We’re already halfway through 2018, which would feel like a lot more of a sigh of relief if it didn’t instead fill us with dread about what’s still yet to come. As both the US and the world at large begin to shift in seismic ways, old culture clashes still unsolved and colliding with the new ones born from them, we turn to pop culture for an escape, but increasingly, as a way to reckon with these changes in a safer, lower-stakes way.
At least it’s a safer way sometimes. We’d hardly characterize a number of our favorite films of 2018’s first half as “safe,” but the movies have always allowed us to stare our greatest aspirations and worst fears alike in the face, taking away from them whatever we want, and sometimes, even need. This year has already yielded great superhero movies and great directorial debuts, bold stories from new voices and legendary ones alike. They look to the past and the present, sometimes in tandem, attempting to make sense of all the messes around us from day to day.
Movies can’t solve all the problems of the current world; only we can. But at their very best, they can offer suggestions or a reprieve from the occasional pain of the everyday. The times change, but for almost a hundred years now, the movies have remained a constant, even as they’ve always shifted as a mirror of the world creating them. For these 10 films, and many others we’ve liked or loved so far, it’s hard to consider many of them independently of the current times. But they all stand as proof, in one way or another, that there’ll always be great art even in a fraught era of history. It just has to dream of a time when the world will be less so.
10. Solo: A Star Wars Story
Release Date: May 25th
Who’s in It? Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson, Donald Glover, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and Paul Bettany
You Gotta See This: Like the titular hero himself, Solo: A Star Wars Story defied all odds and became arguably the most enjoyable Star Wars film to be released under the Mouse House. Gone are the maudlin Jedis, the meandering mythology, and the all-too-easy good vs. evil narrative. Instead, Hail Mary director Ron Howard and screenwriters Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan delivered a Western heist tale that thrives in its simplicity, making it feel more like a sequel to the original 1977 Star Wars than 1980’s incredible The Empire Strikes Back. Alden Ehrenreich doesn’t play Harrison Ford, either; he plays Han Solo, looking at this sprawling world with the eyes of a child walking into the franchise for the first time — and it’s a palpable feeling. What’s more, unlike Rogue One, this ensemble oozes with personality, particularly Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, and the deliciously fiendish Paul Bettany. —Michael Roffman
Extra! Extra! Read Michael Roffman’s full review here.
09. Black Panther
Release Date: February 16th
Who’s in It? Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, and Sterling K. Brown
You Gotta See This: Quick PSA on this one? Black Panther has now, as of this publication, made $699 million, domestically, at the box office. SIX. HUNDRED. NINETY-NINE! Surely, this deserves to be a 700 million dollar hit, no? Ryan Coogler’s super-powered extravaganza deserves the money. It was one of those unusual and exceptional blockbusters that managed to make a real mark in the cultural lexicon. Trips to Wakanda and Kendrick Lamar beats aside, Black Panther is a complex hero story with cultural roots and the kind of vivacious life so rarely seen in Disney tentpoles. Coogler fought, delivering something emotionally AND kinetically satisfying, and his movie opened the door for more entertainment like it. So please. Help Black Panther get to 700. No, it’s not a big difference. But it sounds better, doesn’t it? Easier? “Hey that Black Panther made $700 million! What can we learn from that, and how do we make more art like it?” –Blake Goble
Extra! Extra! Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review here.
08. Paddington 2
Release Date: January 12th
Who’s in It? Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant, Brendan Gleeson, Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, and the world’s politest bear
You Gotta See This: To know Paddington is to love him, which is true for both the characters in this charming British film series and for its audience as well. A young bear from darkest Peru who finds a new home in London among the eccentric Brown family, Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) lives by a simple life philosophy: “If we’re kind and polite, the world will be right.” That might sound horribly trite were it not so beautifully and thoughtfully brought to life by writer/director Paul King and a who’s who of award-winning British thespians. Like the 2014 original, Paddington 2 still feels like Wallace and Gromit by way of Wes Anderson, Buster Keaton, and Mr. Rogers. But it improves upon the alchemy of the first film thanks to a standout turn from Hugh Grant (giving his best performance in decades) and some subtle social commentary about community building, celebrating diversity, and — no joke — reforming the prison-industrial complex. —Caroline Siede
Extra! Extra! Read Blake Goble’s full review here.
07. First Reformed
Release Date: May 18th
Who’s in It? Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles, and Phillip Ettinger
You Gotta See This: Before he went on to pen the likes of Taxi Driver and Mishima, Paul Schrader wrote a scholarly tome about transcendental film that’s still taught to this day. Schrader, however, is more known for gritty, ultra-violent films with a kinetic style than anything resembling the transcendental, so it was something of a surprise when his latest, First Reformed, unfurled with the contemplative crawl of the artists he chronicled 45 years previous. The thoughtful, awestruck pace mirrors the film’s themes, which center around the intersection of religion and revolution in an age that’s commodified Christianity. Ethan Hawke delivers a sad, simmering performance as the lost Reverend Toller who, surprisingly, emerges as a spiritual ancestor of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. It’s Schrader’s best movie in decades, and a fascinating fusion of Schrader the artist and Schrader the intellectual. –Randall Colburn
Extra! Extra! Read Randall Colburn’s full review here.
06. The Death of Stalin
Release Date: March 9th
Who’s in It? Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Michael Palin, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, and Jeffrey Tambor
You Gotta See This: Armando Iannucci may have finally become a reputable name in the US thanks to Veep, but The Death of Stalin hearkens back to the vicious bite of his British series The Thick of It. But by jumping back to 1953, in the immediate wake of Stalin’s passing (depicted in riotously dark screwball detail here), Iannucci speaks to the present by turning the sadistic past into a barbed joke. The Death of Stalin is all about the ways that hubris consumes powerful men, and a lot of the deliberately idiotic bluster delivered by the film’s A-tier cast throughout has an undercurrent of real menace beneath it. This may be a comedy, but it’s a comedy where innocent people are being abused and murdered in the periphery of almost every scene, because it’s also a potent history lesson. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
Extra! Extra! Read Blake Goble’s full review here.