Garrett Bradley’s first documentary feature, Time, is an indictment against the prison-industrial complex in America, a motion for abolition in the wake of a system that has not lost its way in terms of serving justice but that never found it in the first place. Fox Rich is the beating heart of the film, a woman whose patience and wisdom is as necessary as it is awe-inspiring. What she gives is better than what any “performance” could offer. Mother of six, entrepreneur, and activist, she has spent the lion’s share of the past two decades working to get her husband, Rob, out of a Louisiana state prison where he serves a parole-less sixty-year sentence that reflects the embedded racism of America’s institutions instead of his crime.
Stunning black and white cinematography plays an important role in distinguishing between races while flattening the playing field to a certain extent, too. It spotlights the contrast between Blackness and whiteness when it comes to social, economic, and judicial matters, yet it also depicts everyone in the frame as nearly the same, or very similar, a much deeper thematic reflection on the equal value in all human life. However, the most incredible aspect of Time is Fox’s home videos, which play across the film like diary entries from the past twenty years of suffering through blatant injustice, the likes of which have been fashioned to profit off of Black bodies for centuries. If Bradley and Rich make one thing clear, it’s that mass incarceration must come to an end. Now. (Luke Hicks)
14. Promising Young Woman
Beware the sneaky advertising. Writer-director Emerald Fennell’s debut feature isn’t what previews made it out to be. In the trailer, an eerie violin-only rendition of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” drags over a montage of scenes that seem to cut just before Carey Mulligan spills a frat bro’s blood or the violence somehow becomes too much to bear. Alas, there’s hardly any violence at all. Well, physical violence anyway. Sexual violence against women is central to Promising Young Woman, but, as the advertising tactfully communicates, it’s a systemic kind of violence on display, one that haunts mentally and emotionally long after it’s been committed physically, as it continues to go unchecked.
To take the element of surprise one step further, the film is hilarious, and I don’t mean that in a crude or sarcastic way. Part of what makes Promising Young Woman so great is the fact that it has a little bit of everything. Fennell wrote it to be as comedic as it is dramatic, as daring as it is disturbing, as charming as it is thrilling. Hence, the casting of comedian Bo Burnham as the romantic male lead. A narrative rollercoaster, the story follows Cassandra (Mulligan) as she plays out an invigorating revenge plot that blossoms before our eyes. Undergirded by an unforgettable soundtrack, deliciously colorful cinematography, and a strong supporting cast, it puts Fennell on the map as a major new voice. (Luke Hicks)
13. True History of the Kelly Gang
The legend of the infamous outback outlaw Ned Kelly is given full falsified cinematic treatment in Justin Kurzel’s fourth feature. The filmmaker plays with the idea of a “true history” on celluloid by chiding the very concept – truth in cinema, as in Western bad boy mythology, is a lie. One could try to recreate history onscreen as accurate as possible, but they would still be creating an alternate history, a fictionalized account. In recognition of that, Kurzel gives us a loud, rowdy, cruel, and highly stylized drama that reminds us why he stands apart as a storyteller.
George MacKay is electric as Ned Kelly, twisting and contorting his bare slab of a body with his shrapnel-like chest jutting out as he leads his brothers into a life of crime. Essie Davis – who has quietly had a banner year – plays the hardened, whiskey-slinging mother of the Kelly gang, herself a perfect encapsulation of the enigmatic makeup that defines the boys: equal parts thirsty for death and family cuddles, hyper-concerned with their manliness but flippant in the queering of their own masculinity. It’s a bare-chested brawl in candlelight and sunshine, and it’s got a great song about cops. (Luke Hicks)
If there was ever a debut film that guarantees a director’s bright future, Natalie Erica James’ Relic is the one to watch. Her tale about intergenerational trauma and the fear of aging so beautifully walks the line of contemplative horror while never straying into the exploitation of the elderly, a trope too often seen in the genre. Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcoate), travel to Kay’s childhood home after her mother, Edna (Robyn Nevin), goes missing. When Edna is finally found, something is different. She looks haunted and refuses to acknowledge her declining mental health.
In Relic, dementia is not just shown through failing memory. It is a growing stain on the walls, it is a house full of unfamiliar hallways, it is a creature lurking in the shadows. Drawing on her own personal experience with a family member and dementia, James paints a delicate yet heart-breaking portrait of the malevolent spirit that is this disease. On top of this navigation of aging, James tells a story of three generations of women and the fear of what you will inherit as you get older. It is not just about Edna, but about the relationships between these three women and grief, anger, and acceptance manifest between them. (Mary Beth McAndrews)
11. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Hey, do you want to feel normal, safe, and reassured in your life? Well, Charlie Kaufman does not have the film for you! Instead what he has is a shockingly insightful, somewhat horrifying, and strangely comical take on relationships, be they romantic, familial, or with the self. The movie begins with Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons as a couple on a road trip to meet the latter’s parents. In due time, it becomes apparent that there’s something… off about the whole affair. Conversations are strange and people are even stranger. It’s no surprise Kaufman gravitated towards this material — the novel of the same name from author Iain Reid is the most unshakeable book I read last year — but naturally the director has his own take on it. With his signature surrealist elements and introspective impulses, it’s safe to say that I’m Thinking of Ending Things is as inventive as it is unsettling. (Anna Swanson)