10 Must-See Films from the First Half of 2018

August 28, 2018

While you’ve been strapped to your desk and bolted behind conference room doors all year, you’ve likely missed out on what has been a surprisingly strong year at the movies (so far).

Thankfully, this upcoming Monday is Labor Day, which means that you’ll finally have a chance to catch up on some of the great films you may have missed from the first half of 2018.

Still, we know it can be overwhelming when deciding what films to watch on your big day off.

That’s why we at Applied Art & Technology have compiled the following list of the very best films we’ve seen so far this year. Using our list as a guide, we expect you to be adding a few of these cinematic gems to your watchlist on Monday (note: a couple films on our list may not be available in your area right now, but we encourage you to add them to your watchlist for the weeks immediately following Labor Day).

As you read on, you may find that we’ve left off some of this past summer’s biggest blockbusters. Our reasoning is quite simple. As digital storytellers, we’re more interested in the films that pushed the medium and took storytelling risks, rather than those that merely contributed to our growing franchise fatigue. (Avengers, we’re looking at you).

So, in the spirit of couch potatoes everywhere, let’s all kick back, pop some popcorn and get to movie watching!


10. You Were Never Really Here

The first film on our list is a pitch-black psychological thriller that is as visually breathtaking as it is dark and twisted.

Directed by Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay, You Were Never Really Here follows “Joe,” an eerily quiet hired gun (Joaquin Phoenix) who resorts to brutal means to rescue kidnapped girls from human traffickers.

While this plot may sound familiar to fans of crime dramas and detective stories, You Were Never Really Here proves to be anything but familiar. From frame one, Ramsay subverts viewer expectations by eliminating most expository dialogue and focusing instead on Joe’s inner torment as a way to foreground most of the horror that unfolds around him.

The film itself is an exercise in pure minimalism, with every second of its taut 90-minute running time proving to be more intense than the last. Ramsay simply never lets up throughout what can only be described as a harrowing plunge into the depths of one man’s damaged psyche.


Available to rent on Amazon Prime, Google Play and iTunes.


9. Three Identical Strangers

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to turn the corner one day and come face to face with your real-life doppelganger?

For three adult brothers, that unlikely scenario became an unexpected dream come true one fateful day in 1980. However, this dream would soon turn into a nightmare for all those involved, eventually calling each brother’s identity — and reality — into question.

The documentary Three Identical Strangers tells the unbelievably true story of David, Bobby and Eddy — triplets who grew up unaware of one another before reuniting after 19 long years of separation.

What makes Three Identical Strangers so compelling is the questions that filmmaker Tim Wardle poses as we dive deep into the triplets’ remarkable odyssey:

What, if anything, really constitutes one’s family? Is it nature or nurture that ultimately shapes who we are? And how much control do we have in defining our own identity?

The fact that Three Identical Strangers doesn’t always provide immediate answers isn’t what’s important. What really matters is that we’re asking at all.


Playing in select theaters; available to pre-order on Amazon Prime (release date: Oct. 2).


8. Annihilation

Writer-director Alex Garland’s sci-fi sleeper is a challenging and often unforgettable filmgoing experience — one that is sure to stay with you long after the end credits roll.

Set in an alternate reality to our own, Annihilation follows a group of military scientists who are tasked with entering “The Shimmer,” a mutating and ever-expanding zone into which all but one person have mysteriously vanished — or so we think.

The expedition is led by Lena (Natalie Portman), a soldier turned professor whose husband’s recent disappearance starts to haunt her upon entering the zone. Portman delivers a finely tuned performance here, expertly conveying the struggle to live with one’s self after being confronted with tragedy.

In a way, Annihilation serves as a spiritual successor to Garland’s first film, 2015’s masterful Ex Machina, in that it echoes many of the same weighty themes: creation, evolution and, ultimately, self-destruction.

The difference this time is that Garland seems to be more willing to take narrative and directorial risks — resulting in a wildly inventive, if not somewhat uneven, exploration of humanity’s true nature.


Available to rent on Amazon Prime, Google Play and iTunes.


7. Leave No Trace

Life. Love. Loss.

These are the major narrative beats that pulse throughout Leave No Trace, Debra Granik’s incredibly moving and powerfully naturalistic take on the bond between father and daughter.

The film centers on Will (Ben Foster), an Iraq War veteran suffering from PTSD, who lives off the grid with his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie).

Although living in almost complete isolation in the Oregon forests, Will raises his daughter with a love and compassion that would make most fathers jealous. Still, officers soon arrest the pair for illegally living on public land and place them into social services.

What follows is a deeply affecting journey about the uncertainty of parenthood and the fragility of father-daughter relationships — a fragility that’s echoed through the depiction of humankind’s tenuous relationship with nature.

In the end, Leave No Trace works so well because it achieves a confident simplicity that few films can. Anchored by two heartfelt performances and punctuated by gorgeous landscape photography, Leave No Trace serves as a tranquil and tragic meditation on what it means to let go and love.


Playing in select theaters; available to pre-order on Amazon Prime (release date: Oct. 2).


6. Tully

Being a mother is hard. This is a universally agreed-upon fact, and yet too few films have been made that seriously address the trials and tribulations of motherhood.

Enter Tully.

Led by Jason Reitman’s clear-eyed and empathetic direction, Tully boasts a career-best performance by Charlize Theron as Marlo, a mother of three who comes to befriend a night nanny named — you guessed it — Tully (Mackenzie Davis).

As Tully looks after Marlo’s newborn daughter and aids in other mothering duties, Marlo starts to feel rejuvenated as a mother again. It’s only then that an unexpected turn of events alters the trajectory of her life as she knows it.

In addition to Reitman’s direction and Theron’s magnetic performance, Tully largely succeeds off the strength of Diablo Cody’s screenplay. Cody somehow finds a way to carefully balance pathos with humor, all while peppering in elements of magical realism.

The result is a film that, despite wearing many different hats, finds a way to make it work out in the end — just as all great mothers do.


Available to rent on Amazon Prime, Google Play and iTunes.


5. Isle of Dogs

Combining his love for visually inventive animation, deadpan humor and, well, dogs, oddball indie director Wes Anderson may have made his most effortlessly enjoyable film to date.

Set in a dystopian Japan in which all dogs have been banished to a nearby island, Isle of Dogs follows a young boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin) who goes searching for his dog Spots on the titular isle.

Anderson directs this deceptively simple story with all the wide-eyed, childlike wonder you would expect from the eccentric auteur — fashioning each of his miniature mutts with a great deal of empathy and compassion.

The meticulously crafted stop-motion animation is gorgeously rendered, as well, and is reminiscent of 2009’s excellent Fantastic Mr. Fox. So, too, is the all-star voice cast of Anderson regulars (Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Scarlett Johansson and even Yoko Ono lend their vocal talents).

While also featuring some surprisingly dark turns and striking political undertones, Isle of Dogs continues Anderson’s long streak of serving up delectable storybook concoctions for anyone with a cinematic sweet tooth.


Available to rent on Amazon Prime, Google Play and iTunes.


4. Sorry to Bother You

Who says telemarketing is boring?

For first-time director Boots Riley, the widely despised profession serves as the backdrop for a biting social critique on race relations, consumerism and the toxicity of modern media.

Sorry to Bother You tells the story of Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a young African-American telemarketer who uses a white accent to climb the corporate ladder. Unfortunately for Cassius, his success leads to chaos in the form of government conspiracies, media frenzies and even scientific monstrosities.

In the end, Cassius must make a life-altering decision: continue to make money at the expense of others or join his activist friends in the fight for the common good.

Stanfield is joined by a stellar ensemble cast led by Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun and Armie Hammer, each of whom deliver offbeat performances that are wonderfully paired with Riley’s outlandish script.

Stylistically, Riley delivers the goods, as well.

With pulsating visuals and feverish editing to match its hard-edged satire, Sorry to Bother You proves to be a fiercely confident directorial debut for Riley. (And trust us: you’ll never listen to a telemarketer the same way again.)


Playing in select theaters; available to pre-order on Amazon Prime (release date TBD).


3. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Whether it was the song, the sweaters or the puppets, most everyone who was a child in the last 50 years can likely recall a moment from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that impacted them.

But what, exactly, does it mean to make an impact?

That’s what director Morgan Neville is intent on finding out in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the biographical documentary about the life and legacy of Fred Rogers.

From revolutionizing the look and feel of children’s programming to advocating in front of the United States Senate, Rogers knew how to make an impact on the hearts of thousands, young and old alike.

But, as Neville’s deeply moving documentary reveals, for every one of Rogers’ moments of triumph, there was a world of self-doubt and uncertainty bubbling beneath the surface.

Intercut with archival footage of Rogers’ personal interviews, moments from the original show and present-day reminiscences of those closest to him, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? takes an appropriately quiet and patient look at the man behind the sweater.


Available to buy on Amazon Prime, Google Play and iTunes.


2. First Reformed

42 years after penning the screenplay for the dark and disturbing Taxi Driver, it seems that writer-director Paul Schrader has tapped into that same darkness once again for First Reformed, a brooding examination of faith and despair in the 21st century.

First Reformed follows Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), a Protestant minister who pledges to write down all his thoughts in a journal for one year. Unfortunately for Toller, this simple exercise proves to be more and more difficult as he is faced with a number of moral and spiritual dilemmas.

Hawke gives an unforgettable turn as the Reverend Toller. Throughout the film, it feels like Hawke is carrying a lifetime of anguish in the worn and tired lines of his face, allowing the Reverend’s spiritual unraveling to slowly reveal itself through the subtlest facial expressions.

Schrader’s screenplay is equally spellbinding and even uncomfortably personal, at times. The film’s visual style reflects this unwanted intimacy, with Schrader opting for the boxy Academy aspect ratio of 4:3 to keep things small and claustrophobic.

It’s just one of the many artistic decisions in First Reformed that require a good deal of trust from the audience. Thankfully, the end result makes it all worth it with a truly rewarding and thought-provoking climax that only requires one thing: faith.


Available to rent on Amazon Prime, Google Play and iTunes.


1. BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansman may be the most important film Spike Lee will ever make in his long, prolific career. Rarely before has a film felt so urgent — so “of the moment” — and so necessary.

Based on actual events from the 1970s, BlacKkKlansman tells the outrageously true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a black detective in the Colorado Springs police department who works to expose the Ku Klux Klan.

To do so, Stallworth befriends members of the local KKK chapter by passing as a white man on the phone and working with Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a fellow detective who poses as the “white Stallworth” in person.

Lee allows this story to unfold with a stylistic flair that harkens back to past films like Do the Right Thing. Using dolly zooms, cross-cutting and image inserts, Lee’s free-flowing visual structure matches his storytelling approach, which involves breaking the fourth wall to startling success.

The cast is similarly impressive, with Washington and Driver delivering standout performances alongside Laura Harrier and Corey Hawkins (not to mention a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek cameo by Alec Baldwin).

But above all else, BlacKkKlansman is the most must-see film of 2018 (so far) because of its proud and unflinching condemnation of racism. It’s clear now that the phrase “Infiltrate Hate,” which appeared on many of the film’s theatrical posters, was much more than a marketing tagline.

It was a call to action.


Playing in theaters everywhere.