The best thing about reviewing movies is: There are so many movies. More to see means more to recommend, at least in theory. The worst part about reviewing movies is: There are so many movies. We think of this as an era of peak TV—and it is. But it’s also been, for some time, an era of too many movies, and often for some of the same reasons: an influx of original content from platforms like Netflix, a diversifying sense of what “movie” even means, and so on.
Just two years ago, The New York Times, which had traditionally reviewed every movie with a New York opening, announced that it could no longer make that guarantee. Times critic A.O. Scott told Variety that this was “because of the increasing volume of new films released each year.” In late 2013, Scott tallied up the number of releases the paper reviewed that year: a frightening 900. Plenty of them were bad. Plenty were also good—but among smaller movies, by the time word travels about what’s “good,” and by the time what’s good is available to the broadest possible audience, there’s a chance we’ve all already moved on to the next “must-watch” thing. The glut of new content online, in theaters, and on whichever screen functions as your TV, paired with the typical working person’s lack of time and essential hunger for escapism, can make it hard to advocate for anything that feels like a risk. It’s no wonder we still coalesce around the usual tentpoles: We can depend on them to be, at minimum, satisfyingly distracting.
Either way, it’s a tough market for originality, and an even tougher market for work that’s challenging. But the main perk of being a critic is shouting out the movies you like and even love, regardless of their potential appeal. What follows are a handful—just a handful!—of some of this year’s most exciting releases—four small and one large, four fiction and one documentary—running the gamut from art house and foreign film to dumb, bloody action. As we head into Oscar season—which is overstuffed with movies that ought to be overlooked—these are films that are prone to getting lost in the shuffle of our consideration. They aren’t awards movies. If they were, their category would be: “Your Mileage May Vary.” Here’s to taking a risk.
The wide-eyed, wandering bliss of Terrence Malick meets the cool affectation of European youth in this Polish-language film, set in the clubs and on the streets of Warsaw. Krzysztof and Michal are two art students with seemingly all the time in the world to discover themselves, and director Michal Marczak gives them free reign. They wander from party to party, bump into ex-girlfriends, fuck, do drugs, and dance—most of all, they dance. This is a movie that exists, from moment to moment, in the brief space between sunset and sunrise. It feels like a supercut of passionate memories, accordingly. Plotless and emphatically experiential, the movie has an almost dogged insistence on feeling spontaneous, sometimes to its detriment.
At its worst, the movie lets Malick’s influence get in the way of it saying or discovering anything on its own terms. But at its frequent best, All These Sleepless Nights reminds us of what it can feel like for a movie to try to tell the story of a feeling. There’s a nostalgia for youth here that, for me, is more memorable than any particular thing that happens. Plenty happens, but it all kind of floats by before our eyes, in a leisurely haze. The movie’s apparently a documentary—it competed in the nonfiction category at Sundance this year—but that could mean anything, really, and I’m not sure exploring the implications of that category will take us anywhere too interesting. What matters is that, when it works, it’s an overwhelming tribute to people, movement, and being young—and to the desperate sense that nothing lasts forever.
Columbus (In theaters)
One of my favorite films of the year so far, the debut of video essayist Kogonada is set in Columbus, Indiana, home to several architectural wonders—among them Eero Saarinen’s North Christian Church, with its imposing 192-foot high steeple. It’s a beautiful, placid place, a mecca of modernism arisen seemingly out of nowhere. More than mere window dressing, this setting is the essence of the story Columbus tells. Casey, played by Haley Lu Richardson, is a college-age woman full of promise, a lover of architecture who wants to escape Columbus to study it, but feels she can’t. She’s anchored by her mother, a recovering addict on the verge of relapse. Jin (John Cho), meanwhile, is in town to tend to his dying father, a famous scholar of architecture who’s been distant most of Jin’s life and whose imminent death Jin is struggling to process.
When these characters meet by chance, what unfolds is something far more invigorating than the lonely romance the premise portends. Columbus is as much the story of two people coming into their own, alone and together, as it is of a place. There’s a lot of wide open space, and a lot of room for thought and feeling, in this movie’s beautifully grand canvas. Kogonada’s instinct is to map the inner lives of his characters onto their surroundings, folding their mutual affection for each other into a more urgent story about intellectual self-discovery. They walk and talk, argue, and push each other toward understanding. Richardson, with her quiet demeanor and earnest expressions, is particularly marvelous. Casey comes alive for us as a woman who wants, and deserves, better than she has—but whose feelings about what “better” means, in this context, are understandably fraught. We wind up rooting for her. The movie does, too.
In Spanish director Oliver Laxe’s sophomore feature, a dying sheikh demands to be carried home, to Sijilmasa, to be given a proper burial. It’s a trip that requires a trek through the gorgeously menacing Atlas Mountains in Morocco—a trip for more than one man, in other words, or even two. When the movie starts, the sheikh is in fact being escorted by an entire caravan of men. Soon after, however, he dies, and much of that caravan disperses, leaving his body behind. That’s when Mimosas becomes the story of the men who dare to finish the job, including a proselytizing eccentric whose high-pitched spirit and wiry frame instill the whole mission with a strange, hectic energy.
Mimosas, which is in Arabic, is ultimately about a lot of things—among them, honor. It’s full of conflicts over belief, as well as the distinct tussles that define any modern culture anchored firmly in the past. But it’s also, not unlike a great Western, the story of a landscape so vast, so challenging, that the movie can't help but feel like an examination of heroic and mythic ideals. This is a literal slow burn, a deliberately paced sojourn through desert heat. If for no other reason, though, Mimosas is worth seeing for its images of indescribable beauty. There are the perilous inner workings of the mountains, the dust kicked up by a caravan of cars setting out at dawn—images that convince you this is a far more mystifying film than it initially seems.
In this pleasurably lo-fi indie, a fur-toting uptown woman may or may not have killed her husband; a small-time newspaper editor may or may not be trying to bed his slightly depressive new underling; and a jealous ex-boyfriend may or may not be on the verge of getting beaten up for leaking his former girlfriend’s nude photos online. And that’s not even the half. This is a comedy: It’s all up in the air. Easy answers aren’t the endgame—but a rich web of connections between a cohort of everyday Brooklynites might be.
Person to Person stars Abbi Jacobson, Michael Cera, Tavi Gevinson, Philip Baker Hall, and others playing a loosely connected set of New Yorkers who, in a single day, wind their ways through love, friendship, disappointment, and life’s other everyday mysteries. The movie, written and directed by Dustin Guy Defa, is a low-key, vignette-driven New York comedy, of the kind that automatically, without even seeming to try, invokes the ’70s despite being set in the present. There’s a purifying pleasure to it: The writing and performances delight in making us see who these characters are, merely by letting us tag along as they think and talk, shoot the shit, analyze each other, make amends, and whatever else. It’s a movie that, despite being set in my own time, makes me miss an era I wasn’t around to see—one that I only feel like I know because of movies like this.
You’re right: not an indie movie. And not overlooked, in the strictest sense. Every entry in the six-movie Resident Evil series, which kicked off in 2002, has turned a profit worldwide, as often as not thanks to eager audiences overseas. And yet, in a culture overridden by superheroes, YA adaptations, Transformers, and the like, it’s easy to think of the Resident Evil series as the wicked step-sibling, an unheralded alternative to the star-powered output of Disney, Warner Bros., and the other bad boys of franchise filmmaking. (The Resident Evil series is the product of Sony’s Screen Gems.) The movies lack the big-name casts, the overbearing promotional strategies, and the studio-driven respectability of their brand-name peers. But that’s what I like about them. Next to a Marvel movie, The Final Chapter—the last movie in the series—feels heroically scrappy.
It also feels tougher and in many ways smarter—just not in terms of plot, really. (But who thinks action movies are about plot? Ah, right: Marvel.) I kind of stopped caring what the Resident Evil movies were “about” some time ago, because what they’ve always really been about is action, in the purest sense. That’s what makes the best of the series—movies like 2012’s Retribution—so essential. I’m going to miss a lot about this series: the chance to luxuriate in its crass weirdness, the playful self-awareness that’s defined these movies from the start, the creepy-child antics of the holographic Red Queen, the dumb blankness of the killer zombies, and of course, Milla Jovovich.
But above all, I’m going to miss Paul W.S. Anderson’s sensuously grotesque approach to this world. Anderson is one of the few directors whose rapid cutting actively heightens the action. His cuts make his action visceral: The rhythmic tumult of his images reorients our sense of how bodies move and how time and space behave. It’s thrilling. His style is one of the best arguments against 3-D (not that he’s above it): It’s proof of how much of a gut punch smart, resourceful filmmaking can deliver without it. The Final Chapter, for all the goofiness of the franchise’s ongoing premise, is full of original, distinctly cinematic pleasures. That’s more than I can say for a lot of movies—but especially the ostensibly “better” ones, and most especially the ones so many of us pay to see.