5. Louder than Bombs
Novelistic in its approach and stunning in its emotional maturity, Louder than Bombs is an emotionally charged family drama that wrestles with the existential questions that follow a loss of life. The film follows a family who has just lost their matriarch Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert); her husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne) struggles to connect with their youngest son Conrad (Devin Druid), who has developed a pattern of isolation, and the situation becomes even more complicated when older son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) rejoins the family as they prepare for an exhibition celebrating Isabelle’s work.
As the family gathers to honor Isabelle’s wartime photography from throughout her career, all three men struggle to define a person who they all feel they don’t totally know. The impending stress of opening the gallery intensifies as the two sons discover secrets about their mother than Gene hid, which puts a further strain on their familial relationships. Director Joachim Trier does a great job at letting these natural, intimate conversations play out without a hint of inauthenticity.
4. Miss Sloane
A whip smart thriller that unfortunately bombed at the box office, Miss Sloane succeeds as both a response to current events and an exciting exploration of the talky, behind the scenes drama of Washington D.C. Jessica Chastain stars as the titular Elizabeth Sloane, a renowned lobbyist who agrees to lead an initiative from a rival law firm head (Mark Strong) to pass a bill that would expand background checks. The high profile nature of the debate jettisons Sloane and her team into the national spotlight as they attempt to take hold of the narrative.
The film does an excellent job at exploring the nature of passing a bill; Sloane and her team must be ruthless in gaining votes and talking to representatives, and each current event news story forces them to reevaluate. A framing device that shows a future event in which Sloane is taken to court gives the film a greater sense of urgency, and ends up tying the film together with an effective plot twist.
3. Leave No Trace
Debra Granick’s underseen modern masterpiece Leave No Trace flew heavily under the radar, and perhaps it’s easy to see why; the film avoids any form of sensationalism in its depiction of a father and daughter living in the forest away from normal society. The story doesn’t adhere to conventional structure, and instead explores how Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) move in and out of communities that they don’t feel entirely comfortable in.
Foster is among the most underrated actors of his generation, and he gives a masterful performance as a veteran struggling with PTSD; what Will experienced is never specifically spelled out for the audience, but through the subtle implications in Foster’s performance, it is clear he was forever changed by his experiences. McKenzie gives a breakout performance, holding a maturity and restraint that is rare for child performances. Tom’s ability to adapt, contrasted with her father’s stoic ways, makes for the compelling conflict in the story.
2. Brawl in Cell Block 99
S. Craig Zahler redefined the western genre with his breakout film Bone Tomahawk, and his second film Brawl in Cell Block 99 solidified him as one of the most fearless genre filmmakers working today. The film follows Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn), a former boxer who is imprisoned after a drug deal goes wrong. While in prison, Bradley is coerced into plotting the death of another inmate in order to save the life of his wife and unborn child.
Vaughn gives the performance of his career; Bradley establishes his moral compass early on when he saves the lives of several cops, but it’s clear that he will do anything and everything in order to save the life of his wife and child. Vaughn’s physicality is well utilized in brutal, bone crushing action sequences that depict hand to hand combat with a gruesome attention to detail. It’s often hard for filmmakers to outdo themselves after an impressive debut, but Zahler showed with Brawl in Cell Block 99 that he would be making the type of films no one else could.
1. The Lost City of Z
Budget restraints and a lack of ambition from major studios have limited the amount of cinematic epics over the past decade, but one notable exception is James Gray’s masterpiece The Lost City of Z, a rousing historical adventure that rivals the classics of the Hollywood Golden Age. Based on the true story, the film follows explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a renowned British military man who leads an expedition deep into the Amazon rainforest in a search for a mythic city. Fawcett’s life becomes dominated by this quest, as he leads further expeditions in search of a prize that seems to keep alluding him.
What begins as a grandiose adventure turns into a haunting story of obsession, and Gray does an incredible job at showing the richness of his environments and the danger of the Amazon. Hunnam gives an incredible performance as this stern, yet curious explorer, and the story grows even more emotional as it comes to focus on Fawcett’s rekindled relationship with his son Jack (Tom Holland), who journeys with him. The Lost City of Z is the type of immersive cinematic experience that deserves to be seen on a big screen, but for those that missed it during its unsuccessful first theatrical run, this modern classic is now available to stream.