We are nearly three months into 2019 and we’re still not done discovering hidden gems from the last year. 2018 wasn’t the best year for great films which were also popular. It’s enough to look at this year’s Academy Awards to see that, with a few exceptions, the best films of 2018 were not necessarily the most talked about. With this list, we are trying to shed light on some great 2018 films which we haven’t yet talked about and we think deserve more recognition.
Note: Some of the films on this list initially premiered at 2017 film festivals, but we took into consideration their general release date.
1. What They Had
With a great cast and a heartfelt story, this is one of the best family dramas we’ve seen last year. “What They Had” had its world premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and is the debut film of director/screenwriter Elizabeth Chomko. It stars Michael Shannon and Hilary Swank as Nick and Bridget, two siblings who reunite in their hometown of Chicago after their mother (Blythe Danner) starts showing signs of dementia and their father (superbly played by the 77 years old Robert Forster) is unable to accept her illness.
While there is nothing thoroughly original about the film’s plot and mise en scène, we were really impressed with all the performances given by its main cast and we think it is a shame they didn’t get any recognition this awards season. Throughout the short yet eventful 98 minutes running time, they managed to give life to a very convincing, real-life family which we cared about and this is what made the film work.
2. Night Comes On
Jordana Spiro’s first feature film tells the powerful story of two sisters who embark on a journey of revenge after their father murders their mother but manages to stay out of prison due to lack of evidence.
Angel (Dominique Fishback), the older sister, was just released from juvenile detention and she is not the most charismatic protagonist. She is about to turn 18 years old, but she seems to have lost her childhood innocence. On the outside, she comes across as a tough young woman, but it’s obvious that she is very troubled and you can see the sadness in her eyes. The death of her mother has turned her whole world upside down and she is determined to avenge her murder, but the fact that the person who she has to kill is her own father makes it a most painful task.
On the other hand, her sister Abby (Tatum Marilyn Hall) is still a child and she doesn’t really seem to realize the wrongfulness of her life. We wouldn’t say that she is joyous, but the death of her mother hasn’t had the same impact as it had on her older sister. It’s the benefit of being a child: you don’t fully understand the world around you.
The actresses playing the two sisters did a great job in portraying their characters and they really made them feel like real people. However, the glue that holds it all together is the simple yet effective script which was written by Jordana Spiro with the help of Angelica Nwandu and proves once again that sometimes, when making a good film, less can be more.
“Night Comes On” premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and was met with positive response from critics. Still, despite its perfect 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 45 reviews, if we are to look at the low number of audience ratings on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes (under 400), it seems that most people haven’t seen it yet. We found Jordana Spiro’s gritty and intimate story of revenge and forgiveness to be among the most moving dramas we’ve seen last year and we can only recommend it.
Keira Knightley gives one of the best performances of her career as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, the famous early 20th-century French female novelist best known today for her 1944 novella “Gigi”, which was later turned into an Oscar Best Picture winner film and a Broadway musical. “Colette” follows its titular character from her early days as a young woman living in the French village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye to her marriage to the Parisian author and publisher Henry Gauthier-Villars (or Willy), for whom she worked as a ghostwriter and wrote the Claudine series of novels.
With fantastic set and costume design, an uplifting soundtrack from British composer Thomas Adès, great direction from Wash Westmoreland (we also recommend his 2014 film “Still Alice” starring Julianne Moore as a woman fighting dementia) and above all the outstanding central performance from Knightley, “Colette” has everything we love about costume dramas and we can’t get our heads around why it has slipped under the radar for most filmgoers.
4. We The Animals
Based on Justin Torres’ 2011 short novel of the same name, “We the Animals” gives us a glimpse into the childhood of Jonah, Manny and Joel, three brothers growing up in a dysfunctional family from Upstate New York during the 1980s.
The brothers are played by Evan Rosado, Isaiah Kristian and Josiah Gabriel, three child actors who are acting for the first time. Jeremiah Zagar did a great job directing the three kids. Their bond feels so authentic and for most of the film they come across as one entity rather than three individuals.
Later in the film, Jonah (Evan Rosado) begins to separate himself out from the “pack” and the film turns him into a protagonist. We are seeing the dreamlike way in which he perceives the world, we watch him escaping reality with his colorful, raw drawings (which come to life during some short animated sequences) and we witness his early sexual development after he befriends an older boy whose main occupation is listening to heavy metal and watching adult VHS tapes in his basement.
At the same time, the film shows us the violent relationship between the children’s parents, a relationship which visibly affected the boys’ development. The father (or Paps) is a very charismatic man with a big personality and he seems to love his wife, but his aggressive, hot-headed nature gets the best of him and his arguments with his wife often turn into violent outbursts.
We are not going to spoil the rest of the film for you, instead we’ll just say that “We the Animals” was fascinating to watch and a great film from all points of view, starting from its ethereal cinematography and soundtrack to the direction, well-adapted script and very natural performances given by its cast of virtually unknown actors.
5. Claire’s Camera
“Claire’s Camera” stars Kim Min-hee as Man-hee, a film sales assistant who’s accompanying film director So Wan-soo (Jung Jin-young) and her boss Yang-hee (Mi-hee Chang) at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. The film starts with her being unexpectedly fired by her boss for no apparent reason except her “dishonesty”. Man-hee then begins meandering the Cannes waterfront and wonders what she did wrong.
Later, in a series of flashbacks, we are introduced to the character of Claire (played by the always wonderful Isabelle Huppert), a Parisian music teacher and amateur photographer who’s visiting Cannes for the first time. While at a café, Claire befriends Man-hee’s boss and director Wan-soo. Things get interesting when she starts showing them her photos and they recognize Man-hee in one of them. Suddenly, everything we’ve seen in the film so far starts to make sense.
A France-South Korea co-production, “Claire’s Camera” was first screened at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, but was widely distributed only in 2018. Director Hong Sang-soo shot the film while he was at the 2016 edition of the Cannes festival and set it during the festival itself, which makes it kinda meta. While we wouldn’t call it a fully-fledged film (its mere 69-minutes running time makes it feel more like a lengthy short), we really enjoyed its nonlinear storytelling, the natural looking cinematography and Huppert’s scene-stealing performance.