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  • Carson Cook

The Year in Movies...So Far

Hello, and welcome back to Rough Cut Cinema! Our team has been on a brief hiatus, but with the unofficial start of the summer movie season kicking off this past weekend, now felt like an opportune time for a quick review of the year in cinema to date. Not every film will be covered, but here are a few stray thoughts from the first four months of 2024 moviegoing.


Bleecker Street

Despite the occasional beautifully junky programming, January mostly remains a barren landscape (or dumping ground, less charitably) for new films, overshadowed by expansion of Oscar contenders, holiday season holdovers, and the end-of-month buzz of the Sundance Film Festival. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s I.S.S. held some potential as an early-year diamond in the rough, but alas, doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Despite an enticing premise, fairly impressive visual effects given the relatively paltry budget, and yeoman’s work by Ariana DeBose and Chris Messina, a series of baffling character decisions and surprisingly tepid execution prevent this from reaching the heights of, say, fellow January sci-fi thriller Underwater.


Neon

Speaking of the Oscars, assessing the year to which a film belongs can be a hazy subject, especially when it comes to international films. Without falling down a rabbit hole of my (admittedly fluid) methodology, I will note that I count both The Promised Land and The Taste of Things as 2023 films — and highly recommend seeking them out, particularly the latter — but will include Alice Rohrwacher’s excellent La Chimera as part of this year’s slate. Lyrical and languorous, the film embraces you with an atmosphere evoking the pleasing lethargic feeling you get from spending a hot summer afternoon inside a classical art museum. Yes, it’s ostensibly a movie about Josh O’Connor (more on him later) robbing Italian graves, but beneath the surface is a mystery always a satisfying few inches away. 


A24

In a strange coincidence, we’ve seen at least two instances of close-quarters thematic doubling early in the year. First it was Drive-Away Dolls and Love Lies Bleeding, a pair of films that each feature two queer women who become embroiled in a world of crime and danger. The similarities mostly stop there: the former is a odd comic romp, while the latter is a nasty neo-noir. Neither quite live up to their potential (or in the case of Dolls, their pedigree), though Love Lies Bleeding, with its surrealist flair and technical flourishes leaves me more excited for the continuing career of director Rose Glass, as well as her breakout star Katy O’Brian. Dolls is a different story, at times inspired but often just flat, with mismatched energies from the performers leading to tonal confusion. Directed by Ethan Coen, the film is almost most interesting when viewed in tandem with Joel Coen's The Tragedy of Macbeth, as — fairly or not — you start to feel as though you have an abundantly clear grasp of what each brother was bringing to the table in their long history of seriocomic collaborations.


Neon

A more unusual case awaits us in the second set of doubles, as the two nun-heavy horror movies — Immaculate and The First Omen — share bizarrely similar structural similarities, so much that if you watch them in relatively close proximity, as presumably many theatre-goers did, you almost feel a sense of déjà vu. Immaculate was the buzzier picture, featuring star of the moment Sydney Sweeney and some clever viral marketing repurposing internet outrage over the movie’s sacrilegious nature, and ultimately stands as a fun but forgettable genre homage —an enjoyable enough watch, but I remain mostly unconvinced of Sweeney’s standing in this crop of up-and-coming movie stars, and found that her much-praised concluding scene fell flat. All that said, one still wouldn’t have expected the sixth entry in the Omen franchise, a studio release with relatively little fanfare, to be the superior film about a young American nun sent to an Italian convent where she finds herself caught up in a conspiracy to force her to birth the antichrist, let alone one of the best movies of the year so far. Arkasha Stevenson’s debut feature, bound as it is to a decades-old franchise, feels excitingly new as it confidently uses period trappings and fresh ideas to conjure not only a terrifyingly oppressive atmosphere but some of the most striking and disturbing horror imagery in recent years. Yes, it all eventually dovetails with the 1976 original, and yes, it sets up even more sequels. Miraculously, those typically eye-roll-inducing hallmarks don’t really matter at all.

 

Universal Pictures

More disappointing is another debut film, as Dev Patel’s Monkey Man has style and ideas aplenty but never quite gels into a cohesive whole. Patel remains as great a movie-star presence as always, and he shines on-screen with the kind of charismatic physicality that has earned him a (deservingly) loyal contingent clamoring for him to take over the role of James Bond. But as an action movie, Monkey Man feels both incomplete and overlong, with choppy editing and frenetic camerawork leading to more incoherence than excitement. Similarly welcome attempts to develop a foundation built on righteous anger never quite fit seamlessly, as the narrative feels disjointed from the beginning and the nonlinear nature of the storytelling leaves motivations and relationships obscured until curiously late in the game. However, you can see all the component parts are there, making it easy to chalk this up to the type of filmmaking learning curve that should leave you excited for Patel’s next step.

 

A24

It feels slightly harder to make that case for Alex Garland right now, as you’d be forgiven if his last two movies have slightly shaken your faith in a director who had entered the shortlist of must-see filmmakers. Appropriately, Civil War has been the most divisive film this year in my immediate circles, as well as sparking the most — and the most interesting — conversations. The appeal is understandable: Garland continues to display bravura filmmaking techniques, and the film has a thematic core that, if it hits you at the right frequency, can deeply resonate as a reflection and refraction of our unsettled modern landscape. But as the film progressed, a strange sense of inertness sets in, leaving the work emptier than it should have been given the weight of the milieu in which it situates itself. Much has been made of the specificity or lack thereof regarding the titular conflict, and while there may be some bad-faith arguments out there, those missing details are at the crux of why Civil War rings hollow. No, Garland doesn’t need to choose sides, or map the politics, or show us “good guys” and “bad guys” — those would all likely result in a lesser work in their own ways. But there’s a deliberate provocation inherent in the creation of the film’s setting, and so the subsequent choice to minimize the inclusion of surrounding context reads like a failure of nerve that lends the film an odd weightlessness and undercuts its ultimate impact.

 

GKIDS

Continuing a trend of exciting set-ups and quick deflations, Bertrand Bonello’s futurist triptych The Beast hamstrings itself almost immediately with an interminable opening section set in early 20th Century France, despite the best efforts of stars Léa Seydoux and George MacKay. Their time- and space-crossed lovers become significantly more engaging once the action shifts to 2014 and their earlier (and subsequent) romance is replaced by horrors of misogyny and violence — at this point Bonello’s themes crystalize into something more intriguing and sure-handed, though they’re muddled again by the ambitious science fiction frame running throughout the film. When the weighty themes and the technical proficiency coalesce, the highs are high, but by the time the credits roll there’s a good chance you’re wondering what the point of it all even was. Not that runtime is ever the be-all end-all, but by contrast the brisk 85 minutes of Mars Express — another French sci-fi exploration of what it means to be human — feel altogether like a more complete and satisfying expression. Directed and co-written by Jérémie Périn, this animated story of murder and robots wears its cyberpunk influences on its sleeve, but through kineticism and a gradually unfolding emotional core, it molds the familiar into an excellent whole more novel and affecting than the sum of its parts.

 

Warner Bros.

Finally, we reach the two films one could most reasonably expect to still be on audiences’ minds when the year closes — and not just because of their shared star. Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two jumpstarted the year in mostly satisfying fashion, sating the people’s hunger for IMAX after the large-format craze of Oppenheimer (not to mention the re-release of Tenet). It’s hard to imagine a more successful version of the Frank Herbert sci-fi classic, but at the same time the Dune duology (likely soon to be a trilogy) — for all its technical grandeur — feels a little too safe, a little too hermetic. Wildly enjoyable yes, and Part Two avoids the Part One dilemma of only being a half a movie, but Villeneuve’s particular style lacks a certain daring quality that elevates the similarly expansive canvasses of Christopher Nolan’s later works or Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy into the realm of singular vision. 


Amazon MGM Studios

Singular idiosyncrasy, albeit on a smaller scale, is not something lacking in the latest from Luca Guadagnino. With Challengers, he and his stellar trio of Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, and Mike Faist turn a three-handed character study into the most energetic and exhilarating movie to grace the screens so far this year. Frantic cuts, wild camera choices, and a pulse-pounding score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross mesh perfectly with the performances to create a thrilling saga of desire, competition, and what it means to truly have an intimate knowledge of another person — plus, it’s going to be a strong contender for the year’s best ending when all is said and done. Fingers crossed Challengers is a harbinger of what the rest of the year has in store.

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