The half-year in review: The best and worst movies of 2018, so far
As is customary at the half-year point, here’s a midterm progress report for the year in film. The following are the best and worst of 2018 so far, in alphabetical order, with one anomaly - most overrated - in between.
Writer/director Alex Garland follows “Ex Machina” - and scripts for “Sunshine” and “28 Days Later” - with another provocative sci-fi mind-squeeze that’s “Alien” meets “Apocalypse Now” meets “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In her best work since “Black Swan,” Natalie Portman leads a team of soldier-scientist women to investigate an otherworldly phenomenon known as The Shimmer, where time is warped and animals are mutated into disturbing forms. As these things go, their journey into an unknown is also a journey within their minds. More of these types of movies, please.
‘Avengers: Infinity War’
At last, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is giving us villains with substance. Sure, the assemblage of dozens of superheroes for a big cataclysmic action-packed crunch grabs all the attention - as do the twists and surprise cameos and witty script - but without Thanos (Josh Brolin) and his evil ideology, the movie might be full of sound and fury, signifying etc., etc. The dramatic stakes are high, and the movie carries its considerable weight ably. Oh, and the scene at the end with Spider-Man? It broke us all right in half, didn’t it?
I don’t know if this is the best MCU movie (“The Avengers” is still my favorite), but it’s certainly the smartest, the deepest and the most visually and culturally distinct. Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler crafts a wondrous setting in Wakanda, which is rife with visual splendor and spiritual and political depth. Chadwick Boseman anchors the film as the title hero, but it’s his co-stars who give the film true character: Lupita Nyong’o, Letitia Wright and Danai Gurira as Black Panther’s closest confidants, and Michael B. Jordan as the tortured and complicated bad guy Killmonger. It’s even better the second time.
Paul Schrader’s return to form is a complex, horrifying, unexpectedly funny and thoroughly provocative satire addressing the sorry state of our world and the way it corrupts our souls. As a preacher questioning his faith - and sanity - Ethan Hawke gives the performance of his career. A richly written, directed and acted work.
“A Quiet Place” - more on this in a minute - is but a pretender to 2018’s arthouse-horror throne compared to this suffocatingly suspenseful slice of creeping occult terror. Director/writer Ari Aster stretches the tension long and taut, playing our nerves like a violin, and our guts like a harp, and our cerebrum like an electric guitar. Toni Collette is raw and unnerving as an artist, wife and mother who slowly unravels in the wake of tragedy - give her an Oscar nomination, please.
A pure joy. Big laughs, scintillating action, visual sumptuousness and no pretenses. Brad Bird crafts thrilling, dynamic action sequences like no other director in any medium, and this movie is packed with them. My kid loved it - almost as much as I did.
This movie is wonderful, full of light and love and airy whimsy. Anyone outside of Pixar who directs the hell out of a “family film” is an anomaly, and Paul King - who also helmed the first “Paddington” - employs the type of visual invention usually deployed by arthouse auteurs. His camera spins and swoops playfully through a world of magnificent color. And a delectably mischievous Hugh Grant as the villain, a desperate has-been egomaniac actor, is the creamy frosting on a big slice of delectable cake.
A thoughtful, understated, and surprisingly suspenseful drama from talented writer/director Chloe Zhao, who employs the sumptuous photography of classic Westerns, but indulges none of their cliches. A non-actor whose life story inspired Zhao’s screenplay, Brady Jandreau plays a young rodeo star forced into retirement after a bucking bronc stomps on his head. The movie is a poignant depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder, and a thoroughly incisive breakdown of stereotypical masculinity.
‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’
In this biographical documentary about TV star Fred Rogers, filmmaker Morgan Neville ingeniously uses nostalgia as a tool to address a distressing modern dilemma: divisiveness. Adults who grew up watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” can’t help but be emotionally affected by the film’s revelatory archival footage, and yearn for the type of kindness and understanding Rogers preached with such a calm, soothing voice.
‘You Were Never Really Here’
A typically eccentric and intense Joaquin Phoenix is a man with a hammer, a traumatized veteran channeling his psychosis into a life as a freelance punisher of pedophiles. Writer/director Lynne Ramsay keeps us hovering for most of this lean, concise 89-minute film, bridging the gap between a gritty genre piece and something more poignantly ambiguous. Weak hearts need not apply.
MOST OVERRATED: ‘A Quiet Place’
Director/star John Krasinski’s execution of suspenseful moments is marvelous, especially during the terrifying childbirth sequence. I was engrossed for the whole of the movie, complicit in its manipulations. It’s a fun, tense watch, and it’s easy to see why it was such a hit. (We should be compelled to see what Krasinski will direct next.) But the concept just doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. I haven’t poked holes in a plot this much since M. Night Shyamalan’s similarly scary, flimsy “Signs.”
‘The Cloverfield Paradox’
Netflix broke the rules for the third in the “Cloverfield” anthology series. First, it announced the film during a Super Bowl commercial, and then debuted it as soon as the game ended. No marketing campaign, no social media blasts, no hype, nothing. Cue the praise: How exciting! How refreshing! Then, we actually watched it, realizing it was a dead-dumb “Alien” ripoff. And learned it used to be a movie called “God Particle,” which was retrofitted to be a prequel to 2008’s “Cloverfield” thanks to new footage edited in during post-production. It’s just sloppy.
Grisly fetish director Eli Roth helms a snarky remake of the 1974 genre-classic revenge thriller, with Bruce Willis in the Charles Bronson role. It’s an unfocused mess. The good: a couple of eye-widening moments of shocking violence that are provocative in all the ways a B-movie can challenge your sensibilities. The bad: everything else. It features a politically charged scene satirizing how easy it is to procure a gun in America; in direct ideological contrast, it also glorifies the idea that the world needs more people carrying guns. Make up your mind.
‘Fifty Shades Freed’
Of course this is terrible. What did you expect? A shocking departure from franchise precedent? It has all the substance of a 105-minute Audi commercial, all the story of a 105-minute Audi commercial, and is, essentially, a 105-minute Audi commercial. Don’t watch this movie; I might also go out on a limb and say don’t buy an Audi, either.
‘Pacific Rim Uprising’
No Guillermo del Toro, no go. The sequel to the inventive filmmaker’s “Pacific Rim” is a lot like the first, but less so on all fronts, including writing, direction, acting, action, excitement, suspense - you know, just the essential stuff that makes films interesting and memorable.
This disturbingly violent espionage thriller has two big hurdles that I couldn’t clear. One, it saddles Jennifer Lawrence with an impenetrable armored tank of a Russian accent blocking our access to her character, a ballet star-turned-deep-cover-spy. And two, a tone so grimly poker-faced, it teeters into camp comedy.
This Netflix exclusive isn't quite one of the worst movies of the year, but it’s certainly among the most disappointing. Those of us hoping “Moon” director Duncan Jones would return to sci-fi form after 2016’s awful “Warcraft” got a movie with style, but no substance.