Essays by some film nerds

  • Brigitte Gong

Notable Movies from 2018

Inspired by a friend, I decided to forgo a ranked list of movies I enjoyed this year (there were really too many of them) and instead talk about 10 movies (in alphabetical order) that I think were either overlooked or can be enjoyed by most audiences even if they are considered "art house" or "indie." So yeah, I won't be talking about Mission Impossible: Fallout even though I enjoyed it immensely! Without further ado...

Annihilation Dir. by Alex Garland

Sci-fi. CW: gore, violence - not a lot of both, but one adequately spooky scene. For fans of: Arrival, Ex Machina

This movie really showcases the genre of sci-fi at its best, I think. It is visually stunning, offers equal levels of wonder and fear while being grounded in science (I’m not sure how "accurate" it is, but it convinced me), and it digs deep into big questions regarding the "self" and identity in a way that is natural to the story and also really gets under your skin. It takes a second to get into the meat of the story, but once it does, it doesn't let go until the movie is done and you're dizzy from the plot twists. Also, the ensemble cast of Natalie Portman, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Jennifer Jason Leigh is absolutely amazing. Definitely give it a shot if you want to be taken for a ride.

Where to watch: available to stream on Amazon Prime!

A Quiet Place Dir. by John Krasinksi

Thriller. CW: blood, violence. For fans of: Cloverfield, Jurassic Park

I hear a lot of people call this movie a horror film, but I think it's really just a monster movie. Regardless, this was some of the most intense 90 minutes I've ever experienced - the action is non-stop and incredibly smart, and it does a lot with the sound editing/mixing to carry along the story/suspense when so little dialogue is used or is possible. There isn't too much beyond it simply being an absolutely heart-pounding survival thriller but if you love the genre and are tired of dumb blockbuster movies trying to give you a good adrenaline rush, I'd highly recommend this.

Where to watch: available for purchase on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, or Google Play

Bad Times at the El-Royale Dir. by Drew Goddard

Drama/thriller. CW: blood, violence. For fans of: Quentin Tarantino and Agatha Christie

This movie is pretty much just a giant ol' heap of fun! It takes place at a hotel where it and its occupants' secrets are slowly revealed as we are shown that everything is not what it seems. It has some of the best tracking shots & long takes of the year (save for the entirety of Roma) and features one hell of a star-studded cast who are all, by the way, fantastic in this - Dakota Johnson & Cynthia Erivo especially are standouts. It definitely has its faults (the third act is a bit uneven) but overall, is one wildly entertaining ride down into the depths of hell.

Where to watch: available to rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime, YouTube, or Google Play

Blindspotting Dir. by Carlos López Estrada

Drama. CW: one brief scene of violence.

I've always found any "debate" about whether or not art "should be" political to be ridiculous; if anything, it feels like an excuse to lessen the artistic value of art that overtly calls out oppression and bigotry in favor of things that are more "subtle," i.e. palatable. I heard a lot of critiques against this film specifically saying it was too didactic or explanatory, that it doesn't have the artistic prowess to get away with its "lecture" and frankly, I don't understand these arguments. Sure, maybe the main message of the movie is gift-wrapped to us nicely but that's preferable to having no message at all. It tackles big social issues in a nuanced manner that will absolutely leave you thinking about it for days after, but also won't make you feel like you've aged 10 years. It's funny, it's heartfelt, and it made my mom understand the concept of white privilege so yeah. I'd say everyone should see it.

Where to watch: available to rent on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, or YouTube

Searching Dir. by Aneesh Chaganty

Thriller. For fans of: really any detective story

This is maybe the most innovative movie I've seen in years; people have been calling it "found footage" but it's basically told through a bunch of screen-captured sequences of John Cho's character doing stuff on a computer. In addition to just being a new form of storytelling altogether, it is a very effective one. Most of the things shown on screen were incredibly smart in showing how technology reflects human behavior and it was a very coherent story while also touching on some major themes, including how we use the internet and family dynamics in general. The twists at the end are also unexpected, but effectively tie everything together. This movie is super easy to get into and the 103-minute run time flies by. A great time all around!

Where to watch: available to rent on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, or YouTube

Shoplifters Dir. by Hirokazu Kore-eda

Drama. For fans of: Her - not for its sci-fi elements though - and Beginners

Alright so I cried the entire 30-minute drive home from the theater after I saw this, and I’m still trying to figure out exactly why it hit me so hard. The movie centers on a rag-tag family, some of whom are related by blood and others who aren’t, who try their best to find love and connection in the only ways they know how. There’s a smart and subtle commentary on class in Japan underlying the entire movie, but the heart of the story comes from its deep ruminations on what “family” means and its blurring of right and wrong with the deeply personal. It’s a quiet and beautifully observed slice-of-life that has a devastating ending, and it affected me like nothing else I’ve seen in 2018. Again, it made me cry like a baby but it also, as one Letterboxd reviewer puts it, “overflows with kindness.”

Where to watch: limited release in theaters, check your local independent theater!

Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse Dir. by Peter Ramsey, Robert Persichetti Jr., and Rodney Rothman

Comedy/drama. For fans of: the MCU and/or Spider-Man, but also literally anyone will enjoy this

I have no idea where to start in explaining how good this movie is, but I think it excels particularly because of how earnest it is. There is a surprising amount of heart and depth in this movie, and all the emotional beats hit hard - I cried three times on my rewatch. If you think you're too old or too "cool" for this movie, let me tell you that I was fully engaged for the entire 117 minutes of this, and it never feels childish. There is no dull moment; the story is so snappy you could tap your foot to it, and if it isn't continuing to build the plot, then it's hitting you square in the feels or making you laugh. It zig-zags back and forth between the two so smoothly and builds towards maybe the best sequence/climax I’ve seen in a long, long time. Most importantly, it really believes in its message and delivers it in a way that isn't cheesy or cliché but heartfelt and sincere. So yes, bring your friends, your family, literally everyone you know to go see this movie. It's worth it. (The animation is also SO SO cool!)

Where to watch: currently in theaters!

Widows Dir. by Steve McQueen

Drama/thriller. CW: violence, blood. For fans of: the Oceans franchise, Heat

Going into this movie, I thought it would be your run-of-the-mill heist movie. A very good one, yes, but nothing much more than that. I was wrong. This movie does include a heist, but it is by no means the only thing going on. Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn managed to breathe new life to a familiar genre with a plot that perfectly balances smart social commentary with thrills and suspense. On top of that, Widows features one of the best ensemble casts in a year stacked with great ensembles - the movie is carried by Viola Davis, who is amazing as always, but Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Cynthia Erivo are just as strong. Most interestingly, though, McQueen and Flynn take the basic assumptions of a heist movie and flip them on their head to question the morality of the act in the first place. It’s not as fun as the Oceans movies, sure, but it definitely cuts much deeper.

Where to watch: currently in theaters!

Wildlife Dir. By Paul Dano


2018 was really a great year for directorial debuts, and Paul Dano’s first feature-length film Wildlife is no exception. The movie centers on the Brinson family, composed of Jeanne (Carrie Mulligan), Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), and Joe (Ed Oxenbould), newly resettled in Montana. Over the course of its 105-minute runtime, the family slowly falls apart as Dano paints a harrowing and unflinching portrait of the inherent difficulties of human relationships, without ever once passing judgment on the often immoral actions of its characters. Personally, it has my favorite cinematography work of 2018, with long and beautifully-composed lingering shots of all the space between characters juxtaposed with striking close-ups of them in their most vulnerable moments. My favorite thing about it, though, is just how much is said in what characters don’t or can’t say to each other, and the quiet, understated nature of this movie only makes its final shot hit so much harder.

Where to watch: available to rent or buy on iTunes or Amazon Prime!

You Were Never Really Here Dir. by Lynne Ramsay

Drama/thriller. CW: violence, blood. For fans of: Drive, Taken

This is one of those movies that you kinda have to pay close attention to otherwise you might miss a detail, but boy oh boy, is it rewarding when you do so. The premise and plot of this reminds me a lot of The Equalizer (others have called it an "art house Taken") but its use and portrayal of violence could not be more different. Instead of telling a story of justice or revenge, You Were Never Really Here dives head-first into the psychological impact of violence and leads us to really question its necessity, or the implied necessity, of it in Hollywood films. There are only a couple of scenes where the violence is actually shown, but we are still left feeling queasy and unsettled despite this choice - all thanks to Ramsay's bold but very effective directorial choices. The movie is remarkably layered despite its very short runtime, and it only rewards you more with each rewatch.

Where to watch: available to stream on Amazon Prime!

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