5. Sorry to Bother YouRapper Boots Riley’s debut feature is probably the most pro-union wide release in a decade. Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson have electric chemistry in this wide-ranging and endlessly poignant satire about a couple who experience the highs and lows of professional success in an increasingly subversive world. Cassius’ (Stanfield) initial success at a telemarketing company takes him to places he never could have imagined, for better and worse. The film is hilarious and hyperactive while being a deep meditation on what upward mobility and opportunity means in 2018 America.
4. Leave No TraceA quietly devastating story from the eye of Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik, Leave No Trace follows Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) as they try to embrace living on-the-grid. They’d been living on public land, being as in tune with nature as possible. But as Tom starts to embrace her new life, Will’s underlying grief and wanderlust begin to surface. Granik takes serene moments that might not mean much in other films and spins them into gold — although Will’s soul is largely unknowable, we understand his love for nature through Tom’s eyes.
3. Eighth Grade
Leave it to a standup comedian to find the deep truths at the center of the most mockable time in anyone’s life: middle school. Bo Burnham’s debut finds a breakout star in Elsie Fisher as Kayla, an eighth-grader dealing with the stresses and pressures of ‘fitting in’ in today’s young culture. It’s both widely relatable and deeply intimate, and that’s largely because of the closeness Burnham is able to achieve. The comedy comes from the obviously embarrassing nature of this period of adolescence, but the drama comes from the character-driven details Burnham captures.
2. First Reformed
In Paul Schrader’s first film in the transcendental style, we find Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) having a personal crisis which slowly becomes a full-fledged crisis of faith. He’s in charge of a small congregation whose operation is overseen by a huge megachurch network. When Toller is awoken to the fears of climate change by a troubled parishioner, he begins to try to change his bosses’ culture from within. Although it’s a bleak film, it’s a vitally important one for where we’re at culturally as it relates to religion and corporatism.
In an interview on YouTube channel DP/30, director Kevin Macdonald invokes the phrase “being economical with the truth” in reference to politics and the control of celebrity image. That phrase, I think, perfectly describes the documentary he made, in the best possible way. Whitney is shockingly and heartbreakingly authentic, while at the same time being a celebration of Whitney Houston’s iconic voice and an exploration of the times in which she sang. By the end, it feels less like a celebrity or tabloid story and more like a story about the nature of truth and fiction.