The "Whiff Test" Films of 2018

The basic parameters of the cinematic “Whiff Test” are this: these are films with some measure of artistic merit, but present themselves at a certain point during the screening where one senses a rather dreadful stench. You will also most likely see at least a handful of these choices on other critic’s best of the year lists. Therefore, there will be no VOD horror trash, big budget superhero fodder (Venom, natch), or lame romcoms represented here. Instead, my least favorite films of 2018 were movies that had all the ingredients for greatness, but somehow traveled too far up their own ass to survive. So, relax, sit back, and get a whiff of 2018’s most egregious turkeys.



Writer-director Alex Garland's sci-fi mission movie about a team of scientist officers traveling into a mysterious zone is a film of grand imagery, but little imagination, using trippy visuals to paper over thin characterizations and a lack of emotional depth. Why even venture into “The Shimmer“ if the results are this snooze-inducing?


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Private Life

Don’t let the fine acting and critical praise fool you; writer-director Tamara Jenkins’s latest is simply another “neurotic middle-aged white people bitching about their privilege” movies. New York artists trying to have children while undergoing a midlife crisis is the kind of bougie lameness we’ve seen for decades, and Jenkins’s combination of earnest drama and physical comedy is the type of forced “quirkiness” passing for realism that feels completely reductive in 2018.



Director Jason Reitman teams up with writer Diablo Cody for the third time for this annoying treatise on the barbarity of modern motherhood. Charlize Theron plays a very pregnant mum stuck in a boring marriage who hires a night nanny, and as magical-realist flourishes begin cropping up, Tully  shows its cards as a gimmicky narrative en route to the predictable character epiphany.


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Hold the Dark

Jeremy Saulnier’s latest thriller is mostly a laughable dirge into the abyss of human darkness which doesn’t seem to realize how ridiculous it is. Jeffery Wright plays an Alaskan wolf hunter. Alexander Skarsgård is a traumatized war veteran on a killing spree. Riley Keough is a stoic mother who likes wearing animal masks while naked. And the wolves (gasp!) are just a metaphor for the savage evil of humanity. Whiff.



Duncan Jones’s labored passion is like a watered down version of Blade Runner meets Minority Report in which a mute Amish bartender wades through a dystopian society looking for a missing waitress. Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux show up mugging wildly as private surgeons for a crew of gangsters, but the film’s crushing monotony and derivative world-building ultimately represents the nadir of Netflix-approved content.



How To Talk To Girls At Parties

Adapted from a Neil Gaiman short story of the same name by John Cameron Mitchell, this spirited mess about a young lad falling for an alien girl in 1970’s London attempts to merge the punk movement of the time with cultic kitsch, but ends up as a shallow tale of teenage awkwardness rather than a statement on individuality. Oh, and while it may be many things, it’s definitely not punk.


American Animals

A film that has no reason to exist, Bart Layton's fiction/nonfiction hybrid centered around the stealing of rare books from a Kentucky college’s library gives us four young men smugly attempting to atone for their sins. With its faux-heist signifiers and Eroll Morris-lite pretensions, American Animals is yet another pointless story humanizing bored white criminals. Yuck.

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22 July

The 2011 Norway attacks by Anders Behring Breivik that left 77 people dead was an unspeakable atrocity, and director Paul Greengrass cheaply uses this real-life tragedy as a soapbox for simplistic moralizing. The purpose here might be to open up a dialogue about how someone like Breivik exists, but there’s little artistic or political utility in Greengrass’s exploitative approach; rendering his film as yet another dramatic thriller trivializing actual human suffering.


Vox Lux

Vox Lux is Brady Corbet’s laughable commentary on the superficiality of celebrity; made all the more grating by Natalie Portman’s repetitive over-acting as an adult pop star in meltdown mode. The film lacks any real understanding of how pop music actually functions in society, instead choosing to show how pain, tragedy, and self-destruction is good for pop branding. Glib, banal, and condescending; Corbet ultimately adopts the same signifiers he’s seeking to condemn.

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Luca Guadagnino’s cover version of Dario Argento’s 1977 classic is self-serious nonsense which fails to deliver on even the most basic horror movie level. Tilda Swinton plays three roles. Nazism, political violence, half-hearted nods to feminism, and (gulp) old man confessionals about dead wives gets thrown into the mix. The film makes the fatal mistake of pivoting away from actually being a horror movie and talks down to an audience expecting genre thrills. Sadly, the only spell being cast by Guadagnino here is a steadily building sense of boredom.