By Vincent Abbatecola
10) Hereditary – I’ve seen countless horror movies, but I can’t remember any of them having the anxiety-producing impact on me that I felt while watching writer-director Ari Aster’s “Hereditary.” The story follows a family that devolves into madness when long-kept secrets are revealed after the death of a grandmother. Toni Collette, who plays the mother of the family, gives a heated performance that drags you down into the grief and fear that falls upon her household, resulting in something that’s as petrifying as it is unforgettable. Astor shows himself to be a filmmaker of immense promise, taking horror elements that we’ve seen before and giving them an invigorated and terrifying power. The movie is scary as a whole, but the final 15 minutes placed me in a state of immobility. If this is what Astor can accomplish with his feature directorial debut, I can’t imagine what we’ll see from him in the future.
9) You Were Never Really Here – In this crime drama, writer-director Lynne Ramsay brings us into some of New York City’s darkest corners to tell a story about a veteran, Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), working as a hired hitman, whose next job is to rescue a senator’s abducted daughter. Phoenix creates a character that intimidates you with his viciousness, but disheartens you over the loneliness that he experiences on a day-to-day basis. While the story has some likenesses to that of Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” the visual styles and some of the narrative beats are different enough to make Ramsay’s film a different cinematic experience. What’s admirable about the movie is that it doesn’t focus on much of the violence that Joe inflicts, but instead cuts away most of the time, just as he’s about to strike. This restraint allows us to focus on the inner trauma that Joe’s feeling, instead of thinking about the brutal acts that he has to commit in order to save people, making Joe’s story one with a psychological depth that offers a lot to ponder once the film’s over.
8) BlacKkKlansman – Movies can be their most effective when they’re timely, and director Spike Lee’s latest film is a strong jolt of relevancy, telling the true story of a newly recruited African-American police officer (John David Washington) and his partner (Adam Driver) who infiltrate a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in 1970s Colorado. Washington gives a blistering performance as the ambitious cop who works to expose the local KKK, as does Driver, whose character has as much of a personal stake in the matter as Washington’s. The screenplay delivers an incendiary look at the racism that plagued America back then, and how it can still be seen in today’s society, all of which leads to an ending that both saddens and infuriates. Lee goes all in with the themes that he wants to convey, and you experience the full impact of his intentions in every scene.
7) Leave No Trace – Just as director Debra Granik explored an isolated population of America within the Ozarks in “Winter’s Bone,” she does so once again when focusing on the physical and emotional isolation of veterans. The story follows a PTSD-stricken veteran (Ben Foster) and his 13-year-old daughter (Thomasin McKenzie) who, after living in the deep forest of a public park for some time, are discovered and brought to live in society, where they must learn to adapt. Foster gives one of the best performances of the year as a man who keeps trying to outrun the darkness that his illness places on him, providing a character who says as much through facial expressions as he does through words. McKenzie is just as stunning in her breakout role as a teenager who has an easier time than her father in adjusting to her new way of life. This is a loving and poignant examination into the quiet, yet turbulent lives of these two characters, resulting in a movie that leaves a deep impression on your mind and soul.
6) Widows – Director Steve McQueen isn’t one to shy away from heavy subject matter, and although his latest film might not seem deep on the surface, that’s not the case. The narrative follows a group of women who, after their criminal husbands are killed during a heist, prepare to do their spouses’ next job. Viola Davis, who plays the group’s leader, delivers a ferocious performance as someone who’s not looking to make friends with her partners, but is instead just determined to get the job done, and the supporting players all have enough of a chance to showcase their abilities, with two standouts being Elizabeth Debicki as one of Davis’ accomplices, and Daniel Kaluuya as a ruthless mob enforcer. While the heist scenes that bookend the film get your blood pumping, there’s so much more within the story, as it focuses on topical themes that deepen the characters’ journey, giving us a film that is more than just thrills.
5) The Favourite – Director Yorgos Lanthimos’ last few movies thrived on taking different genres, such as sci-fi and horror, and injecting them with a great deal of intriguing weirdness. He now tackles costume-dramas with a dark comedy that tells the true story of the friendship between Great Britain’s Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and Duchess Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). When a young woman named Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) shows up to the queen’s castle looking for employment, Sarah feels her friendship with Anne being threatened when Abigail begins to work her way into Anne’s social circle. The trio of leads brings some of the most well-matched performances of the year, with all three having enough screen time to intensify their interactions, bringing us in several directions as Abigail and Sarah concoct various schemes to get what they want, with both fortune and misfortune befalling them. This is regal entertainment that you can’t miss.
4) Sorry to Bother You – In his filmmaking debut, writer-director Boots Riley doesn’t give us a movie that’s one thing, but several, and it succeeds at all of them. Riley tells the story of Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a young man who’s given a job as a telemarketer. When Cassius meets unprecedented success, he ascends within the company’s ranks and is gifted with riches, but at some personal costs. Stanfield provides a humorous performance that shows his character’s intense conflict in reaching for prosperity and staying true to the workers’ rights ideals to which his friends are committed. And, backing up Stanfield is a terrific supporting cast, including Armie Hammer as a coked-up, hard-partying CEO. This is the kind of movie where you can never guess where it’s heading, as the strangeness increases little by little, and then goes at a breakneck speed when the bonkers third act begins. I won’t say anything more because “Sorry to Bother You” is a movie that you have to see to believe.
3) First Man – It seems as though director Damien Chazelle’s career has been a series of steps that become bigger with each one that he takes, and that trend continues with his biographical drama about Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and the first moon landing. Gosling provides some of the finest work of his career as the idealistic astronaut who doesn’t have his eyes geared towards anywhere but the sky. And Claire Foy is captivating in the role of Armstrong’s wife, Janet, a performance that helps create one of the film’s best scenes, in which she tells Neil to let their sons know that he might not return home from his mission. “First Man” doesn’t set out to be your typical, inspirational biopic, but is instead a character study of Armstrong and the tolls that preparing for such a historic undertaking has on him. Despite that, Chazelle doesn’t let the tension of the moon landing go unacknowledged, having that sequence capture the thrill of NASA’s towering achievement. This is a movie that’s not only about accomplishing great things, but also the sacrifices that we have to make as we strive for greatness.
2) Annihilation – After making his directorial debut with the sci-fi thriller “Ex Machina,” Alex Garland gives us another chilling and thought-provoking entry in the genre. The story follows five scientists who enter a quarantined zone called “The Shimmer,” which causes mutations in any animal and plant life that’s caught within its borders. Natalie Portman, who plays Lena, the team’s biologist, gives a performance that elicits her character’s expertise in her field and displays Lena’s understated, emotional strain as she tries to find out the effects that this scientific anomaly has had on her husband, who returns from “The Shimmer” earlier in the film and seems to be a different person. Garland provides plenty of visuals that are equal parts strange, haunting, and beautiful, all of which immerse you in the weirdness of “The Shimmer.” In the end, the story will have your mind racing to try to figure out the bigger meaning behind the film’s events, making you want to dive into the movie once again to further decipher the story’s mysteriousness.
1) First Reformed – Here’s another movie that’s similar to “Taxi Driver” in its themes, yet with some huge differences to the story. Just as Paul Schrader did for that film’s screenplay, he has written another film (which he has also directed) where the main character bears us his soul. The movie follows a military chaplain-turned-reverend (Ethan Hawke), who starts experiencing a crisis of faith after a young woman in his parish asks him to counsel her husband, a radical environmentalist, who she believes is a danger to himself and others. Hawke provides what may be the best performance of his career, portraying someone whose faith crumbles bit by bit as he begins to feel disillusioned about his beliefs. The movie delivers plenty of hard-hitting drama that gives us insight into the reverend’s state of mind, such as occasional narrations as the reverend writes melancholic entries in his journal. Once the third act hits, the story brings an intensity that will put you on the razor’s edge of suspense. This film is nerve-racking and shocking, and you won’t be able to stop thinking about it once you see it.