Though the year’s cinematic frontrunners are by-and-large a fairly uniform crowd (look no further than our list of the best films of 2018 — or even Barack Obama’s 2018 favorites), there are still a lot of movies that have fallen through the cracks.
From more niche films like Black ’47, which deals with Ireland’s Great Famine, to box office bombs like Mortal Engines, which failed to find an audience, this addendum to the year’s best movies is our guide to what’s worth catching as the year comes to a close, whether the films in questions deserve a spotlight or just a second chance.
Along with the superb Goldstone and Cargo, Sweet Country is part of a wave of recent Australian films that have reckoned with the country’s history with regards to its indigenous people. Directed by Warwick Thornton and starring Hamilton Morris, Bryan Brown and Sam Neill, Sweet Country feels remarkably modern, despite taking place in 1929. Morris stars as Sam, an aboriginal farmworker, who kills a white man in self-defense and is forced to go on the run. Thornton pointedly avoids the usual white-savior trope as the film draws to a close; neither Brown nor Neill’s characters are free from blame for the way Australia has changed since being colonized. Instead, they’re forced to confront their own part in the way the deck is stacked against Sam.
Jaume Collet-Sera and Liam Neeson have proven to be a winning combination, with Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night, and now The Commuter. Banking on the action movie formula of sticking every character in an enclosed space and letting events play out, The Commuter takes place on a commuter train. Neeson’s character, everyman Michael MacCauley, is charged with finding an unknown passenger at the cost of keeping his family safe, though it quickly becomes apparent that there’s much more going on than he’s initially led to believe. With Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Florence Pugh and Andy Nyman rounding out the supporting cast, it’s a slim thriller that’s more fun than its mundane setting might suggest.
With works like Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run, the stop-motion titans at Aardman Animations have proved themselves masters of balancing humor and empathy. Their latest film, Early Man, fits right in. There’s a glee present throughout Nick Park’s tale of a group of cavemen fighting to win back their land from a collection of Bronze Age foes (including Tom Hiddleston as the pompous Lord Nooth). Then again, perhaps “fight” isn’t the right word — their chosen method of settling on who gets the valley is a soccer match. Early Man is a riot, and in case you need more fancy duck content, it features a duck in one of the funniest sight gags ever committed to film.
The title Black ’47 refers to 1847, the worst year of the Irish Great Famine, and though that may not immediately sound like a particularly exciting feature, director Lance Daly has made one of the most gripping films of the year. He’s also breaking new ground, as the film is the first major motion picture to address the Great Famine.
When Martin Feeney (James Frecheville) returns home to Connemara after serving in the British Army, he discovers that his family has died or otherwise been cleared out by English forces. As he vows to get revenge, he comes into the crosshairs of Hannah (Hugo Weaving), a British Army veteran who had served with Feeney in Afghanistan, but is now serving the police in exchange for his life. The film is a mix of genres that would seem contrary to the subject matter — it’s part-Western, part-superhero movie — and impressively lean for the density of the subject matter it tackles.
YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
The story driving Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is one you’ve likely seen before — Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a troubled man on a quest to rescue a young girl (Ekaterina Samsonov) — but Ramsay’s direction and the sound design of the piece keep it feeling fresh and vital. Though the narrative can ultimately only travel one way, Joe (whose preferred weapon is a hammer) still feels unpredictable, as the camera captures him in disorienting fragments to mimic his own unsettled state of mind. It’s that focus on subjectivity that makes the film’s 95-minute run time feel tense rather than trifling.
LEAN ON PETE
Andrew Haigh has proven himself a master at capturing slow heartbreak, and Lean on Pete is no exception to the rule. The film meanders much like its protagonist, latchkey kid Charley (Charlie Plummer), and avoids hitting any obvious emotional notes or narrative beats. Instead, it slowly pieces together emotional connections, until Charley’s bond with an aging racehorse named Lean on Pete fills up every inch of the screen. None of the characters — ranging from Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi), a horse trainer, to an itinerant named Silver (Steve Zahn) — last very long. Lean on Pete is the story of a boy and his horse; it doesn’t need anything more than that.
As far as remakes go, Rob Greenberg’s take on Overboard, the 1987 amnesia comedy starring Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, actually has quite a bit of charm. Most of that has to do with his two stars, Anna Faris and Eugenio Derbez, who do a little bit of a role swap: It’s Faris who plays the struggling single parent this time, and Derbez who plays the rich brat, ready for comeuppance. The events of the film confront and clear up the potentially murky racial politics of the switch, as well as any lingering doubts as to just how above board the story of taking advantage of an amnesiac might be. Though the film stumbles, Faris and Derbez have charm for days, making Overboard much more fun than it has any right to be.
Upgrade is cranked up and ready to rumble. To describe it makes it sound like a series of quick time events: After being paralyzed in a mysterious attack, Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green, giving a performance worthy of the same kind of praise as Bruce Campbell’s manic, kinetic turn in Evil Dead 2) discovers that the AI chip implanted in his spine to help him manage can communicate with him, and actually move his body for him. With a villain named Eron Keen (draw your own conclusions as to which real-life figure he’s standing in for) and characters who use sneezes as weapons, Upgrade never falls into the trap of taking itself too seriously, instead stringing together its pulpy action scenes with the delirium of a roller coaster ride.
Kelly Macdonald and Irrfan Khan are two of the best, most sensitive actors alive, and their pairing in Marc Turtletaub’s Puzzle is nothing if not a winning one. Agnes (Macdonald) lives a fairly sheltered, nondescript life, and it’s only the introduction of a puzzle that starts to shake things up. When she travels into the city to buy more puzzles, she finds an ad for a puzzle partner posted by Robert (Khan) and, spurred on by her newfound passion, decides to give it a shot. Though there’s a balance to be struck between Agnes’ family (including her overbearing husband, played by — who else — David Denman) and her burgeoning new relationship, the film is at its most winning when simply letting Macdonald and Khan bounce off of each other, putting all of the pieces (literal and figurative) together.
That Ideal Home came and went without making much of an impact has everything to do with the way it was marketed — it wasn’t, essentially. Erasmus (Steve Coogan) and Paul (Paul Rudd), who are partners in life as well as in work (Erasmus hosts a cooking show that Paul produces), find themselves floundering co-parents after Erasmus’ grandson (Jack Gore) turns up on their doorstep. The basic elements of the story may seem familiar, but they’re given new dimension by virtue of the fact that they’re rarely (if ever) centered on gay relationships. The script capitalizes on Coogan and Rudd’s chemistry and ability to handle both comedy and drama. and the film, directed by Andrew Fleming (who based it on his own experience), is surprisingly touching and worth seeking out.
There’s a melancholy suffusing Marc Forster’s Christopher Robin, which follows a grown-up Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor), that seems to run contrary to Disney’s usual impulse to sand away rough edges and emotional turmoil more complex than strictly necessary. Though this turns Christopher Robin into a singularly odd film, it also turns it into a surprisingly touching one. The usual platitudes about keeping one’s inner child alive are gently taken apart, as the script (written by Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy and Allison Schroeder) maintains a firm grounding in the realities of adult responsibilities. The ever-wonderful Jim Cummings returns as the voice of Winnie the Pooh, with a more vintage visage in this film that lends his voice a perfect mixture of sweetness and sadness.
THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME
There’s a lot of nonsense in The Spy Who Dumped Me, but there’s also a lot of sincerity in how it portrays relationships between women thoughtfully and honestly. The spy in question is Audrey’s (Mila Kunis) boyfriend, whose top-secret mission she takes on with her best friend Morgan (Kate McKinnon) after he’s killed in action. Directed and co-written by Susanna Fogel, The Spy Who Dumped Me is full of beats — in between all the requisite spy-thriller action — that should feel familiar to anyone watching, including a scene in which Morgan forces Audrey to appreciate her accomplishments thus far. Similarly, the film itself seems to ask the audience, and its female audience in particular, to stop apologizing and embrace being themselves.
THE SISTERS BROTHERS
The days of the Wild West may be long behind us, but the Western as a genre has only become more expansive and more interesting. The latest entry in the catalogue is Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers, based on the book of the same name. Starring John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as Eli and Charlie Sisters, the film is a thoughtful revisionist Western, finding the vulnerability in a genre stereotypically known for gunslinging and swagger.
The Sisters brothers are hitmen set on the trail of Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist, and John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), the detective originally sent to track Warm down. The further the four travel, the stranger things become, with the distance opening up old wounds and insecurities. This all leads up to a final act that’s profoundly warm rather than warlike.
BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE
If nothing else, Bad Times at the El Royale is worth the price of admission to hear Cynthia Erivo sing. Directed by Drew Goddard of The Cabin in the Woods, Bad Times at the El Royale operates with that film’s same kind of puzzle-box structure, putting a group of strangers together in the El Royale hotel and leaving them to unravel each other’s secrets. With Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm and Dakota Johnson among the gathered misfit toys, the parts of the film that sag are still a delight to watch, and a shirtless Chris Hemsworth appears in the final act to zap a little life back into the proceedings.
Were this a perfect world, a sequel to Mortal Engines would have been announced already, but no such luck. Though not without its flaws (and despite bombing at the box office), Christian Rivers’ adaptation of Philip Reeve’s books was one of the rarest thrills at the multiplex this year: a blockbuster that wasn’t a remake or a reboot, with a completely new vision for what a post-apocalyptic landscape could look like. Like Mad Max: Fury Road with Howl’s Moving Castle-esque cities instead of cars, Mortal Engines conjures up images you’re not likely to see anywhere else, and starts with a rush that never lets up. For anyone looking for an unapologetically wild (and gorgeously constructed) fantasy, Mortal Engines will hit the spot.
SWIMMING WITH MEN
If there’s any movie in recent years that’s a worthy heir to the Japanese films of the late ’90s and early 2000s (like Shall We Dance?, Ping Pong, Waterboys or Linda Linda Linda), it is, however improbable it may seem, the British comedy Swimming with Men. Directed by Oliver Parker, the film has a purity of heart and earnestness when it comes to forming human connections, and demonstrates a remarkable tenderness toward the bodies of its protagonists.
Following an existential crisis, Eric (Rob Brydon) joins a men’s synchronized swimming team. His teammates aren’t in particularly good shape or necessarily even good swimmers, but that’s not the point — they’re there to find some sense of purpose. With the rest of the team filled out by Adeel Akhtar, Jim Carter, Rupert Graves, Daniel Mays, and Thomas Turgoose, Swimming with Men is one of the most pleasant surprises of the year, and a genuinely great film.
In recent years, Clint Eastwood’s reputation has become something of a cipher, as undeniably great works like Unforgiven seem directly contradicted by his more recent, more controversial films (The 15:17 to Paris, American Sniper). The Mule, which he directed and stars in, is a little easier to untangle, if only because it’s an inherently more personal work. As Earl Stone, a man who neglected his family in favor of his work, it feels more than a little like Eastwood is indicting his own past — especially by having cast his actual daughter, Alison Eastwood, in the role of Stone’s estranged daughter. He’s unafraid to paint himself as out of step or to point out his own flaws; the thing holding it all together is his earnestness in doing so.