From the block busters to the art house, here are the first quarter of the year’s standout films.
For pure, uninhibited craziness, few recent films can match Estonian writer/director Rainer Sarnet’s November, an adaptation of Andrus Kivirahk’s novel Rehepapp that operates like a Grimm’s fairy tale as reimagined by Czech animator Jan Svankmajer and Italian horror legend Mario Bava.
A black-and-white saga involving werewolves, witches, ghosts, the Devil, and strange contraptions built from rural gardening tools that are then brought to life by dead people’s souls (and used as de facto slaves by their creators), this import is a beguiling and slyly amusing whatsit that never comes close to dipping its toes in familiar waters. That it also features The Human Centipede’s creepy star Dieter Laser only further pushes it into out-there realms.
Ultimately far more entrancing that its weirdness, however, is its hypnotic otherworldly romanticism, as well as its complicated perspective on the lengths to which people will go to satisfy their desires—and to achieve coveted (but often elusive) happily-ever-afters.
While it falls shy of the deliriously droll heights achieved by his prior stop-motion gem, 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is still a better breed of animated adventure. The story of a young Japanese boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin) who embarks on an expedition to reunite with his beloved canine best friend on Trash Island where an evil mayor has banished all of the nation’s dogs, Anderson’s film exhibits both his signature meticulous aesthetics (all symmetrical compositions and period pop songs) and witty sense of humor.
With a sterling voice cast led by Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, and many more, it’s a fleet and funny feast for the senses. Moreover, in its condemnation of intolerance, fear-mongering, anti-science rhetoric, and anti-immigration sentiments (as well as its lionization of student uprisings), this imaginative tribute to a boy’s love for his four-legged companion doubles as a timely commentary on our contemporary reality.
Marvel movies are designed to hew to convention, the better to allow them to seamlessly fit together into the larger tapestry of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Still, within their stand-alone confines, they afford some room for artistic risk-taking, as is evidenced by Black Panther, Ryan Coogler’s blockbuster about the war for fictional African nation Wakanda.
On one side of that conflict is Chadwick Boseman’s noble King T’Challa (aka Black Panther), who believes that protecting his people is best achieved by hiding them from the outside world. And on the other side is Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a violent challenger to the throne who wants to use his homeland’s technological might to stage an oppression-upending global revolution.
Underscored by such weighty hot-button themes, Coogler’s material is enlivened by eye-popping production design and fantastic performances, in particular from Jordan, whose antagonist proves the finest superhero villain since the late Heath Ledger’s Clown Prince of Crime. It’s a distinctly African-American comic-book epic with universal appeal.
In the bleak, barren Outback circa 1929, an Aboriginal man named Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) finds himself on the run from pursuers with his wife in tow after he kills a wild white man in self-defense.
Dramatized without musical accompaniment, Warwick Thornton’s gripping and gorgeous Australian Western recounts Sam’s fictional ordeal with potent authenticity, his feel for the hardscrabble region and its legacy of violence and bigotry doing much to infuse the proceedings with rugged life. As a preacher with Sam’s best interests at heart, Sam Neill is his usually magnetic, compelling self, while Bryan Brown brings complex determination to his role as a military sergeant tasked with tracking Sam down.
Most powerful of all, though, is the standout performance of Morris, who with minimal words and slight gestures—a nod of the head, a shift in body weight, an expression of closed-eyes resignation or defiance—conveys the immense toll of ingrained historic prejudice on an individual’s, and a nation’s, soul.
A superior slice of children’s entertainment, Paul King’s sequel to 2015’s Paddington is a sheer joy, infused with comic inspiration and irresistible sweetness. In this second series installment based on the stories of author Michael Bond, the perpetually hatted Paddington (voiced by Ben Wishaw) winds up in prison after he’s framed for the theft of a magnificent pop-up book that he planned to purchase for his dear Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton)—a crime that’s actually been perpetrated by a faded local actor (and master of disguise) played to cartoonish perfection by Hugh Grant.
The set pieces are uniformly inventive, the hybrid live-action/CGI aesthetics are superb, and the supporting cast—including Sally Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, and Peter Capaldi—is across-the-board fantastic. Only the hardest of hearts could resist its good-natured charm, epitomized by its sincere belief (advocated by Paddington himself) that the key to improving the world (and ourselves) is compassion, affection, politeness and positivity.
Indie directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s first two features, 2012’s Resolutionand 2014’s Spring, were an idiosyncratic blend of indie character drama and supernatural menace and madness. That mix is even more apparent in their stellar third feature, which charts the odyssey of two brothers (played by Benson and Moorhead) as they make a return visit to the remote California UFO sex cult that they first fled—under controversial, and headline-making, circumstances—years earlier.
Existing in the same fictional cine-verse as their low-budget debut, The Endless generates unease, and then dawning terror, from its raft of beguiling mysteries, which, from a simple starting point, spiral outward in an increasingly all-consuming manner. Yet no matter its gradual descent into unreal terrain, its primary focus remains the fraught relationship between its sibling protagonists, whose push-pull rapport is central to the film’s overarching, and affecting, examination of conformity, rebellion, and the insidious cycles (of thought and behavior) that threaten to trap us where we stand.
Before passing away in 2016 at the age of 76, Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami completed work on this, his final film: an experimental documentary that serves as a melancholy meditation on mortality and the moving image.
As original as it is striking, 24 Frames features twenty-four scenes, each containing a still photograph taken by Kiarostami (save for the opening shot of Pieter Bruegel’s 1565 painting, The Hunters in the Snow) that then slowly comes to animated life courtesy of sly digital effects that cause animals to run, clouds to roll by, and smoke to billow from chimneys. By lingering on each of these sights as they spring into action, the director situates viewers in a trancelike realm.
While no overt commentary is provided, the repetition of objects, figures, and rhythms soon impart the project’s underlying fascination with issues of loneliness, compassion, romance and the inexorable forward march of time—a subject that, in the end, reveals Kiarostami’s swan song as a moving treatise on his, and mankind’s, fundamental impermanence.
The type of mature adult drama that mainstream American cinema rarely produces these days, writer-director Russell Harbaugh’s exceptional debut mires itself in a thicket of barbed emotions. In the wake of her husband’s death, Suzanne (Andie MacDowell) strives to start anew, as does her son Nicholas (Chris O’Dowd)—albeit, in the latter’s case, in ways that are as clumsy as they are ugly. Their concurrent efforts to find a way forward (romantically and otherwise) unfold with fractured grace and beauty, as Harbaugh plumbs profound depths via evocative compositional framing and a seductive editorial structure.
Complications soon pile on top of each other until practically no one is capable of breathing (save for during release-valve outbursts), with a piercing MacDowell and magnetic O’Dowd (in a startlingly raw performance) digging deeply into their characters’ interior messes. What they discover, ultimately, are alternately unpleasant and inspiring truths about what we do, and what it takes, to survive in the aftermath of tragedy.
Joaquin Phoenix reconfirms his status as his generation’s finest leading man with You Were Never Really Here, a startling drama that cares less for straightforward thrills than for penetrating psychological intensity.
Barreling forward with both urgent momentum and fragmented lyricism (thanks to oblique edits and jarring flashbacks), the latest from Scottish auteur Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, We Need to Talk About Kevin) follows a mentally scarred war vet (Phoenix) as he tries to rescue a senator’s young daughter from a child prostitution ring. There’s plenty of bloodshed throughout that underworld quest, yet Ramsay’s treatment of violence is anything but exploitative; rather, her masterful film resounds as a lament for the trauma of childhood abuse, which lingers long after adolescence has given way to adulthood.
Reminiscent of Taxi Driver, and energized by Phoenix’s magnetic embodiment of masculine suffering and sorrow, it’s a gut-wrenching portrait of a volatile man’s attempts to achieve some measure of solace from his inner demons—sometimes via the use of a ball-peen hammer.
Annihilation is the best sci-fi film in years, a mind-blowing trip into an inscrutable heart of darkness that marks writer-director Alex Garland as one of the genre’s true greats. Desperate to understand what happened to her soldier husband (Oscar Issac) on his last mission, a biologist (Natalie Portman) ventures alongside four comrades (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny) into a mysterious, and rapidly growing, hot zone known as the “Shimmer.”
What ensues is an unsettling, and finally hallucinatory, tale of destruction and transformation, division, and replication—dynamics that Garland posits as the fundamental building blocks of every aspect of existence, and which fully come to the fore during a climax of such surreal birth-death insanity that it has to be seen to be believed.
Apropos for a story about nature’s endless cycles of synthesis and mutation, it combines elements of numerous predecessors (Apocalypse Now, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stalker, The Thing) to create something wholly, frighteningly unique.