It is the most wonderfully frustrating time of the year: that four- to six-week period when film writers get lost in the mad scramble of cobbling together, and then comparing, Top 10 lists to impress their colleagues and convince readers that they alone hold the key to the collective cinema knowledge of the past 12 months. Yet there’s a natural point at which every critic’s “top” films start to blend together in a unified chorus. Roma. Burning. First Reformed. The favourites get name-checked (often deservedly) again and again.
To offset the familiar shouts and murmurs, The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz presents his annual alternative Top 10: a compilation of the most overlooked, underrated and unfairly dismissed films of 2018.
1. Game Night
The past year was filled with rich performances from the industry’s leading actresses – especially The Favourite’s triple threat of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone – but can anyone fairly say they matched the comic timing of Rachel McAdams? As the star of the dark and spirited Game Night, McAdams delivered the line of the year (“Yes! Oh no … he died!”) as if her entire career had been leading to that one moment. I realize that reads like cheap hyperbole, but if you’ve already seen John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s film, go back and revisit the moment. If not, then you have yet to see the funniest six seconds of 2018. Bonus: McAdams’s co-stars nearly matched her energy, including Jason Bateman, Kyle Chandler, Sharon Horgan and this year’s stealth VIP, Jesse Plemons.
2. A Simple Favor
As is typical, comedies often get forgotten by critics come year-end list-makin' time (see Game Night above). Maybe the reason no one is currently talking about A Simple Favor is because of its contradictory marketing, which positioned it in September as a Gone Girl-esque thriller. While the film has elements of suspense and one huh-okay-sure twist, it’s still a Paul Feig project through and through, which means it’s equal parts broad comedy and ironic winks, complete with a killer female-led cast. Anna Kendrick, so often miscast or simply misused, deserves some sort of award for her work as a wannabe social-media influencer who finds herself wrapped in a missing-persons case, while Blake Lively dominates the screen through sheer force of will.
3. Leave No Trace
The fact that Debra Granik’s name isn’t being bandied about as a best-director contender is a crime. But the filmmaker knows her work isn’t going to win any popularity contests. In an interview with The Globe this past summer, Granik copped to her extreme and potentially alienating narrative minimalism, which is on such powerful display in this father-daughter drama. “I’m not scared of that,” she said. “And I’m seeking audiences who can tolerate it, and enjoy it. A film doesn’t have to be wild flavours all the time.” For those with an adventurous palate, though, Leave No Trace is one of the most skillfully told stories of the year, following the relationship between a survivalist veteran (Ben Foster) and his daughter (Thomasin McKenzie) as they’re forced to reckon with a life on the grid.
Nearly a month after its theatrical release, I’m still hesitant to reveal much of what Border is exactly about. But the fact that Ali Abbasi’s Swedish film seems to have fallen through the foreign-language cracks means a secondary push is necessary. So: Border is the thriller-fantasy-romance-comedy-horror-Nordic-noir masterpiece you never knew you needed. If this sounds excessive or messy, rest assured that Abbasi, adapting a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, is deeply committed to maintaining a baseline level of sincerity. The result is a spectacular, unclassifiable work of art.
Nicolas Cage is dead. Long live Nicolas Cage! Although the actor’s career has been stuck in video-on-demand purgatory for a decade, Mandy offers Cage one tremendous, freak-the-hell-out comeback opportunity. Director Panos Cosmatos’s cult-movie bonanza is a supremely strange and beguiling mix of Heavy Metal and Hellraiser, positioning a cult of hippies and demon bikers against a loner (Cage) with one big chainsaw, a taste for cocaine and nothing left to lose. If Cosmatos had made Mandy without Cage, it would still be something worth championing. But Cage’s presence ensures Mandy’s place in the midnight-movie hall of fame.
6. Den of Thieves
When this low-rent heist thriller opened in the dead of January, most wrote it off as another scuzzy entry in the meathead genre I’ve affectionately dubbed Cinema du Gerard Butler. Yet there is something undeniably, if raggedly, charming about Christian Gudegast’s directorial debut. An ambitious, epic-length (140 minutes!) and distinctly working-class love letter to the work of Michael Mann and Kathryn Bigelow, Den of Thieves is the best kind of hard-boiled ridiculousness, complete with a last-minute twist that will either make you throw your hands up in the air or laugh uproariously (guess which reaction I had). If you don’t believe me, at least take the word of no less an authority than acclaimed German filmmaker Christian Petzold (director of 2018′s also stellar Transit), who named Den of Thieves one of his top films of the year. Describing the movie as a much-needed antidote to work strictly made for the festival circuit, Petzold marvelled at Gudegast’s characters: “They don’t want to have a lemon tree in Gaza. They want to have money!” Sometimes that’s all you need.
7. Private Life
As Netflix mounts an all-out assault on awards season with Roma and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the streaming giant is neglecting the stealth contender lost at the bottom of your queue. Tamara Jenkins’s Private Life made a decent if brief impact at film festivals this fall, but the perils-of-fertility-treatments dramedy deserves to be watched and rewatched – which should be easy, given it’s available in 100 million homes across the world. If you manage to find it on your Netflix home page, take the time to savour Jenkins’s deeply biting script, and the career-best performances from Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti as two wannabe parents who can barely justify their own existence.
8. One Cut of the Dead
Including Shin’ichiro Ueda’s horror-comedy is a bit of a cheat, as it was more underseen than underrated. To my knowledge, there were only two Canadian screenings in 2018: one at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal this past July, and another during the Reel Asian International Film Festival in Toronto last month. But those who caught the low-budget One Cut of the Dead, which has gone on to become a box-office sensation in Japan, were treated to the most entertaining and inventive zombie film in decades. Director Ueda takes the medium’s favoured visual trick of the moment – the long, unbroken shot – and uses it to not only refresh the moribund genre but deliver a shockingly heart-warming tale of family and teamwork. Seek it out by whatever means necessary.
9. Unfriended: Dark Web
On the topic of horror movies, North America’s output was surprisingly strong in 2018. From the challenging (if messy) Suspiria remake to the messy (if challenging) Hereditary, there was enough ambition to match the genre’s required buckets of blood. But the most audacious and deeply, admirably sick entry came via the nascent Unfriended franchise. Like its 2014 predecessor, Unfriended: Dark Web’s action takes place entirely on the computer screen of its main character, with Skype chats, Facebook posts and YouTube clips propelling the narrative. Unlike the original’s limp ghost story, though, director Stephen Susco’s sequel swaps the supernatural for the real-life perversity of the internet itself. The result is a terrifying and uniquely disturbing creation that fulfills the genre’s best promises.
10. The Night Comes for Us and Manhunt (tie)
As much fun as it is to criticize Netflix for killing the theatrical experience – it’s easy, too – the streaming giant has been delivering movies no one else will at this point. While it’s most proud of its Oscar contenders, there’s just as much to be said for the company’s dive into the less-prestige foreign-action market, with two spectacularly entertaining and bloody efforts, The Night Comes for Us and Manhunt, justifying any monthly subscription hike. The former, courtesy Indonesian madman Timo Tjahjanto, is the most ludicrously violent film to come along in some time, a spiritual sequel to Gareth Evans’s The Raid films that would bring down the house – were it to ever play in an actual cinema. Manhunt, meanwhile, is the long-awaited return to form for Hong Kong action legend John Woo, who flirts with both self-preservation and self-parody in this bonkers, dove-filled masterpiece.