Here it is, the second week of July already, and I feel as though I’ve barely seen anything in the realm of theatrical movies. Compared to the average movie critic anyway, who probably sees three or four (new) movies a week, to say nothing of the ones she/he sees at home. But my movie consumption rate is still probably more ravenous than the average bear, and so at the risk of exposing just how limited my perspective is, I present to you my best of 2018 at the midpoint, ten movies (six of which are already available for home viewing) I think you should catch up with. The first three are particularly good (which is why they get a little more space, I suppose), and at first glance they might seem like strange bedfellows. But each one suggests a different mode of looking at life—quiet, measured, open to unexpected responses—or at the very least, in a world subsumed by superheroes and other forms of sensational overload, a different way of looking at movies, to say nothing of a different kind of movie to look at.
The others on the list are merely terrific. Certainly, it was a pleasure to have seen enough really good movies by July that, in order to keep myself to the traditional ten I had to leave an accomplished thriller like Hereditary or a heartfelt comedy drama like Love, Simon off my list. (I fully expect raised hackles over excluding at least Hereditary in favor of the last two lustrous pearls on my list.) But the less said about the year’s most serious bummers, including Ava Du Vernay’s A Wrinkle In Time, Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline and (sorry, fanboys) the Russo brothers’ Avengers: Infinity War, the better. On to the good stuff.
Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is, I think, truly a movie for our moment. It’s an exquisitely tormented consideration of faith (and the lack thereof), the difficult possibility of transcendence, and the seemingly even more difficult act of holding ostensibly opposed impulses of hope and despair in balance without completely losing one’s shit. And it speaks to the faithful in terms of what even the faithless see directly in front of them. Ethan Hawke is exceptional as the tortured pastor counseling the husband of a parishioner despondent over the dire implications of climate change, and the transference of that burden of responsibility from counseled to counsellor addresses one of the pastor’s central spiritual crises, a profound insecurity over whether can God forgive us for what we’ve done. The movie is a brilliantly sustained act of tension between the spiritual and the corporeal (and the influence of each on the other), building toward an act of desperate release, of a man trying to make a mark on the world, on his own soul. Hawke’s pastor, exiled in his doubt and overseeing a historically significant house of worship made into a sparsely attended tourist trap under the stewardship of a corporate-style megachurch, truly is God’s lonely man. Over all of Schrader’s most personal work, including Taxi Driver, with which this movie shares some stylistic devices derived from transcendental filmmakers like Robert Bresson, as well as its suffocating sense of isolation, this film feels the most piercing, the one that hurts the most, the one that offers the possibility of mortification and the bearable weight of an earthly yoke in equal measure as penance for divine deliverance. It’s the best movie I’ve seen so far in 2018.
It’s possible that society, especially American society, might have continued to undervalue the contribution of Fred Rogers to civil discourse and the general well-being. But Morgan Neville’s fascinating, unexpectedly (even overwhelmingly) emotional documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? seems poised to become the best of all possible insurances against the man’s ever evaporating from our collective neighborhood. Prior experience with the PBS program which, from 1968 to 2001 provided an oasis for children from the crass relentlessness of most Saturday-morning kid-oriented fare, isn’t required to appreciate this rich overview of Fred Rogers’ achievements as the overseer of a singular corner of television influence. But one’s own memories of spending time in the Neighborhood is likely to make the tears come faster and with more force. And those unfamiliar with Rogers’ work as anything but a Saturday Night Live joke may find themselves surprised by the level to which this articulate advocate for the spirit of childhood (Rogers was an ordained minister whose specific religious views never overtly became part of the program’s content) used his genteel pulpit to help children of the ‘60s and ‘70s deal with some harsh realities, like racism, childhood disease and even political assassination. Neville’s great achievement, apart from crafting a wonderful, surely enduring film, is to secure Rogers’ reputation as not only a children’s champion in guiding young ones through the process of discovering the world, but one for showing those kids who became adults a way of living in it once their own discoveries had been made.
Probably the most denigrating thing I can think of say about Debra Granik’s intense, affecting familial drama Leave No Trace is that it sports a somewhat generic title which evaporates almost immediately upon contact with the eyes and ears. Not so the movie itself, however. The story involves a PTSD-inflicted war veteran Will (Ben Foster) who has taken himself and his daughter Tom (newcomer Thomasin Harcourt Mackenzie) off the grid, making for them a quiet, if illegal, existence living off the land in a forested park within Portland, Oregon city limits. Once they’re reined in by social service agents and given a taste of being reintegrated back into society, the father bristles, but the daughter realizes that, though she wants nothing more than to be with her dad, a modest life among modest people is pretty appealing too. What’s genuinely marvelous about Granik’s approach, especially with Mackenzie, is the way director and actress make clear the dawning difference between parent and child without pressing home the metaphoric significance. Mackenzie’s Tom eases into a world of new experiences with a child’s natural curiosity—sea horses she reads about in books, flag dancers at a local church, 4-H kids raising rabbits, learning about the temperament and tendencies of hive bees—while her dad remains at a measured distance, his mind never far away from the clarion call of an isolated existence to which he longs to return. By the time Tom declares to Will that “the same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me,” the movie has fulfilled its unhurried journey toward sublimity, with myriad opportunities for its audience to appreciate the nuanced, rarified air of a soul discovering itself, asserting independence, breathing in the world.
The rest of the best, in descending order:
Black Panther (Ryan Coogler)
Thoroughbreds (Cory Finley)
Annihilation (Alex Garland)
Incredibles 2 (Brad Bird)
The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci)
Blockers (Kay Cannon)
Rampage (Brad Peyton)
Bring on Skyscraper!