The less you know about “Freaky,” the better the film’s surprise payoff will be. Don’t read any spoiler-filled reviews. Don’t watch the trailer. Go in as blind to the premise as possible when you watch this fun and campy slasher flick if you want to experience the maximum enjoyment.
Teenager Millie (Kathryn Newton) is having a rough go of it. She spends her days trying to survive the endless bullying from the mean girls at her high school while dealing with her often drunk, newly widowed mother (Katie Finneran). Her best friends Nyla (Celeste O’Connor) and Josh (Misha Osherovich) are by Millie’s side to keep her sane. But when she becomes the latest target of the town’s infamous serial killer called The Butcher (Vince Vaughn), something very strange happens that will potentially change the course of her senior year forever.
There is so much to like about this horror comedy. Most of the stereotypical genre elements make an appearance, but it’s the plot twist (revealed early on) that elevates it above the rest. The story is inventive and the actors are charismatic. Vaughn and Newton are given the opportunity to ham it up a bit, and they take their roles and run with it in the most delightful way possible. This is one of my favorite Vaughn performances in years.
There are gruesome kills that aren’t for the squeamish (the film absolutely earns its R rating), and the breezy humor and goofy one-liners make “Freaky” stand out from the crowd. It’s one of the more pleasant movie surprises of the year.
9. “Bloody Hell”
It’s not often that a midnight movie excels in its quest for perfection, but “Bloody Hell” comes close. This violent, unruly horror-comedy is a tale of monsters, forbidden love, a demented family, and one very unlucky guy who just wants to turn his life around. Packed with a twisted sense of humor and plenty of surprises, this is one rowdy roller coaster of a movie that’s well on its way to becoming a modern cult classic.
When a video of him turning the tables during a bank robbery goes viral, Rex (Ben O’Toole) finds himself at the center of a public debate. Rex is on trial because thanks to his heroics, he rescued a bank full of people although an innocent bystander was inadvertently killed in the commotion. Depending on their perspective, some people hold Rex up as a gutsy savior while others scorn him as a violent lunatic. He’s sentenced to eight years in an Idaho prison and even after he is released almost a decade later, the man can’t escape the court of public opinion. Wanting to run away to a place where he can start over in an anonymous life, Rex randomly chooses to flee to Finland. But once the plane touches down in Helsinki, he is gassed in the back of a taxi and later wakes up shackled in a dark basement — with a body part missing.
The story is simple but solid, with a terrific setup that pays off tenfold. Director Alister Grierson relies on creative storytelling with the clever idea to have Rex talk to an imaginary version of himself. This two-way stream of consciousness device lets the hero’s inner monologue manifest as a sort of evil twin who shows up at opportune moments to encourage Rex’s devilish side as he struggles to escape. There are thrills, but the film never gets super dark because of the wacky, wry sense of humor (when a character discovers he has been talking to himself for years, Rex shrugs it off, saying “we all have issues”).
It doesn’t take long to become emotionally invested in the what-where-why mystery of the story, mostly because of the charismatic lead actor and his committed performance. The cast is terrific across the board, landing the nerdy film-literate references in the script and fully trusting the cohesive, inspired vision from Grierson and screenwriter Robert Benjamin.
As great as this movie eventually becomes, the first fifteen minutes are brutal to suffer through. At first I was so annoyed by the directorial style that I almost gave up entirely. Grierson’s overuse of artsy visuals is massively irritating but once the story gets going and the director settles down (and purges all the junk jump cuts out of his system), this turns into what amounts to the near-perfect midnight movie.
Once Rex arrives in Finland, everything on screen is outrageously satisfying. The last half of “Bloody Hell” made me scream with delight more than once, and it will probably be even better if you can watch it in the company of a raucous audience. Genre fans won’t want to miss this one.
8. “Dinner in America”
“Dinner in America” is weird and oddball in all the right ways. This “Ghost World” meets “Welcome to the Dollhouse” dark comedy is so strange and wonderful that it feels like an adrenaline-fueled exercise in cinematic anarchy.
Fugitive punk rocker Simon (Kyle Gallner) is on the run again from the police after another round of arson. Fleeing the cops, he runs into eccentric pet store employee Patty (Emily Skeggs), who offers her home as a safe hiding place. It isn’t long before Simon is disrupting the dreary lives of the Midwestern suburban family, but things get really interesting once Patty discovers her new outlaw friend is the anonymous lead singer of her favorite underground band. When the duo blast off in a series of crude misadventures, they form a deeper bond and realize they are alike in so many ways.
Writer / director Adam Rehmeier‘s film is delightfully rough around the edges, and he takes bold and risky chances to create a badass original story. He doesn’t stick to a formulaic storytelling, which keeps things interesting. The absurdity never feels forced, and the chemistry between the two leads is electric. Simon and Patty make an out-of-this-world unconventional couple with a strangely symbiotic relationship, especially when they drown out the chaos of life through their love of music and life.
The film is incredibly detailed, with dozens of hysterical gags buried in the background that will reward mindful viewers. It’s very funny, ridiculously outrageous, and as quotable as it is memorable.
This punk rock love song of two misfits takes a wild ride into eccentricity, and I loved every minute of it.
7. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
I’ve not seen many films that provide viewers such a fully immersive experience into the life and actions of a character as much as “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” does. Written and directed by Eliza Hittman, this small scale drama with difficult subject matter demands a lot from viewers, but it’s a rewarding (if tough) experience that will open your eyes with an intimate human portrait of a teenage girl struggling to get an abortion.
Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is a typical, if quiet, high school student in rural Pennsylvania. She works as a grocery store cashier and struggles with classmates who bully her supposed promiscuity. Faced with an unintended pregnancy, Autumn seeks help at a local health clinic that pushes adoption and preaches the sins of abortion. The young woman doesn’t want to ruin her life with a baby she cannot care for, and she’s certain she wants to terminate the pregnancy. With nowhere to turn since her home state has strict parental consent laws, Autumn and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) scrape up enough cash to buy bus tickets to New York City in search of a Planned Parenthood clinic that can help.
It’s a tale of an arduous journey that two girls share. Burdened with a large suitcase that they must drag everywhere and short on money, they don’t have anywhere to sleep and hang out in unsavory places all day and night. The city is a place neither of them should be because it threatens to swallow them whole, and it’s sickening to think that restrictive abortion laws make many women resort to trips just like this one.
The girls are strong in their own ways, each fighting back against oppressive men in their everyday lives. From the predatory behavior of an older boy (Théodore Pellerin) they meet on the road to their inappropriate boss at work to the creepy vibes given off by Autumn’s stepdad, the two teens are incredibly adept in their ability to put up with the patriarchal crap that so may females face.
The story is a beautiful example of a ride-or-die friendship, with the caring Skylar providing Autumn some sense of a safe space and an anchor to help keep it together. The two actors are sympathetic and authentic in their roles, bringing a real humanity to their characters. Hittman tells their story with very little dialogue, instead focusing on her character’s actions and the smallest details. She doesn’t reveal too much of a backstory either, which invites the audience to step back and avoid being judgmental about Autumn’s very personal choices. It’s the teen’s own body and her own business, after all.
The film is an immersive experience in so many ways, from Hittman’s directorial choices (including a devastating, intense scene of unflinching close-ups where a clinic worker goes through a checklist with Autumn) to cinematographer Hélène Louvart‘s choice to shoot on 16mm film (lending a bleak, grainy look and feel). There’s nothing that doesn’t work here.
Hittman’s small story packs a wallop, offering a deeper perspective of what it truly feels like to be in the shoes of a pregnant teen who is out of options. We take that journey right alongside Autumn, living her life, her truth, and her experience. The story is told in an original, effective manner, and it opens up an opportunity to start a conversation about how women shouldn’t be discouraged or hindered when it comes to taking charge of their own lives and their own bodies. To that end, it left me sad and infuriated about what some women must go through to get a medical procedure, making “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” one of the best and most important female-driven films of the year.
6. “End of Sentence”
The recently widowed Frank (John Hawkes) embarks on a journey at the request of his dying wife in “End of Sentence,” a beautifully moving film from director Elfar Adalsteins.
Shortly before succumbing to cancer, Anna’s (Andrea Irvine) last wish is to have her husband and currently incarcerated son Sean (Logan Lerman) travel together to a remote lake in her native Ireland and spread her ashes in the water. Frank and Sean have been estranged for some time, and it’s clear that as soon as Sean is released from prison, he wants nothing to do with his father. After promising his son that he will never have to see him ever again if he comes on the trip, Frank convinces Sean to reluctantly hop on a plane, ready to hit the road through the Irish countryside to deliver Anna to her final resting place.
It’s not a wholly original story on the surface, but taking an American road trip and setting it in a foreign country adds a fresh element. Screenwriter Michael Armbruster keeps things interesting, especially when you’re certain that you’ve predicted which way the film will turn. There are plenty of surprises, sadness, and humor along the way. Like when the two meet some of Anna’s relatives at a wake in her homeland and it becomes clear she had plenty of secrets, even if they don’t matter much anymore. Or when a mystery pops up when Frank finds a photo of his wife hanging on the back of a motorcycle with her old flame. Or when a mysterious stranger named Jewel (Sarah Bolger) with a troubled past (and present) joins them on their journey. It’s the little twists (never gimmicky) that make the very intimate story hit home on a deeply emotional level.
Hawkes and Lerman deserve much credit for their authentic, raw performances. Frank is a layered, restrained, and weak man, while Sean is a callous jerk of a son who has zero use for his old man. It’s cathartic to ride along and watch as the truth about why their relationship is so damaged slowly bubbles to the surface. Their estranged father / son dynamic is genuine to the point it’s almost painful to watch them both struggle with past demons, and what feels like a lifetime of regret, as they traverse the difficult path that will hopefully lead to forgiveness and respect.
The film makes the most of its location without falling victim to the picture-perfect postcard views of Ireland, and the story tugs at the heartstrings yet never feels manipulative or hokey. It’s a real achievement with subject matter like this, and even the most stoic filmgoers would be hard-pressed not to be deeply touched by this story. “End of Sentence” is one of the best films I’ve seen all year, and it’s a heartfelt indie that will leave its mark on all who watch it.
5. “The Devil All the Time”
There’s a grim sense of dread that dictates most of the storytelling in “The Devil All the Time,” the film adaptation of the 2011 novel by Donald Ray Pollock. If you’re familiar with the material, you already know that this isn’t a feel-good diversion to enjoy on family movie night. Director Antonio Campos thankfully doesn’t shy away from the most bleak and brutal aspects of the narrative, which makes for a brooding thesis about the role of religion and the cycle of violence that routinely corrupts our basic humanity.
Set in post-World War II West Virginia and Ohio, the film tells the story about a disturbed veteran (Bill Skarsgård), his son (Michael Banks Repeta then later, Tom Holland), an orphaned girl (Eliza Scanlen), a false preacher (Robert Pattinson), and a couple of serial killers (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough). The complex themes make writing a thorough synopsis nearly impossible, but the end result is a riveting, emotional blow that’s sometimes difficult to watch. Campos uses a non-linear structure that complements his storytelling, and the characters are tied together by a narrator (who happens to be author Pollock). There’s a lot of literary ground covered in this story, and the film feels like a novel adaptation — but in a good way. Despite cramming in so many details, the rapidly-paced film doesn’t feel too rushed, and the characters are fully realized and represented.
Not only is the film well-directed, the cast is packed with actors who routinely make interesting, thoughtful choices when it comes to their careers. Everyone both behind and in front of the screen make an impact, even if all too briefly (see Mia Wasikowska).
The film is highly critical of organized religion, and has no problem pointing out the hypocrisy of the Christian church when it comes to the teachings of the Bible. There are many godlike men (or at least those claiming to be) portrayed here, but they are consumed more by the devil than devout righteousness. Many commit despicable acts in the name of their religion, simply shrugging off their personal savagery because they believe their god told them to do it. It also asserts how blind faith can bring out the worst in human nature, setting a course for a lifetime of potential emotional and physical abuse while leaving behind a trail of destroyed lives in the process.
The danger of using organized religion as a weapon is just one of the story’s sophisticated themes, as it presents some very insightful commentary about despair, sacrifice, and the psychology of irrational devotion.
The film is at its best when it’s borderline aggressive with the viewer, refusing to shy away from the bleak emotional trauma of what happens when you count on a god to answer your prayers. Everything about “The Devil All the Time” is dark and ominous, making it one of the most memorable films of the year.
“Minari” is an absolutely beautiful gem of a movie that is delightful on all levels. The highly personal film, written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, tells the story of a struggling Korean-American family searching for a better life when they move to rural Arkansas from California. Jacob (Steven Yeun) dreams of starting his own farm and selling Korean vegetables to serve the growing immigrant population, while his wife Monica (Yeri Han) quietly internalizes her anxiety. Their two kids (Alan S. Kim, Noel Cho) adapt a bit more quickly, but things are turned upside down when their firecracker of a grandma (Yuh-jung Youn) arrives.
Set in the 1980s, the film depicts a fresh look at the immigrant experience in America, capturing what it must be like to face unfamiliar surroundings while clinging to the promise of a happy future. Jacob has a desire and drive that’s enviable, even if he’s draining the family’s savings with his pie-in-the-sky dreams.
It’s rare that almost all of the best performances of the year are concentrated in one movie, but here we are. The cast is pitch-perfect, from Will Patton‘s supporting role as a religious Korean War veteran to Han’s understated turn as a disappointed wife who is embarrassed to be living in a mobile home in the middle of nowhere. The performances are excellent all around, but Kim and Youn steal the film. All of the actors achieve something to be proud of here. I instantly felt a powerful connection with every character, each of them a person I would gladly root for until the end. I contend that if you aren’t all-in and crossing your fingers for this likeable family’s success, there’s something deeply rotten in your soul.
The narrative explores the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows with a charming, admirable authenticity and eye-opening insight. The story’s appeal is universal with a hopeful sentiment, even when tragedy strikes.
“Minari” may not escape a few chestnut platitudes (like even when you come close to losing everything, a new day will dawn and things will be brighter because you still have each other), but this comforting underdog story about immigrants with a dream is wrapped in an absolutely beautiful film that’s delightful on all levels.
I am absolutely head over heels in love with writer-director Miranda July‘s “Kajillionaire,” a quirky, tender film that explores the longing for human connection wrapped up in a story about a family of down-on-their-luck con artists. The project has July’s signature style all over, and it’s one of the very best works of her career.
Theresa (Debra Winger) and Robert (Richard Jenkins) are life-long grifters. They’ve trained their only daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), well. The trio are well-versed in every scam, swindle, and opportunity for thievery, from lifting mail from adjacent post office boxes to demanding a reward for finding “lost” jewelry. While on a mission to defraud a travel insurance company, they meet kind stranger Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who is intrigued by the family. Melanie casually mentions that she has a crackerjack idea to trick her elderly customers into gifting her valuable antiques, which she can subsequently sell for cash. Desperate for rent money, the family invites Melanie to join them on their next heist, which turns Old Dolio’s world upside down.
The story is original, touching, very funny, and it goes places you won’t expect. Wood is fantastic as Old Dolio, a stoic, lonely, and strange young woman who is obsessed with the fact that she was never held as a baby. She longs to be shown affection, and it’s a heartbreaking character that Wood wholly embodies. All of the performances are fantastic, but she stands out.
The dry, wry humor is an acquired taste, but if you appreciate July’s previous work, you’ll likely love this. There are moments of greatness (including a beautiful scene about loneliness that takes place in a dying man’s apartment), and heavy themes about learning to love yourself and the joys of friendship and salvation are laid out in non-conventionally delicate but effective ways. I adored every single moment of this film.
The story turns from a generic tale of grifters into a lively portrait of self discovery, and it’s beautiful when Old Dolio begins to experience a true connection with Melanie as they devise a plan to free her from a life of petty crime.
“Kajillionaire” is uplifting and charming, and has a lot of original, insightful things to say about the world we all live in.
“What makes you, you?”
It’s a question humans have been trying to answer for ages, and it lays the thematic groundwork for “Soul,” a stunning new animated film from Disney / Pixar. The film is stuffed with complex ideas, a diverse cast, and impressive animation that sets the bar even higher for the studio that’s undeniably the best in the business.
Failed musician Joe Gardner (voice of Jamie Foxx) spends his days teaching band to his class of disinterested middle school students. His father loved music, and Joe’s admiration for jazz grew from his dad’s influence. When a serendipitous opportunity yields the chance of a lifetime to play piano in a band at the coolest club in New York City, Joe jumps at the chance. But before he can hit the stage, a freak accident transports him to a cosmic realm known as The Great Before, a place where newly-minted souls are matched with a mentor to find that special missing spark before they’re sent down to Earth. Joe is paired with an aggravating and troubled soul known only as 22 (voice of Tina Fey), and is tasked with helping her find her passion and purpose in life.
As Joe and 22 embark on their new mission together, the pair begin to explore all of the great things that life has to offer. There’s science and art and mathematics and sports and food, and every little experience could be a defining moment in a new soul’s hopeful future.
There’s so much to love about this film. Not only is the animation impressive (even if the visuals do borrow heavily from “Inside Out”), but the surprising narrative arc ranks right up there with some of the best storytelling that Pixar has ever done. There are a million ways the plot could go, yet it plays out in the most unexpected and delightful ways.
The film respects those of us who love the art form of animation, not only in the sheer beauty and technical skill of the team of animators, but through the very adult story and themes. It’s refreshing and welcome to see animation aimed at grown-ups that has real meaning rather than just another disposable kiddie cartoon that doubles as a baby sitter.
While there are some elements that may entertain the kids, this is a movie that will pack an emotional wallop for anyone over 30. The film doesn’t shy away from the worst parts of adulthood, tackling heavy ideas like failure, grief, and disappointment. Very real human struggles are conveyed perfectly, like the desire to live a life that’s relevant, and the real fear that when you’re gone, your life will have meant nothing. There’s a beautiful sentiment that delivers a reminder to live life the fullest now, before it’s too late. It’s a message that stings even harder in the era of pandemic lockdowns.
Despite how somber all of this sounds, “Soul” is far from a depressing movie. In true Disney fashion, there’s an uplifting message that comforts like a warm, cozy blanket (and one that is achingly sincere): we can’t all be Nobel Prize winners, but we can change the world. No matter how minuscule or insignificant we may feel our lives are, we’re each making our own contributions to society in our own unique way, even if many may feel they’ve never found their true purpose in life. It’s a beautiful ode to the pure joy of living, and it’s one of the very best movies of the year.
1. “Promising Young Woman”
There’s an exhilaration that consumes your body and soul when you see a game-changing film for the first time, and that’s exactly how I feel about writer / director Emerald Fennell‘s “Promising Young Woman,” a bold, provocative, boundary-pushing debut feature. This fearless filmmaking has produced an instant classic that should be added to the very top of the list of must-see feminist cinema.
Cassie (Carey Mulligan) was always told that she was such a promising young woman. Smart, ambitious, and doing well in medical school, a violent incident caused her to drop out and move in with her parents seven years ago. She’s just turned 30 and has lost all desire to do much of anything. Cassie works at a local coffee shop during the day, but she lives a secret life after the sun goes down. It’s revealed that her best friend Nina was sexually assaulted, and Cassie has made it her mission to right the wrongs from the past. Her rage towards those who attacked or dismissed her friend has reached its boiling point, and Cassie decides to teach a lesson to each of the men and women who deserve it.
To dismiss this as another man-hating manifesto is shortsighted. There are so many delicious, devilish layers to the story that give it a timely punch. Fennell doesn’t shy away from pushing buttons, exploring how society’s systems are set up to protect and favor males — and these guys are the ones who commit the worst acts, yet their behavior is excused or dismissed because of a sick inclination to blame the victim instead of the predator. Why is it often the women’s fault for making “bad choices” while men are given the benefit of the doubt? Why are countless women’s accusations waved away as false claims? The film had me boiling with a feminist rage because it’s a reminder that privileged men can sometimes get away with anything, while women are expected to behave a certain way.
The idea of a revenge thriller folded into a black comedy isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but using that concept to express a worldly discourse on misogyny and male privilege is. Fennell crafts her film in such an original way, challenging viewers with an unflinching window into the effects that male cruelty has on so many women.
Just when you think there isn’t one good guy left on Earth, Cassie’s former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham) re-enters her life. He’s charming and awkward, and she’s cynical but falling in love. This film is so fresh and different that it seamlessly blends romantic comedy with grindhouse-vibe horror. It’s unconventional, to say the least.
None of this would work without Mulligan. Her femme fatale is a fiery antihero to women everywhere, and she turns in the best performance of her career. She shows off her range as Cassie, from cunning, disturbed vigilante to starry-eyed lover. In fact, every element nears perfection in this film, from the music, costumes, cinematography, and pastel-colored production design. Even the title gives off a patronizing vibe towards women. It’s a very film-literate movie with a well-crafted story.
“Promising Young Woman” is a shocking, surprising, and demanding work that is a hell of a feature debut for Fennell. She has forever made her mark on the indie world as a gutsy, confident filmmaker, and I am so excited to see what she does next.