From a clammy thriller that’s getting a Hollywood remake to a dark rap battle comedy, Guardian writers pick their favourite underappreciated films of the year
It’s been disheartening to see how little of this year-in-summation talk has included Steven Soderbergh’s harrowing psychothriller, especially considering Hollywood’s dogged efforts to mint Claire Foy as a bona fide Movie Star™, and double-especially considering all the “elevated horror” hem-hawing, and triple-especially considering its timely themes of male predation against female self-preservation.
But despite its location at the nexus of cinematic trendiness, Soderbergh’s name has gone largely unmentioned. Attribute it to his bold, risky choice to shoot the picture using an iPhone 7, a gambit many decried as an aesthetic killer. I was not among them; the smallness and flatness of the image visually represents claustrophobia with a terrifying, unprecedented fidelity that traps the viewer along with Foy in the mental hospital of her nightmares. The setting transforms into a crucible for her, confronting her with past traumas she must conquer in a lethal pas de deux of dizzying intensity. The climactic confrontation between our heroine and the creep stalking her is vicious, sickening, cathartic – you know, just like gender relations in 2018. CB
Canadian film-maker Alison McAlpine has made a biopic about the sky. More specifically, the sky as seen from the Atacama desert in Chile. Her interview subjects are the people who live beneath it: algae farmers, cowboys, miners, UFO hunters, tellers of mythological tales and the operators of enormous telescopes. The European planet hunters and the old man repeating fables about a “party in the sky” are from two different worlds, but share the same zeal for observation and the recognition of beauty. McAlpine mixes screensaver-ready images of stars and landscapes with home-brewed special effects to imagine planetary formations and the edges of our known universe.
Cielo is more of a head film than a straight documentary. Its interests lie with the scientists’ feelings over a rundown of data. There is an excitement and a generosity of spirit across the whole project. This is the only film I watched three times this year (dragging six friends to one public screening) and as with most things running on galactic time, will probably stay with me long after most everything else has winked out. JH
An American remake of the Danish suspense thriller The Guilty, set to star Jake Gyllenhaal, was announced earlier this month, but it will be hard to supplant Gustav Möller’s original, which won the world cinema audience award at Sundance this year. Coming in at 85 minutes, this taut, altogether absorbing thrill ride, set entirely within the drab interiors of a Copenhagen police call station, so efficiently and economically calibrates tension it seems a kind of miracle.
At its center is Asger Holm (a brilliantly controlled Jakob Cedergren), who we gradually learn has recently been demoted from the field to a cubicle-and-headset at the 911 call center. Möller stays with him for the film’s duration as he tries to rescue an abducted woman over the phone; his decision to remain indoors creates an effectively unnerving sense of claustrophobia that crescendos as we hear, but don’t see, the woman on the other line. All is not as it seems, though, and shocking information is unfurled over the next hour and change, during which we’re in Asger’s sweaty-palmed thrall. JN
Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline was probably the most invigorating and intimate film I saw this year – I hope it reaches a wider audience.
It’s the story of a young woman (Helena Howard), her mother (Miranda July) and her drama coach (Molly Parker). That said, the older women’s roles become increasingly confused as she immerses herself in a semi-improvised theatre project. Howard’s performance, as an anguished teenager with a precocious talent for acting, is extremely arresting, not least during the rehearsal scenes in which she takes on animalistic personas or unleashes dark fantasies about killing her mother. It’s a beautiful and provocative film about boundary-crossing, in which the mesmerizing group dynamic of the drama class is only a backdrop to the spectacle of Madeline pushing back against her mother’s care, while becoming dangerously drawn into her teacher’s own dubious vision. The trio of lead performances and Decker’s woozy, insistent camera make the film all so heady and stimulating that it comes with its own warning at the start. There’s a nurse who reassures Madeline, and the audience: “The emotions you are having are not your own. They are someone else’s.” PH