We’ve reached the midpoint of the year and it’s time to share some highlights that might otherwise go completely unnoticed. A few caveats: for the purposes of highlighting more hidden gems, I’ve decided to leave Avengers: Endgame, Toy Story 4, and Us off this list. Also, I’ve put these films in alphabetical order as opposed to a ranked list. For whatever reason, I find myself not having a true absolute favorite yet this year, because these films are all so unique and different from each other. That being said, here we go!
Ash is Purest White
An exciting quasi-revenge picture, a stirring romance, and a broad historical analysis, Ash is Purest White is a subtly political masterpiece on the level of There Will Be Blood. Zhao Tao commands the screen as Qiao, girlfriend of Bin (Liao Fan), a small-town gangster in rural China. Separated from him during a fight and estranged after a 5-year jail sentence, Qiao’s mission in the majority of the film is to find her man and perhaps attain the status she once knew. The disparity between the fast-paced, dangerous but exciting underworld they inhabit at the beginning and the frustrating, crowded yet still lonely reality of China mirror the changes that the country has undergone in the 21st century. Qiao is our eye in the sky to all of these observations, clearly humbled yet still psychologically above it all. Ash’s epic scope mixed with the intimacy of Qiao’s emotional journey makes this the crown jewel of auteur director Jia Zhangke’s already wonderful filmography.
The Beach Bum
Equally loved and hated, auteur director Harmony Korine has never made crowd-pleasing movies. This Matthew McConaughey vehicle is probably his closest, though, especially if you’re a Jimmy Buffet fan. Florida Keys poet Moondog is an amalgam of the best bits of McConaughey caricature. He’s a pleasure-seeking sea rover with no inhibitions, especially when it comes to sex, drugs, and money. The third in that list is crucial to the film’s appeal to me. It’s refreshingly a movie about a man unconcerned with money, power, or legacy, although almost everyone in the film reveres him in some way. Though it’s ultimately a hilarious diversion, The Beach Bum is the very definition of a love-it-or-hate-it film, because most of the characters are total hedonists and meet very few consequences. But in my opinion, its heart is totally in the right place. It just wants to show you a good time. Alright, alright, alright…
Up-and-coming young actresses Beanie Feldstein (Lady Bird) and Kaitlyn Dever (Short Term 12) shine as high school seniors whose close friendship is tested the night before graduation. In an attempt to have any sort of social life, the two overachievers set out to attend the biggest party of their lives, even though they don’t know where exactly it is. This premise would seem hackneyed if Booksmart didn’t have the exceptional vision and tone management of director Olivia Wilde. It’s a film which clearly empathizes with modern teens and makes a concerted effort to never talk down to them. It’s also got a very timeless feeling to it because the characters’ dialogue and actions are emotionally intelligent for the situations they’re in. It’s an exceptionally funny film and also a very mature one. Its financial failings became a sad story in the film world, but I think Booksmart will find an audience and be remembered as one of the best high school comedies of all time.
The Dead Don’t Die
Apparently Zombieland wasn’t the last word in Bill Murray zombie comedies. Jim Jarmusch’s new film is without a doubt the most deliciously deadpan comedy in the last several years. It leans into strange diversions and fourth-wall breaking, but never frequently enough to get annoying. Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloë Sevigny are a trio of small-town cops who come face-to-face with “ghouls” (a hilarious word as specifically delivered by Driver). Like the deployment of meta elements here, there’s a social satire sneakily at work. Steve Buscemi is clearly a stand-in for a hardcore Trump supporter; Tilda Swinton is a gonzo social pariah in this town because her cultural identity is ambiguous at best; the zombies are mainly interested in doing the same stupid things they did when they were alive. It’s a tapestry that starts to trail off towards the very end, but by that point it had earned so much laughter and goodwill that I didn’t really care.
The story you think you know is actually much worse than you could have ever imagined. Young tech and entertainment entrepreneur Billy McFarland wanted to put on the greatest music festival ever, but as you probably remember, what guests got were muddy tents and box dinners of cheese, bread, and salad. A fraud that became a free-for-all, it destroyed McFarland’s already shaky business reputation, and Chris Smith’s Netflix documentary systematically dissects the failure of it all. It starts in the boardrooms and makes it all the way to the Bahamas, and at every step it seems like a virus. When it finally crashes, I’d be shocked if any viewer who wasn’t at the “festival” could predict the full extent of the disaster. This film stands as a reminder that business fraud will never die, whether it be benign or intentional. The 21st century doesn’t seem so innovative after this.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Roger Ebert’s conception of movies as empathy machines lives on. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a classically-made treatise on the frustrations of modern life, and it explores how only genuine human connection can help us rise above them. The quietly fiery Jimmie Fails plays himself in an autobiographical tale about his struggle to reclaim his family home from Silicon Valley gentrification. To my mind, Johnathan Majors deserves an Oscar for his portrayal of Mont (short for Montgomery), Jimmie’s sensitive, artistic, and quite brilliant best friend. But the film just wouldn’t be the same without the heart of director Joe Talbot, whose collaboration with Fails brings an authentic earnestness to this cinematic love letter to the city they both adore. Shoutouts to director of photography Adam Newport-Berra and composer Emile Mosseri, whose combined craftsmanship creates moments of pure movie magic.
Regardless of what you believe about Michael Jackson’s guilt or innocence, Leaving Neverland is entirely worth watching. Split into two parts, Dan Reed’s HBO documentary is basically a long interview with Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two men who have accused the late pop icon of sustained sexual abuse when they were with him as children. Their stories are irrevocably disturbing, not only because of the content, but also because of the context. The ultimate takeaway here is that unchecked celebrity worship can lead to unimaginable consequences. One only need look to R. Kelly’s recent troubles for confirmation of this. Leaving Neverland doesn’t lean too far into such current phenomena, but it is a warning, and a damn effective one.
Movies like this are why the Oscars suck. Being an April release, Little Woods will not get any of the awards attention it deserves, nor will Tessa Thompson receive a deserved nomination for her outstanding work in the lead role. For years, Ollie (Thompson) has been helping fellow residents of her North Dakota oil boomtown get access to low-cost healthcare and meds from Canada. When her way of life is threatened by both the authorities and a dire request from her sister (Lily James), Ollie does the one thing she can do: fight. This is a tough, often devastating film reminiscent of Winter’s Bone, but perhaps a bit more mature. Director Nic DaCosta spins cinematic gold from tight spaces, low light, and quiet reflection. It’s not a film for the faint of heart, but it certainly has heart to spare. Of all the movies I’ve mentioned here, this is the most overlooked hidden gem, and the one I’d be most pleased for more people to seek out.
The Souvenir took me to the moon and back. It’s everything I love about what movies can achieve. It’s a grand romance, a deeply-felt memoir, and a movie about moviemaking all at once. Director Joanna Hogg works from her memories of a chaotic relationship and of her years in film school processing said relationship. Honor Swinton Byrne delivers a sensitive, layered performance as Julie, a stand-in for Hogg. Tom Burke is severely smoldering as Anthony, Julie’s boyfriend whose on-again, off-again drug habit threatens both his health and their love. As their fondness for one another grows into passion, Hogg also tracks Julie’s growth as an artist; a glimpse into an inner life where we see how art and artist influence each other. What really blew me away is how Hogg — whether completely intentionally or not — seems to play with time’s limitations on memory and emotion in an incredibly daring cinematic fashion. It’s hard to explain in words, but suffice to say it’s some of the best editing I’ve ever seen.
The Standoff at Sparrow Creek
Gun rights and trust. These are the two themes that The Standoff at Sparrow Creek traffics in to the point of near-exhaustion. I say that because the film is so damn tense that it might be difficult to watch for many viewers. What I love about Standoff is how it achieves this tension entirely from scenes of dialogue. James Badge Dale leads a terrific cast in a drama which feels truly Herculean, but only uses one set: a dingy warehouse that serves as a headquarters for a militia group. After a shooting in their community, the members meet up in the warehouse to sort out who may have done it and whether or not it was one of them. It’s been compared to early Tarantino, but it’s actually much quieter than that, and for good reason. Standoff explores perceptions of modern American masculinity in a totally classical, un-flashy way, and those are two elements I’ve never seen in cinematic concert like this before.