Some Hidden Gems of 2018
It worked out by chance that this is the first official “year end” list to be published, but in a way, it feels fitting. Most years, I do my overrated, underrated and underseen films, as well as lists of what films surprised me both positively and negatively. I’ve hesitated to write up hidden gems, just because hidden gems feel like they need time to become gems. It’s in the definition of the word. A gem doesn’t just randomly occur in nature.
However, because I watch so many films each year and because there are so many out there that are awesome that people just don’t know about, I felt that I should write up a list to give as many of those their due as I can. This may bleed over a bit with my Underseen list, but in a way, that’s more about the films people know about but just need to actually go see. This is more supposed to be — “You don’t even know what this is, do you?” I want it to be about the films that are really good that most people just either have not heard of or would take a second to go, “What is that, again?”
The average moviegoer maybe recognizes a third of this list. People more into movies probably has seen a third and has heard of half or so. People who are deeper into movies than most, maybe half seen and heard of 75%? I still think there’s gonna be something here that is so under the radar that even the film people don’t know what it is. And you know how I know that? Talking to people.
The idea behind this list is — most people don’t know about these films, they’re really great, and you should seek them out, because they’re great. There are obviously gonna be a few that maybe have wider recognition than a true ‘hidden’ gem, but in those situations, I think we’d agree that people still need to see them. If I can have it be under 5 that you think are more widely known than I’m suggesting, I think I’ve done my job. I still think most people haven’t seen at least half this list at minimum. (And if you have, maybe start telling people about them.)
Anyway, here are a few (and trust me, there are more) hidden gems from this year that deserve to have a wider audience:
1. American Animals
This one’s kind of known. Because there are a lot of people who have been championing this as one of the great films of the year that no one’s seen. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth bringing up. Because as much as it’s out there with people suggesting it be seen — not a lot of people have actually gone and watched it.
It’s a heist film. But it’s one that takes a really interesting track for telling its story. It does it docudrama style. Think I, Tonya meets true crime documentary. The real people are sitting there, telling their story to the camera, and then we cut to the film version of the story, with actors playing the characters and telling the story. So we get to see the engaging fictional aspect while also seeing the real people telling their stories, however contradictory and potentially untrue they may be. And the film even does something cooler at brief moments, which is have the real people show up in the film at key moments, almost as a sort of harbinger of things to come. It’s really cool.
On top of all that, though — it’s just a really well made movie. You don’t necessarily know the main actors; you only know them through other movies. Barry Keoghan you know from Killing of a Sacred Deer or Dunkirk. Evan Peters you know as Quicksilver from the X-Men movies. And Blake Jenner is from Everybody Wants Some and Edge of Seventeen. It’s also the director’s debut. Which is very impressive. It’s the kind of movie where you wonder if they did the interviews first and then wrote the script around them, or if they knew all along they were gonna do it this way. The whole thing is just incredibly well constructed. This is one of those movies that deserves to be seen if only as a style exercise. It’s not like most other movies you see. If you love cinema as an art form or want to, in any way, work in the industry, you owe it to yourself to watch this. Because it shows you a different angle to take on what could have been a very straightforward, much more generic story/film.
2. Anna and the Apocalypse
Zombie. Musical. Do you need anything more than that? This just came out last weekend, and I already know it’s destined to be a hidden gem for 2018. Because maybe you’ll hear about it, but I already know no one is gonna see this on the level they should. This is Shaun of the Dead with show tunes. It’s so awesome. And it’s a crowd pleaser. The songs aren’t bad either. Really funny, lots of fun, and the exact kind of movie this list was made for. See it before it gets buried. You won’t regret it.
This is gonna be the most well known film on the list. I knew that going in. But also — any opportunity I have to champion this, I’m gonna take. Because you know what? This movie only made $4 million at the box office, and it’s not really in awards contention. It got one Indie Spirit nomination, and if that’s all it got, this is gonna be almost forgotten within six months. And it doesn’t deserve that.
I didn’t know what to make of this movie going in. I knew it went over well at Sundance and I knew it was generally about a black man who witnesses a police officer kill a man and struggles with it. That’s all I knew. I’m curious to hear what other people thought or think this is about. Because it’s not only a lot of things in one, it’s also still not what you think it’s gonna be.
After watching a trailer, I saw that it was mostly about the relationship between the two characters. But even then, it seemed like it was more of a drama. Let me tell you — this is a comedy. It’s a buddy comedy. I saw a Sundance logline that said “A buddy comedy in a world that doesn’t want it to be one.” And that feels like the most accurate way to describe this movie. Because it’s about two guys, one white, one black. The black one is very mild-mannered and considerate and the white guy is all tatted up and has violent tendencies. And the black one is fresh out of prison for something we find out over the course of the film. He’s trying to stay on the straight and narrow, but everyone tells him that hanging out with the white guy is gonna get him in trouble again. Meanwhile, he sees a cop murder a black guy on the street, basically in cold blood. So he’s got that on his conscience too. Meanwhile it’s also about race in society and an ex-felon trying to make a life for himself, and even a bit of a relationship drama. But the whole thing is filtered through the relationship between these two guys, which is basically more funny than anything.
I can’t say enough nice things about this movie. It was tremendous. Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal are terrific here, and they wrote it for themselves. Both deliver really terrific performances, and this is one of those movies where, no matter if you’ve heard of it or not, you need to make sure you’ve seen it and make sure other people see it. Not only is it really entertaining and really terrific, but it feels like the perfect microcosm of 2018 society without trying to be preachy in any way. This movie is not gonna have awards or anything to keep it on people’s recommendation lists. It needs as many voices as it can get to keep it out there.
This is by the Zellner brothers, who made Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, which is another hidden gem. (It’s the one with Rinko Kikuchi and is based on the real woman who thought the Fargo treasure was real and died trying to find it.) I’m still not even sure people know about that movie, so I know nobody knows about this. Even if you’ve heard of this, I bet you don’t even know that it came out, or when it came out. That’s how quietly this came and went.
This is an anti-western. It’s playing on the standard western tropes and pretty much giving you everything you wouldn’t get in those films. It starts with Robert Pattinson arriving in the west, an effete city boy, on a small show pony, there to “rescue” his childhood sweetheart, who has been kidnapped by another man. And the film is half him traveling to her, encountering all these weirdos along the way. And then, of course, when we get there, we find out that she doesn’t need or want saving at all. And the film is a play on the notion of the “damsel in distress.” The damsel ends up being the most capable and strong character in the film, and everyone around her either wants to save her, fuck her or both.
It’s one of those movies that brings you in with the actors and the genre, and then gives you all this weird comedy stuff, completely turns everything on its head, and then ends up making a statement about gender and genre and all these things. I really like it.
5. The Endless
This is by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead, who made this absolutely beautiful movie called Spring a few years ago, which I refer to as “Before Sunrise with Sea Monsters.” It’s incredible. This is their first movie since that, and, I found out after I saw it, is a followup to a film they’d made previously. Which I didn’t know. But don’t worry, you can watch it on its own and be just fine.
The two star in the film as brothers who, ten years prior, had escaped from a death cult. One of them has completely moved on and is trying to make ends meet financially, while the other still kinda wishes he was back there. He liked it and thought life was simpler there. The two end up going back to visit, and… I’ll leave it there. It’s nothing crazy, but it is fucking weird. This is definitely a mind fuck of a movie. I’d give you other things to use as comps, but it would lessen the viewing experience. It’s one of those movies that draws you in and keeps you interested, even though after a certain point you have no idea what actually is going on. It’s one of those that almost necessitates multiple viewings. Which I know appeals to certain people greatly.
If anything, I’m suggesting you watch their previous film, but this one, for this year, is definitely a hidden gem. This is one of those where — sure you can watch whatever mainstream movie that’s out there. Or, you could go watch this and watch something unique and interesting that will probably last in your head much longer than most other stuff.
6. A Futile and Stupid Gesture
Our first Netflix movie. There are gonna be 3 or 4 of these on the list. Netflix has become a place that gives a lot of movies a home that otherwise might not have gotten made or gotten released in any major way. However, the downside to that is, now that they’re fully in that business, they release so much stuff that if it doesn’t make a big splash the first weekend it comes out (Set It Up, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, etc) — and even if it does — after a few weeks it all just sort of gets absorbed into the giant ether that is Netflix. It’s the kind of thing where you know it’s always gonna be there, and after that initial wave of people talking about it, there’s no real impetus to go back and watch any of it. So I feel like a lot of stuff, especially ones that don’t get the big press upon coming out, all too easily disappear. So I’m gonna want to shout out the ones I think are the most interesting or unique that I just don’t think anyone bothered to watch.
This one, I feel like people kind of heard of it. It came out in January, which is a dead zone for movies, plus there are a lot of people in it. And David Wain directed it! So I’m sure people have probably heard about it. But I bet a lot of you forgot this even came out, and I’m sure a lot of people never even bothered to see it.
7. Happy Anniversary
Our second Netflix movie. This is one that not even I had expectations for. It was just something that came out and I was gonna see it whatever it was. I truly didn’t know anything about it going in. And I was very pleasantly surprised. It was a nice movie about a couple. Premise is: Ben Schwartz and Noel Wells are on their third wedding anniversary, and they are pretty much deciding whether or not they should stay married. And we get glimpses of the good and the bad of their relationship, all while they both struggle to get through the day. It’s really good. It’s an adult romantic comedy, if that makes sense. It’s got comedy, it’s got romance, but it’s very serious and dramatic. Which is not meant to be like — Holocaust drama serious and dramatic, but like… it’s not filled with frat humor and gags where people are shitting on the street. Schwartz is really good here, and Noel Wells is a revelation. I only knew who she was because I saw her film Mr. Roosevelt last year. But between this and Social Animals, she’s really impressed me. She has an innate likability on screen and is someone I now want to see more of in things. This is the definition of a hidden gem, because it’s just sitting there for anyone to see, and no one knows. And it’s quite good.
8. Hearts Beat Loud
Brett Haley has made a career out of these under the radar, indie character pieces. And he’s building this stable of actors for them too. There was I’ll See You in My Dreams with Blythe Danner, The Hero with Sam Elliott, and now this. This is the most mainstream of the bunch. Nick Offerman runs a failing record shop and has basically avoided being an adult all his life. His daughter is about to go off to college and med school. He finds her book of poetry and decides to turn it into songs. They record them and gain minor Spotify recognition. But mostly it’s about him trying to keep connected to her through the music. It’s a fun little movie. Songs are great. Offerman and Kiersey Clemons are good here, and it’s a nice, under the radar little gem. Some people felt that way about Haley’s last two films. He’s building a career on these things.
9. I Kill Giants
So this, for a moment in the first quarter of the year, was my favorite film of the year. It’s about a shy girl with no friends who lives in a fantasy world where she claims she is protecting everyone around her from monsters. But it makes her ostracized, and abrasive. So we watch her, her only friend, and a nice counselor who tries to help the girl. It becomes obvious over the course of the movie what’s going on, but the clear destination doesn’t diminish the ride. It’s visually quite stunning, and was directed by the guy who made Helium, that Oscar-winning short. It’s so terrific. And has a really emotionally fulfilling finale too. This is the kind of movie I’d have found on TV when I was like, ten, and fallen in love with, not knowing how little it was known by anyone else. Don’t give this one a chance to be forgotten. See it now.
10. Ideal Home
This is definitely one of the more “hidden” gems. This had to come out for me to have heard of it. I’ll sell this one to you real quick: Steve Coogan and Paul Rudd are a longtime couple. Coogan’s a celebrity chef and Rudd is his producer. One day, Coogan finds out he has a grandson he knew nothing about, and the two are thrust upon fatherhood out of nowhere. At its core, it’s the kind of setup you’ve seen before, but the way they go about it is a lot of fun. Plus, seeing Paul Rudd and Steve Coogan as a bickering gay couple is just incredible. It’s fun, and I think this is one of those — based on how little you knew about it and how much enjoyment you’ll get out of it, it’s worth the watch.
11. Lean on Pete
This movie was a delight. It’s slow, and it’s Andrew Haigh, who did 45 Years, a movie that I thought was too slow and boring. So it’s possible people will feel that way about this one. Which is fair. But I’m here to talk about hidden gems I liked. And this was one of them. It’s about a young boy with an absentee father who starts working for a horse trainer and becomes attached to an old horse, one destined for the glue factory. I really liked this one.
12. Madeline’s Madeline
Like another film on this list, I’m not as in love with the full film so much as I am with certain aspects of it. It takes a minute to get acclimated to this movie. It’s a surrealist film, which ends up taking flight by the third act. It’s about a young girl who becomes part of a big acting group, and she starts taking her acting too seriously. It’s not one of those Black Swan kind of deals. It’s way different, but no less compelling. Helena Howard gives what might be the best performance of the year. She really elevates this movie. And then, because I’m a sucker for “fuck it, let’s go balls out,” how this movie ends is also quite terrific. But yeah, I can’t really describe this one except to say, the lead performance is incredible, and if you’re willing to go along for a weird, surreal (possibly pretentious, but surrealism always runs that risk) ride, give this one a shot.
13. Never Goin’ Back
This is a female Dazed and Confused, Clerks, whatever you wanna call it. It’s so good. Two girls, high school dropouts, and it’s a week in their life. They’re always an inch from getting fired, trying to save up enough money to get to the beach, and always getting into some shit because of drugs or stupid friends. It’s amazing. It’s the kind of movie that should (and will) be discovered by the right people and immediately become one of their favorite films. This is a top five gem from this list. If I can suggest you watch only one of these movies, this might be the one I picked. This movie is great.
14. The Polka King
Our final Netflix movie. This is also based on a real story, and has Jack Black once again delivering a terrific performance in an unheralded, underseen movie. It’s like six years now since Bernie, and people are still talking about how good he was in that. Surprise, he’s done it like five more times since then too. Here he stars as a Polish polka star, locally famous, who ends up running a Ponzi scheme. It’s hilarious, and Black is so committed to the role. This is one of the better Netflix movies you’ll see this year, and the fact that it happened makes it even better.
This movie was so good I wish I had seen it in a theater. I knew about it last year when it played a festival, and I regret that I couldn’t go the day they showed it. And then when it finally came out and I saw it, I really wanted to be in a theater full of people. Because it’s that kind of movie. This is like badass The Revenant. Mixed with I Spit on Your Grave. Woman goes out to desert with her married rich boyfriend for a getaway. He’s got two friends who show up for some unnamed thing they’re gonna do. They all party, and the next day, while the boyfriend is out, she gets raped by one of the men. When she tries to run away, she ends up being left for dead by all three men. But she survives… and she’s back for (insert title here). And it’s fucking badass. This is the kind of movie I look for. I want everyone to see this, because it’s so good. You will stand up and cheer at this. Also… it’s brutal. The violence is real, and they do not sugar coat it. The final encounter is so bloody that as they run through the house they’re literally slipping and falling in all the blood. It’s nuts. And I love it.
If there’s one movie from this year that you probably don’t know about that you need to see, this is it.
16. The Sisters Brothers
I’ve been excited for this since they announced it… which is even when I knew about it. John C. Reilly’s been trying to get this made for years, but it was only in the last two when he got Jacques Audiard to direct it and got the cast finalized. And it’s a western! It’s being pushed for awards, it was at… I think I went to see it opening night and just happened to stumble into an LA Film Fest screening or whatever it was. It was out there, and yet no one went to see it and I feel like no one really knows what it is.
Here’s what you need to know: It’s a western. John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix are brothers. They’re assassins. They are hired to go and kill people. They’re hired to kill a chemist and travel out to get him. Riz Ahmed plays the chemist. Jake Gyllenhaal is a tracker who is following Ahmed and is there to make sure Reilly and Phoenix get to him. That’s pretty much all you need to get into it. There’s more going on here. It’s also very funny. It’s serious, and it doesn’t treat the West the way the 50s movies did. Things are brutal. One bullet can make you lose a limb, and there’s a hilarious (and dark) moment with a spider and what a spider bite can do to a person. This movie gets jokes out of a toothbrush. It’s fantastic.
I don’t know why this hasn’t gotten out there. I guess because it’s a western, and because it doesn’t follow a lot of the standard narrative tropes as you’d expect. I feel like some people when watching this will wonder what the point of it all was and that it just kind of ends out of nowhere. But to me, that’s the charm of the movie and what it’s all really about. But still, people need to watch this. We need more westerns, and this one is quite good.
17. Small Town Crime
This was the first official hidden gem of the year. It came out quietly at the end of January, and absolutely no one knows it exists. It’s another entry into the “John Hawkes picks cool, weird indies” genre, like with Too Late a few years ago. It’s a detective story, with all sorts of weird and fun turns. It’s the exact kind of movie that appeals to me, and the exact kind of movie you might now stumble upon on Netflix and watch and go, “That was really fun.” It used to be “stumble upon on cable,” but that’s not even a thing anymore for people under 30. I’m not even gonna oversell this. If alcoholic private detectives solving random cases on the fringe of society is your thing, check this one out.
Why is it that Steven Soderbergh movies are always underrated? Logan Lucky was one of the best movies of last year and there are still people who haven’t seen it. This movie… this came out and no one knew it was out. No one saw this! And it’s fantastic. It got press because he shot the entire movie on an iPhone, and I’m sure some people thought, “Oh god, why do I wanna see that?” And the answer is, “Because it’s Steven Soderbergh, and when are his movies not, at the very least, worthwhile, if not always good?”
This is a Hitchcock kind of movie. Claire Foy is a woman who does not seem totally well. She is paranoid because of a stalker she used to have (who may or may not be real). She goes to a mental institution and before she knows it, ends up as a patient against her will. And the rest of the film makes you wonder — is she crazy, is she not? Is there something underhanded going on at the hospital? Is there really a stalker? And the movie just takes all of these turns, all of which are very above board, and yet, the way it plays, it feels like it’s making all these masterstrokes. That’s Soderbergh, I guess. He just elevates material. But trust me, you need to see this movie. It’s one of the best that came out this year and almost no one knows about it.
19. We the Animals
This is one of the indie darlings of the year. I’ll admit, not my favorite movie on this list, but the visual style it uses to tell its story is definitely one of the better ones I’ve seen this year. It does a really terrific job of putting you in the mindset of a child, and the way it plays with picture and sound (especially sound), is terrific. This is one of those gems that will be forgotten within six months, and it’s a damn shame, because it’s a really effective film and worth seeing.
20. What They Had
I don’t even think people know this is a movie. First time writer-director, stars Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster and Blythe Danner. It’s a family drama. What people do when their mother has Alzheimer’s and their father is getting too old to properly care for her by himself. It’s really well done. Forster is incredible here. Shannon is always good, and Swank is solid. Danner is good, but mostly has to do the senile old lady thing. But this is a very solid indie drama that people don’t even know exists. And it’s unfair, because it’s really solid. And I feel like it’s clearly borne of the director’s real life experiences, which doubly means people need to see it, because for some people it’ll really strike a chord with them. You can’t put a price on movies like that.
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