Ad Astra – A futuristic deconstruction of masculinity packaged as a big-budget sci-fi spectacular, James Gray’s Ad Astra travelled light years beyond expectations (critically) while underperforming at the box office. In a towering, career-defining performance, Brad Pitt plays an astronaut tasked with saving the galaxy from a series of magnetic blasts that his Neptune-orbiting father (Tommy Lee Jones) may be responsible for. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s desperately lonely vision of space and Dev Hynes’s haunting score evoke an unforgettable sense of metaphysical dread rarely seen in mainstream cinema. Boldly punctuated by a few wildly exhilarating action sequences (space pirates!) that bring welcome bursts of adrenaline to an otherwise somber and introspective affair, it’s one of the most tightly designed films of the year, and a tiny glimmer of hope for the future of popcorn movies.
Atlantics – Holy shit, what a debut. Set in Dakar, Mati Diop’s beguiling mix of love triangle, supernatural drama and revenge thriller tells a reasonably simple story (lovers kept apart by circumstances beyond their control) while casually weaving in themes of worker exploitation, female autonomy and the European refugee crisis. This is what it looks like when your whole team is on point – the young actors are brilliant, cinematographer Claire Mathon (who also shot Portrait of a Lady on Fire) creates an uniquely ominous tone, and Fatima Al Qadiri’s textured score perfectly emphasizes the aquatic vibe. We can’t wait to see was Diop does next.
Bait – “The view may be beautiful. But you can’t eat it” teases the poster for Mark Jenkin’s Bait, a townies-vs-weekenders drama set in a picturesque Cornish fishing village. Keeping with the grand tradition of British cinema’s obsession with class warfare, this is a stirring morality tale about domestic tourism and its sometimes devastating effects on locals. Beneath the sociopolitical commentary lies a simple story of two estranged brothers, struggling to survive as their traditions are washed away by greed and money. Shot in black and white on hand-processed 16mm, Bait feels somewhat like a recently discovered 1960s university film. Choppy cuts and wooden acting are immediately forgiven as stunningly gorgeous cinematography and an engrossing narrative take hold.
The Beach Bum – Honestly, who’d have guessed that a comedy about a rich stoner named Moon Dog would end up being one of the more moving experiences of the year? It’d take about three hours to list all the batshit crazy things that go down in Harmony Korine’s neon-lit ode to hedonistic fuckery, but Matthew McConaughey eating out Isla Fisher while she gets a pedicure and takes a bong hit is a perfect starting point. So whimsical and absurd that it borders on surrealism, it’s an unexpectedly sweet celebration of defiance and excess that really needs to be seen to be believed. Did we mention Jonah Hill does his best Blanche Devereaux impression, Martin Lawrence plays a dolphin tour guide, and Snoop Dogg’s character is named Lingerie?
Beyonce: Homecoming – Not that it was ever a question, but Beyonce’s intimate peek into the creative process behind her iconic Coachella 2018 performance (Beychella?) reminded us all that she is THE biggest pop star on the planet, the hardest working person in show business, and we should all just bow down to our queen.
Bliss – Shot on sleazy 16mm, Joe Begos’ ultra-violent punk-rock vampire odyssey Bliss answers the age-old question: What would it feel like it Abel Ferrara’s 1979 classic The Driller Killer met up for a weekend of blood-soaked chemsex with Gaspar Noe and ’90s Gregg Araki? Playing a reckless artist with a crippling case of creative block, Dora Madison (miles away from her role on Friday Night Lights) cusses like Joe Pesci and gives one of the most ferocious performances of the year, falling somewhere around Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls on the acting spectrum (yeah, that’s a compliment). Disorienting, aggressively visceral and in your fucking face from beginning to end, it’s a druggy trip you’ll probably want to take more than once.
Booksmart – Finally, a film that lets young women be As Nasty As They Wanna Be without even the slightest hint of judgement. In the year’s most hilarious comedy, Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein play two bookish teens who, on the eve of graduation, get a sudden case of FOMO and try to fit 4 years of missed fun into one night before parting ways. Sure, the plot is similar to Superbad, but actress Olivia Wilde directs the shit out of this, creating an instant teen classic that might even be funnier than Mean Girls.
The Chambermaid – Mexico’s entry for Best International Feature at the Oscars, director and co-writer Lila Avilés’ first feature offers a quiet and observant look into the life of Eve (Gabriela Cartol), a maid in a luxury Mexico City hotel. Avilés has a strong eye for interiors and makes good use of the setting, and the languid pace produces a strangely hypnotic effect as Eve’s day-to-day tasks slowly become absolutely riveting cinema. We’d prefer not to spoil anything, but this also features one of the most surprisingly erotic scenes of the year.
The Farewell – Like the opening title card says, Lulu Wang’s autobiographical tragicomedy is “based on a true lie,” but it’s a good lie. In her first starring role, rapper/actress Awkwafina plays Billi, a struggling writer in New York who still keeps in close contact with Nai Nai (Shuzehen Zhou), her grandmother in China…but we soon learn that Nai Nai only has a short time to live, and, as per Chinese custom, the family plans to keep her in the dark about the diagnosis. All of the themes presented here – cultural identity, mortality, familial obligation, the virtues of selflessness – are carefully explored and come together in perfect harmony. Wang, who also penned the screenplay, has a a knack for realistic dialogue, and it’s the glue that holds the whole thing together. The Farewell doesn’t have answers for all of the existential question it poses, but you’ll leave the theater with a fresh outlook on life, death, and everything in-between.
In Fabric – A deliciously deranged modern Giallo with a strong queer sensibility, Peter Strickland’s movie about a killer dress feels like it was made for the queens. Oscar nominee Marianne Jean-Baptiste plays Sheila, an unlucky shopper who purchases a hot new number from a shady clerk and, to put it very mildly, chaos ensues. The film slows down a little with a surprising swerve into a secondary story, but as a whole, this thing is just completely bananas and offers an endlessly intriguing spoof of fashion, consumerism, and horror cinema itself.
Her Smell – Imagine John Cassavetes making a Courtney Love biopic and you get Her Smell, a showbiz horror show in five acts. Alex Perry Ross’ chaotic and stressful sixth feature stars Elizabeth Moss as Becky Something, a drug-addicted rock star struggling with fame and sobriety, and it will be absolute crime against cinema if she isn’t nominated for Best Actress this year – the intensity and vulnerability on display here is simply mind-blowing. The supporting cast (Eric Stolz, Virginia Madsen, Carla Delevingne, Amber Heard, Agyness Deyn) do their thing, but this is Moss’ show, from the first frame to the last.
Hustlers – Based on an infamous article in New York magazine, Lorene Scafaria’s urban morality tale about a gang of strippers who start drugging and robbing their Wall Street clients lived up to all the pre-release buzz and delivered a career-best performance from Jennifer Lopez. Sure, the first hour is padded with a lot of music montages, but the film becomes absolutely riveting once the plot kicks in, and excels in all the departments another female-driven crime drama (The Kitchen) failed. Extra snaps for casting musical goddesses like Lizzo and Cardi B.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco – Director Joe Talbot and longtime friend (and lead actor) Jimmie Fails’ haunting and elegiac masterpiece about gentrification and displacement in San Francisco’s historically black Fillmore district brims with authenticity and heart in every frame. Poetic and meditative, it’s about a young man attempting to reclaim a beautiful Victorian home his grandfather built in the 1940s. Adam Newport-Berra’s cinematography is especially noteworthy, as is the gorgeous score by Emile Mosseri.
The Lighthouse – An artsy black & white fever dream with lots of farts, cum, and booze, Robert Eggers’ film about two lighthouse keepers (Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe) duking it out on an isolated island in the 1890’s certainly isn’t for everyone. It’s talky, pretentious and starts off a bit slow, but you’ll jump onboard once the film casts its weird mermaid spells and Dafoe goes completely ham – seriously, the performance is just a few notes shy of pure camp. Although Pattinson’s accent is a little shaky, a strong commitment to the role is there, and his work in the outrageous third act is really something to behold.
Midsommar – Ari Aster’s sprawling follow-up to last year’s Hereditary cements the director’s status as the most exciting and emotionally candid emerging voice in the terror genre. Less cerebral and more visceral than its predecessor, the story of an unhappily-in-love American couple (Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor) whose Swedish holiday turns into a drugged-out pagan nightmare relies on old-fashioned visual storytelling. Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography is a marvel, turning the idyllic pastoral setting (Hungary standing in for Sweden) into a central character, equal parts alluring and menacing. Throughout, Aster expertly controls the pace, building to an etive denouement that perfectly complements the insane proceedings.
Parasite – Come for the architecture porn…stay for the curiously perfect filmmaking in Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or-winning black comedy Parasite. The South Korean director (Memories of Murder, Snowpiercer, Okja) keeps one-upping himself with every project, and his latest masterpiece effortlessly bounces between genres (biting satire, family drama, heist joint, straight-up horror) with striking confidence and ease. The less you know going in the better, but let’s just say it’s a clash of epic proportions between the haves and have-nots and comes armed with more than a few clever tricks up its sleeve.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire – In a year filled with mediocre tales of forbidden sapphic lust (Elsa & Marcela, Tell It To The Bees), two films bucked the trend and garnered across-the-board critical acclaim. Set on an remote island in Brittany at the end of the eighteenth century, Céline Sciamma’s absolutely brilliant Portrait of a Lady on Fire tells the story of a female artist (Noémie Merlant) commissioned to paint a wealthy young woman (Adèle Haenel) who’ll soon enter an arranged marriage. Visually splendid and beautifully acted, it rivals only Parasite as the best foreign film of the year. Additionally, Kantemir Balagov’s deeply disturbing Russian drama Beanpole is an absolute knockout and features a lesbian relationship so viciously twisted, it’ll make your head spin.
Synonyms – Winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlinale, Nadav Lapid’s gonzo-ish film about cultural displacement naturally caused a bit of controversy after its premiere – a tale of an ex-Israeli soldier (Tom Mercier) on a mission to renounce his national identity and become French couldn’t be viewed as anything but politically provocative. Based on Lapid’s own experience of moving to Paris and refusing to speak Hebrew, the film is dazzlingly unpredictable, not just in its storytelling and subversion of stereotypes, but especially in its tone and filmmaking style. Exhausting, unreliable and super nervy, you wont see anything else like it this year.
Uncut Gems – Ugh. Hate to break it to you, but Adam Sandler, the nation’s biggest purveyor of unwatchable homophobic “comedies,” turns in an Oscar-worthy performance in the Safdie brothers almost unbearably intense neo-noir about a jeweler who fucks with the wrong people. Sandler was born to play Howard Ratner, a Diamond District sleazebag with a gambling problem, and dives so far into the role, it almost makes you forget he’s spent decades making garbage like Jack & Jill and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.