Every winter, when word finally arrives of the previous year's Oscar nominees, we tend to go through familiar rituals. Even those of us who skip the ceremony can feel obliged to catch up on a spread of nominees selected for no good reason — they're the movies the Academy thinks will help it show its best face. The whole exercise can feel circular and bleak.
Barring Roma, The Favourite, and some actors' showcase movies, there's little to really love about 2018's major nominees. The Academy has nominated, as usual, a slate of movies that angle specifically to please its members (see: A Star Is Born, Vice, Bohemian Rhapsody, Green Book) and missed — as might be inevitable — the majority of the year's best.
This year's selection is worse than most, but there's plenty worth watching from 2018. So as last year's underappreciated releases slowly appear on streaming services (and at your underutilized local library), here's a selection of the best stuff that mostly wasn't nominated — works that a lot of people surely missed:
(Director: Paul Schrader)
Boiling over with angst and indignation, Schrader's latest bears a political acuity and ferocity in conception that not a lot can match. Invoking the weighty perils of climate change, corporate corruption, and abuse of religious power as they bear upon a single man, the film manages somehow not to collapse under them. First is held together by an austere visual style, indelible performances, and an uncynical — but not its only — guiding question so central to Christianity: Can love save us? There's no more modern or more American filmed figure than Ethan Hawke's ex-military pastor, despairing, as we find him here, struggling against a whirlpool of existential threats. Currently on Kanopy and Amazon Prime.
Lean on Pete
(Director: Andrew Haigh)
Playing in an apparently softer register, this Trojan horse of a movie sneakily delivers one emotional gut-punch after another. Unfolding as a young runaway/coming-of-age story (and, yes, a horse movie), the film's grit, turns, sense of place, and sterling performances left it without the audience that may have found it had it been gentler or not R-rated. Opting always for the personal instead of grasping for the mythic, this one tugs at the heartstrings without pulling any punches or banging on the keys. Currently on Kanopy and Amazon Prime.
(Director: Josephine Decker)
Not all viewers will take to Madeline's fluid, highly subjective style (a friend waved it off as "too artsy"), but those who try will find something rare in its aggressively intimate portrayal of a New York teenager's swiftly tilting inner world. Its trinity of characters (single mother, theater teacher, and young adult daughter/student) are bound by a charged web of sometimes complimentary, often clashing needs and roles. Sidelining traditional narrative, this is a movie that's first and foremost about shifting mental and emotional states. With its intense, at times theatre-worthy performances (much of the story revolves around performance art) magnified by Ashley Connor's free-floating camerawork, the movie can feel like a lot to take. But for all its emotional pyrotechnics and wild stylistic maneuvers, I feel it somehow still hangs together. By the end, the film's fragile, hard-won coherence proves to be its most central trait — as befits a story of a character who's just barely hanging on. Currently on Kanopy and Amazon Prime.
Let the Sunshine In/Un beau soleil intérieur
(Director: Claire Denis)
There's no lead actress quite like Juliette Binoche, and there's no romantic comedy quite like this one. Damning most of its sequential relationships, seen only in well-chosen glimpses as well as its protagonist, Denis catches us in the sharp turns, unpleasantries, and confusions of romantic life, allowing both for their emotional vastness and the fact they're sort of petty. Clever, fleet, and all too true, here's another movie that privileges female interiority, dreams, and romance — without forgetting that life is hell. Currently on Hulu.
(Director: Tamara Jenkins)
A sensitive comedy of hurdles that never panders to its viewers, Jenkins' casting of Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn is the movie's driving force. As a couple undergoing fertility treatments while also weighing adoption, the pair credibly convey the hopes, indignities, and excitements of both processes. Jenkins' direction (she also scripted) is marked by humor, emotional intelligence, and strong insights into class, aging, and romantic life. Its leads, with their rent-stabilized Village apartment, feel pulled from a New York that's swiftly dying, anchoring a type of movie — the mid-budget comedy — that Hollywood's all but given up on. It's hard to make something this unshielded and this free of affect so uniformly strong. Let's hope the line continues. Netflix-distributed, and streaming there.
(Director: Paul Dano)
Dano's directing debut seems at first blush like the easiest kind of movie to hate. A portrait of a brittle, white, midwestern marriage in the early 1960s, it avoids the traps of a Revolutionary Road by not pretending to any dignity in class struggle or any romance in its setting. Diego Garcia's psychologically acute cinematography feels weirdly free of cliches, and Dano approaches his attractive central couple, played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan (in what's easily her best role), with a strange brew of ardent interest and respectful distance even as they fall and stumble, positioning their only son Joe (Ed Oxenbould, just right here) as an absolute pawn. It's hard to know in watching what would quiet Mulligan's jagged aura of discontent, but that's of a piece with the movie's strengths. Wildlife cares but never pretends — it knows what it doesn't know. Out now, available at most libraries.
Sorry to Bother You
(Director: Boots Riley)
A rowdy, cynical, but good-humored satire closer to Office Space than anything else, Sorry positions the typical American workplace (here a call center) as monstrous: the visible epicenter of our (collectively) lost dignity and sense of unfair compromise, or subjugation. Treating its cast as both helpless and striving, desperately affectatious yet totally sincere, Riley's debut finds us at our worst and weakest struggling up the ladder for scraps — and has a great time doing so. Currently on Hulu.
(Director: Chang-dong Lee)
No less engaged with class and inequality, Burning treats unrest, distrust, and male frustration as guiding cornerstones of its world. With its solipsistic, strangely opaque lead and its doublings, disappearances, and unanswered questions (the existence of "two Koreas" acquires a lot of resonance), Chang-dong's created a work that feels structurally short-circuited, unwelcoming, but familiar — and thus habitable all the same. It's unfortunately and unnervingly accurate — and looks far too much like here. Streaming for a fee on various sites.
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