One Child Nation
With unprecedented access into the hearts and minds of the nation’s rural community members, filmmaker Nanfu Wang and her co-director, Jialing Zhang, have created a startling in-depth look at China’s One-Child Policy. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year, and it’s easy to see why. By unflinchingly focusing on the disturbing realities of a radical policy most Americans have only thought about in the abstract, Wang and Zhang create not only an admirable expose but also a strong example of nationalistic propaganda’s power. To get into the details of One Child Nation would dampen the critical emotional impact of its many surprising moments, but it’s worth noting that everyone interviewed, from government doctors to propaganda experts to mothers to human traffickers, at one point thought they were doing the only thing they could.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Lyrical, tender, and portrait-perfect in its cinematography, it’s no wonder Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of the most acclaimed films of the year. Céline Sciamma’s French period piece is a lesbian love story with an artist’s eye and a lover’s heart. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a painter commissioned to secretly work on a wedding portrait of an isolated woman, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), whose sister recently died. The surface plot elements of Portrait — a false pretense, a forbidden affair, an accidental pregnancy — seem doomed to arrange themselves into a massive third-act tragedy, but Sciamma slightly subverts the unfortunate trope of queer cinema and instead delivers moment after moment of blissed-out intimacy and visual poetry.
Queen & Slim
Mythmaking and martyrdom are at the center of award-winning TV and music video director Melina Matsoukas’ feature debut. Queen & Slim makes at least a dozen bold choices on its way through a “Black Bonnie & Clyde” story that reimagines the outlaw lovers as two strangers who met on a Tinder date that ended with one shooting a cop in self-defense. Critics of color have lobbied valid criticisms toward a film that often chooses style and impact over substance, but Queen & Slim is still an impressive, stylistic, emotionally overwhelming feat of filmmaking. Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith are phenomenal in roles that require cool detachment as often as passion or fear, and Bokeem Woodbine steals scenes as a volatile pimp relative whose house full of wise and outspoken women (among them Indya Moore and Melanie Halfkenny) deserves a spinoff of its own.
Joanna Hogg’s latest is a superb and self-assured anti-romance that’s shatteringly familiar in its beats of wasted youth and tentative ambition. Honor Swinton Byrne is a breakout in the role of Julie, a would-be filmmaker whose creativity and coming-of-age are stunted by a boyfriend (Tom Burke) whose dark habits slowly sap away her livelihood. Hogg’s semi-autobiographical story is full of pristinely captured on a mix of 16mm, 35mm, and digital, a mixed-media approach that makes images and sensations feel fuller and more absorbing than most others you’ll see on screen this year.
Tigers Are Not Afraid
Issa Lopez’s grim fairy tale debuted in theaters and on Shudder earlier this year to near-universal acclaim, breaking 2019’s spell of so-so horror movies with an imaginative take on a tough-to-tackle issue. Spanish-language Tigers Are Not Afraid utilizes a cast of young actors to tell a surprising, violent, and eventually hopeful story about children orphaned by cartel crimes. Comparisons to Pan’s Labyrinth (whose director, Guillermo del Toro, is working with Lopez on an upcoming “werewolf Western”) are inevitable as both stories feature kids who cope with real-life tragedy by leaning into magical realism. Still, Lopez cultivates a voice that’s all her own to tell a thrilling, dark story through a fantastical lens.