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What to expect when you're expecting the worst

The year ahead will feature the deafening sirens of sequels and superheroes, reboots and remakes – but there's cinematic life outside the franchise machine. Barry Hertz presents 2018's most intriguing, under-the-radar films

Joaquin Phoenix and Jonah Hill in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.

Meet the new box office, same as the old: 2018 will be overflowing with superheroes (Aquaman, another vulgar dose of Deadpool, literally every Marvel superhero ever in Avengers: Infinity War), sequels (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, M:I 6 – Mission Impossible, Pacific Rim Uprising, Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again) and aspiring franchise-starters (Rampage, Ready Player One, Mortal Engines).

But it will also be a year of legitimately exciting and potentially game-changing cinema, if you know where to look. Here are 10 of 2018's most intriguing, under-the-radar films (all release dates subject to change).


Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot

Gus Van Sant has to be commended: After the deathly reception that greeted 2015's The Sea of Trees, any other filmmaker would have run far, far away from the industry, perhaps never to return. Van Sant, though, stuck it out and worked quietly on this adaptation of cartoonist John Callahan's memoir, detailing his life as a quadriplegic. The director recruited his long-ago To Die For star Joaquin Phoenix to play Callahan, while Rooney Mara, Jonah Hill, Jack Black and Carrie Brownstein co-star. (Jan. 19 premiere at Sundance; tentative May theatrical release)

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A Futile and Stupid Gesture

Will Forte and Domhnall Gleeson in A Futile And Stupid Gesture.

If you don't watch this movie, Netflix is going to kill this dog. Okay, not really, but that would be a half-decent tag line for David Wain's look at the rise and fall of National Lampoon. Premiering at Sundance a few days before it's available to stream on Netflix, the comedy seems to go for a meta approach, with Will Forte playing Lampoon co-founder Doug Kenney, and Martin Mull playing an older Kenney narrating the action. Put trust in Wain, though, who is an expert at mixing the surreal with the deadpan, and assembling killer comedy casts (see his work in Wet Hot American Summer, They Came Together). Joining Forte and Mull are Joel McHale (playing Chevy Chase), Jon Daly (as Bill Murray), Paul Scheer (Paul Shaffer) and Jackie Tohn (Gilda Radner). (Jan. 24 premiere at Sundance; Jan. 26 on Netflix)


Annihilation

Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson in Annihilation.

At about this time last year, I naively pegged Alex Garland's thriller as a 2017 release. I still wish last year had seen the adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy – we could've used some high-brow sci-fi – but I'll settle for a firm 2018 release date. Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac and Jennifer Jason Leigh star in this extremely creepy-looking genre-hybrid that looks at a scientific expedition tasked with exploring Area X, a dangerous wilderness that's resulted from an unknown "incident." Garland, who's worked wonders on such dark sci-fi tales as Ex Machina, feels like the perfect candidate to translate VanderMeer's eerie, atmosphere-rich prose to the screen. (Feb. 23)


Chappaquiddick

Jason Clarke in Chappaquiddick.

After debuting at TIFF this past September, it seemed that John Curran's dramatization of Ted Kennedy's infamous 1969 car crash would squeeze itself into the fall awards season. Just a few weeks before it was scheduled to open, though, the U.S.-based Entertainment Studios pulled it, believing – not wrongly – that the calendar was already crowded with other potential Oscar contenders. Here's hoping that 2019's Academy Award voters don't forget Curran's film when it's released in a few months time – by tackling Kennedy's legacy and the power that such gate-keepers wield, the drama walks a fine line of historical reverence and political resonance. Plus, it features tightly wound lead performances from Jason Clarke as the senator and Kate Mara as the doomed campaign strategist Mary Jo Kopechne. (April 6)


You Were Never Really Here

That Joaquin Phoenix, he gets around. Perhaps it's no surprise the actor appears twice on this list, as he's the most fascinating and adventurous leading man working today. In Lynne Ramsay's ultradark thriller, Phoenix plays an underworld heavy who rescues victims of sex-trafficking rings – a role that earned him the Best Actor award at last spring's Cannes Film Festival. Now, almost a year after Ramsay's film debuted on the Croisette, You Were Never Really Here is set to open in limited release this spring. (April 6)


Widows

It's been five long years without a Steve McQueen film. But with Widows, the 12 Years a Slave and Shame director is making an extremely curious return. An adaptation of the 1983 British TV series of the same name, the film opens with the deaths of four armed robbers during a failed heist, before the story pivots to look at their widows, who aim to finish the job. Viola Davis, Elisabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo play the title characters, while André Holland, Daniel Kaluuya, Jon Bernthal and Liam Neeson play the men in and out of their lives. (Nov. 16)


Backseat

After The Big Short, director Adam McKay proved he could tackle real-world drama just as much he could Will Ferrell-starring absurdity (Step Brothers, Anchorman). But with Backseat, McKay finds himself in stranger territory than Wall Street: His new film chronicles the ups and downs of Dick Cheney, centred on his years as George W. Bush's veep. Christian Bale packed on the pounds to star as Cheney, with Amy Adams as his wife, Lynne, Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld and Dubya played by Sam Rockwell – not, it should be noted, Ferrell, whose imitation of the 46th POTUS has dominated both television (Saturday Night Live) and Broadway (You're Welcome, America). (Theatrical date TBD)


High Life

After escaping the Twilight franchise, Robert Pattinson (like his co-star Kristen Stewart) has revealed excellent taste in collaborators. Last year, Pattinson teamed up with Josh and Benny Safdie (Good Time) and James Gray (The Lost City of Z) to make two of 2017's best films. This year marks the actor's most intriguing pair-up yet, as Pattinson joins forces with French auteur Claire Denis (Trouble Every Day, Beau Travail) for High Life. The high-concept film, Denis's first English-language picture, focuses on a group of criminals who volunteer to travel to a black hole in the hopes of earning their freedom. Things don't go quite as planned. Juliette Binoche and André Benjamin co-star, with a script co-written by Zadie Smith. (Theatrical date TBD)

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Roma

Another film I overoptimistically pencilled in as a 2017 release, Alfonso Cuaron's drama should hopefully, possibly, please-god-maybe make it to theatres this year. Last year, all the information available was contained to a single log line: "The film chronicles a year in the life of a middle-class family in Mexico City in the early 1970s." And today … well, that's still about it. But anything from the director of Children of Men and Gravity deserves full attention. (Theatrical date TBD)


The Wife

Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce in The Wife.

Like Chappaquiddick, The Wife played TIFF a few months ago and seemed likely to go on to 2017 success … until Sony Pictures Classics announced it would open the film in 2018 instead. That's probably a wise decision, as the current Oscar race for best actress is a crowded one, and Glenn Close's performance in Bjorn Runge's drama deserves as much TLC as possible. In this adaptation of Meg Wolitzer's novel, Close plays the titular partner of an author (Jonathan Pryce) who is slated to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. The buzz around Close's work here is deafening, so expect The Wife to make a splash in the fall, a year after its TIFF world premiere. (Theatrical date TBD)

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