Movies that flew under radar in 2018

In another year, a less crowded field or maybe a different world altogether, these dark horse contenders might’ve been nominated.

This Sunday at the 91st Academy Awards, the wide-open Best Picture race finally comes to an end. It’s been nearly a decade since the category was expanded to include 10 possible nominees, a move that gives more films the chance of getting nominated and more people the possibility of being letdown. These five titles were successful and exciting contenders along the way, though they were ultimately left out on nomination day.

5. “Support the Girls”

A believable on-screen community is created in Andrew Bujalski’s day-in-the-life story of a sports bar manager. Led by their optimistic den mother, Lisa (Regina Hall), the women who make up the movie are a family of co-workers at an off-brand Hooters. Throughout one stressful day, Lisa’s idealistic approach to life is challenged by repeated tests of faith. This low-budget project isn’t concerned with plot and is occupied by characters who act like people you know. These aspects that try to reveal something true about human nature are characteristic of the mumblecore style of independent filmmaking. Hall was named Best Actress by the New York Film Critics Circle.

4. “Private Life”

Not all writer-directors produce movies at the same rate, so even though it’s been a while since Tamara Jenkins (“The Savages”) released new material, her latest was well worth the wait. As if she had written it from the inside-out, each scene in her midlife crisis movie is built around an idea about life or marriage that Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti bring to life with comic intellect. As a couple, they are desperate to conceive a child, but their fixation on a baby has less to do with starting a family than it does with reclaiming their youth. This Netflix movie is an existential comedy that has everything, including Molly Shannon furiously carving a turkey. “Private Life” has been recognized by the Gotham Awards and the Film Independent Spirit Awards.

3. “Eighth Grade”

The little engine that could this year was “Eighth Grade.” Directed by first-time filmmaker Bo Burnham and starring breakout Elsie Fisher, the dynamic duo became a packaged deal at press events and on the red carpet. A comedian originating on YouTube, Burnham tapped into internet culture and his own anxiety to tell a story about an eighth grade girl finding her confidence. The movie plays like a series of sketches that will flood the memory with flashbacks of one’s own cringeworthy experience. Nominated for a Golden Globe, Fisher gives an unforgettable performance that is impressive by any standards.

2. “Leave No Trace”

Another female-directed film overlooked by the Oscars is Debra Granik’s (“Winter’s Bone”) survivalist drama. Set in the Oregon wilderness, it tells of an ex-military father (Ben Foster) and his daughter (Thomasin McKenzie) whose peaceful existence off the grid is disrupted forever. Co-leads Foster and McKenzie are receptive to each other as performers, while imbuing their characters with emotional textures that are worth pondering over when considered with themes of identity in society. Granik was named Best Director by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

1. “First Reformed”

“First Reformed” is a transcendental odyssey of a film that is so similar to “Winter Light” and “Diary of a Country Priest” that I wouldn’t be shocked to learn it were directed by Ingmar Bergman himself had it not been about climate change. The film stars Ethan Hawke as a priest who experiences a crisis of faith when confronted with the social and environmental realities that threaten our species. It is a critical favorite and arguably the best work of Paul Schrader’s career, which includes writing “Raging Bull” and “Taxi Driver” for Martin Scorsese. His nomination for Best Original Screenplay is his first from the Academy. If the organization as a whole cared less about being popular, it might’ve sided with critics and given more recognition to this film that questions our ideas about hope, despair and spirituality in the modern world.

Edited by Joe Cross | jcross@themaneater.com

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