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The Best Movies of 2018 — So Far

Including ‘First Reformed,’ ‘Black Panther,’ ‘Zama,’ and yes, ‘Paddington 2’

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By this time last year, the movies had Get Out, The Big Sick, and Baby Driver, three utterly different films that went on to become eventual Oscar nominees, and also Wonder Woman, a milestone in the superhero movie subgenre that has come to dominate the known universe. 2018 has been different. There was, of course, Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, two projection-crushing, culture-choking event movies with little precedent. But there hasn’t been nearly as much in the way of traditional awards fare. The anxieties over the film industry’s middle class — and theatergoing in general — have become a matter of public debate. And high-budget bombs feel more possible than ever.

But stress does not equal doom. The box office is actually up more than 8 percent, year over year, and the pride of attendance — as in, “I saw Black Panther in theaters four times!” — is animating what could be a unique new era for the movies, a time when an original story like A Quiet Place has as much of a chance to succeed as Solo: A Star Wars Story. And while TV grows into an unmanageable mass of unfinishable content, the compact execution of movies have given them more primacy in the cultural conversation than they’ve had in perhaps a decade. And that means more good ones. Through six months, here are the best.

First Reformed

Pepto Bismol and grain whiskey, swirling together in a glass like a pinkish-brown smear on Degas’s palette. That’s the image I think of when I recall First Reformed — beautiful poison, a crisis, and the cure. In Paul Schrader’s still but furious portrait of a pastor grappling with the degradation of the world’s environment that mirrors the breakdown of his own faith, Ethan Hawke gives the performance of his career. And for Schrader, the singular author of man-going-mad-in-his-bedroom cinema, it is a worthy successor to Taxi Driver and Light Sleeper, among other masterworks. As the director holds the camera calmly on the now 47-year-old Hawke’s face — all divots, crevasses, and unresolved anguish — he pays tribute to the transcendental masters he worshipped as a young film critic. But when he takes the safety off, in the final 15 minutes, he does what he was born to do — thrash the still with the ecstatic and make something uncomfortably, purposefully wrenching.  — Sean Fennessey

Black Panther

The mammoth box-office and think-piece omnipresence of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther don’t fully obscure its aesthetic qualities, but it’s worth remembering that the guy is first and foremost a filmmaker. At its best, Black Panther marshals the same muscular, populist excitement of Creed. It’s there in the fleetly edited South Korean nightclub clash between Wakanda’s heroes and Andy Serkis’s mercenaries and in the solemn, violent cliffside clash between T’Challa and Killmonger (shades of Rocky III with Michael B. Jordan channeling Clubber Lang). The affecting intimacy of Fruitvale Station, meanwhile, emerges in a vision-quest-slash-flashback that so fully humanizes the story’s villain that the surrounding superhero clichés feel stretched to a breaking point. Not a perfect movie — or even the explosion of Marvel formula its biggest champions claim — but impressive all the same.  — Adam Nayman

Zama

The Argentine director Lucrecia Martel is a master of hot and hazy atmosphere, and the 18th-century period piece Zama is her most humid and humorous movie to date. Posted by his government superiors to a Patagonian purgatory where his authority is purely ceremonial (and roundly mocked by the indigenous locals), hapless Spanish diplomat Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) sweats the days away awaiting a transfer that will never come. Martel’s gorgeous, hallucinatory images and palpable sense of stasis — a vague, waking trance state that’s transferred from Zama to the audience — nod to Herzog and Kubrick, but her eye (and ear) are distinctive in a way that transcends any previous influences. If there’s any justice, she’ll be cited as a master on their level by future would-be international auteurs.  — Nayman

Annihilation

I’m confident that this movie will be playing in revivals for the next 10, 20, 30 years, that overeager undergrads will be discovering it on streaming services for decades. We just need to keep talking about it. Alex Garland, who designed a meticulous, artisanally crafted dash of A.I. sci-fi in Êx Machina, scaled up his ambition with this quasi-adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s well-liked novel about a group of women who breach an environmental disturbance of unknown origin. This movie’s got it all: The themes of the self’s relationship to its physical realm and our alien desires are explored with an eerily calm disposition. The scene with the screaming bear monster is horrifying. Though it’s unfaithful to the book, Garland’s movie is extraordinary, quavering with uncertainty and curiosity, as interested in the dance of primal forces and doubling as the nuts-and-bolts narrative components. Shorter version: If Westworld were good, it’d be Annihilation. Equal parts odd and scary, with one gale-force Kubrickian, hypno-psychedelic set piece near the end, Garland — if nothing else — goes for it. (I wish more filmmakers could go for it.) That it disappointed at the box office is hardly surprising. Time is kinder to movies like this. But don’t wait too long.  — Fennessey

Incredibles 2 and Paddington 2

A rare subcategory: sequels to kids’ movies that no one asked for and everyone should see. Brad Bird’s 14-years-in-the-making Pixar story is the latest box-office sensation in a year full of them for Disney IP subsidiaries, but what makes it special is its whirling-dervish visual approach, a precise flurry of action sequences that don’t interrupt but — unlike its contemporaries — complement the storytelling. The same could be said for Paddington 2, just replace “action” with “unbearably adorable and kind-hearted.” I haven’t seen the first Paddington, and won’t. I was guilted into seeking out the sequel by a cabal of Daddingtons and Pad Guys who have used the movie to neutralize their unruly children. Guess what? Consider me neutralized, too. I am helpless against the charms of an English bear who can’t stay out of trouble. Director Paul King, who worked in British series TV for years before shepherding the Expanded Paddington Universe, brings a sensitive, whimsical, genuinely fun spirit to a movie that, in the wrong hands, could be too treacly or too silly. His movie is neither.  — Fennessey

The Rider

The country-Western cliché about getting “back in the saddle” gets tested in Chloé Zhao’s superb sophomore feature, in which real-life rodeo rider Brady Jandreau plays a thinly fictionalized version of himself — a waylaid eight-second warrior weighing the severity of his injuries against the impulse (personal and economic) to keep at it. Zhao’s respect for an old-fashioned cowboy tradition — and the South Dakota community it comes out of — is balanced against a multi-leveled social, cultural, and gender-based critique; her rapturous widescreen visuals evince a similar reverence for classic Westerns mitigated by a bobbing, handheld documentary realism. The result of all these different approaches is seamless and beguiling — a modest American indie that feels major in retrospect.  — Nayman

A Quiet Place and Hereditary

Just be quiet. That’s what we all want. Stop talking. Stop texting. Stop tweeting. Stop sharing your thoughts. Just sit there and be scared. That may be the text of just one of these two very different horror movies, but it is certainly the subtext of both. John Krasinski’s thriller has been think-pieced into an allegory for the white rage in Trump’s America, while Ari Aster’s dread-bound family drama has survived the spin cycle of “Scariest Movie in Years!” hype concern. (We’re guilty over here.) So of course there’s something fun about the inverse of the ginned-up promotion and media coverage inherent here — both of these movies want you to cope in silence. I can’t say the quiet bothers me much. I love to sit alone without speaking. Try it some time.  — Fennessey

You Were Never Really Here

The harshest movie of 2018, an unflinching art film that splatters visions of PTSD, child abuse, and the unraveling of the American city with the whack of a ball peen hammer. Lynne Ramsay’s fourth film isn’t her best or most persuasive, but it is a sensory experience to behold, with a lead performance from a hulking Joaquin Phoenix — leading with his abdomen — that is monosyllabically triumphant even by his standards. I don’t know that I recommend this film as anything that resembles fun — or, even, necessarily, insightful — but it is a motherload of psychic and physical power, shot up close and without reserve.  — Fennessey

Let the Sunshine In

Juliette Binoche plays an artist whose romantic life is its own messy, abstract canvas in Claire Denis’s sublime Parisian comedy, a film whose apparent lightness is pleasurable but also deceptive. Confronting the totally ordinary and fully unadorable reality of midlife dating — a routine in which all the participants come with their share of unchecked baggage — Denis crafts a sexual picaresque that illustrates its heroine’s frustration without letting her off the hook. Playing a woman who keeps her emotions on the surface (perhaps because she fears she can no longer feel deeply about anything), Binoche is as good as she’s ever been, and no film in 2018 will match Sunshine’s amazing, inscrutable ending sequence, the precise meaning of which is worth talking and arguing about for hours; at a moment when most movies for grown-ups take pains to underline their themes and corner their own arguments, Denis nudges us to “be open.”  — Nayman

Game Night

It’s about time somebody satirized David Fincher’s severe thriller style, so Game Night — which, as its title suggests, is pretty much a comic rewrite of the 1997 movie where Michael Douglas’s choose-your-own-adventure diversion goes fatally awry — deserves points simply for going there. But beyond the shrewdness of its setup, in which a group of friends is yoked into an actual drug deal while assuming it’s all an elaborate role-playing routine, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s film scores high marks for its intricate scripting, excellent ensemble (including MVPs Rachel McAdams and Jesse Plemons, whose stone-faced cop is a foil for the ages), and sense of momentum. While most studio comedies peter out at the halfway mark, Game Night picks up speed and peaks pretty close to the end (like a good action movie should).  — Nayman

Honorable Mentions

Set It Up

I don’t really care about rom-coms or the fact Hollywood’s slow transformation into a wealthy boy-child’s toy chest has reduced the number of movie-star-laden stories about hapless aspirant white-collar millennials looking for love in all the wrong places. But I liked this movie! From Netflix! Of all places! Veteran TV director Claire Scanlon and screenwriter Katie Silberman have made a movie that reminded me of One Fine Day and Definitely, Maybe — low-risk, low-reward, highly charming, highly consumable palette cleansers. People who watch a lot of movies need these movies, too — they’re the gasp of oxygen during the marathon of #content. The story is a trifle: Toiling assistants Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell scheme to get their bosses to fall in love so they can get some free time and a promotion. (Spoiler alert: They fall for one another in the process.) Deutch and Powell deserve a lot after this, and if Netflix wants to actually lean into the collapsed middle that Hollywood abandoned, this finally feels like a start.  — Fennessey

Den of Thieves

“People with things to hide never have much to say,” says bad-guy cop “Big” Nick (Gerard Butler) in Den of Thieves. By that logic, because I can admit that I enjoyed Christian Gudegast’s two-hour-and-20-minute foray into Michael Mann cosplay, I can also explain why. There’s only ever going to be one Heat, and Gudegast knows this; his solution is to lean into the rip-offery so far that it comes out the other side as loving homage. (1995 was a big year for this guy, since he also throws some Usual Suspects shtick in there just for fun.) This is a Los Angeles–set heist movie featuring masked robbers, broad-daylight machine gun fights, a really serious 50 Cent performance, and a seriously hilarious Gerard Butler performance (if Denzel can get an Oscar for Training Day maybe GB can get … a Golden Globe? The Nobel Prize? Either is fine). Den of Thieves is a film of zero originality and minimal redeeming artistic or social value, but I’m glad they’re making a sequel.  — Nayman