Ari Aster’s Hereditary opens simply: the white letters of Ellen Graham’s obituary blazing on a inky background. The matriarch is survived by her daughter Annie, an artist who creates miniature dioramas of her everyday life. We see one of her miniatures now: a cut-out model of her home in the forest. As we zoom in, we focus on a bedroom belonging to her teenage son Peter. Slowly, the miniature room fills the screen until the facsimile becomes reality and Peter’s father walks in to wake him for his grandmother’s funeral. From this point forward the line between reality and fantasy, between the actual and the imagined, will remain blurred.
In Thoroughbreds, writer-director Cory Finley delivers an astonishing debut. The film features two astounding lead performances from Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy as a pair of grim highschoolers. The plot of the film unwinds in four chapters (plus an epilogue), in which information is revealed piecewise and the tension and mystery of this thriller matures into a chilling climax. All the while, the spectator is treated to some stunning cinematography that perfectly captures the pristine affluence of the setting while simultaneously hinting at some dark kernel. This grim tone permeates the film, lending Thoroughbreds an additional layer of significance and meaning.
Paterson follows a week in the life of Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey. Paterson’s life traces a banal routine: wake up at 6:15 (without an alarm), walk to work, drive a bus, come home to his live-in girlfriend, eat dinner, walk the dog, stop at a bar, have a drink, go to sleep. Paterson spends his free time writing poetry, drawing inspiration from the beauty ensconced in this mundanity. The film is almost plot-less, focusing more on imagery, rhythm, repetition, and tone to convey its themes.
You know, like a poem.
“But there are dreams that cannot be, and there are storms we cannot weather”
— Fantine, Les Miserables
Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is a gut-punch of a film dressed up in the doldrums of everyday life. On the surface, the plot is universal and relatable: a man returns back to his hometown on account of the sudden death of his older brother, and must make the arrangements and look after his nephew in the aftermath. There is surprising wit and humor in the story, heavily sarcastic and ball-busting, and it helps to offset at least some of the sadness. Because a darker and sadder mystery bubbles up through off-hand comments, whispers, and flashbacks. This non-linear storytelling method is used intelligently and sparingly, and suffices to wrench maximal emotional devastation from the audience. The result is a wonderful but sad film that can count itself as one of the best of the year.
In Loving, Writer-director Jeff Nichols expertly relays the real-life story of Mildred and Richard Loving, the couple who were prosecuted under Virginia’s interracial marriage laws which and led to the watershed case in the Supreme Court Loving v. Virginia in 1967. In a story fraught with such racial tensions and the potential for ugly subject matter, the major triumph of Nichols’s film is in how it remains reserved and above any kind of melodrama. There is a patient, quiet quality to this story, and Nichols and his actors positively revel in it. From the tone and themes of the film, to the pacing and muted performances, Loving takes its cue from the seriousness and maturity of its eponymous main characters. The result is a grown-up historical drama revealing the more subtle horrors of institutional racism and the power that love and freedom have to combat it.
Barry Jenkins’s film Moonlight is a Romantic masterpiece of the highest order. It is a comprehensive exultation of self-discovery told in three sections, each detailing the events in the life of Chiron, a black gay boy growing up in the Liberty Square projects of Miami, Florida. The three parts show Chiron at different ages: as a young boy in part one (“Little”), a teenager in part two (“Chiron”), and a young man in part three (“Black”), and each version of Chiron is portrayed by a different actor. Chiron’s life is full of hardship, as he is forced to deal with growing up poor, navigating the minefield of his mother’s drug abuse problem, and his burgeoning homosexuality. The chapters of Moonlight add up to a magnificent and timeless whole: a complex elucidation of a man and the choices he makes in effort to learn about himself, the world, and his place in it.
In American Honey, writer-director Andrea Arnold crafts a coming-of-age story about teenage wanderlust that practically feels like a documentary. The film is a peculiar slice of life, both immersive and engrossing, and while watching it you feel as though you are just another member of the rag-tag crew. The camerawork and a score driven by pop music enhance the realism of the film. The story focuses around a group of young people who sell magazine subscriptions door-to-door. Full of an ensemble cast of mostly non-actors, American Honey wanders through life with dubious morals, sexual and emotional exploration, and the pace of a buddy road trip movie – just with about a dozen buddies.
Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is a remarkable piece of cinema, especially from a first-timer. Parker controls this entire endeavor as writer, director, producer, and also stars as the slave Nat Turner. This is a powerful but sad film, though there is a kernel of hope at its center that Parker tries to work from. Based on a the real-life slave revolt led by Nat Turner in the early 1830s, the film offers incredible acting, but suffers slightly from narrative issues and some muddled thematic material. Of course, Parker takes some poetic license with the actual history, and while some of these help the story, others are more egregious and unnecessary. The most definitive aspect of the film is its profound spirituality, which Parker leans heavily on for dramatic justification of Turner’s rebellion, and also as the source of his leadership. Indeed, this is a film about not only racial injustice, but spiritual deliverance. Parker is sometimes lost with exactly where to focus the rebellious spirit, but these small mistakes cannot mar the overall poignancy of his message.
Filmmakers Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha) and Jake Paltrow (The Good Night, Young Ones) must have had mountains of fun making their documentary De Palma. The film is something like enjoying a whiskey next to a famed director and engaging in the best conversation of your life. Baumbach and Paltrow are content to place Brian De Palma in front of the camera, shoot him flat, and let him muse away. Unfortunately, that’s all they really do. So, while some of the stories that De Palma relates are interesting, the ultimate effect is a film that feels like a haphazard collection of thoughts, shot in the most bland style possible. Cinephiles will likely drool throughout at the discussion of filmmaking craft, but unfortunately De Palma holds very little thematic power.