There are just two months left in the year and many films still to come. Major, highly-anticipated releases like Belfast, King Richard, and The Power of the Dog have built a lot of good and important buzz, but whether general audiences and awards voters will embrace them remains to be seen. While we wait for other big contenders like The Tragedy of Macbeth, C’mon C’mon, tick…tick…Boom! and Licorice Pizza, today we’re taking a look at a few earlier releases, and a few newcomers that deserve a bit more attention to place them firmly among the top picks. This list is not in any particular order, alphabetical, preferential or otherwise.
dir. Rebecca Hall
Beautiful and elegant, meditative and thought-provoking, Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut is the adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel. Tessa Thompson stars as Reenie Renfield, a doctor’s wife from Harlem who begins to question ideas of race and community when she reunites with Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga), an old schoolmate who now lives the life of a privileged white woman. Photographed in exquisite, crisp black and white, Passing is a timeless and thoughtful examination of identity and belonging.
dir. Michael Sarnoski
It has been a very long time since we’ve seen Nicolas Cage this good in anything, but his performance in Michael Sarnoski’s surprisingly stirring Pig might be his best work yet. Capturing the perfect balance between isolation and loneliness, Cage and Sarnoski, who also wrote the screenplay, subvert the revenge-thriller trope for something much deeper and more meaningful. We also see beautiful performances from co-stars Alex Wolff and Adam Arkin and a script that sings with brilliance and truth.
The Night House (Searchlight Pictures)
dir. David Bruckner
In addition to her efforts behind the camera, Rebecca Hall was spell-binding onscreen in the horror film, The Night House. While certain elements of the story may not work all the way through, the effort to show the paralyzing and long-lasting effects of grief and trauma on the psyche shouldn’t be ignored. And Hall gives us another example of why we should not ignore great performances in the horror genre.
dir. Janicza Bravo
Ever since the night Aziah “Zola” King sent her 140+ tweet thread out into the world, the story of this waitress and part-time stripper and her insane weekend in Miami have captivated audiences everywhere. It was only a matter of time before the story would be optioned for a film, and that film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020 to enthusiastic glee. Janiczo Bravo brings Zola’s flare for dramatic storytelling to life in a colorful, sometimes funny, sometimes terrifying tale with standout performances from Taylour Paige and Colman Domingo, both of whom deserve to be high on every awards ballot this year.
The Green Knight (A24)
dir. David Lowery
Certainly divisive, as some of Lowery’s previous projects have been, his take on the epic tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a patient exploration of the conflict man faces with himself. Dev Patel finds the juxtaposition between Gawain’s outward bravado and inward cowardice and self-doubt, while ensuring that the audience still cares about him and his journey. With his adapted screenplay, Lowery is unafraid to leave some questions unanswered and rarely fully explores any challenge or thought, which is part of what makes this such a beguiling medieval piece.
The Lost Leonardo (Sony Pictures Classics)
dir. Andreas Koefoed
Documentaries come in many forms and genres, and on first glance Andreas Koefoed’s The Lost Leonardo looks like a standard doc in which experts explain key historical and cultural points about a very old painting. And while it follows that pattern, this is a story that unfolds into something much more than the discovery of what may be one of Leonardo DaVinci’s final works. What soon becomes clear is that there is more to this painting that meets the eye as we learn more about the secret — and not so secret — seedy underbelly of art collecting. A very different film about a very different industry, The Lost Leonardo is similar in tone and genre-shifting to the Oscar-winning documentary-thriller Icarus from 2018.
dir. Sian Heder
Funny, sweet, and tender, CODA is a poignant story about family and preparing to face the unknown. Emilia Jones is charming as the titular Child of Deaf Adults, played by Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur, and the cast is rounded out with older brother Daniel Durant. They blend together with a beautiful authenticity and breathe life into the script adapted from a French film. Jones brings strength and dignity to headstrong Ruby, as well as a lovely talent for singing and gifts us with an original song. The story will be familiar to those with similar lived experiences while introducing many to a reality they might not otherwise see. In addition to the stars who make up the Rossi family, Eugenio Derbez also offers a moving performance as Ruby’s music teacher and coach.
Candyman (Universal Pictures)
dir. Nia DaCosta
If it was possible to extract the shadow-puppet animation sequences from this film and submit them for Animated Short Film, Candyman would run away with the awards. And as part of the broader expansion of the horrifying urban legend, these sequences lend an intriguing way to introduce context and backstory to a narrative that requires it. With a mesmerizing score from Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, this is another horror film that may be unfairly ignored this season, but which deserves to be in the conversation for its artistry and passion.