There were a number of worthy films honored at this year’s Academy Awards (among them A Star is Born, Green Book, BlacKkKlansman and Roma), but every year there are a number of wonderful films that simply don’t receive the attention they deserve. I’ve rounded up five films from 2018 below, none of which received a single Oscar nomination, that are absolutely worthy of your time – two for the whole family, one for teenagers and above, and two for adults. Go out and catch the ones still in cinemas, or make a run to Vulcan Video for the others (yes, there’s Amazon Prime, too, but our local businesses can always use your support).
For All Ages:
Leave No Trace (rated PG)
Ben Foster and newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie give great performances in Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, her first narrative feature since Winter’s Bone (2010). Military veteran Will (Foster) and his daughter Tom (McKenzie) live an off-the-grid existence in the woods of Oregon’s Forest Park, isolated from society (aside from the occasional trip to town and interactions with similarly displaced veterans). When they’re discovered by authorities and entered into social services, Will must contend with his PTSD, while Tom enters a world suddenly occupied by other people and completely new circumstances.
Leave No Trace has undoubtedly one of the most powerful endings of any film from last year, and I was deeply moved by the father-daughter relationship at its center. For my money, it’s an even stronger film than Winter’s Bone, and I wish the Academy had recognized Granik’s achievement with this movie. McKenzie, meanwhile, deserves to become a major name – she’s incredible.
Now available to watch on Blu-Ray, DVD and Amazon Prime Video.
Stan & Ollie (rated PG)
This completely charming film about legendary comedic duo Laurel and Hardy (Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly) went completely under the radar last year, aside from a deserved Golden Globe nomination for Reilly. Stan & Ollie follows Laurel and Hardy on their final tour of the United Kingdom in 1953. This sweet, family-friendly story is a heartfelt tale of friendship, and I couldn’t recommend the film more. Run out and catch it while it’s still playing in Austin.
Currently playing in cinemas.
For Teenagers and Parents:
Wildlife (rated PG-13)
Paul Dano’s directorial debut, Wildlife, is a powerful study of the dissolution of a marriage in 1960s Montana. Based on a novel by Richard Ford, the story is told from the perspective of Joe (Ed Oxenbould), a teenager watching helplessly as his mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) fends for herself after Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), his recently laid-off father, leaves them to fight wildfires upstate.
Joe is forced to abandon all his goals and interests (including a relationship with a girl from school, playing football and a part-time job assisting a photographer) to deal with his parents – they become his full-time job. The most powerful moment comes in the film’s final scene, in which Joe brings Jeanette and Jerry to the photo studio where he works and shows them what he does. Throughout the film, Joe takes portraits of “normal” nuclear families, intensely aware that he has nothing of the sort at home. In Wildlife’s final scene, he asks his parents to sit down for a surprise portrait, hoping to capture how he sees them and, potentially, the love they still have for one another. He’s finally able to accept what his own family looks like.
Dano, who co-wrote the film with Zoe Kazan, is a born director, giving us so many memorable images in this film – Joe and Jeanette staring at a wildfire together, attempting to understand what drove Jerry away; a long shot on Jerry as he leaves town in the back of a pick-up truck, heading toward the unknown; the helpless silence between two adults vying for their son’s loyalty. Wildlife is also full of strong blocking and use of space – I felt like I knew this family’s house, inside and out. Mulligan and Gyllenhaal give two of the year’s best performances (boy, Gyllenhaal’s eruption upon returning home is so memorable), and I can only hope Wildlife is the first of many films from Dano as a director.
Now available to rent on Amazon Prime Video.
Widows (rated R)
Steve McQueen’s Widows is the crime epic of the decade, an ensemble powerhouse with such clear storytelling in each scene – no small feat, considering it’s an extremely complex narrative. In my mind, it’s not only worthy of comparisons to Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), but it’s my favorite McQueen film so far (which may sound blasphemous, considering his phenomenal 12 Years a Slave). Plus, it has a great supporting performance from one of the world’s finest actors, Robert Duvall.
Veronica (Viola Davis) is married to career criminal Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), who, near the beginning of the film, is killed along with the husbands of three other women during a robbery gone awry. Before even burying her husband, Veronica is visited by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a candidate for alderman of Chicago’s South Side and the man from whom Harry and his team robbed the money. He demands that she pay him back the money her husband stole, or face retribution. Veronica slowly comes up with a plan for another heist (based on Harry’s notebook of potential scores), and enlists the help of two other widows of Harry’s deceased team (Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez). A fourth widow, played by Carrie Coon, does not take part, but plays a significant role nonetheless.
Widows is remarkable in balancing the character arcs of no less than eleven leading characters. In an incredibly dense 129 minutes, the film finds time to explore the inner lives of all of these people, leaving nobody shortchanged (this, along with its climactic robbery, earn it the closest comparisons to Heat). The storytelling is so efficient and compact, and it’s positively thrilling to watch as each new scene offers something so immensely exciting and propulsive.
Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD, and for rental on Amazon Prime Video.
The Mule (rated R)
I loved Clint Eastwood’s wild, funny and moving The Mule. Released late in the year (it was Eastwood’s second movie of 2018, after The 15:17 to Paris), The Mule once again finds the director making something with flavor and dramatic power. In the past 10 years, Eastwood has directed some of the most formally fascinating films of his career, including the under-appreciated Hereafter (2010) and J. Edgar (2011).
Better yet, Eastwood is the star here, in his first acting role since Trouble with the Curve (2012). One of the many joys of The Mule is its playful tone, as the film switches loosely between 90-year-old drug mule Earl Stone (Eastwood) driving along the highway and singing to himself, and the brooding DEA agents, led by Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper), hot on his tail. It encompasses a wide variety of themes – namely, regret and the ability of a senior citizen to still have a good time – and does so with the characteristically economical storytelling for which Eastwood is known.
As someone who eagerly awaits the oftentimes-annual Eastwood film, The Mule was a real delight – not nearly as tragic or powerful as Mystic River (2003) or Million Dollar Baby (2004), but engaging, entertaining and unafraid to move seamlessly between moods.
Currently playing in cinemas and available on Blu-Ray and DVD April 2.
Jack Kyser is a graduate of Austin High School and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.