January 14, 2019
year-in-review

The Criminally Underseen Indie Masterpieces of 2018

These 2018 movies were diamonds in the rough. It's time to give them a deserved audience.

Low budgets and no-name actors do not a box-office success make. Indie releases are extremely tricky; a successful one involves the perfect confluence of unpredictable elements, from buzz out of a festival to money for marketing to good weather on opening weekend. As a result, the finest cinema can get lost in the din of Hollywood spectacles. 

The following six films were some of the best released last year. Too few people saw them. They weren't underrated, per se; they were generally critically acclaimed, with some top critics hailing one or another as the best of 2018. Despite the accolades or attention received on the festival circuit, though, some of these films grossed as little as $20,000 at the box office. Below, we make a case for their essential viewing. 

Madeline’s Madeline

'Madeline's Madeline'Credit: Oscilloscope
Josephine Decker's spellbinding, dizzying, haunting, and utterly singular drama was the greatest surprise to hit cinemas this year. Like a set of Matryoshka dolls, it contains multitudes. But at the center of it all is breakout star Helena Howard, whose performance exerts a centrifugal force on the film that holds its frenetic elements together. Howard plays Madeline, an exceedingly creative teenager with a history of psychological illness. Madeline's Madeline is an extension of her subjective experience. When we meet the high schooler, she is embodying a cat as an exercise for her extracurricular experimental theater group. Decker's disorienting camera quickly reveals that the line between reality and fiction are, for Madeline, but a mere suggestion. She lives in a dissociative reality, which, for us, makes for a fractured experience wrought by electrifying filmmaking. 

The bulk of the film unfolds as Madeline prepares for her theater group's performance. The director, Evangeline (Molly Parker), takes a special interest in Madeline, who she thinks displays prodigious talent. She casts Madeline as the star—of what? The show itself will be written during the process of rehearsal. (This was also true of most of the filmmaking process.) Through a months-long process of intimate and often humiliating theatrical exercises, Evangeline finds the cracks in Madeline's psyche. She mines them, along with Madeline's fraught relationship with her overprotective mother (Miranda July), for the performance—even as it becomes evident that the process is taking a significant emotional toll on Madeline. What began as a mentorship quickly turns vampiric as Evangeline exploits Madeline's story with disturbing fervor.

Madeline's Madeline is an adrenaline-fueled epic that seems to defy creative gravity. It's a meta-exploration of identity and appropriation. It's a feat of cinematic engineering. It left me reeling, with its discordant a cappella chorus and schizophrenic soundtrack still echoing in my ears—and a bitter aftertaste of the creative process.

The Rider

'The Rider'
The Rider is 2018's offering of cinematic poetry. It follows, then, that it is also the source of the year's most captivating scene. In the scene, which unfolds entirely without dialogue, real-life rodeo champion Brady, playing a version of himself in a docudrama of his own life's story, attempts to train a wild stallion. Brady dances around the horse as it bucks and whinnies in protest of human contact. Slowly, methodically, he breaks ground. First, the horse accepts his touch; next, it accepts the lead; and in no time, it seems, Brady is riding the hostile animal. His talent as a horse whisperer is mesmerizing to behold. It's a visual lesson in the pure essence of trust.

Just as he coaxes the horse into a life it didn't choose, so must Brady accept a new life he didn't plan for. The Rider begins as Brady sustains a severe skull injury in a rodeo accident. He receives a strict edict from the doctor to never ride again. Director Chloe Zhao met Brady while filming another movie on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where he and his family live. Zhao vowed to make a film with him, but it wasn't until she learned of his injury that she knew she had a story. 

The true events of docu-fiction hybrid seem conjured from a lesson in dramatic narrative: obstacle after obstacle is thrown at our hero, a quietly charismatic, soulful cowboy who feels like a specter of the Old West. He tenderly cares for his mentally-challenged sister and is devoted to his disabled childhood friend, who suffered extreme brain damage in a rodeo accident similar to Brady's own. Despite his hard-up circumstances, Brady exudes a natural grace. With horses, though, he truly comes alive. His connection to and love for the animals is his life's purpose.

The Rider is a story about a beloved livelihood that is taken away. It's dripping with empathy in every frame, lensed with a bit of Malickian magic by cinematographer Joshua James Richards. Against the backdrop of the great American prairie, this Native American cowboy must either accept his fate or die fighting it. 

Leave No Trace

'Leave No Trace'

True to her unassuming form, Debra Granik has quietly established herself as one of the great indie-realist chroniclers of America's marginalized white population. Her small handful of films—Down to the Bone, Winter's Bone, and the documentary Stray Dog—are set in poor and working-class communities that struggle with drug addiction, underemployment, and PTSD, among other hardships. But rather than pity or place judgment on her characters, Granik portrays them in the plain light of day. She simply observes them in their circumstances, with their idiosyncrasies, hopes, regrets, and very human contradictions bubbling up from under the surface. We get to know them as people. Granik's approach is one of unsentimental empathy.

Leave No Trace is no exception to this rule. The film is teeming with compassion. Its setting is extreme, but the story, at its core, is simple: it's a coming-of-age tale about the bond between a father and daughter, which comes under threat when their circumstances change and the daughter begins to seek independence. Will (Ben Foster), an army veteran who suffers from PTSD, has been living off the grid in the forests of the Pacific Northwest with 13-year-old Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie). We meet them as they go about their daily routine with a nearly wordless fluency and intimacy: chopping wood, foraging for mushrooms, collecting rainwater, and playing chess to pass the time. As anything in her films, Granik resists a simple idyllic portrayal of this backwoods existence. It's harsh, damp, and physically demanding, and simmering under the surface is a deep sense of anxiety. Living on public land is illegal in the state of Oregon, and Will and Tom's way of life is precarious. Periodically, Will sounds the survivalist alarm; he conducts drills in which he and Tom must separate and hide from unpredictable dangers, chief among them park rangers. But Will can't inoculate Tom from tendrils of modern life forever. One day, a jogger spots Tom, prompting a raid of their camp. Father and daughter are brought in to Portland be interrogated by social services.

Tom insists she and her father have never been "homeless," and, thanks to Granik's even-handed approach to the material, that feels true. From what we've seen, Will isn't indoctrinating his daughter. In fact, he's educated her beyond public-school standards. Nor is Will intentionally depriving Tom of normalcy. He's doing what every good parent aims to do—protecting her and showing her love. It's just that he perceives the modern world as unhealthy and has, in effect, chosen to opt out. The film's central, heartbreaking conflict comes when Tom, as she is increasingly exposed to the "real world," begins to wonder whether it's really all that bad out there.

Leave No Trace is a thing of understated humanist beauty. It asks complex questions about modern life, freedom, and parental responsibility, but it does so implicitly, and without the trappings of didacticism. The nuance is baked into the story; the critique exists in situ. Seeing things as they unfold organically with the characters, in Granik's signature docu-realism style, takes us on a wrenching emotional journey in which their problems become ours to wrestle with. We watch Tom mature, and it dawns on her that "what's wrong with you isn't wrong with me," as she tells her father. Rather than rebel, she carefully weighs her options for independence, and even considers various compromises. But Will is allergic to civilization, and none can be had. Here, loving may have to come at the price of letting go.

November

'November'Credit: Oscilloscope

Few films offer the experience of being swept into a bizarre folktale. Like the tides of a strange dream, November pulls you into its beguiling world: an impoverished town in 19th-century Estonia, where peasants make deals with the devil to survive the cold winter, werewolves roam, the ghosts of dead neighbors pop in for dinner, and goblins made of iron rods stumble drunkenly in the night. Rainer Sarnet's film, adapted from Andrus Kivirahk’s novel Rehepapp, brings to life Estonia's Pagan lore with black humor and a special reverence for the beauty in squalor. 

In one surreal scene, reminiscent of the opening of Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries, an empty horse and buggy carts a body. In another, supernatural servants called Kratts, made from animal skulls and rusty rakes and knives, threaten to kill their masters if they are not put to work. At the heart of it all is Liina (Rest Lest), an idealistic young farmer who yearns for a local boy's (Jorgen Liik) affection; alas, he is, in turn, captivated by the arrival of a German baroness (Jette Loona Hermanis), whose existence seems unmarked by hardship, despite the fact that she sleepwalks on the roof of her castle—often nearly plunging to her death. 

The film is glued together with the stuff of moral fables; the characters are punished for greed, laziness, and insolence, among other mortal sins. But mostly, November is a spectacularly detailed, richly sewn tapestry of surreal cinematography (shot by Mart Taniel in black and white and infrared on a menagerie of different cameras, lenses, and formats, both film and digital). High-contrast lighting makes even the human townsfolk look like specters in a dark, hostile world where anything might happen—communion with dead relatives resting in saunas included. The luminous moon looms over every frame of November, each of which stands alone as a striking photograph from the otherworld.

Wildlife

'Wildlife'Credit: IFC Films

No one but an actor's director could have helmed Wildlife, a fundamentally character-driven story in which a threadbare family finally falls apart. It's fitting, then, that this should be Paul Dano's directorial debut. The actor, who is known for his Oscar-worthy performances, trusts his world-class actors with an unadorned approach to a spare story. Based on Richard Ford’s acclaimed 1990 novel of the same name, Wildlife stars Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeannette and Jerry Brinson. They've relocated with their teenaged son, Joe (Ed Oxenbould), to Great Falls, Montanaa place where, evidently, the American Dream goes to die. Dano depicts the town as a drab, uninspired place inhabited by people suffocated by the constraints of 1960s society. Social mores are everything; breaking them will cost Jerry his job, the loss of which sends him on a prideful quest to regain his purpose. Although he's offered the opportunity, Jerry won't deign to go back to a job that let him go in the first place. Instead, he leaves his family in the lurch to fight wildfires for pennies in the mountains. 

When Jerry leaves, Jeanette begins to unravel. The seeds of discontent were sown long ago, but Jerry's departure—experienced as an abandonment—tips her off the edge. All this is seen through the eyes of Joe, a watchful, introspective son who just wants his parents to be happy. Joe may not know what to make of Jeanette's erratic behavior, but to the audience, it's clear she's rebelling against her role as a housewife. She acts selfishly, prioritizing the intoxicating taste of independence rather than her responsibility as a good mother to Joe.

Dano, along with cinematographer Diego Garcia, gives the actors room to create nuance. They ruminate, process, and observe, often in silence or with little dialogue. This approach eschews melodrama in favor of the quiet stuff of small heartbreaks. Eventually, the fissures give way. In the film's final scene, a simple gesture has heartrending implications. It depicts a youngster who hasn't yet internalized one of life’s harsher truths: that sometimes broken things can’t, and shouldn't, be put back together.

We the Animals

'We the Animals'

A child is an identity in progress. With so much of the adult world obscured from view, youngsters can piece together merely a patchwork of reality, and what is created during that process is arguably as formative as their genetic code. This is especially true for children who feel "different" or who grow up in complicated family situations—such as is the case with Jonah (Evan Rosado), the protagonist of Jeremiah Zagar's We the Animals

A ten-year-old half-white, half-Puerto Rican boy growing up in rural upstate New York, Jonah is the youngest of three. His raucous older brothers, Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel), exude all the hallmarks of bourgeoning masculinity; Jonah, meanwhile, is quiet, sensitive, artistic, and likely queer. We peer into his subjectivity through hand-drawn animations that flit, flash, rip, and explode across the screen with a fervor that Jonah is unable to express in his daily life. All around him, storms are brewing and subsiding. Jonah's parents (Raul Castillo and Sheila Vand) are hot-headed; one minute to the next, a loving family dinner can devolve into a scene of domestic abuse. His siblings taunt, exclude, and support him in equal measure. One day there's food on the table; the next, they're scrounging the neighborhood for scraps, like pack animals.

Zagar captures Jonah's volatile environment in expressionist, lyrical scenes crafted with the fabric of memory. The camera, often handheld, remains at a child's height, evoking a sense of unmoored discovery. Like the experience of childhood itself, scenes bleed into each other—a patchwork of a reality half-understood, but deeply felt for a lifetime to come.     

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