comedy. After all, within the first ten minutes we’re introduced to a slew of prospective new hires, uncover that an attempted break-in occurred overnight, and that Lisa and her friend/coworker Danyelle (a terrific Shayna McHayle in her debut performance) are attempting to set up an impromptu car wash to raise money for another waitress. But if the film seems a bit hurried, it eventually settles into a more leisure, Bujalski-an pace, where the various narrative elements ebb and flow as Lisa attempts to grab a handle on the day. And it’s the small nuances, such as moments when Lisa is on hold with the cable company or the numerous, concerning gestures required of the women of Double Whammies that provide this film with a kind of poetry. The constitution of the women of Support the Girls is made of iron, and on the day that they’re observed in Bujalski’s film, we survey their ability to navigate grief, loss, and abuse. Together they find solace, and to see that captured on a rooftop observing that same concrete cobweb that opens the film, warmed my heart.