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The Best Films of 2018 (So Far)

Although the back half of the year is inevitably loaded with ambitious awards contenders and treasures from Sundance and Cannes (audiences have such festival breakouts as “Blindspotting” and “BlacKkKlansman” still to look forward to), 2018 has already brought a wealth of great movies, covering a wide range of genres and styles. Variety chief critics Owen Gleiberman and Peter Debruge look back at the most remarkable releases from the past six months, championing everything from well-meaning micro-indies to a pair of exceptionally well-made superhero tentpoles, to reveal that 2018 is off to a great start. How many of these cinematic marvels have you seen?

Annihilation

Paramount Pictures

Dressed like Ghostbusters, Natalie Portman and a brave quartet of women venture deep into an area infected by some kind of mutant extraterrestrial lifeform in a science-fiction thriller that Paramount (rightly) assumed was too cerebral for average moviegoers. Rather than hatching a more creative marketing campaign to support this tense, R-rated genre movie, the studio hastily sold off international rights to Netflix, making America one of the few markets lucky enough to see this film on the big screen. If you missed it in theaters, be sure to catch up with this heady twist on John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” which rewards audiences’ intelligence and imagination as few horror movies do. — Peter Debruge

Avengers: Infinity War

Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Okay, maybe we’re done talking about that ending. But some of us are still thinking about it, because it was that kind of cliffhanger — the kind that woke you up and made you realize that the Marvel Cinematic Universe won’t be here forever, even if some of the folks who died in it end up coming back to life. Admit it: Aren’t you the least bit curious about how the film will wriggle out of that superhero apocalypse? If so, one reason for the curiosity might be that the Russo brothers have proved to be arresting directors of soaring and muscular fantasy who can make a blockbuster comic-book machine aim high. In this case, they made a darkly gripping installment. For once, I can’t wait to see the next one. — Owen Gleiberman

Black Panther

Marvel/Disney/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

It’s hard to overstate the importance of a movie that so radically diversifies the Marvel Cinematic Universe, introducing not only an ensemble of iconic black characters, but strong, self-reliant female ones as well. The women are the best thing about a movie that easily ranks among the franchise’s most entertaining, thanks in no small part to Michael B. Jordan’s simmering performance as a villain determined to take drastic measures to help his African brothers around the world, and whose seismic success at the box office sends a powerful message to Hollywood, which has been shamefully slow to include non-white, non-male voices on either side of the camera. — PD

Chappaquiddick

Courtesy of AccuSoft Inc./TIFF

It lays out the stark facts (as much as we know them), the true-life drama of shame, corruption, and power, and the hideous moral calamity — and legal crime — of an infamous scandal that occurred 50 years ago. Yet make no mistake: John Curran’s impeccably absorbing docudrama about the car accident, and the cover-up, that came to define the soul of Edward M. Kennedy is a movie that’s very much about today. Anchored by Jason Clarke’s brilliantly subtle performance as Kennedy, the film asks the toughest of all questions about the legacy of American liberalism: Even for those of us who believe, deeply, in that legacy, have the leaders whose sense of entitlement allowed them to feel — and act — above the law seriously damaged the ability of the liberal voice to speak with authority? — OG  

En el Septímo Día

Courtesy of The Cinema Guild

The first film in 13 years from director Jim McKay (“Our Song”) has a bone-deep humanity that transcends technique that reaches right back to Cassavetes, yet it’s also exquisitely made: a micro-budget drama that’s less scrappy than classical. The star, Fernando Cardona, has stoically sexy features set off by a rather extreme fade haircut. In another context, you could see him as a real player, but Cardona’s José, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who works as a delivery guy in Brooklyn, doesn’t speak much English, and the image he presents is quiet, passive, and cautiously controlled. One false move could destroy everything he’s worked for. He’s the leader of a local Mexican soccer team, and when his boss demands that he work all day on Sunday (the same day as the league finals), the smart choice seems obvious. But it’s not. The movie turns into a rousing sports drama, but it also captures the reality behind a thousand news stories, sketching in what the politics of undocumented immigration really means: the way that small businesses depend on these workers, and how the promise of America as an oasis of salvation is alive in the immigrants’ hearts. — OG

First Reformed

Killer Films/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

For more than 40 years, “Taxi Driver” writer Paul Schrader has been exploring the pent-up frustration and rage of men overwhelmed by the corruption of modern society, allowing the pressure to build until the breaking point, when it inevitably erupts in a show of B-movie aggression. In this career-crowning achievement, Schrader tries his hand at a more restrained aesthetic — one he dubbed “transcendental style” decades earlier — channeling the art-house austerity of Bergman and Bresson to observe a country priest in deep spiritual crisis over the current state of corporate ecological devastation, driven to a bonkers finale that may as well be Schrader’s signature. — PD

Gemini

Courtesy of Andrew Reed

A kindred spirit — if not quite a full-blown doppelganger — to David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive,” this seductive Hollywood-set thriller from indie director Aaron Katz explores the curse of 21st-century celebrity on a young actress (Zoë Kravitz) who can’t truly be herself in the public eye. As seen from the perspective of her personal assistant (Lola Kirke), who becomes an unwilling patsy — and the prime suspect — in her boss’ murder, the stylish neo-noir unravels the allure of fame, so attractive to young people enamored with tabloids and Instagram today, revealing it to be a kind of crystal prison instead. — PD

Hereditary

Courtesy of A24

In many ways, Ari Aster’s freaky trance-out of a supernatural thriller fits snugly into our expectations for a megaplex horror film. It has séances, it has decapitated bodies and crawling ants (as opposed to buzzing flies), and it has visitations by figures from the afterlife, who stand stock still and nude and grinning in a way that’s more insidious than anything in “Insidious.” Yet the movie also gets at the way that mental and emotional damage becomes part of a family’s spirit, and is therefore passed on as if it were…a spirit. Toni Collette, as a mother lost in grief, gives a performance worthy of mid-period Ingmar Bergman. “Hereditary” will terrify you, but the most disquieting thing about the film’s ghosts isn’t that they’re here to scare us. It’s that they are us. — OG

Isle of Dogs

Fox Searchlight

When it comes to animation, the year is off to an unusually strong start, between Aardman’s “Early Man” and this month’s long-awaited Pixar sequel, “Incredibles 2,” not to mention indies “The Breadwinner” (which dramatizes the Taliban’s mistreatment of women) and “Big Fish and Begonia” (one of the most beautiful hand-drawn films of all time). More impressive still is Wes Anderson’s stop-motion canine adventure, in which a pack of mangy dogs forced into exile undertake an epic quest to be reunited with their owners. Weird even by the “Fantastic Mr. Fox” director’s highly eccentric standards, this delightful oddity is the apotheosis of auteur cinema; it simply couldn’t have been made by anyone else. — PD

On Chesil Beach

Courtesy of TIFF

Considering that it was an Ian McEwan adaptation that launched Saoirse Ronan’s career, it seems fitting that the versatile Irish actress (riding the career high of last year’s “Lady Bird”) might be game to tackle another of the author’s devastating studies of youthful naïveté. Here, Ronan plays a newlywed of a certain class who, despite sincerely loving her husband (“Dunkirk” actor Billy Howle), has been raised so properly that she finds it impossible to consummate the union. In a world where pornography has become all but ubiquitous, it’s stunning to encounter a film that so honestly confronts the notion of sexual incompatibility. — PD

Red Sparrow

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Jennifer Lawrence gives a fierce, shrewd, layered, sensually bold and commanding performance as a Russian ballerina whose career is destroyed in an onstage collision. She’s then drafted to be a spy — which means, in the new Russia, where everybody uses everybody, that she’s sent to a training academy from hell to become a kind of cutthroat undercover prostitute. Francis Lawrence’s espionage drama is a highly accomplished thriller that gleams with erotic menace; it’s the sort of movie in which talk becomes riveting action. The result? “Red Sparrow” was greeted as a mediocrity, and Lawrence was trashed for the crime of daring to portray a woman who flaunts her sexuality. That’s the sort of facile judgment our culture increasingly insists upon, but do yourself a favor and ignore it. For “Red Sparrow,” while it isn’t John le Carré, is knockout entertainment. — OG

The Rider

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), the taciturn hero of Chloé Zhao’s luminous and moving Western drama, is a young cowboy who’s become a star of the South Dakota rodeo circuit. The film opens shortly after he suffers a serious head injury in the ring (we see the stitches digging into his shaved skull), and though he’ll recover, he can’t ride again — ever — or he’ll be risking cataclysmic brain damage. Brady is a horse trainer, and a good one, but nothing, for him, can replace the sensation of freedom and stardom that the rodeo brings; without it, he feels like he’s in prison. Can he resist the lure? Zhao turns the story of his choice into an odyssey of the soul, teasing her drama right out of the lives of her found actors. Yet “The Rider” has the full power of fiction. It’s like a classic short story told with the majesty of big-screen heartbreak. — OG

Take Your Pills

Courtesy of Netflix

In the face of anxiety, depression, addiction, and assorted developmental disorders, we stand up as a society and say that people should seek help. But what if the “help” starts to become part of the problem? Alison Klayman’s galvanizing and essential documentary focuses on the class of psychotropic stimulants (Adderall, Ritalin, etc.) that are now prescribed, at epidemic levels, to treat ADHD and other disabilities. To be sure, there’s a place for these drugs. Yet if you were to give a 7-year-old child a line of cocaine, a beer, or a hit of amphetamine, you could be arrested (and rightfully so, since it would be considered a form of child abuse). But if you put a 7-year-old on Ritalin, you’re simply doing an “advanced” good thing by treating the kid’s concentration issues. “Take Your Pills” dares to ask: What’s the difference? Is it really the chemistry of the drugs? Or is it that the psychopharmacological establishment has, in essence, co-opted the effects of amphetamine for an entire go-go society that is now running on mental overdrive? — OG

Thoroughbreds

Courtesy of Focus Features

In a twist no one could have foreseen, writer-director Cory Finley’s brilliant feature debut also proved to be Anton Yelchin’s final screen appearance, leaving audiences with a pressing desire to see more from both of these young talents. In Finley’s case, the gifted first-timer draws from years of stage experience, relying upon a meticulous sense of dramatic tension and timing to pull off this twisted upper-crust satire, a Patricia Highsmith-like exercise in psychological manipulation in which two teenage girls (Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy) conspire to murder the pompous stepfather who’s making their lives miserable. Not to be missed. — PD

You Were Never Really Here

BFI/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Joaquin Phoenix gives the performance of his career in this challenging broken-mirror movie, one in which a conventional pulp scenario — about a fearless Gulf War veteran who rescues kidnapped girls from the worst sort of men — is smashed into a million pieces, leaving audiences to make sense of the fragments. Director Lynne Ramsay assumes you’ve seen enough vigilante stories to fill in the gaps, pushing the limits of just how much she can withhold before the entire depraved narrative falls apart. That will inevitably frustrate some viewers, though it’s a satisfying puzzle for those willing to put in the effort. — PD

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