Saturday, July 7, 2018

Taking On 2018 - Top Films Of The Year So Far

Here we are once again, halfway through 2018, what is undeniably the worst year in existence, marked with nothing but pain, sadness, hopelessness, and a few okay films. Some would say it has #BeenAWhile since I last wrote anything on this blog proper, and it has, especially as I use Letterboxd to get out quick thoughts and then just process and have conversations elsewhere, but I imagine there's still a good amount of value is writing down more extensive thoughts on things that have stood out to me throughout the year. So I'll do that. This time in a list form while I try to figure out which things I liked more than other things. The actual process of putting this together ended up being more difficult than I imagined, mostly figuring out what would compete for the last few slots. So with that, it looks like this is how things shook out at the halfway point.

10. Flower

Unsurprisingly, things start with a quasi-coming of age tale where the age has already came. Flower is a film that I imagine will mostly be forgotten in a lot of conversations, but it is one that has stuck with me since seeing it in theaters. And not just because it makes great use of "Unfucktheworld" in an amazingly resonant sequence of connection and vulnerability. Deutch is asked to carry a lot, and she's more than up to the task, bringing a charm, sadness, and sincerity to a character steeped in the ennui of the middle class struggle. Which does fall back on tropes at times, but puts a twist on it by having a character at the center that, even when things get potentially more troublesome in terms of the sexuality on display (I've heard, I didn't find it, nor did a film about a young woman dealing with emotional turmoil and sense of understand being created by a team of men feel any less valuable or authentic), is never anything less than compelling.

9. Hereditary

The build has been happening for years, and at this point it's very clear that horror is not only back, but has been attracting filmmakers of all types to take a stab at terror. And as those elements seep in to other genres, it's refreshing to see something that is so focused on building a constant sense of dread, and all that from a debut feature. There are quibbles to be had about echoing the feeling of masters like Kubrick without capturing the intricacies that make his films more than technically brilliant, but there's still something so impressive about what happens here, the culmination points, the embrace of terror without relying on a cheaper type of manufactured scare, that makes the conclusion enrapturing.

8. Eighth Grade

Another in the line of films about women created by men. And another that easily makes the list at this point in the year. I've been mixed on Bo Burnham's comedy performances, but through those he has developed a voice that shines through in the dialogue here. From the painfully 'cool' teachers on the fringes to all the vlogs that Kayla records, there's a real empathy and understanding for a point in life where everyone feels like an outsider. It's a gross point in life, a scary one, and one that Burnham doesn't shy from in the slightest. There are moments of majesty and devastation, ones that are, just as much for as they are for the characters, glimmers of hope in a time we need it most.

7. Claire's Camera

Honestly, I probably need at least another viewing to fully begin to get a grasp on Hong Sang-soo's lean examination of art, connection, and purpose mixed with a dash of potential magic. However, that doesn't mean the initial experience was any less rewarding. For something that, from the run time to the filming process, appears to be so minimal, it uses that as a launching point for weighty meditations that are all framed with a striking lens.

6. Leave No Trace

On the surface, the latest from Debra Granik could be reduced to a father/daughter story, which it is, but it's in the moments of strain and compassion, the tension that this creates, where Granik's mark is left on convention. Because it's been such a long time since Winter's Bone (I didn't see that documentary, so I'm a part of the problem), there have been plenty of comparisons, so I'll try and avoid those. Regardless of any points of similarity (not as many, in reality, as I've seen written about), Thomasin McKenzie is a force and does appear to be quite the discovery. There's a restraint to her performance that makes the bigger moments feel all the more heavy, and injects the film with the compassion and heart it needs for this exploration of characters to succeed.

5. Paddington 2

The first Paddington is an okay film, but it hadn't prepared me for just how good the sequel would be, so much so that I was a little skeptical. No reason to be though, because what stands out most about this sequel, a film that, in a world that truly is the worst, is its sense of hope and sincere love. The jokes land, there are a lot of beautiful sequences visually that blend different styles of animation, and there's just so much authentic care. We can't always be the best version of ourselves, but Paddington lets us know that's okay, you can still be good.

4. First Reformed

In a way, I guess, this riff on Schrader's Taxi Driver script is also a companion piece to Paddington 2 in the way it (arguably) lets us know that even in a dark world no one is beyond saving. Though it also does not shy away from how cruel the world is, and how it can at times feel irredeemable. How an individual can feel that way. The methodical pacing, the strict visual style, all contribute to a building sense of chaos that bubbles and simmers more often than boiling over, and even when it does so it's typically in such formally stunning ways that it's easy to be drawn in to the mediation.

3. Tully

Reitman and Cody have paired in the past, and while each have had successes on their own, there's just something about the pairing that seems to draw the best out of one another. And, reteaming with Theron after Young Adult, definitely the strongest from each off screen individual, provides an immediate chemistry that feels different, yet natural. Which goes a long way since Theron basically needs to hold the film on her shoulders, and she's more than up to the task. Because of the nature of the film, a more intensive character study and all that, it's difficult to speak to its strengths without delving in to specifics, but even with those restrictions, I can definitely say that it's such a strong look at humanity that aspects of Tully that continue to resonate.

2. Isle Of Dogs

The return to animation for Wes Anderson, a form that is perfectly tailored to his strengths as a filmmaker and, even apparent at the time of Fantastic Mr. Fox's release when the films that followed were easily the best work he's done in live action, was welcome regardless of subject matter. But with Anderson there's really little to worry about in that regard, even when he's working with talking dogs the ideas he confronts are deeply human. There's a roughness to the film, even in in how beautiful the visuals are and how meticulously crafted it all feels, that comes through in the performances that juxtaposes the typical children's film (obviously animation as a form is so much more than that) with a much more harsh reality to create one of the year's best works.

1. You Were Never Really Here

Almost a year after its debut at Cannes in 2017, the latest from Lynne Ramsay finally made its way stateside and theatrically. And she continues to assert herself as such a thrilling voice in cinema. Of course Joaquin Phoenix does a ton in the central role, bringing a quiet rage that underscores the troubled mind we explore in a clinical yet sleek way that has echoes of Drive, another stylish film that confronts a mentally fractured central character wrapped up in overbearing masculinity. Ramsay's work is a masterful display of craft, but that also doesn't come at the expense of character or theme. And that final scene. Damn.

And there we have it, the best things I have seen thus far. I do have a full running list of everything from 2018 that I watch to keep track of, and I'm sure with so many major things to get distribution in the fall that the next check in will look considerably different. Ideally it won't take another year to get to that point.

Comments are welcome and, for anyone with a literary mind, I encourage checking out my poetry blog filled with all original works for your reading pleasure.

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And if you want to know what I'm watching, listening to, playing , and reading you can follow my tumblr account!

© 2018 Richard James Thorne

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