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.