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10. Isle of Dogs - (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KeUx7tk1kdM)
Director: Wes Anderson
Isle of Dogs may be the closest Wes Anderson will ever get to a sci-fi film. Of course he would use stop-motion animation to make it. Set 20 years from now, amidst the ultra-urban monoliths of Megasaki City—a Japanese metropolis that also seems to be Japan, or at least a Westernized idea of the small island nation—the film begins care of a decree by Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), a boulder of a man with equal ties to an ancient lineage of cat-loving aristocrats and to, based on the elaborate back tattoo we glimpse atop his tight little butt in a quick bath scene, an archetype of organized crime and political corruption.
Due to a vaguely described epidemic of "dog flu" (or "snout fever"), Kobayashi bans all dogs to Trash Island, a massive byproduct of technology and futurism, beginning with Spots (Liev Schreiber), the guard dog of 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin), who also happens to be the Mayor’s ward after Atari’s parents died in a horrible accident. Since Bottle Rocket in 1996, the more manicured Anderson’s films have become—his obsessive control over his frames broadening into grander and grander worlds—the more we may be apt to extol his accomplishments rather than get invested in his stories. And it’s probably never been easier to do that than with Isle of Dogs, so rife with meticulousness and imagination, as is Anderson’s brand, and so unconcerned with steering this ostensible children’s movie towards actual children. For a director who pretty much defined a generation’s cinematic fetishization for symmetry (and quirky hipster nonsense) to then fetishize a country to which Westerners mainly relate through fetishization? So much of this beautiful movie just sort of eats itself. Still, the emotional weight of Isle of Dogs depends on knowing exactly what that bond between dog and human can mean, how deeply and irrationally it can go.
At the core of Isle of Dogs is that kind of best-friendship: No matter how far we advance as a civilization, how disastrously we atomize and digitalize our lives, we’ll always have the devoted dependence of a dog, our immutable companion across the vast wasteland of human history.
9. Leave No Trace - (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GdPW04eE19E)
Director: Debra Granik
It takes all of Leave No Trace before anyone tells Will (Ben Foster) he’s broken. The man knows, perhaps ineffably, that something’s fundamentally wrong inside of him, but it isn’t until the final moments of Debra Granik’s film that someone gives that wrongness finality, that someone finally allows Will to admit—and maybe accept—he can’t be fixed. Why: Granik affords us little background, save tattoos and a few helicopter-triggered flashbacks and a visit to the hospital to acquire PTSD meds all implying that Will is a military vet, though what conflict he suffered and for how long remains a mystery. As does the fate of Will’s deceased wife, mother to teenage girl Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). As does the length of time Will and his daughter have been living off the grid, hidden within the more than 5,000 acres of Portland’s Forest Park, a damp, verdant chunk of the city’s northwest side overlooking the Willamette River. As does the pain at the heart of Leave No Trace, though it hurts no less acutely for that.
Toward the end of this quietly stunning film, Tom shows her father a beehive she’s only recently begun to tend, slowly pulling out a honeycomb tray and tipping a scrambling handful of the insects into her cupped palm without any fear of being stung. Will looks on, proud of his daughter’s connection to such a primal entity, knowing that he could never do the same. Will begins to understand, as Tom does, that she is not broken like him. Leave No Trace asserts, with exquisite humanity and a long bittersweet sigh, that the best the broken can do is disappear before they break anyone else.
8. Lean on Pete - (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AXMdGRMn2XY)
Director: Andrew Haigh
Lean on Pete flows with such gentle beauty that it may be hard to grasp precisely what it’s about or where it’s going. But the power of writer-director Andrew Haigh’s sublime drama is that it can support myriad interpretations while remaining teasingly mysterious—like its main character, it’s always just a bit out of reach, constantly enticing us to look closer. Based on Willy Vlautin’s 2010 novel, the movie is a smashing introduction to Charlie Plummer, who was the kidnapped John Paul Getty III in last year’s All the Money in the World. Here, he plays Charley Thompson, a 15-year-old living with his drinking, backslapping dad (Travis Fimmel) in Portland. Charley has a sweet face and a soft-spoken manner—when he talks, the last few words evaporate into the air, as if he’s too shy to even be bold enough to enunciate—but early on, we get a sense that there’s a craftiness underneath that demeanor.
The first indication is his willingness to lie about his age to Del (Steve Buscemi), a craggy horse owner who reluctantly takes him on as a caretaker for his elderly racehorse Lean on Pete. Charley doesn’t know a thing about horses, but he’s anxious to find something to do now that he’s in a new town with his father, their reasons for leaving Spokane unspecified but clearly dispiriting. Familiar narrative tropes emerge in Lean on Pete: the boy-and-his-dog drama, the coming-of-age story, the father-and-son character piece, the road movie. Haigh breezes past them all, seeking something more elliptical in this deceptively slim story. With the patience and minimalist command of a Kelly Reichardt, he doesn’t dictate where his film goes, seemingly letting Charley’s restlessness call the shots. The boy’s journey gathers force and poignancy as it moves forward, and the more we understand about Charley the more unknowable he becomes.
Along the way, we meet other people and see other worlds—the life of young military veterans, the reality of homelessness, the grind of the low-rent racing circuit—but Haigh views it all with the same unassuming compassion we see in Charley’s quiet eyes.
7. Mandy - (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4OcDOwyIx8)
Director: Panos Cosmatos
More than an hour in, the film’s title appears, growing lichen-like, sinister and near-illegible, as all great metal album covers are. The name and title card—Mandy—immediately follows a scene in which our hero forges his own Excalibur, a glistening, deformed axe adorned with pointy and vaguely erotic edges and appurtenances, the stuff of H.R. Giger’s wettest dreams. Though Red (Nicolas Cage) could use, and pretty much does use, any weapon at hand to avenge the brutal murder of his titular love (Andrea Riseborough), he still crafts that beautiful abomination as ritual, infusing his quest for revenge with dark talismanic magic, compelled by Bakshi-esque visions of Mandy to do her bidding on the corporeal plane.
He relishes the ceremony and succumbs to the rage that will push him to some intensely extreme ends. We know almost nothing about his past before he met Mandy, but we can tell he knows his way around a blunt, deadly object. So begins Red’s unhinged murder spree, phantasmagoric and gloriously violent. A giant bladed dildo, a ludicrously long chainsaw, a hilarious pile of cocaine, the aforementioned spiked LSD, the aforementioned oracular chemist, a tiger, more than one offer of sex—Red encounters each as if it’s the detritus of a waking nightmare, fighting or consuming all of it. Every shot of Mandy reeks of shocking beauty, stylized at times to within an inch of its intelligibility, but endlessly pregnant with creativity and control, euphoria and pain, clarity and honesty and the ineffable sense that director Panos Cosmatos knows exactly how and what he wants to subconsciously imprint into the viewer. Still, Mandy is a revenge movie, and a revenge movie has to satiate the audience’s bloodlust. Cosmatos bathes Red (natch) in gore, every kill hard won and subcutaneously rewarding.
There is no other film this year that so effectively feeds off of the audience’s anger, then sublimates it, releasing it without allowing it to go dangerously further. We need this kind of retribution now; we’re all furious with the indifferent unfairness of a world and a life and a society, of a government, that does not care about us. That does not value our lives. Mandy is our revenge movie. Watch it big. Watch it loud. Watch yourself exorcised on screen.
6. You Were Never Really Here - (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=av3KrHJlc3k)
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Lynne Ramsay has a reputation for being uncompromising. In industry patois, that means she has a reputation for being "difficult." Frankly, the word that best describes her is "unrelenting." Filmmakers as in charge of their aesthetic as Ramsay are rare. Rarer still are filmmakers who wield so much control without leaving a trace of ego on the screen.
If you’ve seen any of the three films she made between 1999 and 2011 (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin), then you’ve seen her dogged loyalty to her vision in action, whether that vision is haunting, horrific or just plain bizarre. She’s as forceful as she is delicate. Her fourth film, You Were Never Really Here—haunting, horrific and bizarre all at once—is arguably her masterpiece, a film that treads the line delineating violence from tenderness in her body of work. Calling it a revenge movie doesn’t do it justice. It’s more like a sustained scream. You Were Never Really Here’s title is constructed of layers, the first outlining the composure of her protagonist, Joe (Joaquin Phoenix, acting behind a beard that’d make the Robertson clan jealous), a military veteran and former federal agent as blistering in his savagery as in his self-regard. Joe lives his life flitting between past and present, hallucination and reality.
Even when he physically occupies a space, he’s confined in his head, reliving horrors encountered in combat, in the field and in his childhood on a non-stop, simultaneous loop. Each of her previous movies captures human collapse in slow motion. You Were Never Really Here is a breakdown shot in hyperdrive, lean, economic, utterly ruthless and made with fiery craftsmanship. Let this be the language we use to characterize her reputation as one of the best filmmakers working today.
5. Hereditary - (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WdWtof8lbbo)
Director: Ari Aster
Ari Aster’s debut film begins in miniature. Later we learn of the trade Annie (Toni Collette), the film’s family’s matriarch, plies—meticulously designing doll-house-sized vignettes of the many domestic traumas she’s experienced, and still does, throughout her life, not for children but for art gallery spaces—though in the moment, in the beginning of Hereditary, the effect simply alludes to Aster’s ancestral preoccupations. From a tree house, pulling back through Annie’s workshop window, cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski’s camera pans to a tiny recreation of the house we’re currently within, then pushes into the simulacrum of high school student Peter Graham’s (Alex Wolff) bedroom, which transforms into the room itself, perspectives already ruined so early in the film.
Father Steve (Gabriel Byrne) enters to give his late-snoozing son the black suit needed to attend his late grandmother’s memorial. Aster’s intent, as is the case throughout Hereditary, is both blunt and oblique: worlds exist within worlds, shadows within that which casts them, or vice versa, reality represented like the rings of a tree or the spirals of DNA holding untold secrets within the cores of whoever we are. Colin Stetson’s brain-churning score rattles the frame’s edges; menace looms—and menace soon unfolds, tragedies upon tragedies.
The Graham family unravels over the course of Hereditary, which derives its power from testing the binds that force families together, teasing their strength as each family member must confront, kicking and screaming (or in Collette’s case: making the noise of one’s soul fleeing through every orifice), just how superficial those binds can be. In the absence of a reason for all of this happening, there is inevitability; in the absence of resolution there is only acceptance.
4. Mission: Impossible – Fallout - (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l3_QROj09Aw)
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
At some point midway through Mission: Impossible – Fallout—the sixth entry in the franchise and director Christopher McQuarrie’s unprecedented second go at helming one of these beasts—CIA brute Austin Walker (Henry Cavill) asks his superior, CIA Director Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett), how many times she thinks Übermensch Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) will put up with his country screwing him over before he snaps.
Walker’s question is rhetorical, intended to convince Sloane that Hunt is actually John Lark, the alias of a shadowy conspirator planning to buy stolen plutonium whom he and Hunt also happen to be chasing, but the question is better put before Cruise, the film’s bright, shining star. It’s a question that hangs over this dependably mind-blowing action flick more obviously than any installment to come before: How long can 56-year-old Cruise keep doing this before he, truly and irrevocably, snaps? Fallout never offers an answer, most likely because Cruise won’t have one until his body just completely gives out, answering for him by default. Fallout shows no real signs of that happening any time soon.
What it does show is a kind of blockbuster intuition for what makes our enormous action brands—from Fast and the Furious to the MCU—thrive, behind only Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol as the best of the now 22-year endeavor. Where Bird leaned into the franchise as a literalization of its title, redefining the series by balancing the absurdity of what Cruise was impossibly doing (the Burj Khalifa scene is one of the greatest action sequences ever) with the awe of bearing witness to what a human person could accomplish if devoid of all Thetans, McQuarrie considers the two pretty much the same thing.
The only reaction worthy of such absurdity is awe—and the only American tentpole films worth our awe anymore are those deemed Mission: Impossible. It’s all so goddamned beautiful. I love these movies.
3. Black Panther - (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QoTbGtV9Zpk)
Director: Ryan Coogler
Black Panther might be the first MCU film that could claim to most clearly be an expression of a particular director’s voice. We shouldn’t go so far as to call it auteurist, because it’s still a Disney movie and (perhaps ironically) a part of that monopolizing Empire—i.e., eat the rich—but Black Panther’s action scenes, especially, feel one with Coogler’s oeuvre.
Look only to an early scene in a South Korean casino, in which T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Okoye (Danai Gurire) and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) plan to intercept a deal between Klaue and everyone’s favorite CIA milquetoast, Everett Ross (Martin Freeman, lovable) for a vibranium-filled artifact which Klaue stole from some colonizer-run museum with Killmonger’s help. We’re introduced to Klaue through the surprising spryness of his violence—Andy Serkis, too, freed from mocap, is still an amazing presence, even as a gangster shitbag—and Coogler gets on his wavelength, carving out the geography of the casino in long tracking shots, much like he convinced us to love stained, shitty-seeming Philadelphia gyms in Creed by helping us to comprehend the many crevices and corners of each hole in the wall.
When the casino brawl breaks out into the streets, morphing into a death-defying car chase (slow motion thankfully kept to a minimum), we feel as if we know exactly what these characters—and this wonderful director—are capable of. Cue magnificent Vince Staples track.
2. Eighth Grade - (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPdmE4PG2nk)
Director: Bo Burnham
In Eighth Grade, the feature debut of comedian-singer-songwriter Bo Burnham, you’re either a Kayla (Elsie Fisher) or you know a Kayla from your days as an over-it-all punk-ass. The distinction is key to your experience.
The film stages a too-real reenactment of middle school’s rigors, but it’s the people we endure those rigors with who shape our turbulent pubescence. Sure, sitting through Ms. Hawking’s ornithology lessons was hell, but hell’s preferable to striking up conversation with your classmates. Burnham uses the awkward terrain of juvenile social interaction as Eighth Grade’s focal point, painting the daunting exercise of talking to other kids as a stairway to embarrassment.
We meet Kayla pre-humiliation, recording clips for her YouTube channel in her room, dispensing life advice in the coltish manner of a newly minted teen. She’s extraordinarily inarticulate, but in her ramblings we find the profound insight only a 13-year-old can offer. “Aren’t I always being myself?” she says to her camera, the sage instructing the benighted. “Well, yeah, for sure.” She’s a self-help layman, but her sincerity is charming. Don’t change who you are to impress others. Words to live by. Kayla, like anyone else trying to stay afloat in the sometimes cutthroat world of middle school, sells out her ideals almost immediately, a defensive posture to deflect her loneliness. Being a teenage girl isn’t easy. Occasionally, it’s perilous.
That Eighth Grade so genuinely conveys those difficulties and dangers is miraculous considering its source. Burnham invites us to recall our own adolescence, and also to consider how adolescence has changed in the time of social media. It’s compassionate, radiating retroactive kindness for the children we all were to soothe the adults we are now.
1. First Reformed - (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LvSUhLfuy7M)
Director: Paul Schrader
What makes a man start fires? What if that person were a man of God? Paul Schrader, now 71, has perhaps spent his entire career as a filmmaker attempting to ask that question, to breach the impenetrable truth of whatever that question’s answer could be, beginning with Blue Collar, a story of auto workers and union members in Detroit compromising their values to survive in the shadow of forces too large and too immovable to compromise themselves.
With First Reformed, Schrader’s 20th feature as director, that question absorbs the whole film—not through cries of nihilism, as in his previous, garbage Dog Eat Dog, but as a sustained act of faith: What must the devout do for a world God has abandoned? The question lingers wetly in Ethan Hawke’s eyes as he carries every frame of Schrader’s film. Playing Father Ernst Toller—a minister who in a former life had a wife and a son and a military career, an end brought to all three by that son’s death in Iraq—Hawke has spent the past 20 or so years sublimating the radical tendencies of his iconic slackerdom into a fiercely simmering anxiety, as if the purposelessness of his past malaise has left him stewing on how little he can or could do to change anything in this world. Not only does First Reformed directly butt heads with Dog Eat Dog, but it indulges melodrama without losing its calm. It works in obvious metaphors not for their own sakes, but as seamless extensions of theme.
It’s a gorgeous film, mourning the impossibility of being alive as it celebrates that which binds us, a conscious-rattling, viscera-stirring piece of art. And ultimately, it’s a shocking film, powerful images gripping even more powerful fires within the bodies of those unequipped, as we all are, to put them out.
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