To say 2018 was a year for blockbusters would be the understatement of the…well, year. I mean we witnessed the culmination of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) decade-long plan in Avengers: Infinity War. We’ve seen Mission Impossible: Fallout once again school us what jaw-dropping action set-pieces should look like! Cruise gotta take it easy man. 2018 was also a big year for minority representation in Hollywood with Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians taking the world and Malaysia by storm. On the flip side, there were some truly awful films this year, films that make you wonder how they ever made it past the pitch. Venom, much like the titular character, was a glorious schizophrenic mess from start to finish with Hardy giving us his best impression of a mental invalid. Crimes of Grindelwald was a giant middle finger to Harry Potter fans and anyone who could count up to a hundred. There’s some Doctor Who shit going on there. Good or bad, it cannot be denied that most of these films left a long lasting impression on us all. We’re not here to talk about them, however. Oh no, we’re here to talk about the ones that didn’t get the buzz they so desperately deserved.
Whether you missed them in the theatres, scrolled pass them in your Netflix catalogue or simply didn’t bother to watch them, these are the hidden gems that made 2018 for us. Here are the top 10 films of 2018 you didn’t watch but must!
Note, we will only be taking into account films that were released in Malaysia this year via a wide/limited theatrical release and streaming services. So we do apologize if no fancypants private film festival films didn’t make it on this list.
10. Sicario: Day of the Soldado
2015’s Sicario by landmark director Denis Villeneuve was both a commercial and critical hit. It was a grimly paced and masterfully executed piece on the American War on Drugs. Three years later, we finally got a sequel in Day of the Soldado to that modern-day crime masterpiece and it was met with a less than enthusiastic response. Altogether, the film only managed to scrap a measly $203,017 from the Malaysian box office. Admittedly, the film doesn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor but damn it, it had some amazing actions sequences in it. The film follows the titular Sicario (contract killer) as he embarks on a personal mission to save an asset turned liability Isabel Reyes, the daughter of a powerful Mexican drug cartel. Deception upon deception is layered on the operation as the US government stages a phoney kidnapping to trigger a war with rival cartels. The war on drugs has become the war on terror.
Reprising actors Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro once again kill as the enigmatic instruments of the US government’s wrath on earth. This time, however, they’re far from the removed, calculated agents they were in the first instalment. When the whole operation comes crashing down around them, it gets pretty personal and there are some instances when the word “overkill” simply doesn’t cut it. There’s a scene when Josh Brolin’s Alex Graver annihilates a convoy of Mexican gangsters with a freaking military grade helicopter and a team of soldiers armed to the teeth. It’s just a shame it didn’t make a killing in the box office.
9. Revenge (France) – wide release on Netflix
Making an appearance on this list is one of our Netflix recommendations and personal favourites, Revenge. If you haven’t checked out our piece on it, it can be summarized as a female-empowerment fantasy done in the most Tarantino way possible. Jen is a secret mistress to her wealthy neighbour Richard, who takes her on a trip to his swanky house in the middle of the desert. There she meets up with Richard’s associates and they proceed to ingest mind-altering peyotes and party. It all takes a sinister turn however when Richard’s friend Stan forces himself on Jen. Richard tries to sweep it all under the rug with money but then things soon escalate with the three men giving chase to Jen who falls off a cliff and gets impaled by a tree. Jen, however, isn’t ready for the grave as she wills herself to life with murderous intent on a mission to make them pay. One by one, they become prey in the wide sandy expanse as Jen goes on the hunt. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
To say his film is violent, simply wouldn’t do it justice. This film is pure, unadulterated rape exploitation. Her indignation and pain becomes ours and her rage and killer catharsis as well in all its glorious ultraviolence. Due to the nature of the film’s isolated location and small premise, director Coralie Fargeat can develop Jen from party girl to spectre of death but never through winded exposition or worse internal monologue. Fargeat chooses to show not tell and what a show! It’s no Mission Impossible in terms of action set pieces mind you but this little girl packs a big punch and should definitely be mentioned along Fallout if we’re talking kickass action films this year.
8. Batman Ninja (Japan)
With DC having its own cinematic universe to rival the MCU, it’s no surprise that most people would have forgotten that they also have a whole cornucopia of original animated films. It’s been around forever and this year we were treated to their ambitious project yet, Batman Ninja. Don’t feel bad if you failed to notice this one, it nearly flew under my radar till I saw it on DVD and bought on impulse. As a fan of the Dark Knight, I loved it from start to finish. Batman’s world is turned upside down when he gets launched back in time along with his various allies and foes to feudal Japan after attempting to stop Gorilla Grodd from using a time machine. He soon realizes he’s late to the party seeing that the various villains like Two-Face, Deathstroke, Poison Ivy and the Joker have had plenty of time to seize control of Japan. Each ruling a part of the land as a daimyo. Batman is having none of this, so he builds an army of his own to combat the rising tide of chaos. Without his gadgets, he’ll have to revert to more local means of meeting this threat, the way of the ninja.
Does it sound insane as all hell? Yes, but in the most awesome way possible. Longtime aficionados of the character will get a kick out of seeing Batman sporting ancient armour and wielding a katana. The animation is gorgeous to behold, taking clear inspiration from Japan’s anime aesthetics and mirroring medieval Japanese art. There are moments here that feel straight out of a painting. And if Batman brandishing a katana in feudal Japan still doesn’t have you, I only have two words for you: mech fight. If you love anime and Batman, this is a match made in heaven. You can catch it on Netflix now as well so you won’t have to go running off to the nearest DVD store.
7. Game Night
In a year of Johnny English sequels, comic book comedies like Deadpool 2 and Ant-Man and the Wasp, audience members are spoiled for choice. Which is why it doesn’t surprise me much when March’s Game Night seems to have slipped under the radar for most people. Not us though and thank God for that! Game Night follows a group of friends who have a weekly tradition of coming over to couple Max and Annie’s place for a night of board games and competitions. One night, however, Max’s cool douchebag brother, Brooks decides to hold a game night of his own in an effort to seemingly one-up his brother. He fakes a real-life kidnap mystery in which Max and friends will have follow the clues to win the game. Things don’t go according to plan as the game takes a hilariously wrong turn when actual kidnappers abduct Brooks. The group however still thinks it’s all a game but they’ll soon find out how high the stakes are as they embark on a game night like never before.
Game Night is a riot from start to finish. The film greatly benefits from superb writing that has plenty of running gags, callbacks and self-referential silliness that’s sure to slay any longtime fan of the comedy genre. The editing and cinematography in Game Night was impressive, to say the least. Which is weird because I don’t normally notice details like that in comedies but really there were some creative choices here that should be acknowledged and credited. Top notch stuff, especially one particular chase scene in a mansion. I know the ship has sailed on catching this in theatres but if Game Night ever gets on Netflix, you absolutely need to watch it, with friends! Hell, if you see on sale at Speedy go get that shit now!
Contrary to what some people think *cough* Dash *cough*, Hereditary doesn’t get nearly enough love in Malaysia. People are far too quick to write this neo-Polanski horror classic off as “slow” or “not scary enough”. While films like The Nun and Insidious: The Last Key deliver half-baked jumpscares and draw crowds in via name recognition. Hereditary sees Graham family struggling with tragic loss after tragic loss. When the mentally unstable matriarch of the family Annie, however, finds more mystical ways to cope with her pain, she inadvertently unleashes dark forces upon her family. Witness a family disintegrate before your very eyes as the Grahams soon discover that their sinister history and their ties to it. Turns out some curses are hereditary. Hereditary is a film that does everything in its unholy power to avoid jumpscares and I have to salute it for that. The film instead relies on atmosphere and tension as the plot progresses, supported by solid art direction and terrifying performances.
Actress Toni Collette brings such fury and disturbing authenticity to her role as Annie. It’s no small feat to portray a character with a mental disorder, especially in the context of a horror film. There’s often the risk of playing up the character’s dysfunctions to an exaggerated and even offensive degree. Collette managed to masterfully said pitfall by putting herself in the shoes of a grieving mother first, her mental breakdowns are rather symptoms of a tangible trauma. Hereditary is a film will not soon forget with its potent storytelling and macabre imagery etched into your psyche.
5. Vada Chennai (India – Tamil)
This year was an eye-opening experience for me as I went on my own little journey through Indian cinema. In many ways, Vada Chennai was a watershed moment in my odyssey. Leave your presupposition at the door, this ain’t no mainstream Indian musical film. There is little romance here about the plight of the Tamil Nadu people as we see ex-convict and carom player Anbu get tangled up in a conspiracy involving a divided criminal empire. As mentioned in my previous piece about Vada Chennai, the film is a sprawling Machiavellian tale of class struggle, gentrification and intersectionality of India’s criminal apparatus and community politics. Watch Anbu will rise to become both hero and criminal, traitor and leader. This is the world of the Chennai streets, where the sword, or in this case the machete does speak volumes.
Don’t be intimidated by the premise though because ultimately the film is an entertaining crime thriller at the heart of it all with some fantastic fight sequences in there. There are times when it can get straight up Game of Thrones up in here. There are a few moments in which the film does feel a tad rushed but it never really breaks immersion. In spite of the fact that I enjoyed the luxury of watching in an empty theatre, I cannot help but wish they were few more patrons willing to give Vada Chennai a chance. It doesn’t have the star power of big names like Rajnikanth and I can see how films like Kaala could have overshadowed it. Nonetheless, a masterpiece is still a masterpiece. Heck, my editor actually ranked Vada Chennai as the best movie of 2018, understandably so.
4. Burning (Korea)
There’s a certain amount of inaccessibility when a film is seen under the label of “international” or “foreign”, even for a country as culturally diverse as Malaysia. It can be off-putting to more mainstream movie-goers who aren’t too keen on crossing linguistic barriers. Which is why it’s such downright crying shame that so many of us would have missed one of the films of the year, South Korean director Lee Chang Dong’s Burning. The man is the Fincher of the east! The story follows two struggling working class citizens Lee Jong-Su and his childhood friend, Shin Hae-mi. Jong-Su is man weighed the burden of his father’s dubious past and his own uncertain future while Hae-mi is that of a roaming free spirit, constantly looking for the real. During her journey, she encounters an enigmatic and wealthy traveller by the name of Ben. As the three spend more time with each other, tension starts to mount between Jong-Su, Ben and Hae-mi. Insecurity, love and despair fill the air as Jong-su tries to make sense of his place in the world in relation to Hae-mi and Ben.
Written and directed by Lee and inspired by Murakami, Burning is a frightening and frank exploration into the ambiguity of existence. Brought to life in robust performances by actor Yoo Ah-in as the often silent and passive Jong-Su and actress Jeon Jong-seo as the curious girl next door. Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun however is the one that steals the show as Ben. Everything from the hypnotic score of droning drums to the colour palette on screen, it all serves an image of an urban nightmare, caught between a more Metropolitan South Korea and its rural remnants.
3. Isle of Dogs
You’ll hear a lot of people, telling you that Into The Spider-Verse is the best animated film of the year. Don’t believe them for a second! Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Miles Morales but in terms of sheer artistic talent, direction and merit I have got to give it to Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs. The film is set in a futuristic Japanese city of Megasaki where a cabal of corrupt cat-loving government officials have banded together to rid the land of the dogs on the basis of overpopulation and disease. All dogs are to be exiled to Trash Island where they are to live out the rest of their days, subsisting off garbage and leftovers. When a group “alphas” led by Chief find a 12-year-old Japanese boy, Atari Kobayashi builds himself a makeshift plane to fly over to Trash Island to retrieve his pet, Spots. Together, Atari and his canine companions will uncover a deadly canine conspiracy that spans centuries.
In typical Wes Anderson fashion, Isle of Dogs is a healthy mixture of the whimsical and melancholic with everything from deep doggo reflections to battles with mecha-hounds. The voice work here is phenomenal with Bryan Cranston carrying the film as the stray dog Chief who finds a friend and a home in Atari. The writing is sharp and the folks at Indian Paintbrush have truly outdone themselves this time. Animated with giddy, kinetic energy and breathed to life by Anderson’s auteurship, Isle of Dogs truly is another triumphant contribution the magnificent art of stop-motion animation.
2. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Though technically released in the US in November 2017, Three Billboards was only officially shown in Malaysia near the end of February this year. As the saying goes, “better late than never” and believe me when I say 2018 was all better for it. Three Billboards is helmed by deliciously wicked Martin McDonagh. The man behind the brilliant black comedies In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. The man is a master of dramatic tension and his wicked wit to second to none. He’s easily a match for Tarantino and Coens, it’s just a shame he doesn’t get nearly as much love as they do. Three Billboards follows single mother Mildred Hayes as she contends the local law enforcement to further investigate her daughter’s rape and murder. Doing so by renting out three billboards (you guess it) outside Ebbing, Missouri. Laying this all down at Police Chief William ‘Bill’ Borough’s feet, the two will lock horns in a battle of wits and mind games. Meanwhile, the temperamental trigger-happy Officer Jason Dixon will embark on a journey of his own to find out what justice truly means as he too must confront Mildred in his own way.
The writing here is freaking phenomenal. Sharp, fast and deadly to common sense and decency. I mean honestly, there are times I wasn’t whether I wanted to indulge in their sheer lunacy of it all or much like Mildred make sense of this terrific tragedy. As far performances go-holy shit were they great. Both Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell as Mildred and Dixon picked up two Academy Awards for their roles in the film. I seriously hate getting on my high horse but I truly do wish more films like Three Billboards are more heavily advertised in our local markets.
1. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Coens are back! This time their latest project seems to have landed on Netflix, meaning it’ll probably never get recognized by the Academy. To that I say, for shame for this just might be their greatest film since No Country For Old Men. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a six-part anthology film about the fragility of life and the suddenness of death in the old American frontier. One follows the story of a legendary gunslinger by the name of Buster Scruggs with a chipper disposition, making his way through drinking hole after drinking hole. Another follows a travelling duo struggle to make ends meet by way of an armless, legless man of the theatre. There’s even one that I’m pretty sure takes place on the way to Purgatory but then again I could be reading to much into this. Like seriously, go watch The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, it is easily one of the best films of the year in my book.
Do you like musicals? Well shit, there are some infectious toe-tapping numbers in here that will have you dancing to the beat of the reaper. If you’re into black comedies and dramatic irony then Ballad will has enough of gallows humour to fill a whole damn graveyard. The film boasts an impressive cast of actors from James Franco to Liam Neeson to Tom Waits to the man of the hour himself Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs. His performance alone should be of Hopkins renown both in grandeur and screen time, unfortunately. But that just seems to be the case of the whole film, it’s misfortune in all of its hilarity and tragedy. If you ever wanted to tell someone life is meaningless and the only constant is death, I can think of no better way to convey such nihilistic sentiments than to the tune of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.