A24 is no stranger to the Academy Awards, but last night’s Best Picture win for Moonlight was a watershed moment. Moonlight explores masculinity, black identity, and queer identity through the eyes of Chiron: the gay son of a troubled single mother (Naomie Harris). In each of the film’s three acts, a different actor plays Chiron as he grows up. Chiron’s guarded shyness makes the role a quiet one, but each performer (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) shows formidable talent.
Mahershala Ali plays Juan, a criminal with a decent heart, who becomes a role model for young Chiron. Ali won an Oscar and a Screen Actors Guild award for his performance — both of which he deserved. Miami-born storytellers Tarell Alvin McCraney and Barry Jenkins made Moonlight a haunting tale. It may break your heart as it did mine, but it’s a necessary and exquisite heartbreak.
If you stay current with what’s happening in movies, then you’ve probably heard of A24’s movies. If you haven’t, then listen up! Now that we’re through the summer, it’s obvious that 2016 hasn’t been a great year for blockbusters. But just because there’s been a pop culture slump at the cinemas doesn’t mean it’s been a bad year for movies.
Established in 2012, A24 has quickly taken a strong foothold at the movies. They’re an indie distributor powerhouse, picking up interesting movies from festivals and independent filmmakers and bringing them to theaters and VOD platforms. And while 2016’s blockbusters ranged from pleasantly forgettable to outright terrible, A24 brought unique gems like Green Room, Tusk, A Most Violent Year, and De Palma to the table.
And while not every film they add to their roster is a critical success, each one is a singular work. There’s an element of danger or weirdness to each of their selections, and their movies resonate on a lower frequency under the pop culture signal. But the young artists participating in the larger pop culture scene are tuned to A24’s frequency, and now we’re seeing waves of their influence spreading outward into bigger films. Watch A24’s Oscar-nominated Ex Machina, then watch a trailer for the recent Morgan, and tell me what you see. That’s what makes A24 a leading curator of boutique cinema — they have eyes and ears for the influential. These aren’t the stuffy little films you think of when someone says “arthouse.” Don’t believe me? We take a look at some of A24’s most uniquely resonant films to date.
Alt-director Harmony Korine’s seventh feature film, Spring Breakers, is almost more of a music video than a traditional movie. It follows four college girls on spring break in Florida, where a strangely magnetic gangster ropes them into a local crime war. Stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens were trying to break from their Disney days, so there’s plenty of sex, drugs, and violence.
James Franco is bizarre and amazing as the rapper and gangster Alien. Real-life rapper Gucci Mane plays his rival, Archie. Trashy and ridiculous, Spring Breakers is entertaining as hell. It’s an ode to the MTV era that resounds differently for each viewer. And it’s likely that it would never have seen the light of day without A24’s willingness to step outside Hollywood boundaries. [Danielle Ryan]
Room has a simple premise but incredible depth, in part due to Brie Larson‘s Academy Award-winning performance. The film tells the story of Jack, a five-year-old boy who lives as a captive in a 10-by-10 foot space with his mother (Larson). Jack has never known anything but “Room,” as his mother calls it, and he is perfectly content with the life there. She comes up with a way for the two of them to escape, but it’s up to Jack to make it all happen.
Room is both tender and heart-wrenching. It captures childhood innocence and the bond between mother and son. The film’s second half, after the two escape, is a testament to those who have survived horrible things. Young Jacob Tremblay, who plays Jack, is incredible. Larson is superb. It’s a unique film that nearly everyone should see, but viewers should make sure they have plenty of tissues on hand. [Danielle Ryan]
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ first English-language film, The Lobster takes place in a dystopian society where single people must go to a special hotel to find a lifelong mate. If a person can’t find a mate in 45 days, hotel staff transform that person into an animal so that they might find human companionship more easily. Protagonist David (Colin Farrell) doesn’t think he can find anyone, so he throws his lot in with a sociopathic woman (Angeliki Papoulia). But in the course of her courtship, she does something so terrible that he gives it all up to hide in the woods with many of the other singles. It only gets stranger from there.
The Lobster earned quite a bit of critical acclaim, including the Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival. Farrell is great, as is co-star Rachel Weisz, but this isn’t a film for everyone. It’s a darkly comedic tale about finding love that is a little too weird for mainstream audiences. Oh, and the title? David chooses to be turned into a lobster because they live forever. [Danielle Ryan]
Nowadays, Westerns are rarely made unless they have some element of bombast to them. A24 bucked this trend with Slow West, a contemplative and somber look at the way we mythicize the past. The film tells the tale of Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young Scottish man who travels to America to find Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius), the woman he fell in love with back home. Unfamiliar with the brutality of the frontier, he employs bounty hunter Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) to help him track down Rose. Their journey brings them face-to-face with the horrors of the West, but Jay’s youthful optimism rubs off on the jaded Silas.
Slow West explores the fine line between truth and fiction when it comes to history. It sees value in both, but also illustrates the dangers that arise from blurring the two. Featuring Rogue One’s Ben Mendelsohn and Game of Thrones’ Rory McCann, Slow West is caustically funny and deeply moving. If you need reminding that Westerns can still be made without having to be headed up by Quentin Tarantino, give this one a watch. [Drew Dietsch]
Under the Skin
You want weird? This is weird. Jonathan Glazer’s abstract sci-fi has one of the world’s biggest A-listers as a cold, uncaring vessel for a sinister alien agenda. Watching Scarlett Johansson‘s quiet, predatory gaze as she drives around Scotland is pure boredom for some. But for the right viewer, it’s sheer fascination.
Full of quiet menace and cerebral horror, Under the Skin is a classic in the making. And if you’ve seen Stranger Things, then you’ve already seen this film’s chilly tendrils reaching out into pop culture. Movies like Under the Skin are what make A24 such a strong brand — they don’t explain themselves, and they don’t need to. The premise of Under the Skin is so simple that you might think it’s not substantial enough to support a film. Not only does this simplicity support the film, but it makes the film very pure in its intentions. [Travis Newton]
Before Denis Villeneuve started making big thrillers like Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2, he made Enemy. This mind-bending mystery starring Jake Gyllenhaal is one of A24’s most challenging films. Not because it’s a bad movie, but because it pulls at your gut and unspools your brain. It’s not horror, but it is disquieting all the same. It treads in the same territory as David Lynch and Andrzej Żuławski. They, like Villeneuve, create absurd nightmare worlds for their characters — worlds rich with metaphors and puzzles.
Gyllenhaal stars as a college professor who rents a locally produced indie film. But when he watches the movie, he is astonished to see himself (or someone who looks just like him) playing a bit part. His desire to find this actor doppelgänger takes him down a dark path of self-discovery and manipulation. Enemy poses questions that it never fully answers. Villeneuve and his cast have also sworn to never tell the film’s secrets. That will frustrate some, but if you’re into stuff like Mulholland Drive, Enemy is probably right up your alley. [Travis Newton]
This minimal drama from writer and director Steven Knight shows Tom Hardy at his absolute best. Faced with the biggest job of his career, concrete company manager Ivan Locke (Hardy) gets an emergency phone call that will change his life. Only hours away from the start of a record-breaking concrete pour, Locke abandons the people who need him. He hops in his car and drives off to attend the birth of his child — the result of infidelity.
We spend nearly the entire film in Locke’s car as he drives, talks to his bosses, his subordinates, his wife, the mother of his new child, and his dead father. Locke is a one-man show. Every other character in the film is just a voice on the phone. Tom Hardy, in typical Hardy fashion, finds the key to his character in a weird accent. But sustaining an 84-minute movie in a single tiny location with a single on-screen actor is no small feat. Because Steven Knight turned those limitations into strengths, he helped make Locke into one of 2014’s best films. [Travis Newton]
Alex Garland had a lot on his mind when he wrote and directed Ex Machina. This sci-fi drama starring Alicia Vikander, Domnhall Gleeson, and Oscar Isaac is about so much more than robots and AI. It’s about trust, loyalty, the human experience, feminism and misogyny and so much more. It’s small — laid out more like a stage play than a film — but packs quite a punch.
Like the best science-fiction, Ex Machina asks a lot of questions but doesn’t give too many answers. You leave the film feeling uneasy and a bit shaken and even questioning yourself. Yes, Alex Garland had a lot on his mind, and after watching his film, you will too. [Brandon Marcus]
Swiss Army Man
Swiss Army Man is way more than a farting Harry Potter film. Marketed as a Cast Away knock-off with a twist of Weekend at Bernie’s, directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (credited together as Daniels) crafted a story that never shows its hand.
Daniel Radcliffe plays Manny, a bloated corpse who washes ashore on a small desert island inhabited solely by a suicidal castaway named Hank (Paul Dano). Hank is a strange, multilayered character who may be a psychotic madman. Using Manny’s farting corpse like a human multipurpose tool, Hank travels across the sea. He lands on a wooded coast and continues his quest homeward, but the now talking Manny confronts him with bizarre truths and revelations.
Swiss Army Man is open to all kinds of interpretation. Even the ending is a question mark. But the Daniels are clever and capable filmmakers, and their manipulation of the audience plays like a sweetly cynical magic trick. Daniel Radcliffe is still one of today’s most underrated actors, despite having plenty of solid acting credits beyond Harry Potter. Swiss Army Man is by no means for everyone. But it’s worth seeing, even if only for the fart jokes. [Andrew Hawkins]
The Witch is an uncommonly special period piece that holds up really well. It’s a slow burn that seems to meander around its premise, but the tone and style of the movie are solid even under harsh scrutiny. Writer and director Robert Eggers culled inspiration from old American folklore to make this story about a puritan family who is banished from their colony and sent off into the wilderness. Conditions worsen when the crops fail and the baby goes missing. Relationships crumble and an outside force descends upon them all. Witches and the Devil are all too real in this dark colonial drama.
Many theatergoers misinterpreted The Witch upon its release, thinking it was going to rival Paranormal Activity and The Conjuring for the title of “scariest movie in years.” But I enjoyed The Witch a lot in the theater and still do after multiple viewings. The disturbing elements of the story are still very unsettling, and the music and sound design is perfect for the film’s tone. A24 is lucky to have a movie in their catalog of this caliber. It’s not often that a modern feature plays like a good book worth rereading over and over. Watch it with and without subtitles. It’s worth it. [Andrew Hawkins]