10. One Night in Miami
The imaginative possibilities of this film are not what makes it great. Your interest was inevitably piqued by the concept of trapping Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke into one tiny hotel room. To live amongst idols? That’s why we go to the movies in the first place.
Based on his stage play, the script by Kemp Powers strips these icons of their historical status. The men in this room, like you, are in mid-grapple with the world around them. They’re trying to make sense of the injustice they see and experience, and they all have different methods of contemplation. At some point, you forget you’re watching Malcolm X taking on Sam Cooke and vice versa. Movements are born out of people, and it’s their actions that make legends. Regina King encourages the camera to flitter between her characters. The frame goes where they take it. As the director, she does not merely plant you in the scene with them; she makes you a participant. You’re in that room, sitting on that bed, in that chair, against that wall, absorbing this epic brawl of a conversation. (Brad Gullickson)
9. The Assistant
Brilliantly stark and austere, Kitty Green’s The Assistant is a horror movie masquerading as a workplace drama. It follows the phenomenal Julia Garner as Jane, a low-level employee at a New York-based film production company. Lurking behind closed doors is the head producer, an unseen entity who spews venomous emails and has a rotation of young women shuffled in and out of the building. A stray earring left in the carpet and uncomfortable, embarrassed glances tell us all we need to know about what’s actually going on.
Sexual misconduct permeates the film without ever being depicted or being explicitly verbalized. The closest it comes to the latter takes place in an already notoriously gut-wrenching scene where Jane meets with an HR representative. Though the film is consistently restrained to the point of being antiseptic, it effectively instills a quiet but burning rage over the course of its runtime. The film is all the better for the fact that there’s no satiating release of these feelings, just bile held back and tongues bit down. Green has the confidence of a filmmaker who knows she need not make anything explicit in order to shake you to your core. (Anna Swanson)
8. The Vast of Night
One of the most astonishing feature debuts in recent memory, The Vast of Night is a sci-fi radio play-inspired romp with charm to spare. Just familiar enough to successfully utilize genre shorthand while being original enough to hit truly clever high notes, the film centers on a small New Mexico town in the 1950s where two teens discover a mysterious frequency coming over the airwaves.
Fay (Sierra McCormick) and Everett (Jake Horowitz) are two fast-talking and precocious teenagers who stumble into a mystery fit for The Twilight Zone. But make no mistake, while alluding to everything from small screen staples to Orson Welles’ notorious War of the Worlds broadcast, the film is also wholly cinematic. There are long take sequences that signal director Andrew Patterson as an emerging filmmaker with a firm command of his craft.
But these are also more than just fancy flourishes or an excuse to show off, there’s a real impact in the way they envelop us into the story. It’s an opportunity to settle in and spend time with these characters as we see the gorgeous minutia of this small Southwest town. It’s a place where the sand stretches for miles and the stars stretch even farther. If there’s a location better fit for a mystery like this one, I can’t think of it. Over and out. (Anna Swanson)
7. Sound of Metal
Sound of Metal is an excruciating investigation into catastrophe. When Ruben’s hearing rapidly disappears, his life slips into chaos. Unable to accept the transformation, he slams against reality. He will bend it to his desire. The impotent process is agonizing to watch but equally hypnotic. Humanity adapts. Survival demands it as change is constant.
Watching Riz Ahmed as Ruben is like watching Riz Ahmed for the first time. He is a master of the stillness director Darius Marder blankets his film within. We linger on Ahmed’s every minuscule movement. He’s telling stories in the outbursts, but he’s weaving epics in the quiet. There’s nothing louder in this film than Ahmed’s blank expression. Sound of Metal lives on his face, and it is god damn gorgeous. (Brad Gullickson)
6. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
In Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a facial expression is able to tell an entire story by itself. In Hittman’s third feature film, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) travel to New York City so Autumn can get an abortion. In their rural Pennsylvania town, Autumn is unable to terminate her pregnancy and is instead met with resistance and horrifying videos. But, determined to avoid motherhood, she heads to a city where she can access the healthcare she needs. Perhaps the most devastating scene is where the audience learns where the title of the film comes from as Autumn is asked a series of questions about her own experiences with men and sex.
With a story that has the potential of being exploitative, Hittman instead creates a quiet and devastating narrative not just about women’s healthcare, but about the dangers young girls face every day no matter if they’re in a small town or a city. Autumn and Skylar know too well about the nature of men and have formed a strong sisterhood where, without even a word, they are able to support one another. Hittman’s film is very candid about the process of getting an abortion, a topic which is almost never addressed on screen. With Hittman’s honesty and an absolutely stellar performance from Flanigan, Never Rarely Sometimes Always lays bare what it means to be a teenage girl and the systems they are always fighting against. (Mary Beth McAndrews)