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With every year, there are the movies that everyone sees. There are the action extravaganzas that deal destruction across the earth and to the box office. There are also those that many people see. Those dramas that have an established cast of serious actors that give powerhouse performances in films that have serious awards buzz behind them.

Also with every year, however, there are those films that slip through the cracks. Whether they be low budget indies, offbeat horror films, or frenetic action films, some movies just don’t find themselves in the cultural zeitgeist as much as they should.

Here are some of the films that I saw that deserve a look. Some of them do overlap with the “Best of 2018 So Far” list I did earlier last year but hey, have you watched ‘em yet?

 

The Strangers: Prey at Night

This artfully directed slasher sequel was one of the most surprising things I watched this year. The original film “The Strangers” is now considered a contemporary horror classic by many, so when a follow up was released a decade later, I was skeptical.

In general, sequels are usually a case of diminishing returns. This factor increases tenfold when it comes to the horror genre. It’s very rare for an original horror film to get a worthy successor. For every Friday the 13 Part II or Scream 2, you get Poltergeist 2 or Exorcist II: The Heretic.

Director Johannes Roberts avoids the expected pitfalls, however, with “Prey at Night.” By assembling a fantastic cast including: “Mad Men’s” Christina Hendricks, “The Ring’s” Martin Henderson, “Bridge to Terabithia” actress Bailee Madison, and the up-and-coming son of Bill Pullman, not a sour note is struck with the acting.

The standout performances of the film are definitely from Hendricks as a terrified but protective mother and Lewis Pullman as the jock brother with a heart of gold. The film is directed with true panache. It feels like it walked right out of the middle of the 80’s slasher craze with a killer (literally) soundtrack and neon-lit sets, the movie just looks rad.

So, if you’re looking for a short and punchy little horror film that’s gracefully shot and acted, “The Strangers: Prey at Night” is the one to beat from 2018.

 

Lean on Pete

One of my top five favorite films of the year, “Lean on Pete” remains one of the best acted and emotionally devastating films of the year. The story of a boy and a horse struggling for a better life may sound cliched and melodramatic, but its rawness and ability to help the audience empathize with its characters is what makes the film so effective on a sincerely personal level.

In what perhaps is the single best performance of the year, Charlie Plummer is the beating heart and soul of “Lean on Pete.” The story follows 15-year-old Charley Thomson as he deals with the struggles of home life with his father (Travis Fimmel) and at his work where he aids Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi) in the upkeep of racehorses. Once Charley forms a bond with one of the horses, the titular Lean on Pete, his life takes a harrowing turn.

With a range that feels far beyond his years, Charlie Plummer is able to craft a fully realized and believable character in Charley. We feel his pains, we want him to succeed, and that is where the film is so heartbreaking. When bad things happen to Charley, they happen to us.

One may not expect for a coming of age drama film about a boy and a horse to be a harrowing journey, but “Lean on Pete” surely is. Throughout his journey, Charley makes many mistakes and it often seems like the film won’t end too well, and that’s part of what makes the film so affecting. It’s often hard to toe the line between raw drama and straight up melodrama, but here, writer-director Andrew Haigh succeeds in spades.

 

Eighth Grade

Written and directed by comedian Bo Burnam, eighth grade tells the story of Elsie Fisher’s Kayla Day as she struggles through the everyday challenges of her final week of, you guessed it, “Eighth Grade.” The controversially R rated film covers the bases of technology, anxiety, and sexuality among middle schoolers. It’s a raw, beautiful, funny, and sometimes sad film that puts forth the truths of adolescence unlike any film has since perhaps Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.”

Elsie Fisher gives a powerhouse performance as a shy but courageous young girl who’s desperately trying to find her place in the world before her high school years start. She’s never less than believable in the role and the interactions between her and her father (Josh Hamilton) create some of the best scenes of the year.

Some of the film is shown through the lens of Day’s computer as she publishes her own sort of self-help videos on YouTube. It’s this and the constant use of social media by the character that fully grounds her in modern times, and helps us relate to the often chastised generation by letting us see that even though young people are constantly plugged in, they have real-life problems and insecurities as well. Perhaps even more so because of their untethered access to the rest of the world.

 

Searching

Part of a new genre of films called “screen life,” searching is told completely from the screens of computers and smartphones and follows a man (John Cho) trying to find his missing daughter by sorting through her digital footprints online. Its a singularly original film that seems like it wouldn’t work, but that ends up immersing us in something new while heavily featuring things we use every day as a means of storytelling.

I won’t speak too much of the plot, because of its many twists and turns near the end, but it’s an utterly engrossing journey. Who would have thought watching a man hurriedly look through text messages, call and FaceTime people, and use Google Maps would be so thrilling, but it is.

“Searching” is able to string along a complex story just by showing different computer programs functioning. This, coupled with fantastic turns from Cho and Debra Messing come together to create a fantastically tense ride with a slam-bang ending that, while a bit contrived, is nevertheless unexpected and satisfying.

Tag

One of the most criminally undercooked comedies of the year, “Tag” follows a group of friends that have had an ongoing game of tag happening since 1983. They play every year, but there’s still one of the members of the group that hasn’t been tagged yet, and with his wedding coming up, the perfect time for some justice is finally upon them.

With a truly incredible cast that includes Ed Helms, Annabelle Wallis, Hannibal Buress, Rashida Jones, Isla Fisher, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Jake Johnson, and Leslie Bibb, “Tag” shines with both its madcap comedy and its more dramatic sides. While the story may seem far fetched, it’s actually more than believable in its execution. Based on a true story, the film’s power players use their real-life characters as springboards for a collection of great comedic performances.

While the film is funny, it’s perhaps its more emotional side that makes it so compelling. At the end, when the competitive camaraderie and the emotional stakes reach their unexpected peaks, it’s unexpectedly cathartic and satisfying. “Tag” is one of the more surprising and enjoyable films of the year, and it’s funny as heck to boot.

 

Sicario: Day of the Soldado

After Denis Villeneuve’s absolutely stunning 2015 film “Sicario,” one thing that I was not left with was a hankering for a sequel. Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly excited when I heard that a new film was in development without the original director. I was happily proven wrong, however, when “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” was released.

Retaining the original’s screenwriter (Taylor Sheridan of “Hell or High Water” fame), this sequel feels like a worthy successor to the original. While it loses Emily Blunt’s star power, it keeps Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin and allows them ample time to impress.

The absence of Villeneuve’s visionary presence is no doubt missed, but in its place is a relentlessly brutal and action-packed film that has some slick direction by Stefano Sollima and impressive cinematography by Dariusz Wolski. Those wanting a tense, violent, and well-acted film look no further.

 

Bad Times at the El Royale

One of the most epically undervalued films of the year, “Bad Times at the El Royale” is the pulp-noir thriller that no one was expecting Drew Goddard to pull off. Set in a hotel that’s centered right on the state line between Arizona and California, the film follows a cast including Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Lewis Pullman, and Chris Hemsworth as they all intersect at the doomed hotel.

From the outset, it’s clear that the characters are more than they seem, and by the end of the film, blood is shed and tears are dropped as each of the character’s stories meet their surprising ends. Its a skillfully tense film that features strong acting, particularly from Pullman and Erivo, and a great soundtrack that perfectly contrasts the dark and bloody story.

Drew Goddard of “Cabin in the Woods” fame turns his tight script into a 141-minute thrill ride that features some nifty philosophic musings and packs three movies worth of story into one distinct film. “Bad Times at the El Royale” certainly wasn’t what I was expecting. It was so much more. If you’re looking for a thought-provoking Agatha Christie type story combined with a Tarantino-esque vibe, check into this hotel.

Most of these films are out on video and available to stream. Hopefully, you’ll find something here that strikes your fancy. There were several others that I could’ve included such as “Leave No Trace,” “Venom,” “The Predator,” and many others that I thought were either criminally underrated or just under-seen. Regardless, last year was a great year for film. Here’s to looking forward to another fantastic year on the silver screen.

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