As the decade draws to a close, each individual year feels longer – and stranger – than the one before it. Unlike films released in 2018 and 2019, films and film directors have had time to make peace with what to do when the future looks uncertain and grim. The best films this year (so far) are not about acknowledging a shift in our world – the previous two years were more about that – but how to doggedly push forward. The films in this list vary in ambition and scope, and yet they have a shared sense of perseverance.
15. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek
This minimal thriller was buried on VOD platforms, and has added resonance now that militias are assisting politicians in the dereliction of their duty. Director and writer Henry Dunham uses an admittedly convoluted premise: in the wake a mass shooting, members of an unnamed militia must figure out who among them did it. There’s a tickling clock, too, since they suspect that the police are about to swarm their headquarters, killing them all. There are echoes of Reservoir Dogs here, but Dunham opts for more subdued, intense performances. James Badge Dale has never been better as Gannon, an ex-cop who questions the militiamen about their potential involvement, and the interrogation scenes draw out serious feelings of suspense. Dunham fumbles the ending a little, but his economical style commands attention through unease.
You may notice that my original review only gave this bizarre film, one that flouts convention and good taste, a mixed-positive reaction. But film reviews are only a snapshot of a critic’s thinking, and I can’t shake Steven Knight’s brazen neo-noir. It starts off conventionally enough, but then becomes something much more miraculous and bizarre. Serenity was marketed badly, it was dumped into theaters in January, and it has a Cinemascore of D+. Don’t let that dissuade you. In a year where audiences are unimpressed by remakes and sequels, they are also quick to dismiss stuff that’s genuinely original.
After the stunning high of Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch’s cool-as-hell vampire film, he returns to horror with this zombie comedy. Many critics are skeptical of this film’s irritability narcissism. It’s admittedly a tough sell: Jarmusch assembled a terrific ensemble cast, only to use some beloved actors in throwaway gags (Iggy Pop has only a couple lines, and they’re both the same single word). There is some merit to these critiques, and yet The Dead Don’t Die deserves inclusion because of its deadpan comic philosophizing. Throughout the film, Adam Driver’s character keeps repeating, “This isn’t going to end well,” but he keeps doing what he’s supposed to. That’s our moment in a nutshell.
“You have to love something in order to hate it.” That line appears late The Last Black Man in San Francisco, an elegy for a city that’s losing its community and character. But director Joe Talbot and his key collaborator Jimmie Fails find hope, even humor, as they depict a struggle with a hopeless outcome. San Francisco has never looked better, for one thing, and the film’s take on gentrification has more nuance than outrage. By the time that line is uttered and the lead character has made peace with his fate, he is ready to accept he can never go back to his home and his identity. If Sorry to Bother You, another Bay-area indie film, is primarily about rage, then this one is about grace.
11. The Perfection
Have you seen The Matador, the 2005 comedy about an unlikely friendship between an ordinary businessman and an assassin? If you haven’t, you should rectify that immediately. Its director, Richard Shepard, has a knack for dialogue and setting, and he managed to reinvent the film’s true purpose multiple times. He brings that same sensibility to The Perfection, a twisty horror revenge tale that unfolds like Whiplash‘s worst nightmare. Allison Williams and Logan Browning are terrific as talented cellists who find themselves jockeying for attention in the cutthroat world of classical music. Still, that is only one dimension of a film that incorporates eroticism, body horror, black comedy, and feminist revenge into a singular cocktail of cinematic delight. If anything else, The Perfection deserves inclusion here for its final image, one that manages to be striking, beautiful, and utterly macabre.
10. High Life
Claire Denis has been making films for just over thirty years, but she did not make her English-language debut until High Life, a perplexing science-fiction film that adheres to few genre conventions. She is closer to Solaris than Star Wars, and yet this film – about a group of convicts who choose a space voyage over execution – is its own thing. The storytelling is elliptical, with Denis doling out minimal information. There is little awe over space travel, and the spaceship itself feels like an abandoned insane asylum. All that being said, there are rich performances, particularly from Robert Pattison as Monte, a sullen man who has a sense of decency forced upon him. If you read between the lines and his flinty performance, he finds a satisfying arc. This is a man who looks forward and sees oblivion, but somehow finds the inner strength face it. That’s real courage, which is not something you would expect from a film with a freaky sex swing.
One of the year’s funniest, most outlandish films comes from Iran. It is about Hasan (Hasan Majuni), a sullen film director whose best work is behind him. Something strange starts to happen in the tight knit artist community he shuns and craves: his contemporaries are being decapitated, with the word “PIG” scrawled in blood on their head. Director Mani Haghighi has made a satire, not a thriller, so Hasan is more jealous than afraid. Is he not good enough to be ritualistically murdered? What does that say about his career? What happens to Hasan – and the identity of the killer – is all about the role censorship and religion plays in Iran today. Some of the jokes are jarring, particularly since they have a Western influence to them, but that just goes to show that a country’s leadership does not always reflects the sensibilities of its people. That is something we know all too well nowadays.
I’m not going to say much about this one since it comes out on July 3. For now, I’ll leave you with this: Ari Aster’s follow-up to Hereditary is not as gory, but far more disturbing.
Mike Leigh does not give a fuck. He is tired of historical films with recognizable heroes and digestible narratives. The thrust of history – political history, in particular – is far messier and frustrating than that. Peterloo is about the lead-up to The Peterloo Massacre, an event where the English government slaughtered people who were organizing peacefully. This happened in the immediate aftermath of Waterloo, and since victors get to tell how it all went down, this episode is often overlooked. This pisses off Leigh, so his film in unabashedly political, with a naked desire to provoke. He makes no attempt to hide his agenda, and the build-up to the inevitable is all the more frustrating. This is the rare film that will leave you craving more information, and yet there are no helpful title cards before the closing credits. You’ll have to look them up yourself, and what you uncover is almost as shocking as what you see in the film.
6. High Flying Bird
Only Steven Soderbergh would make a sports film where we see virtually no sports being played. The prolific filmmaker has always stood on the boundary between mainstream and avant garde, and this twisty drama is no different. It is about Ray (André Holland), a talented NBA agent who sees opportunity during a player lockout. He does not tell anyone what he is thinking, even the audience, so part of the film is trying to guess what he is thinking. The script by Tarell Alvin McCraney offers few hints, so the premise asks a lot from the audience. It is involving because its ideas are radical, its performances are sharp, and the dialogue trusts you’re an adult who can grasp subtext. High Flying Bird premiered on Netflix, a platform that is designed for movies that you can watch while twiddling on your phone. This one requires active engagement – you cannot just observe, you’ll need to think – but the rewards are all to uncommon nowadays.
German filmmaker Christian Petzold is known for his dense melodramas, but his latest also has tinges of allegory. His premise – a potent hybrid of romance, war, mistaken identity, and existential dread – takes place during the beginning of World War 2, with the Nazis sweeping through France. Petzold adds a daring complication: he does not include any period details, and instead the film looks like it is set in the present. At first you might think you’re watching science fiction, or a dystopia where a tyrannical government is rounding up undesirables. Once you adjust to what he is doing, then Transit serves as a daring indictment of our present, instead of a safe story from our past.
There are outliers like John Wick Chapter 3, but most American films do not have good action sequences. They are too clumsy, with frenzied editing taking the place of telling a story through movement. Shadow, a martial arts film set in ancient China, has more sumptuous action than anything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Fast and Furious franchise. Director Zhang Yimou – best known for Raise the Red Lantern and Hero – takes his time to get there, using archetypes to create a dense mix of betrayal and palace intrigue. Once the action starts, however, then there is an elegance to his violence, and all the battles have significant, character-driven stakes to them. Shadow is almost like a black and white film, with the cinematography and production design sticking primarily to shades of dark grey. By the end of the film, however, there is an introduction of another, more vivid color: red.
Jordan Peele is so hot right now. After the rousing success of Get Out – a film that earned him an Academy Award – he is basically free to do whatever he wants. Peele’s been developing TV shows and doing voice work, but his follow-up film Us was his most anticipated project. If Get Out is a small film, then Us is Peele working with much, much larger canvas. At first, the film is a Michael Haneke-esque home invasion thriller, only to shift into a more traditional horror, and then become… well, no need to spoil it. Peele’s critics have complained about the implausibility of his premise, as if tight narrative is a requirement for a genre that taps into our primal, urgent fears. With Us, Peele found a way to explore issues of race, identity, family, and WEB Du Bois’ notion of double consciousness. He also managed to do this with a funny, scary film that’s anchored by a strong cast (Lupita Nyong’o gives the year’s best performance so far). No other mainstream director is better attuned to what is happening right now, which is remarkable since Peele remains a populist filmmaker who trusts his audience.
2. Leaving Neverland
The most controversial film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival is about Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two men who say Michael Jackson sexually abused them when they were children. Jackson fans protested the Park City screening, and have launched an online smear campaign against anyone who dare believe what Robson and Safechuck. The thing about Leaving Neverland is its muted, patient tone. Director Dan Reed’s technique is simple: he listens to these two men at length, letting the audience judge for themselves what to think. Lots of attention goes to their families, particularly in the fallout of Jackson losing interest in them. There are heartbreaking little details, like how Safechuck’s hands shake when thinking about a particularly intense episode. This is not a #MeToo documentary or a hatchet job. Instead, through deliberate patience and empathy, we have a heartbreaking window into how sexual abuse echoes in the lives and minds of its victims.
1. Apollo 11
This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of American astronauts landing on the Moon. Forget about the space race or Neil Armstrong’s family for a moment, and think about the enormity of three men hurtling 238,900 miles through space in a tin can, and returning safely. Apollo 11 exhaustively recreates the engineering and scientific breakthroughs in that mission, and the documentary is a masterpiece of footage assembly. Director Todd Douglas Miller lucked into some astounding footage, including 70mm recordings of the Apollo 11 launch. His film is like the world’s most vivid time capsule, except Miller is obsessively focused on everything that had to go right for the voyage to be a success. There are no talking heads or traditional interviews. Instead, Miller trusts that the most momentous episode of human exploration is enough of a draw on its own. In a year where choosing hope seems increasingly foolish, his film is a reminder what commitment and innovation can accomplish.