16. The Wonder, directed by Sebastian Leilo
In the guise of a religious parable about a young girl starving herself and calling it a miracle, Sebastian Lelio’s The Wonder raises alot of intricate questions that only a level headed nurse like Florence Pugh can answer. And as that nurse, Pugh gives another strong performance as the skeptical medical personnel dispatched to a small Irish village to stand watch over the little girl and report her findings back to the area’s dignitaries. Building slowly and beautifully, The Wonder fits a common thread of many of this year’s best films in which unspoken trauma and violent grief are buried behind a facade of societal order. It’s only released when someone dares to ask the simple questions. And by buttressing the film’s opening and closing shots as meta-moments on the studio floorboard where the film drifts into fiction, The Wonder seems to be as pertinent as ever that its ideas are universal and not strictly bound by its nineteenth century setting.
15. Catherine Called Birdy, directed by Lena Dunham
There’s a whip smart streak of anachronistic modernism running through Lena Dunham’s very funny adolescent comedy Catherine Called Birdy. Maybe it’s the high school-esque giggling and exchanges between Birdy (a wonderful Bella Ramsey who deserves late season awards recognition) and her friend Aelis (isis Hainsworth). Or maybe it’s the hand scrabbled diary entries that expose Birdy’s inner thoughts at just the right time. Or it’s probably the chaotic and ultimately beguiling relationship between Birdy and her parents (Andrew Scott and Billie Piper) whose disrespect to the usual medieval priority places the film closer to something like Booksmart than Little Women. Whatever the reason, Catherine Called Birdy belongs in that rarified bunch of ‘coming of age’ comedies even though it dares to normalize a teen’s eruption of angst, curiosity, and confusion in a time more susceptible to the black death rather than black metal. This is probably the biggest surprise of the year, and it’s available right now for everyone on Amazon. Check it out.
14. The Antares Paradox, directed by Luis Tinoco
Following a scientist on what’s perhaps her best (and eventual worst) day in her life, Alexandra (Andrea Trepat) arrives for her night shift at her SETI laboratory only to find her co-worker has lost faith and abandoned his post. A violent storm is raging closer. Most of the lab’s equipment has been sold or raided by the local college. Time is running out for results. Most tragic of all, Alexandra barely gets settled before she begins a series of phone calls with her sister (Aleida Torrent) who constantly berates her for not going to visit their dying father in the hospital. Then, Julia discovers a recorded alien signal from the Atares system….. something that may be the key to her life’s work. Confined to one basic setting and adhering to a committed real time narrative, The Antares Paradox features maximalist ideas in a minimal setting without losing any of the tension that traps many single-set films. What’s most admirable about the film, however, is its attention to the emotional aspects of filmmaking through Trepat’s performance. It’s easy to fake the ballistics, but even harder to make us care for what’s happening underneath all the dressing. This is a strong debut and a film that announces its creators as something special to watch.
13. Marx Can Wait, directed by Marco Bellocchio
With over 50 films under his storied belt, Bellocchio’s Marx Can Wait couldn’t have been made until now. Serving as both a late period familial memoir and a window into the psychological nuances/narrative beats that have filtered through all his films, this documentary makes me appreciate his dense efforts that much more. When Bellocchio brings most of his large family together in 2016, he says he’s not sure exactly what he hopes to accomplish. And then the strands of historical family tension comes to the surface, mostly dealing with the story of Marco’s twin brother Camillo. Marx Can Wait takes its lyrical title from something Camillo once said, and like the best documentaries, Bellocchio weaves a tender tale that not only pulls the curtain from his own artistic sensibilities, but proves that no matter how old we are, its never too late to ordain forgiveness.
12. After Yang, directed by Kogonada
Dare I call this the year of Hayley Lu? With this film and another to come on the list, she dazzles and deepens every time I’m lucky enough to see one of her performances. In Kogonada’s serene sci-fi tale about loss, memory, and what it literally means to be human, she plays a secondary character, but one that’s no less moving. The central performance is given by Colin Farrell (also having a banner year) struggling with his family to deal with the loss of their AI companion and friend to their young adopted daughter (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). Like his previous masterpiece Columbus, this latest effort is just as moving in its hushed tones whether its talking about the history of tea or stumbling across the startling realization that beauty and love is truly a universal concept that can exist beyond our mortal ideas. Endlessly moving and heartfelt, Kogonada is a true modern master who understands the beautiful bonds of humankind.
11. Moonage Daydream, directed by Brett Morgan
Brett Morgen’s portrait of the iconclastic David Bowie refuses to play by the standard documentary rules. Using pieces of Bowie’s actual voice from archival recordings as if the singer had been preparing for this type of life reverie since inception, Moonage Daydream is all the more potent because of its idiosyncratic nature. I doubt it would’ve been quite as satisfying if it simply dotted back and forth on a perfect through line of Bowie’s ascension to the top of the rock and roll mountain. And even though it doesn’t immediately serve as a linear experience, Morgen does some incredibly dexterous editing to subtly evoke a timeline in Bowie’s life from his glam rock explosion to heart rendering late life ballads. Like an abstract painting, Moonage Daydream bowled me over in sound, image, and juxtaposition, cycling through his hits (and even some lesser known efforts) to create a film that’s more attuned to Bowie’s outlook on the vibrancy of life than any straightforward exposition crafted about him ever could.
10. Three Thousand Years of Longing, directed by George Miller
Magically alive and heartfelt, Three Thousand Years of Longing had me from the very start. As a fan of films like those of Julio Medem where the natural world is never very far removed from the fantastic when it comes to his varied couples, Miller’s film (adapted from a short story by A.S. Byatt) swoons with overstuffed emotions matched brilliantly by his haunted-house visuals and CGI flourishes. Basically, there are enough ideas here for a dozen films, and at times Three Thousand Years of Longing feels like its about to boomerang into space before being yanked back into focus by the central relationship of Swinton and Elba. Their conversations in hotel room bathrobes and a demure English flat are the stuff of real human connection. And it matters because these two people have been running towards and away from each other for centuries, kept apart by wars, jealousies, madness, and sheer bad luck. At its core, Three Thousand Years of Longing is a commentary on enduring love. Just why does that one figure from Sheebe’a court appear out of thin air to traumatize Alithea? What does a restless leg have to do with the story? Miller has imprinted the film with a deep appreciation of star-crossed lovers who finally find each other again. In his sly way, he’s made the most romantic film in years.
9. Sundown, directed by Michel Franco
Michel Franco’s Sundown is a film of two halves. Almost antagonistic to a point in the first portion, those who stick with its initial ambivalent vibe will most certainly be awed by where the film takes its viewer by its end. Remaining in total control of every frame as he did with his excellent study of violent repression in New Order (2020), Franco favors the less-is-more structure of storytelling here. There are stretches of Sundown that particularly incite the viewer by Neil’s total lack of commitment to anything other than drinking and shrinking into the background. Think of all those films where some shadowy ex-patriot is living in an exotic location with no visible means of money or livelihood. Sundown could be their origin story. Instead, Franco reveals a broken man desperately trying to live life on his own accord, which is just as mysterious as anything else.
8. She Said, directed by Maria Schrader
In a scene of conversation between reporter Megan (Zoe Kazan) and a possible victim of sexual assault, the word “rape” comes out almost unwittingly for the first time by someone who experienced it, and the reaction is noticed but never commented upon. Megan continues to document what’s being said as if she might miss something just as equally important. This is the perfect tenor of Maria Schrader’s incisive She Said, a journalistic procedural that trades in the small explosions of conversation and grows in power as words and action of a group of people methodically expose the abuse of Harvey Weinstein and the shroud of obligation that allowed his physical/psychological destruction for decades. Every performance is perfect. Every scene is edited with care. And even if we know the outcome, the dogged steps taken and the empathy exuded still hits hard by the final push of a “publish” button.
7. Saturday Fiction, directed by You Le
My appreciation for intricately plotted World War II spy thrillers from Euro masters isn’t a secret. Last year’s criminally neglected Wife of a Spy by master Kiyoshi Kuroswa deserved better. And this year, the criminally underrated masterpiece is Lou Ye’s Saturday Fiction. Shown at a scattering of film festivals in 2019 and then unceremoniously released in a few theaters earlier this year, Le is a filmmaker I’ve long admired- check out Purple Butterfly (2003) or Summer Palace (2006)- and Saturday Fiction is yet another bold stroke in the career of this Sixth Generation Chinese filmmaker. Filmed in Le’s typical nervous, handheld style (but this time in beautiful black and white), the film tells the bifurcated tale of a movie star Jean (Gong Li) returning to occupied Shanghai in December of 1941 to act in a stage play by Mark Chao. Is the play a memory of their past together? Le constantly shifts perspective from the play to real life, causing a meta-curious comment on the film’s events. But outside of her acting duties, Jean also seems to be acting as a spy. Opposing forces are all around. Who is exactly spying on who? Saturday Fiction resides in this cloistered atmosphere where political paranoia and personal attractions are never too far removed. In one brilliant scene that illuminates how invisible this line is, a member of the acting troupe gets drunk and accidentally falls against the door of their hotel suite, which opens slowly into the room of a group of Japanese soldiers. The tensions that rise are spectacular and Le charges Saturday Fiction with a beautiful blend of action thriller aesthetic and moody art-house plot mechanics. Part Jean Pierre Melville and part Wong Kar Wai, Le has crafted a terrific effort that (knowing the importance of its December 1941 setting) ticks down and reveals the ominous wreckage of secrets told and kept.
6. Montana Story, directed by Siegel ad McGehee
Filmmakers David Siegel and Scott McGehee have a varied career. Starting in the early 90’s with the no budget body invasion Suture (1993), helming the eerily unnerving thriller The Deep End with Tilda Swinton in the early aughts and then working sporadically during the last decade, nothing really points to the majestic crescendo that Montana Story fills the viewer with. Not that they’re bad filmmakers, but their latest is so full of subtle life and overwhelming vistas that it doesn’t quite gel with any of the quirky, hard-scrabbled indies they’ve created in the past. I’m sure having Hayley Lu Richardson as your co-lead helps as well. A boiling family drama played out against the windswept beauties of the Montana mountain range, Montana Story looks at the curdled relationship between a sister (Richardson) and brother (Owen Teague in a role as equally good) dealing with the traumas of their past over the deathbed of their dying father. Yes, the set-up sounds familiar and the type of slowly simmering fireworks display that’s launched a thousand indies, but Montana Story is different. Siegel and McGehee have painted their film with vivid supporting performances- especially that of hospice aid Gilbert Owuor)- and poignantly sketched secondary characters- like that of Eugene Brave Rock- that the film takes on an unrehearsed sense of acceptance and gravity. And when the emotional pay off comes between brother and sister, the film burns with a pithy truth, and its then released in a heartbreaking, sweeping image of true freedom for everyone (and animals) involved.
5. Petite Maman, directed by Celine Sciama
Whether one interprets Celine Sciamma’s latest film as grounded science fiction time travel fantasy or something much more innately interior, it’s still a powerful film of simplicity and genuine heart. Working with child actors can be dicey, but in Sciamma’s capable hands, Petite Maman quickly melts any precocious waves in the very beginning as young Nelly (Josephine Sanz) wanders around the assisted living home where her grandmother has just died and sweetly says goodbye to everyone. From there, Nelly holes up in the dead woman’s house as her mother (Nina Meurisse) initially tries to deal with the loss by packing, but subsequently disappears and leaves young Nelly to fend for herself and interpret her swirling emotions with her father (Stephane Vrupenne) who probably understands even less. Within this tepid space of loss and confusion, Nelly stumbles upon a girl playing in the woods (played by real life sister Gabrielle Sanz) whom she soon comes to realize is her mother at that age. The joy of Petite Maman doesn’t require the viewer to be dazzled by its metaphysical conceit. Sciamma wants us to feel and experience (as she has in so many of her exquisite films) loss, death, wonder and adolescence in equal measures, and in its compact running time, the film magically does so. And there’s a needle drop towards the end of this thing that just took my breath away.
4. Triangle of Sadness, directed by Ruben Ostlund
All of Ruben Ostlund’s films are provocative and hermetic social anxiety dramas that feel more like sociological experiments than films. Up until now, none of them have really vibed with me. The closest that made me pay attention to his distinctive ethos of class and approximation was Play (2011), a film that pushes the clash of cultures between young teenagers to the brink of intellectual exhaustion. Now, with his latest subtly sadistic Triangle of Sadness, I sort of see what Ostlund is up to. Whether it’s the exuberant comeuppance through extreme scatological humor or the precise shifts in power and subordination, this is a scathing eat-the-rich comedy that sees a beautiful but tenuous couple (Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean) get caught up in more than their scabrous arguments about who’s paying for dinner. Divided into three sections and running at two and a half hours, Triangle of Sadness doesn’t ask one to care about anyone, from a communist yacht captain (Woody Harrelson) to the survivors who find themselves stranded after a disastrous event. Filmed with formal elegance (just admire that quiet, slow pan back from the point of view of a boat drifting towards a multi million dollar yacht that elicited gasps in my screening) and populated by needle drops that serve as ironic counterpoints to the empty vessels of wealth and pomp, the film does skewer the upper class, but then proceeds to take a fine slicing of all the classes in between before this masterpiece of a film cuts out.
3. Fabian: Going to the Dogs, directed by Dominik Graf
Dominik Graf’s Fabian: Going to the Dogs is at once an intensely chaotic love story and a couple’s desire to survive in an expansive paranoid thriller during the burgeoning Nazi regime. That people’s liberal souls are crushed and driven to suicide….. everyone seems to be drinking and smoking their worries away…. and the most innocent characters are kept apart like cosmic stars passing in the night doesn’t detract from its romantic edge. Graf’s latest is a heavy thing of beauty (running at just under 3 hours), anchored by the wide-eyed relationship between Fabian (Tom Schilling) and Cornelia (Saskia Rosendahl) as they try to stay afloat in a world that’s rooting against them in early 30’s Germany. Graf doesn’t shy away from the terror looming around them, but ultimately, Fabian: Going to the Dogs is a doomed lover story that announces itself as a radical experiment right from the opening as a long tracking shot through a modern-populated subway station opens into Weimar Germany. The past is certainly over, but the past is never through with us, indeed. Ravishing, complex, and bold filmmaking as Graf has been doing for decades now.
2. Aftersun, directed by Charlotte Wells
In the midst of flailing bodies on a strobe-lit dance floor, Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) reflects on a summer vacation with her father (Paul Mescal) that took place years earlier. Lucky for us, her remembrances aren’t infused with the same splintered visual aesthetic that has trapped her, almost motionless with sadness. Instead, Charlotte Wells’ magnificent Aftersun almost feels too personal for the way in which it textures a relationship between father and daughter that’s acutely aware of the perceptions, mood swings, and minor infractions that color the most intimate of our relationships. This is a film that wallops the viewer in its final moments, accumulating its power gently along the way. A mood piece. Frustratingly obscure at times. But also a film that seeps into your mind and reverberates with the power of how we perceive things in our memory and then achingly attempt to reconcile them in the present.
1. Everything Everywhere All At Once, directed by The Daniels
I went into Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Everything Everywhere All At Once skeptical of the adoring buzz, but after the first hour, I began to feel myself crumbling to the film’s sweet energy before collapsing into an emotional mess at the finale. This is an exuberant celebration of family, inclusion,and film genre itself as it marches forward with it’s head spinning tale of multiverses and hot dog fingers. Led by the amazing Michelle Yeoh (with heartbreaking supporting turns by Ke Huy Quan and Stephanie Hsu), The Daniels have created a modern answer to the iconic, trippy, and melancholy past works of Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) or Julio Medem (Lovers of the Arctic Circle) with a film that stretches the concept of love and acceptance across a spectrum of space and time…. and comes out the other side with a beautiful rendition of what makes us human.
Honorable mentions: Babylon, Pleasure, The Last Movie Stars, The Inspection, Vengeance