By Christian DiMartino
With the recent release of A24’s Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, I went through, did a deep dive, and I ranked every single A24 movie that I’d seen. Apparently there is a total of 117; I have seen 80. Not all of those movies are winners, but I decided to do this little exercise because, well, over the last 9 or 10 years, since I laid eyes upon Spring Breakers, it occurred to me that A24 is making movies that I want to see. Don’t know what that says about me in some cases, but I digress.
Here is the best studio making movies right now. The fact that the A24 brand alone has my interest in a movie really speaks volumes for the work they’re doing. Because they’re one of the few studios taking risks right now. I remember how wowed I was when Paramount had the courage to put mother! in theatres. And folks, it’s since gotten worse. Don’t get me wrong, I have loved plenty of major studio releases since. Yet the beauty of A24 is that they’re pretty frequently willing to take a chance on filmmakers with original visions. There is barely a shred of IP in sight; it’s all just original content, and hallelujah.
So yeah, I’m a big fan of A24, and frankly they’ve made some of the best movies of the last 10 years. To be frank, despite the critical praise and the brand awareness, I don’t think they’ve fully gotten their due. Sure they’ve had a few Best Picture Oscar nominations, but not nearly enough of them considering just the quality that they’re turning out. I don’t know if my word would make a lick of difference, but dammit, I’m going to celebrate them here today.
Note: One misstep in releasing this list right now is that A24 isn’t slowing down any time soon, so maybe someday I’ll do a revised list.
24. The Witch: Robert Eggers, who has since gone on to make The Lighthouse and The Northman, sold me from his directorial debut, which is a slow burn, but an undeniably creepy and atmospheric little movie. What has drawn me into all three of his films is not only that they’re all visually striking in their own ways, but Eggers’ attention to detail, and it’s all present in the uniqueness, authenticity, and the specificity of the performances. All of which are incredible. Plus, The Witch gave us Anya Taylor Joy, so overall a win.
23. Saint Maud: This is one of those movies that suffered from COVID-19. Originally slated to be released in April 2020, the movie didn’t get a release until mid-Pandy (my term for “the pandemic”), and frankly I don’t even know if people know it exists. I revisited this movie, the directorial debut of Rose Glass, earlier this month and it’s a knockout. Maybe an acquired taste, but if A24 horror is your bag, this movie will deliver. Plus, it has one of my favorite laughably nutty endings, of which A24 excels in. Glass will soon be doing a movie Kristen Stewart, and that just sounds heavenly.
22. Red Rocket: If Academy voters had any common sense, Simon Rex would’ve been in the Best Actor race this year for his role as a rather despicable former porn star who also happens to be weirdly endearing in Sean Baker’s Red Rocket. The film, Baker’s follow-up to The Florida Project (which will be on this list), essentially depends on Rex’s performance. Because if you don’t want to spend time with Rex’s Mikey Saber, then surely you won’t. Yet there is just something about him, and the world that Baker creates around him, that just pulls us into the film’s orbit. The more I write about it, the more I want to revisit it, especially on Blu-Ray (oh yeah, it’s gorgeous looking too).
21. X: So I have written about Ti West’s X twice THIS YEAR, in both my original review and in my Best of the Year So Far list. So as you can tell, I like it a lot. One last thing though: Pearl, a prequel that West made immediately afterwards, is coming in September, and I’m so there.
20. Ex Machina: I know, I know, 20th place seems a little steep for Alex Garland’s much beloved, Academy Award winning Ex Machina. Truth is, I haven’t visited it in a while and for my money, Annihilation is more of my bag. That being said, Ex Machina is like a classic that not everyone has seen, and yet when you do see it, it really sticks with you. Like Red Rocket, this is one that I need to return to soon, but the fact that my memory of it is extremely fond means that it had to at least crack the top 20. Scratch that, the image of Oscar Isaac dancing secured this film’s spot in the top 20.
19. The Killing of a Sacred Deer: Speaking of weird movies that demand a revisit, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer is among the stranger A24 outings, and all of it lies in the dialogue. Lanthimos’ film feels as if it were based on a fable, and if you’re aware of that then the dialogue in this movie will be much easier to digest. Nobody in this film, which stars Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, and Barry Keoghan (chilling), speaks as if they’re from the real world. Yet as nutty as the writing in this film may be, it’s almost congruent with the events happening around these characters, which is unsettling, bizarre, and rather disturbing. This is certainly a “feel-bad” movie, and despite having only seen it once, it’s stuck with me.
18. Spring Breakers: “Sprang break… sprang break… sprang break fo-evuh!” This here was my introduction to A24, and at the time of seeing this movie, I was pretty unaware of who Harmony Korine was. I dove into his filmography and… not for me. Having said that, I love his 2019 film The Beach Bum, and I love Spring Breakers. This is one of those “love-it-or-loathe-it” deals. I love it. Korine took a few Disney stars (Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens), threw them into a rather grimy world that is gorgeously filmed, and gave us Spring Breakers, which is a movie that is by turns trashy, beautiful (the cinematography in this is unbelievable), and ultimately unforgettable. Depending on who you are, this movie is super rewatchable as well. I love multiple sequences here, particularly the use of Britney Spears’ “Everytime.” Great stuff. Holding this all together though is the performance of a lifetime from James Franco as a rapper/criminal lord named Alien. I don’t know where people stand on Franco these days, but his performance in this movie is out of this world, y’all.
17. Everything, Everywhere, All At Once: Something kind of magical happened with Everything, Everywhere, All At Once: the movie received such a strong word of mouth that the movie went on to be A24’s biggest financial success to date. This sort of thing happened in the 90’s, with movies like There’s Something About Mary, but with the world we’re living in it doesn’t really seem to happen anymore due to the IP-driven nature of movies (last time I recall this happening was The Greatest Showman). Watching this film though, it’s easy to see why. EEAAO is a pure original. Of course Marvel has the multiverse thing happening right now, but this film, directed by a duo known as The Daniels (see: the wonderfully weird Swiss Army Man) has filmmaking that truly must be seen to be believed. The film is funny, warm and has a large heart, and at the center of it is a performance from Michelle Yeoh that is among the year’s best.
16. The Green Knight: The same didn’t quite occur with David Lowery’s The Green Knight, which was released last summer when movies were still recovering from The Pandy, and it just sort of went. I know there’s a lot of love for Lowery’s A Ghost Story, but I am not in that camp. I could certainly see people not being on board with The Green Knight, but personally this film is excellent. It’s a weird, hallucinatory and hypnotic odyssey with production values that simply didn’t get their justice, because this movie is breathtakingly beautiful. Like a lot of these movies, I’ve debated and defended The Green Knight on a few occasions, and I’m due for a revisit.
15. C’mon C’mon: C’mon C’mon was Joaquin Phoenix’s first film since he won his Oscar for Joker, and this is one that truly didn’t get the love it deserved. Phoenix is funny, loving, and warm here, showing a vastly gentler side than we may have known him to be capable of. He plays pretty perfectly off of his young co-star, Woody Norman, who also gives a pretty pitch-perfect performance in this film from Mike Mills (Beginners, 20th Century Women). C’mon C’mon is a sweet, funny, simple little movie of pleasures galore. Last year was a year of feel-good movies (hence why CODA won Best Picture, but I won’t get into that again), and this was really one of the best.
14. The Farewell: This underseen gem from director Lulu Wang wrecked me the first time I saw it. Wang’s film places us with real people, in a real setting and with a, uncomfortable, unfortunately realistic scenario. The film follows Awkwafina’s Billi, who discovers that her grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao), who she is very close with, is dying. The thing is, her grandmother is the only one who doesn’t know, and they want to keep it that way. So the entire family hosts a wedding as an excuse for everyone to say goodbye to her. Apparently this is a real thing in Asian culture, which is where Wang got the inspiration. Considering the truly heavy weight of the scenario, The Farewell does have its share of humor, but ultimately this is a realistic, heartbreaking little movie that really gets its hooks in you, with two central performances that deserved Academy Award recognition. Not sure what happened there.
13. Midsommar: The last few of these picks, I’ve used words like “warm” and “charming.” You certainly won’t see those being thrown around when talking about Ari Aster’s Midsommar. Whew, what a weird, morbid, disturbing little movie that… is also friggin’ hilarious if you have a weird funny bone like I do. This is maybe the only horror movie in which the bulk of its terror occurs completely in daylight, and the film is covered in color and sunshine and it all adds to the unease. I think we all bought stock in Florence Pugh after this, and what sticks with me most here is the imagery, which is really disturbing but totally unforgettable. Midsommar, from beginning to end, is a delirious ride that by the end of it leaves you going, “What the hell was that?” in the best way possible.
12. Good Time: Remember when Robert Pattinson was the star of one of the biggest franchises on the planet? Feels like a distant memory (or maybe we tried to forget it), particularly after you lay eyes upon Josh and Benny Safdie’s Good Time. Is this movie a “good time?” Nope, but it’s a really thrilling little number with an incredible, Oscar worthy, game and career changing performance from Pattinson. This character is fascinating to me. Because he’s not really a criminal mastermind, nor do we know much about him, yet we see everything through his eyes. We’re with him every step of the way in this film, and he, like the movie, is so unpredictable and quick on his feet that we really never know where the movie is going, and that’s the beauty of it. If you’re still in the camp that can’t see past Twilight, see this film and educate yourself.
11. The Lighthouse: This one too, for that matter. Though, Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse might be slightly less accessible. When I think about this movie, it’s usually with a smirk. Because for all its packaging (the grim beauty of the cinematography, the hints of horror, the eerie score and feel of the entire thing), The Lighthouse feels more like a comedy than anything else. This is basically a two-man show (though there may or may not be a mermaid involved) in which Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe act their asses off as two people who drive each other to the point of insanity. Those of us who have seen, know, and love The Lighthouse are fully aware that this kind of weird stuff is “one for us,” and that there is the beauty of A24.
10. Lady Bird: For many, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird might be at the top of the list. For me, it’s in the 10th slot, but bare with me, it’ll all make sense in the end. Gerwig has made two movies thus far- this, and Little Women. What’s noteworthy about both films is that neither movie is covering new ground, but yet Gerwig is such a strong, distinct writer that she’s able to infuse the old and make it new and lively again. As she did with Lady Bird, which is a delightful and pretty hilarious little movie that earned its Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actress (Saoirse Ronan), Supporting Actress (Laurie Metcalf) and Original Screenplay. Not sure when Ronan is going to get her Oscar, but she’s my age and she’s been nominated four times already. She’s about due.
9. Minari: Another one that I have only seen once, but my first viewing of it is one that stuck with me. When watching Minari, I got this feeling that I don’t often get, and it’s the feeling that I’m experiencing something special. Minari is almost magical in that sense, because here is a movie so grounded in truth and authenticity, but also so delightful and heartbreaking. Like Lady Bird, all of Minari‘s Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Director, Actor- Steven Yeun, Supporting Actress- Youn Yuh-jung, who earned her Oscar, and Original Screenplay) were deserved. This is a lovely movie, and one that demands your attention.
8. Waves: Trey Edward Shults’ Waves seems to be one of the more polarizing A24 entries, and trust me, I get it. The first time I saw it, I was completely gripped, haunted and horrified by the first half, and then a bit letdown by the comedown of the second half. In the years that have passed though, and the multiple viewings, I now see this movie as two halves of a beautiful, tragic whole. This is an incredible film that, if you haven’t seen it, you should really just go into blindly and let the film’s emotions and color and soundtrack wash over you. Some may find it a bit exhausting and relentless; I find it truly remarkable- undeniably upsetting, but something close to a haunting masterpiece.
7. Zola: So I have sung the praises of Zola a lot over the last year, in both my original review and in my Best of the Year roundup. So I’m not going to say much else, besides that I absolutely adore this movie, just about everything about it, and if I could get at least one movie like this a year, I’d die a happy man. Do yourself a favor, and seek it out. I think most of these movies are on Showtime.
6. Moonlight: I have often knocked The Academy Awards for snubbing A24 every year. Yet I always forget that they do have a Best Picture winner, which is no small feat. The movie was of course Moonlight, which both legendarily and infamously usurped the Best Picture Oscar from the clear favorite La La Land. I feel like that’s what this movie is mostly remembered for, and it’s a real shame. Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is an incredible achievement. Told over three different stretches of time, Moonlight chronicles the tough upbringing of a guy named Chiron, who is gay and not only struggles to find a connection or a sense of companionship, but also struggles with his life at home with his frightening mother (Naomi Harris, truly incredible here). As a gay guy who has also struggled with loneliness, acceptance, and depression, Moonlight is especially moving and haunting, but also beautiful and unforgettable.
5. Hereditary: Despite the Moonlight victory, I have to get back on my soapbox and cry and moan again, because how was Toni Collette not nominated for an Oscar for this? I get it, horror isn’t really their cup of tea. But I demand you to find performances in 2018 that were much better than this. Ari Aster’s directorial debut Midsommar is the best of its kind in recent memory (though the more I sit on Nope, the better it gets). This film truly is scary; scary, disturbing, shocking, and so on. What works so well with Hereditary is the fact that it’s basically a domestic drama that morphs into a horror movie, and Aster managed to pull off both beautifully to where we were wholly invested in these characters. Collette’s Annie in particular, who may or may not be a complete whacko. The scene with Collette at the dinner table is the stuff of legend.
4. Room: Where do we stand on Brie Larson? I know that she’s kind of annoyed people over the last few years, but my investment with her remains because of her incredible, Oscar winning work in Room. This certainly couldn’t have been an easy film to make, and it’s certainly not the easiest movie to watch. By the time you reach the end of it though you know that you’ve experienced something marvelous. Room, which I reviewed back in 2015, but would be too afraid to see if the review was actually good, is a pretty devastating experience and yet one that is ultimately uplifting. The uplift is something that has to be earned, but it’s ultimately earned. Larson and Jacob Tremblay, who has also since had my investment, gave performances here that linger in the mind long after you see it, like the movie itself.
3. Uncut Gems: “Uncut Jahms.” God, really, what else is there really left to say about Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems? This movie is so awesome. Relentless, suspenseful, exhausting, pessimistic, beautifully and perfected filmed and scored, exquisitely acted, maybe even polarizing, but awesome. It’s a symphony of chaos from beginning to end, and the key to the whole thing is not just the writing and the direction, but the performance and casting of Adam Sandler. Because his character, Howard Ratner, is a pretty bad guy who refuses to learn his lesson and pretty much destroys everything he touches, while constantly pushing his luck and risking his life doing it. If this were just some normal guy, or even an actor that we don’t care about, we would just assume that he has what’s coming to him. With Sandler in this role though, we weirdly root for him, even at times we shouldn’t. Sandler is also pretty strong in this year’s Hustle. Maybe his career is taking a new shape. He’s actually an incredible actor when he puts himself out there.
2. The Florida Project: These last three were pretty much a toss-up. Boy, oh boy, did this movie do a number on me. I left the theatre for The Florida Project in tears, and had to drive home those tears as I flooded the car. Why? Well, Sean Baker’s film pulls you into its universe because he is telling this story through the eyes of a child named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince, sensational) and her friends, who are having the time of their lives wandering the streets of Florida and living in a dump of a hotel on the outskirts of Disney World. They’re having a blast because they aren’t old enough to fully understand the reality of their situation. The reality being that Moonee’s mother (Bria Vinaite) is an extremely immature, poverty stricken human being who is also something of a criminal (she takes Moonee along for her debauchery too). What really worked on me here though is that Baker, similar to Red Rocket, cast one well-known actor (Willem Dafoe, wonderful here) and otherwise surrounded him with unfamiliar faces. So it feels as if you’re watching real people, in real time, in the middle of an (unfortunately) realistic setting and scenario. Baker’s film begins with childlike innocence and wonder, and then when the reality sets in, I was so engrossed by the whole experience that it just really did a number on me.
1. First Reformed: Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is, like many Schrader films, a journey into a man’s tortured psyche and soul. It’s also a film of complete hopelessness and despair. So, a great time at the movies? Not exactly, but it is one of the best movies I’ve seen in recent memory. I love it so much that I’m honestly afraid that I don’t know what to say about it. If you know me or have spent any time in my circle, you’ll know that I am obsessed with this movie. I have barely been able to stop thinking about it in the four years since I’d last seen it. Schrader, the legendary writer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, as well as the director of Affliction and the recent The Card Counter (he’s also a ruthless social media presence), was kind of in movie-limbo before writing this, and it’s pretty much the movie he was put on this earth to make. First Reformed is about a man completely lacking direction and a sense of purpose- he’s having health issues, he’s drinking a lot, and he does sermons for a church that nobody really attends, while also lacking any family or any sort of a love life. So when “opportunity” knocks, he sees it as a sign that he must make the world a better place… in a way that is not only immoral and incorrect, but absolutely frightening. With all of the shootings that have been happening around the country, it’s kind of hard not to see Rev. Ernst Toller in them. Maybe those people have had similar feelings. Schrader is just such a master of giving us these fully-fleshed depictions of a man’s descent into madness that it just adds to the haunting nature of his subjects. First Reformed is something of a slow burn, but man, what a burn. A haunting, riveting, fascinating burn that, by the end of it, really knocks you out. Lastly, Ethan Hawke gives one of the greatest performances I have ever seen. Amanda Seyfried and Cedric the Entertainer are really strong here, but this is Hawke’s movie. If you haven’t, see this film, spread the word of it, and just let its themes wash over you. Gah, I love this movie.
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