This isn't just a disturbing movie, it's a movie that unsettles on such a deep and durable level that you might never be able to fully shake it. Literally, it's a story about aliens who have come to the planet to slaughter and harvest humans. Figuratively, it's about the experience of being a woman in a world that is so hostile to femininity that it seems to be on an endless mission to debase and destroy it. The figure at the center of the story is played by Scarlett Johansson, who shifts from predator in the film's first half, during which the body she's occupying registers as nothing more than a uniform, to prey in the second, after she begins to develop an awareness of the body she's occupying as that of a woman and what that signifies to the world around her. Under the Skin is a cold and detached film, it's brutal and not very accessible, but it's also graceful, hypnotic, and genius in its dramatization of how the world is experienced differently by men and women.
This movie is as brilliant as it is vicious. Loosely adapted from the novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, it looks, at first, like any number of feminist-leaning films set during periods of history that were especially unkind to women and in which the female protagonist finds a way to strike back against the system which oppresses her in ways that are as unlikely as they are rousing. But that's not what this is. It is a feminist film (I think), but it's one that challenges the lack of intersectionality in the common discourse. This is a story about a woman fighting back against patriarchy, but it's also about all the people (people possessed of even less societal power than she has) who are sacrificed and made to pay the price for her ambition. Savage and clear-eyed in its storytelling and boasting fantastic performances from Florence Pugh, Naomi Ackie, and Cosmo Jarvis, Lady Macbeth is a chilling and thematically rich masterpiece.
Set in an alternate reality in which being single is against the rules and anyone who finds themselves single has 45 days to find a new partner and upon failing to do so is transformed into the animal of their choice, The Lobster is a film perhaps best described as "bizarre." Playing its premise completely straight with deadpan seriousness, the film explores both a "singles hotel" where people reside as they attempt to find a new mate (and earn extra days for their search by capturing loners) and the loose society of the rebel group known as "loners," men and women determined to live unpartnered and who punish any diversion from their chosen way of life just as harshly as does the dystopian society from which they've escaped. A darkly hilarious examination of relationships and the strange inclination some people feel to insist that everyone should live just as they do, within the confines of the kinds of relationships they have, The Lobster is an absurd delight.
The story of Rebelle is one told by a mother to her child as an attempt to explain why she might not be capable of loving him. Kidnapped at the age of 12 after being forced to kill her parents and watching as her village is razed, she is used first as cannon fodder alongside other child soldiers and is later singled out for sex slavery by her commanding officer. Hers has been a life of almost unrelenting brutality and despair and yet, despite all she has been through, what she discovers is that she does still have the capacity for joy because while she has certainly been hardened by her experiences, she has not been broken by them. Gorgeously photographed by Nicolas Bolduc and carried by a great first-time performance from Rachel Mwanza, this work from Kim Nguyen (which is also known as War Witch) is a tremendous film that brims with life even as it surrounds its protagonist with death.
What a bold proposition for a film aimed primarily at children to assert that sadness is not merely a part of life, but an essential part of it, and to acknowledge that as one grows older happiness may not be the dominant emotion and that that's okay. Girls, in particular, are socialized to perform an outward appearance of happiness for the benefit of others and in Inside Out the girl in the story, whose life has been disrupted by her family's move to a new city, is tacitly encouraged to push down the more difficult emotions she's feeling for the sake of the comfort of those around her, including her parents. The film's message is ultimately that this is wrong and a person should feel what they feel, even if that makes things awkward or uncomfortable for a moment. It's a sophisticated and profound idea which comes wrapped into an adventure story in which two rogue emotions get lost and must find their way back to headquarters and it makes for a film as rich and complex as it is entertaining.
Blue is the Warmest Color is a story about love, but that doesn't necessarily make it a love story. It's about how a young and intense (and first) love can be all consuming for a time and then cool as the two parties grow older and begin to grow apart, and how two people from different worlds can come together, but still find that they remain living in separate worlds after all. It's raw and messy and devoted to the ordinary details of day to day life as it seeks to achieve a heightened level of emotional honesty. It is graphic in its depiction of sexuality, but to focus merely on the sex would be to miss the point, which is the insatiability for everything that the main character feels as she tries to figure out who she is and what she wants. Adele Exarchopolous shines in the leading role as a young woman who can't seem to satiate her hunger and Lea Seydoux matches her note for note as the woman she loves but can't keep hold of in this gloriously engrossing intimate epic.
Over 30 years and 10 features, the Dardenne brothers have become masters of the moral quandary. Here their focus is on a group of factory workers who are given the choice between receiving a bonus of €1,000 or allowing a woman who has been on sick leave due to depression to return to her job. She needs the job in order to help support her family; her co-workers, some for reasons for dire and desperate than others, could use the €1,000. The woman, played by Marion Cotillard, has the span of a weekend to convince a majority of her co-workers to vote to keep her, but what begins as a parade of humiliation will gradually become a process of self-empowerment. But what really makes Two Days, One Night such an extraordinary piece of work is what happens in the third act, which presents its protagonist with a new test and forces the audience to question its own sense of right and wrong. This is a riveting and exhilarating drama about power and morality.
In Frances Ha Greta Gerwig (who co-wrote the screenplay along with director Noah Baumbach) plays a woman going through a difficult, sometimes painful, period of transition. Her professional ambitions have stalled and she's faced with the possibility that her dreams are going to remain just out of reach and that she'll have to give up on pursuing them in order to support herself. Her living situation is in a constant state of flux as she's forced to shuffle from one home to the next. Worst of all, her most important relationship (the one with her best friend) appears to be failing as the two of them begin to drift in different directions. Suddenly finding herself without the emotional safety nets she's become accustomed to, she has to forge a new path. Funny and deeply attuned to its characters (not to mention refreshing for the fact that it's about everything in its protagonist's life except her love life), Frances Ha is an absolute joy to watch.
Adapted from Patricia Highsmith's novel The Price of Salt, Carol tells a love story that exists largely beneath the service, where everything is simmering just out of view, expressing itself in coded ways that allow the characters to maintain the image of what society finds acceptable. The film contains quiet, almost imperceptible, layers of story playing out beneath the narrative to illustrate the ways that the characters are living two lives at once, one public and socially acceptable, the other secret and condemned by society. If the film seems restrained, it's because it's reflecting the circumstances of two characters who are fighting against their nature in order to try to fit into the way of life that society demands of them, but Carol ultimately reveals itself to be deeply felt and emotional as the damn finally bursts and all of those suppressed feelings flood out. Stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara deliver stunning performances as two women in love, trying to find a way that they can express it.
"You failed the living for the dead." Son of Saul is a Holocaust drama that centers on a Sonderkommando (a special class of prisoner tasked with the clean up, including removal of the bodies from the gas chamber and the sorting through of the possessions of the dead, following mass execution) who becomes obsessed with the idea that a teenage boy who was part of a trainload of people immediately ushered to the gas chamber might be his son. He then becomes driven by the need to give the boy a proper Jewish burial and his maneuverings in this regard come into conflict with a plan of escape that requires his assistance. Directed with great skill and precision by Laszlo Nemes, who keeps the camera tight on star Geza Rohrig so that much of the chaos and horror of the camp occurs on the periphery of the screen, blurred but nevertheless unmistakable, Son of Saul is told with a first-person immediacy that is bracing and unforgettable.