Horror and Heartbreak – Rolling Stone


Which movies can we legitimately claim are overlooked or underseen, two terms that are overused? Depending on where you’re standing, probably most of them. The movies most of us have heard about are a mere drop in the bucket of what’s being released. And that isn’t because of quality. Some of it is because of luck. Some of it is a direct result of industry circumstance. Most movies are not The Batman (obviously), with a baked-in legacy of reliable franchise fans it could count on and the cross-genre appeal and marketing budget to lure different asses in seats than just the usual suspects. And most aren’t Avatar: The Way of Water, a younger franchise with the advantage of being a long-awaited sequel by a name-brand director who’s made a disproportionate number of the highest-grossing movies of all time. The odds were against it because of how much it had to prove, not because it could seriously be suspected of being an outright flop.

And beyond the usual metroplex fare, most original “movies for adults” that happen to have been made overseas won’t take festivals, global arthouses, torrent vultures, and Oscar voters by storm the way that Parasite did a few years ago; most won’t nudge their way beyond the globally specific diaspora of (to name one example) Bollywood movies into the broader mainstream consciousness, the way that RRR — a movie that got Westerners who’ve never seen a Bollywood spectacle to finally seek one out — was able to. Most movies are not surprise word-of-mouth hits like Barbarian or Everything Everywhere All At Once, which — whatever you think of them, whatever you feel about the protective fervor of their fans — are encouraging success stories because they generated a level of critical and audience interest that feels hard to engineer in the 2020s, which we know because we see other movies try to gin up that lightning in a bottle and fail, time and again. This is already happening for movies that won’t be released until next year — they’re already being teed up for levels of viral success that the box office simply will not promise.

And yet it’s also true that many, many more people still need to make the leap to RRR, which wasn’t even the highest-grossing movie in India this year. And Barbarian and Everything Everywhere All At Once seem destined to have the kind of long tails that prove their box office takes could have been even bigger. We’re going to keep encountering people in the coming years who’ll only have just heard of these movies, who’ll be wondering why they hadn’t been told about them sooner. The subtext is that these are the kinds of movies which, audience-friendly, familiar in genre but unattached to omnipresent franchises, many people have wanted to see and rightly expected to land on their radar. None are overlooked. You cannot exactly say that they’re underseen. But it’s easy to imagine their audiences being even bigger. 

The movies listed below are not in the same boat. They mostly range from small to tiny. All are releases from the last year that I simply want more people to see — and in most cases, you’d be taking something of a risk by giving them a try. They are all unusual. Some of them are up for independent awards, like the Gothams, but don’t stand much of a chance in bigger awards pools. Some don’t feel fair to call “underseen” because being widely seen, in the current market, was never going to happen — as is often the case for truly independent filmmaking. So: “overlooked.” The list could have been filled several times over. The best movie of the year, Jordan Peele’s Nope, is not on it. It wasn’t quite the runaway hit that I believe it could have been. But it’s still too big to qualify — thankfully.

Benediction (Dir. Terence Davies)

Jeremy Irvine and Jack Lowden in ‘Benediction’

Laurence Cendrowicz/Roadside Attractions

Terence Davies has always had an incomparable flare for the dreamy intangibles of the past, and he’s always had a talent for whittling that ether into psychologically astute, intelligent movies. Benediction is a portrait of the British war poet Siegfried Sassoon, played here by Jack Lowden in one of the year’s most sensitive performances. The life of Sassoon has a lot to offer a filmmaker of Davies’s talent, and he takes full advantage, exploring the emotional shifts and moral debates of Sassoon’s life through charged interactions, galvanizing montages that make good use of historical war footage, and smooth, circular shifts between past and present. The movie is full of passion and ideas, just as its central poet was. And Davies amplifies Sassoon’s life and voice, thinking alongside him as his conscientious objection lands him a stay in a psychiatric hospital, and as he feels his way through relationships with men and women, delves into his art, and eventually converts to Catholicism. An indispensable movie.

The Cathedral (Dir. Ricky D’Ambrose)

A scene from ‘The Cathedral’

Mubi

There were a few autobiographical movies this year made by filmmakers keen on exploring their own births as young artists, but Ricky D’Ambrose’s The Cathedral — one of the smallest — is among the best. D’Ambrose, working in an autobiographical mode that’s entirely his own, gives us a portrait of a Long Island childhood from the late ‘80s onward, one touched by divorce, the AIDS crisis, money problems, familial rifts — all of which sounds more dramatic than what D’Ambrose’s somewhat minimalist style has in store. The film proceeds like a series of snapshots, calmly narrated, precisely staged, poignantly imagined, and sharply acted and edited, to the point of it all feeling a little posed, as still as a photograph but just as full of life and memory. This is the the kind of movie that’s all the better and more human for daring to seem a little artificial; it’s reaching for something harder to wrangle than mere nostalgia. There’s a disconcerting laser focus to it. D’Ambrose is telling us something about the eye of the young man growing up throughout this story — about this version of himself — through his style. The movie’s images are putting its drama on display. But they’re also giving us a lesson in how this young man has already, in childhood, begun to fixate on the details, the people in his life and the ways that they behave, the quality of light in a room, the inconsistencies that define our memories. The Cathedral is small but mighty. Its coldness is the warmest thing about it.

The Eternal Daughter (Dir. Joanna Hogg)

Tilda Swinton in ‘The Eternal Daughter’

A24

Joanna Hogg’s latest feature is a semi-sequel to her two Souvenir movies, which were about a young director named Julie (somewhat based on Hogg) going to film school in Britain in the ‘80s and feeling some way toward who she is as a woman and an artist. Those movies thoughtfully bent their form to explore memory, filmmaking and the nature of images. The Eternal Daughter switches gears to become something else: it’s gothic, a creeping and moving ghost story. Tilda Swinton does double duty, playing both the older Julie and her mother, in a story that brings both women back to an old hotel to mine the place for its memories. The movie is too foggy and eerily quiet not to inspire other mental and emotional flights. The hotel, with all its creaks and murmurs and shadowy interiors, is a character unto itself. Like its predecessors, The Eternal Daughter uses the artifice of filmmaking to show us a mind at work — or, in this case, at war with itself. One of the year’s great explorations of grief. 

In Front of Your Face (Dir. Hong Sang-soo)

Lee Hyeyoung and Cho Yunhee in ‘In Front of Your Face’

Cinema Guild

Korean director Hong Sang-soo should be more famous. But his movies — often released, these days, at a clip of two per year — are so small and structurally beguiling, so emotionally jagged and playful, that it can be hard to tell people what they’re in for. The visual and dramatic setups, which court comedy alongside pathos, are often simple — the point will be for Hong to double back, mess with the form, offer alternative versions or variations or new angles on familiar events. Coincidence matters to his work. Secrets — the kind that have a way of spilling out when alcohol is introduced — are abundant. You learn to focus on the details. So it is with In Front of Your Face, which stars Lee Hye-young as an actress who’s returned to her hometown for reasons that will eventually become clear. The main set piece of the movie is a meeting she has with a younger director who wants to cast her in an upcoming project. But this, and everything else in Hong’s feature, will all hinge on what we do not know about this actress. There’s a poignancy to the mystery of this and Hong’s finest features, because what’s at stake isn’t a riddle, but some primary truth about the ways that people are. In Front of Your Face bears a tense relationship to the future and what it means to even be able to imagine one for oneself — a fact that we don’t realize until far into the movie, when it’s almost too late. 

Mad God (Dir. Phil Tippett)

Shudder

Phil Tippett has wanted to make this movie — the animation event of the year — for decades. Tippett is best known for his work, as a stop-motion animator and VFX artist, on such little-known movies as Jurassic Park, the Star Wars trilogy, Starship Troopers and Robocop. But if you didn’t know this, you’d still sense the influences in the work itself. Mad God is like if the bug-brains of Starship Troopers and Jabba the Hutt were given license to remake the world in their own slimy, violent image. Its story is more or less straightforward: an anonymous soldier, known as The Assassin, rides a diving bell down into a dangerous, icky, mystifying world — a pure descent into some version of hell — and finds himself on a tour of of Tippett’s deadly imagination, a world full of shit-born automatons and slave-driving monsters with baby voices, of expendable labor and radioactive attitudes. The stop-motion animation is extraordinary in its textures, with certain details, like The Assassin’s map shedding leaves each time he folds and unfolds it, emerging as some of the most beautiful visual touches in a movie this year. There’s a worldview to this movie. For all its eagerness to gross us out (all waste — including shit — is just waiting to be recycled; what gets unmade will be reborn as something else) the movie has an uncanny sadness. I’m still surprised by how attached to this world I felt when the movie ended. 

Saturday Fiction (Dir. Lou Ye)

Gong Li in ‘Saturday Fiction’

“That woman is too mysterious,” a man says of Gong Li, star of Lou Ye’s latest. “She’s like a box of secrets.” And so is this movie, which is set in Shanghai, in December 1941, amid actors and spies. Gong plays the actress Jean Yu, who has ostensibly come to Shanghai to perform in a play, but also has other motivations, of which everyone else in the movie seems to be aware: Her ex-husband, a detainee of Japanese forces. The movie’s plot is a murky rigmarole of secrets and lies, with a romance between Jean and her lover playing out against a lo-fi spy plot, all of it captured in hazy and soft black-and-white images, the kind of cinematography that makes you feel like you’re watching everything through a filter of rain and emotional dread. The discomfiting merging of the personal and political defines the movie; Jean Yu’s actions have implications far beyond herself, to the point that the movie grows willfully confusing in the end, because she’s losing her hold on who she is, and so are we. 

We’re All Going to the Worlds Fair (Dir. Jane Schoenbrun)

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Anna Cobb in ‘We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’

Jane Schoenbrun’s feature directorial debut (which they also edited and wrote) is the kind of movie powerful enough to remind us what a strange, haunted place the internet can be. This matters for anyone coming of age on the internet, with a world of images and rabbit holes at their fingertips, and a vast number of pathways for self-discovery. In Schoenbrun’s vision, the internet exists on the knife’s edge between danger and illumination. Anna Cobb (another debut) plays Casey, a teenage loner who participates in a creepypasta horror game online, a trip “to the world’s fair” that seems to spark changes in its participants. This brings her into contact with a man named JLB (Michael J. Rogers), another loner who, because he is many years her senior, has questionable intentions. The movie reduces Casey’s life down to its barest moods and rhythms, refracted through the uncertainties of online danger and nascent identity. Her primary source of interaction is with screens — and not in the exaggerated way of a movie that’s trying to fearmonger its way toward a political point, but in the natural way of a teen trying to find her way. You can call it a horror movie, but what’s creepy about World’s Fair is that, like its characters, it’s simply too slippery for easy categorization. There’s terror and wonder in trying to find who we are, and this movie knows it. 

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