The 2019 Academy Awards boast a couple excellent films in the Best Picture category, plus one groundbreaking film, one flawed but deeply important film, one perennial golden child, and three films ranging from middling to abominable. But, expanding our scope beyond these strange bedfellows of quality, 2018 was actually a pretty good year for film. Any “Best of 2018” list would surely feature Roma and The Favourite, but here are ten other films that were overlooked by the Academy but should not be overlooked by any true cinephiles.
10. Sorry to Bother You, dir. Boots Riley
Sorry to Bother You is the consensus pick of the year, both fun and smart, able to please mainstream and indie crowds alike. Lakeith Stanfield has so far shown his acting chops in every genre of film — drama (Short Term 12), comedy (Atlanta), horror (Get Out) — and Boots Riley’s debut feature allows him to bring all those skills together in one place. Sorry to Bother You has a cinematic language that borrows from so many places it’s nearly limitless. For a first time director that can be a lot to juggle, and there are a few instances where the balance gets a little unwieldy (as in Tessa Thompson’s character, who is at the center of a limpid love triangle and seems to suggest more symbolic value than her character ever delivers on), but, otherwise, Sorry to Bother You is so fresh, original, and unpredictable, that it’s one of the most eminently rewatchable films of the year.
On top of that, a film finally exists where capitalism and the exploitation of workers is actually the explicit villain, where the struggle of unions is dramatized in something other than a labor documentary from the ’70s, and where the intersection of racism and capitalism is blatantly exposed and deconstructed. While BlacKkKlansman is a movie for our time, Sorry to Bother You is a movie of our time.
As a film, it’s way too weird and confrontational to ever be considered for something as mainstream and stuffed-shirted as the Academy Awards, but, at least, this film’s critical and box office successes ensure we’ll be seeing more from Boots Riley down the line.
Available to stream on Hulu.
9. You Were Never Really Here, dir. Lynne Ramsay
You Were Never Really Here is an immersive meditation on the damaged self, where living is a garbage heap of the psyche. The only recourse the two protagonists have is to numb themselves to the terrors of the past and of the present, to dissociate, the title of the film like their life-affirming mantra. Lynne Ramsay’s direction is trance-like. Physical minutiae — objects, details, fragments of the environment — fill her frame with an intensity and persistence that can only be described as psychological, and flashbacks heedlessly tear and rend the present moment into a mincemeat of emotional carnage. For Ramsay, these characters’ traumas are not things to observe, but states to experience. They are fractured human beings, and we, the viewers, experience the fractures just as they do.
Ramsay and Joaquin Phoenix have picked up a handful of awards and nominations, for Best Director and Best Actor respectively, from critics associations throughout the year, but no one really expected a film this gritty and abrasive to be an Oscar contender. Johnny Greenwood joins his Radiohead colleague Thom Yorke, who did the score for Suspiria, in being snubbed in the Best Original Score category.
Available to stream on Amazon Prime.
8. Happy as Lazzaro, dir. Alice Rohrwacher
With its unsuspecting diptych structure, Happy as Lazarro takes about an hour to reveal just what kind of film it really is, when Italian neorealism suddenly makes a swift turn towards magical realism and this slice of life pastoral develops into an urban fairy tale. At the center is Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo). Although a somewhat vacuous, motiveless character in his eternal goodness, the kindness of his eyes and his radiant cherub face give his presence on screen a magnetic force nonetheless. He seeks no advantage over anyone, but what is to become of such a person in a world where the chains of exploitation are inescapable?
Writer-director Alice Rohrwacher gives her tale a whimsical and hopeful quality, but ultimately the message is as bleak and devastating as other such 2018 films that attempt to grapple with the ills and excesses of humankind on this earth, such as First Reformed and Lean on Pete. There’s something solemn in the air this year, and it’s blown a grim overcast into the cinematic world, as well.
Lazzaro was a standout at Cannes and competed for the Palme d’Or. Ultimately, Rohrwacher went home with the prize for Best Screenplay.
Available to stream on Netflix.
7. Eighth Grade, dir. Bo Burnham
In his directorial debut, acclaimed comedian Bo Burnham manages to capture the timelessness of adolescent social anxiety. Eighth Grade is a film that anyone who has made it beyond the eighth grade can relate to, but alongside this squirmy intergenerational familiarity, Burnham has elucidated an experience specifically modern, no older than the teenagers who populate his film. Today, compounding the typical angst related to burgeoning self-presentation is the insistent funhouse mirror of social media. With eyes constantly glued to screens and the unending compulsion to curate their lives onto those screens, the ability for young people to find comfort within self-discovery has never been so challenging and so tenuous as it is right now. In tackling the mental state of today’s adolescents, Burnham’s film is as illuminating as it is enrapturing.
Burnham has brought home a slew of awards from critics associations for Breakout Film of the Year or Best Debut Feature, and the young Elsie Fisher has received her own fair share of recognition, including a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress- Musical or Comedy.
Available to stream on Amazon Prime.
6. Wildlife, dir. Paul Dano
Paul Dano and his partner, Zoe Kazan, adapted Wildlife from the novel by Richard Ford. The story concerns three souls captive to each other — a mother, a father, and a child — and the ruptures that occur when the need to survive individually tears at the bonds of family collectively.
To see Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal, masters of their craft, seated across the kitchen table from each other, locked in the disquiet of matrimonial turbulence, is a thing to behold, both beautiful and wrenching in its turn. Dano, situated behind the camera rather than in front of it, obviously taking cues from his own experience as an actor, refrains from letting style intrude on performance. He keeps his images crisp, clean, and efficient. They’re gorgeous without being gaudy, allowing the strength of the ensemble to conduct the emotional current of the film.
This film is a crowd-pleaser, with a 94% score on Rotten Tomatoes, but, unfortunately, its crowds were rather small. Wildlife’s limited theatrical release was not nearly enough exposure for this deserving cast and crew. Find it on digital or DVD as soon as it’s available to witness these veteran actors and this burgeoning auteur deliver one of the most satisfying domestic dramas of the year.
5. The Old Man and the Gun, dir. David Lowery
The Old Man and the Gun is the kind of film that slaps a big grin on your face right from the start. Part of the effect is certainly the easy charm of the leading man, Mr. Robert Redford, who still somehow maintains a look of boyhood innocence just behind the creases of age. The amiably paced story is another factor. This film isn’t afraid to take its time, but it’s still capable of surprising its audience around every turn. Most of all, this film exudes a love for movies and for moviemaking more than anything. Writer-director David Lowery, steeped in the film aesthetics of the 1970s, proves himself both an aficionado and a worthy craftsman of cinematic art.
Some may consider Old Man and the Gun too light of fare for major awards-talk, but, that’s actually part of the film’s appeal — it’s smoothness, never so bulky that it staggers under its own weight. It’s clean and fun, fully aware of what kind of film it is, and, with that knowledge, it succeeds to a tee.
Available to rent on digital.
4. Burning, dir. Lee Chang-dong
Although sufficiently more fleshed out than Haruki Murakami’s original short story, Lee Chang-dong’s film manages to capture a similar laconic eeriness. In both the story and the film, life’s mysteries are imbued with dark poetry. At two and a half hours, the film’s pacing may seem laborious at times, but the attentive viewer will find the sequences expertly and precisely curated. Each image has essential information to impart, and Lee does an excellent job situating this small, intimate portrait of three individuals within a larger atmosphere of late-capitalist cultural malaise (even Trump makes a brief, poignant cameo via South Korean television).
A mid-point sequence involving a sunset, Miles Davis, and an interpretive dance is perhaps the most beautiful and mesmerizing scene of 2018, made all the better for how it lingers just a little past its due.
Auspiciously, this film was able to connect well with American critics and the small slice of American audiences that made it to their local art-house cinema during its theatrical run. Considering the universal praise among its viewership, it’s all the greater shame this magnificent work of art did not earn a Best Foreign Language Film nomination, but, at least, it was the first ever Korean film to make the Oscar shortlist for that category.
3. The Rider, Chloé Zhao
Chloé Zhao’s film is poetic in the best possible way. The images are not simply stunning; they’re empathic. Zhao immerses her viewers in the obscure world of North Dakota rodeos and masterfully articulates with her camera and storytelling the hopes and fears specific to that culture. Her central performer, Brady Jandreau, plays a role based in part on his own life, and he acts opposite his real-life father and sister, and even his real-life friends. There is an immediacy to the performances, an intimacy to the exchanges, and a touch of the sublime in how the animals and landscapes are so intrinsically woven into the fabric of their lives.
There are moments in The Rider of such transcendental beauty that one is tempted to describe the film as a “meditation,” but that would belie the visceral tension and emotional urgency underlying so much of its runtime. It’s rare that a film so gorgeous in its telling truly has something to tell, but The Rider is one such film.
It won Best Picture awards from the Gotham Independent Films Awards, the National Review Board, and the National Society of Film Critics. Unfortunately, The Rider was completely shut out from the Oscars this year, but, it’s safe to say that Chloé Zhao will be receiving attention from the Academy in years to come.
Available to rent on Vudu.
2. First Reformed, dir. Paul Schrader
Life seems drained from the palette of cold grays. Paul Schrader’s imperatively symmetrical compositions, presented in letterbox format, rather than connoting a world in balance, suggest an environment menacingly overwrought and rigidly confining. As a kind of twenty-first century update to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, which Schrader wrote, a personal crisis of faith for one man conjoins the global crisis of climate change. Urgency beats at the heart of this film as a pastor, knotted with despair, reaches out to hope, purpose, and forgiveness for himself and all of mankind.
Ethan Hawke gives an absolutely devastating performance as Reverend Ernst Toller, the very best of his career, and the Academy missed a major opportunity in not nominating him for Best Actor. Hawke cleaned up at Oscar precursor award ceremonies, claiming a total of 32 Best Actor awards from different film critic associations. First Reformed, however, did receive an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
Available to stream on Amazon Prime.
- If Beale Street Could Talk, dir. Barry Jenkins
If Beale Street Could Talk is one of 2018’s true titans of cinema, standing shoulder to shoulder with Roma. It bathes you in velvet while it digs daggers into your heart. Barry Jenkins has achieved a masterwork of cinema, a film like a fine piece of music, and one that exceeds even his Best Picture-winning Moonlight (although, perhaps the afterglow from that film has in some ways unfavorably colored the reception of this one).
The rhapsodic storytelling swirls in and out of a moment in time. The characters are abandoned to history, stuck, while their story and their love lash out at their temporal confines. In the end, they are in much the same place as in the beginning, but so much has radiated outward without at all moving forward.
James Laxton’s sensuous cinematography drapes every moment with heart-stopping beauty, as if to say, “Look at how much good is available in this world and how greedily the world tries to hold it from these people.” In close-up, Beale Street is a study of black skin: the wise, weathered etchings in faces young and old alike, of Stephan James and of Colman Domingo; the smooth globe of Kiki Layne’s visage; the dark shining vibrancy of Brian Tyree Henry.
Although Bradley Cooper’s miss at a Best Director nomination is the most talked about snub of the year, the greatest travesties of the 2019 Academy Awards will be Jenkins’ absence from that category and Beale Street being overlooked for an anodyne film like Green Book in the Best Picture race. Jenkins is nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, and Regina King is favored to win Best Supporting Actress, but these honors recognize only a small sliver of Beale Street’s achievements.
What the Academy got most right is nominating Nicholas Britell for Best Original Score after the Golden Globes failed to do so. His elegiac music dips and soars, makes your restful in body and earnest in soul. A statue for Britell would be a small acknowledgement for this immense work of art.
Disclaimer: This list was compiled before the author was able to see The Sisters Brothers, Suspiria, At Eternity’s Gate, Vox Lux, Destroyer, Cold War, and Never Look Away. If any of these films are deserving but not present, that is why.