MOVE writers praise underrated 2018 films

MOVE recommends underrated gems from throughout the year to add to your watchlist before awards season.

These reviews contain spoilers for “Upgrade.”

With 2018 rapidly drawing to a close, it can be difficult to get a handle on what movies you missed at your local AMC theatre, let alone smaller releases that may have been confined to independent theaters or limited releases. Don’t worry — MOVE has compiled a list of five of the year’s best new films.

”Leave No Trace”

“Leave No Trace” and its tale of father and daughter survival may seem familiar, but there’s nothing about it that’s cliche. After being removed from the state park that they’ve lived in for years, the film follows Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) as they struggle to adapt to a more sedentary lifestyle. What separates it from other, similar indie dramas such as 2016’s “Captain Fantastic” is that its extreme circumstances of life on the limits are rendered with an exquisite calm.

The film’s languid pacing allows for character growth and pays close and considerate attention to the small details, ones that most filmmakers would ignore. The film isn’t always uplifting, but director Debra Granik’s (Winter’s Bone) reserved, thoughtful approach adds poignancy and a peaceful atmosphere to its weighty material. Not many words are spoken in the film, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a lot to say.

”Upgrade”

At first glance, “Upgrade” seems like another stereotypical film about artificial intelligence taking over mankind, an overdone concept within the science fiction realm. “Upgrade” is packed with familiar sci-fi technological advances, such as bizarrely advanced weapons, self-driving (and talking) mobilized vehicles and a house comparable to the one in the Disney Channel Original Movie “Smart House.” Regardless of those similarities, however, this film puts its own twist on the genre.

Written and directed by Leigh Whannell (“Saw” and “Insidious”), “Upgrade” follows a car mechanic named Grey (Logan-Marshall Green) who becomes a quadriplegic after an unusual car accident. The car crash is immediately followed by a sudden robbery where his wife is shot and killed. Without his wife and the ability to do almost anything on his own, Grey struggles to find meaning in his life until he reluctantly accepts the placement of the AI chip STEM into his spine.

Grey is prepared for STEM to grant him the ability to move again, but he isn’t ready for the other “upgrades” that come with it, one being that he can now hear STEM talk in his mind. Grey takes this as an opportunity to find his wife’s murderer, transforming him into a revenge-driven and bad-guy-killing machine, which adds some gory action sequences that are really entertaining but honestly kind of gross. It outstandingly projects an eerily plausible future, rightfully deserving more appreciation from critics and audiences.

”Annihilation”

“Annihilation” is a difficult story to categorize, which might explain Paramount Pictures’ push for meager promotion and a strictly North American cinematic release. The science-fiction-horror film follows a biologist named Lena (Natalie Portman), who ventures into a psychedelic biological disaster zone called The Shimmer — all while searching for answers after its mysterious toxicity leaves her husband (Oscar Isaac) on the brink of death.

It’s true that, in less thoughtful, deft hands, the more traditional Hollywood horror beats of “Annihilation” could’ve easily turned Alex Garland’s second directorial feature into a grotesque slog.

But as the film’s five female leads trek further into the nightmarish, mutated fantasia of The Shimmer, Garland and Portman imbue each scene with a chilling exploration of the self-inflicted destruction and chaos that is constantly evolving under our own skin. It makes for a chilling, lyrical atmosphere that builds to one of the most quietly explosive finales in recent sci-fi canon.

”The Miseducation of Cameron Post”

Sundance-winner “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” follows its titular 17-year-old protagonist (Chloë Grace Moretz), who is sent away to a gay conversion camp in the early ‘90s after she’s caught hooking up with her best friend (Quinn Shephard). Clocking in at a tight 90 minutes, writer-director Desiree Akhavan distills the nearly 500-page original novel into a darkly funny, moving drama.

Unlike many similar awards circuit films, “Cameron Post” doesn’t function as a stark exposé on the evils of systemic homophobia and basic humanity of queer people. Instead, Akhavan aims to establish a more realistic environment for her characters to navigate. Rather than introducing one-dimensional villains, the heads of God’s Promise (John Gallagher Jr. and Jennifer Ehle) push for a forcibly optimistic, mildewy earnesty that’s unsustainable in the face of conversion therapy’s emotional and psychological evils.

Ultimately, it’s the irreverently cognizant, steadfast support system Cameron forms with her new friends Jane (Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck) that drives the story to its ambiguously hopeful ending. “Cameron Post” may have been made on a shoestring budget, but its handling of queer resilience and teenagers’ search for identity make a strong case for the production of more “own-voices” films.

”The Rider”

It feels wrong to call a movie that has already received a lot of awards attention underrated, but somehow that’s exactly the case with “The Rider." Buried by its distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, back in April, the film quickly disappeared from theaters and was hardly seen by mainstream audiences. With a cast of mostly unprofessional actors, Chloé Zhao’s film is a monumental achievement, blending documentary and narrative filmmaking in an unprecedented way.

A rodeo cowboy (Brady Jandreau, whom the story is partly based on) deals with increasingly traumatic head injuries, but can’t deal with the prospect of giving up the only career he’s ever wanted. It’s a heart-wrenching and devastating film and an unbelievably powerful one as well. 2018 has been the year of horse movies (“Lean on Pete,” “Thoroughbreds,” “Sorry to Bother You”) and it’s a shame that what is arguably the year’s best film has gone virtually unnoticed outsider of critics circles.

Edited by Siena DeBolt | sdebolt@themaneater.com

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