It’s hard enough for those of us who make our bones watching and writing about movies to keep up with everything that’s released in any given year, so we’re acutely aware that it’s frequently even more difficult for general audiences. A lot of smaller films open in just a few theaters in just a few cities, and they generate so little publicity that even when they make their way to the home entertainment market, few people know to look for them. With that in mind, we’ve asked the RT staff to offer up their favorite movies that largely escaped mainstream attention, either because they weren’t widely available or because audiences might have forgotten they existed completely. From feelgood dramas and off-kilter comedies to fascinating documentaries and psychological thrillers, here are 11 staff favorites from 2018 that you might not have seen.
Inspired by ancient Chinese folklore, Big Fish & Begonia is a big hearted, beautifully rendered blend of 2D and 3D animation. It tells the story of Chun, a teenage girl from the land below our own. After embarking upon a traditional rite of passage for girls her age, Chun finds herself secretly taking care of the soul of a mortal boy named Kun, who must live as a dolphin on her supernatural plane. The closer the pair get, the harder it is for Chun to keep Kun a secret, forcing them to fight against everything Chun has ever known. Visually it’s stunning, the blend of animation styles creating a vibrant, dynamic viewing experience. And though Big Fish & Begonia’s fish tale may borrow from multiple Chinese myths, the heart of the film is as universal as storytelling itself; the only way through adversity is together. — Haña Lucero-Colin
South Korea has produced some of the most exciting filmmakers of the past couple of decades, and though he hasn’t generated the same headlines as some of his contemporaries, Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine, Poetry) certainly belongs in that group. Since his debut in 1997, Lee has grappled with the nature of grief, regret, aging, forbidden love, and even Korean history in five fantastic films, earning festival recognition and establishing himself as a filmmaker to watch. This year’s Burning, a deliberately paced psychological drama, might just be his masterpiece. The story centers on delivery man Jong-soo (Yoo Ah-in), who reconnects with free-spirited childhood friend Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo) by chance and agrees to catsit for her while she vacations in Africa. When Hae-mi returns with a new friend, the wealthy, polished Ben (Steven Yeun), a subtle rivalry ensues until Jong-soo begins to suspect there’s more to Ben than he’s letting on.
If this all sounds like a boilerplate melodrama, that’s by design, as Lee establishes the story in fairly conventional fashion before dropping odd details into the narrative, like a pianist intentionally hitting an off-key note every now and then to throw you off. After a while, though, the entire experience becomes a symphony of off-key notes all its own, and you’ll be scrambling to figure out why it’s so unsettling but so beautiful at the same time. All three of the leads are spectacular – you’ll never see Glenn from The Walking Dead in the same light again – and the cinematography floats between stark realism and dreamlike reverie effortlessly. This is not a conventional thriller by any means — it’s a slow burn, but it’s hypnotic and enthralling every step of the way. — Ryan Fujitani
If you only know Nick Offerman as the personification of masculinity himself — Parks and Recreation’s mustachioed, bacon-and-eggs-loving Ron Swanson — then you’ll be especially surprised by his portrayal of Frank, a gruff-but-sensitive widower whose only daughter is about to leave for college. The Brooklyn record store owner and his UCLA-bound offspring, Sam (Kiersey Clemons), begin to rethink their future plans when a song they recorded together goes viral. Offerman and Clemons’ performances (and incredible father-daughter chemistry) keep the earnest, feel-good film from being too cloyingly sweet, and there’s no question that Clemons is a star. Bonus: the titular song is GOOD. — Jean Bentley
2018 was an absolutely stellar year for young actors. Elsie Fisher and Thomasin McKenzie may have grabbed the most headlines (and accolades) but Rohan Chand (Mowgli), Storm Reid (A Wrinkle in Time), Julian Dennison(Deadpool 2), and Noah Jupe and Millicent Simmonds(A Quiet Place) equally impressed critics and fans. In the midst of such company, we could almost forgive you for missing Madeline’s Madeline and its breakout star Helena Howard’s performance. Almost. A vibrant visual feast, Josephine Decker’s “story-within-a-coming-of-age-story” mash-up sets itself apart from just about everything screened in 2018. The audacious and avant-guard Decker experimented with the boundaries of traditional cinema, and the results are breathtaking. In her debut performance, Howard plays Madeline, a young, mentally troubled performer workshopping a new play with her rag-tag theater group as she hopefully awaits acceptance to Julliard. The film seamlessly shifts focus between the dance troupe’s performance and Madeline’s real life, with Madeline’s mental illness and general weirdness wreaking havoc on both. In real life, Madeline is an outsider continuously torn between her biological mother Regina (Miranda July) and her adoptive mother/theater director Evangeline (Molly Parker). Every frame and movement is amplified because it’s translated through the mind of a crazy person. Though difficult to conceptualize, trust us when we say all this madness culminates in a stunning ending that leaves the audience in a daze and thinking about it long after the credits roll. — Jacqueline Coley
Director Jordana Spiro and co-writer Angelica Nwandu’s debut film is impressive, but it’s Dominique Fishback’s quiet performance as Angel LaMere that gives Night Comes On its power. After Angel (Fishback) is released from juvenile detention, she meets with an indifferent social worker and then goes about her original plan: to kill her father, who murdered her mother and escaped punishment on a legal technicality. First, Angel must find out where he lives from her younger sister, Abby (Tatum Marilyn Hall), who is currently in foster care. Abby can’t remember the exact address but swears that it’s by the ocean and that she will know how to get there once they arrive. This is the start of a journey that forces them together and provides glimpses of the stable households and nurturing families that could have taken their lives down a very different path. The film doesn’t objectify poverty and lack of privilege as much as it magnifies the siblings’ loneliness, which is never felt more keenly than when the two sisters are together on the screen. Night Comes On builds tension slowly, and Angel’s confrontation with her father is an understated showdown. Instead, the drama comes from Abby’s longing for some kind of connection butting up against Angel’s desire for revenge. Night Comes On avoids the kitchen-sink melodrama this type of film could have veered into, instead seizing the viewer with a disarming sincerity. — Sara Ataiiyan
Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life is deeply personal — a subtle love letter to creatives, to New York City, and in solidarity with families struggling to conceive. Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti star as Rachel and Richard, a couple of writers (one a novelist, the other a playwright) attempting to have a child. Some have called Private Life cynical, but it’s not marred by cruelty or resignation. Instead, it’s so vulnerably honest — brutally so, even in the face of the couple’s resilience — that it’s impossible not to empathize with the guilt and victimization they feel when they can’t get pregnant on their own, nor with help from a doctor. For Rachel, the circumstances feel unfair. For Richard, it is what it is. Their relationship becomes distant, even volatile at times.
What’s particularly special about Jenkins’ film is that it gives attention to the ways that women of different generations and social classes expect different outcomes for their adult lives. While Rachel takes her infertility as a personal failure, her young niece Sadie (played pointedly by Kayli Carter) has already decided she doesn’t want to have children if it means sacrificing her career. Sadie learned this philosophy from her mother, who repeatedly complained that she couldn’t possibly “have it all,” couldn’t have children and a career, had to choose one or the other, and chose having Sadie over having a job she loved. The nuance and depth of Private Life makes it one of the year’s best, and most underrated. — Sophie-Marie Prime
Available on: Netflix
This year has boasted a higher-than-usual ratio of terrific action thrillers and horror films alike, but the one gem where both genres formed a harmonious covalent bond was French writer-director Coralie Fargeat’s feature debut, Revenge. From the outset, Fargeat demonstrates a mastery over tempering audience expectation before delivering escalating shocks to their system. Revenge begins with such a dreamy sensuality that viewers would be forgiven for believing that they’ve embarked upon a soft-core travelogue until the film segues into a nightmarish chronicle of sexual violence, only to further unfurl into a supremely satisfying tale of reprisals and survival. This is exploitation cinema told with elegant style and an enthralling intimacy, laced with damning critiques of aggression and entitlement. Coralie also displays a keen eye for iconography, methodically bedecking star Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz in pink star earrings, a comically oversized rifle on her shoulder, and an eagle-shaped brand forged across her stomach: an action hero whose insignia is scar tissue created just to staunch the trauma. Revenge is agonizingly playful in indulging its genre trappings, but takes its heroine deadly seriously. It’s bold, nauseating, and vicious. It’s the most deft melding of horror and action thriller in 2018. — Robert Fowler
If director Sandi Tan’s documentary Shirkers was simply the story of three wildly talented Singaporean teenagers who spent the summer of 1992 making a movie together, it would be extraordinary in its own right. But Shirkers is so much more: a poignant character study, a meditation on a changing nation, and a twisty detective story. In 1992, Tan and her friends Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique made a Goddard-esque road movie called Shirkers which was filled with local color, surrealistic touches, and poignant autobiographical details. But when the trio left for college, the movie was more or less held hostage by their filmmaking mentor, the slippery, enigmatic Georges Cardona. The glimpses we see of the film are startling (Straits Times critic Tay Yek Keak said it could have changed the course of local indie film), but what ultimately makes Shirkers so touching is the bond between these three friends, who’ve never forgotten about the amazing thing they made together. — Tim Ryan
Available on: Netflix
Those familiar with writer-director Andrew Bujalski’s work will recognize some of the “mumblecore” master’s trademarks in Support the Girls. The slice-of-life kinda-comedy, which takes place over the course of a day at a Hooters-style restaurant named Double Whammies, is disarmingly low-key, devoid of any big belly laughs or sweeping emotional moments, and yet somehow always gripping and, in the end, incredibly moving. (You too will want to scream from a rooftop.) The story, such as it is, centers around Lisa Conroy (Regina Hall), Double Whammies’ manager, and her efforts to raise money for one of her out-of-luck waitresses, all as customers, fellow staffers, and her boss get in her way. Hall was named Best Actress by the New York Film Critics Circle for Support the Girls, which was a surprise only to those who’ve not seen the movie – she delivers the kind of natural, lived-in performance that should be drawing awards buzz. She’s well supported by Haley Lu Richardson (incredible as an only-seemingly ditzy waitress), and newcomer Shayna McHayle. Bujalski’s next move is something of a surprise: He’s penned the screenplay for Disney’s live-action/CGI remake of Lady and the Tramp. His attachment instantly makes it one of the Mouse House’s most interesting upcoming projects. — Joel Meares
Actor Anton Yelchin died in a tragic auto accident in 2016 at age 27. He left behind an impressive legacy – including his role as a young Pavel Checkov in the Star Trek franchise – and broad-reaching anguish over his loss as both a beloved friend and colleague and for the many roles he would not perform as one of his generation’s most promising actors. In his final role as drug dealer Tim in Thoroughbreds, Yelchin teamed with two other great acting talents of that same generation: Anya Taylor-Joy as Lily and Olivia Cooke as Amanda. The feature film debut from writer-director Cory Finley is based on his own play about two suburban girls – one rich and polished, the other smart but a social outcast – who rekindle their childhood friendship and find a deadly purpose in their unlikely bond. Thoroughbreds impressed on the festival circuit, where it was frequently nominated for top awards. The film is Certified Fresh on 140 reviews, with critics praising it as a refreshing take on the teen thriller genre. — Debbie Day
Officer Jim appears unprepared for any of life’s expectations — not from the creative expectations of his mother, not from a marriage which is ending in divorce with an ex-wife who hates him and a daughter who (probably) does too, and not from the violent vagaries of his cop job. And he’s utterly unprepared when those expectations are removed unfulfilled. Jim’s mother has died suddenly and the movie opens at her funeral, a solemn event Jim has chosen to express his grief through a silent pantomime to NOT Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” (the cherry-pink boombox he brought malfunctions). A video of this exhaustively practiced, poorly choreographed dance is shown at a perilous custody hearing. The aftermath results in Jim getting fired from the force. Every moment into and out these scenes of social dysfunction see Jim twisting the knife even further into his own gut, and actor Jim Cummings (who also wrote and directed) finding new expressions of bald, naked emotional breakdown — and sometimes physical, down to the undies. This is a soulful and wretched performance, captured with crushing long takes in a tragicomedy that expertly gauges how much a scene, and the people watching, can endure. Thunder Road is the kind of movie that rides up to the edge of reason, looks back with a smirk, and jumps off, limbs akimbo. Then it re-appears behind you with a tap on the shoulder, no promise that it won’t take you down with it the next time. — Alex Vo