1. Midsommar – A humorously traumatic nightmare-comedy about a Swedish cult’s destruction of a toxic romance that’s far outstayed its welcome. Its morbid humor, detailed costume & production design, and dread-inducing continuation of Wicker Man-style folk horror made for an intensely satisfying theatrical experience. Twice! (Thanks to an extended “Director’s Cut” that packed in an extra half hour of winking Jokes at the expense of its lead’s self-absorbed idiot boyfriend.)
2. In Fabric – A tongue-in-cheek anthology horror about a killer dress. I loved every creepily kinky minute of this, but also a total stranger scolded me for laughing during our Overlook Film Fest screening because it is “not a comedy” so your own mileage may vary? If an arthouse take on the Killer Inanimate Object genre of films like Death Bed: The Bed That Eats sounds enticing, then you’d probably dig it. Just go in knowing that it’s okay to laugh.
3. Knife + Heart – A cheeky giallo throwback set against a gay porno shoot in late 1970s Paris. Picture Dario Argento’s Cruising. And it only improves on repeat viewings, as the disjointed imagery from the protagonist’s psychic visions gradually start to mean something once you know how they’re connected, and not being distracted by piecing together the mystery of its slasher plot allows you to soak in its intoxicating sensory pleasures.
4. When I Get Home – A feature-length music video from singer-songwriter Solange, presented as an “inter-disciplinary performance art film” and a companion piece to her album of the same name. It’s an R&B sci-fi acid Western portrait of black culture in Houston, reaching more for visual poetry than clear messaging or linear storytelling.
5. Us – A surreal reimagining of C.H.U.D. that reflects & refracts ugly, discomforting truths about modern American class divides. Both of Jordan Peele’s feature films are self-evidently great, but I slightly prefer the nightmare logic looseness of this one to the meticulously calibrated machinery of Get Out – if not only because it leans more heavily into The Uncanny. It’s like getting twenty extra minutes to poke around in The Sunken Place.
6. Parasite – A twisty, crowd-pleasing thriller about class resentment, with a particular focus on how Capitalism forces its lowliest casualties to fight over the crumbs that fall from on high. It’s been fascinating to watch this earn sold-out screenings & ecstatic critical praise for months on end as its distribution exponentially spreads, a true success story for weirdo populist cinema.
7. Climax – A deranged dance party fueled by a lethal dose of LSD, packing in more death drops in its opening half hour than you’ll see in the entirety of Paris is Burning. Pretentious, obnoxious, “French and fucking proud of it” smut that leaves you just as miserable as the tripped-out dancers who tear each other apart on the screen.
8. Violence Voyager – Easily the most bizarre & brutal release of the year. A gross-out gore middle ground between animation & puppetry with a haunted amusement park plot from a vintage Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel.
9. Wounds – The age-old tale of a New Orleans bartender’s battle with a haunted smartphone; also a grotesque look at a “functioning” alcoholic losing what little control he pretends to have over his life until all that’s left is rot. The low-50s aggregated ratings for this horror gem on Rotten Tomatoes & Metacritic can eat the roaches directly out of my ass. The imagery is legitimately scary, and it has a lot more going on thematically than it’s getting credit for. Clearly the most underrated film of the year.
10. Luz – A lean demonic possession oddity with some real grimy 70s Euro horror throwback vibes. As a student thesis project with a small cast and just a few sparse locations, this should-be-mediocre genre exercise is the most unassuming indie gem of the year to achieve such a sublime must-see cinematic effect. A deranged, sweaty, deliriously horny nightmare that all demonic possession media strives for, but few titles ever achieve.
11. One Cut of the Dead – A deceptively complex zombie comedy about a film crew who are attacked by the undead in the middle of a cheap-o horror production. This starts off quietly charming, then gets disorienting & awkward, then emerges as one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a theater in a long while. It requires a little patience, but the payoff is an incredibly successful love letter to low-budget filmmaking that makes the entire film feel retroactively brilliant.
12. Gully Boy – A lengthy Indian melodrama about an aspiring street rapper in Mumbai rising to fame across class lines & familial roadblocks. It doesn’t necessarily do anything narratively or thematically that you wouldn’t expect, but it is astonishing in its refusal to pull political or emotional punches. It’s also a genuine miracle in finally allowing the world to enjoy the triumphs of 8-Mile without having to look at or listen to Eminem, something we sadly can’t always avoid.
13. Homecoming – An incredibly ambitious concert film that documents both nights of Beychella, the most iconic live music performance of the 2010s. The cultural context for what Beyoncé is doing with this piece is rooted in celebrating HBCUs, but a lot of the sights & sounds are pure New Orleans Mardi Gras. The brass, the bounce, the dance troupes, the Solange of it all: I didn’t realize how much our local traditions were an extension of HBCU culture (or at least are seamlessly compatible with it) until I saw this film.
14. The Last Black Man in San Francisco – A bizzaro Sundance drama about gentrification & friendship. Occupies an incredibly exciting dream space that filters anxiety & anger over housing inequality through classic stage play Absurdism touchstones like Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Wild, beautiful stuff doled out at a weirdly calming pace.
15. Aniara – A surreal, existential descent into despair that processes the horrors of climate change through a space travel narrative. Initially plays as a much more conventional SyFy Channel version of High Life but eventually blossoms into its own blissfully bizarre object. Major bonus points: weirdo space cults, Gay Stuff, and a stunner of a lead performance from relative unknown Emelie Jonsson.
16. High Life – Claire Denis delivers a much more divisive space travel chiller about climate change, one with a penchant for violence & abstraction. 100% feels like the director of Trouble Every Day launching her quietly fucked up little horror show into the furthest reaches of deep space – with all the narrative frustrations, ice cold cruelty, and disgust with the human body that descriptor implies.
17. The Lighthouse – Willem Dafoe & Robert Pattinson costar as a lighthouse-keeper odd couple who gradually grow insane with hate & lust for each other. A black & white period drama crammed into a squared-off aspect ratio, this mostly functions as an unholy, horned-up mashup of Guy Maddin & HP Lovecraft. It’s also, somewhat unexpectedly, a total riot. Its tight frame is packed to the walls with more sex, violence, and broad toilet humor than you’d typically expect from high-brow Art Cinema.
18. The Beach Bum – I was the only person laughing at my opening-weekend 4:20pm screening of this abrasive stoner-bummer, in which Matthew McConaughey plays a Florida-famous poet named Moondog. I was also the only person gasping in horror. Harmony Korine always works best when he reins his indulgences in with a little guiding structure, and this one does so by riffing on 90s Major Studio Comedy tropes to nightmarish success. It’s basically Korine’s Billy Madison, which I mean as a major compliment.
19. Diamantino – Exposed to the existence of human suffering for the first time as an adult man, a sweet-sexy-idiot soccer star falls down a rabbit hole of political turmoil – like a gay porno version of Chauncey Gardner. This is a delightfully absurdist, satirical farce (taking wild, unsubtle jabs at the disasters of MAGA & Brexit in particular), bolstered by surreally cheap CGI and a peculiar sense of humor that alternates between wholesomeness & cruelty at a breakneck pace.
20. Lords of Chaos – A playfully revisionist true-crime dramedy about the 1990s black metal band Mayhem, whose “breakup” story involved a spectacularly violent murder. Ruthlessly satirizes shithead metal nerds as trust fund brats with loving parents & purposeless suburban angst. Especially commendable for zapping all the supposed Cool out of the black metal scene’s infamous church burnings, bigotry, and animal cruelty by treating them as the edgelord posturing that they truly were.