The best movies of 2019 reflect the frustration of being on the fringe for most filmgoers, the conundrum of access and elitism that most people don’t much care about confronting when it takes $25 just to go out to the theater anymore. Here at Paste, we support independent theaters and cash-strapped filmmakers (many of the films listed below benefit incalculably from seeing them on a big screen with an audience), but we also understand that many of these movies aren’t going to make it to your local second-run establishment any time soon, if they ever did, or will. We get, too, that most modern festivals are markets for distribution companies and not fans, and so most likely what critics praised out of Cannes or TIFF weren’t available to you until long after thinkpieces and Twitter moved on. One’s ability to “catch up” is now very much an indication of class status.
In turn, our list of the 50 best movies of 2019 tends to be a confounding, even contradictory thing. Picks were culled and arranged based on the tastes of our staff, the order made with love, titles in conversation with one another, a very scientific points-based system used until it wasn’t, the only salient intent here to recommend 50 movies at least one of Paste’s writers loved this year.
So before we, heads down, slump into 2020, let’s pause to remember all the money Marvel paid us to give them good reviews and celebrate some of the most wonderful movies released in the U.S. in the past 12 months.
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Alita: Battle Angel begins with Dyson Ito (Christoph Waltz), doctor to cyborgs, scavenging through a junkyard full of spare parts in order to find anything he can use. What better way to start a film than with a metaphor about itself? Just like Dr. Ito, director Robert Rodriguez and co-writer/co-producer James Cameron sift through the remnants of established sci-fi and cyberpunk properties in order to glue together a recognizable and cohesive narrative within the confines of its genre. Considering the talent involved, it’s not surprising that the finished product is a frequently fun and kinetic, visually pleasing sci-fi/actioner, albeit one that doesn’t have a single new or fresh part embedded in it. Again considering the talent involved, that feels like a lost opportunity. Based on the popular manga, Gunnm, Alita: Battle Angel mostly takes its visual cues and narrative structure from a 1993 anime adaptation. That anime is barely an hour long, yet manages to pack in a sprawling cyberpunk universe with a deep and complex lore that supports whatever over-the-top tech fetish cyber action it throws at you. The story follows Alita (Rosa Salazar), whom Dr. Ito finds during his junk hunt and brings back to life. Her brain is human, but the rest of her is artificial. Just like a cyborg version of Jason Bourne, she doesn’t remember her past, but has supreme ass-kicking instincts, leading Ito to suspect some sinister military use in her past. The future world that Battle Angel inhabits is the lovechild of Blade Runner and Mad Max, a grimy post-apocalyptic city that’s also a grand, overpopulated cyberpunk metropolis. Apart from Alita gradually figuring out her ass-kicking skills, there’s another clear reason for giving the character amnesia: So she can be used as an exposition dump to settle the audience into the story’s world and the hodgepodge of various sub-plots that co-screenwriters James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis and Robert Rodriguez cram into a two-hour runtime. However, when the fighting finally begins, Battle Angel gets its metallic ass in gear. Rodriguez pushes the confines of the PG-13 rating to create some genre- and source-material-appropriate hack-and-slash gruesomeness with a significant amount of cyborg bodies split in half, decapitated and torn to pieces. For fans of the manga and anime, there isn’t much in the way of new material to be found here, though nor is it likely to grate on one’s fandom to the extent that the Ghost of the Shell live-action adaptation did. For fans of futuristic sci-fi/action, it should provide an engaging experience. —Oktay Ege Kozak
Director: Liza Mandelup
Social media influencer manager Michael Weist flippantly remarks to the camera, “Influencers come and go, the business stays the same.” He says it dispassionately—the same way he treats his clients. He understands that this is fundamentally work, a form of labor, a kind of risky, fleeting employment; the influencers he manages represent a fruitful, but ultimately short-lived, gold rush. The only person who knows that better than him is Jawline director Liza Mandelup, but she extends to these subjects—particularly to the primary one, live streamer and aspirational influencer Austyn Tester—empathy and kindness. Perhaps it’s because she can grasp so well that the social influencer economy is an extreme, fraught business that her kindness and fairness reveals itself through her filmmaking. If social media influencing is a new kind of American Dream, maybe even more illusory than whatever that idea represented before, she takes no joy in watching the struggle of someone like Tester, from lower socioeconomic means, try to reach for a transient status that considers him disposable. And though Tester might not himself understand his appeal to fans, Mandelup, again, does: He’s naive and young enough so that his positivity and his idea of authenticity are free of jaded calculation and conscious performance. He is, apparently, as he presents himself, and whatever is omitted from his streams or posts is an extension of that innate charm and ambition. Mandelup crafts a film of impressive insight into the way our identities, consciously conceived or otherwise, maintained online have become a lot of work, and how some people are willing to make that a vocation, no matter the cost. —Kyle Turner
Directors: Tamara Kotevska, Ljubo Stefanov
With great warmth and reverence, Honeyland mourns a fading way of life—a way through which we’re introduced to Hatidzhe, whose whole life resonates, on some primordial level, with beekeeping. She climbs steep heights and navigates narrow ledges of rural Macedonia until she brings us to a honeybee colony she’s discovered deep in the face of a mountainside. She takes a few combs, carefully wraps them for the slow journey home. She lives without electricity in a village all but abandoned were it not for her bedridden mother, whose head’s half-wrapped with a scarf to hide a wound or large sore, it’s not clear, whose only company when Hatidzhe walks to town to sell jars of honey are the flies she attracts. Hatidzhe tends to her bees—only taking “half” the honey, leaving the rest for the burgeoning colony—in the ruins of what might have once been a thriving town, and her mother sleeps, occasionally rising to eat honey, or a banana, just a little. This is how their days pass, until a big family of neighbors rolls up with a camper, some cattle and a desperate ambition to make something out of all that land.
Though she may be too gregarious and giving for her own good, Hatidzhe welcomes the company, even if the family’s patriarch, Hussein, can be an abusive blowhard. Even if he gets a touch too curious about Hatidzhe’s talent with bees, squeezing her for secrets. Even when he starts his own beekeeping operation, but has nothing of Hatidzhe’s respect or patience or preternatural connection to the insects. Even when his hives ruin hers. Devoid of voiceover or chyrons describing location or anyone’s name—told only through a language most English-speakers admittedly wouldn’t recognize and a bed of sound on which rests a beautifully remote, mountainous ecosystem—Hatidzhe’s story quietly unfolds. There’s not much she can do as Hussein co-opts her calling, especially when Hussein’s investor insists he drive his hives into the ground to reap “enough” honey. One can easily catch metaphors about mass-market industrialization, or conjure up less material parables about humans’ insatiable urge to annihilate everything in their paths. Honeyland resists the tendency to sprawl out. Instead, Hatidzhe must accept what’s happened and move on. We do the same. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Nadav Lapid
It takes Yoav (Tom Mercier) all of 10 minutes to arrive at his swanky Parisian Airbnb, strip for a shower and step out of the tub to find that he’s been robbed blind and naked, with only a workmanlike grasp on French to help him get by. As he lies freezing in the bathroom, he’s rescued by two good-enough Samaritans living in the same building, Emilie (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevilotte). They carry Yoav to their flat, wrap him up in fur blankets, and bring him back from the brink. “I have nothing anymore,” he tells them, staring up at the ceiling as if watching Heaven’s gates slowly receding from view. Materially, he’s right. In terms of identity, he’s wrong, and Nadav Lapid devotes the following 110 minutes of his film to proving as much. Selfhood is Lapid’s chief concern. It’s Yoav’s impetus for abandoning his country for another. He has valid justifications for his exodus; Israel, as he describes it, is an odious nation, one synonym among many in his arsenal for excoriating his birthplace. (“No country is all that at once,” Emilie gently tells him after entertaining Yoav’s fiery tirade. “Choose.”). But Yoav recklessly believes he can cash in his old nationality for a shiny new one to solve his worldly woes, change who he is, where he comes from, and better himself in so doing. Synonyms, in its hyperkinetic and eccentric fashion, argues that trading one’s national identity simply means trading one problem for others; every national identity, either within or without, has its own unique and inescapable baggage. Synonyms takes its title literally and very, very seriously, though mercifully the film isn’t an especially serious one. One moment, an Israeli man is being dragged through Paris’ streets by the bumper of a black SUV; the next, Yoav’s having a good, delirious time at a nightclub, the evening crescendoing as he and a strange woman tear into bread at either end of the loaf, gyrating and staring into each other’s eyes with feral desire. Whichever mode Synonyms operates in, Lapid presents the viewer with motifs and ideas with overlapping meaning, with eventually the overwhelming realization that virtually everything in all of human existence becomes synonymous with anything else, given the proper framing: Style with outsidership, modeling with pornography, isolation with autonomy, identity with violence, with grief, with spiritual desolation. That’s Synonyms’ great tragicomic epiphany: No matter how different they sound or seem, words and identities are all ultimately the same. —Andy Crump / Full Review
Director: Brett Story
The Hottest August has a novel structural hook: Director Brett Story spent every day of August 2017 interviewing people across New York City, getting to know them, observing them at their jobs, at their homes or during their downtime. And while she asked them lots of different questions, one common inquiry kept popping up: Do you worry about the future? What Story learns is that, for the most part, the answer is yes. Why people are worried—and how they’re learning to cope—is what powers this remarkable documentary.
With the help of wizard editor Nels Bangerter—who previously worked on Let the Fire Burn and Cameraperson, two documentaries absolutely dependent on editing to establish their rhythm and pacing—Story moves from subject to subject, only occasionally returning to an interviewee later in the film. We meet someone working in virtual reality. We meet someone who runs a facility where people can break stuff in order to relieve stress. We meet skateboarding teens. We meet a middle-aged married couple relaxing outside their home. We meet flood victims. We go to baseball games and bars and parties, and we hang out with folks who are checking out that month’s total solar eclipse. And if you remember a cataclysmic moment that happened in America that month, well, you’ll see that integrated into The Hottest August as well—integrated so offhandedly and elegantly that the moment shocks and stings all over again.
What precisely is Story driving at? The Hottest August’s beautiful mosaic invites a personal, intimate interpretation—the movie is about a dozen things if it’s about any one thing. There’s an apocalyptic tenor to the film, which touches on global warming and the seemingly systemic belief (especially among her younger subjects) that the future will be bleak—if there’s even a future at all. And yet, the movie finds such warmth in its depiction of these sometimes kooky individuals. Story doesn’t judge her interviewees, and the cacophony of different voices, if anything, speaks to what’s still so extraordinary about human beings, despite their endless limitations and idiocies. —Tim Grierson
Director: David Robert Mitchell
There are red herrings, unkempt structures and plot threads that go nowhere in David Robert Mitchell’s quasi-slacker noir Under the Silver Lake—its “shortcomings,” in terms of conventional taste, don’t really matter. Rather, like the best pulpy “mysteries,” Under the Silver Lake knows what actually matters most: thrusting its audience into the delirious eyes of the protagonist. In this case, that’s old-movie- and vintage-game-addled Sam (Andrew Garfield), who stumbles into a quest to both find the hot neighbor (Riley Keough) with whom he’s infatuated and unearth a conspiracy that lurks beneath the entirety of LA. Mitchell pulls us by the hand down a rabbit hole of Sam’s making.
Strangest about the followup to the director’s critical hit It Follows is that it walks the line between being profoundly stupid and extremely acute. It is content to follow the logic of someone very stoned (perhaps even further than something like Inherent Vice did), where paths in the maze end abruptly, tantalizingly teasing, but Mitchell also seems to know the weirdest parts of Hollywood and its spell-like legacy, making each step in Sam’s odyssey clear and (internally) logical. As we’re plunged deeper into the weed-laced mind of its ever-broke lead and his adolescent attitude towards women and cultural objects (and women as cultural objects), Under the Silver Lake reveals itself to be a film about the ways in which nostalgia perverts the present and rots perspective. —Kyle Turner
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Members of the “keep your politics outta my sportsball” crowd will probably hate High Flying Bird, Steven Soderbergh’s basketball drama, his latest experimentation with iPhone and his first collaboration with imminent playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney (of Moonlight fame and success). The film forces audiences to confront the implicit and innate racial biases woven throughout American sports culture, settling specifically in the NBA’s court. Granted, the apolitical type probably wouldn’t give High Flying Bird a second thought browsing their Netflix queues anyway, and that’s just fine. Soderbergh’s filmmaking and McCraney’s writing gel together with up tempo pacing and nearly lyrical dialogue exchanged between its tight cast of characters, chiefly Ray Burke (André Holland), a sports agent doing his best to serve his client, star prospect Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), while navigating a fictionalized lockout.
The lockout’s not that fictionalized (recall events that impacted the NBA through 2011, for instance), it’s just that Soderbergh and McCraney aren’t referencing anyone or anything in particular here, beyond systemic biases, both casual and fully intentional, woven into basketball’s DNA. The film makes a surgically precise study of how governance over the game, wrested from the hands of its players and bequeathed to their owners, leads to grim power dynamics recalling the days of slave trades and auction blocks. In regards to material, it’s merciless. In regards to craftsmanship, it’s unforgiving. But curious viewers will be rewarded with one of the year’s most economical bits of closed-circuit storytelling, anchored by Holland’s towering lead performance—so long as they can keep up. —Andy Crump
Director: Khalik Allah
When any advertising agency is commissioned to shoot a Jamaican tourism commercial, they’ll inevitably wend their way around to the same old hook: Bob Marley’s “One Love.” Come and visit Jamaica, the land of All Right! Everything’s all right, all the time here on the Jamrock! The ad people are just following the path most traveled (and perhaps even dictated by travel agencies and tourism boards), promoting Jamaica as a land of leisure and ease, where the sun shines, people smile, life is good, and no one wants for anything, especially spiritual assuaging. Advertising may sell audiences on a Jamaican ideal, but with his documentary, Black Mother, director Khalik Allah achieves a goal far greater: presenting audiences with the truth, however lovely or hideous it may be. Allah’s approach takes the form of a visual essay/tone poem. It’s a fractured piece of work, a story about Jamaica the way that Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a story of Alabama. Allah’s filmmaking functions as stream of consciousness. He eschews narrative documentarian traditions. This approach poses a challenge to the viewer—Black Mother is made in a language rarely spoken in cinema, be it multiplex or arthouse. Allah throws his audience into the ocean and forces them to tread water, soaking in the country’s textures and contradictions and trauma. Through his lens, Allah presents a nation decayed by oppression, whether political, social or even religious, and a people forced to do whatever they can to sustain themselves. That doesn’t mean Allah is committing poverty tourism. Instead, he’s a character in the film, made invisible by the tool of his trade. But he lets the people he meets tell their stories in their words, and anchors those words to truth through imagery. The effect of Black Mother’s technique—Allah shot on both 16mm and HD—is dizzying to the point of overwhelming, but the discipline required to engage with it is rewarded by a singular moviegoing experience. —Andy Crump / Full Review
Directors: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Kathleen Hepburn
Nothing pays off in The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open. Every narrative detail, demanding resolution, goes mostly unnoticed: When Rosie (Violet Nelson) takes money from Áila’s (co-director Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) purse, for example, we expect that the ensuing time they spend together, the 90 minutes or so, will teach Rosie a lesson, will encourage her to return the bills. That doesn’t happen. Instead, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open tells of a chance meeting between two First Nations women, divided by socioeconomic stability but united in having both just experienced violations—Rosie’s is the latest in a string of domestic abuse incidents, while Áila’s had an IUD inserted amidst a cold, impersonal procedure, shot by cinematographer Norm Li on 16mm with a commitment to capturing Áila’s every near-traumatized grimace and wince. Li follows Áila from the office, into the street, where she spots Rosie barefoot in the rain, maybe in shock, and from there the two escape Rosie’s infuriated boyfriend to Áila’s dry, airy loft apartment. Li is always just behind, the rest of the film edited together into one, continuous shot as Áila tries to figure out what to do to help Rosie, and Rosie tries to figure out how to keep from being victimized by virtue signalling outsiders. That Áila is also a FIrst Nations woman hardly matters to Rosie; she barely even looks the part. Of course, when they do part, Rosie swallows whatever guilt she may have developed over stealing from Áila, and the caretakers at the safe house remind Áila when Rosie doesn’t want to stay that it sometimes takes people seven or eight times to relent and leave their abusive situation. We wait for resolution, for a sign that things will get better. When they don’t, we look for other signs, and we wait, left only with patience—to watch, and to never stop watching, and to sit with the weight of that, to afford the cost of empathy. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Zhang Yimou
Zhang Yimou’s latest is Shadow, a wuxia film based on the Chinese “Three Kingdoms” legend. Where Yimou’s recent filmography either favors substance over dazzle (Coming Home) or dazzle over substance (The Great Wall), Shadow does what the best of his movies do by sewing them together into one seamless package. As in Hero, as in House of Flying Daggers, the anti-gravity fight scenes are stunning to behold, but those movies put performance and action on the same plane, and Shadow deliberately separates them with a gorgeous monochrome palette, backgrounded by gray scale that lets the actors, and the copious amount of blood they spill throughout, hold its forefront. Here, in this tale of palace intrigue, Commander Yu (Deng Chao) employs a double to act in his stead (also Deng Chao)—his shadow, if you will—to seize control of a city of strategic value from invading forces against orders from his king (Zheng Kai). The film twists and turns, but through Zhang’s devoted stylization, the exegesis and intricacies never overwhelm, only ground the increasingly graphic, masterful action to come, some of the most beautifully astounding the director’s crafted yet. —Andy Crump
Director: Jennifer Kent
Calling The Nightingale a revenge film sets an expectation of triumph, found in the satisfaction of grim justice done on the unjust. Let it be known that there’s no such catharsis in Jennifer Kent’s followup to her 2014 debut The Babadook. Revenge, while indeed a dish best served cold, tends to be prepared in one of two ways in cinema: with fist-pumping vigor or soul-corroding sobriety. The Nightingale sticks with the recipe for the latter. This is neither a pleasant movie nor a pleasing movie, but it is made with high aesthetic value to offset its unrelenting pitilessness: It’s fastidiously constructed, as one should expect from a director of Kent’s talent, and ferociously acted by her leading trio of Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr and Sam Claflin, respectively playing Clare, an Irish convict driven by rage; Billy, an Aboriginal tracker driven by vengeance; and Hawkins, a British military officer driven by cold ambition and bottomless malice, who’s also Clare’s master and rapist. They’re three peas in a horrible pod, being 1820s Tasmania during the Black War, when English colonists slaughtered Aboriginal Tasmanians to the latter’s near extinction. It’s an altogether dark time in the country’s long history. Thus, The Nightingale is an appropriately dark film—but Kent is too shrewd a filmmaker to argue that Clare’s suffering trumps Billy’s, or to make any equivalency between them. She understands what must happen to fulfill Clare’s part in the story, and what must happen to fulfill Billy’s part. That she’s able to so seamlessly achieve both is an incredible accomplishment. The Nightingale is a far cry from The Babadook on obvious grounds of genre and style, though there are horrors here aplenty: Nightmare beats where Clare dances with Aidan, then with Hawkins and her other attackers. But the film expands on Kent’s interest in women’s stories by telling Billy’s tale alongside Clare’s, and shows once more her gift for making well-tread genre elements feel unique. If The Nightingale denies the traditional satisfactions of revenge cinema, it discovers new ones as well. —Andy Crump / Full Review
Director: Roberto Minervini
Roberto Minervini’s hybridized films skirt the fringes of documentary and drama as oneirically as they float on the sidelines of civilization. An Italian filmmaker who concentrates almost wholly on the American South, Minervini is a preternatural outsider, observing the daily goings on of a nonprofessional cast, often populated by those who would otherwise never find the chance to have their stories, however ostensibly ordinary, told. His films, like those of Frederick Wiseman or more recently celebrated impressionistic documenters, Khalik Allah and RaMell Ross, gracefully examines whatever “ordinary” is supposed to mean. He’s an outsider revealing the lives of outsiders, bound to his subjects by their shared liminality more than most Americans would ever be. So it makes sense that he never feels obliged to stick to straight objectivity, but never has much of a desire to fictionalize the events of those he follows either. He nudges his subjects into a cinematic frame without contrivance. The starkly political messages of his films flow consequently from the intimacy of the images he captures, grasping the deeply personal and overtly public as one in the same.
In his 2015 film, The Other Side, Minervini explored the margins of the deep South—meth addicts, militia members and racism abound, as do Hillary Clinton supporters, which in retrospect feels near-whimsical—at the end of the Obama presidency, finding, without judgment, horror and violence paired irrevocably with tenderness and peace. His latest feature, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, predictably sticks to the same region, this time to New Orleans, though with less noticeable framing devices and even less context. Minervini expects viewers to understand the cause and effect coursing through the three African-American stories he weaves together, to have a notion of why 50-year-old Judy Hill is losing her bar, her life’s dream, to a tide of gentrification; why brothers King (14) and Titus (9) navigate a world of subcutaneous fear; why Krystal Muhammed is so unrelenting in her activities chairing the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense, why they’re so righteously angry. Minervini isn’t compelled to lay bare the lifetime of sexual and drug abuse that haunts Judy and so many of her peers, or carve out a procedural around the police’s killing of Alton Brown, or dissect the gang violence that has King and Titus’s mom begging them to be home before the streetlights come on. Instead, inside of cinematographer Diego Romero Suarez-Llanos’s handsome, stentorian black-and-white, Minervini refuses to dredge drama from these lives, preferring notions of the everyday that represent more empathetic truths: how the film begins with King gently soothing the frightened Titus as they move through a fun house, or how Judy’s seemingly ancient, ailing mother bears no memory of her daughter’s trauma in passive conversation, or how the Mardi Gras Indians, in a city forever recovering from Hurricane Katrina, still practice, still put on a show, still summon the strength to give their community a celebration. This is the “ordinary” for Minervini’s subjects; its power, Minervini knows, needs no background. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Gaspar Noé
Gaspar Noé has been so openly confrontational and provocative for so long that it’s easy to forget just how powerful a filmmaker he can be. He is deliberately repulsive, sometimes to the detriment of his own films; I don’t care how structurally inventive Irreversible is, I am never, ever sitting through that goddamned movie again. But there is an undeniable hypnotic fervor to his movies, from the sordid (but also sort of lovely) kink of Love to the elliptical madness of Enter the Void. The immediate thrill of Climax, Noé’s newest and unquestionably best film, is how, for the first time, you see him letting go a little bit, releasing some of his notorious control, letting his characters breathe a little bit—to be themselves. It opens with home-camera footage—the film takes place in 1996of a series of dancers, readying for a troupe tour of the United States, answering questions about their hopes and dreams, their desires, their fears, their basic motivations. It’s a slick, kind of cheap, but still incredibly effective way for Noé to give us just enough information about these dancers that we feel for them when they go through whatever Noé is about to put them through. (And you know he’s going to put them through something.) But it’s what comes next that’s most exciting: during rehearsal, a glorious dance routine featuring the entire crew, both meticulously choreographed and thrillingly improvised, expressing themselves the best way they know how. Noé’s camera swirls around in one long take, and the effect is breathtaking: It is as alive and electric as anything Noé’s ever done. Now you’re really invested in this crew…which, as Noé’s counting on, was your first mistake. It turns out, someone has spiked the sangria for the post-rehearsal part with LSD, and, apparently, a lot of it. Even if he puts all these people through the ringer—and oh, does he!—there is inspiration here: For the first time, it feels like the pain he’s putting everybody through is something he feels, too. It’s turned him into less of a Lars Von Trier geek show. Not to say that the ending doesn’t pack a wallop regardless. Noé, for all his newfound pseudo-humanism, isn’t going to send you home wanting for misery. But there is…well, not hope, exactly, but call it catharsis. He’s as uncompromising, and as resolutely himself, as ever. It’s just that there might be a little more shading and warmth inside Noé than maybe even he himself realized. Don’t misinterpret, though: This is Gaspar Noé Warmth, not normal human being warmth. Rest assured, his world remains no place for children. —Will Leitch / Full Review
Director: Aaron Schimberg
Throughout Chained for Life, director Aaron Schimberg forces his characters into a tete-a-tete between sympathy and empathy, between acting as object and as subject. In fact, Ingenue Mabel (Jess Weixler) might think that sympathy and empathy are effectively the same thing. They come from the same place. When speaking to a journalist on the set of the schlocky horror movie she’s starring in, she avoids broaching controversial subjects. On casting, particularly the casting of differently-abled people for said movie, she demurs, saying that it’s up to the director, but in her avoidance of discussing the social and political implications, ends up defending Orson Welles doing blackface for his adaptation of Othello. Rookie mistake? When the people playing the “creepy” hospital residents in the film arrive, everyone (other actors, the craft person, the cinematographer, etc.) treats them nicely in such an overly practiced way they can barely keep the contempt from seeping through their teeth. Most of these performers new to the set don’t seem to care, but Adam (Adam Pearson, seen in Under the Skin) smells the crew’s shit. He’s right to: Mabel literally practices in the bathroom how to conduct herself. So nice, so perky, so happy to give Adam, who has neurofibromatosis, acting tips on his first day and corny platitudes like “you’re too hard on yourself.” They play an acting game, with Mabel performing emotions: happiness, sadness. Adam then offers “empathy.” Mabel is caught off-guard. She makes a face. “I think that’s pity,” he says, unsurprised. Sympathy is hierarchical, and empathy is supposed to ask people to identify with others for the sake of justice—as if it’s a replacement for justice—but empathy is peanuts in the face of systematic discrimination and oppression. Schimberg wrestles with this idea, navigating a cultural landscape saturated with (necessary) conversations about representation in media, but what he posits is unlikely to make your garden variety self-identified woke person feel better. Representation is a double-edged sword, particularly when the site of representation (movie, TV show, book) is created or directed by someone not of the group being represented. Pearson, whose performance swings easily between actor acting and his own character traversing the landscape, bounces back and forth, object and subject, whether being condescended to by Max, struggling with the director regarding blocking or talking of his dreams with his friends. He commands scenes with no time for our pity. Chained for Life has no time for it. The film just wants to see its characters live. —Kyle Turner / Full Review
Director: Jesse V. Johnson
The second of three films directed by Jesse V. Johnson released in 2019, Avengement is as crystalline, as empirically precise, as micro-budget VOD martial arts action can aspire. With that kind of prolificacy, a journeyman director’s bound to do something right—which would be a valid assessment, were everything Johnson’s done not so undeniably solid. Thanks goes, of course, to Johnson’s muse, Vicious Beefcake Scott Adkins, a flawlessly sculpted humanoid so squarely planted in Johnson’s sweet spot—melodramatic, archly brutal action cinema with enough wit and heart to leave a bruise—a Johnson film without him as the protagonist doesn’t quite feel fully realized. Look only to Triple Threat, Avengement’s 2019 predecessor, to yearn for what could have been, mollified by a scene in which Adkins body slams a sedan going at least 40 mph. Triple Threat boasts three writers and a cavalcade of international action cinema stars, from Iko Uwais and Tony Jaa, to Tiger Chen and Michael Jai White (still in decent shape, but so outclassed by Adkins and his peers’ athleticism he seems pretty much immobile), while in Avengement Johnson works from his own script, winnowing the plot to a series of increasingly higher stakes brawls as wronged nobody Cain (Adkins) makes his bloody way through the criminal organization (led by his brother, no less) that left him to rot in prison. As is the case with Savage Dog and The Debt Collector (both on Netflix), Avengement thrives on the preternatural chemistry between director and star, the camera remarkably calm as it captures every amazing inch of Adkins in motion, beating the living shit out of each chump he encounters, Adkins just as aware of how best to stand and pose and flex to showcase his body. Charming character actors cheer from the sidelines; the plot functions so fundamentally we hardly realize we care about these characters until we’ve reached a satisfying end at their sides. Perhaps Scott Adkins is a better dramatist than we’ve come to expect from our kinetic stars anymore. Perhaps we’ve set our expectations too low. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Yann Gonzalez
Yann Gonzalez’s gleeful genre mashup Knife Heart is a queer provocation, a delirious journey through celluloid mirrors, daring to assert that pornography is as ripe for personal catharsis as any other art form. In the wake of a breakup with her editor Loïs (Kate Moran) and the murder of one of her actors, gay porn producer Anne (Vanessa Paradis) sets to make her masterpiece, one saturated with her rage and heartbreak. She sends a clear message to her lover etched into a reel of dailies, one of her performers’ head back in ecstasy as if in Warhol’s Blow Job: “You have killed me.” As her cast and crew are killed off one by one, Anne pushes on, driven to put herself in her work, literally and figuratively, the spectre of doom for her shared community growing ever closer. Gonzalez’s film pulsates with erotic verve and a beating broken heart, as if giving yourself up to cinema is the only thing that can keep you alive. When the lights go down and the wind screams through the room, it’s as if Knife Heart, and by extension all film, is the last queer heaven left. —Kyle Turner
Director: Sam Mendes
One suspects that Sam Mendes’ latest film might have made a bigger splash at the box office with slightly different timing. Like most cinematic sub-genres that have experienced robust popularity and saturation during a decade or two, the war movie benefits from “lying fallow.” (Someday, the same will be true for superhero films, as well.) With Dunkirk, another artfully shot and presented war film—albeit a different World War—still “fresh” in movie-goers’ minds, and another type of Wars movies dominating discussion, it seems unlikely many from those most sought-after demographics are going to say, “Hey, you know what I want to see? A film set during World War I!” No matter that both its director and cinematographer have Oscar statuettes, or that the latter is the Roger Deakins (no slight to Mendes—but just check out Deakins’ resumé). Nonetheless, 1917 is one of the most technically challenging and visually satisfying movies of the year. The “continuous shot” approach, so often a gimmick in lesser films, is executed here with such deftness that it’s fascinating to observe in and of itself—it’s like watching a juggler or tightrope walker pull off a routine …for two straight hours. In this case, the approach meshes perfectly with the setting and story, pulling the viewer into the tension of trench warfare and the overall horror of a prolonged stay in a place where the enemy is always trying to kill you, while also achieving a certain character-centric intensity that may feel familiar to anyone who has logged many hours in videogames. (It may sound strange to praise a film in those terms, but “viewer immersion” is one quality to which all great art—from brows low to high—aspires.) As a result, if you give 1917 an inch of attention, it will drag you along for miles. —Michael Burgin
Director: Jia Zhangke
Ash Is Purest White’s story spans decades, a staggeringly beautiful epic, as comedic as it is heartbreaking, that stills feels impossibly intimate—confined, even, and not by space or imagery, but by emotion. China, over the decades through which the film sweeps, tumbles amidst modernization with little care for those who can’t afford to change with the times. Then there is love, passion and crime: At its heart, Ash Is Purest White is a romance between two criminals, Qiao (Tao Zhao) and Bin (Fan Liao). They are serious people with serious demeanors, their day-to-day lives oscillating between the nothingness of a routine lifestyle and violence. Yet, the violence is rarely ever seen—though when it is, Zhangke Jia directs it with a sense of relentless desperation and urgency—and most of the violence of the emotional sort. Yet, there is also a grand sense of human comedy that hangs over the film’s proceedings, as the stories of Jia’s core characters reflect China at large: Everything is changing, nothing is sacred, the past pales in comparison to the rapidly approaching future. Reality can be fought, but time is inescapable—always encroaching and always passing us by. —Cole Henry
Director: Hu Bo
Filmmaker Hu Bo’s suicide shortly after completing this epic drama added extra layers of melancholy and bleakness to a movie that hardly needed them. Judged on its own considerable merits, An Elephant Sitting Still is a despairing look at modern China, as four disparate individuals navigate a dreary industrial town while coping with their individual woes. (A teenager has severely injured a bully by accident. A classmate is involved in a relationship with one of her teachers. An adult male reels from the consequences of having an affair with his best friend’s wife. A senior citizen isn’t ready to be put in a home.) Sporting long takes in which the camera moves down the street or through apartment complexes, the film immerses us in these character’s dire circumstances—making showoff-y efforts like 1917 look downright shallow by comparison—and, over the course of an eventful day, leaves us pondering how much lives can change over the course of a few hours. We’ll never know what else Hu, who was 29 when he took his life, could have achieved as an artist. (He also wrote several novels.) An Elephant Sitting Still is haunted by that question, as well as the many others his film lays out for audiences. —Tim Grierson
Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
A foundational knowledge of modern Turkey does not preclude an investment in the meandering, occasionally magical The Wild Pear Tree—in fact, a lack of context may lighten the film’s sometimes leaden pace. When we meet college grad Sinan (Aydin Dogu Demirkol), he’s returned home with little money, with the manuscript for his first book and with even less of a plan for the rest of his life, except to put off his obligatory military service for as long as he can to see his first serious work as a writer published. Stubborn and resentful of his hometown, Sinan still believes in his slim collection of words (which bears the same title as Ceylan’s film) even if it operates as a sort of metaphysical memoir of his time growing up and, according to a local politician, bears no fruit, no practical use as a tourism aid or piece of political propaganda to justify government subsidies. He could self-publish, but what kind of writer has to stoop to such indignity? Like Albert Camus’ protagonist in The Stranger—the author’s picture hanging in Sinan’s childhood bedroom—our protagonist holds an unreasonable annoyance for the exigencies of post-collegiate Turkish life, a malcontent attitude toward the world around him that manifests in philosophical arguments always seeming on the precipice of violence. Then there’s Sinan’s father, Idris (Murat Cemcir), a former teacher and disgraced gambling addict who insists on revitalizing his family’s farm by digging a well that everyone but Idris believes to be a ridiculously futile project. Sinan resents his father most of all, and in that well sees his father’s respect and education and ambition wasted, sunk beneath the man’s inability to overcome his lot in life. And yet, as Sinan wanders around town, having drinks with Imams and authors and old friends, debating everything from religion, to politics, to romance, his conversations push him inexorably back to that farm, his family’s shame, to that waterless well and his father’s unending series of failures. Poignant and quietly transportive, The Wild Pear Tree imagines a world in which everyone must come to bittersweet terms with the life they lead not living up to the life they wanted. Were you not told otherwise, you could mistake it for your own. —Dom Sinacola
Directors: Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt
Everyone in the world loves football—or, as we Americans lamentably call it, soccer—and everyone in the world loves Portuguese player Diamantino Matamouros (Carloto Cotta), an athlete of such status, notoriety and power that he might as well be a modern deity. Diamantino, or, as his friends call him, “Tino,” is such a virtuoso on the field that everyone, a few in particular, wants to know what makes him such a genius player. (It’s imaginary giant fluffy puppies. No, I’m not joking.) With his athletic skill and international ubiquity, he is, shall we say, a vision of modern Portugal. Or he could be. Events in which people implicitly or explicitly present themselves as a kind of synecdoche for a nation is political, and Diamantino is a comedy about when someone is that body of politics and doesn’t really understand it. There is no secret to Diamantino’s performance; he’s a beautiful, brainless jock, whose heart would be on his sleeve if he had a shirt on long enough to justify the metaphor. Also, if he could find said sleeve. But just because he’s kind of a moron doesn’t mean he’s not lovable. Rather, Cotta gives Diamantino a sweet honesty, a preciousness which is carefully etched on his occasionally vacant, bemused expressions. The cult of celebrity he experiences both firsthand (he gets meme’d, hilariously) and by proxy (he has pillows and bedsheets with his face and body) is beyond his control, which is why he’s the perfect specimen to use for an explicitly political agenda by Portuguese nationalists who want to leave the EU. The sweetness of the film finds an amusing complement in its strange eroticism, itself part of the queerness of its genre mixing. It’s part study of masculinity as politic, part examination of the politics of sporting events, part espionage thriller, part sci-fi, part family comedy. The film has a slyly satirical edge, not merely for the way that Diamantino is repurposed for a nationalist cause, but for its subtle sympathy and skepticism of the role that celebrities play in public political discourse. It’s not hard to imagine a future in which a brainless famous person is manipulated into becoming the poster child for a nationalist movement; after all, there are enough famous people who do that of their own volition. —Kyle Turner / Full Review
Director: Rick Alverson
As his boss, Dr. Wallace Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum), flirts with a group of hospital staff, our young, torpid protagonist Andy (Tye Sheridan) fixates on a corner of the hospital hallway so ordinary it may be invisible, so dusty it may not even exist. No one usually notices seams like this—the literal borders where pieces come together, where we’re given spaces to live within. He stares at the corner; so do we, noting the molding and dust particles gone matte-green and bored symmetry. Until our attention’s suddenly broken by Andy taking a picture. He’s driven here with Wally (as the “ladies call” him, a guy Andy’s only recently met who “knew” Andy’s “mother”) to help convince these doctors and nurses populating these hospitals and asylums and assorted holding facilities, all hidden within the morass of forests and mountain country spreading from Washington down into California’s Mt. Shasta area, of a controversial new mental health procedure Wally’s pitching. Traveling lobotomist, Wally enlists Andy to document his exploits. And for a man like Andy, who spends large portions of his day staring—at walls and floors and middle distances and nothing—observing and documenting seem like constructive uses of time. Scrunching their world within a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, director Rick Alverson and cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman seem obsessed with frames—with how hallways and doorways and stairwells and roadways and limited fields of vision define the bodies of our characters, confine them to estimable empty space. Andy and Wally—two tall, lithe men—say very little, as is the case with most people they encounter on their sojourn throughout the Pacific Northwest, spreading the gospel of Wally’s methods. What little we learn of those methods we learn alongside Andy, who comes to realize that the same methods were used on his mother, a former patient of Wally’s. They involve electro-shock therapy, then an ice-pick-like tool inserted into the patient’s frontal lobe through the eye socket. We stare as someone maybe dies on the operating table. “Bring in the next one,” Wally demands, blood splotched across his own eye socket.
Throughout, Tye Sheridan embodies Andy as a physical manifestation totally uncomfortable with what that means. Tilted and inward, Andy stipples through every set as if he can’t get the performance of being human quite right, and his many dreams of sex in flux confuse that alien feeling even further. He wonders where his mother’s mind went because that’s where he’s supposed to be—not exactly dead, but not exactly regulated by all these hallways and doorways and roadways and other kinds of frames and borders and structures that keep us down. By contrast, Jeff Goldblum wields his large body like the force for good it could be, knowing he holds sway with those in his orbit, but equally aware of how exaggeratedly he also holds the weight of what kind of travesties his character’s committing. Both actors—one near the end of his career and one only beginning—occupy the screen magnificently, effortlessly, as if they’re conjuring strange iconography from a collective traumatic past. It’s heartbreaking stuff. —Dom Sinacola / Full Review
Director: Todd Haynes
In Dark Waters, we follow corporate defense lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), whose primary job is, for all intents and purposes, to find legal loopholes and excuses to protect large chemical companies, such as potential client DuPont. With a city job in Ohio, he has a nice home and burgeoning family. But a farmer (Bill Camp) in Parkersburg, West Virginia whose stock has been mysteriously dying comes knocking to ask Robert to turn away from the big corporate institution that provides him such personal security (two cars, private school tuition for the kids) so that he can return to the part of his past he usually sweeps beneath the rug. Through the tedium of paperwork and a case that lasts over a decade, Bilott pieces together a scandal about unregulated forever chemicals and Teflon and the illusion of safety—the American Dream—that’s been sold to us since the 1960s. For Haynes, the systems and institutions at play present themselves in multiple scales: as small as the pan in your dishwasher and as gigantic as an international company. It recalls Haynes’ relationship to the legacy of AIDS, which informs nearly all of his films in some way, notably [Safe] and Poison. Here Dark Waters conjures the ghosts of corrupt pharmaceutical companies in the late ’80s and ’90s, reminds of their fraught relationship with patient testing and the safety of such drugs as AZT. The trauma of the AIDS crisis, and the people with the power to stop who didn’t, haunts the film. Those same companies with beloved slogans (“Better Living Through Chemistry”) embed themselves deeply into public consciousness, into communities, parasitically, tricking them into believing their success and sustainability is predicated on the success and sustainability of the company. If Haynes’ career-long project is to situate the United States as a kind of “house,” one with rules and systems, one that keeps a watchful eye on its inhabitants, one that operates like an institution filled with other powerful institutions, then that house has the stench of secrets. Not just of how willfully chemical companies put people at risk, particularly those of Parkersburg, WV—the stench is the American Dream itself. —Kyle Turner / Full Review
Director: Noah Baumbach
The way that Adam Driver ends “Being Alive,” which his character in Marriage Story has just sung in full (including dialogue asides from Company’s lead’s friends), is like watching him drain what’s left of his spirit out onto the floor, in front of his small audience (which includes us). The performance starts off kind of goofy, the uninvited theater kid taking the reins to sing one of Broadway’s greatest showstoppers, but then, in another aside, he says, “Want something… want something…” He begins to get it. He begins to understand the weight of life, the dissatisfaction of squandered intimacy and what it might mean to finally become an adult: to embrace all those contradictions, all that alienation and loneliness. He takes a deep exhalation after the final notes, after the final belt; he finally realizes he’s got to grow up, take down his old life, make something new. It’s a lot like living on the Internet these days; the impossibility of crafting an “authentic self,” negligible the term may be, is compounded by a cultural landscape that refuses to admit that “authenticity” is as inauthentic a performance as anything else. Working through identities is painful and ugly. Arguably, we’re all working through how to be ourselves in relation to those around us. And that’s what Bobby, the 35-year-old at the center of Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company, is doing.
The current cultural landscape doesn’t know what to do with sincerity, especially as it relates to ideas of authenticity. In a late capitalist, postmodern world, everyone has a little bit of a jaundiced eye. If our entertainment is a little more cynical, it’s only because we became that way first. In a letter to director and producer Hal Prince, composer Richard Rodgers said, “I think Company is to cynicism what The Sound of Music is to sentimentality.” Sondheim’s music is for the cynic trying to be positive, the jaded person trying to confront what being authentic might mean in a material way. His characters are alienated and lonely; many of us are that way, too, pulled in as many ways as social media and the content machine want us to be pulled. “Being Alive,” when Adam Driver sings it in Marriage Story, forces the viewer to make connections about their humanity, the art they’re experiencing, and the ever deadening world in which it all exists. Charlie grabs the microphone, drained, realizing that he has to figure out what he has to do next, to re-put his life together again. All of us, we’re putting it together too. Or trying, at least. That counts for something. —Kyle Turner / Full Article
Director: Christian Petzold
In Christian Petzold’s Transit, based on Anna Segher’s WWII-based novel of the same name, the writer-director strips all context from his story, but not by pulling it out of time. Instead, Petzold’s limned his adaptation in modern technologies and settings—contemporary cars line the streets of today’s Marseille; flat screens hang unimpressively in bars; military police dress in black riot gear, not a swastika in sight—though no one uses a cell phone or a computer, doomed to repeat themselves in bureaucratic offices and waiting in endless lines, all while the enemy, an occupational force, quickly sweeps across France. Odd and surprisingly high-concept, though never pleased with itself, Transit removes context by confusing it, treating its characters as if they’re in a kind of existential wartime limbo, forever fated to keep looking: for escape, for a lost loved one, for some food to eat or a bed to lie in, for a reason to keep enduring. Transit could’ve been a sci-fi drama were its characters ever shown an alternate reality. One character, Georg (Franz Rogowski) is a German refugee scratching his way through his adopted country, tasked with delivering letters and documents to a writer named Weidel, but, upon arriving, discovers the writer’s committed suicide (leaving an awful mess for the hotel staff). Hearing that the German forces are quickly consuming France, Georg travels to Marseille, where he hopes to make accommodations to leave before the Axis powers arrive, taking with him the identity of Weidel and an omnipresent narrator (Matthias Brandt) who speaks of Dawn of the Dead and Georg’s every emotion even though the narrator never hides that he’s the bartender of the bar Georg silently frequents, piecing together this long forlorn story Georg’s woven for him. Georg isn’t aloof or indifferent or even remotely manipulative, just adrift, and not long after he sets up camp in Marseille, he realizes the beautiful and strange woman who floats through the streets and consulates tapping men on the shoulder is Marie (Paula Beer), Weidel’s widow, looking for her husband. Only Georg knows he’s dead; Georg falls in love with Marie. Though touch screen technology obviously exists in its world, characters do not use phones, can’t Google anything or dig up maps or get immediate confirmation that a loved one has died. Instead, they walk, and they carry letters to one another, and find happiness in individual, brief moments—because maybe they know of nothing better out there, or maybe because that is what defines them. Defines us. Transit is a powerful film, equally celebrating, mourning and fascinated by the ability of people to keep going. At one point, Georg describes to a Mexican official a short story about a waiting room in which denizens take turns entering hell, only to discover that the waiting room is hell. Knowing this, we still sit there. It takes a magnificent spirit to keep waiting. —Dom Sinacola / Full Review
Director: Lorene Scafaria
If you only saw the trailer from Hustlers, the flashy cash throwing, fake meltdowns outside of a hospital and, of course, the incredible athletics of Jennifer Lopez on the pole might lead you to assume that writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s film is a female version of The Hangover. Instead, Scafaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the Universe) has crafted a story of survival and friendship that more accurately compares to classics like The Apartment. At the center of the story resides Destiny (Constance Wu). Destiny’s elderly grandma accumulated a lot of debt, her parents disappeared from her life when she was a child, and all that stands between the little family she has left and homelessness is her ability to work as a stripper. For her, being an exotic dancer pays better than anything she could get with her GED-level education. It’s legal, and it allows her to help her grandma from pawning all of her jewelry. Enter Ramona (Jennifer Lopez). If Ramona showed up at the World Pole Dance Competition, all of the other competitors would go home. She’s confident in a way that makes everyone fall in love with her. Accordingly, Lopez and Wu are dynamic together. Their back and forth works when they’re fighting, when they’re figuring out how to best cook up their drug cocktail, and when they’re sitting around the Christmas table. The gaggle of women who join their crew feed into that energy, culminating in a wonderful ensemble. Rich in character portrayal and energy, the crew is wonderful to watch—even as they systematically destroy lives. An enviably stacked cast and gorgeous cinematography by Todd Banhazl (Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer) come together to present a heartbreaking story of the distance some will travel to get their piece of the American dream. —Joelle Monique / Full Review
Director: Bi Gan
The film that’s broken box office records in China asks that you wait to put on your 3D glasses until you see its title card, which emerges 74-or-so minutes into the film, after our wandering noir-oneiric narrative leads Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) to a theater where he falls asleep. His 3D glasses perched on the end of his nose, we’re pulled into his dream, a mild-mannered noir (of sorts) of its own, part psycho-sexual sinking into complete delusion and part alternative history, all represented by a 59-minute (or so) single take. It’s anecdote enough to justify broken record talk, but it hardly does any justice to just how enchanting director Bi Gan’s film can be, even before we stumble into the virtuosic stuff, as Luo’s drawn back to his old neighborhood by the death of his father, though mostly preoccupied with finding his long-ago lover. Her name is Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei), and she was probably involved in a criminal organization that probably had something to do with the murder of Luo’s childhood friend Wildcat. Probably—as Luo draws closer to tracking down the woman he remembers with so many charged emotions, his memories return in hyper-stylized fragments, like premonitions for both good and ill, and the prospect of actually finding her becomes more and more laced with dread. But then, we plunge into his head even further, feeling—through unbroken immersion and unpretentious iconism—the many complex ways he’s forever drawn to more than this woman, but to the life that’s died behind him. Bi’s second film after the similarly ravishing Kaili Blues, Long Day’s Journey into Night astounds as powerfully as it refuses to rest on gimmick alone. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Rian Johnson
Knives Out is the type of movie that’s not so much a dying breed as one that just occurs uncommonly “in the wild.” Hollywood seems to release a new take on the classic (i.e., Agatha Christie-imprinted) murder mystery “who dunnit”—where an eccentrically mannered detective attempts to figure out who amongst a roomful of suspects has committed murder most foul—every five-to-10 years. For most viewers, the pleasures of such movies go beyond trying to figure out the killer before the detective does—there’s also typically a star-studded cast chewing up the scenery. Beyond dependable Christie fare like Death on the Nile (1978) and Murder on the Orient Express (2017), there’s Clue (1985), Gosford Park (2001) and now Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. Johnson’s latest starts out in classic who-dunnit fashion—acclaimed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead by apparent suicide the night after gathering his family together and delivering a series of unpopular messages. Enter the local police (led by Lakeith Stansfield’s Det. Lt. Elliott) and eccentrically mannered (there we go!) private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). Suspects are interrogated. Secrets are revealed. Then, right as the viewer is gearing up to lay some Sherlock Holmes/Hercule Poirot/Encyclopedia Brown-level discernment on all this, Johnson reveals what happened to the elder Thrombey. This flips the entire experience for the viewer, as they go from trying to figure out what happened to wondering if the truth will be discovered. Much as he did with Dashiell Hammett-style noir in his debut, Brick, Johnson shows both a reverence for and a willingness to tinker with the tropes and formula underpinning his story. It’s all delightful to watch. If, ultimately, Knives Out accomplishes what it sets out to do—which might sound like faint or even damning praise with another film or in another genre—here it’s meant as the sincerest of plaudits. —Michael Burgin / Full Review
Director: Terrence Malick
You can see where this is going. It’s not prognostication, or a hunch. Director Terrence Malick, with his 10th film, draws fine lines from the quotidian—in this case that of peasant farmer Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) and his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) and their family and their small, intimate rural community in 1930s Austria—to the extraordinary tragedy that waits at the end of the film. We understand the inevitable, can sense the sweep of Malick’s story within both the historical context he provides (that this is based on a real person) and the traumatic iconography we seem to take for granted in 2019. We know what terror lurks in the sound of planes overhead, lost in the echo of the Alps, or what it feels like to witness someone you thought you knew saying things you never thought possible. Malick conflates history and intuition to wrap a simple message in the folds of overwhelming emotion. He has nothing complicated to offer philosophically in contemplating one’s personal responsibility to oppose growing global fascism, and the repeated argument between Franz and literally everyone—that he should just pledge an oath to Hitler to keep his family safe, because an oath obviously means nothing compared to his life, let alone compared to the outcome of the war—becomes so redundant it takes on Biblical proportions. Instead, the director grasps with both hands, with stunning clarity, Franz’s life up until the moment he chooses his fate. Jörg Widmer films, in ceaseless handheld and cyclical movements, the boring work outdoors, the mundane chores, the rule-less games with his children, the long, ordinary walks to nowhere as luscious vistas limn practically every shot. We realize that such inevitability is the stuff of an existence filled with deep, lived-in affection: Scored by James Newton Howard, earning every ounce of that melodrama, Malick wants us understand not what happened, but why. Why this man refused paradise. Why paradise was his to refuse. A Hidden Life offers little consolation, but hope enough—that such courage can be more of an end that a means to one, the result of an increasingly rare time had on Earth, spent in the throes of honesty and love. —Dom Sinacola
Directors: Joe Russo, Anthony Russo
Where does one begin? When it comes to Avengers: Endgame, that question is not so much an expression of wanton enthusiasm as a practical challenge in evaluating the destination toward which Kevin Feige and company have been steering story and viewer alike for the past 11 years and 21 films. Though there have been plenty of three-hour-plus movies and even a few 20+ entry movie franchises, there’s really nothing to compare with what Disney and Marvel Studios have pulled off, either in terms of size, quality and consistency of cast (a moment of silence for Edward Norton and Terrence Howard), or in how narrow the chronological window, all things considered, those movies were produced. Though we’ve praised it often, casting remains the cornerstone of the MCU. Whether by pitch-perfect distillations of decades-old comic book characters (Captain American, Thor, Spider-Man) or charisma-fueled reinventions of same (Iron Man, Ant-Man, Star-Lord), the MCU’s batting average in terms of casting is not only practically obscene, it’s a crucial ingredient in ensuring the thematic and emotional payoff (and box office payday) of Endgame. Moviegoers have been living with these actors, as these characters, for over a decade. For many, this version of these characters is the only one they know. This is why the sudden ashification of so many heroes at the end of Infinity War hit even the most cynical comic book veterans right in the feels and left less hardened viewers confused and distraught. It’s also why, as Avengers: Endgame opens (after another swift kick to the stomach just in case we’ve forgotten the toll of that snap), the audience cares about not just what the surviving heroes are going to do, but how they are doing in general. It gives the film an emotional resonance that’s unusual not only in pulpier genre offerings but in films in general. This connection makes the quiet moments as valuable to the viewer as the spectacle, and for all the fireworks in the third act, Avengers: Endgame is very much a film of quiet moments and small yet potent emotional payoffs. Comic book fans know the thrill of following all your favorite characters through a multi-issue storyline that culminates in a “universe at stake” ending. Now, thanks to 21 movies in 11 years and one massive, satisfying three-hour finale, moviegoers do, too. —Michael Burgin / Full Review
Director: Chad Stahelski
The promise of John Wick: Chapter 2 is in superposition. Depending on how one comes into John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, from which angle, that promise is simultaneously fulfilled and squandered. Chad Stahelski’s third and by no means last entry in the saga of laconic gentleman terminator John Wick (Keanu Reeves), the Baba Yaga of every gangster’s worst nightmares, either lives up to previous entries as far as setting the standard for visceral, eardrum-squelching violence, or it fails to take the series in the direction presaged by the apocalyptic cliffhanger of the previous chapter. No, every living human in New York is not a secret assassin, plunging John Wick into a race against time through a Dantean Hell of his own devising, but John Wick does pretty much murder everybody in the City before traveling to Morocco, where he murders even more people, before returning to New York, where he continues decimating the urban center’s population. As Continental Manager Winston (Ian McShane) puts it, John Wick needs to decide whether he’s the boogie man or, simply, a man. Whether John Wick is a videogame or something more existential. He chooses both: By the time we reach the final action spectacle, during which the forces aligned against John Wick wear the kind of body armor requiring an exorbitant amount of kill shots and then, halfway through the melee, a weapon upgrade, we’ve lapsed completely into the realm of the first-person shooter, realizing we’ve already made our way through numerous, ever-increasingly difficult levels and boss battles with an impeccable kill/death ratio.
The limitless beauty of the John Wick franchise, crystalized in Chapter 3, is that alluding to videogames when talking about the movie doesn’t matter. None of this matters. As videogames and action movies parabolically draw closer and closer to one another, John Wick 3 may be the first of its kind to figure out how to keep that comparison from being a point of shame. Accordingly, each action set piece is an astounding feat, from the first hand-to-hand fracas in narrow library stacks, to a comic knife fight amidst cases of antique weapons, to a chase on horseback and, later, a chase on motorcycles care of katana-wielding meanies. John Wick 3 revels in its ludicrous gore without losing sight of the very real toll of such unmitigated havoc. It’s as much a blast of blood and guts as it is an immersive menagerie of pain, a litigation of the ways in which we imbibe and absorb and demand violence, in which we hyperstylize death. Every gun shot, body blow, shattering jaw and gut slicing rings out sonorously from the screen, so that even if yet another faceless henchperson loses their life, leaving this mortal plane unnoticed, at least the act of violence that ended them will be remembered. —Dom Sinacola / Full Review
Director: Craig Brewer
“I want the world to know I exist,” Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) declares in Dolemite Is My Name. Awareness on a grand scale is an ambitious goal—but it didn’t stop Moore from trying. Rudy Ray Moore is a multi-hyphenate performer looking to propel his comedy career. After seeing Rico (Ron Cephas Jones), the local homeless man that visits where Rudy works, do stand-up, Moore decides to steal and refine Rico’s material. He assumes the character of Dolemite, a sharp, vulgar pimp who oozes confidence, and the “new” material kills in local clubs. Eventually, Moore signs a comedy record deal and charts on Billboard. Emboldened, he sets a new goal: to make a Dolemite film, exhausting all his personal expenses to do so. At the heart of Dolemite Is My Name is the smooth-talking man himself, played by Eddie Murphy. The actor has, since 2012, been quiet in the public eye, taking years-long breaks between films. In 2016, he resurfaced for the drama Mr. Church, his performance praised but the film critically panned. Being hailed as his “comeback” role, Dolemite finds Murphy in fit comedy shape, tackling this lead part with gusto. He embraces Moore’s slightly goofy enthusiasm and can-do attitude without a hint of mocking. For a character like Dolemite, so deeply rooted in the Blaxploitation era of the ’70s and frankly riddled with so many stereotypical elements, Murphy succeeds by being earnest, even when delivering Dolemite’s raunchiest lines. He reminds us he’s one of the best at balancing drama and comedy. A figure who could have been an offensive caricature in the wrong hands, Dolemite, in Craig Brewer’s film, is so much more; we go beyond the surface of the character, exploring one man’s quest for stardom and the entrepreneurial risks he took to be the talk of the town. We get a film befitting of Moore’s legacy while simultaneously reminding audiences the star power of Eddie Murphy. —Joi Childs / Full Review
Directors: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe
Jim Sharman’s midnight movie masterpiece The Rocky Horror Picture Show famously opens on a pair of disembodied lips singing “Science Fiction/Double-Feature.” They’re rich, vividly red, luscious and sexual, altogether supernaturally seductive as they croon against a black background. After 44 years of cult worship, the sequence remains indelible. Greener Grass, an agonizing black comedy by Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, kicks off with a similar image, but the lips are a garish pink and they aren’t singing. Instead, they’re twitching under the strain of a forced smile as the credits roll atop them. The lips belong to Jill (DeBoer), who has just passed guardianship of her newborn baby to her bestie Lisa (Luebbe). Jill’s the generous type, rich in children and all too happy to share the wealth. It’s the first inexplicable and nauseating mistake she, and every other character in the story for that matter, makes, a clumsy yank on the skein that starts her slow unraveling over the movie’s duration. Turns out that Jill loves her baby quite a lot, and that, despite her husband Nick (Beck Bennett) and their older son Julian (Julian Hilliard), she’s hopelessly alone. Likely Jill doesn’t register her loneliness because she’s hopelessly vapid, too, again not unlike everyone else in the movie: In American suburbs, people keep their friends close and their frenemies closer while engaging in social arms races and cataloguing the petty grievances in their candy-coated lives. Greener Grass is a comedy of manners where the comedy catches in the throat like fish bones. The only decent person in the movie is actually a dog, who is actually Julian, who magically transforms into a dog (to Jill’s horror and Nick’s delight). Julian’s the nonconformist in their midst, falling short of cultural mores because he’s a complete weirdo who’d rather bang incoherent noise on piano keys at a recital than play “Yankee Doodle” like all of his classmates. (Good for Julian.) The “why” and “how” of his canine metamorphosis is never revealed, but it is perhaps explained by DeBoer and Luebbe’s UCB background. Then again, if any of us had folks like Jill and Nick, we might also wish to spontaneously become dogs, too. Greener Grass suggests that life in the suburbs is a monotonous uphill battle to stay ahead of the Joneses, and that being a dog might be a better deal. Otherwise, you’d best hold that chagrined smile. —Andy Crump / Full Review
Director: James Gray
Brad Pitt plays Roy McBride, an astronaut from a “future near to ours,” who, when we meet him, is somehow surviving an explosion from an international space station by using his preternatural ability to control his heart rate and his breathing, remaining calm in the face of mortal peril. The explosion was caused by a series of solar flares that, it’s learned, may be caused by an experiment years before led by Roy’s father, Griffin (Tommy Lee Jones), who was thought to have died but may be alive and in fact may have sabatoged the mission. Government officials, fearing the flares could end up destroying all life on planet Earth, want Roy to send a message to Griffin’s ship, hopefully persuading him to halt the flares and come back home. Roy, who hasn’t seen his father since he was a teenager, isn’t sure the mission’s going to work…but he’s haunted by his own demons, demons not entirely disconnected from his father. If this sounds like an exciting space yarn, know that director James Gray is in a much more meditative state here: The film is more about the mystery of the soul of man than it is about the mystery of the universe, or even about some big spaceship fights. The universe is the backdrop to the story of a man and his thwarted issues with his father, and his inability to connect with anyone else in the world because of it. Like many of Gray’s films, Ad Astra is about the depths one can find within oneself, how far down anyone can climb and hide. Pitt wouldn’t seem like the ideal actor for a part like that—charisma drips off him so effortlessly that it leaves a trail behind him wherever he goes—but he’s impressive at playing a man who doesn’t understand himself but suspects the answer to the riddle that has vexed him his whole life must be in this man who gave him life but whom he never really knew. There’s a reserve here that Pitt draws on that works well for him; it’s a serious performance, but it never feels showy. He is searching for something, knowing full well he probably won’t find it. Gray does provide some thrills on the journey of father to find son, and they are extremely well-crafted, particularly a battle with space pirates on the moon that takes place in a world without both gravity and sound. And in Pitt he has a solid emotional center that the audience will still follow anywhere, even if it’s to the ends of the solar system just to confront his daddy issues. —Will Leitch / Full Review
Director: Joanna Hogg
Hogg’s work extends back to the mid-to-late 1980s, when she made her first short film, worked on BBC miniseries, and began directing TV shows. She started making feature movies in 2007 with Unrelated and somewhat steadily continued down that path with Archipelago (2010) and Exhibition (2013). Her latest film is perhaps her best to date, certainly her most personal, and without a doubt one of the year’s most remarkable releases so far. Rooted in her experiences as an artist and based, in part, on entries in her own diary, The Souvenir settles into the perspective of Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne), a demure film student in 1980s London prepping for her graduation project, a drama of working-class proportions ringing of kitchen sink realism à la Mike Leigh or Tony Richardson. The question of her credentials, and of whether she has either the right or the perspective to make a film about the hard lives led by Sunderland’s laborers, is raised early on and repeated throughout, both by her professors and her beau, Anthony (Tom Burke). Like Julie, Anthony is possessed of privilege, which makes his comments especially condescending: Who the hell is he to talk to her about privilege in the first place? Admittedly, he has an occasional point, but while these points are made, the movie takes careful, quiet note that every voice critiquing Julie happens to be male. So it goes in a man’s field in a man’s world in the ’80s. Rather than seize on this imbalance to make an argument, Hogg instead lets it serve as fodder for reflection. Timid women on paths of self-discovery recur throughout her filmography, most of all Unrelated, a heartbreaking movie that, much like The Souvenir, takes unexpected turns without telegraphing or forcing them. A hushed, unassuming, intimate movie, Hogg’s latest reminds audiences of the power of cinema by interrogating the definition of cinema itself. Cinema lets people reckon with life (others’ or their own), and it lets them reckon with their privilege (be it their lack or surplus). Julie sees the world as cinema because the world is cinema. Taken together, it all makes this particular Souvenir as close to an instant masterpiece as movies can get. —Andy Crump / Full Review
Director: Lulu Wang
Family, falsehood and farce: all the comforts expected of a funeral—when the funeral isn’t a funeral but a wedding. Yes, two people do end up getting p= married, but no one cares about matrimony as much as saying goodbye to the family matriarch, stricken by a diagnosis with an inevitably fatal outcome. Here’s the trick: No one told her about it. She thinks all of the hoopla is just about the bride and groom to be. The Farewell, Lulu Wang’s sophomore film, is many things. It’s a meteoric leap forward from the tried-and-true rom-com formula of her debut, Posthumous. It’s a story made up of her own personal roller coaster of loss. It’s a neat and, 26 years after the fact, unexpected companion piece to Ang Lee’s underappreciated masterpiece The Wedding Banquet. Mostly, it’s a tightrope walk along the fine line between humor and grief.
Chinese-American Billil (Awkwafina) travels to China to see her grandmother (Zhao Shuzen) one last time, as grandma’s just received a death sentence in the form of terminal lung cancer, but the clan keeps mum because that’s just what they’d do for anybody. A wedding is staged. Cousins and uncles and aunts are convened. Masks, the metaphorical kind, are donned. Wang knows how to find the perfect tonal sweet spot from scene to scene in a sterling example of having one’s cake while also eating with gusto. With exceptions, moments meant to be uncomfortable and prickly on the surface are hilarious beneath, and moments meant to make us laugh tend to remind the viewer of the situation’s gravity. It’s perfect alchemy, yielding one of 2019’s most intimate, most painful and most satisfyingly boisterous comedies. —Andy Crump
Director: Mati Diop
Atlantics is quite the announcement for writer-drector Mati Diop. She takes the magic realism of a peer like Alice Rohrwacher and carries it to the world’s margins, examining class struggle in a Senegalese city by the Atlantic. Through the gritty, blustery opening images shot as artful document of the Dakar shore (outstanding work by cinematographer Claire Mathon) and the hypnotic electronic score by Fatima Al Qadiri, Diop is able to evoke an incomparable mood and sense of place. That it might look and sound so alien to an American watching this film on Netflix is perhaps a sharp enough indictment of the ways in which we intellectually seclude ourselves from realities beyond our own. Atlantics is about that and it’s about the breaking of that. It’s about the mystery of identity and how one can find identity by taking on the identity of something other, or can find it when looking in a mirror—not for the physical self but for the spirit. Congruously, it’s also about losing the identities that are culturally prescribed, that we may have been born with, nurtured and/or limited by. Love, the film posits, is a catalyst; love helps reform identities in transgressive and transcendent ways. And the film is at its best when it avoids being programmatic, lets its visuals pulse before you. It is yet another sad ghost story amongst many, but where it differs is finely drawing the distinction that sometimes the things that haunt the living most are not the things that were but the things that should have been. The film’s protagonist embraces that haunting as a form of hope; she loses something important and fills the hole by expanding her own self with the self that was touched by others. Though Atlantics feels elliptical in many ways, Diop has the bravery to end her film with a pretty resounding period. It’s a statement, both for itself and for its creator, and it’s a convincing one. —Chad Betz
Director: Josh Cooley
We were all concerned about Toy Story 4. How could we not be? This is perhaps the most beloved animated franchise of the last 50 years, and, in the eyes of many, each movie has been a little better than the last one. That final one, Toy Story 3, ended in such a perfect, emotionally devastating fashion that trying to follow it up felt like the ultimate fool’s errand. And in the nine years since that installment, Pixar, as a company, has changed, becoming more corporate, more sequel-focused, more …Disney. What a relief it is, then, that Toy Story 4 is such an immense joy. It might not reach the heights of Toy Story 3—which manages to be a prison escape movie that also happens to be a profound dissertation on grief and death and features a surrealist tortilla—but it is a more than worthy member of the Toy Story family. Like its protagonist, it’s less concerned with trying to do something revolutionary just because it’s done it in the past and instead worries about what comes next …what the next logical progression is. It finds the next step, for Woody (voiced as ever by Tom Hanks in what honestly has always been one of his best roles), and the franchise, while still being as hellzapoppin’ and wildly entertaining as you have come to expect from this franchise. The overarching theme in Toy Story 4 isn’t as much death as it is loss—loss of purpose, loss of meaning, loss of value. What do you do with yourself when the best thing you’ll ever be a part of is already over? How do you find drive in life when your lifelong goal has been accomplished? How do you handle getting old and not being needed anymore? If these seem like heady concepts for a Toy Story movie …you’ve never seen a Toy Story movie. —Will Leitch / Full Review
Director: Ari Aster
Christian (Jack Reynor) cannot give Dani (Florence Pugh) the emotional ballast she needs to survive. This was probably the case even before the family tragedy that occurs in Midsommar’s literal cold open, in which flurries of snow limn the dissolution of Dani’s family. We’re dropped into her trauma, introduced to her only through her trauma and her need for support she can’t get. This is all we know about her: She is traumatized, and her boyfriend is barely decent enough to hold her, to stay with her because of a begrudging obligation to her fragile psyche. His long, deep sighs when they talk on the phone mirror the moaning, retching gasps Pugh so often returns to in panic and pain. Her performance is visceral. Midsommar is visceral. There is viscera, just, everywhere. As in his debut, Hereditary, writer-director Ari Aster casts Midsommar as a conflagration of grief—as in Hereditary, people burst into flames in Midsommar’s climactic moments—and no ounce of nuance will keep his characters from gasping, choking and hollering all the way to their bleakly inevitable ends. Moreso than in Hereditary, what one assumes will happen to our American 20-somethings does happen, prescribed both by decades of horror movie precedent and by the exigencies of Aster’s ideas about how human beings process tragedy. Aster births his worlds in pain and loss; chances are it’ll only get worse.
One gets the sense watching Midsommar that Aster’s got everything assembled rigorously, that he’s the kind of guy who can’t let anything go—from the meticulously thought-out belief system and ritual behind his fictional rural community, to the composition of each and every shot. Aster and his DP Pawel Pogorzelski find the soft menace inherent to their often beautiful setting, unafraid of just how ghastly and unnatural such brightly colored flora can appear—especially when melting or dilating, breathing to match Dani’s huffs and the creaking, wailing goth-folk of The Haxan Cloak. Among Midsommar’s most unsettling pleasures are its subtle digital effects, warping its reality ever so slightly (the pulsing of wood grain, the fish-eye lensing of a grinning person’s eye sockets) so that once noticed, you’ll want it to stop. Like a particularly bad trip, the film bristles with the subcutaneous need to escape, with the dread that one is trapped. In this community in the middle of nowhere, in this strange culture, in this life, in your body and its existential pain: Aster imprisons us so that when the release comes, it’s as if one’s insides are emptying cataclysmically. In the moment, it’s an assault. It’s astounding. —Dom Sinacola / Full Review
Director: Jordan Peele
Us clarifies what Get Out implies. Even after only two films, Jordan Peele’s filmmaking seems preconfigured for precision, the Hitchcock comparisons just sitting there, waiting to be shoved between commas, while Peele openly speaks and acts in allusions. Us, like Get Out before it but moreso, wastes nothing: time, film stock, the equally precise capabilities of his actors and crew, real estate in the frame, chance for a gag. If his films are the sum of their influences, that means he’s a smart filmmaker with a lot of ideas, someone who knows how to hone down those ideas into stories that never bloat, though he’s unafraid to confound his audience with exposition or take easy shots—like the film’s final twist—that swell and grow in the mind with meaning the longer one tries to insist, if one were inclined to do so, that what Peele’s doing is easy at all. A family comedy studded with dread, then a home invasion thriller, then a head-on sci-fi horror flick, Us quickly acquaints us with the Wilson family: calming matriarch Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), gregarious dad Gabe (Winston Duke), daughter wise beyond her years Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and adorable epitome of the innocent younger brother, Jason (Evan Alex). Though far from shallow, the characters take on archetypal signifiers, whether it’s Zora’s penchant for running or that Gabe’s a big guy whose bulk betrays a softer heart, Peele never spoonfeeding cheap characterizations but just getting us on his wavelength with maximum efficiency. Us isn’t explicitly about race, but it is about humanity’s inherent knack for Othering, for boxing people into narrow perspectives and then holding them responsible for everyone vaguely falling within a Venn diagram.
Regardless of how sufficiently we’re able to parse what’s actually going on (and one’s inclined to see the film more than once to get a grip) the images remain, stark and hilarious and horrifying: a child’s burned face, a misfired flare gun, a cult-like spectacle of inhuman devotion, a Tim Heidecker bent over maniacally, walking as if he’s balanced on a thorax, his soul as good as creased. Divorced from context, these moments still speak of absurdity—of witty one-liners paired with mind-boggling horror—of a future in which we’ve so alienated ourselves from ourselves that we’re bound to cut that tether that keeps us together, sooner or later, and completely unravel. We are our undoing. So let the Hitchcock comparisons come. Peele deserves them well enough. Best not to think about it too hard, to not ruin a good thing, to demand that Us be anything more than sublimely entertaining and wonderfully thoughtful, endlessly disturbing genre filmmaking. —Dom Sinacola / Full Review
Director: Harmony Korine
Witness Matthew McConaughey, transcending. Revel in it, because this has got to be as high as he goes. As Moondog, the opposite, arch nemesis perhaps, to the Matthew McConaughey of the Lincoln commercials—on TV the interstitial, nonchalant pool shark and connoisseur of fine leather everything, a man to whom one whispers courteously, in reverence between network shows—Matthew McConaughey realizes the full flat circle of his essence. The actor bears multitudes, and they all converge upon the befuddled Moondog, consummate inhuman and titular hobo of the southern sands of these United States. One could claim that Moondog’s hedonism represents a moral imperative to consume all that’s truly beautiful about life, and Moondog says as much even if he’s plagiarising D.H. Lawrence (which he admits to his best friend Lingerie, who’s carried on a long-time affair with Moondog’s wife, and who’s played by Snoop Dog in a career best performance). Speaking of Lawrence, Martin also gives a career-best performance as Captain Wack, dolphin lover; the film slides effortlessly into absurdity. One could claim, too, that Moondog’s little but a self-destructive addict somehow given a free pass to circumvent basic human responsibility altogether. One could claim that director Harmony Korine doesn’t believe in basic human responsibility anyway. He doesn’t claim much in the way of explicating Moondog’s whole way of being, doesn’t reserve any judgment for the man’s mantra and blissful lurch towards oblivion. Or annihilation. The uniform for which is casual, including JNCO jeans, brandished by Flicker (Zac Efron), with whom Moondog escapes the court-mandated rehab that seemingly does nothing to pierce the armor of intoxication Moondog’s spent his life reinforcing. Whether he’s protecting himself from any serious human connection or from the crass hellscape of capitalistic society—whether he’s deeply grieving a tragedy that occurs halfway through The Beach Bum, Harmony Korine’s masterpiece of feeling good in the face of feeling the worst, or avoiding all feeling completely—he’s still a bad dad. Or he’s an artist. Or a saint. Or he’s from a different dimension, as his wife (Isla Fisher) explains to their daughter, as she most likely always has, against a breathtaking vista followed not long after by a heartbreaking sunset, both photographed by Benoît Debie, in Miami of all places, all magnificent and hollow, the film a hagiography for the End of History. —Dom Sinacola
DIrector: Céline Sciamma
Making art is already taxing, but transferring and translating one’s desire into art is all-consuming. In Céline Sciamma’s intoxicating Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it is not only young painter Marianne’s (Noémie Merlant) task to atomize the essence of the portrait-shy Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) into a mix of acrylics and artistic ardor, but director Sciamma’s to capture the exhilarating attraction and burgeoning passion between the two women—to unpack the fundamental ways in which we look, we desire, we become through our looking and desiring, especially through art. Drawing heavily on the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, Sciamma—whose work on films like Tomboy and Girlhood are testaments to her explorations of queerness as radical acts of freedom in constrained worlds—grasps the baggage looking and gazing has, particularly with respect to how power shapes those images. Who is gazing at whom? The women of Portrait of a Lady on Fire look, and gaze, and cast spells, and give themselves completely to one another, crafting a world unto themselves. It’s a world of yearning that begs to be looked back at, even if you need to get too close to the flames. —Kyle Turner
Director: Claire Denis
High Life begins with a moment of intense vulnerability, followed immediately by a moment of immense strength. First we glimpse a garden, verdant and welcoming, before we’re ushered to a sterile room. There we realize there’s a baby alone while Monte (Robert Pattinson), her father maybe, consoles her, talking through a headset mounted within his space helmet. “Da da da,” he explains through the intercom; the baby starts to lose her shit because he’s not really there, he’s perched outside, on the surface of their basic Lego-piece of a spaceship, just barely gripped on the edge of darkness. They’re in space, one supposes, surrounded by dark, oppressive nothingness, and he can’t reach her. They’re alone. Next, Monte empties their cryogenic storage locker of all the dead bodies of his once-fellow crew members, lifting their heavy limbs and torsos into space suits, not because it matters, but maybe just because it’s something to do to pass the time, as much a sign of respect as it is an emotional test of will. Monte looks healthy and capable, like he can withstand all that loneliness, like he and his daughter might actually make it out of this OK, whatever this is. High Life lives inside that juxtaposition, displaying tenderness as graphically as violence and anger and incomprehensible fear, mining all that blackness surrounding its characters for as much terror as writer-director Claire Denis can afford without getting obvious about it. Pattinson, flattened and lithe, plays Monte remarkably, coiled within himself to the point that he finishes every word deep in his throat, his sentences sometimes total gibberish. He doesn’t allow much to escape his face, but behind his eyes beams something scary, as if he could suddenly, and probably will, crack. He says as much to Willow, his kid, whispering to her while she sleeps that he could easily kill them both, never wanting to hurt her but still polluting her dreams. He can’t help it, and neither can Denis, who, on her 14th film (first in English), can make an audience believe, like few other directors, that anything can happen. Madness erupts from silence and sleep, bodily fluids dripping all over and splattering throughout and saturating the psyches of these criminal blue collar astronauts, the overwhelming stickiness of the film emphasizing just how intimately close Denis wants us to feel to these odd, sick fleshbags hurtling toward the edge of consciousness. —Dom Sinacola / Full Review
Director: Robert Eggers
Sometimes a film is so bizarre, so elegantly shot and masterfully performed, that despite its helter-skelter pace and muddled messaging I can’t help but fall in love with it. So it was with the latest film by Robert Eggers. An exceptional, frightening duet between Robert Pattinson and Willam Dafoe, The Lighthouse sees two sailors push one another to the brink of absolute madness, threatening to take the audience with them. Fresh off the sea, Thomas Wake (Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) arrive at the isolated locale and immediately get to work cleaning, maintaining and fixing up their new home. Everything comes in twos: two cups, two plates, two bowls, two beds. The pair work on the same schedule every day, only deviating when Thomas decides something different needs Ephraim’s attention. Like newlyweds sharing meals across from one another each morning and every evening, the men begin to develop a relationship.
It takes a long time for either of the men to speak. They’re both accustomed to working long days in relative silence. They may not possess the inner peace of a Zen monk, but their thought processes are singular and focused. Only the lighthouse and getting back to the mainland matters. Eggers uses the sound of the wind and the ocean to create a soundscape of harsh conditions and natural quarantine. The first words spoken invoke a well-worn prayer, not for a happy life, or a fast workday, but to stave off death. A visceral ride, The Lighthouse explores man’s relationship to the sea, specifically through the lens of backbreaking labor. Thomas and Ephraim’s relationship is like a Rorschach test. At times they are manager and worker, partners, enemies, father and son, competitors, master and pet, and victim and abuser. In many ways Eggers’ latest reminds of Last Tango in Paris, which explored a similar unhealthy relationship dynamic. Just as captivating, The Lighthouse shines. —Joelle Monique / Full Review
Director: Peter Strickland
Peter Strickland is a cinematic aesthete; an artist who is both beguiled by and displays a mastery over the slightest and most ephemeral elements of production design, visuals, texture and sound in his films. In 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio, he first applied this degree of hyper-attention toward the psychological horror genre, setting his story within the world of film industry foley itself to provoke audience reflection on sound and the nature of reality. In 2019’s In Fabric, meanwhile, he once again returns to core influences that range from Italian giallo to 1970s European erotic thrillers, but suffuses them with a gauzy style that is all his own. Into this topsy-turvy world, Strickland brings two central characters who seem to have originated from outside it, “regular” people who are frequently just as confounded as we would be by the bizarre behavior of those around them. One, single mother Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), just wants to get back out there into the dating game, only to find herself as seemingly the only sane individual in a world full of totally irrational people. Her supervisors chide her about utterly insignificant infractions like her style of waving hello, and probe deeply into her personal life, including even the content of her dreams. She reacts with flustered confusion that is perfectly natural, but still can’t turn down their bizarre requests, even as she begins to suspect that her beautiful new red dress (in a tiny catalog detail, we see its color listed as “artery”) contains a malignant presence. Perhaps she should have been more unnerved when buying it from the witchy, sinister store clerk Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed, spouting some of the craziest dialog of the year), a character who looks like she leapt straight out of the unconscious mind of Dario Argento.
Strickland conveys this story with the dreamy excesses and mood projection of Nicolas Winding Refn in the likes of Valhalla Rising, but somehow manages to dive even deeper into its aural aspects than he did in Berberian Sound Studio. There’s a message buried in here as well, a commentary on consumerism that presents shopping and browsing for “life-improving” consumer goods as something like an ecclesiastical (or pagan, more likely) religious experience, but it’s the all-encompassing aura of In Fabric that makes it stick in the mind. It perfectly captures universal experiences that have been given supernatural portent. There’s the pain of shattered expectations on a terrible first date. The rote sexual congress of a long-time couple, long since reduced to a series of mechanical motions. The disorienting quality that a disturbing dream has on coloring a person’s experiences in the waking world. Strickland presents it all, and more, in 2019’s most deeply effective horror film. —Jim Vorel / Full Review
Directors: Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie
Uncut Gems begins far from Adam Sandler. In Ethiopia, an injured miner’s carried by a group of his fellow workers. We glimpse the miner’s nauseating leg break, though seeing it draws little sympathy from the mine’s non-native foremen, further infuriating the already collecting group of laborers, looking ready to riot. A fracas breaks out—chaos begets more chaos, as is the Safdie brothers’ way—while two workers slip away to head deep into the mine and chip out their own discovery. They seem to know where to find it: a huge gem, which they hold up for the audience. Cinematographer Darius Khondji’s camera moves closer to the gem to inspect, to create a tactile connection with the rock maybe, only to move in so close we plunge beneath its surface—caves within caves—and emerge, amidst a cosmos of particles, from Adam Sandler’s butthole. It’s 2012, the Celtics are in the Eastern Conference semifinals, and we meet Howard Ratner (Sandler) mid-colonoscopy. He’ll spend the majority of Uncut Gems waiting for the procedure’s findings, but any worries about what the doctor may find up his ass is quickly subsumed by the clusterfuck of Howard’s quotidian.
The proprietor of an exclusive shop in New York’s diamond district, Howard does well for himself and his family, though he can’t help but gamble compulsively, owing his brother-in-law Aron (Eric Bogosian, malevolently slimy) a substantial amount. Still, Howard has other risks to balance—his payroll’s comprised of Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), a finder of both clients and product, and Julia (Julia Fox, an unexpected beacon amidst the storm in her first feature role), a clerk with whom Howard’s carrying on an affair, “keeping” her comfortable in his New York apartment. Except his wife’s (Idina Menzel, pristinely jaded) obviously sick of his shit, and meanwhile he’s got a special delivery coming from Africa: a black opal, the stone we got to know intimately in the film’s first scene, which Howard estimates is worth millions. Then Demany happens to bring Kevin Garnett (as himself, keyed so completely into the Safdie brothers’ tone) into the shop on the same day the opal arrives, inspiring a once-in-a-lifetime bet for Howard—the kind that’ll square him with Aron and then some—as well as a host of new crap to get straight. It’s all undoubtedly stressful—really relentlessly, achingly stressful—but the Safdies, on their sixth film, seem to thrive in anxiety, capturing the inertia of Howard’s life, and of the innumerable lives colliding with his, in all of its full-bodied beauty. Just before a game, Howard reveals to Garnett his grand plan for a big payday, explaining that Garnett gets it, right? That guys like them are keyed into something greater, working on a higher wavelength than most—that this is how they win. He may be onto something, or he may be pulling everything out of his ass—regardless, we’ve always known Sandler’s had it in him. This may be exactly what we had in mind. —Dom Sinacola / Full Review
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is as much a run through Quentin Tarantino’s obsessions as any of his other movies—Spaghetti Westerns, bad ’60s television, Los Angeles subculture, so, so many women’s feet—but there is an odd, almost casual generosity that I’d argue is entirely new to him. Is it possible Tarantino, at 56, has finally decided to share? This is a film that luxuriates in its indulgence, but it opens the door for us, at last lets us in. It’s an elegy for a long-dead Los Angeles that Tarantino both wants to sell us on and vigorously stir back to life, an era that, because it ended in violence, can only be resuscitated through that same violence. But more than anything, this is the most Hang Out Film of any of Tarantino’s films, a world that he wants to live in and roll around in and maybe just spend forever in. We follow three characters with three stories, though it takes a while for two of the stories to separate and they all end up in the same place. There’s Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an old-time television star with talent but an alcohol problem whose time seems to be passing him by, symbolized by a series of villainous guest spots on TV shows with diminishing returns. There’s Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Dalton’s old stuntman and full-time assistant/gofer, a man with a dark past but the sunny, sun-splashed disposition of a guy who’s always going to get away with it. And then there’s Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the Sharon Tate, an up-and-coming movie star who lives just down the road from Dalton with her husband Roman Polanski, with the whole world ahead of her but with … occasional strange characters showing up outside her house. The movie leisurely weaves in their stories, sometimes down narrative cul-de-sacs, sometimes their goings-on simply an excuse to dance through Tarantino’s meticulous, almost sensuous recreation of 1969 Hollywood. But it’s all leading up to the moment when they all cross paths, and history both gets in the way and is shoved aside. The greatest achievement Tarantino pulls off here is, by pure force, to yank this era back to life, to recreate it and revive it as if driven by some sort of religious mania. Dalton might be on his way down and Tate on her way up, but they’re a part of the same world nonetheless, and when their paths cross, it feels like divine justice: It feels like Tarantino at last making history lock up the way it was supposed to. It elevates the material while consciously never wanting to rise up from the muck. This is as close as Tarantino will ever come to showing his full heart, what there is of it. —Will Leitch / Full Review
Director: Greta Gerwig
Problems with plot lines and coinciding facts have been points of contention among scholars, critics and fans of the cherished book for the better part of 150 years. Little Women has been adapted for TV, film, radio and the stage dozens of times, the most notable version (until now, arguably) being Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 film starring Winona Ryder as an especially hot-headed Jo. But even that down-to-earth rendition—one that introduced Little Women to a whole new generation of bookish girls who were raised on American Girl, I might add—doesn’t approach these inconsistencies and questionable romances with as much rhythm and vibrance as Greta Gerwig’s spunky, magical Little Women. Like Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird, (which also starred Saoirse Ronan as its lead), it has an uninhibited appreciation for life. Jo (a wisecracking, wonderful Ronan), like any good Jo, is fiercely independent, except when it comes to her sisters: She dotes on sweet Beth (Eliza Scanlen, who puts a wise spin on the doomed girl), reveres the poised Meg (an accurately cast Emma Watson) and brawls with feisty Amy (played by Florence Pugh, who breathes new life into the oft-detested character). Marmee (the earnest Laura Dern) is the whole family’s moral compass, constantly encouraging her children to do the most good. I can’t say I’ve seen every single Little Women adaptation ever made, but Gerwig, who also wrote the script, weaves the women’s storylines together in a more clever and effective manner than that of any of those I have seen. She doesn’t just flip Little Women’s narrative arc on its head—she cracks it open and scrambles it. It’s such an engrossing experience that looking back at the film’s events in the rearview feels more like remembering a mood rather than recalling a sequence of scenes. Each actress brought such color to her role that all the moments have since swarmed together in my mind, leaving me with a content glow. Gerwig has a way of making her audiences feel something different at every beat. Maybe Little Women isn’t the radical feminist pamphlet we all want it to be; maybe it was never progressive and never will be. But its triumphs are the little ones: a gust of sandy wind covering Jo and Beth as they cling to each other on the beach, Marmee taking the scarf off her neck to give to a weary father who has lost his sons to the war, the poor John Brooke (James Norton) giving up a new suit so his wife Beth can have a fancy dress. These moments of compassion relay new meaning in Gerwig’s film, even if we’ve seen them 100 times before. —Ellen Johnson / Full Review
Director: Martin Scorsese
Peggy Sheeran (Lucy Gallina) watches her father, Frank (Robert De Niro), through a door left ajar as he packs his suitcase for a work trip. In go trousers and shirts, each neatly tucked and folded against the luggage’s interior. In goes the snubnose revolver, the ruthless tool of Frank’s trade. He doesn’t know his daughter’s eyes are on him; she’s constitutionally quiet, and remains so throughout most of their interaction as adults. He shuts the case. She disappears behind the door. Her judgment lingers. The scene plays out one third of the way into Martin Scorsese’s new film, The Irishman, named for Frank’s mob world sobriquet, and replays in its final shot, as Frank, old, decrepit and utterly, hopelessly alone, abandoned by his family and bereft of his gangster friends through the passage of time, sits on his nursing home bed. Maybe he’s waiting for Death, but most likely he’s waiting for Peggy (played as an adult by Anna Paquin), who disowned him and has no intention of forgiving him his sins. Peggy serves as Scorsese’s moral arbiter. She’s a harsh judge: The film takes a dim view of machismo as couched in the realm of mafiosa and mugs. When Scorsese’s principal characters aren’t scheming or paying off schemes in acts of violence, they’re throwing temper tantrums, eating ice cream or in an extreme case slap-fighting in a desperately pathetic throwdown. This scene echoes similarly pitiful scenes in Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel and Rashomon: brawls between wannabe roughs afraid of brawling, but forced into it by their own bravado. The Irishman spans the 1950s to the early 2000s, the years Frank worked for the Bufalino crime family, led by Russell (Joe Pesci, out of retirement and intimidating). “Working” means murdering some people, muscling others, even blowing up a car or a building when the occasion warrants. When disengaged from gangland terrorism, he’s at home reading the paper, watching the news, dragging Peggy to the local grocer to give him a beatdown for shoving her. “I only did what you should,” the poor doomed bastard says before Frank drags him out to the street and crushes his hand on the curb. The Irishman is historical nonfiction, chronicling Sheeran’s life, and through his life the lives of the Bufalinos and their associates, particularly those who died before their time (that being most of them). It’s also a portrait of childhood cast in the shadow of dispassionate brutality, and what a young girl must do to find safety in a world defined by bloodshed. —Andy Crump
Director: Bong Joon-ho
“That’s so metaphorical,” exclaims the son of the Kim family, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), holding with childlike reverie a large rock sculpture, a wooden base solidifying its aesthetic and cultural value. The pointedly nice object stands apart from the basic keepsakes in the Kims’ fairly dingy and cramped home, inhabited by unemployed driver father, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), unemployed mother, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), and not-in-art-school daughter, Ki-jeong (Park So-dam). Brought to them by Ki-woo’s wealthy friend, the rock is supposed to foretell great financial wealth to whatever family keeps it in their home. Irritated at their own situation, at the lack of space, at the lack of immediate value the rock has, Chung-sook mutters, “Could’ve brought us food.” In Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, those that live with a stark awareness of inequality operate with a sense of cognitive dissonance. It’s this paradox of thought that allows Ki-woo to be both naively worshipful towards what a rock sculpture could bring them, but also understand, at other times, that wandering around isn’t how one ascends into power. At the behest of said wealthy friend, he becomes the English tutor for the daughter, Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), of the grotesquely affluent Park family: astute patriarch (Lee Sun-kyun), dim matriarch (Cho Yeo-jeong), manic artsy son, Da-song (Jung Hyun-joon), and severely loyal housekeeper, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun). But as the Kim and Park families grow increasingly closer, both the differences and similarities between them blur beyond discernment.
Bong’s interest in income inequality and class has spanned the majority of his career, examining the ways it impacts the justice system (Memories of Murder, Mother), the environment (Okja) and the institutions responsible for both the exacerbation of wealth inequality and failing to protect those most marginalized by that inequality (Snowpiercer, The Host). For Parasite, Bong takes a slightly different angle—he’s no less interested in inequality’s consequences, but here he sees how class as performance manifests, particularly when people are plucked from one echelon of society and put in another. As we watch both families act in different, but intersecting, pieces of social/anthropological theatre, Bong cuts through their mutual hunger, and what ultimately and tragically separates them, with a jaundiced eye and an acidic sense of humor. Laughing during Parasite feels like choking on rust. (Cho, especially, finds the perfect amount of absurdity as the somewhat doltish mother, truly a testament to rich ladies being easily knocked over by a feather.) But Bong is not interested in metaphor, and not the kind written on rocks. Even through its absurdist, bleakly satirical lens, Bong understands that social inequity is not just theatre, but lived experience. Sometimes the rock is just a shit-stained rock. —Kyle Turner / Full Review