Boots Riley is the truth. His directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You, is one of the most bizarre cultural commentaries you will ever see. The targets of Riley’s critiques vary, from broad concepts like race relations and corporate greed, to more specific ideas like viral fame and code-switching. But the setup is simple: Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is a black man in Oakland struggling to make his rent – which he owes to his very generous uncle. He’s hired for a telemarketing job, but fails to find success until he listens to a seasoned veteran: use your white voice. Armed with the pleasant, non-threatening voice of a milquetoast white man (David Cross), Cash quickly climbs the corporate ladder – and stumbles into the weirdest things along the way.
Ari Aster’s Hereditary opens simply: the white letters of Ellen Graham’s obituary blazing on a inky background. The matriarch is survived by her daughter Annie, an artist who creates miniature dioramas of her everyday life. We see one of her miniatures now: a cut-out model of her home in the forest. As we zoom in, we focus on a bedroom belonging to her teenage son Peter. Slowly, the miniature room fills the screen until the facsimile becomes reality and Peter’s father walks in to wake him for his grandmother’s funeral. From this point forward the line between reality and fantasy, between the actual and the imagined, will remain blurred.
In Avengers: Infinity War, Joe and Anthony Russo accomplish many small miracles on the way towards crafting one of the most interesting films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Though previous iterations of the Flagship Get-Together Movie have buckled under the weight of too many characters with too much to do (Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War, especially), Infinity War deftly isolates characters into distinct groups, thereby localizing their stories, goals, and actions. Furthermore, though practically every film in the MCU brandishes a makeshift villain, Infinity War finally gives us Thanos, a three-dimensional and fascinating villain with a cabal of sadistic and distinct generals. The action set pieces are all up to the same high standard that we have come to expect from the MCU, and the new interactions between old characters add some nice spice to the film. Avengers: Infinity War shouldn’t work; it should be too big, too busy, and too safe, bursting for the seems with one too many formulaic superhero movie tropes. Instead, it is the perfect distillation of what the MCU should be: fun heroes, terrifying villains, and high stakes.
In Darkest Hour, director Joe Wright and writer Anthony McCarten are both firmly in their wheelhouse. Both men are big on these kinds of historical period pieces, so they certainly know what they are doing here. While it is tempting to consider Darkest Hour a companion piece to Cristopher Nolan’s Dunkirk earlier this year on account of the similar subject matter, it is crucial to recognize that Darkest Hour approaches this story from a more singular perspective, focusing on a kind of character study of the great Winston Churchill instead of a more all-encompassing view of heroism. Fortunately, Gary Oldman turns in one of the greatest transformative performances of his career. Thus, though Darkest Hour is a fine film Gary Oldman is easily its centerpiece.
The films of Paul Thomas Anderson are anything but conventional, and Phantom Thread is not even close to an exception. Anderson writes and directs this story about Reynolds Woodcock, paragon of the 1950s haute couture scene. Daniel Day Lewis portrays this eccentric man to perfection, inhabiting the character as only he can. The acting talent extends to the two lead women in the film as well: Vicky Krieps plays Alma, Reynolds’s new flame and muse and Lesley Manfield plays Cyril, his sister and main confidant. These three are a tour de force.
Guillermo Del Toro is a master of the modern fairy tale. In The Shape of Water, he tells the story of a budding love between a mute woman named Elisa and a captive fish creature. Like the very best of Del Toro, the film blurs the line between reality and fantasy and succeeds as an allegorical tale about the transformative power of love. Set in the Cold War Era, most of the story takes place in a secret government facility replete with scientists, gung-ho military jerk-offs, and spies. This setting provides the canvass for Del Toro’s peculiar aesthetic, as well as the majority of the tension. The performances are outstanding, from the supporting characters to the leads to the man in the Fish Monster suit. Simply put, The Shape of Water is a gorgeous little tale and the reason why movies can be so magical.
Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is a stirring coming-of-age story focusing on the relationship between a high school senior and her mother. Saoirse Ronan plays Christine, but insists that everyone call her “Lady Bird”. Her relationship with her mother, played by the excellent Laurie Metcalf, is fraught with complications – just like any mother-daughter relationship. Gerwig’s story has obvious autobiographical aspects, lending the film a refreshing matter-of-fact feeling. Lady Bird is a flawed protagonist, and her mother isn’t perfect either. Still, Lady Bird grows up a lot in the last year of high school, despite all the awkward romances and familial tension. Though detractors may classify Lady Bird as a film that doesn’t take many risks, its themes are timeless, perfectly executed, and packed with realism. Lady Bird is a resounding success from a first-time director, a seemingly-effortless bit of cinematic mastery.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is not a kind film, and it is not an easy one. It is thoroughly dark and more than a little sad, but has some comedic moments. Perhaps the best way to think of it is as some kind of demented moral play – a grim farce meant to explore the depths of human depravity and whether there is any potential for absolution. As such, the film sets up a horrible situation, doubles down a few times, and then challenges the spectator. Along the way, the performances are outstanding, and though some of the characters feel stereotypical or one-dimensional, that’s the point. Three Billboards is a poignant look at despair and hope, hatred and forgiveness, and prejudice and love.
Call Me by Your Name is a tender and warm coming of age story that beautifully captures that peculiar mixture of melancholy and exhilaration that so often accompanies a first love. Set in Italy in the 1980s, it is a subtle, sensuous, and gorgeous film. The pacing is pastoral and languid, lending the characters a lived-in and complex feel as they explore their surroundings. It sports a timeless plot about self-discovery and sexual exploration, with impeccable performances. Director Luca Guadagnino has perfectly executed one of the most heartbreaking and satisfying films of recent memory.
Steven Spielberg’s latest historical drama The Post is a funny little animal. The film is based on Kay Graham’s decision to publish findings from the classified Pentagon Papers in The Washington Post. Graham, played by best living actor front-runner Meryl Streep, was the first woman publisher of a major newspaper, and the film details her struggle with these responsibilities. As such, The Post has a dual focus: it is part defense of free speech and the right to publish, and part celebration of female empowerment. Spielberg does a great job balancing these, but the film also has a peculiar look to it, with an active camera that feels a little too dizzying. Most of the drama derives from Graham’s decision to publish and how she grows more confident in her abilities. Though it may be a little generic with respect to it’s handling of The First Amendment, The Post absolutely nails the more human side of the story.
In Annihilation, a band of women set off to investigate a bizarre natural phenomenon that has resulted from a fallen meteorite. Alex Garland directs the film and wrote the screenplay (based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, which is part of a trilogy). The mysterious event has been named “The Shimmer” in deference to the prismatic bubble that surrounds a lighthouse at the epicenter – a bubble that is growing. No previous expeditions have returned. Like Garland’s previous directorial work Ex Machina, Annihilation dazzles with its visuals, sports an intriguing and tight plot, and ultimately leaves the audience with few explicit answers about what exactly has been going on. There has always been power in subtext, especially in science fiction, and Annihilation is an impressive and intelligent new entry to the genre.
In Thoroughbreds, writer-director Cory Finley delivers an astonishing debut. The film features two astounding lead performances from Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy as a pair of grim highschoolers. The plot of the film unwinds in four chapters (plus an epilogue), in which information is revealed piecewise and the tension and mystery of this thriller matures into a chilling climax. All the while, the spectator is treated to some stunning cinematography that perfectly captures the pristine affluence of the setting while simultaneously hinting at some dark kernel. This grim tone permeates the film, lending Thoroughbreds an additional layer of significance and meaning.