Best Hidden Gems of 2018
By Zach Dennis, Logan Kenny, Andrew Swafford, Jessica Pena, Lydia Creech and Diana Rogers
**NOTE** This is not in ranked order
Thunder Road (2018) by Jim Cummings
Jim Cummings’ feature length debut Thunder Road is a poignant film cemented in the power of its tragicomedy chemistry and dipped in moments of catharsis. From what begins as an unconventional eulogy in the opening scene evolves into a nuanced and slightly hilarious journey for Officer Jim Arnaud (Cummings). He loved his mother and felt he never appreciated her the way she deserved. After an emotional and hysterically choreographed funeral performance to Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” Jim has to come to grips with his life as a father and policeman in mourning. The titular song about leaving your small town fears behind is what this film quietly encapsulates, leaving our main character to roll with the punches and try and find that hope on his own, blunders included.
In one of the most remarkable breakout performances of 2018, Cummings delivers tragedy in layers, both seeded from grief and the uncertainties of Arnaud’s middle class existence. It’s not so much a story about his relationship to his mother, but how his irritable sadness reflects and informs his behaviors in immediate surroundings. He tries to raise his daughter in the midst of a custody battle, his place in the workforce is in question, and so the things that truly matter become blurry for a while. With every scene unfolds a new layer to his character’s psyche and Cummings can rock the long take to go that extra mile and take his audience there. Thunder Road is a transcending little character study and leaves you with the wild confusion of laughing while sobbing simultaneously, and that is the grandest of compliments for this indie gem. — Jessica Pena
Damsel (2018) by David and Nathan Zellner
It's difficult for me to find the best way to talk about the Zellner Brothers' Damsel because, while I heartily want to encourage people to see it, I feel it's one of those movies where the less you know going in the better. What I can say is that it's chock full of unsavory characters, pitch black humor, and stark, beautifully filmed landscapes worthy of any Coen Brothers Western. I went into it expecting a screwball romantic comedy in a pioneer setting but came away with far more than I'd bargained for.
Damsel begins as the story of Samuel Alabaster, and his quest to find his one true love, Penelope, and make her his wife. The first part of the film is devoted to Alabaster's trek across the country, accompanied by a drunken, down on his luck preacher (who will perform the wedding ceremony once Alabaster's intended is located), and a tiny horse named Butterscotch (Samuel's wedding present for his bride to be). The further into their journey they go the murkier Samuel's story and motivations become, and he subtly shifts from an endearing, albeit somewhat grating, romantic, into a far more dubious and dangerous character.
Penelope is played by Mia Wasikowska, an actress I admire tremendously, in part because her characters always seem so quietly capable. There's an understated assuredness to her performances that is compelling and refreshing to watch, and, though she doesn't appear until well into the movie, she commands every moment of screen time that she's afforded.
One of the things I appreciated most about Damsel was how unpredictable it was and how it defied nearly every expectation I had for it. It never wastes an opportunity to go in a surprising direction but it holds together and remains cohesive and engaging from start to finish. Its strange twists and turns feel earned and, in some ways, it feels like more than the sum of its parts, offering a movie going experience that is both visually and emotionally satisfying. It's funny and odd but also sadder, and more thoughtful, than I was prepared for it to be. — Diana Rogers
Private Life (2018) by Tamara Jenkins
There weren’t many more cathartically depressing shots in film this year than a wide-shot of Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giamatti) sitting in a waiting room, seeking the results of their latest fertility test. It would be easy to describe it as an image of the technology age — people removed from the moments thanks to their phones — but it could be true of any period of time...all we can do is wait.
This realization hasn’t set on Rachel or Richard yet. Their quest is to have a child, whether naturally or by going the adoption route, and nothing is working.
Maybe a more astute observation of life in the technological age is the varied shots of the medical process that both Rachel and Richard are taking, the forms they have to fill out and the constant wait they endure. There’s always a door you have to pass through but the key is difficult to find.
The charm of Private Life comes from the emergence of Sadie (Kayli Carter) in their lives. A college student adrift, and trying to swim to any type of shore, she finds comfort in the idyllic life that Rachel and Richard have — a New York City condo, hip lives and more of a reverence to the culture of the city than her suburban-based parents have. But all of these are purely built in Sadie’s mind, she is clouded by her indecision and the positives that she sees are hindrances, or more like unsatisfying attributes to the couple’s lives.
They probably don’t hate their location, and maybe don’t hate the city, but a gap sits between them and no well-placed home can fix that. The only thing they can control is setting Sadie on a more satisfying path because she should have her memories made before she enters the state of waiting rooms and medical procedures — a purgatory she instantly begins to reject when they invite her into that world.
Until then, there are more forms to sign and more rooms to wait in. — Zach Dennis
Anna and the Apocalypse (2018) by John McPhail
Don’t blame yourself for sleeping on Anna and the Apocalypse – the Teen-Zombie-Christmas-Musical that Jordan and I named the best film of last year’s Knox Horror Film Fest. You didn’t miss it because you weren’t paying attention; you missed it because it got buried.
Anna was “distributed” by Orion Pictures, a company who once put out classics like RoboCop and First Blood before going bankrupt in the 90s and being revived as a subsidiary of MGM, a prestigious company that can obviously afford to do a lot more with Orion than they currently are; i.e. buying up dozens of indie movies that get distributed virtually nowhere. I know that Orion is capable of giving their movies big, respectable releases when they have confidence in them (Orion put out Every Day last year and collaborated with Blumhouse Tilt for The Belko Experiment the year before that), so I’m sitting here, cosplay-candy-cane-spear in hand, crying out to the heavens: “WHY was Anna and the Apocalypse not in every multiplex in America last Christmas!?” Around the time of the film’s would-be release, Nick Huinker, the General Manager of Knoxville’s own Central Cinema (as well as a Knox Horror Film Fest Programmer) tweeted about the difficulty he encountered simply for trying to pay money to show the film. The week before Christmas, Anna was on a pathetic 61 screens.
A small movie getting an even smaller release isn’t some unspeakable tragedy or anything – there’s no business like show business – but this movie getting such a small release was a huge missed opportunity. Anna and the Apocalypse is a ridiculously crowd-pleasing movie that, contrary to the film’s marketing, is more High School Musical than La La Land (as I said in my Horror Fest review, a stance that was later validated by lead actress Ella Hunt when Zach interviewed her). If you would have pointed it at the right tween, fandom-prone audience (maybe via Netflix, as it’s R-rating would have been prohibitive otherwise – and that’s where teenagers are watching most of their movies anyways), it could have been The Film That Launched a Thousand Tumblrs, or the next Rocky Horror Picture Show. In the immortal words of Nick Huinker: “merry Xmas y’all, you left millions of dollars on the table.”
But hark! Unto you a streaming option is born: Anna and the Apocalypse will finally be on VOD platforms (no bluray release yet) on February 12th. This is your public service announcement: Anna is truly a hidden gem–you’re going to have to go looking for it. – Andrew Swafford
Elizabeth Harvest (2018) by Sebastian Gutierrez
This premiered last year at South by Southwest, and it seems to have gotten little attention since. The elevator pitch I keep seeing is “Ex Machina meets ‘Bluebeard’!” I can imagine that not sparking too much enthusiasm (when did opinions turn on Alex Garland?), but anything fairytale related is catnip to me, so I was extremely on board.
If you are at all familiar with “Bluebeard,” then the “twist” that the husband keeps murdering his wives for taking extremely obvious bait is to be expected. The variation on the tale this time is that they’re all the SAME wife.
Abby Lee (Fury Road, Neon Demon) plays a series of Elizabeths, who has been cloned over and over to be a very young wife to a disgustingly older (and getting older) man. Like Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber,” Elizabeth Harvest is immediately interested in exposing the fucked-up power dynamics and sexual politics inherent in the original story, with the added sci-fi trope of “Born Sexy Yesterday.” Lee, with her haunted, big doe eyes, pulls the part off well, since after the first murder we, as the audience, will always be several steps ahead of whatever number clone we’re on, and she invites our sympathy and pity.
There are a few more twists, if that’s what you want to call them, along the way, but they seem kind of beside the point. Elizabeth Harvest is worth checking out for the gorgeous visuals and production design and to see a lesser known (I guess) tale brought to the screen. I will always return to fairytale retellings to see what changes (and thus meanings) have been tacked on – that’s part of the fun – and in that regard Elizabeth Harvest fully delivers! – Lydia Creech
Pass Over (2018) by Spike Lee
Spike Lee’s other and arguably best film of 2018 is one of the most underrated films of the last 12 months, mostly because most people haven’t even heard of it. Unceremoniously dropped on Amazon Prime without a warning, Lee’s filming of Antoinette Nwandu’s play Pass Over came out of nowhere and astounded me earlier in the year. The play is undeniably brutal and devastating in its portrayal of racial relations in Chicago and the needless cruelty of many white men - those who can utilize their privilege to inflict intense suffering on people of color without hesitation or real consequence. The gunshots in particular are so loud and jarring, making you feel intense discomfort whenever a shot in the background is fired. This makes it difficult at times to keep focus on the central conversations, the paranoia of another bullet lingers and the way the cameras on the stage are framed makes that fear progressively grow. The shots are tight and claustrophobic when focusing on the actors and the stage itself, only having wider shots when focusing on other parts of the auditorium. However, the reason I wanted to talk about it is not because of how significant it is at capturing the essence of the author’s words, but how it creates cinematic language using the stage. The audience is a crucial part of any show, any live performance. Without them, you are alone and your words are heard by no one. Most capturings of works like these focus solely on the paid performers, their filming is very rigid, designed to show the play in its supposedly purest form. Here, Lee is just as interested in the reactions of members of the black community in Chicago as much as he is the actors. We see their reactions, their facial expressions change from joyful to grieving, they become a huge part of the production. He understands that these people are living lives like the characters in the play, and cares about them as much as his characters. They have to go home and live lives like the protagonists in this show do, only they don’t get to take a step away from the realities of it like the performers. It’s clear then that the connection to the audience is emphasized and that the stark brutalities of the play’s climax aren’t used to incite fear or cynicism, instead with a triumphant melancholic celebration of the life that these people have. It’s rare for a document such as this to have the best moments be after the play ends, but when Sampha’s Nobody Knows Me Like The Piano starts playing over the black audience members embracing each other and finding solace in each other’s presence, I cried a lot. The world is a scary place and it’s not often that we get happy endings, but find comfort in each other, make cathartic moments to keep people feeling like these violent racist acts can be ended one day. In the meantime, love as much as you can and don’t let the dead be forgotten. — Logan Kenny
Minding the Gap (2018) by Bing Liu
Following the sins of our fathers is a cliche, but for the boys of Minding the Gap, it’s their curse.
We would love to believe we outgrow the negative attributes of the men who directly raised us, but they follow, linger and without notice, emerge in your adulthood. For most it may just be a habit, but those habits can become much more insidious or toxic when they begin to infect your person and change who you are.
It’s Rockford, Illinois and Kiere, Bing and Zack love nothing more than to spend the day on skateboards. They’re your friends — laughing, joking, wasting time — and you grow attached to them as the documentary, directed by Bing, opens up. But it quickly becomes apparent that this isn’t about skateboarding, and to an extent, it isn’t about these specific boys, it is about the passing of sins and some react in defiance while others lack the motivation to turn away from it.
It’s easy to dismiss actions as “boys being boys” or a list of other excuses, but the root is never treated. Harm towards others, a disrespect of women or a lack of motivation may come with a case-by-case basis but it can also be traced to a lineage and that effect, that blood trickling down the line, does so much more harm than one person can imagine.
As Bing sits skewed from the camera and speaks with his mother about his step-father who beat him, it’s difficult to process the range of emotions filling the room. So much remorse and embarrassment from her face as she attempts to reckon with the actions taken against Bing that his brother and others knew were happening, but nothing was done about it and how the parallel slips back into his own life as Zack becomes a father or his own and charts his own path.
He struggles to latch on because the effort isn’t there, and when failure comes, the pain is exerted onto others rather than challenging himself.
It’s frustrating because you want to leap up and yell at him to change his actions...didn’t he see this before with so many others? We don’t, he doesn’t and you’re left with that remorse once again. — Zach Dennis
Our New President (2018) by Maxim Pozdorovkin
As the astute critic K. Austin Collins pointed out, we seem trapped in the age of “the movie we need right now.” It’s a phrase that gets used exclusively among left-leaning movie fans to, more often than not, mean “a movie that is indirectly about Donald Trump.” 2018 was full of them, some good, some bad: First Reformed, The Death of Stalin, Sorry to Bother You, The Front Runner, Vice, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Paddington 2, BlacKkKlansman, RBG, On the Basis of Sex, and even The First Purge (which even used a MAGA hat as its poster image). Maybe one day there’ll be a term for this wave of films capturing post-2016 liberal panic. Trumpsploitation? Regardless, I won’t call Our New President “the movie we need right now” for the singular reason that it’s not indirectly about Donald Trump – it’s directly about Donald Trump. And unlike the scatterbrained stunting of Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 11/9 (not to mention what is sture to be the inevitable prestigey biopic about the Mueller investigation), Our New President actually has a clever conceit and an interesting perspective: it’s a recreation of the 2016 election cycle that is exclusively comprised of Russian propaganda. Constructed by Russian expatriate Maxim Pozdorovkin, it is less interested in allowing liberals to pat themselves on the back for their wokeness and more interested in presenting otherwise inaccessible information – which, in this case, is information about disinformation.
Since this is a found footage doc, its quality is all in the editing and the footage selection. And the intermittently aggressive editing style (slow motion, zooming, fake glitching, ominous score, etc.) occasionally undermines the film's purpose, which is to show Russian state TV exactly as it is. However, what Russian state TV involves some pretty wild editing in its own right (I often couldn't tell the difference between the documentarian's edits and the propagantist's edits – like these repeated CGI lightning strikes? Who did this?) and the content itself – the footage selection--viewed in succession is often so incredible as to overshadow any quibbles one could have with the craft of the doc. I feel like I'm more well-versed than the average bear on the whole Russian election tampering thing, but there's stuff in here that really blows my mind. Russian TV promoted the Pizzagate conspiracy? Russian TV is responsible for all those rumors about Hillary Clinton being in fatally poor health? Russian TV provides stats about how much Trump protestors get paid off (by Soros, presumably)? Russian TV openly talks about Trump's election being orchestrated by Putin (hence the title)? Even if you knew all these things and I'm just ignorant, did you know that Russian TV, for a time, peddled a theory that Hillary Clinton was cursed by a recently dug-up mummy princess when she visited Russia in the mid-90s, and that said mummy-curse was responsible for the Lewinsky affair, among other things?
This shit really puts all your relatives' griping about the "mainstream media" into perspective. Perhaps they would prefer the mummy mythos news? – Andrew Swafford
6 Balloons (2018) by Marja-Lewis Ryan
6 Balloons is hard to talk about because it has no easy answers. It’s a movie where nothing really gets resolved and there is nothing but pain along the short run time. It’s a movie about addiction, the destruction it can take on the addict, their family, their future. There is absolutely zero elements of this film that are fun or lighthearted to discuss but it refrains from miserableness. The major focus is between a brother and his sister, he is a heroin addict on the verge of relapse with a young daughter, she is trying to host a party for her boyfriend when he turns up needing help to get into rehab. Some people I know have disagreed with the framing of focusing the POV through the sister’s lens (Abbi Jacobson giving the performance of a lifetime) and that’s understandable. Many films about addiction focusing on the POV of an afflicted family member are shaming and lack empathy, and I personally don’t think that’s the case here. Instead, it’s a showcase of how someone can’t cope with the disease of someone around them anymore, it’s about a breaking point. It doesn’t side with her for breaking, it doesn’t frame it as cathartic or the right decision necessarily, but it understands that not everyone is made for being able to deal with addiction. There is no shaming of the brother (Dave Franco with one of the performances of the decade and one of the most realistic portraits of heroin abuse I’ve ever seen) instead a deep lingering sadness of watching a person that you love not be able to get past things. The sad truth of life is that not everyone makes it through recovery, whether that’s with mental health struggles or drug/alcohol addiction. Some people just can’t beat it. It’s tragic and something that I wish wasn’t true, but relapse is something that breaks a lot of people beyond recognition. I’ve known a lot of addicts, I can’t drink alcohol because of my experience as a child with alcoholism and I’ve talked to many friends who were losing themselves to drugs. I didn’t relate to Jacobson’s character, I got mad at her at points for her callousness and what seemed like cruelty, but I understand. I understand how hard it must be to see the person you love most in the world be unable to escape their disease and demons, to be trapped in a constant cycle of debt inducing rehab and near death experiences. I understand the desire to just walk away and lose yourself to the water. There is nothing easy about this process and this film got that more effectively than any hacked Oscar bait style drama could ever convey. It’s not miserableness or exploitation, just tragedy. To me, it’s one of the defining films about addiction. And if you are my friend and you are suffering, and you need someone in your life, I can’t take that away and maybe I can’t do anything at all, but I am here to try. I don’t want to leave anyone to drown while I swim. — Logan Kenny