The fall movie season is far from over, but its first chapter has come to a dramatic conclusion. The Telluride, Venice, and Toronto film festivals unleashed dozens of highly anticipated new movies into the conversation, and many of them did not disappoint. There are still a few high-profile titles around the corner, from “Bohemian Rhapsody” to the still-untitled Dick Cheney movie starring Christian Bale — but with no major world premieres at the New York Film Festival, the premieres of the past month have provided us with the bulk of 2018 fall movies worthy of discussion. Here are the highlights from those festivals.
“At Eternity’s Gate”
Julian Schnabel’s radical, you-are-there approach to his Vincent van Gogh biopic, though sure to alienate some, is in keeping with its subject. “Maybe God made me a painter for people who aren’t here yet,” the penniless artist played by an inspired Willem Dafoe says during one of several stints in a sanitarium; Schnabel seems intent on honoring Van Gogh by eschewing convention even if it means his film is similarly misunderstood. He’s hardly the first to make a movie about the one-eared painter, but none of his predecessors were this daring. The “Diving Bell and the Butterfly” director fuses form and content in a way that’s rarely attempted and even more rarely achieved; in risking the same derision with which Van Gogh was sometimes met, he transcends the limitations of the conventional biopic and creates something that feels genuinely new. —MN
A cross between a court jester and a mad king, Yorgos Lanthimos has been on his way toward reigning over world cinema since “Dogtooth” introduced new meaning to words like “sea” and “excursion.” Apropos of its subject, “The Favourite” feels like a crowning achievement: a royal period piece led by the majestic triumvirate of Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz. Unlike the three women’s self-interested schemes, this 18th century drama isn’t a zero-sum game. Its palace intrigue is at once seductive and repellant, and there’s a kind of catharsis in seeing it reach its natural conclusion; as is often the case with Lanthimos, there’s a deep well of sadness beneath the humorous surface. —MN
This crowdpleaser (November 21) was the surprise TIFF hit, bringing multiple theaters to their feet. Comedy director Peter Farrelly (“Something About Mary”) jumped on the true story of erudite jazz musician Don Shirley and the beefy New Yawk bouncer who drove and protected him on a 60s concert tour of the Deep South and co-wrote a terrific screenplay brought to vivid life by two great actors with chemistry, Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen. It’s like jazz. This funny and serious charmer about two very different men learning to appreciate each other is hard to capture in a trailer, so Universal plans to screen the hell out of it. —AT
“The Hate U Give”
In George Tillman, Jr.’s “The Hate U Give,” adapted by Audrey Wells from Angie Thomas’ National Book Award winner of the same name, star Amandla Stenberg easily embodies both sides of her complex and engaging character, continuing to prove why she is one of the most exciting young actresses working today. Part coming-of-age story, part ripped-from-the-headlines drama, the story was initially inspired by the police shooting death of Oscar Grant. Tillman and Wells ably weave together a story with massive commercial appeal that also carries a timely message. Stenberg’s Starr is consumed by her seemingly disparate existences as a whipsmart teen in a mostly white high school and as a longtime resident of a fraught community. Those identities collide after a horrific tragedy. As Starr cycles through a “normal” teenage experience, from prepping for prom to fighting with her boyfriend, she must also grapple with emotional trauma and her growing awareness of the movements taking shape outside her door, getting hip to #BlackLivesMatter just as her own classmates are using the same revolution as a way to act hip. For all of its weighty subject matter, “The Hate U Give” is consistently entertaining and unabashedly designed for a wide audience. —KE
Alex Ross Perry’s work has always had the courage to be profoundly unpleasant, but none of his previous stuff can prepare you for the incredible sourness of “Her Smell,” which is one of the most noxious movies ever made before it hits bottom and tunnels out through the other side. Not coincidentally, it’s also Perry’s best.
Imagine if Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs” was about Courtney Love in the mid-’90s, and you’ll have a pretty good sense of how this raw punk epic has been structured. Chronicling the reckless fall and tentative rise of punk rocker Becky Something — lead singer of the band Something She — “Her Smell” is told across five long scenes that stretch over 10 years, each of the vignettes unfolding in real time, and most of them set in the snaking bowels of a concert venue’s backstage area. Anchored by a bravely loathsome and unhinged Elisabeth Moss in the lead role, Perry’s film boasts one of the year’s very best supporting casts (including Eric Stoltz, Agyness Deyn, and Amber Heard), and it puts them all to great use in the service of a difficult but extremely rewarding story about the strength we get from the people in our lives. —DE
In many respects, the mesmerizing “High Life” is a first for writer-director Claire Denis: the first of her films to be shot in English, the first of her films to be set in space, and the first of her films to follow Juliette Binoche inside a metal chamber that’s referred to as “The Fuckbox,” where the world’s finest actress — playing a mad scientist aboard an intergalactic prison ship on a one-way trip to Earth’s nearest black hole — straddles a giant dildo chair and violently masturbates. Needless to say, “High Life” isn’t your average science-fiction movie. Co-starring Robert Pattinson as a death row inmate who’s sentenced to a lifetime of space exploration, this perseverant meditation on the end of human existence is a hypnotic voyage straight into the heart of the void, as Denis goes to the ends of the known universe to reaffirm that she’s one of the most exciting filmmakers on the planet. —DE
“If Beale Street Could Talk”
James Baldwin’s 1974 novel “If Beale Street Could Talk” depicts the experiences of a pregnant black teen in Harlem with a cinematic quality that practically reads like a screenplay. It’s no wonder that writer-director Barry Jenkins takes his cues from the source, transforming Baldwin’s evocative vision of young lovers grappling with race and class into a masterful poetic romance as Baldwin envisioned it. Yet Jenkins’ follow-up to “Moonlight” also maintains his own profound, expressionistic aesthetic, with its lush colors and entrancing faces that speak volumes in few words, resulting in a fascinating hybrid experience — a seminal voice of the past merging with one of the present in a mesmerizing burst of creative passion. —EK
Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” (December 14, Netflix) is the movie movie the Academy is most afraid of: an art film so extraordinary that it could vie for both the Best Foreign Language and Best Picture Oscar. More than one director who saw the film at fall festivals recognized the high-dive difficulty of Cuarón elaborately detailed long-shot sequences that pull the viewer into an immersive experience enhanced by rich, dense atmospheric sound. Participant’s David Linde helped him finance his most ambitious, personal, and autobiographical film, an upstairs/downstairs family drama which he shot himself in black-and-white with the Arri Alexa 65 camera and layered Dolby Atmos sound in the Mexico City neighborhood where he was raised. The “Gravity” Best Director Oscar-winner deploys all the tricks of digital technology to tell a deeply personal 1971 story from the point of view of his household nanny, Cleo (pre-school teacher Yalitza Aparicio). Over a series of stunning set pieces, we follow Cleo and the extended family through everyday challenges like the parents’ breakup and Cleo’s sexy romance with a man who later abandons her. Before he returns to big-scale filmmaking, Cuarón joins his Best Picture winner amigos Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu (“Birdman”) and Guillermo del Toro (“The Shape of Water”) in showing us how to merge the personal and the political with art.
“A Star Is Born”
Believe the hype. Bradley Cooper’s long-gestating take on a Hollywood premise so classic that it’s already spawned three previous films is fresh, smart, and surprisingly emotional. It’s difficult to pinpoint its very best part, from Cooper managing to craft a screenplay and a performance that makes his male lead (in this one, country rocker Jackson Maine) to Lady Gaga utterly transforming into a believably worn-down wannabe singer-turned-major star to the songs (oh, the songs!) to Sam Elliott breaking hearts with just a glance, and that’s only the showiest stuff in a film that’s also gently wise to the demands of fame, the price of addiction, and what it means to give your very best to a world perhaps not good enough to deserve it. At its heart, it’s a big, bruising love story that seems destined to blow up the box office, but there’s deeper, darker stuff here worth the price of admission. —KE
Mátyás Erdély / Laookon Filmgroup
Béla Tarr may have retired, but Hungarian cinema has found a worthy standard-bearer in László Nemes. “Sunset” confirms the Oscar-winning “Son of Saul” director as a major talent, one whose sophomore feature is both astonishingly beautiful and profoundly sorrowful: It unfolds like a cross between a memory of pre-war Budapest and a dream, the kind so vivid you’ll swear it was real as you hang on to every half-remembered detail. Nemes displays flashes of his mentor’s formal mastery even as he emerges as a unique cinematic voice in his own right, one that may only grow louder and more prominent in the years to come. There’s sadness and beauty in every frame, as though the writer/director is nostalgic for this era despite not being born until many decades after the sun had indeed set on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. —MN
Venice Film Festival
As the coarse, moody pop singer Celeste, Natalie Portman deliver a stormy interpretation of an icon saddled with a culture that projects its sentiments onto her. Beginning with a traumatic high-school shooting and culminating in a performance that feels like a very different sensory assault, “Vox Lux” is a jarring deconstruction of the industry that “A Star is Born” explores in more familiar terms. brings a near-cartoonish intensity to her monstrous singer that elevates the movie to surreal heights. Writer-director Brady Corbet’s fascinating narrative unfolds across two time periods: In the first, set in the years leading up to 9/11, the teenage Celeste (breakout Raffey Cassidy, terrifically subdued) survives a near-death experience that leaves many of her classmates dead; when she sings a gentle ballad at a memorial service, it goes viral, instantly propelling her to national attention. Years later, she’s transformed into Portman’s angry caricature — a seething monstrosity whose entire existence embodies the national mood. Her climactic performance is a spectacular explosion of narcissism and rage that’s unique to modern times. —EK
A visual artist whose movies have dealt with starvation, sex addiction, and slavery, Steve McQueen has never been considered a safe commercial bet. That just makes “Widows,” his bracing, moody heist thriller about women who finish the robbery their husbands started, all the more satisfying: McQueen has made a first-rate genre exercise — led by a defiant Viola Davis in one of her very best roles — that doubles as a treatise on race and gender, juggling dramatic payoff with heavier themes. “Widows” embraces its trashy, melodramatic twists while deepening their potential. If all escapism looked like this, America would get smart again. —EK