20 Criminally Overlooked & Underrated Films of 2018
2018 has been a great year for films. The year saw young film-makers marrying off inventive techniques and narrative craft with strong content that redefined the genre in itself [The Wolf House, Long Day’s Journey Into the Night, Madeline’s Madeline, The Endless, Searching]. 2018 also witnessed veteran film-makers like Lars Von Trier [The House That Jack Built], Gaspar Noe [Climax], Paul Schrader [First Reformed] making strong films in their familiar space. Most of the best movies of 2018 belong to Indie films, while popular, big production house films like Mission Impossible: Fallout, Avengers: Infinity War, Ready Player one and Black Panther made their presence felt with their strong content. Everyone saw films that surfaced well on whatever platform their boat sailed to. But there were some rather unfamiliar films that never saw the light of the day. These films need your instant attention, here goes our list of 20 most overlooked and underrated films of 2018.
20. Wrath Of Silence | Xin Yukun | China
The deafening silence of the mute protagonist echoes the rampant corruption and conservatism in China that has slowly snipped the light of hope away from the working class. It has pushed them in deep darkness. Like the pitch black of a coal mine deep within the womb of earth with no light and no comfort, a black that even absorbs hope. Set amidst the backdrop of the dead mountains of Baotou, an industrial city in Mongolia, where the intense mining of natural mineral resources has transformed the mountainside pasturelands into an inhospitable, dry & lifeless desert, a wasteland.
Xin Yukun’s “Wrath of Silence” is a gritty romanticism of apathetic condition of the labour class in North China who are exploited by their own people, who climbed up to efficacious dominance by corruption & deception, and alarming state of industrialization leaving a permanent scar on nature and working class people.Xin Yukun achieves the remarkable feat of sketching three contrasting characters and giving each of them enough breathing room to evolve, and providing the audience with an opportunity to root for or against them. He beautifully illustrates how the discriminatory division of Chinese economy has given incessant rise to social inequality.
Read the complete review of the Wrath of Silence here
19. A Prayer Before Dawn | Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire | UK
Anchored by Joe Cole’s staggering performance, heart-wrenching ‘A Prayer before dawn’ lands a violent punch in your gut, kicks in your balls, and leaves you unsettled after the end credit rolls. The film is as good as black and white, without the shades of grey, no metaphors; An English guy caught by police for an illegal possession of a gun and arrested, put up for three years in a Thai jail that could softly be described as hell.
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Billy is locked in a kind of a jail where survival matters, every day is a struggle unless you can trade cigarettes, and let powerful men use your body. Billy is often throttled and cornered by Thai inmates, making him a soft target. Your heart goes out for him. Billy finds hope when he learns about Thai boxing tournament in the jail. He does manage to get into a Boxing team, that brings some concession to his bleak life.
18. Golden Exits | Alex Ross Perry | USA
As one of the characters suggests, “People never make films about ordinary people that don’t really do anything.” ‘Golden Exits’ is exactly that film – a film about unlikeable ordinary people who live and breath in the same ecosystem where Woody Allen’s characters nurture. Alex Ross Perry returns to writing and direction after his eerie atmospheric, highly under-rated ‘Queen of Earth’ that put him on the Indie map as one of the sought after film-makers.
In ‘Golden Exits’, Alex sharply observes the mundanity of bourgeois Brooklynites and, in particular, the shifting emotional space and interpersonal issues of the families occupying a few blocks. Alex sketches gentle characters this time, boring ones, as opposed to abrasive and obsessed in his previous film, he weaves this handful of men and women in the plot without manufacturing any manipulative subplot.
17. Ee.Ma.Yau | Lijo Jose Pellissery | India
Lijo Jose Pellissery has mastered the art of blending the drama with quirky and eccentric humour that is less situational and more observational. The seeds were clearly sown in his flawed Double Barrel and further explored in Angamaly Diaries but with Ee.Ma.Ya, he really got hold of the balance between the humour and tragedy that makes him one of the few tragic-comedy film-makers in India who can pull off black comedy with ease, without succumbing to substandard comedy.
‘Ee.Ma.Yau’ revolves around a loving son – Eeshi (Chemban Vinod Jose) – trying to organise a grand funeral for his father with dignity and respect but things don’t go as per his plan. The funeral proceedings pave a path for idiosyncratic drama and observational humour that gradually turns into a circus, revealing the greater deal about the quirky characters in the town and their shifting humanistic values.
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16. Eldorado | Markus Imhoof | Switzerland
Eldorado is a multifaceted and deeply humane documentary on the ugly realities and moral bankruptcy at the forefront of the refugee crisis. Many Spanish conquistadors trekked deep into South American forests to discover Eldorado, the mythical lost city of gold. The wishful thinking of discovering this gold-coated paradise gobbled lots of lives. In Markus Imhoof’s hard-hitting documentary Eldorado (2018), we see desperate souls reaching the calm shores of southern Italy to escape from purgatory, a wishful thinking that often doesn’t come true.
Eldorado comes across as a fitting companion piece to Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea (2016). Rosi juxtaposed microscopic, the personal viewpoint of a boy inhabiting a peaceful coastal town with the macroscopic perspective of emaciated asylum seekers crossing into Italy to start anew (few nautical miles from the boy’s hometown). Similarly, Eldorado flits between micro and macro views, elegantly stitching up the film-maker’s private recollections of WWII memories with the twisted economics of EU refugee crisis. You can read our review of the film here.
15. Relaxer | Joel Potrykus | USA
Joel Potrykus returns with a wacky, quirky film ‘Relaxer’ starring his frequent collaborator-actor ‘Joshua Burge’ after completing his satirical black comedy ‘The Animal Trilogy.’ He declined scripts for sequels to films he was offered, in order to pursue what he believed in. And the end result is one of the most original films of 2018 – Relaxer.
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An allegorical fart in the face of GenX who have challenged themselves to not look away from the small screen in their hand. ‘Relaxer’ is a showdown between sacred level 256 of PacMan and a man-child. It’s a story of a man sitting on a sofa and attaining nirvana. It’s a castaway on the gamer sofa. A story of tasting the delicious pizza slice after nothing is left, the earth is probably doomed, and capital has turned into ashes. Also a story of a nerd gamer who would eat cartridges, faeces, and crow in order to fulfil the rules dictated by his knockabout elder brother. It’s also a metaphorical story of an American bourgeois trapped in a capitalist dream.
You can read the complete ‘Relaxer’ review on IndiWire here.
14. Happy As Lazzaro | Alice Rorhwacher | Italy
Alice Rorhwacher has established herself as a talented auteur with his third film, Happy as Lazzaro that competed for the Palm d’Or this year. Though it lost the Palm d’Or to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, she did win the best screenplay award at Cannes. It has put Alice on the world cinema map along with the young talented film-makers like Bi Gan, Xavier Dolan, Yukun Xin, Josephine Decker and many more.
Alice layers the narrative of ‘Happy as Lazzaro’ with socio-economical exploitation, consumerist ideology and classism shift in Italy, neatly wrapped up in magical realism. In the film, where everyone is exploiting someone, the lead protagonist, Lazzaro – naive, duteous young boy who can not say ‘no’ – lies at the bottom of this exploitative pyramid, he becomes the personified figure of goodness that this world needs more than ever.
Read the complete review of Happy As Lazaro here
13. Madeline’s Madeline | Josephine Decker | USA
Josephine Decker’s ‘Madeline’s Madeline’ is the most frustrating and equally disorienting sensory experience that would be impossible to summarize unless you take the film at its face value. There can not be one single interpretation to it, as the film sits in your mind and you peel off each layer, the film becomes a multifaceted self-exploratory object. It’s a singular meta-exploration of an impulsive and reckless girl, Madeline (played by Helena Howard perfectly to the teeth), who finds her spirit more accommodating in the physical acting theatre than the world outside of it.
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But Decker isn’t just interested in artistic catharsis, she goes beyond what meets the eye to carve an artistic expression out of confounding personal and familial conflicts. In a way, she embodies herself in the character of Madeline and the theatre director, Evangeline (played remarkably by Molly Parker), as if she explores her artistic vision through the character of Evangeline and finds liberation in Madeline’s rebel.
12. The Cakemaker | Ofir Raul Grazier | Israel
Just like dough, the characters in Ofir Raul Grazier’s impressive debut film ‘The Cakemaker’ are both – delicate and tender, in dire need of love and warmth. The two leading characters, a German cakemaker and an Israel woman, look so frail, lost and broken in their shared grief for the same man they loved that you want to hug them and comfort them. Ofir draws two beautifully written characters in the novelistic narrative that is smartly structured and minutely nuanced.
Unhurried in its pacing, ‘The Cakemaker’ is kinder towards handling the grief than delving into unsettling sombre tone as if life has come to stand still, and still, it retains emotional naturalism to move its audience in a way that you admire their courage for rebuilding themselves than pity them. The minimalistic production design in the interiors coupled with muted photography helps to capture the intricate details of the ongoing emotional state of the characters and their dynamics whenever they are together.
The Cakemaker is Israel’s official selection for Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards.
11. Who We Are Now | Mathew Newton | USA
Actor-turned-Director Mathew Newton returns to filmmaking after his last critically acclaimed earnest drama ‘From Nowhere.’ Drenched in hopelessness, “Who we are now” is a torrenting rain of despair, with each passing second, the ruptured clouds of hope get darker & turn blue. There is not even a moment of respite, not a moment of joy in the lives of characters, no silver lining, it’s a contest of who suffers the most. It’s a devastating drama that might make you feel a little better if you thought you are lying in the womb of despondency.
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Life gets complicated for both, it gets messier, deafening silences warms the day, and nights are burdensome. Newton doesn’t provide easy answers for both the characters, but he ends the film on a note that is heart-wrenching but equally hopeful that there is, after all, something good left in the society, even if that demands a sacrifice that could alter the course of life.
Read the complete review of Who We Are Now here.
10. Shirkers | Sandi Tan | USA
Shirkers is a strange and heartbreaking film. Meet Sandi Tan, an ‘offbeat’ Singaporean cinephile in the land of misfits, who battles her loneliness over watching the films. As the days go by, her interest piques in writing about films, and she starts writing stint under a pseudonym for culture magazine ‘BigO’. When she turns 18, she becomes the film critic for the Straits Times. Soon she joins an evening class in film production taught by an American named Georges Cardona. As expected, she starts developing her first feature film along with her friends, under the mentorship of Georges.
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This is a typical road a cinephile embarks on. Now, here comes the heartbreaking part, before she could finish her first feature film about a serial killer ‘S’ on a road trip which also happens to be the first film in Singapore,‘Shirkers’ is stolen. Her life comes crashing down. How you deal with life when someone robs your dream? Shirkers is a documentary about the stolen film which she miraculously recovers after two decades. The film is a collection of interviews – from past and present, parts from the original film, and several images. It opens a time portal for ‘Tan’ where past and present co-exist, and the unsettling quirky score makes it even more interesting to see this intimate story of a ‘method film-maker’ who is dumbfounded like a kid.
9. Thunder Road | Jim Cummings | USA
It’s impossible to talk about Jim Cummings’s debut feature without talking about it’s 10-minute-long single take opening scene. It is a static shot that slowly glides onto the protagonist Jim Arnaud (played by Cummings himself), a 30-something cop standing in front of a memorial service for her mother trying to make peace with her sudden passing. The man stands with his daughter’s pink boombox struggling to play his mother’s favourite track by Bruce Springsteen.
Based on the 2016 short film of the same name, “Thunder Road” is about Jim, a moustached motor-mouthed cop who is more confused about his ability to perceive things than understanding emotions. Jim Cummings, who wrote, directed and acted in the film deserves a pat on his back as he manages to channel out a very assured, matured and understated character sketch of a broken man on the verge of mental breakdown. His understanding of the process of grief pits this little indie as one of the best debut films of the year.
Read the complete review of Thunder Road here
8. The Heiresses |Marcelo Martinessi| Paraguay
Driven by an incredibly heartfelt and the tour de force performance of Ana Brun, The Heiresses is an original and piercing romantic drama in the lives of the Quinquagenarian women amidst the financial crisis that has hit them hard. Chela’s (played gracefully by Ana) personal and social life comes crumbling down after the incarceration of her lover due to bank debt.
The Heiresses is a debut feature film of the Paraguayan filmmaker Marcelo Martinessi who wrote the script five years back, largely inspired by his personal observation of the surrounding in his childhood. The film feels like a meditation on the romance between two middle-aged women without making it look awkward or calling for pithiness. The underlying social- political commentary and economic ruins of the country are subtly weaved in the central plot. That makes it unarguably a must watch.
The Heiresses is Paraguay’s official selection for Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards.
Read the complete review of The Heiresses covered at MAMI – 2018 here
7. Minding The Gap | Bing Liu | USA
It is ironical that the essence of the American spirit and living the dream has been captured by non-American film-makers in two different films, one is ‘Minding the Gap’, and the other one is Chinese origin film-maker Chloé Zhao’s ‘The Rider’. To think of ‘Minding The Gap’ is a film about the camaraderie of three young kids in Illinois – loosely connected with a passion for skating – would be a horrendous mistake undermining the courage and effort of Chinese born film-maker Bing Liu.
It is a semi-autobiographical film as Bing Liu comes in the foreground of the camera to have his skin in the game, and recounts his life, along with his two friends, from care-free adolescence to a troubled adulthood. The film delves into all kinds of complicated issues buried just below the surface, as well: masculinity, alienation, the pressures of early adulthood, growing up in violent homes, an experience that Liu also shares. By the end of the film, I found myself choking up. Their acceptance at the end of who they really are really hit me hard. It invigorated a kind of a feeling that rarely I am in touch with.
Read the complete review of the Minding The Gap by IndieWire here.
6. Closing Time | Nicole Vögele | Switzerland
Closing Time opens a time portal to the lyrical mundanity of quotidian characters in the stillness of the night. Highly meditative and sedately paced, Closing Time is a poetry in motion, an intense mood piece. It’s an awe-inspiring travel through the passage of time, where the sky has turned purple. The cloud has cracked open and cantankerously torrenting rains has compelled the stillness of night to dance to its tune. The insomniac roads have sprawled in the heart of Taipei, and dreams, well, they should be left untouched.
The film asks for absolute patience on the audience part, as the narration of “Closing Time” is driven by quotidian visuals that are sprinkled with frivolous conversations at long intervals. The third act gives a whole new dimension to the film, also acts as a wake-up call for us who are embroiled in our real life. Nature and the world have so much to offer, and instead, we have tricked ourselves in an ordered time loop of modern slavery to make it our own reality.
Read the complete review of Closing Time here
5. The Wolf House | Cristóbal León, Joaquin Cociña | Chile
If ever Brothers Quay, David Lynch and Guy Maddin decide to make an animation film, I am certain it would look like The Wolf House. The eeriness & meticulous sound design of Lynch, Guy Maddin’s eccentricity and sad spirit of lost films are blended with the Lewis Carrol’s ‘Alice in Wonderland trouble-land (Colonia Dignidad)’ that results in the disturbing phantasmagoric narrative that pushes the boundary of unconventional cinema. It is not only the most inventive & imaginative animated film of the century but it re-writes the grammar for animation based on Manichaeism subjectivity that often alternates between beautiful and grotesque, horror and hope.
The entire space including the characters develops from paints, papier mâché, sculpture and paintings that undergo metamorphosis to reshape itself as if the objects have gained consciousness, and fall apart – like a cellular being coming alive in a house embodying Kafka, soon to disintegrate and extinct as if it never existed. A debut feature film from the duo of Chilean filmmakers Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León, The Wolf House is a dense and mysterious psychological drama that stitches the real-life ‘Colonia Dignidad’ terrorising inhuman acts with fables like ‘The Three Little Pigs’, ‘Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Snow White’.
Read the complete review of The Wolf House here
‘Long Day’s Journey into the night’ is a staggering achievement in technical craft of the film-making which is equally balanced with the lyrical expressionism. The young prodigious Bi Gan’s sophomore effort feels to have narrative constructed from the same genes as of his audaciously remarkable debut film Kaili Blues. He does not limit his narrative space to the residue of Kaili Blues, instead, he takes it one step further, enticing us with the narrative fragments nurturing on memory piece of the protagonists who rummage through them, soaking up his unforgettable romantic tryst.
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Bi Gan set up the entire first hour with abstract fragmented sequences to draw us into the journey of our protagonist through a coal mine – within the confines of his dream. What we witness next is the incredible piece of cinema that may sound gimmicky as it involves single shot take in 3D, but Bi Gan makes it one of the best cinematic achievements in cinema. It is immersive, alluring and hypnotic. Bi Gan is an auteur in making.
3. A Family Tour | Ying Liang | Taiwan, Hong Kong
The Chinese-born, Hong Kong-based director Ying Liang returns to film-making with ‘A Family Tour’ after his last feature ‘When Night Falls’ which created a political and social stir in China. It is his first feature film to screen at the New York Film Festival (NYFF-56). It’s an extraordinary autobiographical film. It makes a subtle but a bold political statement against the authority stifling his freedom of expression.
The film reflects Ying’s agony and internal raging grief. He conjures up his rage and frustration evoked by a sense of displacement that develops into an emotional catharsis and embodies it in this film, in the character of film-maker Yang Shu. Ying examines the lack of a sense of belonging and an identical crisis in this moving and poignant tale of a family.
Read the complete NYFF-56 review of A Family Tour here
2. The Rider | Chloé Zhao | USA
Born in Beijing, schooling in London, and graduated from N.Y.U.’s Tisch School of the Arts, film-maker Chloé Zhao found her inspiration for her sophomore film ‘The Rider’ while working on her debut film ‘Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015)’ on the plains of South Dakota.
The Rider is an astonishing work of art, blending the real-life people with a fictional story, thus it blurs the line between fiction & non-fiction. It delves deeper into the consciousness of humanistic values and creates an intimate story; Chloé Zhao has a sharp instinct to gauge an impulse. She has complete control over the complex blend of human emotions that defines an individual’s relationship with himself, animals and the society.
The Rider is criminally overlooked film of the year that needs your immediate attention. It captures the American dream & masculinity with utmost honesty that is rare to find in the American cinema. It’s a beautiful elegy that finds silence threatening and patience rewarding.
Read the complete review of The Rider here
1. An Elephant Sitting Still | Hu Bo | China
Influenced by the European art-house icons such as Bela Tarr and “Sixth Generation” of the Cinema of China, ‘An Elephant Sitting Still’ is a staggering achievement in a film-making by a novelist-turned-director Hu Bo. It is hard to believe that this is the first and, unfortunately, the only film of Hu Bo. Hu Bo committed suicide after completing it, and the film, in a way, reflects his psyche and in the hindsight, it is, as if, almost a suicidal note.
Often gloomy and drenched in bleakness, the film is a breathing example of miserabilism. An Elephant Sitting Still is a gritty romanticism of an apathetic condition of the four lonely spirits emerging out of this wretched town. All the four characters quintessentially embody everything wrong with the Chinese society and Government. It’s an important film that needs your time and attention, even if it is the bleakest film you would see in a long time.