Woman at War (Directed by Benedikt Erlingsson)
From my review: The war in the title is most definitely a cold one, and arguably a conflict Halla is fighting with herself. There is a group of inept police and drones that show up in the second act, but they never really feel like a threat. It’s Halla and the mistakes she makes that lead to the film’s finale. Part of what Halla is moving towards is an understanding that you cannot save the planet alone, and by the end of the movie, there is a small but growing number of supporters. We also see her framed against the immense challenge of repairing the environment, further emphasizing how much she needs help. There are no answers to the big questions in Woman at War; instead, it helps soothe those anxieties and remind us we’re not alone.
The Old Man and the Gun (Directed by David Lowery)
From my review: Lowery has created a beautiful, humanistic story that never passes judgment on any character and simply allows them to live and breathe in still moments. Humor comes out of their interactions, and everything feels smooth and fluid. There’s never any onscreen shooting and Tucker prefers to never use his gun. He only pulls it once when on the run from the police, holding a woman at gunpoint that drives him away, and immediately regretting his actions. The money Tucker steals is stashed under the floorboards of his house, where it gathers dust unspent as he looks to the next job.
Widows (Directed by Steve McQueen)
From my review: In the hands of a more studio, executive-pleasing director Widows would just be a slightly okay crime movie. However, when you combine the writing prowess of Gillian Flynn and the directorial touch of Steve McQueen you end up with a genre film that is elevated to exist in a middle ground adjacent to more arty fare. McQueen chooses to shut typically mundane conversation scenes with impressive and creative cinematography. One standout was a conversation held by Colin Ferrell’s sleazy politician Jack Mulligan and his assistant. Instead of medium shots or close-ups inside the car, the camera remains mounted on the hood of the vehicle. The conversation happens off-screen as we drive from the projects in the ward to the edges which have become gentrified. While a discussion about the exploitation of the working class and poor black community is carried on, we see the very nature of the white takeover of their neighborhood before our eyes.
Ash is Purest White (Directed by Jia Zhangke)
From my review: There’s an ever-present sense of never being able to escape your past, your hometown. Qiao wants to leave Datong from the start of the picture and only gets that chance through imprisonment. When she tries to start over in a city with boundless economic potential, she finds it’s a place of lies, moving too fast for her in the wake of eight years behind bars. Inevitably Qiao ends up back where she started facing old men who still think they are young and powerful. There is no great Chinese promise of a brighter future for Qiao, she will never move on.
Leave No Trace (Directed by Debra Granik)
From my review: The story of Will hints at a tragic ending, one we won’t get to see. Instead, Tom’s life is one with possibility, but it becomes clear it won’t become that as long as she goes along with whatever Will decides. At various moments in the film, she makes connections with a boy raising rabbits for 4-H, a veteran medic who has a therapy dog, and an RV camp landlord who leaves supplies for homeless people in the woods. Tom feels a pull towards people who take care of others, mainly because that is the role she’s held with her father. Tom may become a nurse or social worker, shaped by her experiences in childhood, there’s no doubt she will be someone who tries to save those like her father, even if she can’t save him.
Under the Silver Lake (Directed by David Robert Mitchell)
From my review: Under the Silver Lake is a film greatly interested in esoterica and urban legends. Mitchell employs the same subtle world-building of It Follows to fill in details of a universe that doesn’t exist. There are some real-world references, particularly to music, but overall you quickly feel like you see at least the underbelly of our reality. Sam chances upon a bizarre zine at his local used records/bookstore and seeks out its author. The contents of the publication purport to tell all the secrets of the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Using animation, Mitchell brings the zine to life, and we see the curse that led to the current plague of the enigmatic Dog Killer as well as a genuinely creepy story about an owl-woman who slinks into private homes and tears out the jugulars of their occupants while they sleep.
The Tale (Directed by Jennifer Fox)
From my review: The Tale is first and foremost a film about the illusory nature of memory, especially when confronted with trauma. There are so many ways this could be approached that would feel rote, but Fox becomes very meta-textual with her film and seeks to incorporate elements of documentary filmmaking into this narrative movie. An off-screen Jennifer (played by Laura Dern) figuratively questions Mrs. G in the same you might see Errol Morris interrogate one of his film’s subjects. The same happens with Bill and then finally her younger self. The thirteen-year-old Jennifer is a character unto herself, separate from the adult Fox. Young Jenny has very different ideas about love, sex, and her own experiences and she does a damn good job convincing her adult self that everything was fine. However, that is the nature of adults when confronting this type of trauma they have justified, they convince themselves they were just mature for their age, and they were equals with the person who raped them.
The Nightingale (Directed by Jennifer Kent)
From my review: There are moments so harrowing and emotional that occur in The Nightingale that I felt like I might break down in tears. This is a rarity for me to find in a film, having watched so many and become aware of so many tropes and plot formulas. This isn’t to say that the inciting premise of The Nightingale will seem novel to other viewers, it isn’t. This is a revenge film centered around a female protagonist, the type of story told many times before and one that is particularly popular in our time. This isn’t a film about the catharsis of revenge; the final shot makes it clear that our main character is not redeemed in any manner. Instead, this is a story about the seemingly innate drive to seek bloody justice and the tremendous toll that takes on a human being.
The Wild Pear Tree (Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
From my review: The crux of the film is a chance encounter Sinan has with Süleyman, a writer in Çanakkale, when they run into each other at a bookstore. Süleyman decides to humor the young Sinan’s inquiries, but it quickly becomes clear that the young man is becoming insulting and presumptive. Süleyman is walking home, still followed by Sinan, who has now reached the point of casually referring to the author as a sellout for taking a pragmatic rather than romantic view of writing literature. Süleyman finally snaps and tells Sinan what he needs to hear, but it’s ignored by the young man who believes he knows better because he has “integrity.” This begins a resentment against his father that drives Sinan to strike at things he holds most dearly to hurt his parent.
Thunder Road (Directed by Jim Cummings)
From my review: Arnaud represents a broad swath of men raised to repress their emotions or only allow them to be released in the form of anger. He’s going through a depth of sadness his upbringing never prepared him for. There’s no anchor to grab onto and even the brotherhood he is a member of, the police force, abandons him when he finally cracks and puts on a public display of grief. As much as Arnaud appears to have no one as the film goes on, we see that he’s fighting to put himself back together. Slowly but surely he starts listening to people around him and sees the truth in himself and that there is support, yet those are people who are struggling too. Thunder Road is one of those remarkable pieces of human cinema that never discounts joy for darkness or vice versa. It seeks to present a human life as is.
Mandy (Directed by Panos Cosmatos)
From my review: This is nostalgia that isn’t done in a wink and nod manner. Cosmatos profoundly understands the emotional psychology of kids when they watch movies. He’s also done a very obvious study of low budget genre pictures from the early 1980s and comprehends them more thoroughly than most of the retro-Grindhouse films coming out in the decade. So much of the new wave of Grindhouse is played for ironic humor, but Cosmatos holds a reverence for the grimy, roughshod genre that inspires these homages. This is conveyed in the film during a brief scene where Mandy and Red watch television while eating dinner. The movie on the screen is Don Dohler’s Nightbeast. Dohler was Baltimore-based movie maker that specialized in micro-budget genre horror and sci-fi. Most modern audiences would watch a film like Nightbeast in full MST3K mode, but we see Mandy wholly enraptured with what’s happening on screen. She views this low budget cheesy movie as telling us a remarkable story, which in turn informs us of Cosmatos’ personal beliefs.
First Man (Directed by Damien Chazelle)
From my review: My favorite part of First Man is how it takes the space program, such a textbook topic, and makes it feel textured and real. There’s such attention to process and the slow, steady stages of each mission. The astronauts spend much of their time logging data and charting courses. The understanding of mathematics each of these men had to possess is one of the most overlooked elements of our space race. In addition, the coolheaded nature they were able to achieve even in the direst of circumstances was admirable. You realize why it is we didn’t have a more significant number of astronauts who died in the process of getting to the moon. They essentially gained doctorates in physics and engineering on top of the physical preparation.
Lean on Pete (Directed by Andrew Haigh)
From my review: Charley has never really experienced love, except for that one short time with Aunt Margy. She truly loved him, and then they had to go away. So, when Charley meets Pete, a horse considered valueless, he wants to repay that love. Charley begins to see the beauty in Pete, old but still strong, full of opinions and not easily tamed. He wants to rescue Pete in the same way he needs someone to save him. No one’s coming for Pete, so Charley takes it upon himself without ever asking if anyone is coming for Charley. So often the rural corners of our nation are portrayed as the warm, moral centers, the “Heartland.” Director Haigh has no qualms pointing out how stark and lonely the landscape and its people can be, just as devastating as any urban nightmare conjured up. Charley happens upon a house occupied by two veterans who returned from Iraq. They discuss what they saw over beers, sharing stories of dismemberments and humans turned into paint by bombs, chuckling about it.
Roma (Directed by Alfonso Cuarón)
From my review: Cuaron deftly weaves in moments of profound humor and horror. There is a training scene involving a television personality making an appearance and showing off a pose he claims only the most trained of individuals can pull off — the soldiers training attempt to ape him and even the onlookers that had been watching the soldiers try their hand at the feat. They all do so with their eyes closed missing the fact that Cleo is the only one to pull it off correctly. Later, Cleo is shopping with the grandmother of her work family when the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre occurs. This event involved student protests turning bloody when the plainclothes military opened fire on the youths. Cleo witnesses a student dash into the store to hide only to be followed and gunned down in cold blood. There is never any exposition or further commentary to contextualize the moment, but this act of death is juxtaposed poetically with the next few events.
Eighth Grade (Directed by Bo Burnham)
From my review: Kayla’s story is small from our point of view, but Burnham uses all the technical trappings of cinema to make her last week of middle school an epic moment. The music and cinematography lend gravitas to these encounters and moments in a manner that never mocks her because of her age. Burnham has said that this isn’t a film about “little us,” it is a film just about Us. The same things that made us anxious when we were young are often the same things that can trigger that anxiety to emerge again when we’re adults. Some adults get a better handle on these intense emotions, but still, have to work through them from time to time. At the end of the film, in a video to her future high school graduate self, Kayla says she’s looking forward to becoming that person, but it’s okay if what she imagines high school to be doesn’t work out that way. If we could all go that easy on ourselves, so much of our fears would melt away.
Cold War (Directed by Paweł Pawlikowski)
From my review: In the span of just 88 minutes director, Pawel Pawlikowski tells a complete sweeping story of a tragic love affair over an entire decade. I never felt the runtime but never sensed that important moments were being rushed. When the scene needs to linger, it does so as long as it needs, but when a moment should be fleeting, you must hurry to hold onto it. There are lots of music moments ranging in style from Polish folk music to smokey Parisian jazz to Cuban. As expected the music tells an important story, like in a musical working as the expression on the internal thoughts. There’s a folk song sung from the point of view of young lovers whom Fate has kept apart, a lamentation. The song is transformed over the course of the film and reflects both the changes in Zula and Wiktor’s relationship as well as commentary on the loss of Polish identity to powers beyond their borders.
Hereditary (Directed by Ari Aster)
From my review: The power of Hereditary is not in some shocking reveal in the plot, but in the outrageous outbursts between family members, particularly Annie and Peter. The film is primarily about the relationship between this mother and son, with the doomed and damned relationship between the late matriarch and her son, Charles looming in the murky shadows. Toni Collette plays Annie and once again reminds us of her power as an actor. She finds that unbalanced place of a mother who has fears about the mental illness that may be present in her family tree. Her youngest, Charlie (played by the astonishingly good Milly Shapiro) is a withdrawn child prone to tinkering with constructed people, made of scraps of things she finds. In many ways, Charlie is a reflection of Annie. They are both devoted to their art and Annie worries about what Charlie will miss by being so embedded in the internal world.
Burning (Directed by Lee Chang-dong)
From my review: What I found to be the thematic core of Burning was the questioning of certainty. Lee never sees the full picture he gets small, seemingly contradictory facts from a few people. The moments where you could argue he has the strongest confirmations of his suspicions are weaker upon further examination. A cat responding to its name maybe didn’t react to that name, there was something else that caused it to come to Lee’s arms. There’s never enough there to know for sure what happened, but Lee still makes a decision of finality that stays with us beyond the fade to black and rolling of credits. That feeling of dissatisfaction you feel is the natural result of a film structured not to give you closure.
The Favourite (Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos)
From my review: The Favourite keeps in tone with being a pitch-black film as we would expect from Yorgos Lanthimos. He isn’t here to offer a happy ending, but rather an honest one. There’s no way these three characters, after the way they venomously manipulate and emotional torture each other, are going to see the light at the end of the tunnel. They orbit around a figure who is trapped in her neuroses and has been given near limitless power. There’s no real escape, and the hill they scale has no summit. Everything is the mire, and they are wallowing in it.
Suspiria (Directed by Luca Guadagnino)
From my review: Amongst this thematically imposing story, we have gorgeous desaturated visuals. The world of Cold War Berlin is palpable wet and overcast, rain transitioning to snow over the course of the film. The city is a washed-out, everyone wearing a variation of black or brown. However, Guadagnino sweeps his camera around with crackling energy, pushing tracking shots through empty lobbies, whipping the camera around to catch people gaining on us. The gore surpasses the violence presented on screen in the original. Bones are made into matchsticks. The witches create shadows that become holes in the floor ready to catch their victims. A coterie of victims is discovered in the third act that will unnerve. But the true moment of terror is a grand guignol finale that rivals any presentation of the occult put to screen in my viewing. The darkness and evil on the screen vibrate, and it is pretty incredible.
Shoplifters (Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda)
From my review: Despite the warmth exuded by the family there is no romanticizing the situation. By the conclusion, we get an authentically stark note. Because they have been balancing themselves on the edge of marginality when everything comes crashing down it is hard and destructive. Family members commit acts that betray yet are still perfectly understandable and sympathetic. Other family members make significant sacrifices to their well-being to ensure everyone can keep living and trying to make something out of life. I was pleased that the director made a choice not to give us a fairy tale ending. There are real beauty and sadness where everyone ends up. Some connections are strengthened despite the certain distance, others are left in situations that have potentially sad & ambiguous futures, and one family member is last seen at the precipice of a decision we aren’t allowed to witness.