2018 was a stupendous year for movies. So much so, that Pajiba has got a slew of Best Of lists coming at you, to be sure to sing the praises of all of films that made us scream, our hearts sing, our pulses race, and our brains melt! We’ve already brought you the best of Netflix Originals. Today, we offer those gems found in independent cinema. Some boast big names who are gaining serious Oscar buzz. Some star unknowns, yet rattled us to our cores. Several missed our top ten by thismuch! All of them are absolutely outstanding and should be sought out.
The Favourite — With Dogtooth, The Lobster, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has forged a dazzling reputation for wildly irreverent pitch-black humor. Now, he’s applied his iconoclastic vision to a lesbian love triangle set in the 18th-century court of Queen Anne. Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, and Olivia Colman (who I count as the greatest actress living) bring biting wit, ferocious sexuality, and startlingly physical performances to this posh period piece that rejects pretension and relishes depravity. Plus, it’s got Nicholas Hoult squealing “cunt” while playing a dastardly dandy. Basically, it’s a movie that’ll make your scream and gasp with laughter.
The Little Stranger—The most criminally overlooked indie of the year is Lenny Abrahamson’s stirring and sophisticated follow-up to his widely lauded Room. Buried at the end of summer with little fanfare from Focus Features, this gothic drama stars Domhnall Gleeson as a country doctor who befriends a posh family who has fallen on hard times thanks in part to a pernicious poltergeist that haunts their home. Inspired by the Sarah Waters novel, screenwriter Lucinda Coxon turns this horror story into a feminist parable. And Abrahamson’s clever crafting makes this slippery film one of the very best of the year.
The Rider—Writer/director Chloé Zhao has critics roaring with praise over her tender-hearted Western. “Zhao has put a fictionalized spin on the experiences of rodeo rider Brady Jandreau, who (a little stiffly, but still movingly) plays a version of himself named Brady Blackburn,” Roxana wrote in her review, going on to cheer its unique cowboy narrative, particularly its “examination and dismantling of stereotypical cowboy masculinity.” And a word to superhero movie fans: Zhao is lined up to helm The Eternals. So, you might want to see what this heralded rising director is bringing to the MCU.
Hereditary—Writer/director Ari Aster made a blazing debut at Sundance with harrowing horror film about a family left reeling in the wake of their matriarch’s death. Early buzz declared this one the scariest movies made this century. Out of SXSW, Dustin wrote of this Toni Collette stunner, “It’s so much more terrifying than I had anticipated but in a completely different way. The hype about this movie, somehow, managed to underplay how truly traumatic a film it is. Anyone who tells you that Hereditary will leave you with nightmares presumes that you’ll actually be able to sleep again — it kept me awake long after I saw it.”
Thoroughbreds—When I caught this twisted teen comedy at Fantastic Fest, I wrote, “(This) makes Heathers look like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.” If that’s not enough to entice you, what if I told you it involves a pair of teen girls toying with murder, and stars Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Anton Yelchin in one of his final film appearances? With this darkly funny thriller, writer/director Cory Finley gives us something exhilaratingly unpredictable and unapologetically fucked up. And we wouldn’t want it any other way.
Leave No Trace—In 2010, director Debra Granik blew us away with the gritty, rural drama Winter’s Bone, which launched Jennifer Lawrence. With Leave No Trace, she’s done it again, offering another breathtakingly poignant tale with an incredible new ingenue at its center. Thomasin McKenzie stars as a teen girl whose traumatized father (Ben Foster) leads her down an unlikely path to finding herself. In her review, Roxana wrote, “Leave No Trace is an intimate portrait that questions from where emotional fulfillment comes—yourself, or the structure and love of a parent, or the acceptance and support of a community you choose. It’s a fitting companion to Winter’s Bone.”
The Endless—Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead co-directed and starred in this tale of two brothers whose lives are thrown into spin when they revisit the cult in which they were raised. It’s a leanly budgeted horror-thriller that traveled from the festival circuit and through its theatrical release while maintaining a 100% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. In my review, I explained why that’s easy to understand, “The Endless feels like a thunderstorm. It brews slowly, softly, and then in the blink of an eye, has consumed you, booming with fury and jaw-dropping force.”
Tully—Director Jason Reitman, screenwriter Diablo Cody, and the one and only Charlize Theron reteamed, bringing the acerbic wit and raw vulnerability of Young Adult to a new tale about parenting and self-care. Mackenzie Davis co-stars as the titular night sitter who aims to aid an overworked mom (Theron). Roxana cheered, “She and Davis are great together, and the contrast between them, one so guarded and so worn-down and the other so bright and bubbly, is the main emotional through-line of the film.” And Dustin adored its [redacted SPOILER].
American Animals—Every year, some of the Pajiba team convenes in Austin for SXSW. This year those who did went absolutely wild for Bart Layton’s polarizing follow-up to his true-crime doc The Imposter. One part side-eying documentary, part problematic biopic, part thrilling heist comedy, American Animals reveals the “true” story behind a stranger-than-fiction crime. Tori declared it a masterpiece, and raved, “American Animals isn’t a movie that I want to review. It’s a movie I want you to see already, so we can sit down over beers and chat about it. We’d probably talk over each other, passionately restating the moments that wowed us. We might slap the table occasionally for emphasis…I really need someone to talk to about this one.”
Skate Kitchen—Writer/director Crystal Moselle captured the beauty, brutality, bonds and joys that can be found in the skateboarding community by focusing a group of girls who turn every sidewalk into their personal playground. Roxana cheered, “Skate Kitchen feels like those final summer nights before school started again, aimless and sticky and wide-open and perfect because your friends were there. It’s evocative and entrancing, and worth seeking out.” (Basically, this is the movie Jonah Hill wished he made.) b
Wildlife—Actor Paul Dano turned writer/director with this adaptation of a Richard Ford novel and the help of his talented partner Zoe Kazan. While wildfires rage in the distance, the home life of young Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould) is ablaze as his parents’ marriage crumbles before his eyes. Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan co-star. But as I said in my review, “This is Mulligan’s movie. The dialogue gives her grand and sassy proclamations, like a diva out of a 1950s studio drama starring Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. But rather than deliver them with a diva’s bravura or Oscar-baiting histrionics, Mulligan’s approach is confidence tiptoeing on fragility. As she unleashes a scathing remark, her voice quivers almost imperceptibly, implying this is a pose Jeannette is trying on. She imagines herself as she might be and tries to bring the fantasy of such grand dames into her humble life of swimming lessons, humble homes, and aching ennui.”
Border—I want to tell you why I fell hard for this enchanting Swedish drama. I want to give you some hint into what makes its tale of a border guard’s romance with a strange traveler so captivating and haunting that it made my personal top ten. But to give away its secrets would be to snatch away some of the joys of this beautiful and bizarre film. Here’s what I will tease: It’s based on a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who wrote the book and adapted screenplay Let The Right One In. If you dug that bittersweet fantasy tale, you won’t want to miss Border. (And if you want more details, then check out my spoiler review.)
Damsel—As follow-up to their celebrated drama Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, filmmaking brothers David Zellner and Nathan Zellner offer this twee and feminist Western about love and gender roles. Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, and David Zellner star in this story that begins with boy-meets-girl and a miniature horse. Roxana declared, “It’s an amusingly weird mixture of off-kilter humor and vulgarity, startling bursts of violence, stunning cinematography, and well-realized characters.”
Minding The Gap—A grown skateboarder looks back on the skater videos he shot with friends in his youth, and makes a doc about who they are now. Its premise had me rolling my eyes, assuming this would be a vapid, navel-gazing vanity project. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Director Bing Liu’s doc is a fearless exploration of how his life and those of his two childhood friends have been shaped by their Rust-Belt hometown, their experiences with domestic violence (either as victim or perpetrator), and their shared bond. Whether interviewing his mother about her violent ex or confronting a friend about his abusive actions, Liu does so with a frank tenderness that gives no room for excuses and brings out answers that’ll drop you jaw.
Anna and the Apocalypse—It began as a scrappy indie shot in Scotland with a cast and crew dedicated to doing right by its late creator (Ryan McHenry of “Ryan Gosling won’t eat cereal fame.”) Then it premiered to rapturous applause and rave reviews at Fantastic Fest. Then, this unlikely but remarkable mash-up of teen-comedy, zombie-horror, and holiday musical was bought by Orion, and distributed across the US. Its reach is growing, and that’s great news for everyone seeking something cute, creepy, and downright hilarious this holiday season.
If your favorite movie didn’t make this list. Fret not! That might mean it’s on our Top Ten!