Essays · Movies

Filmmaker of the Year (2016): A24

The reason anyone saw the year’s best movies, A24 is a force for cinematic good.
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By  · Published on December 21st, 2016

This essay is part of our 2016 Rewind, a look back at the best, worst, and otherwise interesting movies and shows of 2016.

The founders of A24 are going to hate that we’ve named them the filmmakers of 2016. They prefer to shine light on the creators they nurture while hanging back behind their opaque website and oddball social media, but their impact on the film scene this year is undeniable.

If you’ve seen any film critic’s top ten list in 2016, it’s almost certain you’ve seen the name of at least one film distributed by A24. The Witch, Green Room, Krisha, 20th Century Women, Swiss Army Man, Morris From America, The Lobster – and yes, of course, Moonlight – all came from the four-year-old indie label that makes cinephiles swoon and other distribution companies wrestle with their own jealous adoration.

Their bold beginnings with Spring Breakers foretold the company’s best two priorities in the years to come: creative filmmaking and youth. Of the directors of the films listed above, the only one who’s made more than three movies is The Lobster’s Yorgos Lanthimos. These are hungry indies committed to being indie and A24 can’t wait to snap up their genre-spanning experimentation. Distributing an impressive eighteen movies this year (Annapurna Pictures produced five while Roadside Attractions distributed ten), A24 is making a single-company case for the power careful film curation can wield.

They’re the argument for why film critics still matter disguised as the best distributor working today. Wielding social media with the prowess of a newly-unemployed teenage Vine star, their Twitter account crafts marketing narratives as cultural artifacts existing and evolving outside the confines of their films. I knew about Black Phillip, was interested in Black Phillip, learned he was evil, and laughed at his transformation into a running gag – all before I sat down for The Witch.

Moonlight’s impressive online reach came from equal amounts of traditional poster-pushing and joking threats to slip a screener disk into a Sully envelope to fool Vice President-Elect and political gaybasher Mike Pence into learning a thing or two. The company understands art, but more importantly understands the guts and the business savvy needed to go after markets other companies shy away from. Encouraging its followers to take someone that wouldn’t normally see themselves in a movie to Moonlight fed into the critical conversation around the film’s affectionately depicted central relationship while speaking directly and indirectly to their intended audience.

Even their misses are interesting: The Adderall Diaries, Mojave, Into the Forest, and Equals were all terrible miscalculations that never tried to be anything but their own unique weirdness.

Any number of just-off choices could’ve damned Swiss Army Man to the same WTF fate, but they’re still the kind of movies that you have to respect for their dedication. The kind of movie that you could love at sixteen and hate at seventeen-and-a-half. They could’ve been someone’s life-changing speaks-to-my-soul movie and A24 saw that potential. That or they were hedging their bets on star-studded VOD fodder like any smart company.

That’s part of their endearing strangeness, that for every sci-fi stinker or James Franco misfire, they’re succeeding with their offbeat cinema. Their curatorial ambition is, on the whole, paying off. Hollywood can be a disheartening place, especially when you see their output year after year and see your favorites flop so hard they struggle to find funding or hop onto a franchise too lucrative to leave. Seeing the weirdness win, not just exist and then fizzle, but really shake a fist to the heavens and make some money while doing it, is as refreshing an underdog story as the industry has had in years.

In 2016, A24 didn’t just give the movies their flavor – it gave them hope.

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Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).