If you have yet to be motivated to go out to a movie this year or have yet to be moved by one you’ve seen, don’t take that as a sign that the art of cinema is somehow at a decline, or that you’ve lost touch with what passes as entertainment these days. In 2018, there’s no shortage of innovative, progressive, and genuine fun to experience if you know where to look; and that’s part of the problem.
More films are being made and released now than ever before, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed or distracted by the staggering number of choices available (and ways to watch them). What hasn’t changed is the number of great movies that come out each year, and keeping track of them is one of my favorite things to do. Here’s my list of the best films I’ve seen in 2018 so far:
10. MABEL, MABEL, TIGER TRAINER
The story of Mabel Stark is completely astonishing. She escaped an abusive childhood by joining the circus in 1911 as a horse rider and went on to become the first-ever woman tiger trainer, mostly because everyone told her women weren’t smart enough to do it. Leslie Zemeckis’s doc features hundreds of photos, newsreel footage, and an audio interview with Stark. Fascinating, inspiring and heartbreaking.
“Unsane” doesn’t try to hide, ignore or transcend the fact that it was filmed on iPhone 7 Plus. When watching it, you realize quickly that the format was an artistic choice that the film would not be as remarkable without. Thankfully not “found footage”, the familiar quality of the video results in an unnerving atmosphere that gives way to intense and disturbing, carrying with it a powerful statement about toxic “nice guys.”
8. TRAGEDY GIRLS
It took over 20 years to happen, but we finally got the best of the post-”Scream” high school slashers. Alexandra Shipp (“Storm” from the recent “X-Men” movies) is outstanding as one half of a teenage social media team (her accomplice is Brianna Hildebrand from the “Deadpool” films) who resort to murder in order to get the spotlight. Dodges the nihilism of new horror comedies with well-placed nods to genre classics.
Every time I thought “Revenge” was about to fall back on action movie cliches, it took a jab at misogyny and male entitlement instead. Writer-director Coralie Fargeat’s unique brand of exploitation will be over the heads of most diehard fans of movies that contain plots like this, but it still delivers the requisite shocks and twists while making great use of metaphor and symbolism. There’s also a fair amount of male nudity.
Too pop for arthouse audiences and too arthouse for pop audiences, A24’s continued efforts to drag horror fans kicking and screaming away from the decades-old templates they’re still clinging to are probably far better than most of them deserve. Like “The Witch,” “Hereditary” is a slow burn that emphasizes character over jump scares, but deviates into go-for-broke, “kitchen sink” levels of bizarre terror in the third act.
5. TOMB RAIDER
Who would’ve guessed a video game adaptation reboot no one asked for would end up being perfect antidote to today’s sarcastic, cartoony action movies. “Tomb Raider” has more heart and grit than expected, mostly thanks to Alicia Vikander (“Ex Machina”) as reluctant adventurer Lara Croft. I cried, cheered, held onto my chest and remained engaged til the credits came up, eager to follow Croft wherever the sequel (hopefully) takes her.
4. ROXANNE ROXANNE
I’m old enough to remember the Roxanne wars of the mid ‘80s but had no idea who the person was behind the voice and the name that started it all. This is a very unusual biopic because relationships - not necessarily rap battles - are the central theme. Chanté Adams, who plays “Roxanne” Shante, is a unique combination of warm and riveting, and Nia Long is spectacular as well in the mother role. I’d love to see more stories like this.
3. A WRINKLE IN TIME
This is classic old school Disney: innovative, exciting and terrifying. With her take on this fantasy epic, director Ava DuVernay establishes herself as a visionary on all levels, as adept with humor and suspense as she is with drama. I will follow her anywhere after seeing this, especially if she does a horror movie (yes, it’s really scary). I also don’t mind admitting that Oprah’s monologue about being important choked me up.
Without a doubt the year’s scariest movie and one of the most dynamic sci-fi horror flicks in recent memory (think “Alien” and “Predator” with the weight of “Sunshine” and “Event Horizon”). With its originality, use of color, fantastic ensemble (especially Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson) and daring artistry, “Annihilation” blew me away. Paramount may have botched the marketing, but this one is destined for cult greatness.
1. BLACK PANTHER
Good movies can transcend their medium, great movies can change lives, but rarely do we get one that changes the world. One listen to director Ryan Coogler’s audio commentary track reveals that “Black Panther” was no accident, and that every piece of every frame contains something deliberate, thoughtful, and important. It stands as proof that commercial film can aspire to be something greater and that a mass audience is here for it.
Honorable mention: “Isle Of Dogs,” “Mary and the Witch’s Flower,” “Solo,” and “Thoroughbreds.”