The absence of tentpole movies (well there was Wonder Woman 1984 but we all know that sucked) paved the way for more unique and interesting stories to get attention. The best distributors like A24 and Neon know how to pick them well, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only ones who found gems from film festivals.
20. Vast of Night
The Vast of Night feels like a gimmicky Twilight Zone episode complete with ominous radio transmissions, urban tales, alien language, and military cover-ups. But the movie commits to its conceit enough that it doesn’t feel like tryhard mystery theater from History Channel. Vast of Night is an immersive small-town tale where people have big predictions about the future, without knowing there is already something far bigger above them.
On the surface, Wolfwalkers is a simple werewolf story with a unique 2D animation and Studio Ghibli kind of whimsy. Underneath, it’s a thought-provoking reflection of history – a British head of state aims to get rid of all the wolves and “tame the land” of Kilkenny in 1650 Ireland. As the Wolfwalkers fight for their survival with the help of a British hunter’s daughter, you are taught about oppression, prejudice, empathy, and friendship.
18. Sound of Metal
Sound of Metal explores a world that’s rarely examined in cinema, while also being a conduit for a human story about moving forward. Riz Ahmed’s passionate performance is matched with innovative sound design. A punk-metal drummer experiences intermittent hearing loss and you’re taken into a breathtaking sonic experience that’s suffocating and cathartic.
Neon proves that A24 isn’t the only distributor with an eye for thought-provoking horror. Possessor combines a psychological thriller with body horror in which two psyches fight for the same body. As it tackles the malleability of identity, it also asks, how much of your thoughts is really you in a world where technology can hi-jack your brain? It’s a brilliant mindfuck by Brandon Cronenberg.
Kajillionaire is an offbeat comedy about a family of low-stakes grifters that turn into a romantic love story about self-discovery. While that sounds like two different films, Miranda July skillfully crafts a script that deftly combines the best of both into one hopeful movie. The cast is straight out of an indie mold, but solid performances by an exceptional cast keep the story grounded.
Gunda is an animal documentary about a pig, two cows, and a one-legged chicken. There are no shocking images or preachy rhetoric about why you shouldn’t eat meat. But thanks to brilliant black and white experiential filmmaking, the documentary provides a stirring perspective on farm life.
The Painter and the Thief is a you-had-to-be-there kind of story because of its premise – a painter asks a thief who stole one of her important paintings to sit in for a portrait. Fortunately, Benjamin Rees captured it for us. What follows is an affecting story about a co-dependent friendship that shows us the transformative power of empathy, and what it really means to see someone.
13. Saint Frances
Saint Frances is about a 34-year old agnostic feminist who works as a nanny for an interracial couple with two kids. It talks about motherhood, pregnancy, and parenting. And it approaches all of this with such humor and empathy that when a Karen pops up, she’s treated with respect and not mockery. It’s a movie with a crucial ingredient that makes movies great – people relating to people.
12. The Woman Who Ran
Nothing sensational happens with a Woman Who Ran, but director Hong Sang-soo delivers perceptive filmmaking that you can’t help but be pulled into this low-key story. It’s a simple movie that becomes complicated. Gamhee meets up with three of her friends while her husband is on a business trip. What follows is an examination of gender roles and relationship dynamics in Korea.
When pitching the movie to execs, writer-director Rose Glass said: “Try imagining if Travis Bickle was a young Catholic woman living in an English seaside town”. Saint Maud examines loneliness and isolation told through a psychological A24 kind of horror.
The Assistant shows you how the Harvey Weinsteins of the world get away with whatever they want, through the perfect vantage point – his assistant. Julie Garner delivers an Oscar-worthy performance in this subdued yet gripping thriller. You don’t need to work in the entertainment industry to experience this – systemic oppression thrives in power structures where people are browbeaten to silence.
9. Dick Johnson is Dead
We’re all going to die at some point, so why not prepare for it now? Dick Johnson is Dead confronts death with cathartic humor. Painfully aware of how dementia affected her mother, Kirsten Johnson makes a documentary about his father’s death in anticipation of his own. Dreamlike sequences, staged deaths, and behind-the-scenes footage is all assembled with reverence. Most importantly, it teaches us that death should not be feared. We should appreciate how it teaches us to value life.
Nomadland is a movie about living a life that makes you happy without the schmaltzy sentimentality often found in Hollywood movies. Told through eloquent filmmaking by Chloe Zao with the most non-actressy actress of all Frances McDormand, it’s a poetic character study about living your life on your own terms.
Bacurau distills the best of different genres into one thrilling drama. Writer-directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles managed to make a weird western film that’s also part revenge-fantasy, dystopia, and folklore with a socio-political commentary. A group of wannabe manhunters descends into an impoverished rural town. The townspeople are not only fighting for their lives from invaders. They’re also fighting for their place in a country that doesn’t care about their history.
The Collective is about a tale as old as time. A group of investigative journalists in a Romanian newspaper uncover healthcare fraud and corruption in the government. But the way it unravels through shoe-leather journalism is exhilarating and depressing at the same time. In the digital age where fake news has eroded free press, it’s important to have a reminder of what journalism can accomplish.
First cow is essentially a friendship between a traveling chef and a serial entrepreneur. They start a pop-up bakery selling biscuits in a poor settlement. The way this companionship blooms against a backdrop where men engage in violence over the most trivial of things is sublime. First Cow teaches us to choose gentleness, compassion, and trust.
Time, as its title suggests, is about the most precious thing you lose while waiting for justice. It’s the time that you lose and a life unlived. Garrett Bradley makes an experiential documentary about a wife fighting for her husband. What you take away from it, is so much more.
3. Lovers Rock
Lovers Rock has been summarized as a 70-minute long dance party. And it’s not exactly wrong, but it is incomplete. The movie is plotless, but within the dance floor, you’ll see entire lives told between people with minimal dialogue. It is a light-hearted yet electric ode to black immigrants defiantly living their lives in ’80s London.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a quietly sensational film that any woman can relate to. Even if you’re not a girl making her own way to an abortion clinic with her cousin out of town, the movie rings a powerful truth without making a big speech about it. It’s about the daily hostilities that girls go through in a society where the odds are determinedly stacked against them.
A Korean family moves to Arkansas. The father has put everything they have on a piece of land that he is determined to turn into a farm, while his family assimilates in ’80s America. Minari is a unique, lovely, and touching family portrait that if you aren’t rooting for this immigrant family’s success, there is something deeply wrong with you.