Profoundly unsettling and deeply imaginative, Alex Garland’s Annihilation, adapted from the first book in Jeff VanderMeer’s brilliant best-selling “Southern Reach Trilogy” (2014), presents adventurous viewers with a frequently hypnotic and sporadically heady miscellany of grandiose ecological parable and nerve-racking survival tale in a deep sci-fi skien.
Lena (Natalie Portman), a grieving biology professor and former U.S. Army soldier, is part of an all-female reconnaissance outfit sent into a top secret stretch of North American coast where something alien has altered the environment and nature has gone berserk; plantlife has grown into gorgeous and sinister floral forms and humanlike shapes; mutated beats, some seeming prehistoric, others like a Miyazaki fever dream, travel the timbers and marshlands down the coast.
This environmental territory, with startling shades of Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi, is in a frightening flux as its boundaries keep mushrooming. Lena and the rest of her unit, not at all the first reconnaissance team to lose their way trying to penetrate this strange southern zone, startlingly realize that their mental and emotional faculties are also socked in and uncertain.
Annihilation is a world of weird fiction; of dead husbands and daughters, of doppelgängers, waking dreams, monstrous rogue bears capable of ghastly human mimicry, mutated hyacinths that scion to the skin, and far more menacing eventualities that disquiet and demolish the human mind.
6. Isle of Dogs
Densely packed with sly details, and understated hilariousness at every turn, Wes Anderson’s stop-motion marvel Isle of Dogs is also, surprisingly, his most serious film to date. Influenced most notably by the Japanese cinema of Akira Kurosawa and Honda Ishiro, and set in a near-future Japan where dogs are exiled to an offshore garbage dump following a canine-flu outbreak. This absurdist comedy may be an acquired taste, but for the Anderson cult, of which I’m a card-carrying member, this movie is catnip.
Winning and winsomely charming, Isle of Dogs is also equal parts Nick Park (The Wrong Trousers ) and Jan Švankmajer (Alice ), that follows the atypical Anderson milieu of non-linear storytelling in an episodic, chapter-derived fashion that’s aided and abetted by an all-knowing omniscient narrator (Courtney B. Vance).
The voice cast is a veritable who’s who of the Anderson actor repertoire (Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, and Tilda Swinton amongst them), the score from Alexandre Desplat is a work of wonder unto itself, as is the meticulous production design from Paul Harrod and Adam Stockhausen.
Isle of Dogs is wonderful escapist fantasy for all but the most jaded of cynics, and if you’re an Anderson fan, it’s sure to be one of your favorites in his deliberately, delightfully oddball oeuvre.
5. An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn
Jim Hosking, the demented and depraved mind behind 2016’s The Greasy Strangler, finds his sea legs with his artfully inspired sophomore effort, probably the finest comedy film we’ll see all year, the jet black absurdist rom-com An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn.
We’d be remiss not to mention that this brand of outsider cinema will appeal to fans of John Waters in his heyday, but Rick Alverson’s name springs to mind too, and with a cast populated by such stunning, strange, cutting-edge comic actors as Matt Berry, Jemaine Clement, Maria Bamford, and Craig Robinson, all led by Aubrey Plaza, this movie is guaranteed a cult embrace forevermore.
Annoyed and outraged by her domestic life, Lulu Danger (Plaza) finds herself smitten with an incredibly inept hired gun named Colin Keith Threadener (Clement) and plots a reunion with a mysterious tub of guts from her past, the eponymous Beverly Luff Linn (Robinson).
Totally absurd, delightfully over-the-top, An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn is time well spent for adventurous audiences with fittingly strange sensibilities, a love of the surreal and, as Variety’s Amy Nicholson puts it, “those who delight in championing the next cult film leader [and] will nod along with Clement when he grins, ‘Although I don’t know what what’s going on here, I’m having a great time.’”
4. The Rider
Chloé Zhao follows up her stunning debut Songs My Brother’s Taught Me (2015) with another heart-piercing and elegiac portrait of life below the poverty line in The Rider. Set and shot in the sun-scorched badlands of South Dakota, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) is instantly compelling and utterly convincing as a once rising star in the rodeo circuit, who sadly suffered brain damage from an accident at a bull-riding competition.
Now prone to seizures, and having been warned by doctors he can no longer ride, Brady finds solace and strength through his younger brother Tanner (Tanner Langdeau), who is now a resident in a care facility after suffering severe brain damage from a stunt similar to the one that fucked Brady up, too.
The Rider embraces a sustained poetic melancholy due in part to the gorgeous cinematography (Joshua James Richards, who lensed Zhao’s Songs My Brother’s Taught Me is a wonderful collaborated for this kind of emotive, neo-realist tale), and also from Zhao’s winning use of untrained actors who offer up honest performances of utmost purity. Heartfelt, bracingly sincere, and high-achieving, Zhao’s The Rider is a lowkey social-realist masterpiece. Essential viewing.
As prestige horror, writer-director Ari Aster makes a stirring and unforgettable debut with Hereditary, which also makes for one of the most discomfiting portrayals of family dysfunction you’re likely to ever see.
“In its seriousness and hair-raising craftsmanship, Hereditary belongs to a proud genre lineage,” writes the A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd, adding “a legacy that stretches back to the towering touchstones of American horror, unholy prestige-zeitgeist classics like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby.”
After the death of her reclusive grandmother, Annie Graham (Toni Collette) starts to see her family unravel as their mysterious past meshes with their chaotic and ever-fracturing present. Aster offers an unpredictable horror film that begins like a familiar haunted house movie before spiralling into the underworld; a vision so bleak, bloody, and compelling that fans of Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011) will be pumping their fists, when not cowering behind their popcorn, of course.
Shot with a meditative pace, one punctuated with deliberate camera movements and several, standout long takes (Kubrick comparisons will be unavoidable, but there’s much more emotion here), not to mention an absolutely chilling score from Colin Stetson, Hereditary builds and builds to the kind of Grand Guignol go-for-broke climax fright fans often ask for but so rarely receive. Not only does this film deliver genuine chills and thrills, it’s all done in a languid, artful measure that will have you crawling out of the theater afterwards in an awed daze. It’s the real deal and you’ll probably never look at dioramas the same way again, ever.
2. You Were Never Really Here
With her signature stunningly poetic and image-driven style, the latest from Lynne Ramsay (Morvern Callar , We Need to Talk About Kevin ) is an intense revenge drama adapted from a hard-boiled novella from usually jovial humorist Jonathan Ames (HBO’s Bored to Death). Having already won accolades at the 70th Cannes Film Festival in 2017 (where it received a seven-minute standing-o and brought home the Best Screenplay Award and Best Actor Award for Joaquin Phoenix), You Were Never Really Here finally found its wide release earlier this Spring.
Phoenix is electrifying as damaged-soul Joe, an ex-Marine with a death wish who has found a way to temper his PTSD, paranoia, and anger management issues via an efficient and brutal career as a retriever of sex-trafficked children.
Watching, gobsmacked, as Ramsay moves through some conventional redemptive genre tropes as Joe, hammer in hand, swings his way through stirring set pieces such as a Manhattan brothel that houses a paedophile ring is never less than exhilarating as the familiar tropes are reimagined in the most startling of ways. Lazy critics have drawn not unwarranted comparisons to Taxi Driver (1976), but perhaps Point Blank (1967) and the New Hollywood of Paul Schrader’s Hardcore (1979) are even more exacting.
You Were Never Really Here is a formally ambitious thriller from one of the most extraordinary and unpredictable talents working today. Ramsay’s approach to elliptical, vivid, visceral storytelling that’s densely layered, character-driven, deadly serious but also darkly comedic, is one of this decade’s (let alone year’s) most compelling cinematic coups.
1. First Reformed
My mind-reeling as I capered out of the theater after my first viewing of First Reformed, I thought to myself, “it’s Taxi Driver meets Diary of a Country Priest by way of Ingmar Bergman, and Carl Theodor Dreyer” and while I’ll stand by that original appraisal, I enthusiastically and dutifully must detail a little more. From its brilliant use of subjective camera, and the dazzling 1.37:1 aspect ratio –– almost like a religious painting from the Renaissance –– First Reform uplifts the mind to the spiritual as writer-director Paul Schrader exhibits the transcendental style he’s always been capable of but rarely it seems, ever extolled.
Set in a small town in upstate New York, the First Reformed church is about to usher in its 250th anniversary as Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke, absolutely brilliant in a career best performance) begins a diary. Toller’s life in a secular world is darkened by his tortured past that includes the loss of his son in the Iraq War, his numbing and secretive alcoholism, and his failing health, both physical and mental.
Schrader’s pared down style is an astonishing feat of strength that’s both lucid and tactile as Toller twists out of control after an anguishing series of encounters with Michael (Philip Ettinger) an excitable and unstable environmental activist, and Mary (Amanda Seyfried), his pregnant wife.
Astonishingly unified in both its style and its subject, First Reformed is a glorious and gratifying work of artistry that attains the ecstatic as well as the divine. Schrader has, as in Robert Bresson’s own films, evoked and embodied that Pascalain paradox that God is both invisible but present. And also like Bresson, Schrader lays bare the work of a master filmmaker who is both unflinching social critic, and generous spirit-guide.
It may be too early to call it but First Reformed feels like the film of the year, as well as the capsheaf of Schrader’s (and Hawke’s, while we’re here) long and considerable career.
First Reformed is a rare bird; breathtaking, tightly drawn, seemingly out of time and utterly of its time. It’s an indispensible, urgent, and otherworldly masterpiece that cuts deep and will dog you for days. And its ending will be discussed for decades to come. Don’t miss it.
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.