Critic's Notebook: Halfway Through 2018, Slim Studio Pickings and Precious Few Indie Gems

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From left: 'Black Panther,' 'Annihilation' and 'The Rider' are among the strongest releases of the year so far.

The first six months of 2018 at the movies have yielded an exceedingly modest crop, though some soon-to-be-released favorites from Sundance and Cannes will liven things up.

When people ask these days if I've seen anything good lately, my immediate answer is, “Yes, the first two episodes of Patrick Melrose, season two of Atlanta and episodes five and six of the second season of The Crown." 

But, oops, sorry, those are all on TV, not my purview, and so I return my attention to my first love, movies, on the big screen. And there I find what everyone else who's been around a while has been noticing lately: predictability, a lack of variety and quality in what used to be the solid middle ground of commercial Hollywood filmmaking, titles that, along with the occasional must-see blockbuster, compel you to go see them in theaters, to make an evening of it. The sameness — and mediocrity — of most of it is pretty overwhelming.

But enough hand-wringing — there's always a excuse for that, just as there are always a few good films out there if you're curious and poke around in the underbrush. I truly do wish that the big old Hollywood studios could get it together again to assemble solid annual slates of films, of all shapes and sizes, presumably some of which would make enough money to float the whole boat, the way Warner Bros., most reliably among the venerable motion picture companies, used to do, year-in and year-out.

Now the mentality is mostly grosses-buster or bust, with the big studios, playing it safe, having largely ceded Academy honors over the past decade to more moderately budgeted pictures handled by smaller distributors. Over the past 11 years, only one major studio release — Argo, in 2012 — has won the best picture award.

Including three films that debuted at film festivals last year but have only recently been released, there are 15 films from 2018 I feel are worth talking about seriously, even if I would have trouble recommending them to everyone; let's face it, the latest (or any) films by Gaspar Noe, Lars von Trier and Lucrecia Martel are not for everyone; in fact, they're for a very few.

By contrast, Black Panther might not be perfect, but it's a huge experience and what it pulls off is significant. In any number of ways, no one's ever seen anything like it before; new to Marvel, and to the world audience, are the colors, the distance between where the story starts and where it goes, the unique African setting and the refreshing dynamics among freshly conceived characters. It's a tribute to director Ryan Coogler and his whole team that this feels less like a Marvel production, and more its own thing, than any of the other mega-hits to have emerged from the studio during the Kevin Feige era.

The other blockbuster that turned out right is Incredibles 2. Avoiding any pressure to make a sequel quickly (a fate that degraded more than one Pixar franchise), Brad Bird waited 14 years to deliver the follow-up to one of animation history's most sparkling creations. The new one might not be quite everything the original was, but it's plenty good enough, with its wit and distinctive look intact.

During the first six months of the year, the big studios only released three other films that made the grade creatively. Alex Garland's Annihilation is stunningly crafted, extremely tense and disturbing — everything one might want in a thriller. And yet it disappointed commercially, for reasons I still don't entirely understand. People were put off by it and hence, there will probably be no sequels, which it was designed to spawn.

By contrast, the far more modest A Quiet Place, also from Paramount, has been an enormous success and will inspire follow-ups — no doubt in short order. The unique premise — of sound being the tip-off to alert monsters to the presence of prey — was disarming in its originality, and for John Krasinski, his third feature as a director was the charm. I can't say I was over the moon about it, but the idea's potential was indisputably maximized. (That's more than I can say for the other high-profile horror success of the season, critical favorite Hereditary, a film that squanders its promising opening gambits and a fine lead performance by Toni Collette and spirals into nonsense.)

The only other big studio release worth taking seriously so far this year is Sicario: Day of the Soldado, a potent and sharply focused sequel that arguably has more to say about the U.S.-Mexican border situation, and does so in a more nuanced way, than the original. Denis Villeneuve and Roger Deakins may have provided a few hyper-visual sequences that surpass anything on view here, but the sacrifice of Emily Blunt's protagonist provides Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin a lot more time to richly develop their characters, a trade-off that proves quite beneficial. Not many Italian directors have made a successful leap to Hollywood, but Stefano Sollima looks to have the necessary chops.

Two small features that I reviewed at festivals last year, Chloe Zhao's The Rider and Paul Schrader's First Reformed, have only recently come out to solid art house receptions. The originality and simplicity of the former has been almost unanimously embraced, while Schrader's intensely personal drama has registered strongly with quite a few critics as well. I was mixed about it originally, but it's stuck with me, and in a good way; it's Schrader addressing the big questions about faith and human fallibility as only he can and occasionally does.

Sundance issued up two directorial debuts that linger favorably in the mind, Bart Layton's provocatively layered crime drama American Animals, which recently came out, and actor Paul Dano's perceptively handled adaptation of Richard Ford's novel Wildlife, scheduled to be released in October. But the most unique spawn of Sundance 2018 is unquestionably Aneesh Chaganty's Searching, due in theaters on August 3, a suspense tale about a father's desperate effort to locate his missing daughter — a hunt that's entirely conducted on the father's computer. No, the technical restriction never feels limiting or tiresome; rather, it keeps you on your toes. It's a novelty that pays off.

I saw five films at the Cannes Film Festival in May that look poised to be released domestically this year; three are must-sees, while the other two are from the most aggressively and self-consciously provocative Eurauteurs in the business, films you'll have to decide for yourself if you want to see. On the first count, BlackKklansman puts Spike Lee back in the spotlight in a way he hasn't been in some time by virtue of the outrageousness of its premise alone. But if the true-life story of a black cop who becomes a leader of a Ku Klux Klan chapter isn't enough of a grabber, Lee punches it up to further expand the story's impact and relevance. Then there's Pawel Pawlikowski's intoxicating, sad and altogether gorgeous black-and-white romantic drama Cold War, which is stunning in its economy; it's the equivalent of a spare but fully realized 120-page novel.

But I was most impressed of all by Burning, South Korean director Lee Chang-dong's masterfully attenuated slow-burn thriller about a love triangle that develops ever-more intriguing and sinister undercurrents. The movie is slated for a limited release this October.

Anything but restrained are the films by card-carrying Euro bad boys Gaspar Noe and Lars von Trier. Noe's voluptuously musical and youthful Climax is divided precisely in two, a ravishing and intoxicating first half full of throbbing music, insane dancing and sexual promise, and a second half that takes you, and a few characters, to the depths of despair and beyond. It's a trip from heaven to hell in which the first half is more fully realized than the second. It's an experience that exerts a strong pull in both directions.

By coincidence, hell provides the setting for the extravagant, final and arguably best part of von Trier's The House That Jack Built, in which Bruno Ganz in 19th century garb escorts Matt Dillon's condemned serial killer on a fully deserved guided tour of the lower depths to which the latter has been eternally condemned. I've more often than not been a von Trier detractor and would not begin to try to convince anyone to see this terribly brutal and violent work, which depicts a succession of bluntly visualized murders, mostly of women. This may be but the latest example of the bedeviled Dane working out his own sex-and-violence compulsions for the world to see, but he's moved to a somewhat deeper, more explicit realm here that suggests some psychological insights and connections that feel new and hard won rather than contrived. Von Trier may well have passed the point of no return as far as even many of his long-term fans are concerned, but various aspects of this film made me take it more seriously than I have his last several.

Far further out — by art film measurements — is Lucrecia Martel's Zama, which surfaced in theaters here ever-so-briefly this spring. I have never liked Martel's work, which is spare, off-center and highly intellectualized to the point of pretentiousness, but I've always forced myself to soldier on and try to find out what so many other critics have raved about. I was fully prepared to walk out of this if things got tedious, which they did for a while. But I stayed — and stayed some more — until I became hooked by Martel's rigorously disorienting, eventually fixating account of a 18th century diplomat's tedious, frustrating, never-ending posting in rural Argentina. I'm still not sure that I liked it, but I can't dislodge it from my mind and, better yet, don't want to. Martel's is a singular vision, to be sure.

The rumors suggest that the heavyweight titles are awaiting us at the fall film festivals, beginning with Telluride, Venice and Toronto. To be continued.