The 25 Best International Movies of 2022

Movies Lists best of 2022
The 25 Best International Movies of 2022

Looking for the best international movies of 2022, it was hard to contain the best that the world had to offer to just 25 films. This list, of important films from outside the United States, counts movies from 20 different countries, and sees madcap action movies stand alongside contemplative Oscar hopefuls. South Korean and Iranian masters welcome newcomers from Mexico, Rwanda, and Vietnam. We revisit World War I, prosecute war criminals, go on road trips, hang out with kids on a playground, and get into a baby-selling caper. The world is expansive, and limiting yourself to American cinema is a greater sin than not traveling: It’s never been easier (or cheaper) to experience the lives, cultures, and artistic inclinations of others from the comfort of your couch. Not to rely fully on the words of Bong Joon-ho, but if you can brave the one-inch barrier of subtitles for these incredible films, you’ll be vastly rewarded with a range of genres, styles and A-list filmmakers at the tops of their games.

Here are the 25 best international movies of 2022:


25. Return to Seoul

We first meet Freddie (Ji-Min Park) at age 25, when she impulsively travels to Seoul after a flight to Japan is canceled. We’re not given this context until well into the movie, instead thrown into Freddie’s life as she checks into a hostel and almost immediately starts accumulating Korean drinking buddies. Like the character, we have little choice over how we’re brought into this world or how we grow into it. Though Freddie may work furiously to hide it, she’s just as confused as we are. Uncertain if she belongs in this culture of her birth, or if she even wants to. Some of Freddie’s new friends speak fluent French, but most do not, which has the dialogue switching between Korean, French and English as the characters work to understand one another. It’s a depiction and theme that will continue throughout the film: The arduous work of human connection, especially across language barriers and cultures, and through the unique perspective of a transnational adoptee. While director Davy Chou may not exactly embody his subject matter, he is not unfamiliar with the experience of returning to a place you have never been (or have no memory of), looking for a kind of connection. The child of Cambodian parents who fled their home to escape the Khmer Rouge, Chou grew up in France, first visiting Cambodia at the age of 25. He uses Return to Seoul to, among other things, explore that first/second-generation immigrant experience of being complexly, confusingly torn between two cultures. However adept the filmmaking, such a piece would fall apart without the right central actor. Park is a revelation in what is, unbelievably, a debut performance. Regardless of when or where we find her, Park simultaneously imbues Freddie with a vulnerability and impenetrability, characterized by a vibrant, exhausting defiance she brings to each and every interaction. I cannot believe this is Park’s first role. Because we almost exclusively see Freddie during her visits to Seoul, it’s unclear what other factors—outside of her identity as a transnational adoptee—might influence her restlessness. Though I missed the larger context of Freddie’s life, Return to Seoul’s commitment to staying in the moment creates an engrossing cinematic experience, an inextricable character portrait both intimate and fathomless.—Kayti Burt

 


24. All Quiet on the Western Front

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There are now three major screen adaptations of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front. The first two were grim reflections of the wars of their time, and remain fascinating not just for their treatment of Remarque’s work, but for viewing them in the context of the time in which they were made: Lewis Milestone’s 1930 film landed in the precise middle of the two World Wars that forever reshaped Europe; Delbert Mann’s 1979 television adaptation inescapably called back to the Vietnam War. Edward Berger’s new adaptation, distributed by Netflix, is unique among these in that it’s actually a German-language and German-led production. Despite their clear dedication to paint a universalist picture of the futility and inhumanity of modern war, the previous productions were, on some level, putting an American spin on this tale. Berger (born in then-West Germany in 1970) is not. It’s therefore somewhat perplexing that this adaptation ditches a lot of the particulars of the novel, widens its perspective characters to include top German brass, elides characters and even changes the particulars of major plot points to tell what amounts to an almost completely different story—one with a wider scope. By virtue of including two other characters, it makes an attempt to go beyond the trenches and indict the inhumanity of the people whose words cause wars. It’s wild, compared to the mostly faithful adaptations of the past. It also, inescapably, feels as if it’s more of a war film than the others, with more action scenes and necessarily less of an examination of the effect of war on the individual soldier. It’s a completely different perspective that is exceptionally well-shot and directed and raises its voice about Germany’s part of culpability for the war. It’s therefore profoundly frustrating that All Quiet on the Western Front, at times, bucks against Remarque’s thesis. It is, nonetheless, the first All Quiet on the Western Front adaptation in wide release that we’ve got from an actual German perspective. As we grow more and more distant from the war to end all wars, that kind of reappraisal becomes even more important. —Kenneth Lowe

 


23. No Bears

The rigidity of borders—literal and figurative—is the primary interest of No Bears, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s latest film. Completed two months before the director’s most recent arrest—culminating in a six-year prison sentence for “propaganda against the regime” in his native Iran—the film is a meta-commentary on the artistic suppression that Panahi has been increasingly subjected to throughout his career, also currently affecting a large swath of Iranian filmmakers, artists and activists. No Bears incorporates two parallel plot lines. The first involves Panahi (who plays himself) covertly renting a room near the Iranian border, secretly overseeing the shoot for his next film, which is happening in a nearby Turkish city. Restricted from leaving Iran (much like the real-life Panahi), he monitors the production’s progress via Zoom and cell phone calls—that is, when the frequently-spotty reception allows for it. In his free time, he takes photographs of the small town he’s lodging in, with special emphasis on its provincial residents. However, he quickly becomes embroiled in a local scandal involving a photo he allegedly took of a young couple whose union is strictly forbidden by the town’s traditional customs, though he vehemently swears that no such photograph exists. The second storyline occurs within Panahi’s intra-film narrative, which similarly concerns a star-crossed couple. Bakhtiar (Bakhtiar Panjei) and Zara (Mina Khosravani) struggle to obtain an extra passport so that they can flee to Europe together, a plot that stems from the actors’ (at least as they appear in No Bears) own lived experiences. Soon, the prospect of illegally leaving the country becomes a pressing concern for all parties, both real and fictional, involved. No Bears feels darkly prophetic, seemingly aware of the filmmaker’s encroaching imprisonment. The authorities are an omnipresent threat to Panahi’s character in the film, suspicious that he’s traveled from his home in metropolitan Tehran to a small village conveniently close to the border. If the armed guards weren’t enough of a deterrent, there is a local superstition that bears roam the vast terrain that separates Turkey from Iran, which is where the film gets its title. “Our fear empowers others. No Bears!” Shouts a villager to Panahi’s character of the myth. Yet even without the existence of ferocious beasts, No Bears emphasizes that the border does indeed have the capacity to kill in various ways: Whether by armed guard or the bureaucratic restriction of “proper” documentation, lives are irreparably altered—and lost—due to this invisible outline.—Natalia Keogan

 


22. In Front of Your Face

In Front of Your Face, the latest film from master South Korean director Hong Sang-soo, finds Sangok (Lee Hye-young) returning to Korea after a prolonged absence. Temporarily sleeping on her sister Jeongok’s (Cho Yunhee) couch, the siblings seem content and comfortable in their reunion. Immediately upon waking up, the sisters decide to make the most of their morning—after all, they only have so much time together before Sangok’s “late lunch” meeting with a filmmaker to discuss her potential return to the screen. Once a somewhat successful actress in Korea, Songok ditched the profession in favor of moving to the U.S. with some guy she “barely knew” to open a liquor store. The duo sip coffee, smoke cigarettes by a babbling brook and visit Jeongok’s son’s rice cake shop. They spend their morning savoring each other’s company, even if some past conflicts can’t help but crop up. Largely taking place over the course of a single day, In Front of Your Face lingers on life’s little details. A bee pollinating a flower, a marvelous cup of coffee and the momentary salve of a cigarette add as much to the story as the film’s more intense emotional revelations. It’s true that the sisters don’t necessarily possess the fullest pictures of each other—but Jeongok’s perception, even for an out-of-touch sibling who hasn’t responded to her sister’s recent letters, is often scarily spot-on. The beauty of the sparse film is that Hong manages to preserve the daily inconsequence of these one-off remarks and interactions, though they hold so much significance. The significance of time—namely remaining tethered to the tangible moment at hand—is exemplified in one specific scene: A nearly 12-minute, uninterrupted take captures a drunken conversation between Sangok and director Jaewon (Kwon Hae-hyo), undoubtedly the film’s most emotional exchange. They discuss their respective careers, views on mortality, and even take a break to play some guitar. At once sloppy, endearing and just a tad too intimate to handle, the scene is a hyper-realistic feat from Lee and Kwon. To convey that sentimental range during an extended take is always impressive to watch, and the actors certainly benefit from Hong’s careful guidance. In Front of Your Face beautifully maximizes the minute details of daily life—a short-lived reunion between aunt and nephew, a spicy (and messy) bowl of tteokbokki, a sister deep in early morning slumber. In most other filmmaker’s hands, these seemingly inconsequential observations wouldn’t seamlessly create a tender and alluring narrative. Yet Hong Sang-soo seems to have it all down to a science.—Natalia Keogan

 


21. Petrov’s Flu

Perhaps the best way to describe Petrov’s Flu, the latest from Russian stage and film director Kirill Serebrennikov, is as an extended cinematic fever dream. However, this simple assessment doesn’t adequately capture the film’s overarching artistic thoughtfulness. It never descends into pure Dadaist absurdism, instead crafting a hallucinatory environment that’s politically poetic in narrative and incisively innovative in visual style. Though Petrov’s Flu is totally non-linear and at times deliriously dense, its 145-minute runtime hardly weighs on the viewer. Serebrennikov creates a compelling labyrinth of a story, composed of delusions, memories, projections, fantasies and banal real-life occurrences—all seamlessly blending and blurring together with exquisite precision. Based on the 2016 novel The Petrovs In and Around the Flu by Alexey Salnikov (a hit in Russia that’s yet to be translated into English), the film begins with Petrov (Semyon Serzin) on a packed bus in bustling Yekaterinburg on New Year’s Eve. Pale, clammy and incessantly coughing, Petrov looks so ill that a woman gives up her seat and demands he get off his feet. “You look cancerous,” she plainly observes. “It’s just the flu,” he counters before taking a load off. Just one minute later, the bus comes to a screeching halt. Petrov is beckoned off the vehicle, given a rifle and ordered to partake in a makeshift firing squad. Citizens in suits and lavish fur coats are unloaded from an unmarked van, lined up against a wall and swiftly shot dead. He’s thanked for his service and allowed to re-board the bus. His fellow riders look on behind dingy, fogged glass—their faces are blank, almost bored. This all occurs less than five minutes into the film, imparting a sense of whiplash onto the viewer that is exhilarating in its immediacy. With Petrov’s Flu finally releasing stateside after premiering at Cannes in 2021 (which the director was barred from physically attending), the liberatory nature of the film is entirely palpable. Like downing shots of vodka after receiving dizzyingly good news, the film’s harsh bitterness gives way to an intoxicating warmth that eats at the very fabric of reality. Only the sobering chill of the next morning will determine the veracity of the previous night’s exploits, some actions far more uncanny than others only in retrospect.—Natalia Keogan

 


20. Neptune Frost

Neptune Frost is a powerful film, clean and digestible while it traffics in metaphors and deploys poetry and philosophy. Directed by Anisia Uzeyman (a Rwandan actress and playwright that also directed photography) and Saul Williams (an American musician and multimedia artist who also wrote the screenplay), Neptune Frost is extensively musical without ever being exhausting. It’s clear in its theses, demanding equity and decency for workers, for citizens of the Global South generally and Rwanda specifically, and for intersex and queer Africans subjected to discrimination and marginalization born from the same colonial traditions that rob nations of their wealth. It’s elegantly shot and engages with traditions of science fiction and anti-colonialist magical realism to frame an alternatingly rough and ornate Afrofuturist aesthetic. Calling Neptune Frost art with a purpose feels like damning it to the pile of things that are “good” because they are “important.” Neptune Frost is valuable because of the creative and organic way it delivers its messages: Questioning colonial legacies and demanding change through a moving, musical script while displaying speculative imagery that requires audiences’ imaginations as well as their eyeballs. Neptune Frost is about colonialism’s consequences—patriarchal heteronormativity, economic exploitation and resource extraction—punishing ignored masses. We need to pay attention; workers’ well-being is the price of our luxuries. In Rwanda, as in other parts of Africa, Asia, Oceania, South America and the Caribbean, the wealth of the West costs lives. But we’ve known this since Cien Años de Soledad, since Candide. It’s a reminder that there are no countries in Africa destined to be deprived of development, only countries who’ve had their wealth taken from and, often, weaponized against them. To that end, the poetry of the script, the clarity of the messages, the beauty of the music and the earnestness of the performances combine to make Neptune Frost a powerful film. Art can’t change the world on its own, but people—moving in solidarity and coalition, speaking up for and out against exploitation—can call upon one another to change it.—Kevin Fox, Jr.

 


19. Nitram

The controversy around even the idea of Nitram was swift, loud and completely understandable. A movie depicting the events leading up to the 1996 mass shooting at Port Arthur, Tasmania—where 35 people were murdered and 23 others wounded—would inherently be profiting from the atrocity. It would humanize a man who committed inhuman acts. It would dredge up the unimaginable pain of the Tasmanian community for the sake of offering “a cautionary tale about gun control,” as if there weren’t enough of those already. Though the raft of objections caused trouble with funding and filming locations, director Justin Kurzel—who lives in Tasmania—persisted. Now there’s a film to judge on its own merits. In that film, the character is called Nitram (the first name of the actual perpetrator spelled backwards), and is played by Caleb Landry Jones. Nitram lives with his parents (Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia), both fatigued from the effort of keeping a vigilant eye on their dangerously erratic grown son. Unable to maintain a conventional job, Nitram meets Helen (Essie Davis) when he’s prowling the neighborhood, offering to mow lawns in exchange for money. Unlike most of the people he encounters, Helen—an oddball herself, albeit a less threatening one—invites him in, and the two embark on an unusual romance. For a while, the two misfits achieve a fragile equilibrium. Then tragedy strikes, and strikes again. Kurzel’s Nitram does a lot of things very well—foremost amongst them, retaining a commendable level of neutrality. Concerns that the movie would pity the killer, that he’d become a misunderstood hero who wouldn’t have chosen to take such a terrible path if he hadn’t been bullied at school or was loved more by his parents, quickly prove unfounded. Nitram doesn’t go too far in the other direction either, not treating its disturbed protagonist as cartoonishly evil. You never get the sense that Kurzel is trying to tell us how to feel about Nitram. We’re asked to observe, not to judge. In a film centered on such a traumatic event, the maintaining of a perspective not overshadowed by intensity of emotion is a notable achievement. Beyond its deeply unnerving character study, Nitram is a stark warning. Some of the objections to Kurzel’s movie could never be satisfied; for many, its mere existence is offensive. However, Nitram does exist, and it’s difficult to imagine how it could possibly have handled its harrowing subject matter with any more sensitivity or respect.—Chloe Walker

 


18. Hold Me Tight

A woman (Vicky Krieps) gets up, collects her things and leaves her family in a reckless hurry. She embarks on a road trip in the red family car and imagines what her family members are doing in her absence. As she drives toward the sea, Clarisse imagines herself encouraging her daughter Lucie (Anne-Sophie Bowen-Chatet) as she practices piano, watching her son Paul (Sacha Ardilly) measure his growing height and speaking to her husband (Arieh Worthalter) of love and loss in hushed tones. Sometimes they speak back to her and sometimes they don’t, as the line between what is real, imagined and mere memory becomes deliriously blurrier. Adapted from Claudine Galea’s unproduced play, Hold Me Tight is a visual and sonic poem that expresses the intricacies of how we communicate with loved ones across time, space, grief and memory. It is a true artistic accomplishment that writer/director Mathieu Amalric was able to take Galea’s text, originally meant for the stage, and spin it into a vivid piece with such a uniquely lush cinematic language. Amalric’s formal risks emotionally pay off tenfold each time a visual or auditory motif is repeated—such as falling snow or Lucie’s piano music. Superb performances from all four leads elevate Hold Me Tight’s emotional avalanche, but Krieps’ performance is a standout in its profound, elegiac devastation—one not seen since Juliette Binoche’s turn as a grieving woman in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue. Amalric knew he wanted Krieps for the role ever since—as the filmmaker explained at a Lincoln Center post-screening Q&A—he saw her “walk through that door and take Daniel Day-Lewis’ order,” in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. Grounded yet imaginative in her desolation, Krieps brings a soft yet strong benevolence to the role even in the woman’s darker moments of anguish. An enigmatic revelation about a woman’s descent into grief-stricken madness, Hold Me Tight packs an agonizingly painful wallop in the form of a complete reversal which would not work without Krieps’ deft skills or Amalric’s confident audiovisual risks. Right when the audience believes they’ve grasped Hold Me Tight’s dreamy threads, the film shifts into something totally new and nightmarish, yet still cohesive with the emotionally forthright throughline of the film overall.—Katarina Docalovich

 


17. EO

On paper, an existential Polish remake of a 1960s French arthouse classic about a donkey’s journey might seem intimidating or uninteresting—flat, droll, inaccessible high art—but writer/director Jerzy Skolimowski is a filmmaking wizard, a Swiss army knife of style and technique that knows how to get your attention with creativity and empathy alone. His rate of constantly evolving expression, executed with the taste and tact of a living legend pushing 85, sucks you in. That, and the most loveable lead, EO. Skolimowski’s contemporary take on Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar stays true to the simple ass-centricity of the original. The plot summary is the same: We follow a donkey through good times and bad. But make no mistake, EO is the wildest donkey film of the fall. Heck, maybe even the whole year. Every second counts. Blink and you might miss a surprise throat cut, lasers bursting through the forest or Isabelle Huppert smashing plates. Where EO (think: Eeyore, or the sound a donkey makes) ends up is as sudden and bewildering to us as it is to him, a paragon in the psychic art of weathering change. EO is innocence incarnate, a pure, blameless, unsuspecting victim around every corner (something you can’t get out of a human character), but he’s not fragile. There’s a near-mechanical will to live, a steely, preternatural sense of survival inside him that won’t give up. EO endures. Skolimowski gets more out of a donkey than most filmmakers get out of a person. EO is experimental and surreal, but not in a brash, over-your-head, alienating kind of way. If anything, it’s just the opposite. Every moment is innovative or imaginative, as if Skolimowski is spinning a wheel of his favorite tricks and applying them to each section as it lands, the prospect of wedding such varied expressions a challenge in itself. Through EO, Skolimowski offers a fresh perspective on our own frailty, our own getting blown with the wind, through life, pain, death and rebirth in an endless cycle. Perhaps the most transfixing moment of EO is near the end: A single waterfall tracking shot reversed into a hypnotic natural rhythm, the water folding into itself as if to be reborn. EO seems to be getting at the rhythm of life—up, down, happy, sad, joyous, torturous, cyclical, always changing, never fully understood. That’s how we see ourselves most preciously in EO. We’re never in control, even when we think we are.—Luke Hicks

 


16. Broker

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“Don’t have a baby if you’ll abandon it.” This is the first line in Broker, uttered by Bae Doona’s single-minded police detective Soo-jin as So-young (Lee Ji-eun, aka IU) leaves her swaddled baby, Woo-sung, outside a church on a rainy Busan night. The following 129 minutes of the film work to contextualize and complicate that statement. To do so, celebrated Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda uses an ensemble of complex, delicately drawn characters with differing opinions, some strong and some weak, about So-young’s choice. The result is a treatise on the families we make and the systems that get in the way of us caring for one another—and one of the best films of the year. Kore-eda’s talent for delicate character work and rich, contemplative pacing is on full display in Broker. Everyone has an opinion about So-young’s choice to leave her child at a baby box, a designated and safe drop-off spot for parents who are unable to care for their children, and Kore-eda unspools them over the course of the film. For Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won), a volunteer at the church who uses his role to steal babies for the adoption black market with friend Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho), the act of baby abandonment is deeply personal and deeply wrong. Dong-soo was left at an orphanage as a child, and initially uses So-young as an excuse to release decades of unexpressed anger. While some of these characters are deeply judgmental of one another, Broker itself treats each of its ensemble members with immense empathy. In a different world, this could be a family, but Sang-hyeon, Dong-soo, So-young, Hae-jin and Woo-sung keep coming up against systems and expectations that remind them why they can’t keep each other. While Broker ultimately (mostly) reaffirms the power of the traditional nuclear family unit, it keeps space for more creative and flexible systems of caring—and is a more successful story for it. Every baby deserves to be loved and taken care of, but so does every adult. Broker does an impressive job of articulating how these two truths are inextricably intertwined.—Kayti Burt

 


15. Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths

“Ni de aquí, ni de allá” This Spanish expression is commonly used by members of Latin American communities to describe shared experiences of immigration and biculturalism. Meaning “not from here, not from there,” the popular phrase alludes to a sort of geographical and ideological displacement—an uncertain, unsatisfying liminal space between cultures, nations and belonging. In Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, Alejandro G. Iñárritu compounds this labyrinth of intersecting identities with the concept of the bardo, an intermediate state between death and rebirth observed in Tibetan Buddhism. The result is a deeply moving cinematic experience that entangles threads of Mexican history with one man’s surreal odyssey through life, death, success and grief. This fantastic voyage through time and space is led by Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), an acclaimed Mexican-born documentarian who has spent the last 15 years of his life living and working out of Los Angeles. Although he spends much of the film surrounded by his loving wife and children, Gama is primarily left to his own devices when navigating the overwhelming guilt and imposter syndrome that has been brought upon him by his overlapping identities of documentarian, father, son, husband, Mexican, American and immigrant. Shot in stunning 65mm by cinematographer Darius Khondji, Bardo takes visual inspiration from Mexican artists José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros to craft enchanting visual landscapes of absurdity, chaos and fantasy. Similar to Orozco’s 1934 mural The Epic of American Civilization, Bardo often disregards spatial logic. Iñárritu frequently transports his protagonist across seemingly unrelated locations in order to establish spatiotemporal freedom and symbolic meaning. This sensation of geographical, atmospheric and narrative uncertainty are, at various times, both relieved and/or exacerbated by Gama’s contradicting views on Mexico and perception of self. In Bardo, Mexico is simultaneously an amazing and deeply flawed country; this observation feels authentic to the Latin American experience, where many immigrants have good reasons to have fled their homes, but also good reasons to miss it now that they’re gone. What’s more is that these observations remain just that, observations. Bardo has so much confusion, pain and frustration to air, but it expresses itself without lecturing, scolding or claiming to have all the answers. It simply encourages an open dialogue across these complicated themes. Bardo often feels like an inside joke—and for the first time in a long time, I get the jokes. I understand the cultural significance behind Gama’s family being América fans. I’ve felt the joy of dancing my heart out to cumbia with loved ones. I understand the feelings of shame and rejection that can arise when being bicultural in a country that doesn’t always accept different. To me, Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths not only describes the sentiment of “Ni de aquí, ni de allá,” but creates an opportunity for its viewers to feel and understand those very emotions of fear, confusion, uncertainty and dissatisfaction. It’s not always the most pleasant experience, but we’re stuck in limbo—pleasant isn’t the point.—Kathy Michelle Chacon

 


14. Playground

There’s a moment when you go from just watching a movie to becoming fully ensnared by it. Sometimes that moment never comes, and you spend the whole runtime at a slight but significant remove. Sometimes it arrives partway through, with the onset of an unexpected revelation, or the introduction of a new character. And sometimes—rarely—it occurs within seconds. The film has barely started, and you’re immediately in its grasp. That’s what happens in Playground, the intense debut feature from Belgian writer/director Laura Wandel. We open straight on a close-up of the weeping face of a young girl, who’s clinging on to her older brother for dear life. She is Nora (Maya Vanderbeque), and it’s her first day of school; Abel (Günter Duret) is a few years ahead. She’s eventually prised off of him, and continues her terrified trip towards those imposing doors while clutching tight onto the hand of her dad (Karim Leklou), until an offscreen voice tells them that parents can’t enter the school with their children. So Nora’s dad crouches down, gives her a hug—he looks just a little less distraught than she does—and sends her off. After one last run back to him for a final embrace, she’s as ready as she’s ever going to be. Wandel makes a host of great decisions throughout the course of Playground, but by far the most effective is to shoot the whole film from Nora’s height. We are placed at her side in a visceral, destabilizing way; although many of the people who watch this movie won’t be able to remember their very first day at school, Wandel plunges us into the utter terror of being ripped from the comfort of home and thrust into a huge building full of strangers who are all taller than us—and a lot louder too. Wandel heightens the discomfort further by shooting in shallow focus, making the other kids into intimidatingly fast and noisy blurs. And for the entire duration, we never venture further from the building than the school gates. Playground’s original French title was Un Monde—literally “A World”—and it does often seem like Nora and Abel’s school is a universe unto itself. Many years removed from the manifold horrors, it’s easy to minimize or resort to cliché when we talk about school days. Memories dull with time, and so does pain, but Playground brings it all flying back into sharp, sharp focus. Wandel’s movie is immersive and bruising, full of empathy for its young characters, and unrelenting in its depiction of the challenges they face. And it makes you wonder, with utmost sincerity—how did any of us ever reach adulthood in one piece?—Chloe Walker

 


13. Children of the Mist

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What’s most disturbing about Diem HÀ Lê’s directorial debut isn’t the subject matter but rather how nonchalantly it’s treated by those in front of her lens. Among the Hmong people of North Vietnam, it’s customary for young girls to be kidnapped from their homes, forced to become child brides for whomever steals them away. Children of the Mist’s bucolic setting—this mountain community feels like it exists in a mythic past—belies the Hmong’s cruel ritual, and the film focuses on 13-year-old Di, who fears that she could be the next target. But even her parents aren’t all that concerned—after all, it’s tradition—and Diem serves as a silent observer as the townspeople play kidnapping “games,” mocking the terror that awaits these girls. Children of the Mist is deceptively restrained in its first half, but that leads to a finale that’s raw in its pain and anguish. Few recent documentaries have captured anything so heart-wrenching as Di’s abduction, with Diem trying frantically to intervene, her camera recording every traumatizing moment. This is sobering filmmaking that illustrates a terrible injustice and the patriarchal attitudes that keep it thriving. —Tim Grierson

 


12. Lingui, the Sacred Bonds

The Chadian word “lingui” denotes the invisible social ties that sustain communities of people, especially if they’re connected by a common unifying trait. In Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s film Lingui, the Sacred Bonds, this alliance is forged through the strife and solidarity intrinsic to womanhood. Though much of the Chadian-born, France-residing director’s work has focused on the lives of outsiders and underdogs, Lingui is his most feminine-forward film to date—perhaps save for his acclaimed 1994 breakthrough short film Maral Tanié, which chronicles a teenage girl forced by her family to marry a man in his 50s, a union which she refuses to consummate. Similarly in Lingui, a teenage girl named Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio) finds herself maligned by patriarchal society when she discovers she’s pregnant with a child she has no intention of raising. Fortunately, her single mother Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane) understands what it feels like to be shunned for carrying a child out of wedlock, and begins a quest with Maria to secure an abortion—despite the legal and societal ramifications that threaten them if their plot is exposed. The visual splendor of the film is what anchors it in a realm of optimistic rebellion as opposed to depressing observation. Cinematographer Mathieu Giombini (Haroun’s frequent collaborator and allegedly the only white European on the shoot) captures the exquisite beauty of the characters’ every mundane action and intentional idling—whether depicting the strenuous process of Amina fashioning kanoun stoves out of rubber tires to sell in town or the pensive stillness of Maria looking out over the confluence of the Chari and Logone rivers. The effervescent glow of sunlight imbues each shot with a sense of buoyancy that feels apt for conveying the warmth with which these women embrace one another, a constant beacon of hope for sisters in need. Gorgeously realized and bolstered by amazing performances by Souleymane and Alio, Lingui, the Sacred Bonds is a prescient portrait of what tribulations afflict—or await—women who are barred from receiving comprehensive reproductive care. Clearly, the tandem legislative and societal injustices imposed by restricting this access are incredibly heinous. However, no matter what regulations are enacted against a woman’s right to choose, there will surely be an enduring, sacred bond that continues to foster solidarity and sisterhood in the name of preserving the ability to shape the circumstances of our own futures. The merits of mutual aid are inherent to the notion of lingui, after all.—Natalia Keogan

 


11. Decision to Leave

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A detective finds himself falling for his murder suspect, who is fingered for killing her husband. If that sounds like a plot ripped straight from an Alfred Hitchcock film, that’s because it’s textbook Park Chan-wook. The Korean director has been taking inspiration from Hitchcock for much of his career, one defined by twisty mysteries and perverse thrillers that the Master of Suspense likely could never have fathomed. Park’s latest is perhaps the director’s most Hitchcockian in the most crucial aspects, though also more subdued compared to his track record. Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) is an overworked detective who is—in true clichéd, noir form—married to his job more than to his actual wife. The latter lives in quiet, foggy Iso while the “youngest detective in the country’s history” works weeks in Busan, where the crime and murder that sustains him runs rampant. The couple tends to talk about how to keep their marriage lively instead of actually acting upon it. Hae-jun’s wife (Lee Jung-hyun) relays helpful facts about the health benefits of having regular sex, suggesting that they commit to “doing it” once a week. Still, Hae-jun spends more time on stake-outs than in his own bed due to insomnia, which plagues him as a symptom of his pile of unresolved cases. Concurrently with another active case, Hae-jun finds himself adding another crime to his growing folder: A mountain-climber who fell tragically to his demise. Though by all appearances an accident (despite the late climber’s proficiency), the mountaineer’s much younger Chinese wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), quickly elicits suspicion from Hae-jun and his hot-head partner Soo-wan (Go Kyung-Pyo). Park introduces the film’s femme fatale in the most unassuming way: Camera on Hae-jun, with her measured voice off-screen as she enters the morgue to identify her deceased husband. Hyper-stylized, surprisingly funny and a little convoluted, at its heart, Decision to Leave is a tragic story about love, trust and, of course, murder. Arguably, Decision to Leave is more of a romance than anything else; the crime/mystery aspect of the narrative is the least interesting part, though one could assume that’s entirely intentional. While not negligible, the crime is more of a conduit through which the real meat of the story, the relationship between Hae-jun and Seo-rae, is catalyzed and slowly evolves. Their romance is dependent upon requited longing and looming, unresolved threat—the kind of threat that fuels Hae-jun’s sleepless life, the kind that he can’t live without. From the string-centric score to the noir archetypes, to the themes of romance, betrayal, obsession and voyeurism, Decision to Leave is Park’s most clear evocation of Hitchcock to date. Because of this, it becomes somewhat evident where the story will go, even when things take a turn. But the familiarity of the crime narrative reads as intentionally superficial, a vehicle for a more unconventional exploration of the standard detective/femme fatale romance which has laid the foundation for Park’s own sumptuous spin. While not Park’s best work, nor a masterpiece, Decision to Leave is an extravagant and hopelessly romantic thriller that weaves past and present into something entirely its own.—Brianna Zigler

 


10. Girl Picture

Growing up can be brutal. Especially when you’re at what Finnish director Alli Haapasalo describes as the “liminal” age of 17 or 18—aware enough to know you want more, young enough not to know how to get it. In Haapasalo’s beautifully designed, emotionally honest Girl Picture, three teenagers who are not exactly girls and not yet women look for love, sex, belonging and, most importantly, the strength of their own voices to carry them through a moment in limbo. Ronkko (Eleonoora Kauhanen) and Mimmi (Aamu Milonoff) are best friends, classmates and coworkers at a smoothie shop where they use their free time to tell each other everything. Emma (a graceful and compelling Linnea Leino) is a figure skater and fellow classmate with an eye set on the European championships, and a mother who just wants her to take some time to be a kid. When a high-strung Emma locks eyes with a cynical Mimmi at the smoothie counter, sparks fly. Whether those sparks are between friends, enemies or lovers isn’t made clear until a mutual classmate jokingly invites Mimmi and Ronkko to the party Emma begrudgingly attends that night. While Emma and Mimmi are making nice on their own storyline, Ronkko (whom Kauhanen plays with an endearing, open bubbliness) is on a mission to orgasm, or at least to figure out what’s going wrong in her hookups. Staunchly heterosexual and in dogged pursuit of pleasure, she stumbles from one oversexed, awkward interaction to another. These are stories on a micro scale, but Haapasalo treats them with an investment and verve that respects her characters. When you’re walking the tightrope of your late teens, every day is the most important day of your life, every argument the one that will potentially bring the sky tumbling down. That Haapasalo and screenwriters Ilona Ahti and Daniela Hakulinen understand this makes for a film that not only calls out its characters on their overreactions, but examines and has great empathy for the source of those wounds. Amidst the depths of that respect and discovery, Girl Picture is a joyous, resonant snapshot of growing into one’s own, and challenging even your own expectations of who you thought you could be.—Shayna Maci Warner

 


9. The Banshees of Inisherin

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Whether we wear it on our sleeves or bury it somewhere down in the darkest part of ourselves, we all carry the fear that someday someone we trust and love will simply decide to abandon us. It lives somewhere in each of us in the same vicinity as the fear that, someday, inexplicable and motive-less violence will descend on us and our loved ones—a little knot of dread waiting to unspool. But this fear is quieter, simpler and, therefore, less-often discussed in the wider cultural landscape. There are a lot of films about sudden violence, but you don’t see as many feature-length explorations of straightforward, person-to-person departures. With that in mind, it would be easy to look to Martin McDonagh’s phenomenal The Banshees of Inisherin as some kind of fable, a dark fairy tale from a faraway time and place meant to cast long, shadowy metaphors over our own lives. If you’re willing to look closely, you’ll definitely find all the material you need to make those metaphors happen in your mind, but at the film’s Fantastic Fest premiere, McDonagh himself called it “a simple break-up story,” an exploration of what might happen to two men if one simply decided to cut ties with the other. So, is it a grand, fathoms-deep exploration of the bittersweet nature of human relationships, or “a simple break-up story” that’s just about one Irishman deciding he doesn’t want to see another Irishman anymore? In the end, it’s both, and that’s what makes The Banshees of Inisherin and its blackly hilarious portrait of everyday pain one of the best films of the year. Through beautifully framed shots rich with the texture of rustic stone walls and the warped glass of old windows, McDonagh takes us back to Ireland a century ago, where civil war rages on the mainland and things progress at their usual slow pace on the island of Inisherin. It’s here, with artillery fire raging in the background, that Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson) decides he’s done hanging out with his old pub pal Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell). For some on the island, it makes a certain degree of sense—the creative and contemplative Colm and the more simple-minded Pádraic always were a mismatched pair—but for Pádraic, it’s a baffling, literal overnight tectonic shift in his life. He hopes Colm’s sudden distance is part of a fight that he somehow forgot, or a poor choice of words after one too many pints, but according to Colm, it’s painfully, frighteningly simple: “I just don’t like you no more.” It all creates an atmosphere that invites us to ask a question about what we’re watching: On the grand scale of time, does it really matter if one man decides to cut ties with another? Will history record it? Will anyone care? Or, when faced with our own mundane despair in the face of the vast wider world, is being nice to your neighbor the only thing that matters? McDonagh’s characters, and McDonagh himself, might not have an answer for us, but the film’s ability to call these questions to mind is evidence of its haunting power. In its unwavering devotion to the straightforward nature of its story, The Banshees of Inisherin has found something profound and universal, something that will leave you both laughing and shaken to your core. It’s the kind of film that crawls into your soul and stays there.—Matthew Jackson

 


8. Dos Estaciones

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The lush, rolling hills of Western Mexico set the scene in Juan Pablo González’s Dos Estaciones, the director’s first foray into narrative filmmaking. More specifically, the rows of agave plants that speckle these highlands are what bring the film into sharp focus, as the succulent plant’s most prized byproduct—tequila, named after the town in Jalisco it was first distilled in—is the lifeblood of the film’s namesake, a tequila factory named Dos Estaciones. González takes his sweet time bringing characters and their motivations to the forefront, relishing in the details of the laborious process inherent to producing the coveted spirit coupled with the surrounding natural beauty of his home state. Having grown up in Atotonilco El Alto, Jalisco, across the street from a tequila factory owned by his grandfather, González imbues the film with intimate touches gleaned by a native to the state and its most lucrative industry—blending his sparse yet stirring narrative with the observational eye typical of his previous documentary work. The director’s personal history is also evident in the setting of the titular tequila factory, which is actually owned by González’s extended family. However, for the purposes of Dos Estaciones, the factory’s owner is María García (a superb, shattering performance by Teresa Sánchez). She oversees everyone—from the fieldhands to the women who hand-affix stickers on each bottle—with a brusque directness, yet is clearly respected and admired by her workers despite her inability to promise paychecks on time. Gruff demeanor and dwindling finances notwithstanding, María is a beloved pillar of her community: she loans out her own equipment to workers, regularly supports other local businesses, and even attends the birthday parties of her employee’s kids. Dos Estaciones is Mexican slow cinema that defies conceptions often projected onto the country by Americans, while simultaneously criticizing the role the U.S. has played in destabilizing a vital industry in its financial and cultural infrastructure. Whether a tequila factory is owned by American corporations or a local independent business, those responsible for the laborious process of actually making tequila will likely always be Mexicans. What was once a mode of production that sustained a community is now having its resources depleted, with all gains flowing into one corporation’s pocket instead of the land which cultivated it—certainly something to keep in mind before buying Kendall Jenner’s recently launched tequila brand.—Natalia Keogan

 


7. Argentina, 1985

The horrendous historical reckoning inherent to Santiago Mitre’s Argentina, 1985 is unmistakably evoked through the film’s title. The Argentine director, who is best known for political dramas that examine the country’s social follies, meticulously recreates the circumstances surrounding what’s considered the most ambitious trial against fascist human rights violations in Latin American history. Co-written by Mitre and Mariano Llinás (the filmmaker behind the four-part epic La Flor), Argentina, 1985 is a stylistically assured procedural that manages to tastefully recount the mass torture, rape, killing and “disappearance” of more than 30,000 Argentine civilians by the military dictatorship during the so-called Dirty War that lasted nearly a decade from 1974 through 1983. Through capturing victim testimonies as they were presented in court during this months-long trial as well as the dogged pursuit for justice by a ragtag team of bravely dedicated prosecutors, the film wholly resists sensationalization, opting instead to faithfully reconstruct the events that culminated in a landmark win for social justice amid a shakily budding democracy. Ricardo Darín plays Julio César Strassera, the lead prosecutor of the Trial of the Juntas, who is initially fearful over the prospect of publicly presiding over the case against these murderous fascists, none more notorious than one-time acting ruler Jorge Rafael Videla. Obviously, Strassera’s apprehension is more than warranted: With the national wounds still raw from the junta’s merry mass extermination of citizens accused of opposing their rule, he immediately begins to fret for the lives of his wife and children. This anxiety manifests in subtle and overt ways — he loses sleep, relies on nerve-numbing cocktails and begins taking his son to school on the subway instead of risking the threat of car bombs being planted in his modest sedan. However, the pressure of this undertaking is partially lifted from his shoulders when deputy prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani) joins the case. Together, they select a legal team to aid in their extensive, labor-intensive hunt for witnesses, incriminating documents and written statements that detail the nauseating cruelty and violence of the junta. While much of the film is focused on the collection of evidence and ensuing court case, Argentina, 1985 is also masterfully imbued with period-specific details in the costume and set design, painstakingly emulated from archival footage. Sumptuously captured by cinematographer Javier Juliá’s lens, these visual facets make the two-hour-and-twenty-minute runtime melt by. Of course, the film’s streamlined, never-clunky narrative is no doubt bolstered by Llinás’ involvement as co-writer. After helming an 808-minute feature in 2018, an 140-minute undertaking must feel like light work.—Natalia Keogan

 


6. A Hero

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What’s the price for having a conscience? Iranian master Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero spirals out a good deed to all its messy conclusions, providing fertile ground for the filmmaker’s command of aesthetic realism and closeknit interpersonal dynamics. Rahim (Amir Jadidi), a jailed debtor, returns a bag filled with money that he found on leave. The consequences from that act, pushed and prodded and wheedled by Farhadi’s script—which adds a deft understanding of social media to a sharply constructed web of relationships and reputations—are an endurance test for the tear ducts. Doomed nobility is the biggest ask for Jadidi, but his big toothy smile and world-beaten posture allow him to find the perfect amounts of charm (whether genuine or off-putting) or pathos (which we know he’d hate) in Rahim. Sahar Goldoost, Maryam Shahdaei and Alireza Jahandideh make the film a truly potent ensemble drama, while Farhadi’s daughter, Sarina Farhadi, has a memorable return to the screen a decade since her last role, in Farhadi’s A Separation.—Jacob Oller

 


5. Belle

Belle explodes onto the screen with a bombastic concert in a virtual world. Known simply as U, it’s the ultimate virtual community where users can become entirely different from their dull real-life counterparts. Among them is one singer that has captured the love and adoration of billions. As the starlet Belle begins belting out her opening number, center stage on the back of a giant whale, it’s easy to be swept into this vibrant world. Thankfully, Belle has enough substance to back up this spectacle. The crux of writer/director Mamoru Hosoda’s latest film is a reimagined Beauty and the Beast mixed with teenage adversity in a digital wonderland. It’s a potpourri of hormones, misunderstandings and animation styles that recall his 2009 breakthrough Summer Wars. Belle even relies on the family dynamics seen in some of his later movies—like the lone outcast Ren in 2015’s The Boy and the Beast or the wolf siblings in 2012’s Wolf Children. Hosoda’s children have always had to endure great tragedies. It’s within this combination of family struggles and virtual reality that Belle finds its groove. Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) is a 17-year-old high school student who lives in the countryside with her father (Koji Yakusho). Although a few years have passed since the death of her mother, Suzu is still traumatized. She’s shut out the world around her, her despair sapping her of her joy and love of singing. Her relationship with her father is nonexistent, and she’s a certifiable pariah at school. Suzu takes the plunge and joins the world of U. This new world—free of the pressures of reality—allows Suzu to pursue singing once again. That’s until trouble arises in the form of a violent avatar known as “The Dragon.” Belle’s most spellbinding sequences come from inside the virtual world of U. Colorful 3D figures float through a kaleidoscope of colors and towering structures. The biggest setpieces in the movie take place here: An epic concert for billions of eager spectators, a battle through a castle—these are only a few of the memorable sights and sounds of U. To get an idea of what it sounds like, Nakamura’s contributions are like a mixture of rap and pop that becomes an instant earworm like on the opening title, “U.” The song brings in a wild rhythm while Nakamura races to keep up with the beat. It’s the perfect introduction to this futuristic virtual world. Other songs, like the ballad “Lend Me Your Voice” and the soaring anthem “A Million Miles Away,” are more traditional pieces that build up to crescendos that will have your hairs standing on end. Not only is it an intriguing retelling of Beauty and the Beast, it’s also a moving story about overcoming grief and seeking help when everything seems lost. Though it tackles a little too much, Belle is a triumph.—Max Covill

 


4. Aftersun

Parents and children can develop a sixth sense about each other—or, at very least, they can attune some of their five basic senses to each other’s wavelengths without even trying, and those sensitivities sometimes linger. Aftersun communicates its understanding of this connection right away. When Calum (Paul Mescal), a young father on vacation with his 11-year-old daughter Sophie (Francesca Corio), pauses before leaving her alone for a moment, even though he’s out of her sight, she can hear his hesitation. She assures him it’s fine to leave her. Calum’s uncertainty makes sense. Gradually, the movie reveals the basics of their relationship: Sophie’s parents are divorced, seemingly amicably, at least by this point. Sophie lives with her mother in Scotland. Calum lives in London, and doesn’t see her as often as either of them might like. Now they are on end-of-summer holiday in Turkey, at a resort hotel, though Calum can’t afford the all-inclusive passes that would get them unlimited food, drink or whatever else. The pair of them get along—though, as with the friendliness of the divorced co-parents, you get the sense that this may not have always been the case. The time, based on Sophie’s “No Fear” baseball cap and the later-period Britpop that appears on the diegetic soundtrack (“Tender” by Blur; “Road Rage” by Catatonia), the very late ’90s. Eventually, flashes of Sophie as an adult, played by Celia Rowlson-Hall, make it clear that she is remembering this trip, with the help of some home videos we see her taking at the time, and rewatching later. I hesitate to reveal even these minor details, not because Aftersun is full of twists and turns, but because writer/director Charlotte Wells lets this memoir-like movie unfold with such impossible loveliness—and then, as it goes on, with something ineffably anxious beneath the surface. The movie is mostly Sophie’s her point of view, but sometimes Wells follows Calum away from his daughter’s eyes. Are we seeing the truth of those moments, or Sophie’s attempt to reconstruct them years later? Aftersun doesn’t fuss around too much with underlining these ambiguities, though it does use some of its pop songs to comment directly on the action in ways that are at once rapturous and goofily literal, which may be the movie’s way of keeping in touch with its inner tween. Yet Sophie can’t live in that 11-year-old’s memories forever. We see her turning them over in her head, and the movie itself pulls off a devastating flip, from low-key, observant idyll to something profoundly moving about the closeness and distance that can develop in families, sometimes at the same time. In its gentle, modest way, Aftersun might well break your heart.—Jesse Hassenger

 


3. RRR

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A Telugu epic rivaling even the over-the-top antics of writer/director S. S. Rajamouli’s previous massive blockbusters (the two Baahubali films), RRR’s endearingly repetitive and simple title reflects a three-hour romp through Indian colonial history filled with the primal pleasures of brotherhood and balls. Almost cartoonishly political, its story of star-crossed besties Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan) and Komaram Bheem (N. T. Rama Rao Jr.) is one focused on shallow contrasts masking bone-deep similarities. Based on two superheroicized revolutionaries—ones that never, but should have, saved a child by simultaneously bungeeing a tethered motorcycle and horse over opposite sides of a bridge—the at-odds heroes represent the rural and urban poles opposing the British colonizers. Caricatures of the urbane heartthrob and the noble backwoods beast, the two embodiments of cultural pride battle CG beasts, ridiculous Brits and each other—though you can’t help but hope they end up holding each other tight. (They do squats while riding each other piggyback. C’mon.) Their back-and-forth, glisteningly homoerotic friendship walks a taut narrative tightrope, but with the movie’s maximalist filmmaking as its balancing rod. A phenomenally thrumming and amusingly worded soundtrack accompanies some of the year’s most bombastic action sequences and charming dance scenes without mussing a single mustache hair. The two beefy and hyper-masculine leads span silent comedy, musical song-and-dance prowess and elegant fight choreography as the kind of do-it-all stars we just don’t get in the U.S. anymore. As their morally turbulent path rages against the pure evil of the cruel white oppressors, any doubt that RRR is a modern myth fades deep into the shadows of the jungle. Overflowing with symbols, political shorthand and stereotypes of all kinds, RRR rises, roars and revolts with raw cinematic power—and enough fascinating density to warrant watching and discussing over and over again.—Jacob Oller

 


2. Athena

It’s been more than a decade since Romain Gavras filled his raw music video for “No Church in the Wild” with Molotovs, stolen police horses and dropkicked riot shields—visual motifs of protest heroics—and the only thing that’s changed is our familiarity with the aftermath. The rage behind these images still burns, but we know the cold comfort left behind when the embers are finally stomped out. Yet, the only thing to do is light the blaze again, which Gavras does in the riveting, vital Athena. A war epic between the people and the state, it sprints through a grassroots resistance movement like a brushfire: Blinding, dangerous, all-consuming. The warzone is Athena, a French housing project, where tragedy has assembled a community, grown from a family. Idir, 13 and the youngest of four brothers—Karim (Sami Slimane), Abdel (Dali Benssalah) and Moktar (Ouassini Embarek)—has been beaten to death by police. Someone recorded it on their phone. But we find this out in sprinkled bits of exposition, blown to confetti and wafting through the smoke-filled air. Our immediate attention is on Karim, leading a tracksuited pack of neighbors and like-minded young people, raiding a police station. The opening scene, the first of many incredible feats of planning, camerawork and drone operation, will make you vibrate through your seat. Gavras shoots long tracking shots like caffeine straight into your eyes: Painfully energizing. Athena’s opening is one of the year’s best, a piece of relentless, fist-pumping, jaw-clenching, goosebumping action that doesn’t stop until you’re fully radicalized. It’s then that you start peering through the style, seeing how it mirrors the personalities of its perspective characters. There’s a reason Athena feels like a heart attack in motion. There’s pain and panic. Your heart rate isn’t spiking just from the rush. But until we realize that, Karim and his crew star in a sweeping, large-scale epic—a modern 1917 where the horrifying euphoria of war has come home. Athena isn’t here for subtlety. It’s here to blow the drums out of your ears, the lids off your eyes, the lead from your shoes. With shots that start at “un-fucking-believable” and rocket towards “im-fucking-possible,” its grandiose vision aims to define an international symbol of modernity: Protest As War. Benssalah and Slimane, more political gradients than people, guide us along the mythmaking until we’ve fully grasped the absurdity of Athena being both the God of wisdom and war. But, as Frank Ocean sings in “No Church in the Wild,” what’s a God to a nonbeliever? Athena burns bright and fast, searing its unforgettable battle cry into the screen over just 99 minutes. Its idealistic action will stay with you for far longer.—Jacob Oller

 


1. Hit the Road

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The debut of writer/director Panah Panahi (yes, son of famed Iranian New Waver Jafar Panahi), Hit the Road is a sharp and endearing portrait of a family painted through a series of road trip conversations—often veiled, openly lying, or disguised by ballbusting humor. His ensemble includes a car karaoke queen mother (Pantea Panahiha), broken-legged father (Hasan Majuni), quiet driver son (Amin Simiar) and his scene-stealing fireball of a little brother (Rayan Sarlak). And a cute puppy, which means constant pee breaks. Together, they traverse the dry and rural roads fulfilling checkpoints for a mysterious quest that becomes clearer and clearer as they go. Panahi dwells on lived-in conversational rhythms as much as landscapes, both beautiful and affecting in their own ways. Sarlak’s manic little squirt often pays his respects to the picturesque horizon, but every long and loving sparring match between family members contains just as much reverence. It’s this adoration for closeness—and the confidence and trust in your cast to simply sit and shoot them rambling affectionate obscenities for long, long takes—that makes the film’s bittersweetness work so well. When Sarlak’s hilarious antics (he needs to get his contraband cell phone back because of all the people who constantly want to chat with him) and his parents’ deadpanned one-liners give way to fears about loss and separation, familiar modes of connective chatter become coping mechanisms and then reverse course, sometimes in seconds. Panahiha is particularly potent at this, letting it all play on her face—while singing her heart out, no less. For his part, the incredible Sarlak gets a musical moment as show-stopping as Mads Mikkelsen’s Another Round finale last year. It’s a movie where anyone can be a punchline, but nobody’s ever the butt of the joke. There’s too much love at hand, and even a child’s goofy babblings about the Batmobile can be transcendent moments of beauty. The road trip always has to have an end, but the excellent Hit the Road promises that the journey is as good as the people crammed in alongside you.—Jacob Oller

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