Swampflix’s Top Films of 2018

1. Annihilation A beautifully terrifying tale of life, death, rebirth, and the trauma that haunts us throughout it all. On one level, Annihilation is just a visually gorgeous, weirdo monster movie that reimagines Tarkovsky’s Stalker with a pastel color palette & more traditional genre thrills. On a deeper level, it’s a powerful reflection on how grief & trauma transform us into entirely different people, to the point where that change becomes physical & irreversible. Our bodies and our minds are fragmented into their smallest parts until not one part of our original form remains. The fact that the movie itself is its own creature separate from its source material novel also makes it an oddly fitting adaptation, since transformation and change is an essential part of its DNA.

2. Mandy The most metal movie of 2018 (and maybe even of all-time?). When Nicolas Cage axe-murders biker demons & religious acid freaks in an alternate dimension 1980s, Mandy is headbanging party metal, a blood-splattering good time. In its quieter moments it also captures a stoned-and-alone, crying over past trauma to doom riffs version of metal, where the flashes of fun & cosmic absurdity are only reminders of how cruelly uncaring & meaningless it can feel to be alive.

3. The Wild Boys An erotic fever dream that’s part Guy Maddin, part James Bidgood, part William S. Burroughs, and part Treasure Island adventurism. Its visual experimentation, transgressive gender politics, and surreal depictions of sexual violence achieve an unusually focused version of imaginative dream logic. Both beautifully & brutally old-fashioned in its newfangled deconstruction of gender, it lives up to the “wild” descriptor of its title in every conceivable way, delivering everything you could possibly want from a perplexing “What the fuck?” cinematic bazaar.

4. Sorry to Bother You Incredibly dense, gleefully overstuffed sci-fi satire about the Amazon Prime-sponsored hellscape we’re already living in today – just bursting with things to say about race, labor, wealth, and the art of selling out. Boots Riley’s debut is remarkably well executed despite the sheer number of ideas it throws in your face, especially in how it handles its brazen third-act rug pull. Still, its most impressive feat is how it captures the moment we’re currently struggling through, but somehow finds a way to make it even worse.

5. Unsane Filmed on an iPhone and shamelessly participating in every mental institution thriller cliché you can imagine, Unsane is a purely Soderberghian experiment in the lowest rung of genre filth. Since it trades on the worn-out clichés and tired tropes of the Scary Asylum genre to induce its ugly, cheap-thrills panic attack, it’s not the most original movie in the world, nor the most sympathetic or responsible. However, it does use that unlikely genre platform to explore themes ranging from capitalist greed in modern medical & prison systems to male-dominated institutions’ dismissal of the concerns of women to the power dynamics of money & gender in every tier of society.

6. Paddington 2 We always say we wish more children’s films were ambitious in their craft & purposeful in their thematic messaging; Paddington 2 wholly satisfies both demands. It’s timelessly wholesome, visually precious, and emotionally fragile – all while teaching kids an important lesson about applying simple concepts like politeness & manners to their interactions with social & cultural outsiders. After praising so much exploitative horror & lowly genre trash year after year, Paddington 2 was a welcome change of pace for the crew. It lifted our spirits and made us want to be better people. (It even inspired James to learn how to make marmalade).

7. Hereditary Effectively gaslights the audience by starting as a fairly down-to-earth exploration of mourning, rage, helplessness, and grief before fully descending into the supernatural – striking an uneasy balance between heart-wrenching family drama & spine-chilling horror. Where Hereditary overachieves is in anchoring all of its glorious 70s horror vibes & stage play familial viciousness to the best Toni Collette acting showcase to reach the big screen since Muriel’s Wedding.

8. Cam A neon-lit, feminist cyberthriller about modern sex work, Cam is set in a digital world where identity is no longer stable nor protectable. It mashes up Unfriended-style user-interface horror about the Evils of the Internet with smutty Brian De Palma modes of building tension through eerie sexual menace. It’s excellently written, staged, and performed for a movie of its modest budget, one bolstered by subversive politics that will have you cheering for a sex worker to return safely to her profession instead of being punished for her supposed sins, which is sadly extraordinary for its subject & genre.

9. You Were Never Really Here Lynne Ramsay’s latest grime-coated vision of a real-world Hell obscures the emotional release of traditional macho revenge thrillers by focusing only on the violence’s anticipation & resulting aftermath, never the act itself. This is a powerful film about the tolls that violence takes on its enactors & its witnesses, tracking the many ways it can destroy a soul. It hypnotizes and mesmerizes, but not in an uplifting way, just in a way that makes you feel hollowed & alone.

10. Eighth Grade With a piercingly astute eye for the way social media has reshaped & mutated adolescent anxiety into an entirely new beast, Eighth Grade excels both as a snapshot of what life online looks like in the 2010s and as a distinct, character-driven drama even when removed from that of-the-moment focus on social media. Following an actual 8th grader as she relives our own past moments of unbearable anxiousness, we both identify with her all too well and feel a desperate need to protect her from the world. It’s both a fresh, important coming of age story for modern kids and a timeless anxiety Litmus test for all ages.

HM. Dirty Computer An anthology of music videos with a dystopian sci-fi wraparound, this “emotion picture” delivers on the genre film undertones of Janelle Monáe’s early pop music career while also advancing the visual album as a medium to a new modern high. Its story of non-conforming Others being captured to have their culture erased becomes such an explicit expression of Monáe’s own identity as a queer black woman in an increasingly hostile world, it reaches a point where a tyrannical government is literally draining the gay out of her in tubes of rainbow ooze before she rises against them in open bisexual rebellion. It’s fiercely queer, femme, and black – the most defiant, punk thing you can be in modern times.

Read Boomer’s picks here.
Read Brandon’s picks here & here.
Read Britnee’s picks here.
Read CC’s picks here.
Hear James’s picks here.

-The Swampflix Crew

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Britnee’s Top Films of 2018

1. Hereditary Toni Collette, my favorite actress of all-time, gives the best performance of the year in the best movie of the year. Hereditary falls somewhere between a heart-wrenching family drama and spine-chilling horror film. It’s beautifully haunting, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since the first time I watched it.

2. Mandy The most metal movie of 2018 (maybe even of all-time?). Nicolas Cage proves that he’s more than just a “bad movie” actor while playing a complete badass who gets revenge is the most brutal ways imaginable. It’s a headbanging, blood-splattering good time.

3. Unsane Steven Soderbergh’s high-anxiety thriller is my worst nightmare. It stressed me out so much that I popped the hair tie that was around my wrist from pulling on it during all the intense parts. There were a lot of them.

4. The Ritual The best Netflix horror film ever. It’s an amped up non-found footage version of The Blair Witch Project mixed with Norse mythology. The 2nd most metal movie of 2018.

5. Elizabeth Harvest A modern, stylish retelling of Bluebeard with a fun sci-fi twist. The film has a slow pace yet manages to be entertaining the entire time. It’s absolutely mesmerizing.

6. Mom and Dad Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair are suburban American parents that try to murder their children after an unexplained phenomenon causes parents to randomly start killing their kids. It’s wild and funny as all hell.

7. Paddington 2 After watching so many horror movies this year, Paddington 2 was a nice change of pace. This movie lifted my spirits and made me want to be a better person. Paddington is my idol.

8. The Wild Boys Brandon let me borrow his copy of the film a few weeks before the end of 2018, and it shot up my list immediately. It’s such a weird mix of beautiful imagery and disturbing scenarios that it made me smile and chuckle through the end.

9. Annihilation A beautiful tale of life, death, and rebirth with lots of freaky sci-fi scares.

10. Apostle Yet another fantastic Netflix horror film release from 2018. While it may seem to be a cheap knockoff of The Wicker Man in the beginning, it becomes a wild gorefest with tons of one-of-a-kind horror elements.

-Britnee Lombas

CC’s Top Films of 2018

1. Dirty Computer – A feature-length series of music videos from Janelle Monáe that combine to tell the story of a dystopian future society where non-conforming others are captured to have their memories & identity erased. On the surface, it’s just one of the most visually lush works of artistic beauty in recent memory. Beyond that, it’s fiercely queer, femme, and black – the most defiant, punk thing you can be in modern times.

2. Sorry to Bother You – Remarkably well executed despite the sheer number of ideas it throws in your face, especially in how it handles its brazen, astonishing third-act rug pull. Still, its most impressive feat is how it captures the moment we’re currently struggling through, but somehow finds a way to make it even worse.

3. The Favourite – The costume drama & the Yorgos Lanthimos dark comedy wrestle each other in this tale of two women wrestling for their queen’s affections. I’m always onboard for costume dramas for their visual treats alone, but they are rarely as adventurous in storytelling or tone as this stunning examination of power, aggression, and desire.

4. The Wild Boys – An erotic fever dream that’s part Guy Maddin, part William S. Burroughs, and part Treasure Island adventurism. Its visual experimentation, transgressive gender politics, and surreal depictions of sexual violence achieve an unusually focused version of imaginative dream logic.

5. Cam – The best horror film of 2018 is set in a digital world where identity is no longer stable or protectable. Its subversive politics will have you cheering for a sex worker to return safely to her profession instead of being punished for her supposed sins, which is sadly rare for the genre.

6. Eighth Grade – Holds up remarkably well on rewatches in terms of basic technical craft. The performances, editing, music, and narrative are all in service of a concise, precise story about something most modern audiences can relate to: anxiety. Following an actual 8th grader as she relives our past moments of unbearable anxiousness, we both identify with her all too well and feel a desperate need to protect her from the world.

7. Beast – A repressed young woman from a semi-abusive home falls in love with a mysterious stranger who may not be as harmless as he initially seems. There really aren’t enough modern takes on the Gothic romance, especially not enough that compete with this one’s plunges into Wuthering Heights levels of darkness.

8. Mandy – The scene where Mandy is violently abducted, involuntarily dosed with psychedelic drugs, and expected to bask in the splendor of her abuser but instead laughs loudly in his face is an incredibly cathartic moment to witness as a woman.

9. You Were Never Really Here – Narratively mimics the plot of a Taken-style thriller where a macho man rescues a young girl in crisis, but filters that formula through Lynne Ramsay’s very peculiar sensibilities, becoming a much stranger beast as a result. This is a powerful film about the tolls violence takes on its enactors & its witnesses, tracking the many ways it can destroy a soul.

10. Annihilation – The fact that this is its own creature separate from its source material novel is partly what makes it a fitting adaptation, since it’s a story about transformation and change. It’s also remarkable that it’s the third sci-fi film featuring Tessa Thompson on my list, making her the clear MVP of the year.

-CC Chapman

Boomer’s Top Films of 2018

Let’s get this out of the way: 2018 was a miserable year for yours truly. From March to June, I was locked in a constant battle with the manager of the property where I live with regards to a phantom leak that they “observed,” leading to them cutting a 4′ square section of my bathroom ceiling being cut, without being repaired or replaced, for three months. I picked up a staph infection while on vacation, arrived home after nearly a day-and-a-half of travel due to an overnight layover in Dublin, only to find that my luggage had been lost and that my refrigerator was abloom with monstrous polyps and fungi due to its motor failing while I was gone. And then in October, I was standing innocently at the corner of 7th and Colorado Streets in downtown Austin, waiting for my bus to take me home after a long Monday, when a man in a pickup truck ran the red light, was struck by another vehicle, spun out, and then ultimately hopped the curb and pinned my leg to the bus stop bench and dragging me the length of it before coming to rest in a position that trapped me and rendered me immobile. This broke my fibular neck and left me with extensive tissue damage, including an internal degloving event (don’t look it up unless you’ve got a strong stomach), and trapped me in my apartment for six weeks; I only got out to go to the doctor and to vote, because it’s going to take a lot more than being mangled and nearly killed to keep your boy from voting. As a result, anything that was released after October 15 pretty much flew under my radar. There was so much I wanted to see this year: I had tickets to Bad Times at the El Royale for the day after the collision that has (temporarily, fingers crossed) hobbled me, and a pass to Good Manners (As boas maneiras) for that weekend, both of which went unused. Perhaps the greatest crime is that I, the self-proclaimed foremost expert on Dario Argento’s body of work among all the people that you know (unless you know Maitland McDonagh, in which case, can you introduce me?), still have not seen the remake of Suspiria. Of course, this year also blessed me in some places: I took my first vacation since 2014 and got to go out of the country for the first time for it as well! Also, Black Panther came out and my cat outlived (and continues to outlive) the veterinarian’s projections, so here we are. Also, I’m not going to see Boy Erased. It’s just too triggering and personal.

All the movies that I wanted to see but did not in 2018, and thus should not be considered omissions from this list for lack of quality, but simply due to availability and my getting mangled: Bad Times at the El Royale, Foxtrot, Three Identical Strangers, Summer of ’84, Green Fog, Call Me By Your Name, Isle of Dogs, American Animals, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Blackkklansman, The Kindergarten Teacher, Let the Corpses Tan, Good Behavior, and If Beale Street Could Talk. Also, probably that one about the Spiders-men.

2017 Hangover
(Movies I Wish I Saw Last Year So They Could Have Been on My 2017 List)

The Babysitter: Every word of Brandon’s review of this one is correct: it is a sugar rush of gory absurdity, in the vein of Turbo Kid, one of my favorites of the past few years. I, too, could have done without some of the elements that were designed to pander to the lowest denominator of movie viewers, with their foundationally eradicated attention spans (more on that in a minute). The pop-up text on screen (especially anything to do with the pocketknife) was distracting and fundamentally lowered the level of discourse we can have about this movie, but I was still enthralled from minute to minute, even after walking shirtless scene Robbie Amell took his plunge. This one gets a strong recommendation from me.

I, Tonya: Although this fine crew found each other through the sheer force of will and love for cinematic Things That Should Not Be, we are not of one mind, and I, Tonya is a pretty clear example of that. Brandon was not impressed, but I was enraptured by every moment of it. I can’t remember the last time that I was so sucked into a movie that I watched it again almost immediately, and then a third time just a few days later. There’s violence aplenty, which I think was the main detraction for our Dear Leader, but while the omnipresent domestic abuse that permeated the film was so true-to-life that I wasn’t pushed out of the scene by it, but was only drawn further in, even in the moments that it got very close to home. It’s certainly a movie that needs a trigger warning, and I have my issues with a sympathetic portrait of a person whose political views are, um, bad, but I nonetheless found this utterly compelling.

It Comes at Night: Holy shit is this a great movie. From the disorienting refusal to clarify anything about the layout of the house in which all of the action takes place, to the twists and turns in plotting, this is another great A24 release, even if it comes so soon after the similarly plotted Into the Forest (2015, also distributed by A24), which found Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood as two sisters alone in a deteriorating cabin in another undisclosed location somewhere in otherwise idyllic wilderness. What I liked most about this one was the dread atmosphere that takes hold from the first moment, when an elder member of the clan meets his heartbreaking demise: it makes you side with the first family that you meet, although another film could just as easily follow the other family. What if their inconsistent information about their past is just the result of not wanting to give too much about themselves away in case their apparent saviors aren’t all that they appear to be (which . . . ends up being the case, essentially). This one is on Amazon Prime now and Into the Forest is on Netflix, so treat yourself to this double feature. Read Brandon’s review here.

Honorable Mentions

Sierra Burgess is a Loser: While certainly not the great follow up to the surprise Netflix hit To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before that Netflix was hoping it would be, given the reappearance of the internet’s newest celebrity boyfriend, Noah Centineo, and the presence of Shannon Purser (a.k.a. Barb from Stranger Things), Sierra Burgess is a Loser is a perfectly serviceable little teen romcom that retells the well-worn Cyrano de Bergerac story: a physically “imperfect” suitor woos a perfect specimen with the help of a more attractive counterpart. It’s not groundbreaking, even with the gender flip that lands Purser as loser Sierra Burgess trying to win the heart of Centineo’s Jamey through surrogate Veronica (Kristine Froseth), a mean girl with a rough home life whom Sierra ultimately befriends, albeit with some bumps along the way. Much of the negative reaction to this one, I’m assuming, stems from the desire for another pitch-perfect romantic comedy like TATBILB, not the movie’s actual quality. First time screen-writer Lindsey Beer does a pretty good job here, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of her work.

Bird Box: My roommate read Josh Malerman’s novel Bird Box a couple of years ago and was super excited when he learned that it was being adapted into a film, citing the book as one of the scariest things he had ever seen. From his description of the novel, I was sitting in a movie theater in November 2017 to see Lady Bird and saw the trailer for A Quiet Place and thought “wow, they got that into production faster than I would have expected,” before realizing that it was not a trailer for Bird Box that was playing out before me. Here it is, over a year later, and the comparisons to A Quiet Place and The Happening are still rolling around out there on the internet, largely in response to (and revolt against) Netflix’s bizarre (but effective) meme-heavy marketing strategy. Still, derivative though the film may seem now after the release of other similarly themed apocalyptic titles in the years since the book was first released, this is a pretty effective little thriller with a star-studded cast and a new dimension from lead Sandra Bullock, who has rarely had the opportunity to play a character who is both sentimental and hardened, at turns charming and unlikable. The biggest drawback here is that the film somehow manages to feel both overstuffed and somewhat overlong as well, with a lot of plot points that should have been given more time to be explored, but having too many of these to make a film with a pat running time. This one should have been a miniseries.

The Haunting of Hill House: Speaking of miniseries (or limited series), I’m giving a special mention to The Haunting of Hill House, a breakout ten-episode mini that Netflix released this year. Very loosely based on the Shirley Jackson novel of the same name, Hill House follows the story of the Crains, a large family headed by patriarch Hugh Crain (Henry Thomas in the past and Timothy Hutton in the present), a house flipper before that term really existed. He and architect wife Olivia (Carla Gugino), who looks forward to the day when the family can finally build their “forever house,” have moved their five children into the Hill House mansion, where a series of escalating supernatural events leaves the family broken and traumatized, with that trauma spilling over into their adult lives: Stephen (Michael Huisman) is a skeptic who writes books about other supposed hauntings; Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is a mortician who resents that Stephen’s books have dragged the family’s history into the public eye; Theodora (Kate Siegel) is a queer social worker unable to form relationships because of her psychic sensitivity; and twins Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Nell (Victoria Pedretti), the former of whom is a drug addict who has burned his family more times than can be counted and the latter of whom was the most affected by the house in her youth and has never really recovered. I’m putting this on my list because it’s not a movie, in any technical or real way, but it does stretch the boundaries of what we can consider a movie, as it feels less like a series of episodes and more like a ten hour movie broken into manageable chunks. There’s also a one-shot in the sixth episode that blows away any competition from actual films on my list as far as technical mastery. As with Bird Box, I’ve seen the split on my Facebook feed between people who loved this and people who hated it, but unlike with BB there’s a notable difference: the only people I’ve seen consistently hating on Hill House are those who have terminally limited attention spans and who don’t have the patience to watch a whole movie, let alone a miniseries, without checking their phones every 5 minutes (sorry if you feel called out by this, but you know it’s true). If that’s you, stick to Vine compilations, but if you have the ability to, you know, watch things, give this a try.

Dishonorable Mentions

Solo: A Star Wars Story: I may have given a lukewarm defense of this one in my review of it last summer, but this movie really doesn’t work. Ehrenreich is charming in everything, and I got a kick out of L3-37, but further reflection on this film has really not been kind to my remembrance of it. It helps that so much of it was forgettable, and I’m hoping that we’ll see more of Ehrenreich and Donald Glover on the big screen in years to come, but I’m not holding my breath.

Deadpool 2: I fell asleep during this movie, in a theater. That disqualifies me from reviewing it unless I see it again, and through to the end, but honestly, I’m just not sure I’m up for it. I’ve always been a Domino fan, and her character is about the only thing that I remember from the film, but I just couldn’t bring myself to care (or keep my eyes open). Luckily, Brandon managed to stay awake through it.

Avengers: Infinity War: “What’s this?” you say. “He didn’t like Infinity War? But everyone liked Infinity War!” Well, sorry to break anyone’s hearts, but my opinion of this movie has only gone down following my review last summer. I even gave it a slightly higher star review at the time than I felt in my heart, because the people I had seen it with had enjoyed themselves so thoroughly and I wanted it to be better than it was. But while it was technically proficient, visually stimulating, and managed to weld together nearly two dozen characters into a plot that was serviceable and well-executed, it left me so cold. I didn’t feel anything in this movie, not even for a moment. I thought maybe I was just in a bad mood when I saw it the first time, so I gave it another watch a couple of months later and I was even less engaged the second time around. I should have loved this movie. I wanted to love this movie. And I just didn’t.

Ready Player One: Holy shit was this a pile of self congratulatory garbage. I’d diatribe here about the way that this reinforces toxic gatekeeper culture and also about how it’s still pretty vapid and shitty despite all of that (“You’d love me but not my birthmark!”), but this isn’t a movie worth investing that kind of emotional energy and labor into. Just read Brandon’s review or Vox‘s primer.

Open House: Britnee beat me to it with her review of this stinker a full year ago, but I stuck it in my Netflix queue last January, largely based on my fondness for Dylan Minnette, where I promptly forgot about it until I was housebound and working my way through those things I hadn’t watched yet. Having run out of Star Trek: Voyager, Haunting of Hill House, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and, god forgive me, Riverdale, I turned my sights on movies in my queue. I watched the Australian movie where Robin Wright and Naomi Watts bang each others’ sons; I watched a horrible coming of age movie called SPF-18 in which the most exciting thing that happens is that Noah Centineo breaks a disco ball; I even watched a boner comedy by way of Groundhog Day called Premature about a high school kid who is stuck in a repeating day that restarts every time he, well, ejaculates (prematurely). But by far the most disappointing one was Open House, a mediocre rehash of every “creepy things happen in a remote house to a family in crisis” movie that you’ve ever seen, but without the kind of twist or resolution that a film of this type needs to be memorable, or at the very least the catharsis that it needs to be passable. Forbes reviewer Paul Tassi wrote that Open House made him feel like someone was asleep at the switch in Netflix’s quality control, but if they managed to let this movie out into the world, the person in charge of QC must have died at the wheel.

And now . . . Boomer’s Top 15(ish) Movies of 2018

15. Mary and the Witch’s Flower: Make no mistake, this is a children’s movie. It’s also not a Hayao Miyazaki movie, or even a Studio Ghibli film, although you can be forgiven for assuming either given the film’s visual style. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, formerly of Ghibli (first working as a clean-up animator on Princess Mononoke before doing key animation on Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Tales from Earthsea, among others) and now well-known for his directorial debut The Secret World of Arrietty and, a few years later, his Oscar nomination for When Marnie was There, turns a fairly thin story about a young girl who encounters a world of magic and sorcery through the discovery of the titular “witch’s flower,” a kind of bud that, when burst, grants those whose juice it touches temporary access to magic. The film’s strong opening sequence, breathtaking flying scenes, and the exploration of the visually entrancing and dynamic magical college that Mary finds in the clouds elevate what would otherwise be just another The Worst Witch/Harry Potter knock-off (although one with a stronger pedigree: the source novel, The Little Broom, was published in 1971, a full three years before the first Worst Witch book). Read Brandon’s review here.

14. A Simple Favor: A bit of an uneven movie, this comedy thriller is held aloft by some decent twists and turns coupled with strong performances from Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. Read more in my review here.

13. Love, Simon/To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before: I’m taking the coward’s way out on this one, since neither of these films is really “quality” enough to belong on this list under its own merits. Upon Love, Simon‘s release, I was largely against it, even in theory. “Why do we need stories like this one?” I asked myself. “Where are the radical queer stories?” And then I went and saw it, and I was completely enraptured by its earnestness and clarity of vision. I wanted to hate Love, Simon, but instead found myself feeling a kind of warmth and sincerity that I haven’t felt in a long time. (The one moment of sarcasm that I allowed myself was when I leaned over to my companion during the scene in which Simon waits for his online friend “Blue,” and said “If this were Degrassi, a pedophile would show up right about now.” I also had a moment where I was like “Oh, Josh Duhamel is in this, just like Broken Hearts Club, which I guess lends this some gay romcom credibility” before I remembered that it was Timothy Olyphant in that one; I also realized in that moment that I am old.)  Likewise, I slept on To All the Boys I Loved Before because I didn’t think that I could get much joy out of a movie that generates that many posts on BuzzFeed with shirtless .gifs and quizzes about which boy from TATBILB you, BuzzFeed reader, should be with. And yet, in my time of need, I gave this one a try, and was utterly charmed by it. It’s certainly better than other efforts with leading man Noah Centineo (I refer you back to the aforementioned SPF-18), and it wears its social media age Sixteen Candles lineage on its sleeve. Lana Condor’s Lara Jean is effortlessly charming. If you just need a little warmth in your heart, either one of these would make good medicine.

12. Ant-Man and the Wasp: A fun follow-up to 2015’s Ant-Man, read my thoughts on this one here.

11. Game Night: I was warmer to this one than Brandon was; he liked it, but I really, really got on board with this one. Directors John Francis Daley (didn’t think that I would be mentioning a Freaks and Geeks alum on the same list in 2018, but here we are) and Jonathan Goldstein have churned out a fun little heist comedy that utilizes the talent of all of its participants. Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) have great chemistry, and Billy Magnussen is doing great work making a truly stupid character likable enough that you don’t find yourself doubting why he’s even friends with the others. Sharon Horgan also turns in a command performance with her continuing exasperation at Magnussen’s character’s idiocy. If I had one qualm, it would be that Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury are given little to do other than playing off of each other rather than the whole group, as Morris’s character’s obsession with the idea that his wife may have slept with one other person before they were married consistently puts the two of them in little joke cul-de-sacs rather than keeping them more central to the narrative.

10. Upgrade: Leigh Whannell’s latest is a sleek, fun, trashy romp through a futuristic Death Wish-style roaring rampage of revenge, with a cyberpunk twist. Blumhouse accidentally made a prestige picture in 2017 and has been riding that success for a while; a friend who will be doing some work on one of their upcoming TV projects told me that the first question that you would ask when you got tapped for a Blumhouse production was “Is it union?”, but now it’s a solid bet that you might end up working on something great. Upgrade may not be the greatest sci-fi, but it’s a super fun thrill ride with Logan Marshall-Green as a truly likable guy with a magnetic screen presence. While others might consider him a poor man’s Tom Hardy, he does great work here, especially when he’s in “conversation” with an AI that no one else can hear. It’s twisty, it’s turny: it’s Upgrade. Read Brandon’s glowing review here.

9. The Endless: I added this one to my Netflix queue some time ago based simply on the premise: two brothers who, years before, escaped from a UFO death cult return to the commune after receiving a strange video from one of its members. Younger brother Aaron (Aaron Moorhead) was apparently too young when they left to remember all of the truly creepy goings-on that older brother Justin (Justin Benson) has always told him they were lucky to escape, but Aaron is insistent that the video they received could mean that the UFO they were waiting for has finally arrived. Realizing that his younger brother will never be at peace until he sees the place for himself, Justin takes Aaron on a road trip, seeing a few portents of the irrational along the way. Once they arrive, things seem almost too perfect, although strange happenings and optical illusions (or are they?) begin to make the men wonder if they will be able to escape before something truly terrible happens. It’s a low budget indie sci-fi that occasionally shows it lack of money (there’s a scene in which a house is supposedly aflame but the fire itself is terribly unconvincing), but its heart is in the right place and the tension can’t be beaten. Read Brandon’s review of The Endless and its sister film Resolution here.

8. The Ritual: A kind of modern day Blair Witch Project (minus the found footage element) paired with a heaping dose of morbid survivor’s guilt and including a pretty original… let’s say “monster,” for lack of a better term, The Ritual follows four men who venture onto a Swedish nature hiking trail to honor a fallen friend. Luke (Rafe Spall) entered a liquor store with Rob (Paul Reid) after a boy’s night out with his university buds, only to discover that the place is in the middle of an armed robbery. Luke hides but Rob is seen by the thieves and, upon refusing to cooperate, is killed. As Rob’s wish was to take this hiking trip, Luke joins hardass Hutch (Robert James-Collier), gone-soft family man Dom (Sam Troughton), and nervous Phil (Arsher Ali). When Dom injures himself along the trail, the group opts to take a shortcut back to their last occupied way station through the deep, dark woods. Fair enough, until they take shelter in an abandoned shack during a heavy rain storm and emerge the next morning to find that the storm prevented them from noticing all the runes carved into nearby trees, and that’s not even getting into the bizarre effigy in a room upstairs, or the fact that they discover a dead elk pinned in a tree like an offering. At every turn, Luke is confronted by memories and hallucinations of Rob’s last fateful moments. Is he cracking up in another stressful situation, or is there something in the woods that’s forcing him to relive that night over and over again? Although not the most original story, it makes up for its flaws with a haunting ambiance and a reveal of a… being that is truly unique. Check it out, and read Brandon’s review here.

7. Sorry to Bother You: This is a movie that’s only gone up in my opinion since I first saw it. Read my review here.

6. Phantom Thread: I’ve previously mentioned my theory that if a film that comes out after December 20th, it really should only count on lists for the following year, so I’m including Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest (and supposedly Daniel Day Lewis’s last) film here. There’s so much to say about this movie, and so much of it has already been said, but I would say that this is a movie worth seeing, for all of the passive aggressive eating if nothing else. Read Brandon’s review here.

5. Black Panther: I’m not sure that there’s much more that I can (or am qualified to) contribute to the discourse on this movie that I haven’t already, so just read my review here.

4. You Were Never Really Here: Brandon said everything I could say about this movie better than I could here. This movie hypnotizes and mesmerizes, but not in an uplifting way, just a way that makes you feel alone.

3. Unsane: I can say without a moment’s hesitation or mental evasion that Unsane is hands-down the most unsettling and disturbing film that I have ever seen. I have never, in my entire life, been more uncomfortable than I was when watching this movie. I know that Unsane is trading on a lot of worn-out cliches and tired tropes of the Unspeakable Horrors of the American Mental Health System, or the general Scary Asylum genre. I don’t care: this movie knows exactly where every single one of my psychological pressure points are and just how much weight to apply to each one in sequence to make me physically ill. My reaction watching this film was like my friend’s reaction to seeing Raw for the first time and being unable to handle it at all: I almost had a panic attack. It’s not the most original movie in the world, or the most sympathetic or responsible, but it made me sick. Read Brandon’s review here.

2. Annihilation: Our bodies and our minds will be fragmented into their smallest parts until not one part remains. Read my review here. For those of us in parts of the world where this wasn’t released straight to Netflix, it’s now streaming on Hulu.

1. Hereditary: My favorite thing about Hereditary is that it actually effectively gaslights you, the audience member. Spoilers ahoy, so just skip this if you haven’t seen it: there’s some weirdness at the beginning with odd sigils appearing in places that make sense and which do not, strange mourners, and unearthly glowing and droning. But then after the event (you know the one), the film instead turns into a fairly down-to-earth exploration of mourning, rage, helplessness, and complete surrender to the abyss of grief, and you convince yourself that all of the signs of supernatural interference that you saw must have just been things you thought you saw. The movie teaches you to mistrust yourself, then turns another hairpin corner and says, nope, there were demonic shenanigans all along. Or, to put it another way: this movie was marketed as The Bad Seed and appears to be this at the beginning before turning into Ordinary People for an hour before morphing once again into Rosemary’s Baby. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Read my original review here.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Brandon’s Top Films of 2018

1. The Wild Boys As an art film oddity & a transgressive object, this gem lives up to the “wild” descriptor of its title in every conceivable way, delivering everything you could possibly want from a perplexing “What the fuck?” cinematic bazaar. More importantly, though, Wild Boys is thoroughly, defiantly genderfucked – a freshly radical act of nouveau sexual politics represented via the tones & tools of the ancient past. All of its psychedelic beauty & nightmarish sexual id is filtered through an early 20th Century adventurers’ lens, feeling simultaneously archaic & progressive in its subversions of gender & sexuality. It looks like Guy Maddin directing an ancient pervert’s wet dream, both beautifully & brutally old-fashioned in its newfangled deconstruction of gender.

2. Double Lover Not your average, by-the-books erotic thriller, but rather a deranged masterpiece, a horned-up nightmare. Double Lover’s basic premise is a familiar template, but as it spirals out into total madness there’s no bounds to its erotic mania, which is communicated through an increasingly intense list of sexual indulgences: incest, body horror, gynecological close-ups, bisexual orgies, negging, pegging, “redwings,” erotic choking, and nightmarish lapses in logic that, frankly, make no goddamn sense outside their subliminal expressions of psychosexual anxiety. It’s a gorgeous work of fine art that disarms its audience with its nonstop onslaught of inelegant prurience as a means of crawling under our skin and rotting us from the inside.

3. Mandy So sinisterly beautiful & deafening that its aesthetic indulgences become a grotesque, horrifying display. This is less of a revenge thriller than it is a Hellish nightmare, a dream logic horror-show that drifts further away from the rules & sensory palettes of reality the deeper it sinks into its characters’ trauma & grief. Nic Cage may slay biker demons & religious acid freaks with a self-forged axe in a neon-lit, alternate dimension 1980s, but Mandy is not headbanging party metal. It’s more stoned-and-alone, crying over past trauma to doom riffs metal, where the flashes of fun & cosmic absurdity are only reminders of how cruelly uncaring & meaningless it can feel to be alive.

4. Dirty Computer A fifty-minute narrative film stringing together an anthology of music videos with a dystopian sci-fi wraparound, this “emotion picture” delivers on the genre film undertones promised in Janelle Monáe’s early pop music career while also advancing the visual album as a medium to a new modern high. There are seven different directors listed as having collaborated on individual segments of Dirty Computer, but Monáe clearly stands out as the auteur of the project. A large part of that auteuism is how the film works as an expression of her newly public identity as a queer black woman navigating an increasingly hostile world that targets Others in her position, to the point where a tyrannical government facility is literally draining the gay out of her in tubes of rainbow ooze before she rises against them in open bisexual rebellion.

5. Sorry to Bother You – Incredibly dense, gleefully overstuffed sci-fi satire about the Amazon Prime-sponsored hellscape we’re already living in today – just bursting with things to say about race, labor, wealth, and the art of selling out. I can see how this movie’s third-act rug-pull could make a lot of people wince at it for going too far over-the-top, but that’s exactly when it went from good to great for me. The fact that it’s never satisfied with exploring one idea at a time when it could just as easily flood the screen with thousands is what endears it to me as one of the year’s clear stand-outs; more films cold benefit from being this wild & unrestrained, subtlety be damned.

6. Paddington 2 There has always been dissent against the wholesome tweeness of visual artists like Michel Gondry & Wes Anderson, but those naysayers typically don’t give full credit to the deeply devastating sadness that lurks just under their works’ meticulously manicured surfaces. Paddington 2 nails both sides of that divide – the visually precious and the emotionally fragile – while teaching kids an important lesson about applying simple concepts like politeness & manners to their interactions with social & cultural outsiders. We always say we wish more children’s films were ambitious in their craft & purposeful in their thematic messaging; Paddington 2 wholly satisfies both demands.

7. Annihilation It’s a shame more people didn’t take a chance on this Alex Garland sci-fi stunner when it was on the big screen. On one level, it’s just a visually gorgeous, weirdo monster movie that reimagines Tarkovsky’s Stalker with a Tumblr-ready pastel color palette & more traditional genre thrills. On a deeper level, though, it’s a powerful reflection on how grief & trauma transform us into entirely different people, to the point where that change becomes physical & irreversible. Haunting stuff.

8. Upgrade The very real, very macho anxiety of approaching obsoletion at the hands of automated future-tech is shown in gloriously over-the-top extreme, where a once-mighty macho man now needs a computer’s help to even move a single muscle, much less stage a gory revenge mission against an effete Elon Musk archetype. Upgrade has an entirely different plot & satirical target than RoboCop, but the way it buries that social commentary under a thick layer of popcorn movie Fun that can just as easily be read at face value is very much classic Verhoeven. It’s a subversive, playing-both-sides tone that’s exceedingly difficult to pull off without tipping your hand, which is what makes this sci-fi action gem so instantly recognizable as a modern genre classic.

9. Cam Between its Unfriended-style user interface horror about the Evils of the Internet and its smutty Brian De Palma modes of building tension through eerie sexual menace, this movie is so extremely weighted to things I personally love to see in cinema that my adoration for it was practically predestined. A neon-lit, feminist cyberthriller about modern sex work, Cam was custom-built to be one of my favorite films of the year just on the strengths of its subject matter & visual aesthetics alone. It’s only lagniappe, then, that the film is excellently written, staged, and performed – offering a legitimacy in craft to support my default-mode appreciation of its chosen thematic territory.

10. You Were Never Really Here Director Lynne Ramsay’s latest grime-coated vision of a real-world Hell obscures the emotional release of traditional macho revenge thrillers by focusing only on the violence’s anticipation & resulting aftermath, never the act itself. You Were Never Really Here’s artistic merits are found almost entirely in its editing room tinkering, searching for freshly upsetting ways to depict onscreen violence by both lingering on its brutality and removing all of its tangible payoff. In crime thriller terms, this resembles the skeletal structure of a Liam Neeson-starring Dadsploitation power fantasy, but its guts are all the emotional, gushy stuff most action films deliberately avoid. And because this is a Lynne Ramsay picture, those guts are laid out to rot & fester.

11. BlacKkKlansman As its buddy cop & blacksploitation throwback narratives power through their natural conclusions, BlacKkKlansman pretends to be a straight-faced, well-behaved participation in old-fashioned genre tropes meant to leave audiences entertained & satisfied. Then all of that easy, comforting payoff is swept away with an epilogue that effectively punches the audience in the gut, reminding us that we’re not supposed to feel good about the way the past has shaken out, that the modern world remains messy & nauseating in a way that can’t be captured in a fully satisfied genre exercise. Spike Lee knows exactly how storytelling conventions have trained audiences to expect easy, comforting resolutions to even the most sickening thematic territory, and he’s found potent, purposeful ways to weaponize that against us.

12. Unsane Filmed on an iPhone and shamelessly participating in every mental institution thriller cliché you can imagine, Unsane is a Soderberghian experiment in the lowest rung of genre filth. It uses that unlikely platform to explore themes ranging from capitalist greed in modern medical & prison systems to male-dominated institutions’ flagrant dismissal of the concerns of women to the power dynamics of money & gender in every conceivable tier of society. Unsane experiments with a teetering balance between microbudget exploitation cinema & power-skeptical radical politics. They’re two flavors that shouldn’t mix well together in a single container but do find a chemically explosive reaction in the clash.

13. Flames A collaboration between two filmmakers & conceptual artists documenting the rise & fall of their own romance, Flames presents a scenario where not being able to tell what’s genuine & what’s performance art can have emotionally devastating effects on a real-life relationship. Instead of merely manipulating audience perception, the filmmakers manipulate their own understanding of what’s even happening in their own lives, turning the already volatile emotional powder keg of a passionate romance into a daily terror of bruised egos, questionable motives, and petty acts of self-serving cruelty. It’s deeply fascinating, but it’s also deeply fucked up.

14. Shirkers This documentary figuratively hit close to home with me in its profile of a D.I.Y. art project tragedy, but it also literally, geographically hit close to home with me in the trajectory of its narrative. I was pleasantly surprised to personally connect with the film as a self-portrait of a socially tactless, self-sabotaging D.I.Y. artist; director Sandi Tan got through to me via the merits of her brutal self-honesty & her authentic zine culture aesthetic. More superficially, she also got through to me with her story’s exponentially rapid trajectory to my front doorstep. It’s shocking how much of this story about a conflict that begins in Singapore finds its way to Mid-City New Orleans.

15. Eighth Grade With a piercingly astute eye for the way social media has reshaped & mutated adolescent anxiety into an entirely new beast, Eighth Grade excels both as a snapshot of what life online looks like in the 2010s and as a distinct, character-driven drama even when removed from its of-the-moment focus on social media. Reductively speaking, it also excels as an anxiety Litmus test. You can either read its plot as a relatively low-stakes depiction of an adorable teen girl’s final week of middle school or as a horrifyingly relatable depiction of an anxious mess puzzling her way through a world that no longer seems conquerable & a changing self-identity she has little control over. I was personally watching it through my fingers as if it were a jump scare-heavy slasher.

16. Vox Lux – Brutal and coldly funny like a Yorgos Lanthimos film, yet absurdly earnest like a Mommie Dearest melodrama. A distanced philosophical statement on the current shape of Western pop culture, but also a gleefully perverse, intimate portrait of a woman behaving monstrously. Like mother!, Vox Lux is a divisive, shamelessly unsubtle work that gets outright Biblical in its internal, philosophical conflicts. It dares you to hate it, then asks for forgiveness. It spits in your face, then blows you a kiss.

17. The Favourite No matter how wild or devilishly cruel The Favourite may seem in a costume drama context, it’s also a rare glimpse of Yorgos Lanthimos on his best behavior. Part of this smoothing out of his most off-putting impulses is due to the setting; an 18th Century royal court is the exact right place for buttoned-up, emotionally distanced mockery of “civility,” whereas it often feels alien or robotic in his more modern settings. Still, the jokes fly faster & with a newfound, delicious bitchiness. The sex & violence veer more towards slapstick than inhuman cruelty. The Favourite is Lanthimos seeking moments of compromise & accessibility while still staying true to his distinctly cold auteurist voice – and it’s his best film to date for it.

18. Beast Partly a murder mystery concerning missing young girls in an isolated community, but mostly a dark romance tale about two dangerous people who can’t help but be pulled into each other’s violent orbits. There’s a distinctly literary vibe to Beast, nearly bordering on a Gothic horror tradition, that almost makes its modern setting feel anachronistic. The intense, primal attraction at the film’s core and the seedy murder mystery that challenges that passion’s boundaries make it feel like Wuthering Heights by way of Top of the Lake, like a modern take on Beauty & the Beast (except with two beasts).

19. Good Manners On a horror movie spectrum, this is more of a gradual, what-the-fuck mind melt than a haunted house carnival ride with gory payoffs & jump scares at every turn. Descriptors like “queer,” “coming of age,” “romantic,” “body horror,” and “creature feature” can only describe the movie in spurts as it loses itself in the genre wilderness chasing down the details of its own nature & narrative. It’s an unconventional story about unconventional families, one where romantic & parental anxieties are hard to put into words even if they’re painfully obvious onscreen. Anyone with a hunger for dark fairy tales and sincerely dramatic takes on centuries-old genre tropes are likely to find a peculiar fascination with the subtle, methodical ways it bares its soul for all to see. Just don’t expect the shock-a-minute payoffs of a typical monster movie here; those are entirely secondary, if they can be detected at all.

20. Hereditary Requires a little patience in allowing it to establish its peculiar version of atmospheric dread, but once the nightmare imagery & themes of familial resentment start piling up it more than makes up for the unease of that early stretch. Where it overachieves is in anchoring all of its glorious 70s-throwback horror vibes & stage play familial viciousness to the best Toni Collette acting showcase since Muriel’s Wedding (give or take a season of United States of Tara). You can’t overvalue a novelty like that.

-Brandon Ledet

Annihilation (2018)

More than once in the past week, my roommate has asked me what I was going to be doing this past weekend, and I said I was going to see Annihilation, and each time he asked “What’s that?”, to which I replied “The adaptation of the book that your sister gave me for Christmas in 2016.” Which she did! And I loved it! So much so that I couldn’t stop talking about it, and another friend got me the follow up novel Authority for my birthday a few months later, and I bought my own copy of Acceptance almost immediately after and finished that too. I was so excited when I heard that Alex Garland of Ex Machina fame would be directing the film of the book, and that the person I cast in my head as the biologist, Natalie Portman, would be playing the lead. Of course, there are valid concerns about the whitewashing of her character given that she’s part Asian (no specific nation of origin is given), but it’s also a piece of information that the reader doesn’t get until the second book, which had not been published at the time that Garland read Annihilation and started working on his script. If you’re curious, I imagined Angela Bassett as the psychologist, Michelle Rodriguez as the surveyor (a character who’s aggression and distrust was put on the paramedic character in the film but had a role on the team that was more like Novotny’s character’s) and Battlestar Galactica‘s Grace Park as the anthropologist (a character that is, for all intents and purposes, absent from the film). Those absences, changes, and additions should give you some indication of how far this film strays from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, but does that matter?

What makes a good adaptation? Is it a strict, lockstep adherence to the source material, ignoring the differences between the languages of film and prose? Can an adaptation’s value be measured as a quantifiable variable of pragmatism in the choices of what to include and exclude when translating to the screen? Is it the ability of the film to evoke the same emotional resonance or invoke the same themes as the original text, even if it has to take a different route to bring the viewer to the same place as the reader? Films that try to maintain a one-to-one textual match often don’t work; for all its other faults, David Lynch’s Dune adaptation, for instance, attempted to translate the internal monologues of multiple characters to film, which creates a muddled mess in the movie despite this being a common element of prose fiction. With regards to pragmatism, something like Watchmen (at least the director’s cut, although I know not everyone agrees) makes good choices with what it chooses to include while excising some subplots from the text that would interfere with the pacing of the film (like the extended pirate comic storyline) and updating other plot elements to remove the need for plot lines that can be easily removed without changing the overall tone (such as changing the psychic squid monster in the finale to something more grounded and closely related to the characters). And with regards to adaptations that are more loose but occupy the same rhetorical space, something like Wolfgang Petersen’s The NeverEnding Story would be a strong example, at least for me personally. I read the book no fewer than 30 times in my childhood and a dozen more since then, and I’ve seen the film innumerable times. Author Michael Ende hated the film version; it essentially adapts only the first half of the book, removes one of the challenges that Atreyu must face in order to get to the Southern Oracle, reuses the first “gate” as the Southern Oracle itself, and makes other changes. But they are both ultimately perfect fantasy stories for little bullied bookworms, creating a place for them to expand the horizons of their imaginations, regardless of the differences between the two texts.

Let’s get this out of the way as quickly as possible: if you’re looking for a close adaptation of the novel, you’re not going to find that here. This is A+ science fiction that also happens to be a D+ translation of the source material, if your qualifications for a good adaptation revolve solely around how closely the film version adheres to the novel. Garland has admitted that he thumbed through the novel and took only the most noteworthy elements and concepts—a government-backed all-woman expedition makes its way beyond an incomprehensible barrier into Area X, a place of strange mutations of both flora and fauna stemming back to an unknown catastrophic event—and made a standalone film without the intention of revisitation in future films. In a way, this is noteworthy in that it acts as the antithesis of current studio mandates, which prioritize franchise building over creating complete and whole narratives within a single film, even going so far as to split individual books (like The Deathly Hallows and Mockingjay) into multiple films. It’s for the viewer to decide if this is to the detriment of the film and its source material or not, but those of you hoping for an adaptation of the entire Southern Reach trilogy should manage your expectations now. And hey—that’s okay. The narrative conceit in the novel that all of the characters are nameless and identified only by their occupations, which works so well on the page both as a method for giving the reader the space to imagine each character in the way they see fit and as part of a larger theme about the absence not only of knowledge but perhaps even the possibility of comprehension, simply wouldn’t work on film. That’s not a fault of the film so much as a fact that must be accepted about the difference between different forms of media, and as such I can’t detract from the film because of it.

In the interest of full disclosure (and as a point of solidarity with my fellow book readers), I’ll attempt to describe the biggest changes. Spoilers for the film and the book series through the end of this paragraph. In addition to surface changes, like making the biologist (herein named Lena) ex-military and her husband (who is given the name Kaine) an active duty sergeant while removing this characteristic from the surveyor or increasing the number of explorers (there is a fifth member of the expedition in the novel, but she chickens out before they breach the barrier’s perimeter and never makes it into Area X), there are some pretty major changes. The nature of Area X is made much more explicit; throughout the trilogy, there is much discussion about whether or not Area X is mystical, extradimensional, or extraterrestrial in origin, and Acceptance strongly implies that the catalyst was at least somewhat supernatural in nature, given the role played by the two members of the Seance and Science Brigade and their experiments in the lighthouse. Again, the need for a more explicit explanation for the events is a consequence of the nature of film language, and isn’t a de facto negative. When a filmmaker sets out to make a single narrative out of the first book in a series with no intention to adapt the sequels, this is the more sensible tack, even if it runs the risk of alienating readers. But it is quite a shock to see the lighthouse consumed in flame at the end of the film if you’ve read Authority or Acceptance, in which the lighthouse and the revelations therein are pretty vital to understanding the overall mystery (insofar as it can be understood). By its very nature, this removes the significance of the fact that the psychologist grew up around the lighthouse and knew the keeper (who was mutated/duplicated into the Crawler, an important figure in the Annihilation novel) as a child, as well as her personal connection to Area X. The Crawler and its writing, which could rightly be called the most important part of the novel, is completely excised, removing the religiosity of the novel through the erasure of his sermon-like screeds. The fact that the biologist’s husband (‘s duplicate) lives through the end of the narrative, and that Area X is “defeated” instead of continuing to expand (so much so that the point of view characters in Acceptance end the novel attempting to find their way back out without knowing if there even is an “out” anymore, or if Area X has consumed the whole world) are also major changes. These omissions will likely be the most contentious issues with the film for readers of the books, but this still works for me as a “broad strokes” approach. Also gone are the hypnotic suggestion elements from the novel (in which all the expedition members submitted to psychological preparation for their journey, including post-hypnotic triggers to ensure that they make it through the barrier without being driven to madness, but which also makes the presence of the psychologist more sinister, as she exercises other psychic controls over the expedition, to which the biologist’s mutations make her immune). For me, the strangest change was making the biologist more likable and personable, but this is again a concession for the medium, as the original character and her motivations would be harder to communicate in a visual form.

But enough digital ink spent on those who are already familiar with the source material. Annihilation tells the story of Lena (Portman), an ex-military biologist now working for Johns Hopkins, whose active military husband Kaine (Oscar Isaac) disappeared one year prior on a classified mission. When he suddenly reappears one afternoon with no explanation of his whereabouts or even how he made his way home, their reunion is cut short when his organs fail. En route to the hospital, both Lena and her husband are taken by black ops military personnel; she wakes up in the headquarters of the Southern Reach, a clandestine government organization set up to investigate the nature of Area X, a location bounded by a shimmering barrier that is expanding and consuming more of the surrounding climes bit by bit, and within which bizarre mutations occur at an accelerated pace and from which no survivor other than Kaine has ever returned (at least according to the Reach itself; the post-expedition lives of survivors and “survivors” is an integral part of the later novels). The next expedition is set to breach the boundary soon, led by psychologist Gloria Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and staffed by physicist Josie Radik (Tessa Thompson), paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), and geologist Cass Shepherd (Tuva Novotny). Lena joins the expedition in order to find out the truth about what happened to her husband. Inside Area X, all five women are confronted by threats that are existential to them as individuals and members of a species that will not survive if Area X continues to expand.

The book’s unnamed protagonist, identified only as “the biologist,” has different motivations in the novel. Herein we learn that she cheated on her husband and she sets out to make things right by investigating the nature of Area X, but in the novel she is a withdrawn scientist whose oddities make it impossible for her to maintain employment that requires frequent interaction with other people; her fascination with Area X is piqued by her husband’s bizarre return and the apparent changes to his personality (which unfold over several months before he dies, as do all the other members of his expedition, all of which occur before the events of the novel), but which grow because of her fixation on ecosystems in miniature. This change makes her more relatable (with allowance for your mileage to vary) but also less interesting; her motivations are, for lack of a better term, pretty basic.

Since seeing the movie, I’ve had discussions with a few friends who also read the books and saw the movie. One agrees with me, that the film is less interesting than the books on a couple of levels, but allowances made for the language of film mean that it would have to be different, and the differences work for him as they do for me; another friend is annoyed that what he considers to be more “weird fiction” has been reduced to a pretty standard sci-fi story. I think that this is where the difference lies for me: although I wouldn’t call this movie “brave” like many reviewers have, especially given the above-mentioned reduction-to-baseness of both themes and character motivations, I would also never call it “standard” anything, despite the simplifications and changes to the plot. I’m not put out that we’re given an explanation of what Area X is or how life is changed within it, despite the fact that I’m usually annoyed or upset when existential Lovecraftian horror is reduced to something so banal that it is essentially devoid of everything that made it distinct (ahem). I guess why Annihilation still works for me while other works were diminished by being brought closer to earth is that this allows for greater characterization and a different kind of emotional investment.

I mentioned before that the lack of identifying names or characteristics in the source material thematically mirrored Area X itself: Area X and its interior are described in detail, but we’re never told anything about what the women in the expedition look like. Above and beyond the lack of names being enforced by the agency coordinating the breaches into the “shimmer,” this also puts us more firmly in the mind of the biologist, as she is completely disinterested in her compatriots and is invested only in the science of the region. As a reader, the currency of your imagination is to be spent on giving life to Area X and its beautifully deadly terrain and inhabitants, and using any iota of that brainspace on the members of Expedition 12 is wasted; in this way, the reader becomes the biologist, with a professional detachment that grows more clinical and distant as the plot unfolds (or unravels). Again, that’s something that simply wouldn’t work on screen, and by giving the biologist and her fellow explorers more depth (this one’s a recovering alcoholic, that one lost her daughter to leukemia, this one’s a cutter, that one’s dying of cancer), Garland changes the theme from that of emotional distance and disconnection, and perhaps the innateness to humanity of that feeling, into a focus on the (perhaps innate) tendency toward self destruction. That compulsion may, and sometimes does, overtake us while in the guise of something more clinically defined, but rebirth requires the complete destruction, the annihilation, of the self that existed before, down to the cellular level. It’s a change, but one that works to create a great piece of media in spite of its distance from VanderMeer’s novel(s).

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond