We may only be halfway through the year, but there have already been plenty of great movies to sink our teeth into. From slow-burn indie darlings to crowd-pleasing blockbusters, the past six months have provided something for all tastes, proving that we don’t have to be mid-awards season to experience great cinema. Check out the following 15 films that we think are the best of the best:
All science fiction should aspire to be as textured and personal as Annihilation. The second feature from English sci-fi writer Alex Garland (following his wonderful directorial debut Ex Machina) explores some colossal themes, from grief and memory to human existence itself, without sacrificing the intimacy of individual characters and their relationships. Natalie Portman is stunning as Lena, an ex-Army biologist fighting to get to the bottom of a mystery that is – literally – consuming her life. Her chemistry with co-star Oscar Isaac is palpable, and the rest of the women-lead ensemble cast (featuring Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Jennifer Jason-Leigh) bring complexity and depth to characters that might read like archetypes on paper. That’s not to say this is just some sappy, weepy drama: Annihilation is horrifying, mesmerizing and down-right bonkers in equal measure. As with most sci-fi, you either buy into the conceit or you don’t: while some audiences were turned off by the film’s conclusion, I bought it and went back for more. Annihilation is one of the only movies I’ve ever watched and immediately wanted to re-watch, without even giving myself the chance to think. It’s atmospheric and literary, packed with references to Woolf, Ishiguro and Hollinghurst, in addition to being visually stunning and creepy as hell. It’s smart sci-fi done right, and it’s at the top of my list for 2018. Excuse me while I listen to “Helplessly Hoping” on repeat.
– Cassidy Olsen
After Thor: Ragnarok, the MCU was looking strong, with Black Panther fighting all the other studio’s blockbusters for the title of king – and it won. This isn’t just another fun Marvel movie. Black Panther proved itself as a groundbreaking and culturally important piece of filmmaking. And while the premise may seem simple – a king trying to reclaim his throne – it’s so much more, for the nation and people it represents. It tackles topics like the impact of colonialism with a tone of hilarity, while not diminishing the issue’s severity. The depictions of the film’s characters, from their stories, traditions, costumes, and music, are all so breathtaking.
– Sara Clements
Calm. Calm and mysterious are the first scenes of Lee Chang-dong’s ambitious and hypnotic Murakami adaptation. He beautifully captures spaces in day and night that seem full of warm and refreshing intrigue at first, like life itself sometimes. But like in life, you can see the fires only after darkness has fallen, and that’s exactly when Burning slowly turns into a smoldering, then scorching ride, which makes the viewer feel like he is following someone, who always turns the corner when within spitting distance. When the slow-burn finally takes the characters to a feeling of insufferable frustration, it lights all the way up and unleashes one of the perhaps most jaw-dropping long-takes in recent cinema.
It’s a film about the frustrating nature of life, but more specifically, about the deeply psychological, almost twistedly erotic nature of class dynamics in relation to toxic masculinity. And the viewer is fully absorbed during every single moment. Chang-dong creates scenes that are so magnificently magnetic and audiovisually powerful, that you simply cannot look away. Lead actor Yoo Ah-in gives a lead performance that is so pitch perfect and so effective in its subtlety, that I don’t see many other acting feats this year that could surpass his one. The same counts for the movie. It’s absolutely staggering.
– Kareem Baholzer
Self. vs religion is one of the oldest of human dilemmas. Its trace goes further than we can track it and for many, it sits in the centre of existence. The dilemma is complex enough on its own, and when you add being a lesbian or any sexual minority to that dilemma, it becomes a mess that seems impossible to untangle oneself from. This is what the core of Disobedience is about; that dilemma, and the empowerment that comes from untangling it. It’s a film that’s as powerful as the first breath one takes after the untangling.
Esti (Rachel McAdams) and Ronit (Rachel Weisz), both give magnificent performances, as two characters whose lives are shaped by that dilemma. For them, it’s their Orthodox Jewish community that binds them, for Esti from far away and for Ronit right at the centre of the community. To us, the audience, it’s whatever greater power that stands in the way between our self, our sexual identity. For any LGBTQ+ viewer, it’s so easy to put ourselves in their places, to make their struggles our own or ours theirs, and that makes Disobedience so personal, and thus, so powerful.
– Dilara Elbir
Even though Jason Bateman recently outed himself as a not-so-nice guy in that disastrous Arrested Development NYT interview, Game Night remains one of the wittiest, twistiest comedies of the year so far. At the risk of oversimplifying, the film essentially poses the question: what if David Fincher’s The Game was a screwball black comedy? Fincher homages are abound, including references to underground fight clubs, and a long tracking shot that brings to mind the swerving, sweeping camera movements of Panic Room. Rachel McAdams and Jesse Plemons are easily the standouts of the ensemble, the former bringing a manic energy as she dances and sings into a loaded gun and the latter spouting deliciously deadpan line deliveries about Tostitos and his ex-wife. Genuinely well-written studio comedies are hard to come by these days–the last one I can think of that made me laugh out loud this damn hard is Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping–but hopefully, Game Night’s commercial and critical success will inspire executives to take more chances on scripts like this one…and to cast McAdams in more comedic roles.
– Mia Vicino
Though I have personal reservations about how the film ends, it is undeniable that Hereditary, the horror-debut-A24-festival darling of the year has haunted me ever since I saw it for the first time. Every grotesque image, every excruciating moment, and every unnerving piece of sound design has stuck with me for days. What makes Hereditary so goddamn effective is that it hits so close to home. It is a horror film about dysfunctional family dynamics, manipulation, and legacy. It is one of the most striking depictions of emotional abuse I have ever seen put on screen, and allegorical horror is one of the genre’s biggest strengths if you ask me.
Every performance is noteworthy but Toni Collette truly deserves so much recognition for this role. She is able to switch from loving, caring mother to manipulative monster with the snap of her fingers (or a click of the tongue, if you will). I nerd out for great direction, so I went nuts over every technical choice made in this film. I especially loved how scares were hidden in frames and they just lingered there until you noticed them. No cheap jumpscares, just total dreadful atmosphere. This is a film so unapologetically upsetting but it actually uses it to say something valuable about our own inner demons and where they have originated. I’m dying to see it again, but I may have to sue Ari Aster for emotional distress afterwards.
Lean on Pete
Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete is a devastating portrayal of the transience of human connection; the crushing silence of loneliness and the harrowing limits one can be driven to do to simply survive. While the title of the film seems to suggest that Charley’s relationship to his horse is absolutely pivotal to its plot, Haigh actually uses this bond between boy and horse as a mere conduit to amplify Charley’s desire for unconditional love. This desire is accentuated by the near absence of non-diegetic sounds, as if allowing Charley’s cries to fall completely on deaf ears – there is only merciless silence in return. There is only a horse who trudges on behind him; a horse who is wrung dry then sold for slaughter; almost uncannily similar to the way Charley is treated as expendable by the people he meets. The fleeting relationships Charley forms with the people around him demands his unwavering loyalty without care for what he really wants, yet Charley can only ever be silent, accepting without complaint, just like the horse which he projects his loneliness onto.
Even when there is human interaction amidst the overbearing silence, they are curt and terse. These relationships are manipulative transactions. Charley only receives a semblance of affection if he sacrifices something of himself. And when he refuses to give up his compassion, the transactions come to an abrupt halt, leaving Charley and his horse alone in vast marshes, struggling to survive. Though Haigh never gives our protagonist a break from the brutalities of the world, these tragedies never succumb to melodramatic exploitation. The adversities Charley faces never lingers long enough for us to revel in its tragedy. Instead, mirroring most neorealist films, Charley moves on quickly, filling the film only with our pent-up anger and sorrow for a boy who has no space to mourn his suffocating circumstances. What we have is a film which depicts poverty, loneliness, and suffering not only with empathy, but with such a cruel honesty it becomes deeply human and all too terrifyingly real.
– Sharmane Tan
Lover for a Day
Philippe Garrel’s latest study of love and fidelity is a decidedly very French film – a 23-year-old woman moves back in with her lecturer father after a break-up, only to discover that he is having an affair with a student her age – but Lover For A Day eschews the vapid vanity of similar films and is instead imbued with an emotional heft that welcomes empathy.
Shot in classical monochrome and filled with attractive people mulling about sex and relationships, it would be easy to dismiss the seemingly trivial problems of this unconventional household, but the trio of grounded performances invite you to happily witness this intimate familial explosion. Esther Garrel is especially spellbinding as the newly single Jeanne, who learns through her blossoming friendship with her father’s lover that she shouldn’t be defined by her relationship.
The opening scenes immediately introduce the film’s emotional gut punch: a passionate sexual tryst in a university bathroom, starkly contrasting with Jeanne dragging a suitcase along the empty Parisian streets. Her loneliness can be felt by her intense cries and the deafening rolling of wheels in the silent night, and is only accentuated by the scene that precedes it. As a story of the deceitfulness of love, Lover For A Day is nothing new, but on its own merits, it’s a real charmer.
– Iana Murray
The gay community deserves nice things. It may be 2018, but young gay kids are still being treated like dirt by their peers. It still happens, as far as we may have come, and recognising this is important; in our comparative security as adults, we sometimes forget the inherent difficulty of being an LGBTQ+ teenager.
Love, Simon may not be able to prevent this hardship, but it’s certainly going to put a smile on a lot of young people’s faces. As a rom-com, this arguably conventional teen movie follows a predictable enough storyline. High schooler Simon Spier has an idyllic life: he has a supportive family, a great bunch of friends, and a bright future ahead of him. The only problem? He’s gay – and firmly in the closet. When he is outed without his permission, however, Simon must face a myriad of issues, ranging from school bullies to confused parents, to his own internal demons.
The controversy, of course, is that Love, Simon appeals not only to LGBTQ+ people but also to straight and cis people. Queer cinema has long been targeted at queer audiences, and this departure has frustrated many in the community. Nonetheless, we live in a society of increasing LGBTQ+ visibility and while Love Simon only represents a small part of that vibrant group, the knowledge that this film could improve the lives of gay teens can only be positive in my eyes.
– Megan Christopher
Regarded as The Godfather Part II of children’s movies, Paddington 2 rightly earned this title when it became the best-reviewed film of all time on Rotten Tomatoes. Our favourite Bear’s newest appearance on screen feels like a warm hug and manages to entertain audiences of all ages. The CGI bear is woven into live action so intricately that he seems ordinary amongst the actors. Paddington’s comedic clumsiness and naiveté is adorable to witness as he settles into life in London. While this caters to young audiences, adults will also be enthralled by the first-rate action sequences, including a prison break and a locomotive chase. Paddington’s new and exciting adventure is just as enjoyable as the first, but while it’s equal in heart, it’s greater in art. The story flows through different, bright visual styles as though the audience is being hit by painting after painting, and the narrative reads like the gift our furry friend longs to give to his aunt Lucy: a pop-up book. With its ever-changing pastel colours, miniaturized sets, and sweets galore, Paddington 2 is the best Wes Anderson film that Wes Anderson never made.
– Sara Clements
In an era of excessive violence and aggression towards women, Coralie Fargaet’s debut film, Revenge, is the film we’ve needed – at least, it’s the film that I’ve needed. Yes, it is a rape-revenge film, but it handles a typically exploitative genre in a refreshing way that empowers Jen, the protagonist, rather than torture her for the sake of shock value. One of my favorite things about Revenge is how Fargaet confronts the male gaze head on. She makes the audience aware of how we focus on the female body in parts – legs, stomach, ass – and then she “ruins” those parts. Fargaet never lets the audience look away from the film’s horrors, like when Jen performs peyote-induced surgery on herself. These close-ups, paired with a thumping EDM soundtrack, creates creeping anxiety that permeates the film. From peyote-fueled surgeries to picking bits of glass out of feet, Revenge brutalizes the audience. There isn’t a moment where you’re relaxed; in fact, this film made me sweat. But despite buckets of blood and overwhelming tension, Revenge gives us a woman that represents our current political climate, one that fights back against predatory men and makes them suffer for their crimes. This is a must-see film for horror fans.
– Mary Beth McAndrews
Winner of last year’s top prize at Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, Chloé Zhao’s The Rider is a lyrical and soulful illustration of a rodeo rider’s journey of finding himself after losing his ability to compete. With rustic surroundings as his companion, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau, who the film’s story is based on) struggles to discover who he is without rodeos, in what could best be described as a transcendental quest. Post-accident searches of self are a common story in every text and those stories more often than not lose their authenticity in their exaggeration. The Rider takes its power from being a quiet, mournful portrayal of that search. Zhao takes one of the oldest American myths, a man and his horse in the wild, and turns it into a modern story that’s drenched in naturalism with distinctive directorial style.
– Dilara Elbir
Cory Finley’s unbelievable debut perfectly balances deadpan humour with horrifying thrills, in an exploration of privilege, psychiatry and the teenage BFF. Sociopathic Amanda (Olivia Cooke) is sent to be tutored by childhood acquaintance Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), a clashing of mindsets that eventually (and awkwardly) blossoms into a friendship. Lily’s seemingly perfect life begins to be stripped away before our eyes: as it turns out, she wishes to murder her step-father. This barely thought out decision – in an epitome of wealth-induced recklessness – leads to increasingly solid plans, until the two girls are in much deeper than they ever really intended.
Cooke and Taylor-Joy are exceptional; they strip each scene of comfort through eerie glares and emotionless faces. It’s impossible to stop watching however, as the plot moves quickly onward through poor decisions and startling realisations, and we spiral downwards with our two deliciously twisted protagonists. But Thoroughbreds true strength is its ability to question what truly makes a person evil: is it the pressure of our environments, or the power of an individual mind? There is certainly no straightforward answer to be found in this film – and that is what makes Thoroughbred a masterpiece.
– Megan Christopher
After seeing Tully, I can say that I’ve seen very few films that have tackled motherhood the way this film does. Director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody’s latest collaboration puts a spotlight on the hardships that come with being a mother and the postpartum depression that may follow. Charlize Theron gives such a darkly humorous portrayal of Marlo that you know that she is just telling her character’s truth. Theron offers one of her best performances of a woman desperately trying to do her best while Mackenzie Davis plays Tully the night nurse so openly that it’s easy to forget that she is acting. The film wonderfully examines the moments when it becomes apparent that life may have turned out differently than imagined in our 20s. While there are many different opinions on the ending, Tully is a film that won’t soon be forgotten.
– Sydney Bembry
You Were Never Really Here
Lynne Ramsay’s new feature made a big splash at Cannes in 2017, snagging the best screenplay award and the best actor award for Joaquin Phoenix. Its distribution earlier this year was oddly quiet, but it currently stands as my favorite film of the year. This film is essentially an anti-action movie, tackling a straightforward and on paper, generic plot of a hitman saving girls from sex trafficking. However, simplistic as it may be, through the execution of the film writing and directing, it truly shines and becomes something much more.
You Were Never Really Here is a subversive, powerful, thoughtful character study and meditation on trauma, anti-violence, grief, and innocence. Phoenix is, of course, amazing as ever, but the real star here is Ramsay’s direction. She is in full control of her storytelling and visual powers, handling gruesome subject material with so much restraint and craftsmanship. It is a deconstruction of the genre, a fresh portrayal of masculinity, and one of the most humanist and emotionally aware films I’ve seen in a theater. All assets of the films audiovisuals work together to put you into the head of the protagonist, Joe. From whispering voices in his head, to the vivid, painful memories Joe relives daily, this is a technical marvel. Tied all together with, in my opinion, the most powerful ending of the year, some slight humor/charm, and a shot of Phoenix drinking a milkshake. I cried in the bathroom after seeing it, so yeah, I’m fucking sold.