Admittedly, 2018 was not a strong year for cinema. This reality is even more discouraging when movies rising above their genre constraints weren’t singled out for accolade love. Below is an assembly of ten genre films that collectively illustrate more human complexity and artistic grace than this season’s official “Best Picture” lineup. With the exception of one breakthrough into the big leagues, this list underscores the notion that hidden gems exist every year so long as audiences free their minds of conventional imprisonment. Let the celebration of creative freedom begin!
Annihilation (Paramount Pictures)
Alex Garland is a master of sending characters on a journey into the esoteric unknown. Here, Natalie Portman leads a group of female scientists into a contaminated zone where alien terraforming and genetic mutation is prevalent. A wonderfully dissonant score accompanies the team as they uncover greater truths about the extra-terrestrial discharge and their own human limitations. Garland’s strength is not providing easy answers; instead, he challenges us to derive meaning from accidental encounters and mind-altering plot twists. The magnificence of “Annihilation” is its experiential factor, drawing us into a mystery that doesn’t pressure audiences to comprehend but invites them to approach with a reactive mind.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (Universal Pictures)
This sequel not only trounces its progenitor, but it’s one of the most daring musicals ever. Opening with a twist that tweaks the narrative allows other members of the ensemble to wield more clout. Christine Baranski and Julie Walters remain a hoot, with the former uttering the best line of movie dialogue from 2018: “Be still my beating vagina.”
Lily James as the younger version of Meryl Streep’s Donna sweeps us away with charm, spunk and surprising vulnerability. Furthermore, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” is a great example of the commonly mishandled flashback structure. It interweaves present and past by the power of ABBA’s songbook without ever feeling like a soulless medley. Donna’s three suitors are given enough personality variation to add weight to her difficult selection. Even Cher’s cheesy cameo has its upside, culminating in a memorable end-credit musical sequence to “Super Trooper” that gathers everyone from both timelines for a united outpouring of celebratory love.
Solo: A Star Wars Story (Walt Disney Studios)
Nitpicking the arbitrary details of how Han Solo got his legendary name blinds some viewers to the abundance of fun this spin-off contains. It is the first “Star Wars” film to not get caught up in the larger galactic conflict, making its small-scale focus a nice change of drama. Too often fans become tunnel-visioned obsessed with the Jedi/Sith clash when there’s an entire galaxy to explore, featuring characters that have as much of a role to play as anyone else in the grand scheme. Alden Ehrenreich as Solo is dashing, yet he impresses upon the fact that beneath the scoundrel facade is a good man. Why would audiences root for Solo in the first place if his scruples were less than worthy of Princess Leia’s affections?
Speaking of well-written female characters, “Solo: A Star Wars Story” features one of the most nuanced heroines in the franchise with Emilia Clarke’s Qi’Ra. The childhood friend of Han’s deconstructs the “femme fatale” archetype by emphasizing the need to survive at any cost; however, there’s never any malicious intent on Qi’Ra’s part. She evokes true love for Solo but rightfully gambles on her own future rather than one that compromised her agency in the first place.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Sony Pictures Releasing)
Although it won’t claim the title of “First Superhero Film to Win a Major Oscar” — that goes to Disney’s “Big Hero 6” — “Spider-Man: Into Spider-Verse” is nonetheless a groundbreaking accomplishment that will likely nab the “Best Animated Feature” golden statue. Featuring Shameik Moore as main protagonist Miles Morales — who dons a mask that’s long been worn by one Peter Parker — this Phil Lord and Christopher Miller effort is a comic book re-evaluation for the modern age. It opens up the wider issue of limiting comic book heroes to one race or gender, especially when there are alternate universes and story threads that exist all the time in the medium. The script tackles such problematic restrictiveness by featuring a collision of various Spider-Men and Women equally capable of saving their city. That being said, Morales’s origin story never gets shortchanged, with the film pridefully affirming the significance of his Afro-Latino representation.
Ralph Breaks the Internet (Walt Disney Studios)
It’s odd to classify a movie featuring all of the Disney Princesses as “underrated,” but it holds true for the “Wreck-It Ralph” sequel. Unlike most animated follow-ups, “Ralph Breaks the Internet” doesn’t replicate the original’s storytelling format with glistening repackaging. Instead, audiences get an honest maturation of its main characters, who discover the reality of a universe bigger than the confines of a few digital worlds. The idea that the right path for someone isn’t in their “hometown,” potentially away from their best friend, is one of the most terrifying moments of clarity anyone faces walking into adulthood. Phil Johnston and Pamela Ribon’s script makes this challenge their main focus, leading to a surprise villain buried deep within the well of insecurity.
While not the bludgeon of visual creativity that its predecessor is, “Ralph Breaks the Internet” provides Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) a grand digital landscape to explore via the vast and endless Internet. This infinite realm of information pinpoints the dynamic duo to a site they never expected: a homepage of self-reflection.
Hereditary (A24 Films)
Ari Astor’s remarkable debut grapples with the complexities of motherhood, the agony of a child’s passing, and a family schism enabled by demonic forces. Somehow overlooked by top industry awards groups, this riff on the possession narrative wades deep in themes more horrifying than the supernatural elements themselves. Boosted by a stellar takeover of volatility from Toni Collette, the indie horror proves that even the sturdiest of us can’t escape certain genetic burdens. Ultimately, “Hereditary” amounts to a successful con job by a nefarious group of people with an evil agenda to impose upon the innocent. How is that for relevancy?
A Quiet Place (Paramount Pictures)
With “A Quiet Place,” John Krasinski crafts a new classic horror experience that lives up to its early promotion. Incorporating post-apocalyptic circumstance with an alien invasion that claws away at the bonds of family, this addition to the genre molds tropes into the service of sensory overload. Depriving its family nucleus of sound for the sake of survival makes for a gratifying audience dilemma of relaxing nerves. Doing so turned out to be impossible, but thanks to outstanding performances from Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, and Noah Jupe, there was never a second of doubt that this foursome was mentally equipped to handle the endless onslaught of creature attacks.
Black Panther (Walt Disney Studios)
There can be no mistaking the historic achievement of “Black Panther.” It recently cemented itself as the inaugural superhero film to land a Best Picture nomination. Most importantly, its billion-dollar global success gives everlasting credence to the idea that Wakanda will forever remain a staple of pop culture. Thanks to the gifted hands of director Ryan Coogler, the hidden kingdom that Stan Lee introduced decades earlier — but never seeped into mainstream consciousness — finally arose from obscurity. The nation is an empowering testament that any autonomous community can create a thriving civilization with unlimited opportunity for technological breakthroughs.
Widows (20th Century Fox)
Co-writers Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn take convention and stomp on it with cathartic force. Prioritizing style without tainting the high-octane thrills of a heist flick, “Widows” provides dimension the masterminds behind the crime. Each of the women was robbed of agency by their late husbands. Now, they are reclaiming what is theirs, on their own terms and in gritty unison. Viola Davis leads an ensemble of actors who even defy their own typecasting, finding strength in being marginalized by men who foolishly believe they wield total authority.
Avengers: Infinity War (Walt Disney Studios)
There was no bigger movie event of the year than “Avengers: Infinity War.” After 17 films, Marvel rewards their dedicated fandom with a cliffhanger payoff that shatters any assumption of hero invincibility or triumph. Joe and Anthony Russo seamlessly juggle multiple conflicts, battles, and quests without ever coming up for air. Two and a half hours rush by faster than lightspeed, and every encounter with Josh Brolin’s Thanos is tantamount to the survival of the galaxy. This is a genre masterpiece of rare value: the most dire of stakes matches its grandiose execution. Hitting the comic book zeitgeist like no film before it, “Infinity War” imparts an emotional wallop of trauma in ways even the heaviest of indie dramas haven’t caused.