My Top 20 Favorite A24 Films (2012 – 2018)

My Top 20 Favorite A24 Films (2012 – 2018)

I spent the year watching and revisiting the entire film catalog of distributor/producer A24. Now that I’ve seen all they have to offer, here are my top twenty favorites in ascending order.

20. Lean on Pete (2018) – Written & Directed by Andrew Haigh


From my review:
It was so much darker and bleaker than that. Yes, there is somewhat of an uncertain happy ending at the film’s conclusion, but overall Lean on Pete is a character study of a young man put through the wringer by life. I loved it. I don’t think I have seen a picture in a long time that so unflinchingly depicts the descent into homelessness that a young person can encounter. Charley tries to argue that he isn’t to a fellow transient in a shelter, who replies with a chuckle and lets Charley know, “Sorry to break it to you kid…”

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Hypothetical Movie Marathon – Haunted Places

It’s October, so that means audiences seek out stories of horror both old and new. One common trope is the haunted place, typically a house but it can be any location where someone has died in an extremely violent or tragic manner. Here is a selection of films (and one tv series) that I think present hauntings in an exciting and sometimes very different way.

The Innocents (1961)
Written by William Archibald, Truman Capote, and John Mortimer
Directed by Jack Clayton

the innocents

Based on the novella by Henry James, The Turn of the Screw, this adaptation tells the story of Miss Giddens, a governess who has just arrived at a remote estate in the countryside to care for a wealthy bachelor’s orphaned niece and nephew. The children’s behavior is extremely questionable, and Giddens finds herself attempting to uncover what is driving them to such bizarre extremes. Eventually, she learns of dark events that took place before her arrival between members of the staff and the specters that remain as a result. There are some deep psychological levels to this story beyond the ghosts and this masterfully written, and directed film will linger with you for a long time after viewing it.

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The Boy (2015, dir. Craig Macneil)

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As someone who works with children approximately the age of the title character, watching The Boy is a very interesting experience. It’s fairly well known that during the Victorian Period, the cultural perceptions of childhood changed. Prior, children were seen as small adults and their exposure to hardship and cruelties of life was seen as the norm. In the late 19th century, social justice groups began to criticize the harsh conditions that children were forced to endure and demanded better. Childhood was now seen as a precious, fragile time for these angelic beings to develop. Even Peter Pan was born out of this mode of thinking, along with a myriad of literature aimed at children that approached its material from a place of gentleness. Craig Macneil’s The Boy attempts a character study focused on questions surrounding what happens to a child who has to live through the aforementioned brutality.

Set in 1989, The Boy points its watchful eye on Ted (played with remarkable coldness by Jared Breeze). Ted has grown up at the Mt. Vista Motel, located in some lonely corner of the American Southwest. Ted spends his days collecting roadkill for quarters and wandering the brush around the property. One rainy night, Ted causes a car crash that brings Colby (Rainn Wilson) to the motel for an indeterminate time. Colby is a mysterious figure who avoids the hospital and the local law and this intrigues Ted. At the same time, an anger is growing in Ted that troubles his father (David Morse) and is leading to a violent conclusion.

This is mostly definitely a character study and eschews any sort of heavy plotting towards that style of film making. The camera lingers on Ted and we intentionally view long moments of mundane wandering. As a result, the horror of the film is amplified by the slow burn. I would understand if a viewer became massively frustrated in the first half of the film because it does take its time putting all its pieces in place. Ted’s sociopathy is hinted at and I found myself questioning if there was anything wrong with him, if instead of being mentally ill he was simply a child who was working through feelings of confusion and alienation. The finale of the film removes any doubts yet still holds our lead character in a gray space where his actions could be viewed as justifiable revenge in the mind of an abused child.

The standout aspect of The Boy is the acting. When plot is secondary, a director must have a cast that can develop their characters in organic ways. Jared Breeze is so convincingly cold and distant as Ted, and brings out pathos and emotion only when absolutely necessary. It is incredibly unsettling how well this young actor brings out the complicated psyche of Ted. David Morse and Rainn Wilson, the actors who share the most screen time with Jared, both deliver subtle and powerful performances. Morse, a character actor whose face you know already, is pathetic and infuriating as Ted’s father. He lived the same life as Ted, raised by his father at the motel and admits he doesn’t want this life for his son, but an invisible guilt appears to shackle the patriarch to this place. Even more interesting is Rainn Wilson as the mysterious Colby. We never quite get the gritty details of Colby’s past but so much can be inferred by what we are told. He desperately doesn’t want the police to search his damaged car in the local junkyard and his kinship with Ted is left open for interpretation. Is he actually developing the fatherly relationship the boy doesn’t have with his actual dad? Or is Colby just using the boy to process his own guilt about his past crimes?

The Boy is an incredibly dry and slow film. Don’t expect a campy melodrama pastiche of Psycho despite the setting and themes. The film traffics in one of my favorite element of great art: ambiguity. Lots of questions are left on the table. We never really know “Why?”. And that is okay. So often that’s the question we’re left with in real life, in the wake of tragic violence committed by the grown men Ted might grow up to be. Here, we are allowed a microscope to examine the birth of such evil in detail. What we learn is that the origins of darkness in the soul are more complicated than we would like to think.

Anomalisa (2015, dir. Charlie Kaufman)

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My first encounter with Charlie Kaufman, like most who know his work, came in the film Being John Malkovich. Kaufman wrote the screenplay and it was a truly off kilter, intriguing film. It seemed that more of his work came in quick succession via Human Nature, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. After a brief lull he released his directorial debut: Synecdoche, New York. And now is his strangest visual work, Anomalisa.

Anomalisa is the story of Michael Stone (the voice of David Thewlis), the author of books on effective customer service. He’s come to Cincinnati, Ohio to promote his latest book at some sort of convention (the film keeps those details vague). Michael has a problem when it comes to other people, something I won’t spoil here, that causes him to never fully connect or interact in a meaningful way. He eventually meets Lisa (the voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh) and he begins to think things are turning around for him.

Like all of Kaufman’s work, this film has already burrowed itself into my mind and I know it will stay with me for a long time. His greatest talent is his ability to mine such unpleasant and neurotic landscape of our psyche in ways that make it difficult to look away. Synecdoche examined a man’s yearning to find a deeper connection with others, but Michael doesn’t seem to desire a means to overcome his personal issues. He wants the connection, he knows vaguely what is wrong with him, but he inevitably gives up. Everyone around Michael is very pleasant, even when they get angry they sound soothing. This lack of emotion seems drive Michael deeper into need to be separate, while frustratingly want to communicate. It is intentional that the only scenes in the film that don’t have an annoying level of background noise are when Michael escapes to his hotel room.

The choice to make Anomalisa a stop motion animated film might seem like a bit of visual vanity if you’ve just seen the trailers. The filmmakers strive for realism out of the characters, which they truly achieve. It is the context of Michael’s disorder when he views others that makes the animated elements essential. There is no way the film could have been done in live action and get across the alienation that the animation choices provide. A crucial scene between Michael and Lisa in the film’s third act is the ultimate realization of why stop motion was essential to the film.

This is not a “fun” movie to watch, much of Kaufman’s work is not. There was a backlash as the film made its way through the film festival circuit about the unsavory aspects of the Michael character and speculation as to what moral judgments Kaufman was attempting to convey. In my own viewing, I never felt that it was communicated to the audience that Michael was a positive character and I do not believe Kaufman was attempting to make him sympathetic. The director simply wanted to make him a “true” character. What Michael does is what hundreds if not thousands of despondent, aimless, middle aged men do every day. It doesn’t make them right, but the film is not intending to promote an idealized view of the world. At it’s core, this is anti-indie film. When you look at works that exemplify the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” genre you find an absence of real emotion. Kaufman’s response in Anomalisa is to show the truth of those scenarios playing themselves out. Your life will not be saved through a fateful meeting with a spirited young woman who will awaken something in you. Young women are not thresholds through which middle aged men pass to rediscover themselves.

If you allow yourself to view Anomalisa on Kaufman’s terms you will end up with a film experience that will not leave you easily. If you are uncomfortable, then that is good because that was the intent of the film. Anomalisa is about the narcissistic malaise most privileged people find themselves in after achieving a certain level of success. It is about the struggle humanity continually has in forging real connections with others that don’t focus on what emotional energy you can take from them.

Midnight Special (2016, dir. Jeff Nichols)

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You wouldn’t be wrong if you mistook Midnight Special for a peer to the early film works of Steven Spielberg or akin to something like John Carpenter’s Starman. It’s a film that wears its inspirations close to its heart without becoming a pastiche like Super 8. The shot of a 1972 Chevrolet Chevelle speeding across the wilderness of the Gulf is intended to evoke the sense of the familiar, like a movie you would come across on a Saturday afternoon that you remember from your childhood.

Midnight Special is the story of Alton, an eight year old boy, who is held up as a messiah figure by a religious cult in Texas. He’s kidnapped by his father (Michael Shannon) and a family friend (Joel Edgerton). They embark on a multi-state race against the religious cult and the U.S. government, both of whom have ideas about what Alton is and what he knows. The secret of Alton is something that will change the world’s understanding of the universe, but he had to reach a location in the Florida Everglades by a certain date or his purpose will remain a mystery.

There is very little modern technology present in the film which adds to its timeless feel. Alton reads early 1980s DC Comics during the road trip. A bank of payphones play an important role in bringing a character into the fold. This is a film that, while obvious not in the 1980s, makes you question that face throughout. Adam Driver, as an NSA analyst, comes across as the role Richard Dreyfus would have played had this been made thirty plus years ago. A moment near the end of the film involving a military roadblock of an important access road immediately rang familiar in my head as something out of Close Encounters.

It’s very obvious Nichols is a fan of that and Spielberg’s earlier films. But where the two men split is in the way they portray wonder. Spielberg has his famous slow push in on the awestruck face of a character. Nichols plays things very subtle, which is not always a positive. While, we never feel pushed into sentimentality about the characters there is a sense of distance with them. Withholding a more profound connection with the characters can be frustrating, but in other ways Nichols’ creating an absence of details can add to the mystery. Early on, Alton’s father stands before a man with a gun drawn. The man is in a chair pleading for himself. The scene ends without a resolution. Halfway through the film we learn the man is still alive and never shot. The way it is played works as a surprise and deepening of the mystery that draws us in further.

Nichols is a director intrigued with messiah figures. In Take Shelter (2012) he presents us with a potentially schizophrenic visionary, making us question the reality of the main character’s point of view. He subverts our expectations in the finale of that film and leaves us asking lots of questions. Midnight Special feels more straightforward. We are never meant to question the unearthly power of Alton and see evidence of it from early in the film. This messiah is a tragic figure and I started to view the film through the lens of a story about parents dealing with the death and loss of their child. In the end, our characters are left changed, their faith reshaped. We never truly learn the details around Alton and we are in the survivors’ shoes. Left to wonder about the purpose of this world we inhabit.

Tom at the Farm (2015, dir. Xavier Dolan)

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Frenetic strings screaming. The sound of cornstalks furiously rustling. The blur of figure bursting through them. He enters a clearing in the field. We cut to a tight shot of his face. His bleach blond hair is a tangled mess. A thin line of blood travels from the corner of his lip diagonally down to his chin. He is suddenly thrown to the ground by a man exploding from the corn.

This sort of explosive moment is what Tom at the Farm is all about. It spend the majority of its run time letting tension crank up until the rope is tightly wound. When the tension is allowed to release we’re met with moments of raw brutality that are confusing and upsetting.

Brought to us by Quebecois director, Xavier Dolan, Tom at the Farm follows a young man (Dolan as the lead) as he journeys into the Canadian version of the Midwest. He’s headed there to attend the funeral of his boyfriend, Guillaume. Upon arrival, he quickly learns that Guillaume was keeping a lot of secrets from him and his own family. He meets Agathe, the matriarch, who was lied to about her youngest having a fiance and Francis, the psychotic older brother who believes he can beat Tom into submission about keeping these lies going.

The first time Francis assaults Tom it is shocking and unexpected. But as their aggressive relationship continues it begins to take on a twisted psychosexual tone. At moments, Tom seems to become submissive and seeks out this continued violent treatment from Francis. And even Francis seems to desire Tom despite his protestations. When Tom finally attempts to leave he finds his car dismantled in the barn, stranding him in this desolate farm country. However, he finds himself comforted by the pastoral lifestyle, helping the birth of a calf, and then finding a moment to break down with emotion of what he participated in. In the midst of this tense psychological battle, Tom and Francis end up in an embrace after the latter reveals he took ballroom dancing lessons for a long lost ex.

The tone of the film is balanced somewhere between a lesser Hitchcock picture and The Talented Mr. Ripley. As the film nears its conclusion we discover a secret about Francis that illuminates his virulent anger and rage over Guillaume’s sexuality. The final shot of the film lets up contemplate the consequences of a moment when that rage overflowed. We don’t know what Tom believes about this revelation but we know it will inevitably shake up his world. While as unreal and absurd as the choices are that Tom makes when we, the audience, are likely shouting at him to just leave, these quiet final moments bring the film back to some semblance of a grounded reality.

High Rise (2015, dir. Ben Wheatley)

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The feeling of being alienated from a group perceived as “better” can elicit the most raw of emotions. I see it in my students when one thinks they are not only being excluded from a clique, but believe they have become an object of ridicule. Ben Wheatley’s latest film, High Rise presents characters in this situation, but also places the audience there as well through intentionally obtuse storytelling styles.

Based on the darkly satirical novel by J.G. Ballard, the film centers around Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a doctor who has purchased an apartment in a revolutionary new high rise complex. The building is mixed income, with the poorest residents living on the bottom while the wealthiest reside above the clouds on top. Laing floats somewhere around upper middle class and is very much excluded from the exclusive, extravagant parties in the penthouse. There’s also Royal (Jeremy Irons), the crippled architect of the building who seems to simultaneously loathe his fellow aristocrats while never desiring to visit those at the bottom. Finally, there is Wilder (Luke Evans) a roughneck documentarian that lives in the squalor of the bottom floors. Very suddenly life devolves into tribal warfare among the occupants, resulting in murder, rape, and finally roasting the dog.

Ben Wheatley is a director I have come to love in the last few years, My first exposure to his work was the dark comedy Sightseers, the story of a star crossed couple who bond through murder. This was followed by A Field in England, a psychedelic horror story set in the midst of the English Civil War. This year I finally managed to visit his first major work, Kill List, a horror film about the tragedy that befalls a hitman. All of his work is complex and challenging, often upsetting, but ultimately rewarding for the ideas they put forward.

From the first moments of High Rise it is apparent we are entering a world resembling our own, but not. When the full heft of the madness goes down we lose all contact with the world outside of the high rise. It’s very easy to start to wonder how the external world would react to the brutality going on inside. But the film is not attempting to ground itself. This is Swiftian satire that is going to clobber you over the head with most extreme exaggeration of the ideology it wishes to rail against.

Every visual aspect of the film is perfection. The 1970s are wonderfully reproduced and then twisted into a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Mark Tildesley, the brilliant production designer behind 28 Days Later and Sunshine, is responsible for taking these mundane spaces and transforming them into grim abattoirs.The most chilling aspect of the film is how easily the characters transition from annoyance with others misuse of the garbage chute and jockeying for prime parking spaces to planning raids on lower floors and abducting residents to force them into servitude.

It would be easy to take High Rise as a meditation on the corporate gentrification going on in major cities across the United States and in London. Or it could be seen, as the film teases in its final moments, as a prelude to Thatcher era class warfare. But I see the source material and director Wheatley’s take on it as deeper and more contemplative of our most primal and basic selves. High Rise is a film about the default tribalism society falls into when a crisis overtakes us, and how those who endure and retain some semblance of dignity must step away from the crumbling world around them.