The 2018 Jeff Malone Academy Awards

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures/Skydance

If I were in charge of unilaterally selecting the Oscars, here is who would be selected. Nominees are listed alphabetically, winners in bold.

Best Picture
Annihilation
The Endless
First Reformed
Sorry to Bother You
Widows

Best Director
Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, The Endless
Alex Garland, Annihilation
Steve McQueen, Widows
Boots Riley, Sorry to Bother You
Paul Schrader, First Reformed

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Best Movies of 2018

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CREDIT: Courtesy of the Studios

This post was originally published on News Cult in December 2018.

I saw nearly 200 new movies in 2018, a personal record, and yet, there were still a couple dozen that I wish had more time to see. If you had told me just three years ago how many movies I would see this year, I would assume that everything would be crossed off my 2018 cinema checklist. But as I get deeper and deeper into the world of film journalism and analysis, I become ever more aware of just how seemingly limitless the cinematic landscape is. Despite my shortcomings, I am confident that I managed to put together a top 10 list that at the very least hints at all the storytelling diversity that the medium had to offer this year.

But before we get to that, here are some more 2018 movies that I loved: Assassination Nation, Bad Times at the El Royale, Boy Erased, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, The Commuter, The Death of Stalin, The Favourite, Gemini, Green Book, The Hate U Give, Hereditary, Instant Family, The Old Man & the Gun, Paddington 2, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Searching, A Simple Favor, Suspiria, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, Three Identical Strangers, Tully, and Venom.

10. Unsane – Claire Foy gets totally gaslit about her mental state, while Steven Soderbergh captures the whole charade on an iPhone. It’s more than a gimmick, as he expands his cinematic language, and a disturbing scam gets indicted in the process.

9. Isle of Dogs – Wes Anderson’s Japan-set animated canine adventure navigates some tricky business about cultural appropriateness, but it’s still a whimsical, yet thrillingly dangerous tale with delightfully quirky animation and an evergreen warning against tyrannical government.

8. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – The best superhero movie of 2018 was molded by the baggage of history while managing to also be revolutionary in a way that didn’t seem possible anymore in this era of comic book movie overload. Every Spider-Man story has partly been about how we all have the capacity to be heroic Spider-Beings; few prove it as imaginatively as Into the Spider-Verse.

7. Eighth GradeEighth Grade is basically anxiety distilled into its purest cinematic form. How could it not be? It focuses on a teenage girl in 2018 whose life is inexplicably tied to her screens, and it’s directed by Bo Burnham, who has captured his own anxiety for the raw material in his live shows. It sounds like a nightmare, and it kind of is, but it is also singularly exhilarating and inspiring.

6. BlacKkKlansman – Colorado Springs’ first black detective picks up the phone and cold-calls the KKK, setting off a batty infiltration that comments on the persistence of bigotry and the inspiration of blaxploitation. If Ron Stallworth’s story weren’t true, would Spike Lee have to have created it? He certainly had to do something to get us electrified in this still-way-too-discriminatory real world.

5. Widows – A trio of women lose their criminal husbands and are left to pull off a multimillion dollar heist in their (dis)honor. Meanwhile, Chicago’s political machine keeps dirtily chugging along. Steve McQueen’s top-notch skills elevate the message and thrills of every single frame.

4. First Reformed – The movie of 2018 that I’ve thought about the most since seeing it. Ethan Hawke plays Ernst Toller, a reverend counseling a man who has grown profoundly fatalistic over the state of a world ravaged by global warming. He catches something from this member of his flock – is it a disease, or perhaps an epiphany? If you’re alive in 2018 and cannot relate to Toller, you’re not paying attention.

3. The Endless – Two brothers are living on their own after escaping from the cult they grew up in, but they cannot quite escape the pull of its gravity. Upon returning for a visit, they discover the elliptical truth of what is really going on, and a new landmark vision of sci-fi horror comes to fruition.

2. Sorry to Bother You – Cash Green uses his “white voice” to become a successful telemarketer, and that’s only the start of capitalism taking him for all that he’s worth. Boots Riley’s incendiary clarion call to workers’ rights is bold, everything-AND-the-kitchen-sink filmmaking.

1. Annihilation – A group of scientists and doctors (who all happen to be female) head into Area X, where a bunch of weird goings-on confound and entrance them. All forms of life in this realm are more or less cross-bred with each other, creating utter strangeness, terrifying abominations, and above all, sublime beauty.

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Annihilation’ is a Beautiful Hybrid

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures/Skydance

This post was originally published on News Cult in February 2018.

Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong, David Gyasi

Director: Alex Garland

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: R for Gator-Shark Attacks, Giant Bear Attacks, Swirling Intestines, and a Little Bit of Nookie

Release Date: February 23, 2018

Annihilation needs you to trust that sometimes disorientation can be good. Or at least, that it can be exciting. I will admit that disorientation does not necessarily work out so well for this film’s characters. The relative safety afforded the audience in vicariously experiencing this vexing and dangerous journey makes secondhand disorientation easier to defend. But still, I think the message here is the same for both participants and observers: venturing into the confusion is how to make the spectacle happen.

Biology professor Lena (Natalie Portman) has been mourning the disappearance of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) ever since he took off for a highly classified military expedition a year ago, when suddenly he just reappears in their house one day. But Kane has essentially no memory of what happened, and it is clear soon enough that there is so much of his mission left to complete. So Lena is recruited by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to join her and her team of scientists (Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny) to trek into Area X, the coastal location that Kane and many others have gotten lost in, and figure out what the hell is going on there.

I do not recall Annihilation specifying the exact geographical location of Area X. It is possible it did and I just missed it, which can happen when a film mentions a significant detail only briefly. But in this case it is appropriate that I would miss such a detail, whether or not it was actually omitted. Area X is surrounded by a liquidy substance, or perhaps “presence” is a better word, referred to as “a shimmer,” which disorients anyone who approaches or moves through it. When Ventress and her crew first awake in the area, they seem to have immediately lost days, maybe even weeks. If we as an audience feel like we are missing just as many details as they are, then writer/director Alex Garland is probably pulling off what he set out to do. What awaits all of us is a world of wonders that can be explained by science, even though science says they should be impossible.

Flowers of clearly different species are growing on the same branches. The team is attacked by a gator with shark teeth. Plants in the shape of walking humans have sprung up. Eventually these ladies recognize their own blood and DNA swirling and transforming. These combinations are supposed to be fundamentally incompatible according to life as we know it. Lena’s on-the-fly theorizing of this continuous mutation works as a sort of explanation of how mythical hybrid creatures or the monstrosities from genre films could come to exist if they were to exist in reality.

The crew confronts Area X and its inhabitants with a mix of paranoia, wonder, fatalism, and determination. Considering the constant transformation inherent to this setting, it could be argued that all or none or some indefinable combination of these approaches is the right plan of action. Appropriately, it is all rendered by a design and effects team inspiring awe on a thoroughly devastating scale. The lush greenery is both beautiful and explosive. The music, courtesy of Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, is unnerving and entrancing, including a set of reverberating notes that the trailer has already made famous. This intoxicating mix also offers up a series of killer set pieces, including a riff on The Thing’s notorious blood test scene, but featuring the main animal from a creature feature imbued with the Freddy Krueger-style power to maintain the dying cries of its victims.

Annihilation hits that sci-fi sweet spot of a confusing, complicated premise that ultimately explains itself, but not in a way that betrays its intricacies or ambitions, or makes matters particularly comforting. This is visionary cinema, flourishing and fully realizing itself from glorious setup to perfect ending.

Annihilation is Recommended If You Like: The Thing, 2001, Fringe, Cronenbergian body horror, The design elements of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Mulholland Drive

Grade: 5 out of 5 Shimmers