The Art of Eavesdropping

I keep a notebook on me at all times and I pull it out occasionally to write down whatever genius single sentence I may glean from someone else’s conversation. Strangers, friends, talking to me, not talking to me—doesn’t matter. I don’t add context, just the brilliant phrase. At the end of the year, I pull these together and use them for something. This year, I saw a lot of themes and decided to go with a poem.

Overheard, 2019

by Hope Madden

The porn star was first.

He’s the top Nathan.

He was the lead singer for a Led zeppelin cover band.

Wild rumpus is a great name for a band.

I profoundly love barbershop and always have.

It’s a disco party I can’t turn off.

Flashbacks of mace and urine and GWAR goo

Who bled on the couch?

I have 3 on menstruation.

My favorite book title: Will you please stop masturbating so I can euthanize you?

Hot girls in booty shorts who are covered in blood from feeding rapists to their cars

Extreme cinema means penises and buttholes.

Cat shit and banana peels

I think 1979 would have a banana seat.

You know my feelings on unannounced raisins.

I would egg my own house for that.

The word is out on me: full of beans.

We’d like to send them a biscuit mix.

Isn’t that just a hot donut?

This hot sour cream juice isn’t going to drink itself.

Meatboat is a good word.

Neck Tattoo really loaded me up on meat today.

She has big, meaty feet.

His teeth are not just UK bad. They’re workhouse bad.

Stop saying scabies.

I had ringworm once. I got it from a horse.

If alligators could fly I would never go outside.

Narwhals are fat murder pillows.

This is going to look so nice on my kaiju jacket.

You would make a great puppet.

Are you asking if Inspector Gadget fucked?

Tornado Warning Jim is my favorite. Glad he could show up today.

I’ve gotten mainly out of the habit of hating myself so now when self-loathing hits, it hurts more for lack of practice.

Make better decisions. Make Captain America decisions.

COFCA Nominees Announced

Nominees for the 18th annual Columbus Film Critics Association awards 

(Columbus, December 29, 2019) The Columbus Film Critics Association is pleased to announce the nominees for its 18th annual awards.  Winners will be announced on the evening of January 2rd, 2020.

Founded in 2002, the Columbus Film Critics Association is comprised of film critics based in Columbus, Ohio and its surrounding areas. Its membership consists of 28 print, radio, television, and online critics. COFCA’s official website at contains links to member reviews and past award winners.  

The 2019 Columbus Film Critics Association awards nominees are:

Best Film 


The Farewell

The Irishman

Jojo Rabbit

Knives Out

Little Women

Marriage Story

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Parasite (Gisaengchung)

Uncut Gems

Best Director 

-Bong Joon -ho, Parasite (Gisaengchung)

-Greta Gerwig, Little Women

-Sam Mendes, 1917

-Martin Scorsese, The Irishman

-Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Best Actor 

-Robert De Niro, The Irishman

-Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

-Adam Driver, Marriage Story

-Robert Pattinson, The Lighthouse

-Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

-Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems

Best Actress 

-Awkwafina, The Farewell

-Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

-Lupita Nyong’o, Us

-Florence Pugh, Midsommar

-Saoirse Ronan, Little Women

Best Supporting Actor 

-Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse

-Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

-Al Pacino, The Irishman

-Joe Pesci, The Irishman

-Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Best Supporting Actress 

-Laura Dern, Marriage Story

-Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit

-Jennifer Lopez, Hustlers

-Florence Pugh, Little Women

-Zhao Shuzhen, The Farewell

Best Ensemble 

The Irishman

Knives Out

Little Women

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Parasite (Gisaengchung)

Actor of the Year (for an exemplary body of work) 

-Adam Driver (The Dead Don’t Die, Marriage Story, The Report, and Star Wars: Episode IX – The 

Rise of Skywalker)

-Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Luce and Waves)

-Scarlett Johansson (Avengers: Endgame, Captain Marvel, Jojo Rabbit, and Marriage Story)

-Brad Pitt (Ad Astra and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood)

-Florence Pugh (Fighting with My Family, Little Women, and Midsommar)

Breakthrough Film Artist 

-Rowan Griffin Davis, Jojo Rabbit – (for acting)

-Julia Fox, Uncut Gems – (for acting)

-Florence Pugh, Fighting with My Family, Little Women, and Midsommar – (for acting)

-Honor Swinton Byrne, The Souvenir – (for acting)

-Joe Talbot, The Last Black Man in San Francisco – (for directing, producing, and screenwriting)

-Lulu Wang, The Farewell – (for directing, producing and screenwriting)

-Olivia Wilde, Booksmart – (for directing)

Best Cinematography 

-Jarin Blaschke, The Lighthouse

-Roger Deakins, 1917

-Hong Kyung-pyo, Parasite (Gisaengchung)

-Pawel Pogorzelski, Midsommar

-Robert Richardson, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

-Hoyte Van Hoytema, Ad Astra

Best Film Editing

-Ronald Bronstein and Benny Safdie, Uncut Gems

-Bob Ducsay, Knives Out

-Fred Raskin, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

-Lee Smith, 1917

-Yang Jin-mo, Parasite (Gisaengchung)

Best Adapted Screenplay

-Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

-Greta Gerwig, Little Women

-Lorene Scafaria, Hustlers

-Taiki Waititi, Jojo Rabbit

-Steve Zaillian, The Irishman

Best Original Screenplay

-Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story

-Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won, Parasite (Gisaengchung)

-Rian Johnson, Knives Out

-Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

-Lulu Wang, The Farewell

Best Score 

-Michael Abels, Us

-Alexandre Desplat, Little Women

-Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker

-Randy Newman, Marriage Story

-Thomas Newman, 1917

Best Documentary 

Amazing Grace

American Factory

Apollo 11


One Child Nation

Best Foreign Language Film 

Atlantics (Atlantique)

Les Misérables

Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria)

Parasite (Gisaengchung)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)

Best Animated Film 

Frozen II

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

I Lost My Body (J’ai perdu mon corps)

Missing Link

Toy Story 4

Best Overlooked Film 

Her Smell

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Missing Link

Ready or Not

Wild Rose

COFCA offers its congratulations to the nominees.

Previous Best Film winners:

2002:  Punch-Drunk Love

2003: Lost in Translation

2004: Million Dollar Baby

2005: A History of Violence

2006: Children of Men

2007:  No Country for Old Men

2008:  WALL·E

2009:  Up in the Air

2010:  Inception


2012Moonrise Kingdom

2013:  Gravity



2016La La Land

2017Lady Bird

2018If Beale Street Could Talk

For more information about the Columbus Film Critics Association, please visit or e-mail

The complete list of members and their affiliations: 

Richard Ades (Freelance); Dwayne Bailey (Bailey’s Buzz); Adam Barney (The Film Coterie); Sam Brady (I Am Sam Reviews); Logan Burd (Cinema or Cine-meh?); Kevin Carr (,; Bill Clark (; Olie Coen (Archer Avenue, DVD Talk); John DeSando (90.5 WCBE); Johnny DiLoretto (90.5 WCBE,; Chris Feil (,; Frank Gabrenya (The Columbus Dispatch); Mark Jackson (; Brad Keefe (Columbus Alive); Kristin Dreyer Kramer (, 90.5 WCBE); Adam Kuhn (Corndog Chats); Roger Legg (The Film Coterie, Faith and Film); Joyce Long (Freelance); Rico Long (Freelance); Hope Madden (Columbus Underground, and WTTE-TV); Paul Markoff (Filmbound); David Medsker (; Lori Pearson (,; Mark Pfeiffer (Filmbound, Reel Times: Reflections on Cinema); Melissa Starker (Freelance); George Wolf (Columbus Radio Group,, Columbus Underground, and WTTE-TV); Jason Zingale (; Nathan Zoebl (

The following information is not for publication: 

If you would like comments about COFCA and these awards, please contact: 

Mark Pfeiffer (

Reel Times: Reflections on Cinema 

Co-host/co-producer, Filmbound podcast

Fright Club: Best Horror Movies of 2019

It’s time! The year has come to its end and we need to sift through all the glorious horror 2019 had to offer and put it in some kind of order. Four of the most promising names in horror— Peele, Eggers, Kent and Aster—join some bold newcomers including Jennifer Reeder, Issa Lopez, Lane and Ruckus Skye to lead a pack of unforgettable horrors.

Truth is, there were an awful lot of great films that we had to leave off this list. But that just means the actual list is that strong. Here you go:

10. Ready or Not

At midnight on Grace (Samara Weaving) and Alex’s (Mark O’Brien) wedding night, everyone assembles in the Le Domas family game room: Mom and Dad (Andie MacDowell and Henry Czerny), Aunt Helene (Nicky Guardagni), other siblings and in-laws. It’s a ritual. Just one quick game of hide and seek. What could go wrong?

The inky black comedy plays like a game of Clue gone mad with arterial spray, the film’s comic moments coinciding most often with the accidental slaughter of servants.

The filmmakers take advantage of Weaving’s grit and comic timing, skipping from one bloody comic set up to the next. The plot and the chase move quickly enough to keep you from dwelling on the shorthand character development, the errant plot hole and the occasional convenience. It’s fun, it’s funny, and it’s a bloody mess.

9. Climax

Hey, club kids, it’s a Gaspar Noe dance party!

Noe’s usual reliance on extended takes, stationary cameras and overhead shots makes the dance sequences utterly intoxicating, the performers’ energy creating exciting visual beauty and a palpable exuberance for their art. These seductive odes to dance are interspersed with sometimes graphically sexual conversations between the dancers, sharpening character edges and laying down an interpersonal framework that will soon be turned on its head.

What spurred this sea change, and who is to blame? Noe turns that mystery into a greater conversation about the opportunity of birth, the impossibility of life and the extraordinary experience of death, and as is his wont, batters your senses while doing it.

8. Reckoning

Welcome to Reckoning, Lane and Ruckus Skye’s lyrical backwoods epic, grounded in a lived-in world most of us never knew existed. One of the most tightly written thrillers in recent memory, Reckoning peoples the hills of Appalachia with true characters, not a forgettable villain or cliched rube among them. The sense of danger is palpable and Danielle Deadwyler’s commitment to communicating her character’s low key tenacity is a thing of beauty.

Reckoning remains true to these fascinating souls, reveling in the well-worn but idiosyncratic nature of their individual relationships—a tone matched by sly performances across the board. And just when you think you’ve settled into a scene or a relationship, Reckoning shocks you with a turn of events that is equal parts surprising and inevitable.

It’s a stunning film, and a rare gem that treats Appalachians not as clichés, but certainly not as people to be messed with.

7. One Cut of the Dead

For about 37 minutes, you may feel like Shin’ichirô Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead delivers, cleverly enough, on a very familiar promise.

One Cut opens as a micro-budget zombie movie, which soon reveals itself to be a film within a film when real zombies show up on set. As the bullying egomaniac director continues filming, ecstatic over the authenticity, Ueda appears to deconstruct cinema.

And though that may sound intriguing on the surface, the truth is that what transpires after that 37 minute mark officially defines Ueda as an inventive, gleeful master of chaos and lover of the magic of nuts and bolts filmmaking.

6. Knives and Skin

Falling somewhere between David Lynch and Anna Biller in the under-charted area where the boldly surreal meets the colorfully feminist, writer/director Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin offers a hypnotic look at Midwestern high school life.

Knives and Skin’s pulpy noir package lets Reeder explore what it means to navigate the world as a female. As tempting as it is to pigeonhole the film as Lynchian, Reeder’s metaphors, while fluid and eccentric, are far more pointed than anything you’ll find in Twin Peaks.

And everyone sings impossibly appropriate Eighties alt hits acapella. Even the dead.

5. The Nightingale

The Nightingale is as expansive and epic a film as Kent’s incandescent feature debut The Babadook was claustrophobic and internal. In it she follows Clare (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish convict sentenced to service in the UK’s territory in Tasmania.

What happens to Clare at the hands of Leftenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), the British officer to whom she is in service, is as brutal and horrifying as anything you’re likely to see onscreen this year. It’s the catalyst for a revenge picture, but The Nightingale is far more than just that.

Kent’s fury fuels her film, but does not overtake it. She never stoops to sentimentality or sloppy caricature. She doesn’t need to. Her clear-eyed take on this especially ugly slice of history finds more power in authenticity than in drama.

4. Tigers Are Not Afraid

Lopez’s fable of children and war brandishes the same themes as Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, but grounds the magic with a rugged street style.

Tigers follows Estrella, a child studying fairy tales—or, she was until her school is temporarily closed due to the stray bullets that make it unsafe for students. As Estrella and her classmates hide beneath desks to avoid gunfire, her teacher hands her three broken pieces of chalk and tells her these are her three wishes.

But wishes never turn out the way you want them to.

3. The Lighthouse

Director/co-writer Robert Eggers follows The Witch, his incandescent 2015 feature debut, with another painstakingly crafted, moody period piece. The Lighthouse strands you, along with two wickies (Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson), on the unforgiving island home of one lonely 1890s New England lighthouse.

For everything Eggers brings to bear, from the Bergmanesque lighting and spiritual undertones to the haunting score to the scrupulous set design to images suitable for framing in a maritime museum – not to mention the script itself – The Lighthouse works because of two breathtaking performances.

This is thrilling cinema. Let it in, and it will consume you to the point of nearly missing the deft gothic storytelling at work. The film is other-worldly, surreal, meticulous and consistently creepy.

2. Midsommar

In Midsommar, we are as desperate to claw our way out of this soul-crushing grief as Dani (Florence Pugh). Mainly to avoid being alone, Dani insinuates herself into her anthropology student boyfriend Christian’s (Jack Reynor) trip to rural Sweden with his buds.

Little does she know they are all headed straight for a modern riff on The Wicker Man.

Like a Bergman inspired homage to bad breakups, this terror is deeply-rooted in the psyche, always taking less care to scare you than to keep you unsettled and on edge.

1. Us

From a Santa Cruz carnival to a hall of mirrors to a wall of rabbits in cages—setting each to its own insidious sound, whether the whistle of Itsy Bitsy Spider or Gregorian chanting— writer/director Jordan Peele draws on moods and images from horror’s collective unconscious and blends them into something hypnotic and almost primal.

Loosely based on an old episode of Twilight Zone, Us is a tale full of tension and fright, told with precision and a moral center not as easily identifiable as Get Out‘s brilliant takedown of “post racial America.”

While it’s fun to be scared stiff, scared smart is even better, a fact Jordan Peele has clearly known for years.

Best Movies of 2019

This has been a fascinating year for movies. While we had some great sequels and superhero adventures, 2019 has offered a beautiful abundance of original films and this may have been the single best year for documentaries since ever. Favorites returned to form while new voices pushed the artform in gorgeously necessary directions.

Here are our 25 favorite films of 2019.

1. Parasite

Every time you think you’ve pinned this film down—who’s doing what to whom, who is or is not a parasite—you learn writer/director/master craftsman Joon-ho Bong has perpetrated an impeccably executed sleight of hand. Just when you think Bong’s metaphoric title is merely surface deep, a succession of delicious power shifts begins to emerge.

As the Kims insinuate themselves into the daily lives of the very wealthy Parks, Bong expands and deepens a story full of surprising tenderness, consistent laughter and wise commentary on not only the capitalist economy, but the infecting nature of money.

2. Toy Story 4

Talents new and veteran gel to combine the history and character so beautifully articulated over a quarter century with some really fresh and very funny ideas. Toy Story 4 offers more bust-a-gut laughs than the last three combined, and while it doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of TS3 (what does?!), it hits more of those notes than you might expect.

Between Forky’s confounded sense of self and Woody’s own existential crisis, TS4 swims some heady waters. These themes are brilliantly, quietly addressed in a number of conversations about loyalty, devotion and love. To its endless credit, TS4 finds new ideas to explore and fresh but organic ways to break our hearts.

3. Apollo 11

A majestic and inspirational marriage of the historic and the cutting edge, Apollo 11 is a monumental achievement from director Todd Douglas Miller, one full of startling immediacy and stirring heroics.

There is no flowery writing or voiceover narration, just the words and pictures of July 1969, when Americans walked on the moon and returned home safely. This is living, breathing history you’re soaking in. And damn is it thrilling.

4. Jojo Rabbit

Brazen, hilarious, heartbreaking, historical and alarmingly timely—Taika Waititi’s Nazi satire is a unique piece of cinema. As we follow the coming of age tale, would-be Nazi youth Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis, amazing) uses his imaginary friend, Hitler (Waititi, hilarious) to bolster his flagging self-confidence.

Waititi uses the story of Jojo, his imaginary friend, his deeply loving and supportive mother (Scarlett Johansson, perfect) and the Jewish girl hiding in the closet (Thomasin McKenzie, a star in the making) to ask how we can undo all the hate and fear society feeds us. The answer is tender, funny, clever and one of easily the best films of 2019.

5. The Irishman

The 3 ½ hour running time opens patiently enough as Rodrigo Prieto’s camera winds its way through the halls of a nursing home, establishing a pattern. We will be meandering likewise through the life and memories of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), “house painter.”

Martin Scorsese’s sly delivery suggests that he’s interested in what might have happened to Hoffa, sure, but he’s more intrigued by memory, regret and revisionism in the cold glare of time. The result is sometimes surprisingly funny, with a wistful, lived-in humor that more than suits the film’s greying perspective. De Niro’s longtime partnership with Scorsese makes it even easier to view Sheeran as an extension of the director himself, taking stock of his legacy in film.

6. Marriage Story

For years, Noah Baumbach’s films have probed characters struggling to live up to an image of themselves. It’s what he does, and now Baumbach has written and directed his masterpiece, a bravely personal and beautifully heartbreaking deconstruction of a marriage falling apart.

Tremendous performances from Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver cement our immersion into the lives of two people valiantly trying to retain some control over the process of splitting up. Will you need tissues? Oh yes. The story of Nicole and Charlie’s marriage will put you through the wringer. And every frame is absolutely worth it.

7. Amazing Grace

Already a living legend in January of 1972, Aretha Franklin wanted her next album to be a return to her gospel roots. Over two nights at the New Temple Baptist Church in Los Angeles, Aretha recorded live with the Reverend James Cleveland’s Southern California Community Choir as director Sydney Pollack rolled cameras for a possible TV special.

To see Franklin here is to see her at the absolute apex of her powers. taking that voice-of-a-lifetime wherever she pleases with an ease that simply astounds. Even with the recording session stop/starts that Elliot includes for proper context, Aretha’s hold on the congregation (which include the Stones’ Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts) is a come-to-Jesus revelation.

8. The Souvenir

The Souvenir rests at the hypnotic intersection of art and inspiration, an almost shockingly self-aware narrative from filmmaker Joanna Hogg that dares you to label its high level of artistry as pretense.

The Souvenir is finely crafted as a different kind of gain from pain, one that benefits both filmmaker and audience. It is artful and cinematic in its love for art and cinema, honest and forgiving in its acceptance, and beautifully appreciative of how life shapes us.

9. 1917

The danger in crafting a film with one extended take – or the illusion of it – lies in the final cut existing as little more than a gimmick, spurring a ‘spot the edit’ challenge that eclipses the narrative. With 1917, Sam Mendes jumps that hurdle in the first five minutes.

It is WWI, and two young corporals (Dean Charles-Chapman and George MacKay) are tasked with traveling deep into enemy territory to deliver a message that will keep thousands of soldiers, including one messenger’s brother, from certain death. Mendes’s effort is absolutely thrilling and completely immersive, with ballet-worthy camerawork and pristine cinematography (Roger Deakins, natch) that never seems to blink. You won’t want to either, it’s unforgettable.

10. Joker

Todd Phillips offers an origin story that sees mental illness, childhood trauma, adult alienation and societal disregard as the ingredients that form a singular villain—a man who cannot come into his own until he embraces his inner sinister clown.

Joaquin Phoenix is a god among actors. His scenes of transformation, his scenes alone, his mesmerizing command of physicality, and in particular his unerringly unnerving chemistry with other actors are haunting. Remember when we thought Nicholson could never be topped? Then Ledger did it. And now Phoenix makes this the darkest, most in-the-moment Joker we’ve seen.

11. The Farewell

Writer/director Lulu Wang finds poignant truths in an elaborate lie, speaking the universal language of “family crazy” while crafting an engaging cultural prism. As our window into this push and pull of tradition in the modern world, Awkwafina makes her “Billi” a nuanced, relatable soul.

While Wang’s script is sharp and insightful, her assured tone is even more beneficial. Even as the film feels effortlessly lived in, it never quite goes in directions you think it might. Wang doesn’t stoop to going maudlin among all the whiffs of death, infusing The Farewell with an endless charm that’s both revealing and familiar.

Funny, too. No lie.

12. Uncut Gems

In what amounts to a two+ hour panic attack, Benny and Josh Safdie do more than clarify Adam Sandler’s acting prowess. Uncut Gems articulates the dizzying, exhausting, terrifying and exhilarating cycle of addiction in a way few films have ever been able to.

It’s also an incredibly potent character study. Sandler’s NYC jeweler and gambler is a live wire, and Sandler’s particular gift is not only to articulate that quest for the thrill, but to underscore it with a tenderness that feels achingly sincere. If you’ve seen Punch Drunk Love, Spanglish or Funny People, you are among the few who realized Sandler could act. But did any of us know he had this in him?

13. Little Women

Just when you think, “They’re making this movie again?” Greta Gerwig steps in and gives this beloved story a fresh, frustrated perspective. Self-discovery, camaraderie and empathy still drive the piece, but Jo’s fiery independence has more meaning, Marmie’s self-sacrifice contains welcome bitterness, Aunt March’s disappointment feels more seeped in wisdom, and spoiled Amy is an outright revelation.

Gerwig’s writing, respectfully confident, brings conflicts more sharply to the surface in ways that reflect the characters’ bristling against unfair constraints with a clear eye. But her real strength seems to be in casting. Lady Bird’s Saoirse Ronan is impeccable as ever, as are Timothee Chalamet, Tracy Lett and Meryl Streep (naturally). But it’s Florence Pugh, having a banner year with Fighting with my  Family and Midsommar in her rear view, who entirely reimagines bratty Amy, turning her into the character we can most understand. In all, this remarkable filmmaker and her enviable cast make this retelling maybe the most necessary version yet.

14. Us

Us is far more than a riff on some old favorites. A masterful storyteller, writer/director Jordan Peele weaves together moments of inspiration not simply to homage greatness but to illustrate a larger, deeper nightmare. It’s as if Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland turned into a plague on humanity.

Do the evil twins in the story represent the darkest parts of ourselves that we fight to keep hidden? The fragile nature of identity? “One nation” bitterly divided? You could make a case for these and more, but when Peele unveils his coup de grace moment (which would make Rod Serling proud), it ultimately feels like an open-ended invitation to revisit and discuss, much like he undoubtedly did for so many genre classics.

While it’s fun to be scared stiff, scared smart is even better, a fact Jordan Peele has clearly known for years.

15. The Lighthouse

Director/co-writer Robert Eggers follows The Witch, his incandescent 2015 feature debut, with another painstakingly crafted, moody period piece. The Lighthouse strands you, along with two wickies (Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, both mad geniuses at work), on the unforgiving island home of one lonely 1890s New England lighthouse.

This is thrilling cinema. Let it in, and it will consume you to the point of nearly missing the deft gothic storytelling at work. The film is other-worldly, surreal, meticulous and consistently creepy. And we’ll tell you what The Lighthouse is not. It is not a film ye will soon forget.

16. The Last Black Man in San Francisco

More than just a story of gentrification, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a multi-layered visionary feature debut for director/co-writer Joe Talbot. Set against the changing face of a city and the nature of male friendship, we follow along with lifelong friends Mont (Montgomery Allen) and Jimmie (Jimmie Fails, Talbot’s longtime collaborator whose story is the basis for the film) as they stake a claim for the majestic home where Jimmie was raised.

Funny and touching with a knack for keenly unique observations, TLBMISF seems to exist in its very own time and space, intent to lay bare a melancholy but endlessly loving soul.

17. Midsommar

Just two features into filmmaker Ari Aster’s genre takeover and already you can detect a pattern. First, he introduces a near-unfathomable amount of grief. Then, he drags you so far inside it you won’t fully emerge for days.

In Midsommar, we are as desperate to claw our way out of this soul-crushing grief as Dani (Florence Pugh). Mainly to avoid being alone, Dani insinuates herself into her anthropology student boyfriend Christian’s (Jack Reynor) trip to rural Sweden with his buds. Little does she know they are all headed straight for a modern riff on The Wicker Man.

Like a Bergman inspired homage to bad breakups, this terror is deeply-rooted in the psyche, always taking less care to scare you than to keep you unsettled and on edge.

18. Monos

On a mountaintop that rests among the clouds, eight child soldiers guard an American hostage and a conscripted milk cow. Yes, you’ll find parallels to Lord of the Flies, even Apocalypse Now, but filmmaker Alejandro Landes continually upends your assumptions by tossing aside any common rulebooks on storytelling.

Landes never gives us the chance to feel confident about anything we think we know, as the powerful score from Mica Levi (Under the Skin, Jackie) and an impeccable sound design totally immerse us in an atmosphere of often breathless tension and wanton violence. In just his second narrative feature, Landes crafts a primal experience of alienation and survival, with a strange and savage beauty that may shake you.

19. Knives Out

Knives Out is writer/director Rian Johnson’s Agatha Christie-style take on the general uselessness of the 1%. And it is a riot. As it is a whodunnit, little should be spilled about the film except these names: Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Ana de Armas, Toni Collegge, Jaeden Martel and Don Johnson. Wow!

Johnson proves that you can poke fun without abandoning compassion. More than that, he reminds us that, as a writer, he’s shooting on all cylinders: wry, clever, meticulously crafted, socially aware and tons of fun.

20. Little Woods

Nia DaCosta’s feature directorial debut, which she also wrote, is an independent drama of the most unusual sort—the sort that situates itself unapologetically inside American poverty. This is less a film about the complicated pull of illegal activity and more a film about the obstacles the American poor face—many of them created by a healthcare system that serves anyone but our own ill and injured.

But politically savvy filmmaking is not the main reason to see Little Woods. See it because Tessa Thompson and Lily James are amazing, or because the story is stirring and unpredictable.

See it because it’s what America actually looks like.

21. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

It’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s clearest love letter to cinema both great and trashy. Spilling with nostalgia and packing more sentiment than his previous 8 films combined, Hollywood is the auteur’s most heartfelt film.

Not that it isn’t bloody. Once it hits its stride the film packs Reservoir Dogs-level brutality into a climax that’s as nervy as anything Tarantino’s ever filmed. But leading up to that, as the filmmaker asks us to look with a mixture of fondness and sadness at two lives twisting toward the inevitable, he’s actually almost sweet. In strokes stylish and self-indulgent, Tarantino is bidding adieu to halcyon days of both flower power innocence and the Hollywood studio machine.

22. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Celine Sciamma follows up the vitally of-the-moment indie Girlhood with this breathy, painterly period romance only to clarify that she is a filmmaker with no identifiable bounds. In the 1790s on a forbidding island in Brittany, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) arrives to paint the wedding portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel), but since Heloise is not marrying voluntarily, she will not sit for a painter. So, a ruse is developed: Marianne pretends to be simply a companion as she steals glances then sketches from memory into the night.

What develops along with the startlingly beautiful intimacy between the women is a thoughtful rumination on memory and on art, on the melancholic but no less romantic notion that the memory, though lonesome, is permanent and perfect.

23. Rocketman

Driven by a wonderfully layered performance from Taron Egerton – who also handles his vocal duties just fine – the film eschews the standard biopic playbook for a splendid rock and roll fantasy.

Writer Lee Hall penned Billy Elliot and Dexter Fletcher is fresh off co-directing Bohemian Rhapsody. Their vision draws from both to land somewhere between the enigmatic Dylan biopic I’m Not There and the effervescent ABBA glitter bomb Mamma Mia. In the world of Rocketman, anything is possible. And even with all the eccentric flights of fancy, the film holds true to an ultimately touching honesty about the life story it’s telling.

24. Ad Astra

Daddy issues in zero gravity? There’s that, but there’s plenty more, as a never-better Brad Pitt and bold strokes from writer/director James Gray deliver an emotional and often breathless spectacle of sound and vision.

The film’s mainly meditative nature is punctured by bursts of suspense, excitement and even outright terror. Gray commands a complete mastery of tone and teams with acclaimed cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema for immersive, IMAX-worthy visuals that astound with subtlety, never seeming overly showy.

25. Dolemite Is My Name

“Dolemite” was the brainchild of Rudy Ray Moore, who created the character for his standup comedy act in the early 70s, where cheering crowds led to the urge to take Dolemite to the big screen.

Leading a terrific ensemble that includes Craig Robinson, Keegan-Michael Key, Kodi Smit-McPhee and a priceless Wesley Snipes as the “real” actor among these amateurs, Eddie Murphy owns every frame. This film wouldn’t work unless we see a separation between Moore and his character. Murphy toes this line with electric charisma, setting up the feels when Moore’s dogged belief in himself is finally rewarded.

Dolemite Is My Name tells a personal and often hilarious story, but it’s one that’s universal to dreamers everywhere.

Honorable mentions: High Life, Pain & Glory, Waves, Hustlers, Honeyland, Ford v Ferrari

Okay, what’d we miss?

Pigeon: Impossible

Spies in Disguise

by Hope Madden

The Christmastime animated feature Spies in Disguise (based on a short called Pigeon: Impossible, which is an altogether superior title) is a mash note to science, weirdos and peace. I can get behind that.

Will Smith is the voice of Lance Sterling, America’s top spy. Lance is cool. He’s daring. He’s unstoppable. And he flies solo.  

But when an evil nemesis (the always welcome Ben Mendelsohn) outwits him, he turns reluctantly to nerdy gadget officer Walter (Tom Holland) for help.

Walter turns him into a pigeon. Naturally.

The ensuing fish out of water (pigeon out of air?) comedy is clever enough to keep your attention. It’s equal parts fun, good natured and funny without becoming overly sentimental.

Besides Smith, Holland and Mendelsohn, Spies boasts impressive and interesting vocal talent choices: Reba McEntire as the head of the agency, Rashida Jones as the lead investigator and Karen Gillan as another techy in the agency named Eyes.

The movie looks good. In fact, in certain scenes—particularly those in Venice—the film looks great. It also carries with it a healthy message, one that writers Brad Copeland and Lloyd Taylor articulate without preaching.

The film is more charming than outright funny, relying on its leads’ natural charisma and fun chemistry, but it does offer more than a handful of chuckles. The wee ones at our screening laughed a good deal, while the slightly older tots laughed on occasion but seemed entertained throughout.

It’s also a film that won’t make parents want to wait in the lobby.

Once More, with Feeling

Little Women

by Hope Madden

Just when you think They’re making Little Women again? Greta Gerwig steps in and gives this beloved story a fresh, frustrated perspective.

Gerwig’s presentation tosses sentimentality to the wayside, thankfully. The vibrant retelling brims with empathy, energy and laughter as well as those prickly emotions that dwell within a family.

In fact, settling into those very petty realities of sisterhood is a conscious choice Gerwig makes with her retelling. Those who’ve always controlled what we see may see nothing of value in so mundane a story as that of four somewhat coddled, routinely bickering sisters on the precipice of adulthood, but who says those men are right?

Gerwig understands and illustrates the political, economic and often lonesome choices to be made, couching those in the equally honest tensions of disappointing your sisters when you choose.

Gerwig’s writing, respectfully confident, brings conflicts more sharply to the surface in clear-eyed ways that reflect the characters’ bristling against unfair constraints and expectations.

Self-discovery and camaraderie still drive the piece, but Jo’s fiery independence has more meaning, Marmie’s self-sacrifice contains welcome bitterness, Aunt March’s disappointment feels more seeped in wisdom, and spoiled Amy is an outright revelation.

Saoirse Ronan, Gerwig’s avatar in the brilliant Lady Bird, is impeccable as ever. It’s her sometimes frenetic, sometimes quiet performance that delivers Louisa May Alcott’s own sense of lonesome independence.

Ronan’s flanked by superb supporting work including that of Timothee Chalamet, Tracy Letts and Meryl Streep (naturally). But it’s Florence Pugh, having a banner year with Fighting with my Family and Midsommar in her rear view, who entirely reimagines bratty Amy, turning her character into the sister we can best understand.

In all, this remarkable filmmaker and her enviable cast make this retelling maybe the most necessary version yet.

Fear and Loathing in Long Island

Uncut Gems

by Matt Weiner

There’s something acutely familiar right now about watching a consummate New York macher unable to help himself as he pursues more and more wealth, drawing everyone around him into his increasingly unstable house of cards until it all collapses.

But Uncut Gems, the latest panic attack from the Safide brothers (Josh and Benny, who also co-wrote the script with frequent collaborator Ronald Bronstein), captures so much more than our current moment. For one, there’s the career-great performance from Adam Sandler. His take on Howard “Howie” Ratner buzzes seamlessly from typical Sandler ease to pathetic helplessness to manic moments of triumph.

Howie is a fonfer extraordinaire—a bullshit artist whose jewelry business in the Diamond District functions to help him continually feed his sports betting debts and keep his mistress (Julia Fox) happy with a Manhattan love nest. Whatever scant love and money are left over go to Howie’s family on Long Island (a point that sets up maybe the greatest music cue of the year, and one of the funniest moments in a movie that’s full of them).

When Howie gets caught up in his latest round of juggling debts, family drama and especially a rare Ethiopian black opal—a mysterious MacGuffin that transfixes anyone who sees it—the race is on to come up with enough money to appease his debtors while chasing the high of that one big score.

As Uncut Gems takes place in the long-ago days of 2012, that score revolves around a Celtics playoffs run. The Safdies throw a bone to New York sports with a Mike Francesa cameo, but it’s Kevin Garnett playing himself who almost steals the movie as one of Howie’s more fateful customers. Celebrity and proximity to power infuse Howie’s life almost as much as gambling—the Weeknd also puts in a memorable turn as an important buyer, and lends his moody, drug-fueled R&B to the soundtrack as well.

That prevailing mood is a defining feature of Uncut Gems. There’s the nonstop anxiety, but the Safdies and Sandler punctuate it with plenty of humor—and pathos. The Safdies are in a class of their own when it comes to drawing you in and making you care deeply about terrible people. Howie might be enjoying more outward success than Connie from the Safdies’ last movie Good Time, but it’s just as illusory. All debts must be paid.

And as with Good Time, the Safdies serve up subtle (and not-so-subtle) reminders that our actions have consequences, even for those who seem to have put together a successful life around assiduously evading them.

The film opens with a scene of misery thousands of miles away from Howie’s cocooned suburban Long Island life. It’s a non-sequitur worthy of the Coen brothers, our other great chroniclers of anxiety and morality.

But the threat goes from menace to promise that none of us are immune from consequence, and the Potemkin lifestyles of the elite are built on shaky foundations. It doesn’t take much for it all to come crashing down.


When Lambs Become Lions

by Rachel Willis

In examining the world of poaching, director Jon Kasbe has crafted a very personal story with his documentary, When Lambs Become Lions.

At the heart of Kasbe’s film is ‘X’, a poacher whose trade is ivory. Working with a small team, X hunts elephants, hoping to harvest the ivory before he is discovered by rangers whose job is to protect the area wildlife. If caught, the rangers will have no mercy. The punishment for poaching is death, and it might be a brutal one.

Wisely, Kasbe doesn’t show the more barbarous aspects of poaching. In this way, he lets the human element of the story take center stage. However, the natural world infuses the documentary with life. When a unit of rangers comes across a lone bull elephant feeding in the trees, it’s hard not to be infected by the same wonder that infuses the rangers. The elephant is oblivious to the war that wages around him, even though he and his kind are at the center.

On the opposite end of the poaching spectrum is Asan, X’s cousin, and a ranger. The rangers’ line of work is grueling and dangerous. Though heavily armed, they run the risk of being ambushed and murdered. They spend their time patrolling the vast landscape, hunting for poachers. On top of these dangers, we learn Asan and his unit of rangers haven’t been paid in months. With a pregnant wife and son at home, the situation for Asan is becoming desperate.

It’s impossible not to sympathize with Asan’s plight, and Kasbe wants the audience to understand why people make the choices they do when tough decisions are in front of them. In this way, he helps us to understand that poaching may be reprehensible, even vile, but the situation is far from ideal. If the rangers were paid on time, if the market for ivory dried up, there might be a situation in which the battle for the natural world would no longer need to be waged.

Kasbe lets the story unfold without judgment. We follow X and Asan as they interact with their families, there are a few particularly touching moments between the men and their sons, and as their jobs take them into the wilds of Kenya. The parallels between the two men are not lost on Kasbe. Both strive to take care of their families, and it’s easy to see why a person might turn to poaching when the venture is more lucrative than the alternatives. 

As Asan’s wife hopes, perhaps our children will be better educated, giving us a future where these choices will no longer need to be made.