The year 2018 will be my first full year living in Scotland, and I have recognized that film culture and releases differ here. Films like Lady Bird and Phantom Thread are technically 2018 releases in the UK, and both would certainly top my list (Lady Bird might have been my #1 from 2017 had I seen it sooner). Similarly, Paddington 2–a beloved 2018 release in the US–was on my top 20 from 2017. Annihilation never had a theatrical release in the UK, instead going straight to Netflix; Mary Magdalene was sadly never released *at all* in the US due to the Weinstein debacle.
This is all to say, life is different on the coast of Scotland, thousands of miles away from my country of origin, a nation which has undergone seemingly endless turmoil, violence, and injustice in the first half of 2018. From mass shootings to #MeToo to immigrant children in cages, it’s heartbreaking to witness from afar, and I often feel helpless. I grieve and lament and long for justice.
Still, as I posted recently on Facebook, I’m reminded of the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk, who in the face of overwhelming injustice took a posture of proactive patience and creativity: he writes a poem, a song. He makes and celebrates art. That’s what I’m trying to do in my film criticism–to celebrate the good, the true, and the beautiful wherever I experience it. So, here are the six best films from the first six months of 2018:
6) Annihilation (Alex Garland).What if the Ship of Theseus, but with mutating bears and tattoos? Garland’s cerebral sci-fi thriller is remarkably bleak, serving as a striking metaphor for the human experience in the face of the painful unknown–depression, disease, divorce, even death. Though I was never able to experience it in theaters the way it was meant to be seen, my two viewings on Netflix were memorable, particularly the final 15 minutes of visual and aural wonder.
5) A Quiet Place (John Krasinski). A nice family film about their quiet life on a farm (okay, not exactly), A Quiet Place exploits its premise for all its worth, with thrilling results. Real-life couple John Krasinski and Emily Blunt are authentically brave and affecting as parents given the task of raising their children in a violent, unsettling world. With its monastic ethos–the family name is Abbott and they navigate the rhythms of silent farm life with a dutiful solemnity–and familial focus, A Quiet Place is a reminder of goodness in the midst of a world gone mad.
4) Mary Magdalene (Garth Davis). Navel-gazing and listless, Mary Magdalene is nevertheless an affecting, contemplative hagiography of a biblical figure which is more inclined towards an arthouse aesthetic than anything in the “faith-based” sub-genre. With a beautiful score from Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (Arrival), and stunning images of the Italian landscape serving as Palestine, Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix (his first of two films on this list) imbue their characters with unique pathos and complexity, mostly through their eyes and bodies instead of their words.
3) Black Panther (Ryan Coogler). Upon a second viewing, Black Panther stands apart from the rest of the MCU in its capacity to allow for a genuine auteurism–this is distinctly Coogler’s film–and a complex, layered story with a plethora of meanings and allusions. The borders of Wakanda serve as the symbolic borders of so much more: tradition and change, past and future, conservative and progressive, violence and peace, men and women, oppressed and privileged, Africa and America. I think I’m ready to make this claim: this is the best film the MCU has produced yet.
2) You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay). With allusions to both Hitchcock and Taxi Driver, Ramsay’s use of a cinematic PTSD aesthetic is grippingly sympathetic and suspenseful. The violence here is often left to the viewer’s imagination, which makes it that much more excruciating. Joaquin Phoenix is exemplary in his portrayal of Joe, a veteran who tracks down missing girls for a living; the direction and editing make it feel like we’re inside his damaged mind.
1) The Rider (Chloé Zhao). Images and moments from Zhao’s beautiful, subversive neo-Western still haunt me, from the taming of a wild horse to a ride at dusk with sun setting, to moments of pastoral compassion in a physical rehab center. Richly empathetic and authentic, The Rider depicts the reality of life in this particular time and place without ever becoming expository. Lakota cowboy Brady Jandreau portrays a version of himself, a rodeo star recovering from a debilitating head injury which threatens his vocation and identity. Zhao’s film is wonderfully subversive of the Western genre; Brady is both Indian and Cowboy, and his masculinity is defined not only by rugged individualism but by empathetic compassion towards others and fidelity to his family. The Rider is a wonder to behold; seek it out to watch it wherever it’s playing in theaters.