madeline's madeline

5. Madeline’s Madeline 

“You’re not acting like yourself,” Madeline’s acting teacher Evangeline (Molly Parker) says. “You don’t know myself,” Madeline (Helena Howard) snaps back. But who is Madeline? And who is Evangeline? And who is Madeline’s mother Regina (Miranda July)? And just what is going on here? No one, and I mean no one, working today is making movies like Josephine Decker. Decker’s films inhabit a world somewhere between dreams and folklore, and Madeline’s Madeline might just be her masterpiece. A haunting, exhilarating punch in the face, Madeline’s Madeline is a journey into the mind of a troubled, mentally unstable young woman (newcomer Howard, who is so good here it’s scary).

Howard’s Madeline is an actor, and a very good one. She has a way of becoming anyone and anything she sees. She stares at the family cat, and she becomes a cat. She sees a deranged man on a city street talking to himself, she becomes the deranged man. Evangeline recognizes Madeline’s talent, and wants to use it…and perhaps exploit it. Regina, meanwhile, is just worried that Madeline will have an “episode” again – something that might send her back to the mental hospital that’s mentioned once or twice. And here’s the thing: is any of this really happening? Or is it all somehow unfolding in Madeline’s mind? Or are we even in Madeline’s mind at all? Madeline’s Madeline never tips its hat to let us know who this story belongs to. Instead, Decker’s film unfolds like a fever dream, full of close-ups, soft-focus and blurred vision. It’s a wonder to behold.


Hereditary Ending

4. Hereditary

Seemingly every year, a horror movie comes along that’s heralded as “The next Exorcist!” or “This generation’s Rosemary’s Baby!” More often than not, this ends up being hyperbole. But Ari Aster‘s Hereditary is the real deal. A dread-soaked work of terror, both supernatural and psychological. The film is like a tree with branches loaded with ice, ready to snap and collapse on your head. And boy oh boy is it scary. A family is torn apart, metaphorically and literally, following a death, and we get to watch things spiral out of control. There’s no hope here. No rescue. No divine intervention. And that’s what makes Hereditary so damn disturbing.

At the center of it all is Toni Collette, giving the type of performance people will still be talking about in years to come. As the matriarch of the doomed family, Collette is run through the wringer, and there’s not a single moment where her performance rings false. Some have complained that the last act of Hereditary, which descends into full-blown supernatural spook show, isn’t as good as the first. I disagree whole-heartedly. Both halves of the film complement each other. The first section of film is a warning: something bad is coming. The second section is a message: you should’ve listened to the warning, and now it’s too late.

Annihilation ending

3. Annihilation

Depression. Cancer. Heartbreak. There are seemingly dozens of different interpretations as to what Alex Garland‘s Annihilation is about, and perhaps all of them are somehow right. Garland’s loose adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel sends a team of women (Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny) into a mysterious landscape covered in a ghostly shimmer. What the team finds there changes them, both mentally and on a molecular level. Annihilation unfolds like a nightmare swallowing up a dream. It has no easy answers for you, and it isn’t afraid to send you reeling. There’s beauty here, and then there’s horror. This is bold, brilliant sci-fi; the type that alienates some audiences while turning others into obsessives. Loaded with trippy visuals and emotionally devastating performances, Annihilation burns itself into your brain, and sends you away haunted.

you were never really here

2. You Were Never Really Here

On the surface, Lynne Ramsay‘s You Were Never Really Here looks like your standard hyper-violent movie about a lone man doing bad things to bad people. But that’s not quite what’s going on here. Ramsay’s film is brilliant in how it deliberately keeps the viewer in the dark. The violence is almost always off screen, and the editing is done in such a way that we’re never quite sure if what’s happening is 100% real or not. It might make for a jarring experience, but You Were Never Really Here is a brilliant example of the art of filmmaking. Ramsay doesn’t tell, she shows – she lets her visuals speak for themselves, and trusts us to fill in the blanks. Joaquin Phoenix gives yet another earth-shattering performance, playing a hammer-wielding bringer of death, someone who doesn’t enter a room so much as he bursts through it. Phoenix’s character is hired to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a politician, but the job turns much more complicated, and nothing plays out the way you expect it to. You Were Never Really Here is entirely unpredictable, and that’s what makes it so special.

first reformed

1. First Reformed 

Ethan Hawke delivers one of his best performances as a reverend of a small, neglected church wrestling with faith, the universe and everything in between. In some respects, First Reformed is writer-director Paul Schrader remaking his script for Taxi Driver, as well as drawing on Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest and Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light. Yet no matter what its influences, First Reformed is still wholly its own thing. A brilliant, unrelenting story of a soul in crisis. Hawke’s reverend character is asked by a local woman (Amanda Seyfried) to counsel her troubled husband (Philip Ettinger). The husband is an activist, and the dangers of climate change and indifference of the world towards it have left him in a pit of despair. Hawke attempts to offer words of hope, but it does no good. Worse, the husband’s despair is like a virus, and soon Hawke has caught it, descending into a type of mania as he struggles to come to terms with his life and his faith. It culminates in a final few moments that will cut through you like a hot blade. “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?” is a running question throughout First Reformed. Whether or not the film provides an answer, and whether that answer is one you want to hear, is up to you to decide.

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