If 2018 ended today, it would have been a very solid year for cinema. From “First Reformed” to “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” recent theatrical releases have provided plenty of reasons to celebrate the vitality of movies as an art form and an essential conversation-starter. Of course, the fall is just a few months away, and it’s dense with a whole bunch of new possibilities sure to complicate any overview of the year’s highlights. December will look very different, and make it all that harder to recall those hidden gems the hidden gems that deserved more attention than they received.
While we continue to gather an ongoing list of the best indie movies of the year so far, we’re taking this opportunity to point out a handful of titles that have yet to land the appropriate exposure. There were no hard-and-fast rules for qualifications here — festival favorites that have yet to score distribution made the cut, because we’ll take any opportunity to remind the world that they still need to get out there. As for the others: If you haven’t seen them yet, consider this our plea.
“The World Is Yours”
Romain Gavras’ “The World Is Yours” might take its title from a certain gangster classic — or its blood-soaked Brian De Palma remake, which only made a life of crime seem that much cooler — but this wildly infectious French heist comedy is pretty much the anti-“Scarface.” The story of a criminal who’s trying to break out of the thug life, Gavras’ film evolves into a hyper-stylish and unexpectedly sweet rebuke to the idea that screwing people is a good way to get ahead.
Held together by a killer score by Jamie XX and Sebastian, and topped off with hilarious performances from the likes of Vincent Cassel and Isabelle Adjani, “The World Is Yours” is relevant in every respect, and the rare movie that manages to address the crises of the modern age with a smile on its face. “The World Is Yours” is “Sexy Beast,” “Spring Breakers,” and “Little Miss Sunshine” all blended together and served with a lad-rock swagger; it’s the best movie that Guy Ritchie never made. —DE
If the past two years have taught us anything, it’s that not giving a shit about other human beings is the best way to get ahead in life. Empathy is a weakness. It’s a virtue, of course — and hopefully part of our natural condition — but it’s also a weakness. Empathy is one of the few things that money can’t buy, and the only thing that the rich can’t afford. “Thoroughbreds,” Cory Finley’s delightfully vicious and mind-bogglingly confident first feature, is a pitch-black comedy about the danger of being around people of privilege when they first start to figure that out.
Set in the affluent suburbs of Connecticut, the film unfolds like “American Psycho” meets “Heathers” as directed by a young and extremely class-conscious Park Chan-wook. The story begins as a teenage girl named Amanda (Olivia Cooke) returns to society after euthanizing her family’s horse with savage indifference. Amanda’s sociopathic coldness makes her the ideal foil for her estranged childhood friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), a prim and proper type who feels everything a bit too intensely. Together, they decide to murder Lily’s stepfather. What follows is a devious of work, an expertly crafted dark comedy that gets some much-needed sweetness from Anton Yelchin’s final performance. —DE
The Sundance premiere is bound for a mid-summer release, and here’s hoping the charming midlife crisis drama stirs up more attention outside of the crowded festival field, where few took notice. Marc Turtletaub’s film revels in the possibilities of finding something new in a wholly ordinary life. For Agnes (played by the extraordinary Kelly MacDonald) that starts with the literal opening of a birthday gift, one that contains a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle that awakens her to her true talent. And Agnes is really, really good at puzzling, a quick worker who takes great pride in the finished product – before she breaks it all up to start again.
Agnes’ world is a tight circle, moving between home, church, errands, and back again. That first puzzle changes everything. Desperate for another large-scale puzzle – and mostly afraid of the possibilities of internet shopping, a subplot that also sees Agnes trying to navigate her very first iPhone – she heads to New York City. At the puzzle store, a small note hangs from the register: a champion puzzler is looking for a partner. Agnes’ entire life blows up. A coming-of-age tale for the older set, “Puzzle” is tender and honest, open-hearted in a way that few films (hell, few people) are willing to strive for these days. —KE
There’s a scene in Bryan Bertino’s film “The Strangers” that handily encapsulates the film’s nervy brand of terror: Liv Tyler, standing alone in her kitchen, looking out into what seems to be — what should be — an empty house. Behind her, a masked figure lurks, half-hidden in shadows and entirely unknown to Tyler’s character. It’s a jolt of pure terror, with the masked man sliding into frame, then slowly moving out of it. Tyler’s Kristen McKay is none the wiser, and that the scene doesn’t lead to an instant slash of bloody violence is mostly incidental. There will be violence later, plenty of it, but it’s the dread of it all, the senselessness of the criminals, the ignorance of their prey, that makes it so emblematic of the entire world Bertino crafted in the low-budget hit.
It took nearly a decade for the film’s long-rumored followup to arrive, a sort-of sequel that gleefully exists in the same universe as “The Strangers,” without being beholden to demands that it pick up precisely where the first film chillingly left off. “Prey at Night” is the rare sequel that works just as well on its own, while still deepening the first film’s mythology, and it plays out as both a smart new franchise entry and an homage to classic John Carpenter joints like “Christine” and “Halloween.” —KE
The latest Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman joint offers up an honest, underrepresented look at the realities of being a parent, which mostly pleased audiences when it secretly debuted at Sundance, though that buzz failed to translate to box office interest. The film stars Charlize Theron as struggling mom Marlo, who’s pushed to her breaking point with the arrival of her third child. A generous gift from her brother (indie stalwart Mark Duplass) changes things, as he offers to foot the bill for a night nurse who can get Marlo and her family acclimated to her new normal. That’s the eponymous Tully, played by Mackenzie Davis, who whips Marlo and her family back into shape, thanks to her endless empathy.
The film is a natural continuation of the offbeat universe that she and Reitman first crafted with 2007 breakout hit “Juno” and kept mining with 2012’s “Young Adult” (which also starred Theron). All of the films are focused on women at a crossroads (pregnancy, fertility issues, arrested development), facing expectations to conform to some kind of social construct and failing miserably at it. While other Hollywood movies would use that framework to build out feel-good redemption stories, Cody and Reitman opted early on to jettison those sorts of constraints. Their movies are funny, weird, and very honest, and we’re lucky to have them, no matter who turns out. —KE
“The Cage Fighter”
Joe Carman has a face made for the movies, but it’s not a pretty one. With an unkempt beard and tired eyes, he looks like he’s trapped in the headlights of a world that won’t cut him a break. The 40-year-old Seattle figure at the center of “The Cage Fighter” is a broken man defeated by every aspect of his life. Still, he does what he can to bury his troubles with macho swagger whenever he steps into the ring, engaging in the competitive mixed martial arts fighting that his family has urged him to quit. Carman’s persistence is at once inspiring and tragic, a bloodied metaphor for battling forward against impossible odds.
The feature-length debut of director Jeff Unay, “The Cage Fighter” hails from a tradition of intimate cinema verité that encompasses so many details from the lives of its subject that it may as well be a scripted drama. Shot over the course of three years, the movie captures every facet of Carman’s tiring life: His domestic struggles with his second wife, who suffers from a bone disease; the legal problems he faces when his first wife threatens to take their children out of state; the denigration he receives from his crude, alcoholic father; Carman’s own uneven attempts to be a good parent. It’s a constant pileup of dead ends. The movie doesn’t quite make its way to a happy ending, but Carman’s perseverance suggests he hasn’t given up looking for one. Released in early 2018, its message should resonate especially well with audiences now. —EK
“Who We Are Now”
Told with the full texture of real life, Julianne Nicholson’s second collaboration with “From Nowhere” filmmaker Matthew Newton is a close-up character study that explores notions of forgiveness and self-worth with surgical precision. It’s also a devastatingly authentic drama that’s as guarded and unforthcoming as its protagonist. The only thing we’re told about Nicholson’s character is that her name is Beth; everything else we’re left to sort out — or pry out — for ourselves. Eventually we learn that she’s been in jail for the last 10 years and is fighting for custody over her son, and the story of her legal case becomes a profoundly affecting portrait of sacrifice, redemption, and accepting the fact that the present is the only part of your life that you have the immediate power to change.
Audiences have earned good reason to be wary of any micro-budget American indie that grapples with those themes, and there are so many places where this film could have gone wrong, where it could have been trite or treacly. But “Who We Are Now” very seldom feels like it’s just serving its big ideas, and it handles each of them with such a rare degree of specificity that it often seems like a movie without precedent. Watching the gears spin behind Nicholson’s eyes, or the astonishing long take in which she finally bares her soul while struggling to save a piece of it for herself, Newton’s writing surrenders to an ineffable honesty that blots out everything on both sides. —DE
“Holiday” is already unsettling in its portrait of a young woman trapped by a cruel overlord, and then it arrives at a brutal, graphic rape scene more alarming than anything comparable in world cinema since “Irreversible.” No matter the extreme disgust at the center of this scene and the devastating circumstances surrounding it, Danish writer-director Isabella Eklof’s debut never feels like an empty provocation. This astonishing first feature depicts a world of superficial pleasures with such precision that even the people trapped in its confines can’t deny its appeal. As Sacha (Victoria Carmen Sonne) contends with being arm candy for slick gangster Michael (Lai Yde), she prances around a Turkish resort in search of finding a good time on her own. Instead, she creates more problems for herself and the people she encountered; however, as the movie barrels toward a gripping finale, it’s not entirely clear who has the upper hand. Eklof’s brutal storytelling isn’t for the feint of heart, but it’s never devoid of purpose. Months after its Sundance premiere, “Holiday” has yet to score U.S. distribution. In the right hands, it could be quite the conversation-starter about the nature of abuse and power, and deserves a prominent spot at the table. —EK
Estranged families provide readymade templates for family dramas, but the brilliance of Spanish writer-director Ramón Salazar’s elegant “Sunday’s Illness” stems from its ability to avoid the easiest emotional pathways. Channeling the intimate melancholic notes of Fassbinder and the expressionistic melodrama of Douglas Sirk, this two-hander about a mother forced to confront the daughter she abandoned has a startling clarity to its ambitions. It’s a powerful look at the durability of parent-child bonds as well as a fascinating psychological thriller about what it takes to heal such a rift when it seems irreparable. The movie surfaced quietly on Netflix months after its Berlin festival debut, but anyone riveted by “Hereditary” will find this similar portrait of a broken family struggling with unspeakable forces just as memorable. —EK
The most satisfying aspect of “En El Séptimo Dia” (“On the Seventh Day”), Jim McKay’s first feature in 12 years, stems from the way it combines a simple premise with profound concerns. Set across one week in the life of a Mexican immigrant in Brooklyn, it harkens back to classic neorealist traditions by providing a window into the everyday challenges of an immigrant existence all too often ignored in mainstream cinema — yet more relevant than ever today. At the same time, it positions the drama as a feel-good crowdpleaser, a rousing sports movie about characters trapped by their surroundings and galvanized by their communal spirit.
It doesn’t take long to establish the plight of José (Fernando Cardona, a non-professional newcomer like the rest of the cast), who works a bland job as the deliveryman at a Mexican restaurant in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens when he’s not leading his soccer team to a championship in the nearby neighborhood of Sunset Park. When his stern white boss complicates José’s stable routine by demanding he work on the same Sunday that his team’s scheduling to play in the finals, he’s caught between personal and professional allegiances, unsure where to begin. This setup could easily cascade into heavy-handed sentimentalism, but McKay’s too skilled a filmmaker to let that happen.
Without spoiling anything, the welcome surprise of “En El Séptimo Dia” is that it wrestles with what a happy ending actually looks like in these circumstances — and finds a reasonable happy medium instead. Though it opened against the noise of early summer movie fervor, “En El Septimo Dia” deserves to find an audience as it keeps expanding; among other things, it’s a welcome antidote to national headlines. —EK