With Hollywood’s hot summer movie season soon giving way to the dog days of August, and a temporary lull before the annual awards season starts in earnest, Times film critics Justin Chang and Kenneth Turan take the opportunity to reflect on the year in cinema so far. From the cultural phenomenon that was “Black Panther” to a summer driven by high-profile sequels and a good deal of small gems in between, they assess where we’re at before we see what’s to come.
KENNETH TURAN: The calendar says that the year 2018 is past its midpoint, but I’m still ambivalent about what kind of a year it’s been. My initial emotional feeling is that it’s not been great, but on the other hand when I look at specific films there certainly have been some excellent ones.
JUSTIN CHANG: Your caution is both admirable and instructive, though at the risk of playing devil’s advocate, I’m tempted to say it’s been a very good year so far, and for quite a few reasons. “Black Panther” is one. “First Reformed” is another. “The Rider,” “Eighth Grade” and “Zama” too. If I had to make a top-five list or even a top-10 list this very second, I don’t think I’d be at a loss for options. Which ones would lead yours?
TURAN: It’s a pleasure to start with “Black Panther,” which certainly qualifies as the cinematic event of the year in addition to being a terrific moviegoing experience. I’m hoping the academy can overcome its on-again, off-again standoffishness in regard to comic-book movies and make this a genuine awards-season contender.
But when it comes to dramatic features specifically from the studios, it is hard to come up with other names. I did enjoy two solid pieces of summer genre entertainment, Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” and Denzel Washington in “The Equalizer 2,” but I wish there were more than that on offer.
CHANG: Sequelitis will always be with us, but it really hasn’t been a bad year for “2s” (or “6s,” in the case of “Mission: Impossible — Fallout”). “Incredibles 2” may not have had the precision-tooled brilliance of its predecessor, but it’s nonetheless a feast of action and ideas that finds Brad Bird very much in his element. I’m still in shock at how much I liked “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,” whose lush musical craftsmanship and rich feeling are a welcome antidote to its dreadful predecessor.
And I shouldn’t forget my favorite 2018 sequel so far, the exquisitely beautiful “Paddington 2.” No less a person than Cher herself singled out Paddington for giving the best performance by a male actor this year. I mean, she’s not wrong.
TURAN: So glad you mentioned “Incredibles 2,” a so welcome return to animation for director Brad Bird and just about a primer for making a successful sequel. Actually, the first half of 2018 was an excellent year for animation, and not just because of “Paddington 2.” Worth catching up to as well is a surprise from China, the visually dazzling “Big Fish & Begonia.”
And let me put in a good word for “Early Man,” a wonderfully silly film by “Wallace & Gromit” creator Nick Park, which features some completely wacky stuff and perhaps the best joke about sliced bread ever put on film. Maybe it’s the only joke about sliced bread ever put on film, but still …
CHANG: While we’re on the subject of things getting sliced, it’s been a marvelous year for horror movies so far, and particularly for horror movies with a lot going on emotionally, intellectually and aesthetically. Some of the year’s most entrancing filmmaking could be found in “Annihilation,” in which director Alex Garland gives us a chilling and beautiful fantasy about a world inching ever more quickly toward entropy.
And two of the year’s most affecting, emotionally truthful family dramas just so happen to be horror films. I’m thinking of John Krasinski’s scary and relentless “A Quiet Place,” a movie that feels positively life-affirming next to the cruel, exacting slow burn of Ari Aster’s “Hereditary.” To your earlier point, should the academy wish to cast its standoffishness aside, it could do no better than to give Toni Collette’s masterly performance in “Hereditary” the benefit of its full consideration.
TURAN: I’m glad you mentioned acting, because a lot of the year’s smaller films feature really big performances. Both Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle were superb in the heartbreaking “On Chesil Beach,” and Charlie Plummer, who’d made an impact in “All the Money in the World,” really blossomed as the center of Andrew Haigh’s affecting “Lean on Pete.”
If you were looking for something warmer, both American indie “Hearts Beat Loud” and the German-Israeli “The Cakemaker” had the plots and performances to fit that bill. And the award for wackiest ensemble of the year might have to go to the gang Armando Iannucci put together to inhabit his “The Death of Stalin.” Selecting actors like Steve Buscemi, Jason Isaacs, Jeffrey Tambor and Michael Palin to play Kremlin cronies, all using their native accents, works better than it has any right to.
CHANG: As a fan of Iannucci’s work, I wish “The Death of Stalin” had worked better for me overall, though you’re quite right to single out its supremely eccentric ensemble — not least because it’s a welcome reminder that there are ways to judge movie acting besides strict realism or verisimilitude. Actors play brilliantly against type and personal experience all the time, and emotional truth makes its own unpredictable rules.
Case in point: When you hear the words “conflicted priest,” your mind may not automatically leap to Ethan Hawke. But I’m hard-pressed to think of many performances more piercingly conflicted than the one Hawke gives in Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed,” which is by any measure one of the year’s great American movies. It’s a riveting distillation of themes, ideas and obsessions that Schrader has spent an entire career chasing, and after multiple viewings it haunts me still.
Personal experience certainly does inform one of the year’s other noteworthy performances. In Chloé Zhao’s achingly beautiful “The Rider,” Brady Jandreau is clearly inhabiting a fictionalized version of his own experience, which is why his achievement runs the risk of being underappreciated. Zhao could have turned her camera on any number of Lakota cowboys, but I’m not sure that many of them could have managed the unforced star power and on-screen magnetism that Jandreau musters so effortlessly. He isn’t just being himself; he’s giving a real performance, and a great one.
TURAN: One of my favorite movie experiences of the year was watching “The Rider” with a rapt French audience in Paris, where it was playing in no less than 10 theaters. That is a city that knows how to appreciate film.
I don’t want to let this conversation end without mentioning what an exceptional year this has been for documentaries. Films like “RBG,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and “Three Identical Strangers,” to name just three out of many, not only told compelling stories but found audiences desperate for entertaining adult fare. The documentary form is thriving, and I’m more than grateful for that.
CHANG: I’ll close by noting my own favorite hopeful trend of 2018, which in a better world wouldn’t be a trend but a constant: the sheer number of excellent films directed by women. In addition to “The Rider,” I know we’re both enormous admirers of “Leave No Trace,” which marks Debra Granik’s long-overdue return to narrative filmmaking nearly a decade after “Winter’s Bone.”
I would also be remiss not to mention Lynne Ramsay’s bravura psychological chiller “You Were Never Really Here” and Claire Denis’ beguiling romantic comedy “Let the Sunshine In.” And finally, in a category all by itself is “Zama,” a vividly evocative 18th century colonial nightmare from the Argentinian writer-director Lucrecia Martel. Dramatically elusive and formally staggering, it’s a movie that baffles, thrills and finally transcends.