The 25 Best Films of 2019 – slantmagazine

Many of the best films this year are concerned with indulgent, unbridled madness, offering formal excess as a parallel to our modern cacophony.
This was a great, if bleak, year for cinema, full of mixed signals. As Disney consolidates a monopoly on popular culture, aided by a government that cheers corporate overreach, there are still too many scrappy, visionary films to count. Many such films were distributed by streaming sites like Amazon and Netflix, the latter of which is beginning to suggest 1990s-era Miramax, in terms of making fruitful risks that refute the mega-blockbuster mentality. But there’s a growing disconnect, between what’s available for most people to see and what critics champion, that parallels our era of growing political polarization.
More than ever, we live in an era in which people choose their own news and are hyper-focused on their own niches, which offers a paradox: While there’s freedom in such a lifestyle, it’s also deeply isolating. This context partially explains the exhilaration of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, insular works that, in their popularity and acclaim, recall the audience-unifying glories of ’70s-era American pop cinema, and of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, an intoxicating, perhaps reactionary fantasy that rues the fading of a diseased patriarchal life that was nevertheless responsible for the comforts of pop culture.
Quentin Tarantino’s tender and transcendent film is, most explicitly, a paean to Hollywood’s ability to control an undivided public’s attention via he-men westerns and musicals and TV arcana. Tarantino, dangerously and daringly, glorifies a less obviously political cinema, implicitly regretting the divisions that would mark the ’70s and the present. Such division fueled movies this year, that, while troubling, were undeniably in sync with America’s bitter underbelly, such as Todd Phillips’s Joker, Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, and S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete.
Many of the best films this year are concerned with indulgent, unbridled madness, offering formal excess as a parallel to our modern cacophony. One example is Harmony Korine’s extraordinary, absurdly overlooked The Beach Bum, a lurid and beautiful poem of privilege and self-absorption. Another is Bong Joon-ho’s smash hit Parasite, which suggests that every oppressed person oppresses someone lower on the food chain. This year, as political divisions deepen, cinema became more and more inventive with satirizing capitalism while simultaneously rendering its narcotic charms. There were also moments of immersive tranquility and introspection, offered by Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri’s The Gospel of Eureka, Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and Khalik Allah’s Black Mother, among others.
Do we suffer from too much? Are there too many films, too many hot takes, too much detritus to wade through? In an age of endless excess, the critic’s, and the audience’s, job is to discern patterns and meanings, to whittle chaos down to manageable stimuli. The best films of the year found artists grappling with this very chaos, mining the emotion of the spectacle of the political. Chuck Bowen
Click here for individual contributor ballots and a list of the films that ranked 26–50.

The Gospel of Eureka
In 2014, Eureka Springs became the first city in Arkansas to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri’s The Gospel of Eureka doesn’t mention this fact, nor does it seek to explain why a town deeply rooted in Christian faith also has an outsized population of gay and non-binary citizens. The documentary isn’t a study of juxtaposition so much as an exploration of how the many strands of a person or location’s identity can’t easily be disentangled. Eureka Springs, both haunted by and economically beholden to the legacy of noted Christian nationalist Gerald L.K. Smith, proves a vivid backdrop through which to explore how neighbors overcome difference and embrace progress. Like October Country, Mosher and Palmieri’s latest is uniquely attuned to the fickle whims of history, politics, and biographical circumstance. Where their earlier film wondered how both the economics and personal trauma of war reverberated through a family struggling with decades of abuse, despair, and rebellion, this one communicates an atmosphere of persistent connection despite seemingly incongruous belief systems and lifestyles. The Gospel of Eureka’s overriding theme is mutability, and its one true enemy seems to be any form of dogmatism. Christopher Gray

Chinese Portrait
As a recording apparatus, the camera no longer disturbs or announces its presence. It’s a ghost in the room, as banal as a limb. Xiaoshuai Wang restores the exceptional status of that most revolutionary of technical devices in Chinese Portrait, a series of short-lived tableaux vivants for which the gravitational pull of the camera is re-staged. The simplicity of bodies barely moving before a camera that brings their quotidian temporality into a halt is nothing short of a radical proposition in our digital era—in the context of a culture obsessed with using cameras precisely as anti-contemplation devices, and a film industry still so invested in producing artificial drama in order to tell its stories. In Chinese Portrait, there’s no need for storylines, tragedy, or spectacle for drama to emerge. The drama is in the minutia of the mise-en-scène, in the gap between bystanders who return the camera’s gaze and those who don’t. The drama is in the camera’s de-escalating force, its ability to refuse the endless excitation it could provide in favor of one little thing: elderly people stretching in a park, black and brown horses in a field, two of them licking each other’s backs. This is the camera not as a Pandora’s box, but as a sharp laser beam with curatorial intentions. Diego Semerene

The Competition
Claire Simon’s The Competition follows the rigorous selection process for Paris’s iconic film and television school La Fémis, which every year accepts 60 new students, out of some 1,000 applicants. Throughout, Simon’s camera quietly observes the various phases of the selection process, aware that to best capture the anxiousness of a moment is to not embellish it. As a result, we come to take great pleasure in watching the most menial of tasks, such as a committee member counting numbers or checking boxes on a form. While those responsible for the selection process keep things mostly courteous among themselves during deliberations, it’s precisely when conflict emerges around a candidate that we realize how gracious Simon is with her subjects. It would have been easy to play up the drama or drum up miserabilist tales around the high hopes of candidates and the frustrations that follow. Simon focuses instead on how candidates trying to make a case for themselves are often self-contradicting, and as such difficult to truly assess; the film is also about the impossibility of objective criteria when it comes to such matters. The truly awful performances are never shown, only referred to in passing after they happened. This isn’t some reality show that allows us to revel in schadenfreude or root for charismatic underdogs. Semerene

Ad Astra
Throughout Ad Astra, James Gray uses the grand metaphors of science fiction to mourn the distance between a father and son that’s so often internalized as self-alienation. This repression, Gray underlines, has utility in a rationalized society: Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is the perfect astronaut because nothing unnerves him, as testified to by his diligently recorded pulse rate, oxygen levels, and the other defining statistics of his thoroughly technologized body. The inhuman coldness his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), foisted upon him is precisely what enables him to survive his epic quest from Earth to Neptune. Among Ad Astra’s more universal themes is coping with and moving beyond the sins of previous generations, with overtones that evoke the climate catastrophe that global capitalism has prepared for us. When Roy finally finds his elusive target, floating out there somewhere around the rings of Neptune, Gray captures a heartbreak that will be familiar to many: a confrontation between a grown son and his erstwhile hero, both appearing suddenly small, frail, and all too fallibly human. Pat Brown

Gaspar Noé’s Climax reminds us how pleasurable it can be when a filmmaker essentially discards plot for the sake of unhinged formalism. The film works on two levels, as it’s a celebration of body and movement, featuring astonishing and painful-looking choreography, as well as an examination of the sexual resentment that drives a mixed-race dancing troupe. In early passages, actors more or less speak to the camera, a device that suggests a blunt clearing of the air. Later, when the dancers succumb to the effects of LSD-spiked sangria, Climax becomes a brilliant fever dream, an orgy of raw, flamboyantly colored psychosis that’s truer to the spirit of Dario Argento’s Suspiria than Luca Guadignino’s recent remake. Above all else, Climax feels pure, as Noé cuts to the root of his obsession with the intersection between sex, violence, and power. It’s a horror musical of hard, beautiful nihilism. Bowen

The Beach Bum
The Beach Bum is Harmony Korine’s burnout fantasy of wealth, drugs, prostitution, and beat poetry run rampant in the Florida Keys. Jimmy Buffet is baked, Martin Lawrence’s dolphin boat tour guide in a sailor’s suit has a coke-addicted parrot, and Snoop Dogg plays an R&B singer named “Lingerie” who’s also (maybe) an ordained priest. And then, of course, there’s Matthew McConaghey, disappearing into the eccentricities of his latest unusual career choice. Moondog is an aging cult writer with a still-bulgingly muscular body, a bad spray tan, precariously perched reading glasses, and a trusty typewriter. Korine’s most fully realized creation to date, he becomes the central axis of a sprawling odyssey that twists and perverts a golden-hewed tropical paradise, but never to the point where it isn’t recognizably, and disturbingly, real. That’s Korine’s signature brilliance: He can commit completely to making a hilarious, gonzo stoner comedy, while just as forcefully making sure that the most immoral behaviors that perpetuate that comedy somehow register with an appropriate weight. The vacillation is jarring, and provocative, and it never leads to easy judgments of anyone. Sam C. Mac

High Life
Claire Denis’s haunting High Life merges the twin poles of the filmmaker’s singular cinematic vision, combining the violent psychosexual bleakness of Bastards with the lyrical humanism of 35 Shots of Rum. The result is a haunting and ultimately heart-breaking journey to the outer limits of the human social condition, one that uses a spaceship full of condemned prisoners subjected to bizarre sexual experiments at the hands of a witch-like doctor (Juliette Binoche) to interrogate the assumptions underlying our conceptions of community. It’s fitting that the very first word spoken in the film is “taboo.” Not just because Denis breaks a few of her own here, most notably in an eye-popping sequence featuring Binoche writhing euphorically on a mechanical dildo, but because the film explores the concept of social responsibilities and restrictions on a fundamental level. High Life provocatively asks whether the relationship between a parent and child has any real meaning when they’re essentially the only two people left in the universe. And Denis answers that question in a soul-stirring final sequence in which father (Robert Pattinson) and daughter (Jessie Ross) face oblivion together, with a tender but resounding “yes.” Keith Watson

I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians is Radu Jude’s narrative follow-up to his 2017 documentary The Dead Nation, which examined Romania’s role as a Nazi collaborator during the Holocaust. The film follows theater director Mariana (Ioana Iacob) as she attempts to mount a public spectacle in contemporary Bucharest depicting Romania’s 1941 genocide of Odessa’s Jews under Prime Minister Ion Antonescu (the film’s title is derived from a quote by the dictator, whose anti-Semitism fueled the massacre). As Mariana encounters resistance to the project from fellow artists, politicians, bureaucrats, actors, extras, and even lovers, the film becomes a dazzlingly discursive meditation on the legacy of communist propaganda, cultural memory, nationalism, and the dangers of attempting to represent the Holocaust through art. Jude paints contemporary Romanians as being little different from their collaborationist forebears: Mariana’s audience applauds the Romanian army on stage as it carries out its mass execution, cheering for the villains’ anti-Semitic speeches and even spontaneously “capturing” and returning a Jewish character who tries to escape death. Jude dares to ask the deeply unpalatable and almost unspeakable question: What if art that tries to denounce evil can’t help but always somehow celebrate it? Oleg Ivanov

Peterloo failed to win many plaudits during its festival rounds. And after a very brief theatrical engagement, it was buried on the streaming platform of the monopolistic goliath, Amazon, that perversely financed it. A shame given that this incendiary tale of sociopolitical malfeasance is one of Mike Leigh’s strongest efforts, a sprawling retelling of the events leading up to and including the 1819 massacre of parliamentary reformers on St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, England. The press at the time dubbed it Peterloo, a play on Waterloo, the battle that effectively ended the Napoleonic Wars four years earlier. You’d think Leigh’s sympathies would be quite definitively with the reformers, though his perspective is much more starkly clinical, unearthing as much flaw and failure in the progressive caucus as among the reactionary royals. The film’s default mode is oratorical; at heart, this is a story about the power, or lack thereof, of words. The impassioned speechifying of both cruel magistrates and liberal-minded activists isn’t viewed in opposition so much as it is seen as two sides of the same coin. Caught between these self-same extremes is a poverty-stricken populace struggling to make ends meet while history wraps itself around them, slaughtering body and spirit both. Keith Uhlich

Pain & Glory
The autobiographical Pain & Glory finds Spain’s premiere auteur in a robustly reflective mood. Pedro Almodóvar’s frequent muse, Antonio Banderas, plays Salvador Mallo, a filmmaker at a crossroads and a not-so-veiled stand-in for Almodóvar himself. Mallo is about to be feted at a retrospective screening of his first feature. But he’s also creatively blocked and in tremendous physical pain due to an undiagnosed malady. A chance encounter with one of his old collaborators leads him down a recollective rabbit hole: He thinks back to his artistically and sexually formative childhood, his mother (Penélope Cruz) and an alluring male neighbor (César Vicente) looming large. And in the present, he rekindles a tempestuous friendship with the drug-addicted leading man (Asier Etxeandia) who he fell out with many years before. This is a colorful and gently incisive story about the neural and emotional pathways that shape a life. And Banderas’s performance is a career-best effort, at once an affectionate tribute to and a razor-sharp dissection of the man who made him. Uhlich

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
In one of many craftily structured scenes from Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys)—based on Tom Junod, whose 1998 Esquire profile of Fred Rogers is the basis of the film—stares, unmoved, at a routine scene being shot for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. But then, as the camera slowly pushes toward the show’s set, finally landing and lingering on Rogers (Tom Hanks, transcending impersonation by almost resisting it) as he communicates through one of his puppets, the expression on Lloyd’s face suggests nothing less than the world opening up and taking shape before him. The moment is one of many grand little sleights of hands, at once mysterious and accessible, in a film that cannily toys with convention to arrive at the simple but profound message that to have invited Rogers into our lives was to do so with our backs to the abyss, and that his gifts would have been impossible without a mutual vulnerability. Ed Gonzalez

Black Mother
A combination of city symphony and verité intimacy, Black Mother is a living history, a reckoning with Jamaica’s brutal colonial past and the ways that people in the present are informed by it even as they struggle to move out of history’s long shadow. Khalik Allah’s method juxtaposes tales of hardship and desperate escapism with moments of grace as people pause to pose for his camera and their momentary comfort turns to discomfort or vice versa. Shot on various formats, the film presents a tapestry as portrait, combining distinct and unrelated images under recordings of people’s reminiscences to bridge individual perspectives into a broader image. The film’s approach is one of sociological pointillism, each minute visual observation and interview its own small dot that adds up to a macro view of Jamaica, and it confirms Allah as a dynamic emerging voice in the arena of nonfiction filmmaking. Jake Cole

An Elephant Sitting Still
They say the titular animal resides in the city of Manzhouli, and it can be found perpetually sitting, enjoying its inactivity so much that it remains unperturbed by those who stab it with forks. It’s a vision that, like much of An Elephant Sitting Still, suggests both serenity and defeat. Director Hu Bo’s greatest feat here is the way he summons a depressive atmosphere that never feels cheap, namely because the melancholy that increasingly haunts his characters across four hours feels so lived in. He frames them with grace, observing and often following them in long takes and in close up, trying to both comprehend and honor their grief and listlessness. Hu understood that histrionic representations of life’s bleakness aren’t always accurate or meaningful, so he made a film that’s as still as its characters, who are gripped by a depression that feels like an inextricable part of their lives. And yet, the film doesn’t lack for moments of beauty. For one, it ends with people playing with a shuttlecock as the sound of a trumpeting elephant is heard from afar. In this moment, Hu suggests that that there are always windows of reprieve from life’s difficulties. Joshua Minsoo Kim

In Mati Diop’s feature debut, Atlantics, the sun and moon have a subtly mystical, almost supernatural power about them. Diop foregrounds not only the innate ability of these celestial bodies to control the ebbs and flows of ocean currents, but to enact an implacable influence on the metaphysical states of exploited Senegalese laborers fighting for their survival. Water also plays a dual role here, serving as a calamitous passageway to an all-but-unattainable better life in Spain, as well as a portal that returns the vengeful spirits of men lost at sea, in the form of traditional Haitian zombies, home to enact a cosmic sense of retribution and reconciliation. As if in a dream, the living and the dead coexist in Atlantics, side by side and ultimately, via possession, become interchangeable. Through her acutely observational and densely atmospheric style, Diop captures the arduousness and quotidian beauty of life on the fringes of society, generously according the oppressed a sense of agency and bliss typically reserved for the ruling class. Derek Smith

A Hidden Life
After vexing critics with his sudden embrace of contemporary life in the startlingly prolific run comprising To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song, Terrence Malick has shot back into the past with A Hidden Life to dramatize a premise that would seemingly satiate those same critics’ ever-burning desire for topical importance. The film concerns the life of Austrian peasant Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a conscientious objector during World War II, and Malick’s indignant inquiry into the psychological and spiritual turmoil wrought by living under fascism ostensibly functions as a clarion call to a modern world grinding toward such all-encompassing horrors. And yet the film is as averse to speechifying as any of his recent kinetic abstractions, translating the inner war of autonomy and submission into starkly visual terms: the exasperating push and pull of faces around a space-distorting wide-angle lens, the visceral distinction between Austria’s boundless countryside and jail cells lit by one window, and the interplay of a camera that restlessly channels its hero’s longing for open spaces and one that freezes in its tracks against the unmovable wall of state power. In centering so exquisitely on the experiential qualities of resistance, Malick has articulated the loudest case for what that oft-hashtagged buzzword actually means. Carson Lund

Marriage Story
Featuring fearlessly vulnerable and career-best turns from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story is vintage Noah Baumbach, homing in as it does on the ways that the divorcing couple at the center of the film clumsily and at times comically adjust to change. But it also sees Baumbach embracing a theatricality of expression, so rare in his previous work, that’s quickly understood to be an extension of his main characters’ work in showbusiness. Across uncomfortably long sequences capped by the fieriest of confrontations, Baumbach and his actors effectively detail dark truths about how familiarity breeds contempt. But as wrenching as Charlie and Nicole’s exchanges can get, Marriage Story cannily disarms us with reminders of the love this man and woman still have for one another. And the emotional and psychological toll of separation is given even extra dimension though a meticulous observation of how one’s seemingly trivial actions can be weaponized against others by merciless attorneys. The brutally honest storytelling and performances would be remarkable in and of itself, but Marriage Story also astonishes in showing an already consistently great filmmaker brilliantly expand his formal artistry. Wes Greene

Long Day’s Journey into Night
At one point in Bi Gan’s woozy, gorgeously textured epic, a character describes flying as like being kissed. Another says kissing is like a dream. It makes some sense, then, that halfway through the hour-long 3D shot that concludes Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a dream that more than once takes flight. Such chains of verbal and visual associations are littered through this waterlogged noir romance, a pursuit of lost time whose flashbacks, though seemingly wrought from faulty memories, feel more real than the film’s elliptical, destitute present, populated by characters who are shadows of their former selves. Bi’s film demands submission: to narrative and visual logic, and to the circular philosophy of Huang Jue’s casino manager. The viewer is asked to “join” in that 3D dream, which begins in a movie theater before traversing a mineshaft, a zipline, and a float above China’s Kaili City. A willful tribute to some of our most uncanny filmmakers (Wong Kar-wai, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Alfred Hitchcock, to name a few), Long Day’s Journey Into Night nonetheless proves capable of finding new ways to expand and compress a cinematic moment, revealing in its final image that a climactic scene spanning a few rapturous minutes has, in one reality or another, lasted mere seconds. Gray

The Souvenir
One of the most affecting moments in Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir involves young Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) at an elevator door as the man she’s becoming involved with, Anthony (Tom Burke), leaves her apartment. A customary and polite goodbye unexpectedly cuts to Julie’s point of view of Anthony, the crisp digital image in process transforming to grainy 16mm. It’s a suspension of the filmic reality to which we’ve been conditioned, calling to attention how we see what’s before us in real life, then how we filter it in the repository of memory. Julie’s relationship with Anthony—who, behind his foreign office occupation turns out to be a drug addict—is unhealthy and doomed, but Hogg is less interested in judging her characters than expressing the raw experience of human sentiment. The narrative reminiscence mirrors Julie’s education as a film student in 1980s London, with Julie and Anthony’s story unexpectedly interrupted with digressions of documentary footage, still photography, tender love letters, and poetry. The world of The Souvenir is full of murky reflections and smeared windows through which we observe its characters, and always it seems as if they’re striving to break free from the distance of artistic representation and be present with us. Niles Schwartz

La Flor
Mariano Llinás slyly constructs La Flor as a series of loosely interlocking labyrinths with no clear resolutions, presupposing cinema as being solely about the journey rather than the destination. Across its exuberant 14-plus hours and six episodes, several of which add digressions within digressions, Llinás upends expectations and stretches his formal muscles as his film traverses an array of genres, styles, and spoken languages and playfully dismantles and toys with the very notion of storytelling itself. As its production lasted for a full decade, Llinás’s sprawling magnum opus inevitably sees its four main actresses, who star in all but one of the six episodes, gracefully age as they shapeshift from musicians and scientists to spies, assassins, actors, and, ultimately, themselves. As a structural gambit, La Flor is as ambitious as anything released in the past decade, let alone year, and the symbiotic relationship between Llinás and his magnificently malleable performers—particularly Pilar Gamboa, whose brooding intensity reaches its height during the emotionally wrenching song which concludes episode two—lend the film’s wildly inventive metafictions an unmistakable warmth. Smith

Ash Is Purest White
The culmination of Jia Zhang-ke’s career-long exploration of the changing social and moral landscape of China, Ash Is Purest White is a damning portrait of a repressive society in thrall to its belated embrace of late capitalism. Well within the director’s recent turn toward using the syntax of genre cinema to express his feelings on China’s political and social failings, the film is a gangster epic from the perspective of a moll (Zhao Tao) who abruptly learns that the codes of honor among thieves matter little to mobsters and even less to their girlfriends. A prison sentence roots the protagonist in place as time rapidly drifts by, and when she gets out after a few years she finds a China she cannot recognize. As in Martin Scorsese’s own crime films, corporate organizations prove to be even more ruthless and law-flouting than mafias, whose gangsters are far crueler in a boardroom than they ever were on the streets. But this is also a kind of ghost film, one where people and even full cities disappear under the weight of China’s second cultural revolution, leaving one to think that at least the chaos caused by the first was ostensibly in the name of progress, not profit. Cole

The year didn’t lack for cinematic master classes that wore their professorial desires on their sleeves. At the core of Parasite’s lesson plan, we could say, is the gulf between the haves and the have-nots and the denaturalization of a dog-eat-dog world’s modus operandi. What sets South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho’s film apart in ringing the socio-political alarm is his ability to dissolve the supposedly higher art of civil consciousness with cinema’s guiltier pleasures—fun for fun’s sake—into one single substance. And it’s one that erupted from rather unassuming places, from a mansion’s basement to a blocked toilet. Whatever we learn through the film we learn it through the immersive experience of ingenious storytelling alone. Parasite is such a gratifying pedagogical ride precisely because its message is entwined so intimately in every coil of its cinematic artistry. Were the film a garment we wouldn’t be able to see any of its seams. Were it a song, we would be so entranced by its rhythm that we’d catch ourselves dancing irrespective of its lyrics. Parasite’s genre-specific cadence and madcap tale of the return of the repressed are ultimately a testament to cinema’s undying old tricks and its yet-to-be-imagined future. Semerene

The Irishman
Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half-hour epic is an embarrassment of riches, of novelistic moments, details, and characters that seep into your bones. For such a big film, The Irishman is robustly intimate, composed mostly of a handful of men eating and talking and casually influencing America’s post-WWII disillusionment. Our protagonist is Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), who reveals that Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) had a penchant for hot dogs and ice cream, and that men who drank around him had to drink in secret, and that another powerful gangster, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci in the performance of his life), dipped crusty bread in red wine. The Irishman is an ecstatic slipstream of memories within memories, an old-man’s film in which Scorsese informs the mob genre he helped to invent with an austere, piercing, not unfunny gravity, reckoning with the rock-star machismo of his earlier work in the process. Sheeran is the center of the film, but he’s also at the mercy of his world, his complacency indicting our own, recalling Ryan O’Neil’s character in Stanley Kubrick’s similarly existential Barry Lyndon. Bowen

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
“You’re just a dollar sign to Jake Cahill,” says the narrator for the TV western Bounty Law as Jake (played by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton), guns down some bad guys. Years later, while in the company of his stunt double and best friend, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick comes to realize that he, too, represents little more than a dollar sign. In Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Rick and Cliff anchor an expansive slice-of-life depiction of a bygone Hollywood. Throughout, their personal and professional foibles are offset by our rearview knowledge that the story will conclude near Rick’s home on Cielo Drive, where Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her friends were massacred. Tarantino’s ploy isn’t simply to redeem a tragic historical outcome through fantasy, but more importantly to reverse how the symbolic resonance of the Manson murders have overshadowed Tate’s inner life. What makes this film breathe and linger is the remarkable affection Tarantino has for all his characters—real and imagined—as he stirs subtle undercurrents of regret and sadness into a film of great warmth and humor. Schwartz

At once conceptually audacious and urgently humane, Christian Petzold’s faithful adaptation of Anna Seghers’s 1944 novel situates a story about German refugees in geographic and bureaucratic purgatory in present-day Marseilles. This simple gambit simultaneously deromanticizes the middlebrow WWII cinema of recent decades and historicizes the geopolitical turmoil of today, but what proves most thrilling about Petzold’s collapsing of history is his intent focus on collapsed souls, all held captive to the whims of fate and oppressive forces. Georg (Franz Rogowski) arrives in Marseilles with a series of opportunities to assume new personas—as an esteemed writer, a father, and a lover—but as Transit pivots from thriller to melodrama, Petzold interrogates the very possibility of exercising selfhood under the thumb of fascism. Mesmerizingly rich with incident yet suffused with the melancholy and confusion of isolated souls desperate for connection in hopeless circumstances, the film pulses with yearning even as it subjects Georg to a devastating series of narrative dead ends. Gray

Uncut Gems
In Uncut Gems, the fundamental exploitativeness of capitalism becomes the fulcrum for a sui generis screwball tragedy in which characters from various class backgrounds fit into an overlapping food chain of unbridled ambition. The narrative aligns the mining, medical, diamond, and sports industries as a sprint of ongoing, breathless dealings, and sees in each a fundamentally freewheeling, if ethically detached, sensibility, best expressed by Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) to NBA star Kevin Garnett: “So, look—let’s fucking bet on this shit.” Cosmic forces, Daniel Lopatin’s haunting soundscapes, and winking references to Sandler’s filmography are of equal interest to the Safdie brothers, American enfant terribles whose thematic and sensory pursuits might play for the uninitiated like a cacophony of manic behavior and electronic dissonance. On the contrary, numerous genres and eras of film history from screwball comedy to the New Hollywood inform their work. The film, like Garnett, sees beauty in the allure of materialism and the necessity of myth, but it also finds chilly caution in victory at all costs, which is ironized through Garnett’s empty sports talk (“When you win, it’s all that matters”). Uncut Gems shows that what goes up must come down—or, to use the film’s unique visual law, what goes in one hole (or into someone’s pocket) inevitably comes out of another. Clayton Dillard
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