2018 Hidden Gems and Dull Rocks
Anybody who has the distasteful privilege of knowing me would tell you that I kinda dig movies. Old movies. New movies. Classic movies. Underground movies. Heck, I'll even dip my toes into a pool of movies that some would consider downright unpalatable, all off the easiest of nudges, whether they be recommendations or from personal curiosity. Being forced to consider, if even only for a moment, how I operate from a day-to-day basis reveals an image of someone who I'm not even sure is me. Right, I continually build the Story Screen brand from within and without all aspects of my life, that will allow such an act to go about with meaning and (I hope) grace. I also regularly concoct immensely stressful events that put myself into highly enjoyable situations in an effort to further build said brand's standing, not just in the local community, but again I hope, in the world. I have a very disturbing view of myself: I can do anything if I really put my shoulder into it, riding on the collective wave of confidence, morality, luck, and above all, more than a few really good friends who want the same thing that I've proudly made my life's work.
Humble brag officially over, I promise.
Look, I'm just gonna get right down to it: I love movies. Duh. But, also, I'm a huge fan of story, in all its multi-media forms. (I can hear you now: "We get it! You're into story! The name is Story Screen! WE GET IT!" I apologize.) I ingest about six movies a week, consistently keep up with (and catch up on) a multitude of television shows, average reading about one book a month (when I can), and take in music whenever and wherever I get the chance. This steady diet of story intake knows no bounds, stretching to a point that isn't just alarming, but at times of self-reflection, becomes downright all consuming. The term, “entertainment omnivore” comes to mind.
Okay, okay. Humble brag now very much over. Totally. Super promise.
The fun part of all of this is that I end up watching a lot of movies that aren't necessarily on everyone's radar. This year has already seen the releases of some seriously top-notch films, from massively released smashes like Black Panther and Incredibles 2, to little surprises that gained wider audiences due to word of mouth, such as Won't You Be My Neighbor? and Annihilation. But these bad boys aren't the only new options being served up at the cinema buffet. There is a slew of under-releases, VOD's, and original streaming service content that always contain the possibility of unearthing that sweetest of movie watching experiences: “the Hidden Gem.” I always love searching through newly released films that look interesting (and this isn't to say that I single-handedly found these flicks, just more of a declaration that I put the time in to not only discover them, but to also watch them and see what they're up to). So, here are a few little movies I've found that have been released this year that you may be curious about, or haven't even heard of.
THE STRANGE ONES
(dir. Lauren Wolkstein/Christopher Radcliff)
The first movie I watched in 2018, I was pretty excited to check out this early release, which deals with two brothers in the midst of a camping road trip. A thriller by every possible stretch of the word, The Strange Ones starts out predictable, takes a hard turn into existential, and ultimately ends up delivering a surprisingly hypnotic look into the mind of a young boy who is grappling with the quintessential question: Why?
(dir. Sally Potter)
A goddamn treat of a quick watch, this little black-and-white diddy is loaded to the brim with charm, humor, charm, mystery, charm, betrayal, and, above all else, an insanely talented cast reaching for the sky. Where the twisty plot falters, the very appropriately heavy-handed dialogue soars, making for a deliciously hilarious and poignant look into the mechanisms of society, philosophy, religion, trust, and good old-fashioned baking.
(dir. Andrew Niccol)
The most positive thing I can say about Anon is that it is slick, sleek and kinda cool. The use of aspect ratio integrated POV is alluring, but never really pays off in any thematic (or interesting) way. The sci-fi noir ends up attempting to comment on social media and technology, as well as humanity and its morals, only to crudely dig its way up its own ass to simply say, “Crazy, right??”
(dir. Yolanda Ramke/Ben Howling)
Cargo is a pretty neat wreck. It starts out so great, traverses into thematic gold, stumbles for a bit, and ends on a moment that, were there a tighter movie behind it, would hold a fantastic example of catharsis. Unfortunately, however awesome all of its parts may be, the final product is one of remorse, and not in the way the directors had intended.
MOM AND DAD
(dir. Brian Taylor)
A demented blast of on-the-nose-B-movie horror, this is one that you definitely want to see. The trailer, which depicts the basic premise of parents trying to kill their children in their own house (due to some sort of viral outbreak), sells this bad boy all the way. Come for the best Selma Blair performance in years, stay for the mid-life crisis metaphors, and dine upon the dessert that is Nic Cage destroying a pool table with a sledge hammer while singing, “The Hokey Pokey.” If that's not enough to get you to watch, I'm afraid you're reading the wrong list, bub.
(dir. Scott Cooper)
This movie both wants and deserves to be great. However, its pacing and length thoroughly tasks the average viewer, and they would not be blamed for it. I loved this movie, finding it to be a surprising addition to an already overflowing reservoir of go-to westerns. The action, as well as some finely placed contemplation on certainty and self-worth, makes for a hell of a time for any die-hard, old school western lover. For everyone else? Probably not.
(dir. Mark Raso)
Bland. Sterile. Predictable. This movie is precisely what you get from the trailer (which is a mess to begin with). The promise of any actual emotion or sliver of humanity should be doubted immediately. We are given three A-class actors; motherfuckers who know what they are doing, and they end up pissing what gold they can muster across a sea of, for lack of a more suitable word, stupid dialogue. Ed Harris, the beast that he is, is the sole survivor of this monotonous journey into the very heart of cliché daddy issues.
(dir. Duncan Jones)
A movie of personal anticipation, Mute strives for transcendence but very unceremoniously lands in the valley of the meandering. While I don't hate on the film as rough as many others, I will admit that in its ambition and scope Mute does itself very little favors. Now, I like the movie. And to be fair, it will definitely be a very interesting piece to consider in the early filmography of Duncan Jones, a director who is only mere moments away from exploding into the stars. This passion project of his design has experienced many behind-the-scenes drawbacks and catastrophes, and I am saddened to admit that it shows. But on the positive side, I think it has a precise attitude that I'm into, talented actors portraying characters that I like, and a heightened neo-noir aesthetic that is right up my alley. I just think these things don't necessarily work well in tandem with one another, leaving us with a mélange of entertaining but hollow proceedings. Still would highly recommend to the curious.
(dir. Coralie Fargeat)
As previously stated, in all this fishing to be "blown away," sometimes you land a whopper, and oh boy, is Revenge is a doozy. It’s a drug-fueled, high-octane, horrific hallucination of some of the darkest and deadliest manners. It’s a true-blue feminist battle cry that thankfully washes the bad taste of last year's The Bad Batch right out of my mouth. Not only is it good representation horror (very much in the vein of Get Out), Revenge also happens to have my favorite ending of a film this year. The last 15 minutes are some of the most fist-pumping, breath-catching, eye-squinting sequences I've seen in years. I will say, however, due to its subject matter (which you can heavily infer from the trailer linked below), I would warn viewers that this movie has some rather dastardly and sadly believable evils taking place in its first act, and that this, as well as the vengeful blood fest that ensues, should be highly considered when choosing when or if to catch this one.
(dir. Simon Kaijser)
I love me a good mystery, and I really love me some Guy Pierce, so Spinning Man was a gamble I took hoping for blind luck. It is not good. It offers a very interesting conversation around the nature of morality, language, and the philosophies that tie these things together, but at the end of the day, it is ultimately forgettable, mainly due to its lack of a mystery's key ingredient: suspense.
(dir. Suzi Ewing)
Another huge gamble. Luke Evans attracted me to this film’s trailer, and I took the plunge based on female director Suzi Ewing. I will simply say, while what is promised is delivered, there is unfortunately not much else to this short trip. Granted, it does have an ending that just really does not give a fuck about what the rest of the movie has been doing up until that point, and for that, I'll commend it. But it bad.
(dir. Ted Geoghegan)
An excellent watch, but it is a film (mainly due to its very minimal budget) which must be met on its own grounds to truly be enjoyed as intended. A horror-esque retelling of a classic Native American tale, Mohawk makes some damn fine decisions along its path to revenge story, introducing more and more intriguing elements that never distract, but wholly never connect with the larger narrative.
(dir. Sergio G. Sanchez)
While definitely nothing exciting (or even very fresh), Marrowbone is a movie I thoroughly enjoyed in the moment, with a cast that really ends up selling its core mystery and plot. Sanchez has a very unique eye that takes all of the things your standard ghost story offers and presents them in suitably compelling frames that entice just enough. How this movie looks far exceeds its narrative and themes, and had these two crucial important parts of the film even come close to its cinematography, we would of had ourselves a classic on our hands. Ah, c'est la vie...
For more on this flick, check out Diana DiMuro’s review here.
(dir. Jonathan Goldstein/John Francis Daley)
This is a very good movie. (I know. I know!!) The trailer kind of got me equal parts excited, and also fairly hesitant, as it seems that perhaps all of the funny moments in the film had just been squished into a 3-minute trailer, and that the rest of the film would be dreadful. But that cast! The ENERGY of that trailer! I took the dive and found it to be one of my favorite movies of the year. Not only because it shows a damn fine eye from newcomers Goldstein and Daley, but because it's a comedy where the jokes never beget themselves, always ending up operating on a much more structural beat than simply making the audience laugh. The jokes almost always land, the cast's chemistry is ELECTRIC, and the music (by Drive's Cliff Martinez) is a must own. Get on this one.
(dir. Julius Ramsay)
This is a pretty great thriller, where the less you know the better. It's a bit cheesy, while also mostly unpredictable, and ultimately it is an exciting watch, making me very enthusiastic to see what the writer/director Ramsay brothers will come up with next. It would also probably be really cool to see it performed live on a stage, if that type of stuff gets ya feelin' crunchy.
(dir. Spike Lee/Danya Taymor)
Speaking of dat crunch, Spike Lee's latest puts the retelling of Waiting for Godot on the big screen, all filmed in front of live audiences (with some tricky editing). To be frank, Spike Lee and me... We tend to not get along. I won't get into it, but the roundabout point is that I find many of the films he's made in the past decade to be definitively unwatchable (and to be fair, he hasn't always been the heaviest of hitters, and I have not seen every movie he's made since 2006's Inside Man, which I consider the last “watchable” Lee joint. I still need to check out Chi-Raq, which looks pretty good). But I'll tell you this: movies in 2018 are gonna have to try real hard to beat out Pass Over, a movie that is truly transportive. It's one of my favorites of the year, and I really can't think of a (decent) soul who wouldn't enjoy watching it.
(dir. Miguel Artera)
You might have heard of this one, and if the trailer charms you, I'd say more or less that this movie is for you. It is really interesting and entertaining, anchored by two young stars that are putting in some of their best work to date, but it will definitely not connect with everyone. I found it really engaging (when it wanted to be), but I can't help but shake the idea that there is 10% of this movie that I just really dislike, which is a shame, because there's a lot of wildly wonderful moments splashed throughout its runtime.
(dir. David Bruckner)
There's nothing like a well-executed genre movie, and The Ritual is that in spades. Clever, insightful, mean, skillfully competent, *slaps roof of movie* “This bad boy can fit so much metaphor in it.” It's also got something (which I will dare not ruin) that will keep watchers of film, if not mostly lovers of horror, talking about for years. You'll know it when you see it.
A FUTILE AND STUPID GESTURE
(dir. David Wain)
The story of the National Lampoon's origins gets an amusing enough adaptation, but one can't help but feel cheated by the lack of depth both the creators and performers seem willing to go. This problem occurs not just with the darker aspects of Doug Keeney's life (which are practically glazed over), but also with the comedy itself, never letting the raunchiness the Lampoon was so well-known for seep into the film’s own humor. You do get a heavily underutilized Domhnall Gleeson firing on all cylinders, so that's a plus.
(dir. Aaron Moorhead/Justin Benson)
Believe the hype. This is one awesome movie. I had the pleasure of watching this with two of my closest friendos in one of our living rooms, and it was one of those purely cinematic experiences that you sometimes wait months and months for. It’s just absolutely intoxicating and top notch in just about every way. Even on a relatively small af budget, The Endless is a stone-cold, instant classic in the surreal-horror genre, a movie that will for sure get better every time you watch it for the rest of your life. No joke.
SMALL TOWN CRIME
(dir. Ian Nelms/Eshom Nelms)
This movie is goddamn noir all the way down to its whiskey soaked bones. You can update the classic film genre with new inventions while still keeping those same old tropes that always make it a fun ride, like Brick, Memento, Lone Star, or Drive. That's entertaining stuff. Yet the same can be said about futuristic-noir fare, like Blade Runner, Altered Carbon, or Dark City. The genre is just built to be stretched. But Small Town Crime foregoes all the cleverness of injecting new energy into an already perfected genre, and just goes for the classic taste of a good mystery, a fuck-up gumshoe, a dead body, and a whole lot of bullets. To bring it all home, the film also has one of the best ensemble casts of 2018 in my opinion, and it is a damn good way to spend 1 hour and 31 minutes laughing and biting your nails. I really hope they give me another Mike Kendall case in a couple years, cause I'd be there faster than you could refill my glass.
(dir. Max Winkler)
Flower starts strong, but steadily runs out of steam rather quickly, culminating in an ending that is meant to provoke far more than it intends to inspire. While I wouldn't really recommend it, I'd be lying if I didn't say there's definitely something there. It's got a great performance from lead Zoey Deutch. And it is really pulled into a higher state of entertainment (relatively) with support from Katheryn Hahn, Adam Scott, and a surprisingly scene-stealing Tim Heidecker, doing his slouchy, normy routine to great effect. The film never reaches into the darker comedy its premise seems to guarantee, leaving you feeling a bit cheated at the end.
(dir. Steven Soderbergh)
Unsane really surprised me. I'm a big lover of Soderbergh as a director, and while I may not have been blown away by his last few entries, he always finds very interesting ways to at least make his films just that: interesting. But Unsane? Ho boy. I want to go on and on about this movie, but I also feel like there's a good future article in me, once I let the film settle for a bit longer (and probably watch it three more times). I'd never want to spoil some of the splendid turns and thought-provoking moments this little gem of a thriller delivers, but I will say that it not only acts as a great story about paranoia, repression, and control, it also delivers a very heady experimental take on the oppressive nature of film as medium. By now, you've probably heard that this movie was shot entirely on an iPhone 7 plus, with the accompaniment of only three different lenses. However much of a marketing strategy as this may seem, I can assure you, this was done with deliberate intent, elevating the film’s explicit themes of normalcy and male dominance. It also adds a sort of 70's exploitation horror feel, as the iPhone's aspect ratio and general limitations give the movie a posture familiar to that of the guerrilla documentary style of pieces like John Carpenter's The Last House on the Left. It's a psychological and palpable work of art, and probably my most highly recommended on this list.
While these are only the films I decided to comment on, there are others I've seen, as well as many others I'm still trying to get to. Let me know in the comments below if you've stumbled upon any movie gold this year (or things I should probably stay away from AND WHY), and I'll be sure to check it out!
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Founder of and programmer for Story Screen. Lover of stories and pizza in the dark. When he isn't watching movies, you can find him reading things about people watching movies. He lives in Beacon, NY with his cat who is named after Kevin Bacon's character from Friday the 13th.
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