40. Tick, Tick… Boom!
You needn’t be much of a musical fan to find emotional and spiritual nourishment in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s feature directorial debut, hinged so shrewdly on a top-drawer Andrew Garfield performance.
At once an adaptation of the late Jonathan Larson’s stage musical of the same name and a poignant tribute to the man’s curtailed life itself, Tick, Tick… Boom! soars on the strength of Miranda’s tenacious, visually dynamic direction, the diverse and toe-tapping tunes, and a wonderfully rambunctious lead turn from Garfield.
For anyone who’s ever looked at their contemporaries and thought that they’re just not doing enough with their lives, Miranda’s film is sure to strike a mighty chord, wrapping its overpowering existential throughline around what is at its core a testament to Larson’s taken-too-soon artistic gifts.
Michel Franco dishes up another fascinatingly provocative drama – though not nearly as rabble-rousing as his prior eat-the-rich thriller New Order – with this character study of a man (Tim Roth) who attempts to abandon his life and family while holidaying in Acapulco.
Franco’s second collaboration with Roth after 2015’s mesmerising Chronic similarly asks a lot of audiences, both to stick with it through its airier moments – despite an 83-minute runtime – and to engage with subject matter that only becomes more discomforting as the pic wears on.
Roth is typically excellent here, digging deep into a character who internalises so much until incredibly late in the story, while Franco’s filmmaking yet again dares to contort the audience into some squirm-inducing positions.
Read my full review from TIFF here.
Clint Bentley’s directorial debut may not offer up much in the way of surprises, but a familiar story well told can prove plenty entertaining in the right hands, as is most certainly the case with Jockey.
It’s always enormously gratifying to see an extremely talented character actor finally get the push into lead territory, and here the opportunity arrived for the fantastic Clifton Collins Jr., who gives an outstanding, Oscar-worthy performance as ageing horse jockey Jackson Silva.
Laudably straight-forward and unpretentious in both presentation and narrative, Jockey serves up just enough personal conflict without bogging itself down in treacly melodrama, while offering a perspective into a quarter of the sports world fairly under-served by cinema as a whole.
If nothing else, it’ll hopefully open more doors for Collins as the leading man he’s so clearly capable of being.
Read my full review from Sundance here.
Denis Villeneuve’s almost impossibly ambitious adaptation of the first half of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi opus Dune is one of the most meticulously crafted and downright awe-inspiring feats of blockbuster filmmaking ever made.
For this critic’s tastes it is certainly a film easier to respect than it is to love, largely due to my own lack of emotional engagement with the story or characters – a problem I also had with the ’84 Lynch version – but so magnificent a feast is it aesthetically that it’s absolutely still a film I rush to recommend.
The battery of eye-wateringly beautiful images and goosebumps-raising sounds combine with Villeneuve’s holistic world-building and a top-drawer cast to ensure that, despite its sparseness of feeling, Dune carves out a space for itself in the annals of all-time visionary sci-fi movies.
Dune‘s narrative may be a lot less interesting than everything else around it, but there’s little arguing with the mastery of the filmmaking on offer.
36. The White Tiger
Ramin Bahrani rebounded from his massively disappointing Fahrenheit 451 adaptation with his most ambitious piece of work yet – a terrific, Oscar-nominated adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel The White Tiger.
Without giving much of its narrative chicanery away, the plot centers around Balram (an excellent Adarsh Gourav), who uses his wiles to lift himself out of the impoverished Indian village where he was born.
The Slumdog Millionaire comparisons are inevitable, and while Bahrani’s film similarly slaloms between stark social realism and frothy genre fare, this is far more concerned with indicting the Indian caste system and our character’s unfavourable place in it.
Terrifically filmed and acted, this darkly comedic crime thriller is a rags-to-riches tale like no other.
35. No Sudden Move
Not a single living soul is going to watch Steven Soderbergh’s latest and call it anything but minor Soderbergh, but even the prolific director’s evident off-cuts usually prove to be more enthralling and entertaining than most filmmakers’ top-tier work.
No Sudden Move is one such example, a low-key thriller elevated by the director’s extreme formal control throughout, the talents of an exceptional ensemble cast, and some deliciously barbed dialogue.
Yes, the narrative is convoluted as is tradition for classic crime thrillers, but the cast is clearly having such a good time chewing through it all that you’d be forgiven for not really noticing or caring.
No Sudden Move is far from top-tier Soderbergh, and even he would probably admit that, but it nevertheless glides on an uncommon, refreshingly calm rhythm for its genre.
34. The Novice
Lauren Hadaway makes a scintillating a debut as writer-director of this singular tale of pathological obsession, following a college freshman (Isabelle Fuhrman) who joins her university’s rowing team with the overpowering goal of becoming the best of the best.
The Novice could be glibly compared to Whiplash, but this drama – which, through its intensity, sometimes verges on psychological thriller – is really quite different, eschewing a teacher-student dynamic in favour of focusing on the shattering mental and physical toll of striving for #1 above all else.
If Hadaway’s direction occasionally verges on heavy-handed – especially the recurring visual motif of a crab which has specific relevance in rowing nomenclature – for the most part she creates a bracingly intense visual-aural landscape on which Isabelle Fuhrman delivers a stunning performance (one which scored her a Best Female Lead nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards).
The Novice powerfully confronts the corrosive potential of obsession and compulsive competitiveness through Isabelle Fuhrman’s astounding work in the lead role.
33. The Humans
Stephen Karam makes a fierce directing debut by adapting his own one-act play to the screen.
The Humans might well be the most unnerving non-horror film of the entire year, a home-for-the-holidays Thanksgiving psychodrama set largely inside a single New York City apartment as a fractured family unspools their various neuroses and traumas.
Buoyed by a magnificent cast – especially a sublime Richard Jenkins – and Karam’s eerie, Kubrick-inspired framing and sound design, this is perhaps cinema’s purest recent distillation of how existentially horrifying year-end familial rituals truly can be.
It’s easy to see how Karam’s unwieldy approach will turn many viewers off, but The Humans is one of the most tonally adventurous, skin-crawlingly uneasy films in recent memory.
32. No Time To Die
Daniel Craig’s long-delayed final sojourn as 007 didn’t quite live up to the brilliance of Casino Royale or Skyfall, but it slid confidently into third place and in turn delivered a fitting, shockingly emotional send-off for Craig’s James Bond.
If you can forgive Rami Malek’s weak sauce villain and some needlessly convoluted story elements, there’s a remarkably well-calibrated Bond film to be enjoyed here, braced between the tried-and-true globetrotting formula and a clear attempt to move the series forward with the times.
Thanks to Cary Fukunaga’s electrifying direction and the efforts of co-writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge to tidy-up Bond’s sadly traditional sexism, No Time to Die feels like an exciting nexus point for the IP, that really anything could happen moving forward.
With Craig giving fans the most cerebral, visceral James Bond portrayal to date, it’s fitting that he went out in unexpected, divisive, and deeply moving fashion.
No Time to Die doesn’t hit the highs of Craig’s best Bond outings, but takes some hard swings to challenge audience preconceptions of what the franchise can and can’t do – and they mostly pay off.
A film you almost certainly won’t see on any other top 50 list given its wildly divisive Sundance reception, Erin Vassilopoulos’ Superior ambitiously expands her 2015 short of the same name into a daring head-spinner of a feature debut.
Without going into specifics – you’ll want to go into this one as cold as possible – Superior follows a woman, Marian (Alessandra Mesa), who flees her abusive boyfriend and hunkers down with her identical twin sister Vivian (Ani Mesa).
What follows is a twisted, heady riff on identity that borrows lovingly from the David Lynch playbook albeit with its own gritty-yet-colourful sense of style, making the absolute most of the 16mm film it was shot on.
The Mesa twins give outstanding performances in a film that’s as playful as it is twisted, constantly asking viewers to re-assess their perception of events through the regular switcheroo-ing of its two leads.
Read my full Sundance review here.
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