Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Photo: Clockwise, starting top left: Love After Love (IFC Films), Never Goin' Back (A24), John McEnroe: In The Realm Of Perfection (Oscilloscope), To All The Boys I've Loved Before (Netflix), The Green Fog (Screenshot), Graphic: Rebecca Fassola

If you watched every film The A.V. Club reviewed in 2018, you’d walk away with a fairly comprehensive grasp of the year in movies. But it wouldn’t be a complete one. Because for as much as we aim to write about all the new cinema that matters, plenty of gems slip through the cracks in our coverage plan. And so once annually, we atone for our oversights with a rundown of the best of what we didn’t review over the previous 11 months, singling out movies that opened in American theaters or premiered on streaming platforms—and, when possible, pointing readers toward where they can watch them now. This year, the list includes unconventional sports documentaries, Netflix rom-coms, challenging arthouse experiments, sleeper thrillers, and one shocking supercut of vehicular mayhem. Think of it as an alternate best-of list for 2018, as well as a belated showcase for the under-the-radar films that should have been on our radar from the start.


12 Days

Under a recently passed French law, those involuntarily institutionalized must appear before a judge within 12 days, during which time they can make the case for their release, whether on grounds of mental health or simple violations of procedure. As shown in veteran photojournalist-turned-documentarian Raymond Depardon’s latest, these hearings have a whiff of pro forma, legal-requirements box checking, with presiding judges making sure all steps are followed appropriately before nearly always continuing the institutionalization. Confining his attention almost solely on the courtroom, Depardon captures a fascinating assembly of experiences, from the obviously mentally ill to the possibly merely stressed. Comedy, tragedy, and the full spectrum in between are filtered through a uniquely French conversation style that’s bluntly plain-spoken and free of bureaucratic posturing, balancing empathy and time management in remarkable measure. DVD. [Vadim Rizov]


All About Nina

Writer-director Eva Vives’ timely debut has no interest in making its audience comfortable—a trait it shares with its title character (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who tells jokes for a living, working through stand-up sets with an insouciance that can’t quite disguise the tension that never leaves her body. Nina hides it on stage, but throws it all up—quite literally—the second she’s out of the lights. The frequent, anxiety-induced vomiting reflects the chaos in Nina’s life, a state of affairs heightened when a big opportunity brings her to Los Angeles, where she meets Rafe (Common), a relatively vomit-free guy whose openness and honesty force her to reconsider what she wants and to confront the trauma from which everything springs. All About Nina isn’t much fun but it is often funny, with Winstead’s remarkable, sharp-toothed performance lending urgency and ferocity to the jokes, the silences, and the puking. VOD. [Allison Shoemaker]


Blame

Very few 22-year-olds—like, maybe none—have made as impressive a directorial debut as Blame, which Quinn Shephard also wrote, produced, edited, and starred in. It’s hardly perfect, but this high school melodrama is smart and surprising, with Shephard playing a teenager who fights back against her bullying peers when she returns to class after a stint in a sanitarium. Chris Messina co-stars as a drama teacher who guides his students through a production of The Crucible, which ends up mirroring what the actors are going through. Often, Blame feels like what it is: a project Shephard started developing when she was still a teen herself. But it has style and mood, and a keen understanding of adult hypocrisy and adolescent paranoia, as understood by one troubled youngster. Amazon, iTunes, and other digital services. [Noel Murray]


The China Hustle

Seemingly once a week, some news story breaks about how a well-respected tech guru is actually a shady kook, or how a forward-thinking corporation that’s supposed to be angling to save the world instead exploits cheap labor and sells buggy products. Jed Rothstein’s alarming documentary The China Hustle is about a few savvy U.S. investors who consider it their public and fiscal duty to investigate under-regulated overseas technology markets, exposing fraud by “shorting” the stocks of Chinese companies they’ve adjudged to be dangerously overhyped. The film is gripping and enlightening, and warns about the degree to which we may be teetering on the brink of another global crash, all because too many American portfolio managers are disinclined to look too closely at just how they’re making money for their clients. Hulu, Amazon, iTunes, and other digital services. [Noel Murray]


The Clovehitch Killer

In a year filled with arty spins on traditional horror, not enough attention has been paid to The Clovehitch Killer, directed by first-timer Duncan Skiles, from a script by Cop Car co-screenwriter Christopher Ford, starring Dylan McDermott as a beloved small-town scoutmaster who may be a serial rapist and murderer. Lean On Pete’s Charlie Plummer plays the man’s son, in a story that unfolds in three distinct parts, each asking two unsettling questions: What if this seemingly upstanding, conservative Christian community leader is actually a dangerous criminal? And what is it about who he is and where he lives that might let him get away with something truly heinous? The Clovehitch Killer takes an unusually slow-paced and experimental approach to mystery and suspense, but it’s also a cogent critique of how “the culture wars” can provide a cover for someone whose sins are far beyond what his neighbors can imagine. Select theaters and VOD. [Noel Murray]


Five Fingers For Marseilles

The anti-colonialist Western is a growing trend in world cinema, as filmmakers from formerly colonized nations re-imagine Western tropes to tell stories of indigenous heroes defending their homes against European invaders. Five Fingers For Marseilles is this year’s finest, a bleak and beautifully shot take on the stark moral relativism of Sergio Leone set among the rocky high plains of South Africa. Vuyo Dabula stars as the Man With No Name of the piece, a stoic gunslinger named Tau who returns to his hometown after many years in exile to find his childhood friends, the Five Fingers of the title, split by corruption and greed in the new post-apartheid power structure. He’s opposed by the film’s most memorable character, local gangster Sepoko (Hamilton Dlamini), a.k.a. Ghost, whose low, menacing growl, milky eye, and calm ruthlessness make him a Western villain for the ages. Amazon, iTunes, and other digital services. [Katie Rife]


Gabriel And The Mountain

Fellipe Barbosa’s Gabriel And The Mountain begins by staging the discovery of its protagonist’s corpse; the rest of this pleasingly sprawling docu-fiction hybrid reconstructs how it got there. A friend of the director’s, the late Gabriel is played by João Pedro Zappa, while all other main performers save his girlfriend are the real families, truck drivers, and others he encountered on the road who remember the traveler and re-enact their time with him. As a trip through four African countries filmed by a Brazilian outsider, Barbosa’s film is eager to avoid a tourist’s patronizing gaze, sharing a goal with the late Gabriel. But as the film proceeds, an enjoyable pilgrimage is complicated by the blind spots of its protagonist, an economic conservative who gets into a vicious fight with said visiting girlfriend about his intentions toward the African continent. It’s a film about the moment where an outsider, no matter how well-meaning, makes the shift from adventurous traveler to meddling (or worse) tourist. Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, and other digital services. [Vadim Rizov]


The Green Fog

Guy Maddin has spent his entire career paying demented homage to forgotten corners of cinema history (largely from the silent era), but his latest effort, co-directed with brothers Evan and Galen Johnson, deconstructs one of the greatest films ever made: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. More accurately, The Green Fog reconstructs Vertigo, using footage culled from an eclectic variety of sources—everything from Bullitt to So I Married An Axe Murderer, plus TV episodes and industrial films—to tell Vertigo’s entire narrative, scene by scene, in just over an hour. Playful and appropriately dizzying, this experimental tribute doubles as a visual essay/city symphony; rather than Los Angeles Plays Itself, it’s San Francisco Plays Vertigo. (Every clip employed was shot there.) And there may be no funnier joke this year than depicting Scottie’s catatonia, in the aftermath of Madeleine’s death, via multiple shots of an utterly blank-faced Chuck Norris. [Mike D’Angelo]


John McEnroe: In The Realm Of Perfection

Although its nominal subject is John McEnroe’s record-holding 1984 season, which boasts an as-yet-unmatched 82-3 win rate, Julien Faraut’s scintillating sports documentary might actually be of more interest to hardcore cinephiles than tennis aficionados. Then again, as the liberally quoted tennis writings of film critic Serge Daney might suggest, those categories are far from mutually exclusive. Not remotely hagiographic, John McEnroe: In The Realm Of Perfection plays more like a roguish Godardian essay-film. Taking his cues from instructional sports videos and director Gil de Kermadec’s archival footage of the French Open, Faraut posits cinematic ideas about time and duration alongside conjectures regarding McEnroe’s singular drive and personality. By showing the ins and outs of the tennis star’s infamous on-court meltdowns—particularly his hostility to the 16mm cameras and sound-capture devices used to record him—Faraut slyly reminds us that film-watching, like sports-watching, is a fundamentally physical experience. Amazon, iTunes, and other digital services. [Lawrence Garcia]


The Last Race

Even those with zero interest in stock-car racing will find much to enjoy in Michael Dweck’s debut feature, which more or less eulogizes the last remaining track in Long Island. Riverhead Raceway’s inevitable engulfment in corporate ooze gets duly lamented, but The Last Race is far too formally daring to come across as a tract. Already a celebrated still photographer, Dweck approaches documentary filmmaking with an aesthete’s eye, placing his talking heads in arresting compositions and making Errol Morris-style digressions into drivers’ day jobs and hobbies. And he finds ways to make the races themselves uniquely thrilling, whether by placing the camera in an unorthodox spot on the vehicle (creating the horizontal equivalent of a vertiginous effect, as we move closer and closer to the track’s outer wall with each quick revolution) or by tweaking the sound mix to isolate a driver’s heavy breathing. Select theaters and VOD. [Mike D’Angelo]


Love After Love

In Russell Harbaugh’s debut feature, Love After Love, emotional wounds fester when left unattended. After the slow, painful death of the family patriarch, Suzanne (Andie MacDowell, stunningly vulnerable) and her two adult sons, Nicholas (Chris O’Dowd) and Chris (James Adomian), struggle with bouts of extended grief, each in their own particular way. Chris drinks, Nicholas screws around on his wife (Juliet Rylance), and Suzanne rediscovers her identity in the messy, haphazard way she knows how. Inspired by the films of Maurice Pialat, Love After Love innately understands that a person doesn’t leave the room after they die. Instead, their spirit lingers, infecting those closest to them with a nasty restlessness that’s difficult to shake. Death is tricky business, especially for those left behind. Hulu, Amazon, iTunes, and other digital services. [Vikram Murthi]


Never Goin’ Back

Augustine Frizzell’s low-budget movie never expanded to more than 30 screens, which belies its secret, unofficial status as a model studio comedy. Its scope, scale, and 85-minute running time may be indie-style modest, but Frizzell is blessedly unconcerned with indulging in cutesy quirks or teaching anyone a lesson. Angela (Maia Mitchell) and Jessie (Camila Morrone), two teenage drop-outs living in dead-end Texas, want only to escape to Galveston for a brief beach vacation. Their plans to pay for it by working extra diner shifts are stymied by a drug deal gone wrong, gastrointestinal distress, and accidental pot-cookie ingestion—in other words, nothing too far removed from the likes of Dude, Where’s My Car? But Mitchell and Morrone make a winningly codependent pair, sort of a distaff, more self-aware version of fellow Texans Beavis and Butt-Head, and their zany antics are grounded by Frizzell’s tacit acknowledgment that their tight-knit friendship is a desperate necessity. Amazon. [Jesse Hassenger]


Notes On An Appearance

Ensconced as it is in the echelons of New York’s intellectual elite, Ricky D’Ambrose’s highly idiosyncratic debut feature is an undeniably insular film. It follows a young man (Bingham Bryant) who, after taking a job cataloguing the works of a controversial political theorist, abruptly disappears. Working in the micro-budget range (and with an unusual attention to the printed materials of the pre-internet era), D’Ambrose fills the ensuing narrative absence with a disorienting flood of information. The pervasive feeling, though, is one of distinct unease, not unlike that of a conspiracy thriller. Redolent of the works of Straub-Huillet and Robert Bresson, D’Ambrose’s direction is decidedly uncommercial. But there’s considerable pleasure in the way the film’s varied, precisely constructed parts present themselves as intriguing pieces of a larger puzzle. Whether a solution exists is another matter entirely. [Lawrence Garcia]


Of Fathers And Sons

In a nerve-wracking feat, Talal Derki returned to his native Syria, embedding himself with a family in a Taliban-stronghold area. It’d be reductive and insulting to label the results “Jihadists: They’re Just Like Us,” but that gets at some of the core of Of Fathers And Sons, whose title’s universal nature is borne out by a not-quite-archetypal narrative. The family Derki stays with is run by a father, Abu Osama, who unambiguously loves his children in the strongest terms; for him, that means the only logical thing is to prepare them for battle. Derki positions himself terrifyingly close to live bombs being dismantled or Osama firing off rounds at targets in between answering questions. The results aren’t macho invitations to marvel at the danger the filmmaker’s put himself in; they’re committed to depicting the sometimes mundane, sometimes obviously terrifying reality on the ground, with no sad music or explanatory graphics for easy context. [Vadim Rizov]


The Road Movie

In a better world, the phrase “holy shitballs, we’re sailing!” would have already grown into a cultural touchstone at least on par with “I drink your milkshake.” Dmitrii Kalashnikov’s fully unhinged documentary compiles Russian dashboard-mounted camera footage like a “RIP VINE” video, and about every other minute contains a hearty morsel of semi-intentional comedy. (A silent passage in which an aggressive tailgater starts to slowly back away after several heavily armed men exit the offending vehicle is surreal, disturbing, and hilarious.) All the grizzly bear encounters, tank joyrides, casual crimes against decency, and other snippets of the bizarre amount to a compulsively watchable state-of-the-nation address for the modern Russia, a topsy-turvy setting in which anything, it would seem, goes. As the headline-readers among us nail-bite over our republic’s fall at the hands of hacker masterminds to the East, it’s somewhat comforting to know that the country, like ours, has no shortage of reckless idiots. Amazon, iTunes, and other digital services. [Charles Bramesco]


Sadie

Movies about troubled teenagers abound, but few are both as grim and as empathetic as Sadie, in which fiercely talented newcomer Sophia Mitri Schloss plays the title character as a sort of Machiavellian open wound. Sadie lives in a trailer park and pines for her absent father, who’s on active duty in Afghanistan; her keen interest in combat is one of several low-key warning signs that are easy for those around her to rationalize, if not ignore. Rather than make a tightly focused character study, however, writer-director Megan Griffiths (who made the excellent, little-seen Lucky Them) devotes nearly equal attention to everyone in Sadie’s life—particularly her loving but distracted mother, played with heartbreaking emotional transparency by Melanie Lynskey. John Gallagher Jr., Danielle Brooks, and Tony Hale all pitch in to create a richly detailed hand-to-mouth community, providing context that makes this sleeper more than just another coal-black portrait of a sociopath in training. Amazon, iTunes, and other digital services. [Mike D’Angelo]


Scarred Hearts

Loosely adapted from the autobiographical works of Romanian writer Max Blecher, Radu Jude’s Scarred Hearts tells of the author’s time in a tuberculosis sanatorium by the Black Sea, a shelter away from the rising tide of 1930s European anti-Semitism and his own nation’s fascist Iron Guard. Far from a relentlessly dour affair, though, the film is an inviting, vibrant experience, observing Emanuel (Lucian Rus, playing the Blecher stand-in) as he attempts to keep his mind, spirit, and libido alive through the days, months, and years of mostly static convalescence. Filled with wry verbal humor, physical comedy, and hilarious non sequiturs (such as Emanuel’s habit of performing advertising jingles from memory), the film unfolds much like a drawing room comedy, only with all the personalities bedridden and the action confined to a hospital ward. At 141 minutes, Scarred Hearts isn’t always an easy sit. But it captures a fleeting fullness of joy and completely earns its final, mournful sting. MUBI. [Lawrence Garcia]


To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before

In 2018, several Netflix rom-coms burst into the world with almost no warning, effervescent and ready to enchant anybody with two hours to kill. Of these, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before stands head, shoulders, and impeccable ponytail above the rest. Adapted from Jenny Han’s novel of the same name, the film centers on Lara Jean (Lana Condor), a high school student whose romantic streak flows freely behind sturdy walls built of fear and grief. As you might imagine, the business of To All The Boys is to see those walls come tumbling down, a process that begins when letters Lara Jean wrote to the boys of the title, never intended to be read, are somehow sent to each and every dreamboat on her list. Susan Johnson’s stylish direction and a subtly candy-colored landscape make the film a visual treat as well as a sentimental one. Yet it’s the beguiling sincerity of To All The Boys, much of it springing from the performances of Condor and the charming Noah Centineo, that renders it such a lasting delight. Bring on the sequel. Netflix. [Allison Shoemaker]

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