Regular readers know the drill by now: I’m releasing my first stab at the Best Movies of 2018 (the “So Far” edition) and given my full-time gig as a stay-at-home parent, I’m a little late to catching up. But make no mistake: This week’s edition has some unquestionable heavy-hitters who will probably make it all the way to the final edition. Let’s get to it:
ANNIHILATION dir. Alex Garland
We meet Lena (Natalie Portman) in a time of crisis: her military husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) suddenly returns from a mission that he went missing from a year earlier but their reunion is cut short when it becomes clearly apparent that something is wrong with him. Lena however is no mere distressed wife: she is a scientist, therefore it is imperative that she needs to discover what has gone wrong with her husband, even if it comes at the cost of her life.
And so she finds herself at a military-scientific outpost overlooking a region that has been shrouded by a mysterious and growing aura called “The Shimmer”. Multiple expeditions have been sent into “The Shimmer” to investigate its nature, and so far only Kane has ever emerged again, alive or otherwise. On the first chance she gets Lena volunteers for the next mission as a biologist, with only the expedition leader Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) being privvy to her ulterior motives for volunteering. Filling out the team is the paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), and geologist Cass (Tuva Novotny) – an all-female science crew that is remarkable most of all for how little mention is made of that fact as these women seamlessly fill in sci-fi roles long held by men (long may this new trend continue). Given the fact that no one, save one dying man, has come out, it is in many respects a suicide mission although why these women chose to do so is not immediately clear.
Very soon it becomes apparent that the science expedition is in over their heads. They lose track of time with little recollection of what amounts to be several days in “The Shimmer”. They encounter plants and creatures that their years of scientific training tell them have no business existing. And more importantly, their perceptions of reality are increasingly becoming untethered. Ours does too.
Though this is only Alex Garland’s second directorial effort (after the phenomenal Ex Machina) he has long established himself as a master of science-fiction as the screenwriter of minor classics like 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and the criminally underseen Never Let Me Go. But in Annihilation it looks like he is truly flexing his muscles, evoking everything from David Cronenberg body-horror to the philosophically-charged works of Andrei Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick. There is a lot to take in with this movie, and it could so easily have fallen apart either as too self-serious or too campy. As it is, it occupies the rarified place of a movie that is both cerebral and visceral.
This movie is aided by the visuals which range from the extremely grotesque creatures within it to the general state of “The Shimmer” which bathes the whole landscape with an eerie and dream-like light, lending the whole film a surreal feel. The aural landscape meanwhile is similarly eerie as the hypnotic score by Portishead duo Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury captures the unsettling mood of the film; along with the scores of Ex Machina and Under The Skin it also cements the fact that the most interesting thing happening with movie scores nowadays is happening in science-fiction films.
If there is any perceived “weakness” to this film, it is that it does little to make us care for the fates of its characters and the resolution of its plot but is much more compelling in the questions that it raises. However that is also the exact same charge directed at Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and while Annihilation does not come close to surpassing or even equalling that iconic movie, it certainly is a welcome addition to the canon of serious science fiction films.
WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? dir. Morgan Neville
“What changes the world is the idea that love can abound, and be shared.” These were words not just shared by Fred Rogers but seemed to encapsulate his every being as he hosted his children’s program “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” for over thirty years and became a positive adult-figure for children of countless generations everywhere. Morgan Neville’s (20 Feet From Stardom) new documentary peels the curtain behind the genteel TV personality to reveal a man who, almost impossibly, is greater than the public face we invited into our living rooms.
From the offset “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” stood in stark contrast to the ever-evolving world of television he inhabited. Rogers’ modest sets, hand-made puppets, and quiet gentleness provided a constant respite for children in a media landscape that was increasingly loud and manipulative and stood in stark contrast to a world that was at times terrifying for children. But what made him perhaps most remarkable was that his show was not meant to be a mere escape from the problems of the day, but rather became a place where children could express their hopes and fears, and find the issues of the day addressed in a way that made sense to them. Rogers was a quiet revolutionary in that he addressed totalitarianism, racism, and assassination just as much as he discussed sharing, showing love, and controlloing your feelings.
But most of you already knew that, given that he was a constant companion in most American children’s lives until he retired in 2001. What Neville’s documentary provides us however is a chance to see the man behind the personality. There is always a moment of tension when examining a celebrity’s life like this as there is always the fear that the ideals Rodgers espoused may stand in stark contrast to the life he led. Those trepidations are immediately eased however, as it seemed the man did in fact practice what he preached. The Presbyterian minister by training got pulled into his life as a media personality because he felt the deep need to give children a safe space for wonder, imagination, growth, and empathy and the movie is illuminating in showing exactly how his faith informed his show’s philosophy. It is all too typical (and sadly accurate) to find portraits of religious people who use their faith as a weapon or as an excuse to close ranks – what is so refreshing is to see a man of faith who found his worldview expand and grow because of his faith rather than in spite of it. His faith allowed him to embrace peoples and children of different races, religions, and creeds because as he so eloquently declared, “the greatest thing that we can do is to let someone know that they are loved and capable of loving.”
This movie has developed a reputation as being an enormous tearjerker and I will admit the room was incredibly dusty when I saw it myself. It might be easy to dismiss the waterworks as merely remembering a nostalgic past that has long been forgotten, but that would be a mistake (I, having grown up in Malaysia, have never seen the show). Rather the profound emotionality of this movie has to do with the cynicism that seems to have brought us to our present, and often times dour, situation. The blowback against the genuine kindness that Mr. Rogers espoused – some of it happening even in his lifetime – is certainly one of the factors that have led us to the largely uncivil and divisive social and political landscape we now occupy. Neville’s documentary stands as a forceful reminder that there is another way from the escalating tensions and hostilities that are second nature to most of us. And in using Mr. Rogers plain and earnest language to remind us of the power of decency, of loving your neighbor, and of striving for goodness, he cuts us to the core because we know in our bones that his lessons are true. It is a devastating reminder that we should be better, because at the end of the day Mr. Rogers knew and believed that we could be better. And that he loves us just the same. I cannot think of more appropriate words for our day and age.
HEREDITARY dir. Ari Aster
Ari Aster’s debut horror film Hereditary managed to do something that has not happened to me in a long time: it made me desperately want the movie to end not because it was running too long or the movie’s quality was suspect, but because the climax of the movie was so terrifying that it was inspiring impossibly high levels of anxiety in me. Of course while the climax is truly one of the more horrifying sequences I have seen in a long time, Hereditary achieves its horror not by relying on cheap jump scares and camera trickery but by spending the entire run-length of the movie building up its pitch-perfect tone of bone-chilling dread unti it reaches its horrifying and inevitable bleak conclusion.
Toni Collette plays the matriarch Annie who at the movie’s open finds herself awkwardly trying to muster the appropriate tone of grief as she eulogizes her mother, Ellen – who she describes as “secret” and “private” – as her death is as much a relief to Annie as it is a source of sadness. She relays an odd bit of information to her youngest daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro): as a baby Ellen insisted on breastfeeding her grandchild, trying her best to take Annie’s place as Charlie’s mother. It is an odd anecdote that at the time only registers as an explanation perhaps for Annie’s apprehensiveness around her mother’s death. But as will become apparent, little anecdotes like this are placed very intentionally by Ari Aster, each building one of top of the other until their horrifying implications become all-too apparent to the viewer.
Charlie’s older brother Peter (Alex Wolff) sticks out in this odd family as its most conventional member. When the movie begins he is your typical teenage boy, who pursues a girl, gets distracted in class, and whose main goal in life seems to be getting high and laid – and probably in that order. He sticks out like a sore thumb in the beginning, seeemingly occupying a different movie from his family and the ominous signs surrounding them. This is naturally, intentional. An early tragedy dramatically shifts the dynamics of everyone in the house (which I will not spoil here), plunging the family into a waking nightmare that becomes increasingly horrifying.
Collette is the star here as she navigates the difficult line of being someone we are equal parts sympathetic to and horrified by. Anyone who has seen her in The United States of Tara should not be surprised that she toes this line expertly; sometimes even within the same scene she manages to evoke sympathy and hatred as she vacillates between rage and profound sadness, a portrait of grief so genuine that you feel uncomfortable in her presence. Given the fact that awards season tends to shun horror performances, I’m not expecting her to feature as a contender; she should.
But if Collette is the heart that keeps this movie on its oft-kilter tone, it is Aster’s direction that truly makes Hereditary the most unsettling experience I’ve had this year. His patient framing of each scene forces the eye to linger on the details of each shot, and it is in those background details that the unsettled nature of this movie grows. Like the minor anecdotes the family tells each other, each of these details build in meaning and significance as the movie goes on so that once we reach the crescendo of its conclusion we are terrified not so much because we don’t know where the movie its headed, but because the ultimate destination of the movie and its characters is an inevitable conclusion we desperately, but ultimately cannot avoid.
There are still traditional scares aplenty to of the “haunted house” variety and if there is any weakness to this movie it is that these traditional scares do not always flow as organically from the narrative as the rest of the movie does. And as terrifying as the movie’s conclusion ends up being, it falls into the trap of wanting to wrap things up too neatly at the end. Still for a debut film, it is astonishing just how assured Aster is. The horror of dread is perhaps the hardest trick to pull off because it relies on us the audience to have all the necessary information, and it is a credit to Hereditary that is a movie that by its conclusion has very few mysteries left, and yet still haunts me well after the credits have ended.
FIRST REFORMED dir. Paul Schrader
Full disclosure: As a graduate of Calvin College (Paul Schrader’s undergraduate alma mater; he singlehandedly makes up for the fact that our next most famous graduate is Betsy DeVos) and as someone who has gone through seminary myself (and intentionally not taken the leap to ordination) I may not exactly be the most objective reviewer of this movie. But as someone well versed on how to constantly live at that intersection between faith and doubt I can attest that Schrader has perfectly portrayed that intersection in First Reformed which is easily his best film since 1997’s Affliction.
Ethan Hawke plays Rev. Ernst Toller, a Protestant minister in a heritage church who is currently undergoing if not a crisis of faith, then definitely a faith malaise. His ever shrinking congregation can hardly be blamed for its lack of enthusiasm as Toller himself can barely muster the enthusiasm for the job. Whatever zeal he once had for this job has been long ground out by the heavy toll the clerical collar takes. When we encounter Toller he has begun a year-long private project of chronicling his honest thoughts on paper – the only way he can envision being able to pray. His is the latest in a long-line of skeptical film clergy from films by Dreyer, Bresson, and Bergman among others, and stands as a worthy entry into this surprisingly deep film tradition.
Toller’s apathy is shaken awake when Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant parishoner, approaches him after a service and asks Toller to talk to her troubled husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael is an environmental activist who is understandably extremely pessimistic about the state of the world. He strikes up an argument with Toller, wondering what the morality is for bringing a child into the world that he knows is almost irreversibly headed for a climate catastrophe. Something about Michael’s lack of faith stirs something up in Toller and, in one of the best scenes of the movie, he engages in a compelling back-and-forth with Michael as he tries to give reasons for hope. His answers, as intelligently composed as they may be however, come across as hollow to Toller; Michael’s fears have seemingly ignited a long dormant passion in him.
Other factors may however be at play for why Toller sudden spiritual angst comes to the forefront. He pisses out blood while avoiding seeing a doctor for a diagnosis he knows is not good. Meanwhile the First Reformed church is preparing to celebrate its 250th anniversary, with the pomp and circumstance bringing out the financial big guns of both the triumphalistic neighbor mega-church which supports the church and conservative climate-denying donors to the fray. Their happy-clappy version of Christianity is at odds with his more existential and doubtful one; the pressure is enormous for Toller to be moulded into a more cheery minister – something he is decidedly not.
And yet all of these external struggles are simply the backdrop to the true drama of this story, and that is the battle that goes on within Toller’s soul. Toller navigates a fine line between doubt and belief as he finds himself struggling to find much hope in his religious institution to either save a world that is, as Michael points out clearly, heading irreversibly toward climate-caused destruction but also due to some deep-seated belief unable to walk away from God altogether. It is a walk that in many ways mirrors Schrader’s own, and it is hard not to see Toller as his proxy as one who is truly uncomfortable with the conservative and close-minded religious upbringing he was brought up in, and yet not quite being able to shake off his religion’s deeper – and less culturally tied – lessons.
Those coming to First Reformed looking for either a clear affirmation or indictment of faith are going to come away disappointed because Schrader is wholly uninterested in painting things in black and white. Instead of surety, he offers mystery. Instead of assurance, he offers real struggle between the things that are and the things that are hoped to be. And in so doing, he provides perhaps the clearest expression of what honest faith should look like and does look like when there is nothing but bleak reality to observe and quiet hope to cling to.
Other 2018 round-up posts: