2018 is nearing the halfway mark, so it’s time to take a look back at the first six months and round up our favorite titles thus far. While the end of this year will bring personal favorites from all of our writers, think of the below 31 entries as a comprehensive rundown of what should be seen before heading into a promising back half of the year.
Do note that this feature is based solely on U.S. theatrical releases from 2018, with many currently widely available on streaming platforms or theatrically. Check them out below, as organized alphabetically, followed by honorable mentions and films to keep on your radar for the remaining summer months. One can also follow our Letterboxd list.
24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami)
As a swan song, there aren’t many as beautifully somber as Abbas Kiarostami’s. At first glance simplistically structured, 24 Frames reveals itself to be a complex cinematic survey of time and artifice in filmmaking. (Isiah Medina’s brilliant essay is a must-read.) It’s an overwhelming feeling imagining each frame as one’s final glimpses of the world—bleak isolation clashing with graceful nature. The superb final note of a life’s work. – Jordan R.
Araby (Affonso Uchoa and João Duman)
“I’m like everyone else,” writes about himself Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa), the working class hero at the center of Affonso Uchoa and João Dumans’ Araby, “It’s just my life that was a little bit different.” Calling that an understatement would be a euphemism. An average-sized and average-looking factory worker in the Southern Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, Cristiano is an everyman par excellence. Neither charismatic nor particularly striking – at least not on a first look – he seems so ordinary it takes us twenty minutes to understand he’s Araby’s protagonist, and not some flickering extra. When we first meet him, he is given a lift to his steel factory; up until then, Uchoa and Dumans had followed Andre (Murilo Caliari), a pensive and bookish teenage boy living with his aunt Márcia (Gláucia Vandeveld) in a derelict house close to the hellish steel mill. By the time we next hear about him, Cristiano has suffered an unseen work accident, and is stuck in a coma. Asked by Márcia to collect his belongings, Andre arrives at Cristiano’s place, and happens upon a spiral-bound notebook which the man has used to transcribe a decade’s worth of memories. – Leonardo G. (full review)
Annihilation (Alex Garland)
More terrifying than any creature Hollywood could dream up is the unraveling of one’s mind—the steady loss of a consciousness as defined by the memories, motivations, and knowledge built up from decades of experience and reflection. With Annihilation, Alex Garland’s beautiful, frightening follow-up to Ex Machina, he portrays this paralyzing sensation with a sense of vivid imagination, and also delivers a cadre of horrifying creatures to boot. – Jordan R. (full review)
Before We Vanish (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
There are few directors who would choose to take a semi-sincere approach to a lengthy pseudo-philosophical science-fiction film — especially not one that lightly pries into our fundamental psychological foibles — but there are few directors quite like Kiyoshi Kurosawa. The prolific Japanese filmmaker behind such varied genre gems as Pulse and Tokyo Sonata has constructed a sort of skittish and overlong, albeit pleasantly existential oddity in Before We Vanish, an alien-invasion B-movie packed with A-grade ideas and craft. Nail down your windows. Lock your doors. It’s the invasion of the concept snatchers. – Rory O. (full review)
Claire’s Camera and The Day After (Hong Sang-soo)
Its appeal lies more in the seductive energy exuded from the dialogues and performances, which feel improvised. Huppert and Kim are clearly having fun riffing off one another, each speaking in lightly broken English and conveying the pleasures of ephemeral encounters in low-stakes liminal spaces, such as the one represented by the festival. Claire’s Camera as a whole is just as fleeting, and while it too may not leave a lasting mark, it’s nonetheless a welcome diversion while we wait for the next film by the exceptionally prolific Hong. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)
Hindsight is a marvelous thing. To quote the lead character of a recent Hong Sang-soo film (and by recent we mean Claire’s Camera, the second of three the prolific director has premiered so far this year): “The only way to change things is to look back on them, slowly.” It’s a mantra Hong clearly lives by as a filmmaker, as do many of the people who inhabit his movies. Hong’s world is all about repetition, and while the cold domestic and workplace settings of his latest film, The Day After, are somewhat of a departure from the unfamiliar streets his character usually walk down, the majority of his signature ingredients are present and accounted for: sad, unfaithful men abusing positions of relative power; dialogue that meanders between the everyday and the sublime; his current muse, Kim Min-hee; and, of course, generous lashings of Soju. – Rory O. (full review)
The Commuter (Jaume Collet-Serra)
In the world of Hollywood where “action” is often synonymous with CGI-heavy monstrosities splattered across the screen backed by an assaultive sound design, the blissful visual coherence and immaculately-constructed thrills in the films of Jaume Collet-Serra can feel like the third coming of Alfred Hitchcock (after Brian De Palma, of course). Following a trio of films led by Liam Neeson, he shortened his scope with the career peak of The Shallows, an ingeniously simple but no-less exhilarating shark thriller. The Commuter reunites him with his action muse, multiplying the single-cabin setting and inherent mystery of Non-Stop ten-fold, this time on a Metro-North train. – Jordan R. (full review)
Custody (Xavier Legrand)
It didn’t win the Oscar for best live action short in 2014, but Xavier Legrand’s Just Before Losing Everything was by far my favorite nominee. Discovering his debut feature Custody was constructed as an expansion of that story therefore made it a must-see. The short is soon revealed as a prequel, its look at the fallout of domestic abuse hopefully in the rearview considering Miriam Besson (Léa Drucker) readies to plead her case as to why her now ex-husband (Denis Ménochet’s Antoine) shouldn’t retain custody of their son Julien (Thomas Gioria)—his sister Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux) recently turned eighteen and is free regardless. But while the evidence seems to prove Miriam’s case, a father’s love trumps a lack of concrete proof of his terror. The threat he poses, however, remains very real. – Jared M. (full review)
Damsel (David and Nathan Zellner)
Damsel introduces us to Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson), who travels with his gun, guitar, and a miniature pony named Butterscotch. (Eat your heart out, #TeamBunzo). Despite the stunning vistas and other signifiers of the genre, we quickly grasp that David and Nathan Zellner have crafted an anti-western, lovingly poking fun at its foundation while slyly pulling the rug under the audience in humorous, forward-thinking, and genre-redefining fashion. – Jordan R. (full review)
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (Travis Wilkerson)
Throughout the remarkable Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? – director Travis Wilkerson’s attempt to learn more about and confront the murder of the African American Bill Spann by his white great-grandfather, S.E. Branch, through a cinematic essay on racism in America – there are many black-and-white images of houses, forests, and roads in Alabama, the state in which the killing took place. As interview subjects recount memories or details related to the crime — through either first-person testimony or Wilkerson’s second-hand paraphrasing — the film often eschews focusing on the speaker to dwell on local spaces, quietly moving through static shots of Alabaman milieus. These images are so still that, at first, they resemble photographs — specifically, old photographs of the sort that one might find in the photo album of someone who was alive when Bill Spann was killed. But if you look closely, you’ll see that the leaves and grass are actually moving, rustling ever so slightly in the breeze. – Jonah J. (full review)
Double Lover (François Ozon)
L’amant double is the sort of film you wouldn’t mind seeing Roman Polanski take a stab at. Shot in chic but soulless Parisian interiors, it’s the type of thing that controversial figure tends to relish: all claustrophobia, body horror and pseudo Freudian sexual nightmares. Instead it’s in the hands of its writer-director François Ozon, who never quite manages to lift his material above the realm of psychosexual camp. Then again, perhaps his aim isn’t any higher. It’s the story of a beautiful young woman who loses herself in an erotic love triangle with a pair of opposing twins, both of whom are psychoanalysts. Depending on what you’re into, it’s about as fun as that sounds. – Rory O. (full review)
The Endless (Aaron Moorhead & Justin Benson)
To resolve is to settle, finding the determination to do something rather than simply wait for something to happen to you. A resolution isn’t therefore a firm ending. On the contrary, it serves to provide beginnings. That decision has the potential to set you onto a path towards freedom either from the danger of outside forces or the complacency rendering you immobile within. So to look upon the conclusion of Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson’s debut feature (as a tandem) isn’t to relinquish hope. The being — their riff on H.P. Lovecraft’s “Unknown” — that watches the events in Resolution does want stories, that is true. It craves them enough to ensure its characters arrive in time for their test. To assume it seeks tragedy, however, is to ignore complexity. – Jared M. (full review)
First Reformed (Paul Schrader)
Made with a kind of formal rigor that one would’ve assumed was long past Schrader after the “post-cinema” experimentations of The Canyons and Dog Eat Dog, First Reformed is first and foremost most admirable for its sustained mood. Shot in The Academy aspect ratio and maintaining a stillness and greyness that manages to seem utterly alien to the slow cinema standards of contemporary art films, one gets the sense of the director really having a genuine stake in the making of this picture. It seems the religious content is not so much an affect as a genuine late-in-life plea. – Ethan V. (full review)
Golden Exits (Alex Ross Perry)
There are no screaming matches or overt arguments, nor is there any sort of frenetic camera work, yet Golden Exits is unmistakably the work of Alex Ross Perry. The insecurities that bubbled up and exploded through his characters in Listen Up Philip and the even-more-heightened Queen of Earth stay grounded with his relatively small-scale latest film, these anxieties rather becoming the subtext for nearly every conversation. It’s a work of small decisions and jabs, glances and non-action. Should I stay at this bar where temptation exists? Should I continue staring at a woman that will only bring upon personal suffering? – Jordan R. (full review)
The Great Buddha+ (Huang Hsin-yao)
Huang Hsin-Yao is a new voice in independent Taiwanese cinema, and his first narrative feature–an adaptation of his short film The Great Buddha–carries itself with all of the vitriol that one would expect from somebody angry at the state of the Taiwanese film industry and government. This is apparent from the outset of The Great Buddha+, when Huang speaks to the audience as the credits roll, speaking harshly about the producers and delivering a personal statement. This anger remains throughout–a character named after the producer that Huang is particularly dissatisfied with is even killed off in a darkly humorous manner. – Jason O. (full review)
The Green Fog (Guy Maddin, Galen Johnson, Evan Johnson)
Few directors seem to reinvent cinema with each new picture, but Guy Maddin and his passion for boundless experimentation does it time and time again. His latest formally thrilling film is a “parallel-universe version” of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, utilizing footage from San Francisco-set features, ranging from Hollywood classics to avant-garde films to prime-time television. Commissioned by San Francisco Film Society, it enjoyed a theatrical run at the start of the year, and will hopefully be more widely available soon. – Jordan R.
Ismael’s Ghosts (Arnaud Desplechin)
Pasolini included an “essential bibliography” in the opening credits of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, proffering five philosophical titles by the likes of Roland Barthes and Maurice Blanchot to help viewers navigate his rich and daunting Sadean masterpiece. The closing credits of Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghosts also feature a reading list that could be called essential. Of the four authors listed therein, one in particular might hold the key to interpreting Desplechin’s exhilarating, overflowing mindfuck of a movie: Jacques Lacan. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)
The King (Eugene Jarecki)
A title like Promised Land can be appreciated for its duality: primarily meaning a land of promise but also, in another sense, a land that was promised. We’re talking about the United States of course, or rather filmmaker Eugene Jarecki is in his latest documentary. It’s an abstract road movie, fueled on disillusionment and rock and roll, and one that attempts the quite ambitious task of sketching out a narrative line to link the rise and decline of the nation with the rise and decline of Elvis Presley. If Jarecki struggles a little with this alchemy at times it is because Promised Land is essentially three movies in one: a detailed account of the King’s career; a loose account of the last 80 years of American politics; and a musical performance film. It can be a little jarring to shift between those gears but the director has form with this kind of sprawling state of the nation documentary (as seen with The House I Live in) and manages to keep things running along smoothly. – Rory O. (full review)
Lean on Pete (Andrew Haigh)
Few directors are in tune with the rhythms of authentic human behavior than Andrew Haigh. Following Weekend and 45 Years, he expands his scope with Lean on Pete. His immense eye for camera placement/movement and blocking makes it a thrill to watch, and it’s also a deeply empathetic tale of a boy finding friendship while at a dead end in life. Haigh may not be from America, but there’s few more accurate depictions of this country in cinema this year. – Jordan R.
Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)
Early scenes of Leave No Trace feel like The Road. Not the movie adaptation, but Cormac McCarthy’s book, which evokes familial intimacy to an almost harrowing degree. Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire. In setting, this is that story’s pre-apocalyptic mirror, with a father and daughter living in the woods instead of a father and son wandering a wasteland. Here there is good earth instead of ash and striking greenery instead of gunmetal, and the lead characters have willingly separated themselves from civilization instead of being violently torn from it. But the central parent-child bond is of the same species, and the movie’s quiet study of it delivers similar heartbreak. – John F. (full review)
Let the Sunshine In (Claire Denis)
Claire Denis may not be the first Francophone auteur expected to turn in a romantic comedy, and her latest will disappoint those expecting Nancy Meyers a Paris. However, Let the Sunshine In (Un Beau Soleil Interieur) is a sophisticated, idiosyncratic, thoroughly modern interpretation of a French romantic farce, perceptive if not laugh-out-loud funny, featuring a top-form Juliette Binoche as a middle-aged divorcée wading through a series of exasperatingly self-centered men in search not just for love, but a partner with whom she can be herself. – Ed F. (full review)
Lover for a Day (Philippe Garrel)
Philippe Garrel, the 69-year-old veteran of the French New Wave, has produced a casual, bittersweet, and intoxicating study of relationships in flux starring his daughter Esther. In this swift, touching ode to lovers with heart-breaking, irreconcilable differences, the drama appears conventional on first glance, featuring that older-man-younger-women relationship frustratingly perennial in French art cinema, but this is a work of rare clarity by a director whose experience shows. – Ed F. (full review)
Paddington 2 (Paul King)
Paddington 2 is a genuine delight, a sequel that improves upon its (very good) predecessor. It is also the rare family film that has appeal for everyone in the family. As with 2014’s Paddington, director Paul King has zeroed in on the inherent magic of Michael Bond’s classic stories while incorporating scores of Wes Anderson-esque sight gags. Plus, there is a game cast of British heavyweights — Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Jim Broadbent, and, this time around, a superb Hugh Grant — and gorgeous London locations. Most of all, there is the titular bear himself, a wondrous CGI creation sweetly voiced by Ben Whishaw. It is not hyperbolic to call Paddington one of the most adorably life-like computer-animated characters in cinema. He is the anti-Alvin, Simon, and Theodore, an anthropomorphic triumph whose interactions with humans are always believable. – Christopher S. (full review)
The Rider (Chloe Zhao)
What does a cowboy do when he can’t ride? Chloe Zhao’s absorbing South Dakota-set sophomore feature has its titular rider come to terms with such a fate, in a film that’s a beguiling mix of docudrama and fiction whose story echoes much of history of its actors’ own lives. Zhao’s combination of the visual palette of Terrence Malick, the social backbone of Kelly Reichardt, and the spontaneity of John Cassavetes creates cinema verité in the American plains. – Ed F. (full review)
Summer 1993 (Carla Simón)
I wish there was a way I could start this review of Carla Simón’s extraordinary Summer 1993 with its final scene. Not because there are eye-opening or plot-unravelling clues nestled inside it (like many other wonderful recent entries in the coming of age genre – think of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project – Summer 1993 unfolds more like an episodic tale than a plot-thick, action-packed three-act drama), but because it crystallizes what makes Simón’s debut stand out as one of the most memorable in recent years: an effortless ability to capture what it is like to deal with a tragedy of the kind its young heroine undergoes – the way traumas can be compartmentalized, but may always resurface. – Leonardo G. (full review)
The Tale (Jennifer Fox)
What does your life mean if the memories that have defined you are revealed to be false? What if the memories are tied to devastating trauma? For Jennifer Fox (Laura Dern), when letters are unearthed revealing more about a “relationship” when she was 13, she starts to not only investigate in the present-day, but excavates the memories that she’s repeated since the trauma and opens a dialogue with her younger self (Isabelle Nélisse). What she perceived as a relationship was, in fact, repeated rape. Directed by Fox herself, The Tale is an emotionally debilitating drama, the powerful kind that makes one want to scream rage at the events on the screen, but are choked by silence as the credits roll, comprehending the irrecoverable damage caused to the protagonist and the director, as the events are based on her own life. – Jordan R. (full review)
Unsane (Steven Soderbergh)
The term “post-prime Federer” has recently come into the sporting lexicon as a way to describe the great Swiss tennis star’s career in the years since his supposed peak ended in 2010; the rub here being that this unique entity has actually won more Grand Slam titles than Andy Murray, to take one example. Similar innocuous comparisons could soon be made for the prolificacy of “post-retirement Steven Soderbergh.” Indeed, it was never going to be easy for the director of Sex, Lies and Videotape to step away from the camera — his finger has always been too close to the pulse to ignore it, his inputs too wired to the cultural zeitgeist. Despite being shot months before the New York Times and New Yorker aired Weinstein’s dirty laundry, his latest effort, Unsane — which is essentially a b-movie in many respects — is arguably the first psychological horror of the #MeToo era. – Ed F. (full review)
Western (Valeska Grisebach)
It is, undeniably, a bold decision to title one’s film Western: on the one hand, the word carries geopolitical weight and a cultural hegemony that the cinema is dominated by; this truth remains an important one at the Cannes Film Festival, where white men dominate the competition (Western opened in the sidebar program, Un Certain Regard). On the other hand, of course, Western implies a cinematic reference—a genre, in and of itself. A genre, to be clear, with tropes galore that are just as problematic as the industry that propagates them. In titling her film as such, however, Valeska Grisebach’s contemplative, brilliant film sparks a dialogue on all of these components, prompting us to think critically on their intersections. – Jake H. (full review)
Where is Kyra? (Andrew Dosunmu)
So much of so many film festivals — Sundance especially — feel enormously focused on metropolitan life, New York City in particular. In Where Is Kyra?, director Andrew Dosunmu finds fertile ground in this well-worn location. Starring an against-type and utterly fascinating Michelle Pfeiffer as the titular Kyra, the film narrows in on the tragedy of getting old in America. – Dan M. (full review)
You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)
On the surface, Jonathan Ames’ You Were Never Really Here seems like an odd fit as source material for a film by Lynne Ramsay. Ames’ novella is a pulpy genre exercise about a hard-bitten vigilante, one of those lone-wolf types who abides by a strict code of ethics and practices his chosen métier with fanatic professionalism. It’s the kind of character that usually appeals to macho filmmakers such as Jean-Pierre Melville or Walter Hill, not to a poetic feminist of Ramsay’s kind. Unsurprisingly, she’s appropriated the material for her own purpose, paring down the already slender narrative and plunging deep into the tortured psychology of its protagonist. The results are breathtaking, and You Were Never Really Here stands alongside Claire Denis’ Bastards as one of the most ferocious indictments of systematic abuse of power and gender violence ever projected on a screen. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)
Zama (Lucrecia Martel)
After helming some of the best films of the previous decade with La Ciénaga, The Holy Girl, and The Headless Woman, Lucrecia Martel returned with the much-anticipated Zama. Produced by brothers Pedro and Agustin Almodóvar, Argentinean author Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 novel has been adapted by Martel, which follows a story set in the late 18th century in Paraguay, tracking Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), an officer of the Spanish Crown, who is tasked with going after a bandit. The film is a towering, elusive achievement of composition and craft that only improves on repeated viewings. – Jordan R.
While we could continue on and on, we’ll jump to some films that just missed the cut, including the hilarious studio comedy double dose of Game Night and Blockers, as well as comedies of the darker variety on the smaller-scale: The Death of Stalin, Thoroughbreds, and The Party. In terms of Asian animation, Have a Nice Day, Bigfish & Begonia, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, and Lu Over the Wall are all worth seeking out. On the horror end, Hereditary, Revenge, and November will give you varying levels of fright.
There was also commendable output from directors we admire, even if it wasn’t among their best, including Gemini, Isle of Dogs, Black Panther, The Workshop, and Incredibles 2. Before BlacKkKlansman arrives, Spike Lee’s Pass Over is a powerful filmed production worth seeing. As far as documentaries go, The Workers Cup, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Good Luck, Three Identical Strangers, RBG, and El Mar La Mar round out the honorable mentions.
There’s also a number of American independent drama to see, including NANCY, Blame, The Strange Ones, and Love After Love. Lastly, we have foreign films that we couldn’t find a spot for, but should be seen: A Ciambra, Angels Wear White, Ava, Beast, Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, Mrs. Hyde, and Sweet Country.
What are your favorite films of the year?