Going to the movies in 2016 seems so far like a matter of having one’s expectations filled. Whether that’s a good thing or not, whether it’s the work of the Hype Machine or some other malevolent force, rarely anymore can any reasonably informed human being pay $15 for a movie ticket and have no idea what they are about to see. Whether it’s a Coen Brothers farce, a Whit Stillman comedy of manners, a Pixar sequel, a movie starring Fat Colin Farrell (thus signaling his career’s “mature” phase), a Richard Linklater lark, a John Carpenter-ish potboiler, a superhero film with a plangent political message and daddy issues that isn’t directed by Christopher Nolan, an existential riff on masculinity that also happens to be a two-hander with a horny farting corpse, or more than one era-defining documentary, the best films from the first half of 2016 have been those which give viewers plenty to be surprised—even optimistic—about.
With that in mind, after extensive debate, soul-searching and compromise, here are the Paste Movies staff’s picks for the 25 Best Films of 2016…so far.
25. Neon Bull
Director: Gabriel Mascaro
Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro has very quickly followed up his festival favorite, August Winds, with Neon Bull, which walks some of the same territory as its predecessor. Cowboy Iremar (Juliano Cazarre) works on the ranch owned by Galega (Maeve Jinkings), but his real passion is, believe it or not, fashion design. Meanwhile, Galega is a tough, no-nonsense boss who only occasionally takes time to indulge her feminine side (although both times she does so are extremely memorable). If you think Mascaro is playing with gender roles here, you’re right, but that examination always comes second to a more humanistic, almost documentary approach to observing the minutiae of his subjects’ lives. It’s a wonderful combination. —Michael Dunaway
Director: Grímur Hákonarson
Though they share a homestead upon which their prized lineage of sheep has been grazing for generations, graying brothers Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) haven’t spoken in 40 years. Setting them as quiet specks against one gorgeous Icelandic vista after another, director Grímur Hákonarson never once attempts to explain why they’ve grown apart, but it hardly matters: If you’ve ever endured a long-held grudge amongst family members—as we all have, seemingly—then you know that the origins of the schism rarely bear such interminable silence. Instead, when Gummi, the ostensibly more responsible one, discovers that his brother’s flock is showing signs of a fatal illness that threatens to take out the sheep population of their whole valley community, he sets in motion a government intervention that might as well drive them even further apart. Both devastating and playful, heartbreaking and wistful, Rams carefully picks at the bonds of blood and brotherhood, wondering how far we can stray from such essentially unselfish connections before we start to lose all sense of self. —Dom Sinacola
23. Hail, Caesar!
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
The period zaniness of Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest is an ode to old Hollywood—and much more—as only they can do, tracing the efforts of James Brolin’s studio scandal fixer through a parade of 1950s soundstages, back lots and actors. His latest potential headline concerns the abduction of a Biblically epic movie star—George Clooney having a helluva good time doing his best Chuck Heston/Kirk Douglas amalgam—by what turns out to be a tea sandwich-serving think-tank of communists. Other subplots have Scarlett Johansson’s starlet plotting out her unwed motherhood in the public eye and the screen makeover of an unsophisticated cowboy by Ralph Fiennes’ debonairly enunciating director, Laurence Laurentz. There are dueling gossip columnist twins (Tilda Swinton pulling double duty), a hapless film editor (Frances McDormand) and scattered movies-within-the-movie, which even pauses midway through for a thoroughly enchanting—and cheeky—Gene Kelly-styled song-and-dance number starring Channing Tatum as a heavily made-up matinee star with controversial extracurricular activities. Most of the main characters/performances take blatant inspiration from Hollywood legends of yore, and the cast seems to have as much fun as the Coens. Hail, Caesar! is by no means their best work, but it’s characteristically gorgeous, spiritedly acted and rife with political, religious and creative (sub)text for moviegoers as thoughtful and dorky as Joel and Ethan themselves. —Amanda Schurr
22. Swiss Army Man
Directors: Daniel Scheinert, Dan Kwan
It should be ridiculous, this. A buddy comedy built atop the premise of a man (Paul Dano) lugging around, and bonding with, a flatulent talking corpse (Daniel Radcliffe)—but cinema is a medium in which miracles are possible, and one such miracle occurs in Swiss Army Man. A film with such a seemingly unpalatable concept becomes, against all odds, a near-profound existential meditation. And, for all the increasingly absurd gags about the utilities of that talking corpse’s body—not just as a jet-ski propelled by bodily gas, but as a giver of fresh water through projectile vomiting and even as a compass through its erection—there’s not one iota of distancing irony to be found in the film. Directors Daniel Scheinert and Dan Kwan are absolutely serious in their attempts to not only re-examine some of the most universal of human experiences, but also explore the idea of a life lived without limits, casting off the shackles of societal constraints and realizing one’s best self. It’s a freedom that the Daniels project exuberantly into the film itself: Swiss Army Man is a work that feels positively lawless. Witness with amazement what bizarrely heartfelt splendors its creators will come up with next. —Kenji Fujishima
21. Captain America: Civil War
Directors: Joe & Anthony Russo
As the MCU enters if not maturity, at least its late adolescence, its greatest achievement as embodied in Captain America: Civil War may lie in a continued absence rather than in the presence of something. Watching an MCU film is an act that’s free from unnecessary distractions related to characters and source material. Captain America looks and acts like Captain America. And that’s been true in all five films in which he’s appeared. The same is true for Ant-Man (Paul Rudd)—Scott Lang version—who has appeared now in two films, and even for Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) with just a mid-sized, if important, role in one. Meanwhile, at other studios, the failure to seemingly even understand the core nature and appeal of their characters means every one of their films has moments that cause both fans and new viewers alike to scratch their heads. “Um, why did Superman just let his father die?” “Wow, Batman just totally killed some guys.” “Oh my god, what have they done to Dr. Doom (twice!)/Galactus?!” For many, the distractions build and clutter and puncture both the anticipation for and enjoyment of these films. In addition to everything else it’s done right, Marvel Studios continues to get out of the way of its own characters.
If one thinks of the each MCU film as a juggling act—and each hero’s origin, “flavor” and power set as its own subset of items that must be kept in motion and in proper relation with each other—then as a series both Avengers films and Captain America: Civil War can be seen as an escalation of the routine that’s as impressive as it is necessary. After all, with each additional hero added, with each additional demand placed on the script in both action and dialogue, Kevin Feige and company are building toward Infinity. —Michael Burgin
20. Everybody Wants Some!!
Director: Richard Linklater
Everybody Wants Some!! is intended to play like a spiritual companion piece to Linklater’s ’70s-era Dazed and Confused, with the writer/director reveling in his turn-of-the-decade’s style and swagger. Big lapels, bigger hair, even bigger facial hair and outright enormous egos are the norm throughout this nostalgic saga. Boasting little in the way of plot, Linklater’s film is content to sidle up alongside Jake and his new friends to see where their appetites, whims and libidos will lead. And its laid-back vibe pays dividends as it progresses, given that one-note characters who initially appeared to be smug louts, hyper-gonzo wild cards, dim-bulb doofuses or inane hillbillies slowly develop semi-distinct personalities of their own. Their days devoted to slacking off, their nights spent trimming mustaches and dousing themselves in cologne before hitting the town in search of the next woman to bed, Linklater’s play-hard-and-party-harder characters are the embodiment of cocksure macho vitality, all of them rightly convinced that, at least for the moment, they have the world by the balls. But there’s also some requisite team-based hazing thrown in for good measure, which feels like an authentic representation of what dudes like this would be up to—and, consequently, serves as a buzzkill reminder of their fundamentally dude-bro nature. —Nick Schager
19. Last Days in the Desert
Director: Rodrigo García
In one of the most controversial scenes in Martin Scorsese’s landmark examination of the duality of flesh and spirit, The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus (Willem Dafoe) speaks to Judas (Harvey Keitel) after addressing a fanatical crowd out for blood. He says, “I wanted to kill them, but out came the word, ‘love’.” It’s a moment that’s been decried as blasphemy by some, but for others it’s one of the greatest cinematic moments showing how a Christ figure reveals his limits.
It’s hard to be a god, or at least that’s what film has shown us for decades amidst various interpretations of Jesus moping, questioning his own capacity for sin, for decency and for having to shoulder the weight of the sins of our fathers. Rodrigo García’s Last Days in the Desert is yet another exploration of the antagonistic relationship between temptation and some kind of ultimate good, and it wouldn’t be a huge stretch to imagine that it takes Scorsese’s infamous scene as a thematic foundation of sorts. Granted, García’s vision is anything but transgressive, even if The Last Temptation of Christ is practically dogmatic compared to the spiritual endurance test imagined by Last Days in the Desert. But both interpretations have a refreshing openness to the purpose behind worshipping a God who demands so much pain and suffering, as well as to an equally flexible view of the Devil. Though García’s film isn’t a new perspective, that doesn’t mean it’s not moving, especially in bringing out the loneliness underlying the messiah complex. And while so many interpretations of Jesus life are so explicitly concerned with underlining his superhuman resilience, Last Days in the Desert is a meditation about the moments between all that suffering. —Michael Snydel
18. Miles Ahead
Director: Don Cheadle
Director/actor Don Cheadle dismissed a pitch for a conventional biopic structure and instead suggested making a film that captures the essence of Miles Davis’s spirit by bucking the biopic form—a film in which, as Cheadle tells it, Davis himself would want to star. Everyone got on board, so Cheadle proceeded to co-write, direct and star in what now amounts to a piece of Miles Davis fan fiction: Miles Ahead is a caper film with a refreshing sense of creative authority, chutzpah and goodwill. A musician in his past life, Cheadle makes a striking transformation in his role, parading a crown of Jheri curls and straining and rasping his voice to the point that he and Davis are indistinguishable. In that spririt, Miles Ahead is massively entertaining but guided with a shaky hand, at times overly stylized and others stiflingly formulaic, a film whose quest for innovation within its genre may have outpaced its ability to deliver. During a rehearsal scene, Davis implores his band to “be wrong strong,” one of the many callbacks to Davis’s passion for improvisation. If Cheadle meant to communicate the messy rebelliousness of jazz music, then he succeeded through a messy rebellion of cinema. —Melissa Weller
Director: Athina Rachel Tsangari
Nearing the end of a sort of luxury fishing vacation on the Aegean Sea, six friends—to varying degrees of allegiance to that word—attempt to quantify their worth as men by engaging in a game in which each person serves as contestant, judge and jury to determine who is “best at everything.” Each round can take any form: There is the requisite dick-measuring, of course, but there is also the assembling of Ikea furniture or the calling of loved ones, to the point that every gesture, word and interaction is judged to an obscene degree, each contestant carrying a small notebook in which he jots down a series of points, assigned according to no discernible structure. And director Athina Rachel Tsangari refuses to limn that structure with logic—to each his own, she insists, to the point that all subjectivity is erased in thrall to an absurd idea of whatever it means to be a man. All of the men do agree on a winner, but not before excruciating embarrassment, humiliation and emasculation takes each character down a peg or two, climaxing in a pathetic act of violence which serves absolutely no one. Chevalier may be an unexpected examination of a nation in depressing economic straits, drawing lines between money and masculine validation, but that it’s also directed by a woman (still proving herself to be one of Europe’s contemporary masters) makes the film an especially hilarious bloodletting of the male ego. —DS
Director: Ross Lipman
Some movies are the happy accident of mismatched collaborators who, against the odds, produce a masterpiece forged in the fire of their creative clash. Then you have Film, a misbegotten 1965 avant-garde short put together by famed playwright Samuel Beckett and desperate-for-a-paycheck Buster Keaton. In the revelatory documentary Notfilm, director Ross Lipman excavates this little-remembered curio, talking to everyone from cinematographer Haskell Wexler to film historian Leonard Maltin to create a mosaic about celluloid, thwarted ambitions and the reasons why movies still enrapture us after so many years. This is a gift for film-lovers, even if you’re not a Film-lover. —TG
15. Men & Chicken
Director: Anders Thomas Jensen
Men & Chicken is about Gabriel (David Dencik) and Elias (Mikkelsen), a sibling duo who discover, after the death of their elderly father, that they are adopted. Shocking. More shocking still: They have the same dad, but different mothers. Gabriel determines to seek out their sire, a geneticist who dedicated his career to stem cell research, and begrudgingly brings along the unruly and forcible Elias. Their journey takes them to a sparsely populated island forgotten by time, whereupon they find that they have three half-brothers—Josef (Nicolas Bro), Gregor (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Franz (Søren Malling)—who share dominion of the crumbling manse they call home with free-range livestock. They favor beatings as a response to uninvited guests and personal disputes alike. To call them uncivilized would be an understatement.
It is, perhaps not surprisingly, achingly sad. There is a merry, revolting spirit at play here, but that spirit is trumped by Jensen’s tale of fractured heritage. It helps that he writes his characters with clarity and figures out ways to humanize them, which is no small feat given that humanity has passed the brothers like ships in the night. Men & Chicken might inevitably put our gag reflexes to the test, but it’s a forlorn family drama first and a gross-out flick second. In both modes it’s hilarious, or at least it will be to anyone with a taste for cringe comedy, but come on: The sight of five grown men snuggled up together reading textbooks about mass extinction as bedtime stories is inherently amusing, if only because it’s so willfully bizarre. The film’s message of familial unity rings clear even through its outre visual elements. Family sticks together, especially when everyone in that family shares the same harelip. —Andy Crump
14. The Witch
Director: Robert Eggers
From its first moments, The Witch strands us in a hostile land. We watch (because that’s all we can do, helplessly) as puritan patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) argues stubbornly with a small council, thereby causing his family’s banishment from their “New England” community. We watch, and writer-director Robert Eggers holds our gaze while a score of strings and assorted prickly detritus rise to a climax that never comes. It’s a long shot, breathing dread: The wagon lurches ever-on into the wilderness, piling the frontier of this New World upon the literal frontier of an unexplored forest. It’s 1620, and William claims, “We will conquer this wilderness.”
Eggers’ “New England Folk Tale” is a horror film swollen with the allure of the unknown. To say that it’s reminiscent of the Salem Witch Trials, which take place 70 years after the events in the film, would be an understatement—the inevitable consequences of such historic mania looms heavily over The Witch. All of this Eggers frames with a subconscious knack for creating tension within each shot, rarely relying on jump scares or gore, instead mounting suspense through one masterful edit after another. The effect, then, is that of a building fever dream in which primeval forces—lust, defiance, hunger, greed—simmer at the edges of experience, avoided but never quite conquered. —DS
Director: Trey Edward Shults
You’ve seen the plot of Krisha before: self-destructive woman with a drinking problem goes to a family gathering supposedly having made strides in putting her life back together, but finds the tensions that arise testing her resolve to not go back to the bottle. Jonathan Demme explored similar territory in his 2008 film Rachel Getting Married, and Trey Edward Shults’s debut film does have a similar looseness to it, a feeling that anything can happen at any time. That, however, is where the similarities end. Whereas Demme’s film was warmly observational, Shults’s film aims for an expressionism that imaginatively uses formal elements to invite us into the titular main character’s fractured psyche. You’ve seen the plot before, but not quite like this.
Krisha could be cinematic family therapy: Shults’s way of dealing with what was apparently a troubled home life. But you don’t need to know all that to appreciate the passion he brought to this project. One can sense it in the film’s long takes and still setups, in the alternation between montages of unnerving chaos and lengthy scenes of shattering solitude. Krisha does more than announce a potentially major new talent; it shakes new, and tragically devastating, energy into the dysfunctional family drama. —KF
Directors: Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg
“Why did you let me film this?”
This simple question, posed at the end of Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s Weiner, is as baffling to the movie’s subject as it is to everyone else. Anthony Weiner gave a documentary crew incredible behind-the-scenes access to his 2013 New York mayoral campaign while his political career crumbled and his personal life turned to a shambles. By that point, Weiner had surely already signed away permission, of course, but nothing was stopping him from locking out the crew when things got ugly. Still, if the filmmakers had an agenda besides studying Weiner’s character, they did a great job of hiding it. Weiner shows many facets of his personality: He can be charming and funny, but he can also be a petulant, entitled jerk. The veneer wears off as the stress mounts, making things increasingly uncomfortable—it’s excruciating to watch this man try to salvage respect from certain humiliation, but it makes for a devilishly intimate look into the madness of modern politics. —Jeremy Mathews
11. Sing Street
Director: John Carney
Sing Street spins art out of history, but you might mistake it for pop sensationalism at first glance. If so, you’re forgiven. In sharp contrast to John Carney’s breakout movie, 2007’s sterling adult musical Onceegin Again, Sing Street aims to please crowds and overburden tear ducts. There’s a sugary surface buoyancy to the film that helps the darkness clouding beneath its exterior go down more easily. Here, look at the plot synopsis: A teenage boy living in Dublin’s inner city in 1985 moves to a new school, falls in love with a girl, and forms a band for the sole purpose of winning her over. If the period Carney uses as his storytelling backdrop doesn’t make Sing Street an ’80s movie, then the mechanics of its story certainly do. You may walk into the film expecting to be delighted and amused. The film won’t let you down in either regard, but it’ll rob you of your breath, too. —AC
10. Knight of Cups
Director: Terrence Malick
Regardless of how successfully the film explores the once-elusive director’s recently obsessive, less universal themes like the banality of excess, Knight of Cups delivers on all things Malick. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, who’s shot Malick’s last four projects and just picked up his third Oscar, opulently embosses the sterile vacuum of high-living in L.A. One of the film’s most gratifying sequences has a dog underwater in a pool trying to retrieve an eerily elusive tennis ball—you half expect “Scarborough Fair” to queue up on the soundtrack.
But what ultimately elevates Knight of Cups above Malick’s last film, To the Wonder, are the performances. Wonder was left too much in the hands of Ben Affleck, an actor not known for physical emoting. The ability to convey much while saying little is a rather crucial trait for any actor serving as the protagonist in a Malick film, as they remain largely silent in the present action while other players provide voiceovers explaining in teasing, arcane wisps the backstory and dilemma du jour. Bale, so quirky and masterful in films like The Fighter and The Big Short, has much greater carrying capacity (for lack of a better phrase) than Affleck, and he’s blessed with a talented supporting ensemble. (The cast list has everyone from Fabio to Antonio Banderas in it.) His Rick is far less appealing than Affleck’s homeboy, but Knight of Cups in turn carries infinitely greater wonderment. —Tom Meek
9. The Fits
Director: Anna Rose Holmer
It’s not difficult to imagine a different cut of Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits that hews closer to the arc of a traditional sports story. Hers has the makings of a familiar one, of a misfit who wants more than anything to compete—but unlike most stories of inspirational audacity, The Fits is as much about discomfort as the catharsis that comes with achievement. In it, Toni (Royalty Hightower) is an 11-year-old tomboy who has more experience with stereotypically male pursuits like lifting weights and punching speed bags than the usual interests of an elementary-aged girl. She spends nearly all of her time at the Lincoln Recreation Center alongside her boxer brother, Jermaine (Da’Sean Minor), pushing her body to the limit. While she shows a remarkable aptitude for the ascetical devotion required for boxing, she still dreams about competing on the dance team, “The Lincoln Lionesses.”
Framed with a rigid sense of space by cinematographer Paul Yee, and backed by the groaning score from veteran composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, The Fits is infused with such dread that it’s not hard to imagine that characters’ muscles and bones could break or shatter at any moment. The film’s most explicit example of may be Toni pulling off a temporary tattoo, but The Fits is firmly a story of metaphysical body horror, an allegory about our greatest fears of physical fragility. With that, the film manages to reinvent the sports story as something both brainy and physically pure. —MS
8. Finding Dory
Directors: Andrew Stanton, Angus MacLane
Finding Dory picks up a year after the events of 2003’s Finding Nemo, and Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) is still best friends and the third wheel to clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his son Nemo (Hayden Rolence). She tests their patience on a daily basis with her neediness, requiring constant supervision lest she go rushing off into the mouth of a bigger fish. If the original found a cuteness in Dory’s handicap, there’s a palpable sense of frustration with her here, whether it’s the usually gregarious Mr. Ray (Bob Peterson), who dreads having to deal with Dory’s constant interruptions during his class, or Marlin, who shoos her away when she wakes him up for the umpteenth time. All of this means that Finding Dory is the rare follow-up that repurposes the original as a foundation rather than as a cheap form of fan service. There’s a winking sentimentality to lines like “We will never forget you,” but these moments aren’t soppy. They’re a natural progression of character, and what could have been an easy cash-in becomes something surprising—a sequel that reaches new depths. —MS
7. Green Room
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
What’s perhaps most refreshing in Green Room is writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s lack of interest in the kind of moralizing that made his last film, Blue Ruin, ultimately seem conventional. Instead, Saulnier simply presents us this nutty scenario without feeling the need to lard it up with anything as cumbersome as topical commentary or moral ambiguity. He proceeds to wring as much tension and suspense from its pulpy retro plot as possible, adding a few entertaining grace notes along the way, which can best be seen in its performances. In the ensemble-based Green Room, Saulnier revels in the contrasts of personalities and styles: band bassist Pat’s (Anton Yelchin) Bill Paxton-like desperation, for instance, set alongside the weary, near-drugged-out deadpan of Amber (Imogen Poots), a friend of the woman whose murder sets off the film’s violent chain of events; or the imperial calm of Darcy (Patrick Stewart), the ruthless leader of the band of white supremacists who attempt to kill Pat, Amber and the rest. It’d be a stretch to call these characters three-dimensional, but nevertheless, under Saulnier’s writing and direction, they all manage to stand out just enough as individuals for us to become emotionally involved in their fates. Meanwhile, Saulnier supports these characters and plot turns with filmmaking that is remarkable for its economy and patience. D.P. Sean Porter gets a lot of mileage out of the cramped quarters and grimy lighting of the bar, lending its wide (2.35:1) frames an appropriately nightmarish feel amidst many suspenseful set pieces. In those ways, the lean, mean Green Room stands as one of the best B-movie genre exercises in many years. —KF
6. O.J.: Made in America
Director: Ezra Edelman
ESPN’s newest installment in its 30 for 30 series is its most ambitious, transcending superficial descriptions such as “entertaining” to get at something deeper, richer, truer. But if you’re conversant with the structure of earlier 30 for 30s, it’s also pleasingly familiar. O.J.: Made in America clocks in at seven-and-three-quarter hours, but it breezes by. The film encapsulates 30 for 30 at its best: It’s endlessly riveting, smartly packaged and exceedingly intelligent. And most important of all, the nearly eight-hour O.J. makes a pretty convincing case to non-sports fans why the rest of us invest so much emotional energy into the exploits of men playing children’s games. Sports are never just sports—they’re an extension of the race and class issues we experience on a daily basis. O.J. Simpson symbolized something powerful in our collective unconscious. And as this movie demonstrates, his fall from grace was partly ours. —TG
5. Midnight Special
Director: Jeff Nichols
Jeff Nichols’ fourth film continues a streak of smart, idiosyncratic genre tales that focus on family matters. But in Midnight Special, he gets a little more cosmic, telling a very human sci-fi story about a concerned father (Michael Shannon) trying to keep his boy (Jaeden Lieberher) away from the Feds, who believe (correctly) that he has special powers. Midnight Special is the sort of personal, ambitious mainstream film that seems to have all but evaporated from studios’ release schedules, which makes the fact that it was a commercial dud even more upsetting and dispiriting. Maybe on home video people will have a chance to catch up with this emotional drama, whose intimate contours and precise character work make it just as transporting on the small screen. —TG
4. Cemetery of Splendor
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Deep into the enchanting Cemetery of Splendor, an assortment of fit-looking bodies get up, sit down, join one another, walk away, split apart, ride bikes and trade seats, all without reason but obviously with rhyme, as if, as a viewer, you’ve stumbled upon a reel of background footage with the film’s main action cut out. Soon after, a sparkling shot of blue sky is calmly violated by a giant amoeba—or not, because maybe the amoeba is normal size, because the perspective isn’t clarified. And soon after that, a woman (Jenjira Pongpas) rises from an unperturbed nap, unsure if she’s found her way out of the labyrinth of her dreams, or if she’s only woken into another level of subconscious surreality. Meanwhile, a hospital of soldiers afflicted with a mysterious sleeping sickness, who rest indefinitely under glass tubes used as part of an ill-defined light therapy, rests indefinitely upon a sacred burial ground. At least that’s what the modern manifestation of god-like princesses, come to life resembling the statues at the woman’s favorite shrine, tell her. Such is the stuff of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s typical filmmaking fodder, the Thai director not so much doing something radically different with Cemetery of Splendor as just laying one more layer of fantasy upon his oeuvre, waiting with clairvoyant patience to see if his characters, and by extension his viewers, will ever wake up—or if they even want to. —DS
3. Love & Friendship
Director: Whit Stillman
The title of Whit Stillman’s latest comedy may be Love & Friendship, but while both are certainly present in the film, other, more negative qualities also abound: deception, manipulation, even outright hatred. Underneath its elegant period-picture surface—most obviously evident in Benjamin Esdraffo’s Baroque-style orchestral score and Louise Matthew’s ornate art direction—lies a darker vision of humanity that gives the film more of an ironic kick than one might have anticipated from the outset. Still, the humor in Love & Friendship is hardly of the misanthropic sort. As always with Stillman, his view of the foibles of the bourgeois is unsparing yet ultimately empathetic. Which means that, even as Stillman works his way toward a happy ending of sorts, the film leaves a slightly bitter aftertaste—which is probably as it should be. Such honesty has always been a hallmark of Stillman’s cinema, and even if Love & Friendship feels like more of a confection than his other films, that frankness, thankfully, still remains. —KF
2. The Lobster
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s follow-up to international break-out Dogtooth ditches that film’s knotted familial pathology, but refuses to be any less insular. Instead, it expands, even bloats, Dogtooth’s logic as far as it’ll stretch. I know: That doesn’t make much sense, but stay with me—which is exactly how Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou (who also co-wrote, unsurprisingly, Chevalier, listed above) assume the audience will approach The Lobster, starting with the familiar, inviting visage of Colin Farell, gone full dad-bod for a role that is debatably the actor’s best example for his still unheralded genius. With a remarkable dearth of charm, Farrell inhabits David, a man who, upon learning that his wife has cheated on him and so must end their relationship, is legally required to check-in to a hotel where he has 45 days to find a new mate, lest he be transformed into an animal of his choosing. David easily settles upon the titular namesake, the lobster, which he explains he picks because of their seemingly-immortal lifespans, the creatures like human ears growing and growing without end until their supposed deaths. At the hotel, David tries his best to warm to a beautifully soul-less woman, but the depths to which she subjects his resolve eventually encourages him to plan an escape, through which he matriculates into an off-the-grid conglomerate of single folk, led by Léa Seydoux. There, of course, against all rules he falls in love with another outsider (Rachel Weisz).
The world of The Lobster isn’t a dystopian future, more like a sort of mundane, suburban Everywhere in an allegorical alternate universe. Regardless, Lanthimos and Filippou find no pleasure in explaining the foundations of their film, busier building an absurd edifice over which they can drape the tension and anxieties of modern coupledom. In that sense, The Lobster is an oddly feminist film, obsessed with time and how much pressure that puts on people, especially women, to root down and find someone, no matter the cost. If you’ve ever had a conversation with a significant other concerned about the increasing dangers of becoming pregnant in one’s late 30s, then The Lobster—and its ambiguous but no less arresting final shot—will strike uncomfortably close to the home you’re told you should have by now. —DS
1. The Other Side
Director: Roberto Minervini
Director Roberto Minervini has crafted a nonfiction narrative in the thick of the Louisiana swamp, drawing on locals to tell a bifurcated story that both exploits liberals’ fears of what the “other” America looks like and constructs a compassionate, clear-eyed account of those who are being left behind economically and culturally. Mark Kelley, like everyone else in the documentary/fiction hybrid The Other Side, is playing a version of himself, living as an ex-con battling addiction without any meaningful job prospects. Lisa Allen is his girlfriend, and she seems awash in her own troubles: Everywhere you look in The Other Side, there are burned-out trailers, unhappy people, rural poverty and a general sense of anxiety and resentment.
Not unlike Harmony Korine, Minervini (who was born in Italy but lives in the U.S.) is fascinated by the great, unwashed vitality of America’s back roads and lurid subcultures. The Other Side’s first half is an intimate character drama concerning Mark and Lisa, but its second section feels like a Southern-fried version of Korine’s Trash Humpers mixed with the reckless abandon of Spring Breakers. We see wet-T-shirt contests and drunken days at the beach amidst a collection of random revelers. We also observe a meeting of what appears to be a local militia group that’s fiercely anti-Obama, the men expressing their rage at the country’s direction by blowing a car to smithereens with their high-octane weapons.
Minervini’s film contains scenes that feel fly-on-the-wall, while others have clearly been rehearsed and scripted. If he was trying to mock these people, that line between fiction and reality might have been more uncomfortable, but The Other Side is actually a deeply empathetic portrait. The film has its share of cultural dog-whistling. (The whole movie could be a cinematic illustration of the economically disenfranchised voters Obama was referring to in 2008 on the campaign trail when he said, “…they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”) But The Other Side brings this world to such vibrant life so that we can see these people’s pain—and, perhaps, even understand the rage and violence swirling around them. The Other Side has been made by an outsider who refuses to shy away from other outsiders’ humanity. In an election year dominated by anger and disillusionment, the movie isn’t some freak show but, instead, an incredibly moving, undeniably frightening articulation of why so many in America want to blow the whole thing up and start all over again. —TG