LAST YEAR, FOLKS in the US spent $11 billion going to the movies. Yet the bulk of those people, and those dollars, went to the mega-blockbusters—the Panthers, the Venoms, the Avengerseseses. Even though indies are getting a renaissance thanks to streaming services, there’s just not the same thriving middle-class that there was in decades past, and a ton of legitimately great films still don’t get in front of as many eyeballs as they should. So, fine, you let some smaller gems slip by; now’s your chance to make things right. Got a few free evenings over the holidays? Queue up these 2018 unsung heroes first.
Amazon Studios’ art-house horror flick did modestly well in its small theatrical run, but limited distribution meant it didn’t get the attention it deserved. Directed by Call Me By Your Name‘s Luca Guadagnino, the film is, on the surface, a remake of Dario Argento’s horror classic of the same name. But it’s also much, much more than that. (Star Tilda Swinton, who actually plays a few roles in the film, went so far as to refer to it as a cover version of Argento’s original.) Beautifully shot, with an appropriately haunting performance by Dakota Johnson, this Suspiria goes beyond the tale of a witch-run dance school by digging its nails into the many ways the past will forever haunt us. It’s not for everybody, but if you have an itch for something truly gruesome and mind-bending, this’ll scratch it. —Angela Watercutter
Here’s a sentence I never imagined myself writing in 2018: Ethan Hawke gave one of the best performances of the year. It’s not that I didn’t think he was capable; I just didn’t see him showing up in a dark eco-conscious Paul Schrader film wherein he plays an alcoholic priest trying to keep his sanity and his congregation together. And yet, here we are. Moody, existential and even a little bit ethereal, First Reformed is one of the year’s craziest headtrips—right down to the ohshitwhatthefuck? ending. It got a very limited theatrical run but has been playing free to Amazon Prime subscribers for a while now (as well as Kanopy). If you happen to be one—or even if you’re not—go watch it immediately. —A.W.
I’ve tried half a dozen times to explain director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s teleportative tale—about an ad hoc family living in near-poverty in urban Japan—and failed in each instance. So instead, here’s what Shoplifters is not: mawkish (though it is deeply moving); downbeat (despite its character’s increasingly desperate turns); nor needlessly twisty (though the family’s backstory is full of slow-building surprises). Instead, it’s a lovely, quite funny accounting of ordinary people staring down extraordinary circumstances with pragmatism, wits, and sporadic joy. And, in a year full of movies that viewed tough realities with deep empathy—from Roma to First Reformed to First Man—it’s the denizens of Shoplifters that have lingered in my mind the longest: Wondering where they are now, hoping everything turned out OK. —Brian Raftery
You know what sucks? The fact that so few movies today are confident enough to feature coked-out demon biker gangs, strange Jesus cults, and a truly off-the-leash Nicolas Cage. Luckily, though, there’s Mandy—director Panos Cosmatos’ movie starts with that grand trifecta and goes about a thousand steps further. Shot using lush nighttime colors that would make the Stranger Things crew jealous, the revenge tale follows Cage’s Red Miller as he goes searching for his girlfriend who has been taken in by the aforementioned cult. Explaining it any further would ruin the fun (it’s also kind of impossible), but rest assured it has one of the best eviscerations of fragile masculinity ever put onscreen. —A.W.
Miseducation of Cameron Post
If you were an indie movie fan in 1999, you remember a delightful little film called But I’m a Cheerleader. It starred RuPaul as an instructor at a gay conversion camp and Natasha Lyonne and Clea DuVall as two of the unfortunate souls sent there for “treatment.” The Miseducation of Cameron Post, based on Emily M. Danforth’s novel of same name, is a much, much less campy version of that. In it, Chloë Grace Moretz plays the titular Cameron, a teenage girl who gets sent off to a conversion camp after getting caught in the back of a car with another woman the night of her prom. Heartwarming and heartbreaking, director Desiree Akhavan’s adaptation of Danforth’s novel is as vital and necessary as Cheerleader was in the late-1990s. It just has fewer laughs. —A.W.
The last time you heard from (or about) agit-pop hitmaker M.I.A. it likely had something to do with her flying her middle finger at the Super Bowl or the term “truffle fries.”That was years ago, and a lot has changed in terms of how the public, and pop culture, treats its female artists. Well, maybe not a lot, but there’s been progress—and in Steve Loveridge’s documentary, the ways in which Maya Arulpragasam was mistreated and misunderstood couldn’t be more obvious. Built on archive footage and personal footage shot by the Sri Lankan artist over years and years, it creates a fuller picture of M.I.A. than any magazine profile or online hot take ever could. It might be a little late, but it’s also right on time. —A.W.
The set-up for Sandi Tan’s autobiographical Netflix doc sounds like something out of a pop-culture thriller: In 1992, Tan and two other bright, outsidery teenage girls decided to make a semi-surrealist feature film in their home country of Singapore. They were aided by a mysterious older American man who absconded with the footage—and then all but disappeared from their lives. Yet Tan’s story doesn’t involve tidy resolutions or shocking twists. Instead, Shirkers is actually something infinitely more compelling: A gorgeous-looking self-interrogation about creativity, power, and the strange twilight zone between adolescence and adulthood. It also contains the most succinct one-liner about ’90s alt-teen life I’ve ever heard: “When [we were] were 14,” Tan says of her pals, “we discovered unusual movies and unpopular music.” Decades later, they all reunited for a film more unusual and profound than they ever intended. —B.R.
Here’s the thing about Tully: It builds up to one really great twist. I won’t reveal it here, and maybe you’ll guess it before getting to the end anyway, but it’s a gut-punch. Before that happens, the setup is fairly simple. Marlo (Charlize Theron), a mother of three children, hires hip twentysomething Tully (Mackenzie Davis) as a nanny for her new baby. Over the course of weeks, Marlo and Tully become close and Marlo begins to yearn for the life she had when she was Tully’s age. Sounds dry, but this is a project from director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, a pair that has wrung blood, sweat, and tears out of domestic dramas (Juno, Young Adult) twice before—and does so double-time here. The quest to prolong youth while also raising children has never been so cuttingly portrayed. —A.W.
I truly thought that nothing could top Suspiria for the most haunting final moments of any film in 2018. I was wrong. Director Yorgos Lanthimos’ film about the love/hate triangle between Queen Anne of England (Olivia Colman) and her companions Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) ended on a note so unsettling, I’m still not done processing it weeks later. (I won’t spoil it, but I will say I’ll never look at rabbits the same way ever again.) Much like with his film The Lobster, Lanthimos’ latest lands somewhere in the gaps between drama and farce. It is, instead, a crooked glance at humanity’s relationship to power—the things people do to get close to it, to claim it, and to throw it away. In Lanthimos’ askew version of history, when Sarah’s relationship with the Queen is threatened by the arrival of her cousin Abigail, she does what she feels she must do to wrest back control and steer Queen Anne’s War to her liking. Anne, sensing the manipulation, grows closer to Abigail, only to realize her intentions might not be much better. It’s an unparalleled study in the utter lack of trust that accompanies being in charge, in the dread that comes with knowing those who seek your favor may never have pure intentions. It’s as bleak as it is laughable—and one of the most wonderfully weird tales to hit the screen this year. —A.W.
Director Alex Garland‘s adaptation of the first book of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy was easily one of the best dystopia films of 2018. It was also one of the year’s finest specimens of female badassery, featuring Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as a team sent on a expedition to find out why nature’s rules seem not to apply in the mysterious, government-protected space known as Area X. Haunting, unpredictable, and science-y (someone turns into a plant!), it was a whirlwind head trip—and a weird examination of what it means to exist. —A.W.
Even the title strikes fear in the hearts of anyone who didn’t have the easiest time walking the halls of their middle school/junior high. In writer-director Bo Burnham’s film, that uneasiest of times is compounded by the fact that it takes place in the modern world, where all insecurities are reinforced by un-Liked Instagram posts and unreceived Facebook invites. Heroine Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) knows she’s on a pretty low rung in her school’s social hierarchy and with each new YouTube video she posts full of advice she doesn’t take, her story becomes more and more poignant, more and more real. And whether you grew up in the social media age or not, it’ll punch you in the heart—and make you glad you survived adolescence intact. —A.W.
Leave No Trace
Debra Granik, who every reviewer will remind you made a star out of Jennifer Lawrence with her film Winter’s Bone, pulled off another wrenching look at a family on the edges with this year’s Leave No Trace. When Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin McKenzie)—a father-daughter pair who have been living off-the-grid outside Portland, Oregon for years—are arrested and put in the system, it tests their bond in new ways, and exposes Tom to a life unlike the one she’s lived with her father. Granik’s latest is almost deafening in how quiet it is, but its message about finding one’s place in the world is loud and clear. —A.W.
Three Identical Strangers
Were you surprised by the twist? What about the one after that? These are kind the kinds of questions folks ask you after seeing this documentary about three identical triplets who discover each others’ existence in their teenage years. At the time they found each other, they became America’s latest talk show feel-good story and national intrigue. Everything that happened after that, though, is so unbelievable it pushes all boundaries of credulity. It’s a Can you believe? story that quickly becomes an examination of heredity and (possible) corruption that goes beyond unbelievable into truly mind-boggling. —A.W.