Yes, A Star Is Born is one of the best films of the year. No, we haven’t forgotten about Black Panther just because it came out way back in February. Of course we’re going to watch Roma on Netflix, just give us a second. (But seriously, watch it—it’s wonderful.)
You know all this, don’t you? If you haven’t seen these films already, you’ve at least read about them ad nauseam in the countless “best of” and “top 10” lists that proliferate at this time of year. But here’s the thing: 2018 was a pretty outstanding year in film—so good, in fact, that you may well have missed some real gems amid the sheer volume of cinematic excellence.
Below are five fantastic films from the past year that deserve the same cultural attention as 2018’s biggest blockbusters and consensus awards contenders, but have mostly flown under the radar. They’re all either streamable or still playing in theaters, so if you’re looking for a manageable list for viewing over the holidays, start here:
Leave No Trace
Debra Granik’s harrowing film about an Iraq War veteran with PTSD and his daughter living off the grid is one of the best of the year, featuring stunning performances from Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie. After debuting at Sundance in January, the film was quietly released in the US in the middle of the summer, where it earned a mere $6 million, surrounded by huge but demonstrably worse films such as Solo: A Star Wars Story and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. That’s a shame, because Leave No Trace is a vastly more vital, humane film than either of those.
Any time Granik makes a film, it’s a treat. (Leave No Trace was her first feature narrative film since 2010, when she introduced the world to Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone.) No one captures life on the margins quite like Granik, and in Leave No Trace she crafted a compelling, heartbreaking argument about home, parenting, nature, and how sometimes all three can be versions of the same thing. You can rent Leave No Trace for $0.99 on Amazon.
Thoroughbreds is a thoroughly weird, subversive, and entertaining take on the teen thriller genre. Come for the delicious noir tropes, stay for the final performance of Anton Yelchin. The immensely talented actor filmed his part in 2016 shortly before he died in a freak accident.
Thoroughbreds is the cinematic debut of the playwright and director Cory Finley, whose understanding of pacing and tension would have you believe this is the work of a veteran filmmaker. It might remind some viewers a bit of Rian Johnson’s Brick, the indie film that helped launched Johnson’s career, which most recently included a little movie called Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
But it’s the performances of actresses Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy that really elevate Thoroughbreds from a quirky psychological thriller to one of the most memorable black comedies of the last few years. Cooke, especially, is superb as a sardonic teenage sociopath who nonchalantly suggests her friend murder her abusive step-dad. Watch Thoroughbreds on iTunes, Amazon, or YouTube.
I’ve thought about The Endless as much as any other film that came out this year. It’s an unassumingly menacing story that makes you feel like you’re seeing something that wasn’t meant to be witnessed, wasn’t meant to be unearthed at all. Directed by and starring the duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (who also made the solid 2014 body horror film Spring), The Endless tells the tale of two brothers who decide to drive out into the wilderness and revisit the cult to which they once belonged.
That’s all you’ll want to know about the plot, because The Endless quickly ventures into some pretty bizarre, mind-bending territory. The movie has big ideas, and unlike a lot of big-budget, mainstream science-fiction, it actually delivers on most of them. It would be cool to see what The Endless might have been like with a Hollywood budget and marketing campaign, but instead the film plays out in its small, unique way—and is probably better for it. Stream The Endless on Netflix, Amazon, or YouTube.
Like Thoroughbreds, Wildlife is a mesmerizing directorial debut, although this one was a little less surprising. The actor Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood) is on the other side of the camera for the first time, directing the peerless Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal as the two halves of an imploding marriage, set against a wildfire in the hills of Montana in 1960. Gyllenhaal’s character, Jerry—recently fired from his job at a ritzy country club—decides to go off and fight the fire, leaving Mulligan’s Jeanette to care for their son herself.
Mulligan is terrific in arguably a career-best role, but we see the whole thing unfold from the perspective of teenage Joe (Ed Oxenbould), who watches helplessly as his home life turns to blaze. A born filmmaker, Dano knows how to frame a shot. And like some of the best in the craft, he understands that sometimes less is more.
Wildlife is a Raymond Carver story come to life, a beautiful and tragic slice of life that makes better use of subtext and the unsaid than any other film this year. Wildlife is still in select theaters, and we’ll update this story when it’s available to stream online.
You Were Never Really Here
Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin, Ratcatcher) is one of the most fearless filmmakers around—when she makes a movie, you owe it to yourself to see it. That’s especially the case for the Scottish director’s latest entry, You Were Never Really Here, which stars Joaquin Phoenix as a grizzled mercenary hired to take down a New York sex trafficking ring. Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead provides the driving, inventive score of this propulsive revenge thriller.
The film is dark and uncompromising, and often uncomfortable, but Ramsay never falls into exploitation, treating the subject matter with an assured thoughtfulness. Joaquin Phoenix seems put on this Earth to play this character, who lives somewhere in a space between Mad Max and Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. You Were Never Really Here isn’t “fun,” per se, but it is an impeccably woven tapestry of urban decay, and one man’s attempt to justify his existence within it. Stream You Were Never Really Here on Amazon or YouTube.