Halfway Around the Sun: Our top picks of 2018's first half
Shelby's Top 5
Annihilation – I've been a fan of Alex Garland since I read The Beach, many years ago now. Given Garland's directorial role and the all-star, female driven cast I was on board with Annihilation from jump. I'm glad to say that the film did not disappoint. The science fiction premise allows for some interesting rumination on hybridity and evolution, and the film isn't afraid to lean into SF/horror territory. There is a particular scene with a bear that will probably haunt me until I die. You know the one. Anyway, I liked Annihilation so much that I'm using it this semester to teach my Intro to Film students about sound design. So, yes, definitely one of the best of 2018 so far.
Black Panther - It was such a cool experience to see Black Panther with a group of fellow nerds and comics fans on the last day of a comics-centric academic conference that I helped organize. The timing couldn't have been better, given the theme of our conference: speculative fiction and political resistance. Although the film offered less "resistance" than I would have hoped, I was thrilled to see Wakanda realized on screen. The powerful women in the film – Shuri, Okoye, and Nakia – were wonderfully portrayed and will hopefully all get more screen time in the sequel. Killmonger is probably the first Marvel villain (other than Loki, who is never a villain for very long) that I've found compelling to any degree. As far as I'm concerned, Michael B. Jordan needs to play every Marvel character, "Eddie Murphy in the Nutty Professor movies" style.
Incredibles 2 - I loved the first Incredibles film, and had high hopes for the sequel. Those hopes weren't just met, but exceeded. The new superheroes introduced in the film were a lot of fun (especially Voyd, aka "Now You're Thinking With Portals" Girl), and the development of Jack Jack's powers – to the chagrin of his hapless dad – is hilarious to watch. A specific scene involving the baby and a raccoon is possibly the funniest bit in the movie, but also just a good and well-choreographed battle (that just happens to involve an infant and a nocturnal trash bandit). I appreciate that the film also focuses on Elastigirl and her solo heroics, leaving Mr. Incredible home to take care of the kids – a simple but powerful inversion of the first film. All that being said, the true standout piece of Incredibles 2 is a scene where the villain (cleverly named "The Screenslaver") delivers a monologue about the dullness and risklessness of a life mediated by screens – ironically being shown on the biggest of screens, that of the tentpole summer blockbuster at a cineplex. There is so much more I could say about the Screenslaver's motivations and methods, but I'll let you watch the film and decide for yourself.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? - First, a warning: if you see this documentary, be prepared to cry. I cried. My mom (a notoriously tough cookie) cried. I'm pretty sure the college bros sitting in the row behind us cried. This documentary about the life and light and love of Fred Rogers is – like the man himself and the fictional neighborhood he inhabited – both heartwarming and honest. Rogers didn't shy away from the difficult (but crucial) topics that kids needed to learn about – death, bullying, anger, divorce. The documentary, likewise, doesn't shy away from telling the truth: Rogers struggled with being bullied himself, with negative self-image and doubt. He struggled to accept the homosexuality of a castmate. His children, interviewed for the film, sometimes felt overwhelmed by the public response to their dad, who was treated like a second messiah at times. But through all of that, Rogers maintained a singular vision – to respect children, to listen to them, to help them, and to honor them. I cannot think of a more critical message for living in and getting through 2018.
Love, Gilda – Yes, another celebrity documentary. I've never considered myself a huge fan of the genre, but Won't You Be My Neighbor? and Love, Gilda are both so carefully and lovingly rendered that I'm rethinking that previous bias. Love, Gilda tells the story of Gilda Radner, as much as possible through her own words – journal entries, audiotapes, archival footage and home videos comprise the majority of the documentary. Interviews with friends, family, and colleagues help flesh out the image of a woman who was funny both on and off the stage, but also deeply troubled by failed relationships, an eating disorder, and the cancer that cut her life short. Walking into the film I didn't know much about Gilda, but now she almost feels like an old friend – and importantly, the familiarity and intimacy with which the film explores her life manages to avoid exploitation and speculation. And like everyone she met, if you watch Love, Gilda, you're likely to fall in love with her too.
Matt's Top 5
Black Panther - While the politics are messy, this film is everything I wanted and more. Boseman's T'Challa doesn't pop quite as much as he did in his intro in Captain America: Civil War, but everyone around him more than picks up that slack. From Lupita Nyong'o's Nakiya, Winston Duke's M'Baku, Danai Gurira's Okoye, and Letitia Wright's brilliant and playful Shuri, T'Challa's allies all threaten to steal the show. Ultimately, that's left to Michael B. Jordan's Erik Killmonger, one of the most compelling villains I've ever seen in a superhero film. And, truly, the Panther himself is well-realized, looking cool as hell, and embodying the same natural sense of right and wrong that Chris Evans's Captain America does. Oh, and literally everything about the kingdom of Wakanda was perfect.
You Were Never Really Here - I had no idea what to expect when I walked into this film. Literally, I hadn't read anything about the plot and only knew that it starred Joaquin Phoenix, an actor that I've seen surprisingly little of. What I got was a story that swerved every time I thought I had it figured out, jarring moments of unexpected violence, all relentlessly-paced and enhanced by incredible sound design that puts you inside the PTSD-affected world of the protagonist.
Avengers: Infinity War - Seriously, how could this not have made my list? Yes, it's kind of half a movie, but it's so packed full of characters, moments, action, and a surprisingly compelling villain in Josh Brolin's mo-capped Thanos. This is the first part of the culmination of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and while some characters are criminally-underserved by the split nature of the film, those that get the focus are given some of their best moments so far.
A Quiet Place - A fantastic trailer and strong word-of-mouth got me to venture out to a horror film (not my favorite genre, though there are exceptions) and I'm glad I did. Directer/star Krasinski along with Emily Blunt give outstanding performances, and the film had me nearly holding my breath for its nearly hour-and-a-half runtime. I saw it in a theater full of people and it was DEAD SILENT the entire film.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties - This makes my list not so much because of any particular perfection or even greatness. But, as I mentioned in my review, it hit all of my buttons and I enjoyed every moment despite its flaws. The visual-inventiveness of director John Cameron Mitchell and the blend of sincerity and cynicism made for one of my most enjoyable viewing experiences so far this year.
Jose's Top 5
Black Panther – It has taken ten years but the Marvel Cinematic Universe finally has its crowning achievement. This entry into the Wakandan world of the recently anointed King T’CHalla (Chadwick Boseman) is the adventure that Marvel fans and movie super fans have been waiting for. We were also treated to the MCU’s most complex and compelling villain in the form of Erik Killmonger, brought to life in a mesmerizing performance by Michael B. Jordan.
A Quiet Place – Just when you thought every horror gimmick had been exploited comes actor/director John Krasinski’s instant classic about a family trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic landscape crawling with sound-sensitive predators. For 91 minutes, A Quiet Place is a tense, intelligent, and surprisingly heartfelt horror film. And if there is justice, Emily Blunt will receive her first Oscar nomination.
Supa Modo - From Kenya comes this inspirational tale directed by Likarion Wainaina. A 9-year-old terminal cancer patient returns to her village when her mother decides she should die in peace. The local villagers decide to make her super hero dreams come true when they are able to scramble together enough money and tech gear to make her the star of her own cinematic comic book movie. Think 2015’s Batkid Begins. So funny, so touching, so memorable.
Hal – Amy Scott’s insightful documentary paints the rich canvass that was the gone too soon life of filmmaker Hal Ashby. In the 1970’s, Ashby had an amazing stretch of films that included The Landlord, Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound For Glory, Coming Home, and Being There. The film includes testimonials from plenty of today’s filmmakers who were inspired by Ashby’s work as well as a look into Ashby’s not so perfect home life.
Annihilation – Though it may have been a box office disappointment, Alex Garland’s follow-up to 2015’s Ex Machina was every bit as entertaining and thought-provoking. Buoyed by a fierce performance from Natalie Portman, this adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s best-selling novel is a rich female-driven story about a reconnaissance expedition into The Shimmer – a mysterious, quarantined zone. It also features fine work from one of my favorite actresses, Jennifer Jason Leigh.