The best movies of 2018 so far: Black Panther, A Quiet Place and beyond – Asbury Park Press

This has been one incredibly eventful year at the movies — and it’s only the end of June.
As we approach the halfway point in 2018, we’re taking stock of the year that’s been so far at the movies. From gripping character dramas to crowd-pleasing superhero action, there’s been a little something for everyone on the big screen this year.
And to be fair, as much as we’ve tried to view every film that’s been released in 2018 there are only so many hours in the day. So if you can’t find your personal favorite on this list, it may just be because we haven’t had a chance to watch it yet.
These are the 10 best movies we’ve seen at the movies this year — so far.
This is why we go to the movies. “A Fantastic Woman,” director Sebastian Lelio’s Chilean drama, is a work of revelatory, radical empathy.
The film — which already took home the Best Foreign Language Feature Academy Award earlier this year — stars Daniela Vega as Marina, a transgender woman working as a singer and waitress and coping with the death of her lover.
Throughout Lelio’s bracing, vivid film, Vega’s grief-stricken character faces harassment, discrimination and countless indignities from her dead partner’s family, the police and others.
“The most terrible part,” Vega told the Asbury Park Press earlier this year via an interpreter, “is to realize there are people around the world who are living this every day.”
“A Fantastic Woman” crystallizes many of the issues facing communities around the globe, and it does so with breathtaking cinematic style while showcasing a star-making performance for Vega.
Lelio returned to screens again this spring for another wonder, “Disobedience.”
With a script by Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz based on Naomi Alderman’s 2006 novel of the same name, the film is the story of photographer Ronit, played by Rachel Weisz, a prodigal daughter returning home to her native Orthodox Jewish community in London to mourn the death of her rabbi father. 
Once home, Ronit is reunited with her now-married childhood friends Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), a rabbi, and Esti, a schoolteacher (Rachel McAdams). It’s not long before long-buried passions between the two women are rekindled.
Weisz and McAdams — an Oscar winner and nominee, respectively — each do career-best work here, subtly conveying years of history, missed opportunities and fundamental connection through the subtlest of looks and gestures for much of the film’s running time, finding and expressing love in whatever small ways they can.
From its opening scene through to its climax, Lelio’s film is concerned with the fundamental conflict of free will versus adherence to tradition, and it chooses this community and these complex people as the potent test case for its provocative act of emotional examination.
This is filmmaking at its most vital and essential. Taking her cues from true events, Tunisian writer/director Kaouther Ben Hania crafts a gripping, nightmarish tale of a young woman raped by police officers who then spends a long, terrible night attempting to report the crime.
With a background in documentary filmmaking, Ben Hania utilizes a number of long takes that have a psychologically immersive effect as the viewer sees the world through the eyes of protagonist Mariam, played by Mariam Al Ferjani in what deserves to be a breakout role.
“Beauty and the Dogs” is an act of furious filmmaking that demands to be seen; it’s now available via iTunes and video-on-demand services.
Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler, with only his third feature film in “Black Panther,” crafted a bold and beautiful work of afrofuturism that stands as a singular achievement in global blockbuster filmmaking.
Despite its continuity connection to Disney’s broader Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Black Panther” is, for the most part, a blissfully stand-alone vision.
A brilliantly technologically advanced African nation, Wakanda serves as the heart of the film, and Coogler and company realized Wakanda as a living, breathing entity in and of itself.
Listen to us discuss “Black Panther” on the USA Today Network and Asbury Park Press’ “Fan Theory” podcast:
Much of the film’s power and tension comes from exploring how this nation operates, from lines of succession to incorporating world-shaping innovations.
Coogler then shows how environments can shape character and story and ultimately asks potent, difficult questions about the global responsibilities of nations and individuals.
From a wickedly simple premise, director John Krasinki crafted one of the most potent, provocative and sneakily topical visions of the year — meaning, he did what horror cinema is supposed to do at the best of times (for further proof of this, see last year’s smash success of “Get Out.”)
For more on “A Quiet Place,” listen to the “Fan Theory” review:
The saga of a rural family struggling to survive in a world overrun by creatures who hunt using sound, “A Quiet Place” served as a chilling examination of what it’s like for people to live under monstrous oppression, afraid to speak up for themselves. 
With innovative sound design and rock-solid work by its ensemble cast, “A Quiet Place” is also an example of incredibly sound filmmaking that happens to pack one heck of an allegorical punch.
Director Alex Garland, working from the first novel in author Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, gave the world a gorgeously, gloriously weird work of science-fiction that deserves to become a cult classic.
A paramilitary research team investigates mysterious happenings in a secluded location, and saying much more than that would spoil the game.
Natalie Portman anchors a terrific ensemble — including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez and an incredible Tessa Thompson — on a mind-bending journey that leaves the characters (and viewers) shaken to their core.
“The Rider,” a haunting and hypnotic new docudrama from Beijing-born writer and director Chloe Zhao, is vividly drawn from life in its story of a young cowboy struggling to find meaning in his life after an accident ends his rodeo career.
Brady Jandreau, a Lakota cowboy in his early 20s now grappling with health issues following a 2016 rodeo accident, stars in the film.
Its story of classic American heartland residents trying to hang on to the traditional roles that have left their bodies broken could be seen as an allegorical statement on the shifting nature of modern society, but Zhao said the people always came before any implied cultural meaning.
“Right now, the world we’re living in is full of labels,” she told the Asbury Park Press earlier this year. “You point your camera anywhere, an audience will see hundreds of labels. That’s not what we need anymore, the labels that tell us we’re different.”
There probably wasn’t a better pairing of director, star and material this year than filmmaker Paul Schrader, Ethan Hawke and “First Reformed.”
Hawke delivers one of the best performances in his storied career as an upstate New York priest with a growing passion for the sanctity of the environment. It’s a largely internalized, pained performance as a growing righteousness burns behind Hawke’s seething eyes.
Schrader, the writer of “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “Raging Bull” (1980) is raging against the dying of the Earth here, and he delivers his fury via a difficult, divisive film that quietly screams into eternity, begging for change (or, at the very least, forgiveness).
Other than George “Mad Max: Fury Road” Miller, there probably isn’t a filmmaker working today who can touch Brad Bird when it comes to crafting fluid, coherent and innovative action sequences.
Listen to the “Fan Theory” review of “Incredibles 2”:
Bird has previously shown masterful command of both animation (2004’s original “The Incredibles”) and live action (2011’s “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol”), and his work on the long-awaited Disney/Pixar sequel “Incredibles 2” is, well, incredible.
Utilizing all of the possibilties afforded by his super-powered ensemble — particularly Elastigirl/Helen (voiced by Holly Hunter) — Bird fills “Incredibles 2” with vivid, innovative sequences that stand as the best superhero action we’ve seen all year.
After co-directing three films with Walter Salles and being part of the creative team of the 2016 Rio Olympics opening ceremony, Brazilian writer/director Daniela Thomas made her solo directorial debut with “Vazante.”
Set in the harsh mountains of 19th-century Brazil, this epic traces the pain and sorrow surrounding a young woman forced to marry a slave trader.
Thomas’ work here is reminiscent of Wener Herzog in the way she and director of photography Inti Briones employ grand, nearly mystic visuals in the service of a grim journey into the darkest corners of humanity.
This film is a bleak, aching condemnation of systems of oppression — in this case slavery, the patriarchy and the exploitative capitalism that fuels them both and sets this whole sad saga in motion.


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