Ad Astra (Dir. James Gray, 20th Century Fox)
Science fiction in the 2010s has largely been rooted in the belief that Earth is doomed and our only hope lies in the final frontier. Of course, to find a new home for mankind necessitates confronting what humanity is in the first place, and the void of space leaves few distractions for dealing with our foibles. Ad Astra is in some ways a companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar; where that film centered a father’s guilt at abandoning his children in the hopes of ultimately providing them with a future, James Gray’s feature flips the script to find a son attempting to reach his father to save Earth’s present. Along the way, he ruminates on the manner in which his father’s trauma and harmful behavior has been passed down to and through him, leaving him so terrified of perpetuating a legacy of brutality that he has denied himself a life to prevent the worst impulses from informing a new generation. Ad Astra has action scenes and even some satire (Applebee’s will make its way to the moon someday), but it is predominantly informed by the quiet sorrow of a man interrogating the extent to which he can blame his worst traits on prior generations and what he can do to break that cycle. Few sci-fi films have ever so joyously embraced the idea that there are no answers in the great beyond, and that we can only save ourselves by tending to each other. — Jake Cole
High Life (Dir. Claire Denis, A24)
More than anything else, Claire Denis’ rich and varied filmography can be defined by its fixation on the human body. Her camera is uniquely attuned to the way bodies move through space and interact with light and their environment. It is perhaps fitting that she would eventually set a film in outer space given the bounty of abstract opportunity, but even then, High Life defies most expectations. It didn’t help its reception that hasty reports from TIFF mischaracterized the film as a sexy space movie, as its infamous fuck-box could hardly be called erotic. Denis’ film concerns a group of prisoners held on a spaceship while an increasingly desperate doctor (Juliette Binoche) performs daily experiments on them in an attempt to artificially conceive a child. Fractured flashbacks fill in a few details in the backstories of Dr. Dibs and one of the prisoners, Monte (Robert Pattinson), but few reasons are given for the scenario. The spaceship functions as its own detached world, one seemingly dominated by sexual acts that are either frigidly clinical or violently primal –– and each is deeply disturbing in its own way. As with many of Denis’ films, the narrative approach is oblique and often perplexing, but High Life bears an undeniable power that’s hard to shake.— Brendan Nagle
Hustlers (Dir. Lorene Scafaria, STX)
Lorene Scafaria’s tale of stripping, stealing and sisterhood is an acting showcase filled with terrific performances from a beautifully inclusive cast, including Asian American Constance Wu, rapper Cardi B, supernova Lizzo, trans trailblazer Trace Lysette and a number of up-and-coming talents. These ladies all conspire to make Hustlers fun and interesting. When strip-club star Ramona is introduced with a mind-blowing tease the film rises to the level of the superstar who plays her: Jennifer Lopez. Through Lopez’s vivid portrayal, the character of Ramona makes Hustlers a textured film that refuses to simply label its characters and their actions “good” or “bad.” The stripping is extraordinary, but the movement that perhaps defines Ramona most is the way she hugs. Scafaria puts Lopez in super high heels so that Ramona hugs downward, and as she does, her chinchilla fur-covered arm spreads protectively across the back of the hugged like the wing of a magnificent mother bird. These hugs tell the story of Hustlers as a whole. It’s a film about women watching out for other women, about the fierce love of female friendship and about chosen family. It’s complicated, it’s messy and it’s beautiful, and it represents a perfect marriage between story, filmmaker and star. — Mike McClelland
The Irishman (Dir. Martin Scorsese, Netflix)
Though it functions as a spiritual successor to films like Goodfellas and Casino, Scorsese’s return to the mob movie defies the rise-and-fall narrative formula that typifies so many of his career-defining epics (including those outside of the gangster genre, like The Aviator and The Wolf of Wall Street). Mafia hit man Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) tells us the story of his involvement with the Bufalino crime family and labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) via voiceover narration, but his story doesn’t unfold in a linear fashion; the memories spill out of Frank in associative fragments, with scenes spread across nearly 50 years stitched together without regard for temporal continuity. The Irishman was initially conceived by Scorsese and De Niro over a decade ago, but it was not until recently that digital technology caught up to their vision, allowing De Niro and his co-stars Joe Pesci and Pacino to portray characters decades younger than themselves. The convincing de-aging effects help foster a triad of remarkable performances by actors whom most consider well past their prime. At three and a half hours, this is Scorsese’s longest narrative film, and it’s also his most elegiac; the whiz-bang energy of Goodfellas is largely absent. Instead the film is overcome by a mournfulness that can be felt from the very start. As the film crawls along towards its devastating finish, the endpoint of the road trip that serves as a narrative frame slowly comes into focus, and with it the film’s true nature does too: this is not merely a life story, it’s the final confession of an old man left alone with nothing but the burden of his regret. – Brendan Nagle
Knives Out (Dir. Rian Johnson, Lionsgate)
The performances in Rian Johnson’s playful murder mystery are majestically over-the-top. Even the relatively subdued leading lady Marta (played by a luminous Ana de Armas) vomits explosively in every other scene. Jamie Lee Curtis preens, Don Johnson pontificates and Toni Colette is a mirror ball of self-tanner, whitened teeth and influencer-culture-self-absorption. Chris Evans is a particularly terrible enfant terrible and Daniel Craig Foghorn Leghorns his way into our hearts as a sharp-eyed Kentucky detective. These roles, along with the clever-but-sensible central mystery, would be enough to make Knives Out an exceedingly pleasant diversion.
But Johnson has other ideas. He uses the Thrombey family to show the multitude of ways that xenophobia and racism taint our society – and the one percent in particular – in Trump’s America. No one, from the seemingly supportive college student who turns the second money gets tight (Katherine Langford) to the woman who “married up” and doesn’t want to share (the serially underrated Riki Lindhome), is spared. Rather than take the subtle approach, Johnson tackles the subject head-on, making Marta’s nationality and immigration status a focal point of both the mystery and of many conversations between its characters. As a result, Knives Out provides a colt jolt alongside its laughs and gasps. – Mike McClelland
The Lighthouse (Dir. Robert Eggers, A24)
Jean-Luc Godard once said that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun, but sometimes, a movie can just be two guys trapped in a lighthouse with nothing but their fears and anxieties about existence to keep them company. A24 fave Robert Eggers’ follow-up to The Witch functions like a hangout picture from hell, throwing a sea veteran (Willem Dafoe and a neophyte (Robert Pattinson) together on a job that seems tailor made to test the upper limits of the human psyche. The story builds tensions to ludicrous heights before blowing off steam in several directions at once, teetering between psychological terror and supernatural horror depending on which reading of the proceedings feels the most real at any given moment.
But along the way, as dour as its black and white color palette may appear, the film is also deeply hilarious. Dafoe and Pattinson have exceptional chemistry, each man pushing the other to new heights with their respective performances. Throwaway lines of dialogue drip with such energy they instantly feel like perennial quotables. Passing glances emblazon themselves into memory with Egger’s claustrophobic and striking compositions. Probably not since 1972’s Sleuth has a two-hander so brilliantly muddled its exploration of masculinity within a subverted genre with such gusto and verve. Of the two film’s this year that prominently feature Robert Pattinson’s semen, this is clearly the most fun. — Dominic Griffin
Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Dir. Bi Gan, Kino Lorber)
The marathon long-take, a once-rare stylistic flourish that ossified into one of the decade’s stalest examples of directorial bombast, again finds new life in the sophomore effort from Miao director Bi Gan, who once more uses it to mix realism with spectacle in beguiling fashion. Building on the creative staging of Kaili Blues, which revolved around a 40 minute, one-shot centerpiece of oscillating character relationships and sinuous camera work, this one ends with 59 straight minutes of even-more acrobatic showmanship, in 3-D no less. It’s the kind of flashy stunt that’s prone to take a viewer right out of the movie, which in this case at least seems to be the point. Capping off the time-shifting tale of a man returning to his hometown for the first time in years, the shot appears just as the protagonist himself dozes off in a movie theatre. The result is a formal feedback loop that, like the long-take in Kaili Blues, reorients certain key entanglements while clarifying others. While that highly mobile shot served to establish setting and knit together narrative, this one functions as an epilogue encased within an oneiric trip through the subconscious, of both the film’s central character and the town to which he’s become a stranger. Moving out from the depths of a mysterious cavern, along mountain paths and floating down into the town itself, each step further exposes the explicit artifice of the whole endeavor, spooling out a stunning, dreamy conclusion to a tangled tale about the inherent complications of memory. — Jesse Cataldo
Marriage Story (Dir. Noah Baumbach, Netflix)
Hot takes, hot takes, the internets are full of hot takes, and one of the hottest is that the climactic fight scene between Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is high-school level bad acting. What high school did these morons go to? Out of context, the high-pitched scream fest may seem over-the-top, but coming near the end of a harrowing relationship drama, the scene is all too real and would be perfectly recognizable to any adult who’s had a deep and meaningful relationship. So even if Marriage Story is set among a well-to-do creative class whose salaries are far above our wildest dreams, this very specific milieu is for once used to speak to a universal truth. I’m no Baumbach stan; I hated Frances Ha for its spoiled, insufferable characters, but this tragedy is a whole other animal. Baumbach may be telling his own story of the lifestyles of well-paid entertainment professionals, but for once staring at his navel pays off with the very meat of human drama—and, to borrow Driver’s Sondheim show-stopper, of “Being Alive.” It’s unfortunate that this devastating drama has become reduced to cheap memes, but such is the age we live in; someday we will realize how fortunate we were to be alive in such an interesting time with such great art as this, so easily accessible and, like life and your loved ones, so easy to take for granted. – Pat Padua
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (Dir. Quentin Tarantino, Columbia Pictures)
All of Quentin Tarantino’s fixations come together in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Verbose dialogue, graphic violence, impeccable vintage aesthetic, Spaghetti Westerns, martial arts, revisionist history, substance abuse, revenge fantasies, women’s bare feet: it’s all there in Tarantino’s most sprawling film to date, a dazzling cinematic artifact—and tribute to cinema itself—that should come off as collage or even hodgepodge, but nevertheless results in one of the acclaimed director’s most cohesive works.
Of course, it helps that he sets the film in 1969, smack in the middle of one of American society’s most turbulent and captivating eras. Focusing largely on the waning appeal of former star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), Tarantino uses his protagonist as a metaphor for the sunset of Hollywood’s golden age. Rick’s stunt double, gofer and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) bridges the disconnect between the romanticized aspects of an idealistic era and its harsh realities. A World War II vet, Cliff represents sacrifice and hard work, literally absorbing the bumps and bruises that allow Rick to coast along unharmed. The character was also inspired by an actual stuntman who worked on Spahn Ranch while the Manson Family lived there. The fact that Cliff intervenes (through some blind luck) to thwart the murder of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and, along with Rick, dispatches the Manson family killers in over-the-top fashion adds one final bit of twisted fairytale fantasy to a film determined to ward off the merciless and ever-encroaching reality of time’s unyielding march forward. – Josh Goller
Parasite (Dir. Bong Joon-ho, Neon)
Watching Parasite is akin to witnessing a master, one of any form, execute an extraordinary feat in full view, like the lithe figure of a gymnast, for example, twisting and turning weightlessly through the air. You recline, exhale and bask in the ingenuity – the grace and perfection – of it all. And then you wonder: How the hell can a human do that? And, so effortlessly? The short answer is the punchline to a dusty old joke: practice. Ok, fine. But with regard to this particular somersault, there are many directors, vastly more seasoned than Bong Joon-ho, who couldn’t have pulled off this apogee, this culmination, this (dare I say) masterpiece. Parasite is a one-of-a-kind film and Bong, likewise, has proven himself to be a visionary whose peers are left eating dust.
Parasite is easily the second-most evocative and original movie of the decade. (Get Out runs away with the title). But what is this enigmatic picture, anyway? A social satire? For sure. A white-knuckled heist? No doubt. A psychological thriller? The film’s second act is a masterclass of the genre. A political parable? Well, that’s where the waters begin to muddy. If Parasite is a warning, then what exactly is Bong Joon-ho warning us about? Inequality, capitalism, and opportunism all seem too pat and unsatisfying as answers to a broad and, ultimately, simplistic question. Parasite, instead, brims with an overstuffed set of radical ideas, delivered with visual and satirical panache. The ethical quandaries it poses merit lively debates, moral equations that, by design, can’t be tidily solved. Maybe Parasite’s fundamental value isn’t algebraic, but ineffable. Bong Joon-ho presents an undefinable variable: pure cinematic bliss. And then he raises it to the nth degree. – Peter Tabakis
Toy Story 4 (Dir. Josh Cooley, Disney/Pixar)
For the fourth Toy Story iteration, it was inevitable we’d get a new toy thrown into the mix. After all, Buzz Lightyear, once as much a face of the franchise as Sheriff Woody himself, is mostly relegated to the sidelines here. But few would’ve expected the new toy to be of the DIY variety, a loopy, googly-eyed plastic spork named Forky. Voiced by Tony Hale (perfectly cast), Forky arrives with unexpectedly dark undertones. With Woody and the gang—minus Woody’s love interest Bo Peep, who is shown earlier being donated to someone else—now hand-me-downs from grownup Andy to young girl Bonnie, Forky comes to life in Bonnie’s backpack after she assembles him as an arts and crafts project, and he immediately wants to throw himself away, identifying as trash rather than a toy.
Surprisingly existential for a children’s movie, Forky’s crisis is only one of an unexpectedly large number of darkly tinged elements in the film. When Woody runs afoul of a talking doll named Gabby Gabby, she sics her army of creepy ventriloquist dummies on him so she can steal his voice box in order to replace her malfunctioning own. With the addition of a more unnerving tone at times, Toy Story 4 balances out the more saccharine plot points, such as Woody’s eventual reunion with Bo Peep and decision to move into a new chapter of his life, making what could’ve been too maudlin a conclusion a fitting culmination to a groundbreaking franchise that is joy to indulge in for one last ride. – Josh Goller
Transit (Dir. Christian Petzold, Music Box Films)
Numerous European auteurs have tackled the refugee crisis on the continent in recent years, from Aki Kaurismäki to the Dardennes. But it is Christian Petzold, the maker of somber, neo-Hitchcockian thrillers, who has delivered the finest rumination yet on the subject. Set in the present, Transit is nonetheless suffused with imagery of the Holocaust, particularly of the turnover of ghettos toward a more ominous, final solution. Petzold has regularly interrogated Germany’s fraught 20th century history, but here is a dire warning of how easily that history can repeat itself in the face of mounting resentment for those deemed socially alienated and inconvenient. The film builds its tension amid the silence of those who have become used to calling as little attention to themselves as possible, with even the slightest noise as nerve-wracking as the shrieking strings of Psycho. Resembling Casablanca as a ghost film, Transit is less about the hope of escaping the growing tide of hatred than the immediate attempts to grasp for normalcy amid chaos, with romances and even ad-hoc families borne of false identities and assumed roles. Eventually, we are left only with the sight of apparitions, the half-glimpsed shades of those lost to pogroms who haunt those who, for the moment, have been left alive. — Jake Cole
Uncut Gems (Dir. Josh and Benny Safdie, A24)
The Safdie Brothers make movies that reverberate with manic verisimilitude, the specificity of their settings mirrored by an equivalent focus on texture, energy and noise. In Good Time, a budgetary upgrade from their lo-fi roots that retained the scuzzy intensity of the movies that came before it, they tapped into the diverse, gritty sprawl of the Outer Boroughs and beyond, racing from a robbery at Flushing’s New World Mall to a Nassau County amusement park and a climax set at North Shore Towers, a déclassé co-op complex at the city’s far-eastern edge. Pivoting back to the pounding heart of Manhattan, Uncut Gems continues this madcap hyper-locality on a larger scale and in a smaller setting, continuing to refract racial and social concerns through hastily dispensed pulp plotting. Where the previous film chronicled a cascade of collapsed plots and harebrained schemes, this one circles around one mounting pile of bad bets, with jewelry dealer Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) fighting desperately to keep his head above water. Tightly wrapped up in its Diamond District environs, it depicts an insular world with global connections, the local enlaced with the universal through a few key references and images. Bouncing on a frenzied adrenaline haze, Sandler holds it all together, his typical bristly affability underscored by a gambler’s assured certainty rather than the usual infantile petulance, shepherding a motley cast of semi-professional talent, famous non-actors and established stars through a caterwauling whirlwind of sustained chaos — Jesse Cataldo
Us (Dir. Jordan Peele, Universal)
Jordan Peele’s sophomore film shows just how much fun terror can be. Jumping between 1986 and the present day, the director critiques class, race, capitalism and performative acts of compassion in the story of Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyongʹo) and her tethered twin, Red. The Tethered are bizzarro duplicates of everyone in America who dwell in the thousands of miles of unused tunnels and caves below the country and communicate through guttural utterances and gestures. Adelaide and Red met in a funhouse full of mirrors when they were girls and were both traumatized by the encounter. While the former sought her way back through dance and therapy, the latter trained her people for a revolution that begins the night the adult Adelaide and her family return to Santa Cruz for a summer vacation. Instead of a holiday they get Hands Across America with bloodlust.
Nyongʹo is absolutely brilliant in her dual role, both her hero and her monster worthy of inclusion in all-time horror annals. Genre prejudice is the only thing that could keep her from all the awards at year’s end, and the same could be said for Peele. Us lives with you long after it ends and repeated viewings only add to its impressiveness. Clues to the puzzle are laced throughout, it’s just impossible to know what you’re looking at the first time. Peele encourages his audience to find meaning to the film’s unanswered questions, an exhilarating antidote to what usually happens in mainstream cinema. A worthy successor to Rod Serling, the director has quickly established his own distinct and gloriously weird Twilight Zone. – Don Kelly