With my Top Ten Best Films of 2018 officially done and out of the way, it’s time to highlight a few other films that flew under the radar in 2018. This time around, I wanted to highlight movies that, for some reason or another, did not connect with audiences, that were shuffled off to the periphery, failed to perform at the box office, and, by and large, are met with responses of “Huh?” whenever you mention them to anyone outside of the inner circle of filmoholics.
For the purposes of curating this particular list, I excluded anything that I’d already highlighted in my Top Ten (the YouTube Red-distributed Bodied would definitely make the cut for being underseen.) However, I allowed Honorable Mentions to crop up here again. I wanted to set somewhat loose parameters to define movies that would classify as unseen though there wasn’t a particular number I had in mind when breaking these down. I didn’t want to put anything that made more than 5 or 6 million here, thus disqualifying a movie I originally had on this list, Upgrade, which actually did fairly well on its modest budget, pulling in nearly 12 million domestically. There’s only one entry that made more than $5M.
So now with some explanation and preamble out of the way, here they are, the 10 Best Movies of 2018 You Never Saw.
The Kindergarten Teacher
This American remake of the Israeli festival smash of the same name had a 2018 Sundance debut before being swept up by and unceremoniously dumped on Netflix. Few were able to catch this tense, poetic saga of a kindergarten teacher (played with mysterious power by Maggie Gyllenhaal) who crosses a line with one of her students. Incredibly gripping and edge-of-your-seat, this is not the movie (or the twist) you expect to see.
Leave No Trace
Debra Granik’s 100%-RT-rated drama actually showed an impressive rollout, starting small but remaining in theaters for a whooping 14 weeks where it cleared $6 million at the domestic box office. The story, starring a certifiably stellar Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie, describes the unorthodox relationship between a PTSD-stricken father and his wisening daughter as they attempt to live off the land in the PNW.
Chloé Zhao’s soulful biopic, which tells the true story of cowboy with a serious head injury and uses the actual subject to tell the tale, was treated to glowing critical reaction but still couldn’t clear $2.5 million at the theater. Few outside of critics circles have managed to catch The Rider and in doing so they’ve missed a delicately told, humanist portrait of a man struggling to rediscover purpose after his was seemingly stripped away.
Black and white foreign-language films aren’t most people’s bread and butter and Cold War’s worldwide cume (a miserable $143,546) proved such mightily. A shame because Pawel Pawlikowski’s gorgeously shot, beautifully acted ill-fated romance is a powerhouse of feelings that spans decades, tracing the relationship between a conductor and one of his singers through difficult years spent in war-torn Europe. The economy of storytelling is simply phenomenal as the story feels like an epic, for-the-ages love story though it’s not even an hour and a half long.
This catty psychosexual thriller starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke couldn’t scratch its way to $3 million here in the states, probably through a combination of mangled marketing and bad marketplace timing, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still seek this out as one of the bests of the year. The script is biting, caustic, and mean, and the central scheme – a rich girl and her not-as-well off friend plot to kill the former’s horrible stepdad – comes together in grade-A fashion.
The movie-making combination of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, who previous speared cult favorites like Spring and Resolution, have rarely spelled out box office success. Coming in way under half a million total with a $272K pull, The Endless proved a heady science-fiction story about brothers who reconnect with the UFO Death Cult they escaped as children only to find themselves wrapped up in maze-like logic loop. Smarter than your average studio sci-fi, The Endless would also appeal to fans of Primer.
Hearts Beat Loud
No movie wore its heart on its sleeve more than Brett Haley’s Hearts Beat Loud but that did not translate to raking in the mullah, as Haley’s latest hovered a bit beneath the $2.4M range. Nick Offerman plays a doting dad who’s struggling to keep his record store in the black. Before his daughter (Kiersey Clemons) leaves for college, they record a song together and it becomes a bit of a small-time overnight hit. Sincere, heartfelt, well-acted, with good solid indie music, Hearts Beat Loud is a feel-good movie of 2018 that everyone missed.
The Sisters Brothers
Even under the well-regarded Annapurna banner, The Sisters Brothers could only muster a $3.14M total. Director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone) hasn’t ever really delivered a box office smash before but he’s never had such a A-list cast, which includes Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Riz Ahmed all playing cowboys of sorts in this wickedly unique western. In most ways, the film was unconventional, opting to take the path less traveled, and that may have led to its being shunned at the theater but those wanting a different take on the western genre had much to appreciate here.
You Were Never Really Here
Though Joaquin Phoenix had a stellar year as a performer in 2018, this is his second movie on this list, as his dreary, violent collaboration with Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) barely cleared $2.5M domestically. Gritty and economical, this story of an emotionally-stunted enforcer (Phoenix) who tracks down kidnapped girls is the definition of dark, but never without purpose. It all amounts in an unnerving nightmare, where what’s left out of the picture serves to reinforce all that is present.
Lean on Pete
Andrew Haigh’s story of a young man’s travels through flyover America is downright tragic. So is the fact that the horse drama (the second on this list) only managed $1.163M across its entire run. Charlie Plummer is undeniably fantastic in the central role and Haigh’s direction is delicate and ponderous, crafting a tear-jerker that also works as a meditation on America’s fundamental brokenness. Deeply felt and haunting but hopeful with gorgeous camerawork and cinematography.