We here at Headstuff’s Film Section continue to look at some of the best cinema to miss our Top 20 films of 2018 list. For the first part, click here.
Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts – Dir Mouly Surya
2018 was an incredible year for Indonesian cinema. Not only did the country’s Netflix action epic The Night Comes for Us make our Top 20, there was also the streaming service’s Sam Raimi-esque throwback horror May the Devil Take You and Shudder’s terrifically creepy ghost story Satan’s Slaves. However, what truly cements them at the forefront of genre cinema is Mouly Surya’s feminist ‘Satay Western’ Marlina.
With the sweltering-hot countryside of modern day Indonesia standing in for the Spaghetti West, Marsha Timothy stars as the titular character. Recently widowed, Marlina racked up debts paying for her husband’s funeral. As a result, she is visited by a quietly menacing loan shark carrying a ukulele who informs her he and his gang will steal her money and livestock and will rape her to settle what she owes. However, she has other plans, leading her on an odyssey, both physical and personal, encountering unlikely allies and machete wielding villains.
Featuring the gorgeous vistas of Sergio Leone, the dark comedy and violence of the Coen Brothers, Marlina will no doubt appeal to genre hounds. However, what’s really fantastic about the film is how it uses these old tropes but transports them into a radically different setting, where they can be used to explore contemporary themes such as misogyny. At its heart, Marlina is a feminist parable drawing on the fears and dangers women face around the world. In doing so it creates two fantastic heroes in its central character and her 10-month-pregnant side-kick Novi (Dea Panendra) vanquishing toxic masculinity from their lives. Stephen Porzio
Mosaic – HBO
While everyone lavishes praise on Black Mirror for its recent technological breakthrough, one should laud Steven Soderbergh (Logan Lucky, Magic Mike) fresh from retirement for pushing similar envelopes on Mosaic, his six-part HBO series which began life as an app. Centring on the murder of children’s author Olivia Lake (Sharon Stone) whereby the main suspects are her former con-man lover (Frederick Weller), and angry failed artist ex (Garrett Hedlund), the goal of the project was to create a type of interactive murder mystery in which the user is presented with a complex narrative and can choose who to focus on and how the information is divvied out.
HBO agreed to fund the project if Soderbergh could assemble his own edit to air on the network. Although, an unconventional way to develop a TV show, it actually works in the series’ favour. Because of the structure of the app, writer Ed Solomon (Men in Black, Now You See Me) wanted each character to feel like the lead. Thus, all the major players – the victim, the suspects, their relatives, the cop’s investigating – in the TV version of Mosaic feel three-dimensional and fully realised, causing the series to be the closest thing we’ve gotten to a sprawling Robert Altman-esque epic since the auteur’s death. What’s even more impressive is this is just the first of two Soderbergh works to make this list. Stephen Porzio
Psychokinesis, Dir Yeon Sang-ho
In a neat bit of counter programming, the week Avengers: Infinity War came out, Netflix dropped this little superhero gem from South Korean director Yeon Sang-ho (Train to Busan). The film’s premise is enough to recommend the movie. Seok-heon (Ryu Seung-ryong) is a middle-aged, divorced loser. One morning, drinking from a polluted water supply, he gains telekinetic powers. He uses his new gift to try help his estranged daughter, Roo-mi (Shim Eun-kyung) save her fried chicken restaurant from a corrupt business attempting to bulldoze the property.
A great antidote to superhero saturation, Psychokinesis eschews planet destroyers and big lights shooting into the sky for a sweet small scale story one can become invested in – a deadbeat dad who wants to do right by his child. The special effects are fun and the characters are all lovable whether it’s the truly pathetic Seok-heon, his strong daugher or the scene stealing villain played by Jung Yu-mi. In regards the latter, with her arch delivery and her big grins while making menacing threats, the actress walks away with the film. Stephen Porzio
The Terror – FX
Death has many faces and we will likely see more than one in our lifetimes. The Terror takes great pleasure in showing them all. Based on Dan Simmons’ doorstop novel about the real Franklin expedition which disappeared into the Arctic ice in 1845, The Terror examines death from every angle. Led by Captains Francis Crozier (Jared Harris) and James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies) the entire series is a lyrical nightmare trek across the blasted, alien landscape of the Arctic all while being hunted by an unshackled bear demon.
In the first episode an eager young sailor dies of TB and upon being assured he will see flights of heavenly angels he instead sees a vision of an Inuit shaman prophesising the expedition’s doom. From there death becomes a brutal, grief-stricken and often cathartic process. The world bends and shifts as a man’s soul is ripped from his body. The early death of an authority figure is probably the most visceral death scene ever filmed. The Terror finds moments of beauty in this all-consuming void. Rather than be party to cannibalism a man poisons himself and sees nature’s beauty flash before him in his dying moments. The Terror never compromises its singular vision and this is bolstered by an outstanding cast and the peace (or chaos) they find upon closing their eyes for the last time. Andrew Carroll
The Witch in the Window – Dir Andy Mitton
They say places hold onto memories a lot better than people do. Haunted houses are a dominating force in the horror genre because of this. Just as blood from a murder will stain the floorboards so too will the violent memory of the event stain the house as a whole. But the opposite is also true. This is what horror streaming service Shudder’s release The Witch in the Window gets across so elegantly. Simon (Alex Draper) and his young son Finn (Charlie Tacker) are fixing up a house in Vermont with the best of intentions only to find it haunted by the spirit of its former owner.
The Witch in the Window doesn’t deal with the why of supernatural forces but more how we deal with them. It has plenty of scares with the titular witch often hidden somewhere in the frame as the characters go about their daily. Writer, director and soundtrack composer Andy Mitton shifts from petrifying stillness to quick, nightmarish bursts of speed like a cat playing with a bird. Justin Kane’s cinematography is exquisitely exact and captures the action in tight close-ups while revelling in the sprawling emptiness of the rural setting. The Witch in the Window’s thesis is that love can be a ghost of its own but it’s one we shouldn’t shut out. Andrew Carroll
Unsane – Dir. Steven Soderbergh
As mentioned previously, Steven Soderbergh has come decidedly out of film-making retirement this time for another attack on the American health care system. In Unsane, Clare Foy’s Sawyer Valentini makes a routine half-hour appointment at a mental health clinic to discuss her only-too-real fears of being stalked only to be told afterwards that she’s been committed to an overnight stay. Things go from bad to worse as she discovers there’s little she can do to convince the staff that she shouldn’t be in there even longer.
Shot entirely on an iPhone with wide-angle lenses adding significantly to the sense of claustrophobia, Unsane takes on the classic gothic tropes of entrapment and hysteria and reworks them for the twenty-first century. If, like me, you have a fear of not being believed by those in charge and of having no way of contacting the outside world, you will scream. A lot. While there’s the occasional a whiff of white feminism about it, it’s hard not to cheer for Sawyer as she struggles to be believed in a system that’s heavily stacked against her. The film’s highlight is undoubtedly Sawyer’s devastating (and highly cathartic) verbal take-down of her relentless stalker. Sarah Cullen