A new verbal tic has taken over cinephile circles. Normal, everyday people take pains to call a movie “an A24 film,” while only a Variety reporter says something is “a Sony film” or a “Searchlight release.” Why? Because for movie fans, the indie studio’s badge means something. It’s a marker of quality, but more than that, it’s a promise of a certain singularity. An A24 movie is auteur driven and visually stunning with an offbeat sense of humor and a setting or perspective you’ve never seen before. The studio doesn’t just make a “high-school movie,” it makes a “Catholic school in Sacramento in the spring of 2003 movie.”
This distinction is all the more remarkable when you consider that until 2016, A24 was merely a distributor that didn’t have a hand in any of the titles it released. And though the films it has produced since then include many of its best and most famous projects — Moonlight, Hereditary, Uncut Gems — those still make up a relatively small portion of the company’s total output. The fact that, over its ten years of existence, A24 has been able to build one of the strongest brands in the industry is as much a feat of curation as it is of artistic production.
Case in point: The studio’s first hit, 2013’s Spring Breakers, a film it didn’t make but which now feels like the skeleton key for what would become its house style — hypersaturated cinematography, young people behaving badly, zero fucks given — and a guiding light for films as diverse as The Bling Ring, American Honey, Good Time, The Florida Project, Mid90s, Waves, and Zola. Amid that initial blush of success, the company established sidelines in brainy European sci-fi (Under the Skin, Ex Machina, The Lobster) and unhurried horror (The Witch, It Comes at Night, Saint Maud). Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, a surprise Best Picture winner and the first film A24 co-produced, marked the start of a new era. Going forward, the studo would develop talents in house, creating a stable of “A24 boys” including Ari Aster, Robert Eggers, the Safdie brothers, and the Daniels.
What unites A24’s hundred-plus films is that, good or bad, most of them feel as though they couldn’t have been released by anyone else. The studio allows directors to follow their muse wherever it takes them, a strategy that leads to enduring masterpieces and self-indulgent misfires. Both types are integral to the A24 experience; the real black sheep in its filmography are the anonymous ones, movies like Woman Walks Ahead or The Adderall Diaries, which bear no authorial stamp, inspire no contrarian cults. Most of these get shuffled off to DirecTV before their uncoolness can sully the brand, so you probably haven’t seen them.
But I have — because I’ve seen every A24 movie. The festival darlings and the horrible flops, the toniest Oscar bait and the sleaziest slashers. In the process of making my way through the studio’s entire filmography, I’ve learned a few things, like what separates a Florida A24 movie from a New York A24 movie and how many times Margaret Qualley shows up as the embodiment of wealth and privilege. (Twice.) In this list, I’ve ranked all of them from worst to best. It’s not a ranking of “least A24” to “most A24” — though that would also be fun — but one determined by that old Ebert maxim: How well does this movie succeed at what it sets out to do? As you might be able to guess, dozens of them do, often wildly so. But the nature of this format means that before we can get to any good ones, we have to get through the bad ones. And baby, you’d better believe there are some bad ones. Strap on your Furby necklace, cook up a plate of spaghetti, and get ready to live deliciously.
Note: This list covers narrative features only. If you seek Amy, you won’t find it here.
Tier VI: The Worst of the Worst
A great A24 movie often makes you wonder, How did they think of that? These ones do, too, but in the opposite way. They’re impossible to describe while keeping a straight face. Some come from venerated filmmakers who’d lost the plot; some come from neophytes in over their heads. Their terribleness is proof there’s a downside to creative freedom. But give them this: They are frequently bonkers in a way that focus-grouped studio fare could never achieve.
The Vanishing of Sidney Hall (2018)
With so many misguided creative decisions to address, it’s hard to know where to begin with this feature-length testament to the delusions of the male ego. Is it the movie’s conviction that literary wunderkind Sidney (Logan Lerman) is a charming iconoclast, when in reality he’s an insufferable twerp? Is it the fact that every woman in his life is presented as totally devoid of independent thought? Is it the third-act twists that even M. Night Shyamalan might consider a little much, or the baffling ways multiple characters die, or the fractured narrative that attempts to add gravitas by skipping around three different time periods — including one where our hero is a bearded recluse riding the rails and burning his own books? Still, there is one good move: The filmmakers wisely don’t give us too much of Sidney’s supposedly brilliant prose. What little we hear of it is terrible, of course.
A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III (2013)
Few A24 movies are worse than its very first one. Roman Coppola’s film is a listless slog through the overactive imagination of a graphic designer (Charlie Sheen) mourning his ex by retreating into fantasies about the crazy broads he can’t help but love. With its genial atmosphere and cavalcade of cameos, Charles Swan aims at being a loose hangout flick; the effect is more like sitting in on a 90-minute therapy session for an uninteresting and unpleasant man. Sheen turns in a terminally dull performance, while the star-studded supporting cast brings the effort and intensity of someone lending their neighbor a cup of sugar. Coppola does show some visual verve, and the production values are clearly high, but that only makes the movie feel even lazier. Given a budget and connections most filmmakers could only dream of, this is all he could come up with?
This vanity project plays like an expensive game of Exquisite Corpse: In a town built atop an old asylum … which has been bulldozed and turned into a strip mall … the spirits of the old residents live in a neighborhood called Ghost Town … where pizza-delivery guys are being murdered … and the cops want to pin it on a local werewolf … played by Chance the Rapper! Slice is an amateurish production that rivals the least essential Netflix Originals in pointlessness, and, worse, it doesn’t even make sense on its own terms. (If they’re ghosts, why do they look and act more like zombies?) You could forgive all this if the movie were funny. Instead, it’s a laugh-free wasteland that feels twice as long as its meager 83-minute run time. As for Chance, watch him opposite Zazie Beetz for an illustration of the difference between acting and having a persona.
The Sea of Trees (2016)
Even the hottest streaks have to peter out sometime, and for Matthew McConaughey, his mid-career renaissance ended with this notorious bomb. One of a few early A24 misfires that came from betting on an A-list filmmaker past his prime, The Sea of Trees finds McConaughey and director Gus Van Sant traipsing around Aokigahara, Japan’s “suicide forest,” in a visit that’s only slightly more tasteful than Logan Paul’s. McConaughey plays an academic who travels to the forest to end his life after his marriage to Naomi Watts has ended in staggeringly manipulative fashion. While there, he encounters a stranger, played by Ken Watanabe, who convinces him he wants to live — if the two of them can ever get out of this damn forest! The movie’s combination of domestic drama, survival adventure, and woo-woo mysticism goes together like ketchup, salad, and dog shit, and its generous placement on this list is thanks to its sole good scene, a fireside monologue in which McConaughey finally wakes up from his somnambulant performance.
Revenge of the Green Dragons (2014)
A Chinese American Goodfellas based on a New Yorker story, co-directed by Infernal Affairs’ Andrew Lau and executive-produced by Martin Scorsese himself? This movie should be much better than the slo-mo-ridden cheesefest it is. Every beat is something you’ve seen a thousand times before, with the distinction that the version you get here is the absolute worst. Not even Ray Liotta serving up a plateful of ham as an FBI agent can raise the film from its malaise, and only Sidney Hall prevents it from being the lowest-scoring A24 film on RottenTomatoes. Marty, Green Dragons, I didn’t like it!
The Captive (2014)
Man, what happened to Atom Egoyan? The mind boggles at how the same guy made both The Sweet Hereafter and this very special episode of SVU: Canada. It starts out promisingly enough, with Egoyan bringing his signature scrambled timeline to the story of a couple (Ryan Reynolds and Mireille Enos) whose marriage has collapsed after the disappearance of their daughter, and the detectives (Rosario Dawson and Scott Speedman) who haven’t given up on the case. Their world feels real and lived-in, which is why it’s so surprising when Egoyan introduces a cabal of mustache-twirling pedophiles who have the resources and ingenuity of a Bond villain. When faced with villains this ridiculous, the only thing to do is guffaw incredulously. This is preferable to the reaction the rest of the film arouses: yawns.
Another trip to banana-land from Egoyan, in which an elderly Holocaust survivor (Christopher Plummer) attempts to track down the Nazi who killed his family. Except he’s got dementia, see, so he has to keep a letter with instructions reminding him who he is and who he’s trying to kill. To say it strains credulity is an understatement. On his good days, Egoyan can still deliver a cracking sequence, and he nails a tense encounter with a cop (Dean Norris) who’s a little too into German military history. The big third-act surprise is Captive-level bad, though, and it’s no less goofy for being entirely predictable.
Dark Places (2015)
The sole failure in the Gillian Flynn cinematic universe, Dark Places is the definition of “a lot going on.” Start with Charlize Theron as the grown-up survivor of a family massacre who gets mixed up with a club of true-crime enthusiasts convinced that her brother, who was convicted on her testimony, is innocent. Throw in Satanic panic, secret babies, teenage murderers, and a serial killer who makes his victims sign permission slips. Once a supporting character’s motivation turns out to be his history as a teenage arsonist, it’s clear there may indeed be such a thing as too much specificity.
Tier V: Garden-Variety Bad
Not the true disasters — which at least have the benefit of being memorable — these films are bad in more normal ways. This tier is disproportionately made up of DirecTV releases, the redheaded stepchildren of the A24 family, though a few high-profile stinkers are included as well.
Low Tide (2019)
Two-dimensional Jersey Shore hunks (plus Jaeden Martell, whose disconcertingly young face suggests this one was in the can for a while before getting dumped) turn on each other after discovering hidden treasure, in a beachside noir that’s both overcooked and underbaked. The script gestures at class tensions, but every moment is inflated with hot air until there’s no life left. The film’s wistful romanticization of these bozos feels as fake as pyrite.
If Sons of Anarchy was Biker Hamlet, Outlaws is Biker Macbeth, though that summary makes the movie sound more interesting than it actually is. It’s one of two different Australian crime thrillers A24 has released, and to make it more confusing, they even share a key cast member, former pro rugby player Matt Nable. This is the lesser of the pair, full of gruff macho posturing about the social mores of Australian biker gangs and a palace-intrigue plot that devolves into characters popping up out of nowhere to shoot each other in the head. Outlaws hit VOD more than a year after its TIFF premiere, with the studio promising a theatrical release a few weeks later. As far as I can tell, that never happened.
The Adderall Diaries (2016)
A cursed production in which James Franco plays author Stephen Elliott, with an underwritten love-interest part for Amber Heard. Even by the standards of onscreen writers, the version of Elliott we get here is remarkably unsympathetic: He’s a bad-boy memoirist who fabricated elements of his best-selling debut, treats everyone around him like shit, and complains that he doesn’t actually want to write the new book he’s just been paid handsomely for. Instead, he becomes obsessed with a tech guru (Christian Slater) on trial for murder, a plotline I’m sure had some sort of metaphorical significance in Elliott’s book, but here — like a lot of Franco’s mid-decade output — peters out into nothing. There’s a germ of an interesting idea about the unreliability of memory, but exploring it would require a more committed lead performance, and that would probably require a director who wasn’t Franco’s film-school classmate. As it happens, the star is outacted by Timothée Chalamet, who plays the teenage Elliott in brief flashbacks.
Free Fire (2017)
I bet it was fun to make Free Fire. For both cast and crew, Ben Wheatley’s ultraviolent action-comedy about a black-market arms deal in 1970s Boston probably seemed a chance to get their Tarantino on. But unless fake beards and silly voices are extremely your thing, you may get less out of the experience, especially once the showstopping gunfight begins. Confined to a single anonymous warehouse, and lacking much wit, imagination, or visual ingenuity, it’s an hour-long slog to the credits. That the bloodbath kicks off from the assault of a woman who is never seen, or even given a name, only underlines the sense of the whole endeavor as boys playing dress-up.
Backstabbing for Beginners (2018)
Don’t be fooled by the title, which hints at a puckishness absent from the movie itself. It’s a dutiful retelling of the U.N. Oil-for-Food Program scandal, starring Theo James as a young diplomat skilled in the art of brow furrowing. His descent into bureaucratic corruption introduces him to desaturated conference rooms, sepia-toned jaunts to the Middle East, and love interests who are both beautiful and doomed, all of it detailed in ploddingly expository voice-over. I can imagine an alternate version of this film that leans into blackhearted cynicism, or one that gives us more live-wire paranoia. The movie that exists offers only bland intrigue.
Twenty years into his career, Kevin Smith was feeling burned-out. So he decided to reignite his passion for the craft with a trilogy of films exploring his childhood obsession: Canada. This is the first one, a self-consciously schlocky horror-comedy in which an asshole podcaster (Justin Long) takes a trip to Manitoba to interview an old sailor (Michael Parks) and winds up getting turned into a walrus. Tusk starts silly and self-indulgent, and only gets more so when Johnny Depp shows up in a fake nose to play a Quebecois detective, a bit that’s far less delightful than the movie thinks it is. While the project seemingly did its job of shaking Smith out of his malaise, Tusk, like many A24 films of this ilk, is for completists only.
The Last Movie Star (2018)
Every so often, a movie comes around with the aim of resuscitating an aging legend’s career. Unfortunately, they can’t all be Nebraska. There are plenty of poignant moments in this Burt Reynolds vehicle following an aging actor confronted by the memory of everything he’s lost. But boy, do you have to sit through a lot of barely tolerable generation-clash comedy to get there, much of it involving Ariel Winter as Reynolds’s disagreeable chauffeur. Incidentally, Winter’s character has a terrible boyfriend named Bjorn, and the constant repetition of his name is far funnier than any of the script’s actual jokes.
False Positive (2021) (co-produced)
It’s shocking to learn False Positive was apparently shot back in the spring of 2019, since this IVF riff on Rosemary’s Baby anticipates the empty, chintzy look of so many COVID-era productions. Ilana Glazer, who co-wrote the screenplay, stars as a pregnant marketing professional who begins to suspect her slithering fertility doctor (Pierce Brosnan) and his army of Stepford Wife assistants might be up to no good. A24 has a rich tradition of socially relevant, metaphorical horror, but False Positive boofs so much basic stuff it can hardly develop a pulse, much less a theme. John Lee’s direction is flat and inert, and Glazer’s sedate performance makes it hard to get a sense of her character beyond a broad satire of bougie millennials. (A workplace subplot has the tenor of a Buzzfeed video about microaggressions.) The insemination isn’t the only thing here that’s artificial.
Barely Lethal (2015)
Can you believe that, one year before Moonlight, A24 released a teen action-comedy in which Hailee Steinfeld plays an assassin hiding out at a normal American high school? It’s true! Barely Lethal is absolutely not good: It’s a ludicrous film that sidesteps the many horrifying implications of its premise. It’s also about 3 percent funnier than it needs to be. With production values only slightly above those of a Disney Channel Original Movie, this is the cinematic equivalent of a glass of lukewarm water — it goes down smooth and you’ll forget about it 15 seconds later.
Life After Beth (2014)
At the tail end of the zombie-film craze came this quirky romance between a young man (an extra-haunted Dane DeHaan) and his dead girlfriend (Aubrey Plaza) who has mysteriously come back to life. Except, she’s come back wrong — superstrong, with a terrible temper, and she can only be soothed by the sounds of smooth jazz. Not the worst concept in the world, but the energy is off, and the aimless script keeps wandering into narrative cul-de-sacs. By the time the plot ramps up to its heightened conclusion, the movie is stuck as unpleasantly in-between as Beth herself: not funny enough to work as comedy, not scary enough to work as horror.
The directorial debut of Rodarte designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy, Woodshock is filled with gorgeously trippy visuals, but my goodness is it slooow. Their muse, Kirsten Dunst, stars as a grieving woman slowly losing touch with reality amid the redwoods and dispensaries of Northern California, her madness exacerbated by powerful psychotropic drugs and a whiff of a plot involving a poison-laced joint. A longtime friend of the sisters, Dunst was a driving force behind getting the movie made, and she reportedly spent a year psychologically preparing for the role. She puts on an acting showcase, but as directors, the Mulleavys are much better at summoning a mood than knitting scenes together into a compelling story. The best thing you can say about Woodshock is that it would probably play well on mute in the background at a bar.
The Monster (2016)
A lot of A24 horror movies get dinged for being more spooky than scary, but in The Monster we have a proper creature-feature, as an alcoholic mother (Zoe Kazan) and her young daughter (Ella Ballentine) find themselves menaced by a murderous monstrosity while driving through the woods. Writer-director Bryan Bertino also made The Strangers, and he knows how to sketch out characters so we’ll care when they’re in peril. A lot depends on the monster, though, and the one here is a duff — a generic black beastie that falls short in both concept and execution. Not terrible for a B movie, but it comes from a time when the distributor had already started to aim higher.
The Sky Is Everywhere (2022)
Why did ultraserious indie auteur Josephine Decker make a candy-colored YA adaptation? To see what it was like, basically. I’d never begrudge a filmmaker for getting out of their comfort zone, but this experiment plays far worse than A24’s more grounded coming-of-age tales. A romance about a grief-stricken teen (Grace Kaufman) in a love triangle with two cute boys, Sky is a much lighter, and broader, movie than the ones Decker made her name on. There’s plenty of craft on display in the film’s supersaturated cinematography and lo-fi special effects, but unfortunately, two decades’ worth of TV commercials have already wrung this visual language dry.
The Death of Dick Long (2019) (co-produced)
Dick Long occupies an inconvenient position in A24 history: It’s the movie that Daniel Scheinert, one-half of the Daniels, made between Swiss Army Man and Everything Everywhere All at Once, only for the latter’s success to wipe it from the record like an unfortunate Soviet apparatchik. Scheinert plays the titular Dick, a small-town Alabaman who perishes after a night out with his idiot buddies (Michael Abbott Jr. and Andre Hyland). The doofuses’ fumbling attempts to stay one step ahead of the law quickly prove tiresome, though there is at least shock value in the answer to what exactly happened to poor Dick. This I will not spoil, except to note that it involves an artistic obsession familiar from both Swiss Army Man and Everything Everywhere that Freud would probably have something to say about.
Cut Bank (2015)
The best part of this small-town Montana crime caper is the way it gives a collection of weirdo character actors — John Malkovich, Michael Stuhlbarg, Billy Bob Thornton, and Bruce Dern — the chance to really cook. None of them feels like especially plausible residents of the Treasure State, or even of the same movie, but that’s hardly egregious compared with the dead weight of charisma vacuum Liam Hemsworth as the schemer at the center of it all. It’s like I always say: Never send a Hemsworth to do William H. Macy’s job.
Under the Silver Lake (2019)
If we were awarding points solely for ambition, this L.A. neo-noir would be much higher on the list. David Robert Mitchell’s film attempts to do for 21st-century hipsterdom what Blue Velvet did for ’50s suburbia, and the script’s mix of Pynchonian paranoia, Reddit fan theorizing, and old-Hollywood macabre must have been irresistible. But in terms of what’s onscreen, Mitchell doesn’t deliver anything remotely interesting until nearly two hours in, long past the point when at-home viewers have succumbed to the temptation of their phones. Andrew Garfield stars as a slacker searching for his missing neighbor (Riley Keough) and encountering a collection of scenesters who have three things in common: They’re wrapped up in an occult conspiracy, they stand around in interminable medium shots, and none of them acts anything like recognizable human beings. There’s a cloistered, airless quality to the proceedings as well as an obnoxious “have your cake and eat it too” approach to the industry’s objectification of young actresses. A24 didn’t think much of the film, delaying its release multiple times before burying it. That ignoble fate has made Under the Silver Lake an object of cult fascination, but this is a movie that’s way more fun to read about than to watch.
Tier IV: Mediocrities
A grab bag of films that feel either incredibly un-A24 or a little bit too A24.
Mid90s (2018) (co-produced)
Jonah Hill’s directorial debut exemplifies the worst habits of a certain kind of well-connected, hype-baiting A24 film: a leaden drama about a pint-size skateboarder (Sunny Suljic) that coasts along on received notions of authenticity and a gold-plated soundtrack that belies its humble 16-mm. pretensions. It’s hard to screw up skating scenes, and Hill doesn’t, but the rest oscillates between adolescent wish fulfillment and after-school special.
The Hole in the Ground (2019)
An Irish film with no leprechauns, terrible accents, or references to the Troubles — though, because this is a horror movie, we are treated to a version of “The Rattlin’ Bog” by a creepy children’s choir. It’s a modern take on the changeling myth in which an encounter with the titular hole leads to a mother (Seána Kerslake) suspecting her young son (James Quinn Markey) is no longer himself. More of a down-the-middle genre effort than most A24 horror films, it’s marked by an overabundance of dream sequences and jump scares, though one or two frights have the juice to stick with you.
The Ballad of Lefty Brown (2017)
One of A24’s periodic attempts to revive the western and a late-career showcase for Bill Pullman, who stars as a drunken sidekick to a legendary gunslinger who’s suddenly thrust into the hero’s role. Pullman turns in a performance as big as the Montana sky, hootin’ and hollerin’ all over the place, but the film is a little more ground-bound, overlong, and predictable. (If you want the reveal of the ultimate villain to be a surprise, it helps not to costume him like Snidely Whiplash.) The movie’s central theme — how to deal with being a secondary character in someone else’s story — would be better explored in another western further down this list.
Native Son (2019) (co-produced)
This modern retelling of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, bought by HBO out of Sundance and ported off to streaming, aims to spotlight how much racial progress we haven’t made in the intervening decades. Sometimes it works: The self-congratulation of a tycoon (Bill Camp) whenever he interacts with his Black chauffeur (Ashton Sanders) is a social dynamic as old as liberalism itself. But the film’s decision to play the book basically straight puts it on an odd wavelength. The plot is mid-century melodrama, complete with an ominous metaphorical furnace, while director Rashid Johnson is serving up indie austerity. Whenever its two universes collide — such as the moment a climactic assault is interrupted by two passing hipsters — the film feels lost in time.
The Rover (2014)
Ten years after an unexplained societal collapse, a loner played by Guy Pearce attempts to track down the men who stole his sedan, eventually joining up with a “sensitive li’l brudder” type (Robert Pattinson, marking the start of what would become a fruitful relationship with the studio) on a violent quest through the postapocalyptic outback. The Rover is full of intriguing world building but not a lot of tonal variation or narrative oomph. Bumped up a spot for a scene in which Pattinson bops along to “Pretty Girl Rock,” the only moment of lightness in what’s otherwise an incredibly dour film.
In Fabric (2019)
Peter Strickland’s killer-dress movie is a different flavor of horror than A24 usually releases, and like its subject, there’s a handmade, vintage quality to the film you can’t help but admire. This is a movie that could have been made by only one person. But a key quality of Strickland’s aesthetic is a distance that verges on flat, lifeless, and, dare I say, boring at times — which is not a word I would ever think to apply to a film in which a floating dress nearly kills Brienne of Tarth mid-cunnilingus.
Into the Forest (2016)
A spookily prescient postapocalyptic drama in which a sudden societal shift forces everyone to stay at home with their families. Nerves fray and rumors fly, but on the bright side, people also learn new hobbies! (In this case, berry picking and pig slaughtering.) Elliot Page and Evan Rachel Wood play sisters in rural Canada, where a continent-wide power outage forces them to abandon the lives they planned and reckon with experiences a little more elemental as well as each other. Although the sibling dynamics are well observed, nagging details intrude — for one, the fact that they’re supposed to be teens despite both actors clearly being in their late 20s. Also, more than a year into this blackout, they’ve still got perfect hair and makeup?
Woman Walks Ahead (2018)
In the middle of Jessica Chastain’s girlboss era, she and her Swiss accent starred in this little-seen biopic of Indian Rights activist Caroline Weldon, who in the 1890s traveled to Standing Rock to paint a portrait of Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes) and wound up joining the chief’s inner circle. As a piece of well-intentioned Hollywood feminism, the film ably summarizes the political complexities at play on the reservation. Nevertheless, it can’t help itself from sanding down history to fit a familiar mold, to the point of writing out Weldon’s son and Sitting Bull’s wife so the portrait sessions can include a frisson of erotic tension. It’s a good frisson, but otherwise the title is apt. This is a movie that walks rather than runs.
Bodies Bodies Bodies (2022) (co-produced)
A horror comedy about a house party of woke Zoomers who get picked off one by one while they’re too busy calling each other “toxic” to figure out the killer? And one of them’s played by Pete Davidson? Too bad Jordan Peele already made a movie called Nope. Bodies Bodies Bodies is as exhausting as reading your least favorite co-worker’s Twitter feed for 90 minutes. Still, I would be lying if I said I never laughed. The satire of a cohort whose self-preservation instincts lead to virtue signaling, profiling, and (literal) backstabbing is sometimes sharp enough to draw blood. But you’re left with the lingering feeling that the film was less a personal vision and more the work of a brand-strategy session.
The Kill Team (2019)
How much does The Kill Team not exist? For a while, it wasn’t even included on the Wikipedia list of A24 films I was using to track my progress — possibly in part because the public’s interest in movies about the atrocities of the war on terror, never high to begin with, had largely evaporated by 2019. Nat Wolff stars as a bright-eyed young soldier in Afghanistan whose squad falls under the sway of a charismatic sergeant (Alexander Skarsgård) with a penchant for murdering civilians. Adapting his 2013 documentary of the same name, director Dan Krauss foregrounds Wolff’s moral conflict, and Skarsgård makes for a chilling devil on his shoulder. But the movie’s depiction of Afghanistan is never quite convincing: Filled with cheap-looking CGI and anachronistic slang, it lacks the visceral intensity of the best war films. Krauss tiptoes up to the line of asking wider questions about our imperial adventures, but in the end, this is just a story about a few bad apples.
Never Goin’ Back (2018)
Dirtbag teens Maia Mitchell and Camila Morrone try to make rent money in Augustine Frizzell’s scruffy debut. Low-budget comedies like this fill up Sundance every year, and despite an admirable challenge to the genre’s male-driven conventions, a lot of the high jinks here don’t land. Everyone onscreen feels more like a character in a script than a real person. Good thing the film picks up as it gets bolder and grosser, especially when a running gag about Morrone’s digestive system gets an explosive payoff.
Move over Albert Speer — there’s a new Nazi who said “sorry.” It’s Bryon Widner (Jamie Bell), a white supremacist who left the movement and underwent the arduous process of removing the hate tattoos that peppered his entire body. Israeli director Guy Nattiv’s handling of racism is far less embarrassing here than in his Oscar-winning short of the same name, and he ekes compelling performances from Bell and Danielle Macdonald as the woman who convinces Bryon to go straight. Ironically, though, Skin’s human drama rarely gets below the surface. When the closing credits note that the real Widner is still friends with the activist who helped him get out (played by Mike Colter), the surprise comes not from his history as a violent racist but from the film’s assumption it had made us invested in their personal relationship.
Son of a Gun (2015)
The Star Wars prequels reborn as an Australian crime thriller: Ewan McGregor’s roguish jailbreaker acquires a gormless protégé (Brenton Thwaites), then takes a backseat to the lad’s secret relationship with a future Oscar winner (Alicia Vikander). Watching it for this list may be the most favorable light in which to view the film, if only because it is much better than Outlaws. Son of a Gun contains a charismatic performance from McGregor, its action sequences are genuinely suspenseful, and it makes better use of Australia’s bountiful supply of character actors than Outlaws (with the exception of the aforementioned Matt Nable, who gets more to do in the other one). None of this prevented the film from setting the record for the lowest domestic box office of any theatrically released A24 film: a whopping $1,411.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2018)
You’re a wannabe punk in late ’70s London who crashes a house party where everyone’s rocking colorful plastic jumpsuits and talking about things you don’t understand — are they aliens or just Brian Eno fans? In John Cameron Mitchell’s film, adapted from a Neil Gaiman short story, it’s the former, a promising premise that the film doesn’t know what to do with. The movie gives a lively (if sanitized) depiction of the punk scene at its height, and Elle Fanning is in fine comic form as an extraterrestrial dream girl, but the plot gets bogged down in incoherent mythos and metaphors that never jell. Mitchell’s giving us a rock opera when three chords would do.
You know the Florida A24 movies: neon carnival rides through the underbelly of America. And you know the New York A24 movies: gritty vérité-style projects filled with freakazoids. But there are also L.A. A24 movies, a number of which follow creative dudes who wear cool clothes and are irresistible to women. Charles Swan, Under the Silver Lake, and Mid90s all qualify (as does Sidney Hall, even though it was shot in New Mexico), but the height of this subgenre is Mojave, a rare step behind the camera for Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan. It’s the story of a filmmaker (Garrett Hedlund) who takes a trip to the desert to clear his head only to become embroiled in a cat-and-mouse game with a murderous drifter (Oscar Isaac) who wants his life. Pretentious and oddly aggrieved — you can read the film as a showbiz veteran letting out decades of frustration with wannabes telling him they coulda done it, too — Mojave is a peek inside an unflattering part of the Hollywood psyche. But a striking performance can redeem a lot, and Isaac is devilishly good in this. He achieves Pacino’s dream of single-handedly making a bad movie mediocre.
The Children Act (2018)
Thanks to its gauzy, overlit look, and case-of-the-week ethical dilemma, the first hour of The Children Act plays like a highly pedigreed episode of a medical procedural. (It’s a co-production with the BBC.) Emma Thompson is a chilly family-court judge called to adjudicate the case of a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness (Fionn Whitehead) who’s refusing a life-saving blood transfusion. So far, so Chicago Med, until a second-act turn shakes the plot out of its predictable rhythms. Unfortunately, the film remains too stately and middlebrow to dive into its strange new dynamic. If you didn’t catch that it’s based on an Ian McEwan novel, you could probably guess.
Morris From America (2016)
The Germans invented the coming-of-age story, so it’s fitting that this fish-out-of-water tale of a young American rapper (Markees Christmas) growing up abroad should take place in Heidelberg. The location makes the sorrows of young Morris more explicit — he literally doesn’t speak the same language as everyone around him — but for every well-observed scene of cultural differences, we get two in a romance plotline that’s sehr abgegriffen. Good thing Craig Robinson is on hand to add some poignancy as Morris’s well-meaning dad.
Imagine a dystopian future in which feelings are forbidden, white outfits are mandatory, and everyone speaks in clipped monotone. What’s that? You can very easily? Roll your eyes at this sci-fi romance if you must, and you probably should: It’s an incredibly obvious movie. But not a bad one. Visually, it’s a meal — a world of granite modernism mixed with botanic-garden excess. (It was shot in Japan and Singapore.) And the yearning movie-star faces of Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart have a benzo’d chemistry that’s actually kinda hot.
Trespass Against Us (2017)
Adam Smith’s (not that one) crime drama was treated to some scathing reviews upon its TIFF premiere — and afterward too — but watch it outside that hothouse atmosphere and you’ll find a perfectly okay genre movie. I concede Michael Fassbender may not be the most believable choice to play an Irish Traveler who yearns to give up the schemin’ and thievin’ and go straight, and at times the proceedings do have the air of posh luvvies grunging themselves up and putting on a show. Even so, Trespass Against Us also offers crackerjack car chases, an enjoyably scummy performance from Brendan Gleeson as Fassbender’s pop, and a chance to get immersed in a subculture not often seen onscreen. Sometimes, that’s enough.
Hot Summer Nights (2018)
One of those “filmed before the breakout but came out after” movies, this Timothée Chalamet vehicle is Risky Business reborn as a Scorsese pastiche with notes of Boogie Nights and Virgin Suicides. It’s a bit derivative, is what I’m trying to say. It’s also the kind of movie in which every female character is seen in slo-mo cheesecake shots, the imminent arrival of a hurricane serves as a portentous metaphor, and tough guys squint at each other and say, “How did you think this was going to end?” Still, I found a certain charm in its shamelessness. Even Leo had to make The Beach.
Men (2022) (co-produced)
A24 didn’t invent the “metaphorror” phenomenon, but Alex Garland’s film turned out to be the one that birthed the backlash thanks to its heavy-handed trauma plot about a widow (Jessie Buckley) whose solo getaway is beset on all sides by masculine interruptions. They come in different flavors — some are officious, some are nasty, some are nude embodiments of primal hatred — but they all have the same face (a game Rory Kinnear). They also all turn out to be horrible in pretty much the exact same way, so despite the freaky-deaky fun of the setup, any point Garland is trying to make about the specifics of sexism comes off as vague and unmoored. This is a film to offend both misandrists and men’s-rights activists alike.
The Exception (2017)
What’s this doing here? The Exception is the kind of handsome period piece one expects to see from Searchlight or Miramax, with a plot derived from a historical footnote: Kaiser Wilhelm II survived into World War II and was living in exile in the Netherlands when the Germans invaded. He’s played here by Christopher Plummer as a charming old coot — provided you can get past his rants about Bolsheviks and Jews — who acts as a fairy godfather to the forbidden romance between a nice-guy Wehrmacht captain (Jai Courtney) and a maid who’s full of secrets (Lily James). For a middlebrow war drama, the film is capably made, with a refreshing European attitude toward full-frontal nudity. However, the strangely whimsical climax may leave you unconvinced that the head of the Second Reich deserves this much historical rehabilitation.
Tier III: Pretty Good Movies
Laggies was the first movie I watched for this list, and its sheer adequacy became a helpful mental benchmark. For the next 112 A24 movies, the fundamental question I asked myself was, Is this better or worse than Laggies?
An early A24 effort by the late Lynn Shelton, this low-stakes rom-com stars Keira Knightley as a going-nowhere 20-something who strikes up a friendship with a teenager (Chloë Grace Moretz), then decides to escape her problems by chilling at Moretz’s house for a week, where sparks fly with the girl’s laconic lawyer dad (Sam Rockwell). Intermittently charming, Laggies is also marred by some hackneyed character types and plotting that lets its heroine off the hook. Hardly a black mark on the résumé, but everyone involved would do better work in the future.
Share (2019) (co-produced)
Okay, so it’s an “issues movie,” but it’s one of the better ones. Sixteen-year-old Mandy (Rhianne Barreto) blacks out at a party and wakes up the next morning to discover a video of her sexual assault is being passed around school. As the news ripples through town, the inexorable wheels of bureaucratic ass-covering turn her into a pariah. What saves Share from feeling like a Degrassi episode is director Pippa Bianco’s facility with psychological texture — we live in Mandy’s isolation, feel her queasy uncertainty.
Ginger & Rosa (2013)
It’s 1962, that transitory era immortalized by Philip Larkin, when the ’60s are just starting to get swinging in Britain. But things are not yet groovy for 17-year-old Ginger (Elle Fanning again) — Mom (Christina Hendricks) is a desperate housewife, Dad (Alessandro Nivola) and BFF Rosa (Alice Englert) are starting to make eyes at each other, and to top it all off, we’re in the dark days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when nuclear annihilation seems close at hand. Director Sally Potter and cinematographer Robbie Ryan paint a dreamily evocative portrait of early-’60s London, and though the film teeters on the edge of melodrama, it’s grounded by a gutsy performance by Fanning. She has an able match in Nivola as a narcissist who’s swallowed so much of his own bullshit he thinks it’s nutritious.
The Lovers (2017) (co-produced)
Azazel Jacobs’s comedy has a setup straight out of a French farce: As a middle-aged couple on the brink of divorce (Tracy Letts and Debra Winger) tire of their extramarital affairs, their wandering eyes begin to turn a little closer to home. In the immortal words of Kevin Smith, it’s almost as if they’re cheating on each other with each other! I liked The Lovers fine, but it’s the prosecco of movies — fizzily effervescent and lacking the depth that would leave more than an aftertaste.
X (2022) (co-produced)
Can smut be art? Maybe a better question is, should it be? In Ti West’s pulp throwback, a ’70s porn crew shows up at a broken-down ranch with dreams of turning sex into self-actualization. The director is aping the French New Wave, the sleazy producer has dreams of dollar signs, and like Dirk Diggler before her, Maxine Minx (Mia Goth) wants to be a big, bright shining star. There’s just one problem: Sexual frustration has turned the elderly couple who owns the ranch into homicidal maniacs inflamed by the sight of young flesh! X is unapologetic about the pleasures of onscreen sex and violence, though West may be protesting too much: His gambit of putting Goth in old-age makeup to play the wife proves even he can’t resist the temptation to inject a little artiness into his sleaze.
The Bling Ring (2013)
Sofia Coppola’s ripped-from-the-headlines satire of L.A. teens who rob celebrity homes is best enjoyed as an American Graffiti–style portrait of the recent past — in this case, 2009, a time when bangs were floppy, phones still flipped, and every A-lister had a DUI arrest and a spray tan. The Bling Ring had the bad luck to come out a few months after Spring Breakers, and it could have benefitted from a dose of that film’s lurid energy: As a director, Coppola keeps a cool distance from the proceedings, and though Emma Watson is having a ball as the most vapid member of the gang, the film suffers from its lack of a powerhouse central performance. But it’s also savvy about the way these middle-class, mostly white teens’ appropriation of hip-hop culture goes hand-in-hand with their burglaries of the rich and famous. In either case, if you can take it, why wouldn’t you?
Those Icelandic madmen finally did it — they made an A24 horror movie with all the scary bits stripped out, leaving eerie vibes only. Valdimar Jóhannsson’s debut is set on an isolated sheep farm where Maria and Ingvar (Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason) might as well be the only two humans in the world. When one of their flock gives birth to a, let’s say, unique offspring, the childless couple decide to raise it as their own, a decision Jóhannsson plays for both interspecies dread and deadpan comedy. At times, Lamb seems as if it might be a commentary on animal exploitation, modern parenting, or original sin. But in its determination to shock, the ending strips the film of much of its metaphorical power. Turns out this was just a monster movie all along.
The End of the Tour (2015)
James Ponsoldt’s gentle David Foster Wallace hagiography makes for a slightly odd viewing experience now as Wallace’s reputation has shifted significantly in the years since its release. As embodied by Jason Segel, this is a sanded-down vision of the late author as an earnest, hyperarticulate paragon of authenticity: Buddha in a bandana, sparring and bonding with a jealous interlocutor (Jesse Eisenberg, in the role he was born to play). While the depiction of Wallace as an aspirational figure hasn’t aged well, Segal’s performance remains a compelling fantasy of the DFW his fans wanted, and perhaps needed, to exist.
It Comes at Night (2017) (co-produced)
Compared with his fellow A24 boys, it can be hard to get a handle on Trey Edward Shults, whose films vary wildly in content and tone. But they share an interest in messed-up family dynamics, the way a parent’s issues echo in their children. The domestic horrors here are a little more literal: Amid a mysterious pandemic, one family (Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, and Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) is holed up in the woods. An encounter with outsiders (Christopher Abbott and Riley Keough) brings the chance to pool resources as long as the quarantine pod doesn’t splinter under everyone’s collective paranoia. One of the more controversial A24 horror entries, the film was released wide and advertised as a classic fright fest; when it turned out to be something more recessive and withholding, audiences nearly revolted. Though Shults effectively maintains a slow-burning suspense, there are times you wish he’d go for the jugular. (Something he would indeed end up doing in his next movie, for better or for worse.)
Obvious Child (2014)
Obvious Child’s legend as the “abortion rom-com” precedes it. What a surprise, then, to discover that the abortion plotline only takes up a handful of scenes in Gillian Rospierre’s film, mostly notable for how matter of fact they are. The rest is romance, as Jenny Slate’s filthy stand-up figures out how to open her heart to the square who accidentally impregnated her (Jake Lacy, creating the template for the rest of his career). The discourse around the movie has added a political weight that Obvious Child is a little too slight to shoulder, but it’s hardly this film’s fault that few other movies are brave enough to wade into such territory. Not the comedy version of Never Rarely Sometimes Always — just a charming, low-key indie.
The Disaster Artist (2017)
Anyone who writes anything about The Room — including me — has to reckon with the paradox of Tommy Wiseau: a terrible filmmaker who embraced his new identity as a figure of fun but also, if The Room is any evidence, a man with a genuine darkness to him. The Disaster Artist mostly avoids grappling with any of this, turning Wiseau into a straightforward clown and his story into a parable about the power of friendship. Thankfully, it’s also very funny, which for the rare A24 comedy counts for a lot. Altogether, a surprisingly conventional movie about an extremely unconventional one.
Waves (2019) (co-produced)
Three films, each set in Florida, released three years apart. Waves marks the point at which the brand became so strong that someone could self-consciously set out to make “an A24 movie” — misbehaving teens, numbing hip-hop, enough neon to light Times Square. The first half is an old-school melodrama done up in hip new clothes, following a star athlete (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) who cracks under the pressure of his dictatorial father (Sterling K. Brown). Director Trey Edward Shults makes this downward spiral an overwhelming sensory experience with a roving camera that recalls That ‘70s Show, but his efforts are overheated to the point of parody. Shults is straining so hard for greatness, with so much to say about Black excellence and performative masculinity, that you can almost feel him sweating. Thankfully, at the halfway point, Waves downshifts into a sweetly naturalistic coming-of-age movie about Harrison’s sister (Taylor Russell). The two acts net out to “pretty good,” which wasn’t enough to make a splash in what turned out to be a banner fall for indie cinema. But Waves will always have its Telluride premiere, where the vibe in the room was so ecstatic fans briefly convinced themselves they’d seen a generation-defining drama.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2017)
Held for 18 months after its TIFF premiere, Blackcoat’s Daughter is an early example of the arty horror that would become synonymous with the A24 brand. Director Oz Perkins combines classic genre hallmarks — schoolgirls and Satanists, what could be better — with Christopher Nolan’s structural ticks. In one plotline, two teens at a Catholic boarding school (Kiernan Shipka and Lucy Boynton) get left on campus over break; in the other, a drifter (Emma Roberts) hitches a ride for purposes unknown. As with much of the company’s subsequent output, traditionalists may scoff that the actual frights in each thread are sparse. That doesn’t bother me. It’s the moments in between that stick with you, the desolate winter filled with slowly mounting dread.
A Prayer Before Dawn (2018)
Just a tiny bit fashy: A beautiful blonde boy (Joe Cole) gets thrown in a Thai prison, where his perfect body is beset on all sides by drugs, gangs, and sexual assault. Salvation comes in the form of the prison boxing team, which at least lets him destroy himself for a worthy cause. Thankfully, director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire has not gone full Last Samurai — this is not a story about a magical westerner who beats Southeast Asians at their own game. The film is more internal than that. Though Sauvaire’s in-your-face depiction of the penal horrorshow is occasionally overdone, his treatment of Cole’s hero is equally unromantic.
C’mon C’mon (2021)
A big ol’ “feelings movie” in which Joaquin Phoenix’s radio host bonds with his 9-year-old nephew (Woody Norman) and learns just how frustratingly beautiful raising a child can be. Your tolerance for watching highly therapatized individuals talk out their issues may vary; I prefer the characters from Mike Mills’s other A24 film, who have a little more bite to them. But it’s worth the occasional eye-rolling moments of squishiness for the scenes in which Mills succeeds at getting us to see the wide, wonderful world through the eyes of the writers he loves.
Funny Pages (2022)
Yes, Owen Kline’s debut feature is another example of A24 putting its chips behind someone whose parents’ names are blue on Wikipedia, but it’s also the kind of scabrous, handmade indie you don’t see much of anymore. The coming-of-age film follows a teenage cartoonist (Daniel Zolghadri) who drops out of high school to pursue a career as an outsider artist, his youthful idealism sparking up against the most squalid corners of suburban New Jersey. Kline starred in The Squid and the Whale as a kid and worked with the Safdies as an adult, and here he marries his elders’ influences: He’s got Noah Baumbach’s nose for intellectual posturing, plus the brothers’ knack for escalating comic setpieces (as well as their habit of stacking a cast with oddball faces). Funny Pages is a messy film that bears a few hallmarks of its maker’s inexperience, but as with the cartoons its hero admires, that only adds to its appeal.
Swiss Army Man (2016)
The track record of music-video directors making the leap to movies is mixed. Sometimes you get David Fincher; sometimes you get McG. The feature debut of directing duo Daniels (“Turn Down for What”) gives us most of the good: ingenuous imagination, endless reserves of whimsy, and sheer “I can’t believe they actually tried that.” It’s a buddy movie about a loner on a desert island (Paul Dano) and a corpse that washes ashore (Daniel Radcliffe), who Dano discovers can pull double-duty as a Jet Ski, water bottle, compass, machine-gun … and friend. But it also gives us a touch of the bad, with the film losing steam once the boys get out of their sandbox. Confronted with actual human emotions, the directors aren’t sure what to do with them. An awkward teenager of a movie but the kind of endearing oddball that gave A24 its good name.
On the Rocks (2020)
If 21st-century progressives have all the right opinions and make all the right choices, why are they — okay, we — so unhappy? That’s the question vexing Sofia Coppola in her latest minor-key exploration of bourgeois ennui. Rashida Jones plays a Tribeca mom vaguely frustrated with her wan Whole Foods lifestyle and suspicious of her hotshot husband (Marlon Wayans). Enter her dissolute father (Bill Murray), who appoints himself the sheriff of marital fidelity and ushers her through nighttime escapades that harken back to an older era of New York living. His lessons are all pretty terrible, but Coppola resists moralizing: She’s open to the idea that previous generations might have known something we don’t (as you might be if your dad made The Godfather). It’s a beautifully shot reverie, and though the ending fizzles out, that’s true in a way to the movie’s vibe of bittersweet disappointment.
Lean on Pete (2018)
It’s funny: For a studio so identified with downtown cognoscenti, A24 is more committed than most to releasing movies set in America’s byways and backwaters. Some of these can feel like condescending or inauthentic cultural tourism, sure. But a lot of them don’t — among them this literary adaptation from British director Andrew Haigh, which soaks up so much detail about the shabby corners of the Oregon horse-racing scene that you’d assume Haigh was born in the saddle. It’s a road movie about a poor 16-year-old (a guppyish Charlie Plummer) and the broken-down racehorse he’s trying to save from the slaughterhouse. Everyone warns him not to get too attached, but what they don’t know is that the kid’s got nobody else. Like a lot of A24 quasi-westerns, the pace is perhaps a little too deliberate, but the spirit is there. Haigh’s showing us what it means to be proudly independent in a world where that doesn’t get you as far as you think.
Mississippi Grind (2015)
Unless they’re, like, Casino Royale, gambling movies often run together for me. The filmmakers can orchestrate whatever outcome they want, and the weight of their thumb on the scale is usually all too apparent. The good ones succeed through character and tone, as in this shaggy travelogue from Half Nelson’s Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, which follows a compulsive gambler (Ben Mendelsohn) who takes an impromptu road trip with the poker buddy (Ryan Reynolds) he’s convinced will bring him good luck. The two stars play off each other nicely, Mendelsohn’s hangdog charm counteracting Reynolds’s natural insincerity, and together they bring a sleazy, lived-in vibe to what might have otherwise been a straightforward addiction story. The movie knows it doesn’t matter what card comes face up: Winning or losing isn’t going to be the thing that gets these guys to clean up their act.
While We’re Young (2015)
As a creator, Noah Baumbach is not unlike the Old Testament God: He designs selfish, petty characters and then, out of love, punishes them. In the future, he’d take a more merciful view of their foibles, but this is a transitional effort, the swan song of Salty Baumbach. It follows a pair of aging Gen-Xers (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) who fall under the spell of an ingratiating millennial (Adam Driver) only to discover, as Lorrie Moore did, that underneath their fedoras and vinyl, the young are shallow careerists like everyone else. (As always with Baumbach, the temptation to examine for traces of autobiography is irresistible.) The hipster stuff already feels like an Obama-era time capsule, and there is probably too much business about the ethics of documentary filmmaking. What stands out is Baumbach’s ear for middle-class platitudes. You laugh and think, I’ve said something that stupid, too.
High Life (2019)
Before Robert Pattinson rejoined the world of franchise filmmaking, the actor and A24 enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. Pattinson’s drive to work with esteemed art-house filmmakers gave the studio an A-list talent who tessellated with its brand; in return, A24’s cachet helped Pattinson bury Edward Cullen for good. Case in point: High Life, the first English-language film from Claire Denis. It’s an idea the director had been kicking around for 15 years before Pattinson came along, and she’s clearly intrigued by his star power; she shoots his features like a granite cliff face. Playing a convict doing the world’s hardest #NoFap challenge aboard a doomed spaceship, the actor spends much of the film essentially alone, the last remnant of a biological experiment that involves Juliette Binoche harvesting semen. Never prudish, Denis does not hold back on the fluids — call it 35 Shots of Cum — and yet, just as Pattinson’s character prefers “abstinence over indulgence,” so, too, does his director: This is an austere, withholding film that never quite reaches the heights you’d expect from its pedigree. But still — what a pedigree!
Tier II: The Nearly Great
From the esoteric to the adorable, this is where the notion of “an A24 film” starts to come together. These include films with small ambitions that nail them and films with huge ambitions that don’t quite get there.
A Ghost Story (2017)
To paraphrase another film on this list: This is my shit. A drama about unseen forces connecting events across space-time? And a random drunk guy gives a monologue about the inevitable heat death of the universe? Sign me up. Still, I’m not gonna deny David Lowery’s film is a tough sit: It’s got Casey Affleck standing around in a bedsheet for 90 minutes, and its pace is so languid you may feel as if you too have been cursed to spend eternity wandering the bounds of your mortal life. (The famous scene in which Rooney Mara eats a pie clocks in at nine minutes.) But I dig the way Lowery applies a personal lesson — change is the only constant — at an epic scale. It’s not easy being Holocene.
Slow West (2015)
Even before Power of the Dog, filmmakers were looking at Kodi Smit-McPhee and thinking, Now there’s a guy who’s out of place in a western. Here he plays a rich lad from Scotland who tracks his lost love (Caren Pistorius) to Colorado with help from a bounty hunter (Michael Fassbender) who becomes his nonsexual Bronco Henry. Their adventure careens from dark comedy to ultraviolence, but the tonal mix plays thanks to director John Maclean’s offbeat visual sense — his staging makes scenes we’ve seen a million times before feel fresh. He’s aided by the otherworldly New Zealand locations, which evoke the West less as an actual place than as a vision from the imagination.
The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) (co-produced)
Many modern Shakespeare adaptations labor to open up the source material. Joel Coen does the exact opposite in his extravagantly stage-bound take on the Scottish play, all heavy shadows and austere interiors. That may sound overweighty, but this Macbeth moves briskly thanks to Coen’s decision to cut the text nearly to the quick — perhaps too brisky: King Duncan’s had his throat slit before you’ve begun to dig into the popcorn. What edge there is here comes from Denzel Washington’s nimble take on the Bard’s English and the film’s graying, middle-aged Macbeths. Their childlessness underlines the nihilism of the whole bloody endeavor: After them, the void.
Marcel the Shell With Shoes On (2022)
Who could have foreseen that Marcel the Shell was not only a strong enough character to support an entire feature film but that the film would turn out to be one of the COVID era’s most poignant reflections on loss? If you’re unfamiliar, Marcel was a googly-eyed optimist created by Jenny Slate and her then-husband, Dean Fleischer-Camp, in YouTube videos that went viral in the early 2010s. But when the couple split up in 2016, that seemed to be the end of him. The movie addresses this awkwardness head on: A newly single Fleischer-Camp moves into an Airbnb, where he discovers Marcel, who’s been living with only his elderly grandmother (voiced by Isabella Rossellini) for company after the rest of their family disappeared. Like many of us, the plucky shell is learning to cope with sudden isolation, to not just get through the day but actually live. Unlike us, though, his way of living involves rolling around inside a tennis ball and using a piece of dried pasta as a trumpet. This is the cutest way two people have ever worked through their divorce.
In Denis Villaneuve’s psychological thriller, two men — one a rumpled, downtrodden academic, the other a domineering, bourgeois actor — discover they are each other’s exact replica. (Jake Gyllenhaal plays both.) Are they twins? Multiple personalities? The same person split in two? The movie’s less interested in answering why than in luxuriating in the strangeness of it all. If you tune in to Villaneuve’s wavelength, you’ll find a fascinating text: an examination of fractured masculinity, maybe, or perhaps a parable about the alienating effects of modern architecture. Just don’t ask me about the spiders. In the post–Spring Breakers era, A24’s biggest successes came from shopping in the art-house lane of the foreign market, and alongside Under the Skin (released that same spring), Enemy stands out as an exemplar of the studio’s early period.
The lead role in Room, a kidnapping victim trying to keep her 5-year-old son from figuring out the true horror of their situation, was such an obvious slam dunk that all the top young actresses in Hollywood vied for it. Conventional wisdom was right: After winning the part, Brie Larson took home every Best Actress trophy in existence, and Room became the first A24 movie nominated for Best Picture. In a weird way, though, the film’s Oscar success ended up working against its reputation. Room feels like the try-hard sitting in front of the class while the cooler A24 films chill in the back. It’s true that the movie’s swirling strings and ingenuous narration practically scream “TIFF People’s Choice Award winner,” and telling it from the POV of an adorable child is indeed a slight cheat. But Lenny Abrahamson’s film is clear-eyed and sensitive about what its characters have been through. The movie earns its manipulations.
Steven Knight’s film might have been born out of a Five Obstructions–style experiment: Can you take a guy talking on his car phone for 90 minutes and make it interesting? Tom Hardy (kitted out in a rumpled sweater, fuzzy beard, and delightfully over-the-top Welsh accent) is Ivan Locke, a construction foreman who’s having the most stressful drive of his life. He’s heading to London, where a one-night stand is about to have his baby, and on the way he’s not only got to tell his wife about the affair but also shepherd an assistant through “the largest concrete pour in Europe.” The Whac-a-Mole tension of Knight’s script works better than its existential musings, but Hardy’s performance saves the film from feeling like an exercise. As a man who always has a contingency plan up his sleeve, he’s never anything less than magnetic.
In the dance sequence that kicks off Climax, Gaspar Noé gives us one of the most joyous openings in contemporary cinema: a hypnotic kaleidoscope of bodies moving through space as individual expression and collective purpose merge to create something truly beautiful. It’s 1996, and a European dance troupe has retreated to an abandoned school to do what they do best — practice, yes, but also gossip, flirt, and screw. That’s the ecstasy. Then comes the agony: Someone’s spiked the sangria with LSD! There’s none of the slow fuse of other A24 horror films here. The second half of Climax is pure balls-to-the-wall madness as the drugged-out ensemble viciously turns on one another. To add to the chaos, the whole thing takes place in exquisitely choreographed long takes that’ll have Sam Mendes creaming his jeans. This is film as an amusement-park ride, and contra Scorsese, that’s not always a bad thing. Call it haunted house.
The Spectacular Now (2013)
In my notes for The Spectacular Now, I kept jotting variations of the phrase “stubbornly resists cliché.” But that’s not quite true. The film doesn’t resist cliché so much as it invites cliché in for a nice cup of tea. This is a high-school romance in which bad boy meets good girl, good girl gets slightly worse (but never that bad), and bad boy gets better. However, the movie feels more original than it is thanks to sparkling performances from Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley. Although both actors were in their 20s at the time, they seem like real teens: inarticulate, stumbling, vulnerable, but carrying the sense that great things could be in store. That turned out to be true for Teller and Woodley, too, even if they’d each have to spend some time mired in franchise muck along the way.
Red Rocket (2021)
For some filmmakers, there’s no better feeling than picking up a cast-off star from the discount bin and giving them a shiny new coat of paint. Sean Baker’s Florida Project follow-up is another rough-hewn, semi-improvisational look at life on the margins, but this time he’s got a secret weapon in early-2000s icon Simon Rex. The former model–VJ–comedy rapper gives the performance of his life as a down-on-his-luck porn star who returns to his Gulf Coast hometown like a conquering hero, despite the fact that everyone hates him. With good reason: He’s a motor mouthed narcissist with nary an honest bone in his body. Watching him wheedle his way into their trust nonetheless is sometimes funny and sometimes tragic, especially with the 2016 election playing out in the background. (You know who else was a compulsive liar?) It’s a character study of a quintessentially American asshole and a star turn for Rex, playing an embodiment of aughts raunch culture grown grasping and desperate in middle age.
Can the distancing effect of subtitles work in a film’s favor? I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed this kitchen-sink drama about a Brooklyn widower navigating single parenthood nearly so much had it starred Ben Foster and been set in Carroll Gardens. But as it happens, Menashe is a glimpse inside the Haredi enclave of Borough Park. All the dialogue is in Yiddish, and the actors are for the most part actual members of the community. Our hero is Yiddish YouTube star Menashe Lustig, playing out a version of his own story: Because the rabbis say children must be raised in a two-parent household, Menashe, since his wife’s death, is forced to live apart from his young son until he remarries. It’s obvious that’s not in the cards. Menashe is an odd duck: a little too soft and a confirmed schlimazel. (When he tries his hand at making kugel, you shudder instinctively.) The real Lustig is an inviting screen presence, no matter the language — his charisma defies translation.
Saint Maud (2021)
The notion that we are uniquely targeted by God is a mirror of the notion that we are blessed: Both are ways of avoiding the truth, which is that we’re irrelevant. But that’s too much to handle for Maude (Morfydd Clark), a nurse who’s found in Jesus the only source of joy in her bleak seaside town. Taking a job as the home aide to a dying choreographer (Jennifer Ehle), Maude makes it her mission to save the woman’s soul, whether she likes it or not. The gag of Saint Maude is that it’s an A24 cult movie where the cult is Christianity, but while director Rose Glass dutifully adheres to the genre commandments — Thou Shalt Have a Creepy Voice Speaking Welsh — she’s at her best delving wholeheartedly into Maude’s fractured psyche, breaking the spell only in a merciless final shot.
After Yang (2021) (co-produced)
Director Kogonada has given us a tender whisper of a movie where no one’s voice ever gets above a hushed monotone. Some people find that annoying, but it fits the film’s vibe of quiet contemplation. In a lightly dystopian future, the mysterious shutdown of a household “techno-sapien” (Justin H. Min) upends his family. For the parents (Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith), it’s a minor technological inconvenience; for their daughter (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), it’s the loss of a best friend. Dad’s attempts to get the surrogate family member back online lead him into Yang’s hidden trove of robotic memories, which spurs a rumination on grief and the gentle beauty of the everyday that made me cry like a baby. Bumped up a few spots for featuring copious amounts of tea.
Gloria Bell (2019)
Gloria Bell (Julianne Moore) is trying. The 50-something divorcée is putting herself out there, exploring new hobbies, refusing to close the door on romance. And yet, in Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s remake of his own 2013 film, there’s still a fundamental loneliness Gloria can’t shake. Even when she’s surrounded by people, she feels like the only one in the room. So when a new suitor (John Turturro) arrives on the scene, she jumps in with both feet, despite the fact he might as well be from an alien planet. Other filmmakers might be content with a sociological study of the middle-aged dating scene, but Lelio and Moore go deeper, creating a joyful, poignant portrait of a woman who asserts her own value no matter what the world says. They more than earn the catharsis of their triumphant Laura Branigan needle drop.
There’s a knowing quality to Zola that might have rankled: An adaptation of A’Ziah King’s viral 2015 Twitter thread, co-written by Jeremy O. Harris, and featuring a supporting turn from Succession’s Cousin Greg, the film could have been generated by an engagement-juicing AI tasked with creating “Spring Breakers for the intersectional era.” Thankfully, there’s no algorithmic smoothness to the actual work. In the hands of director Janicza Bravo, the tale of a stripper field trip the titular Zola (Taylour Paige) takes with a perfidious white girl (Riley Keough) becomes a spiky melange of code-switching, provocation, and mordant humor. You can easily imagine the kind of film Zola might have been in the hands of original director James Franco, but Bravo’s version is genuinely off-putting, a blunt-force depiction of what seems to have been an incredibly traumatic experience for its author. And it still works as a companion piece-cum-correction to Spring Breakers: For Franco, a night at the strip club is a montage; for these women, it’s a living.
Green Room (2016)
My old classmate Mike Sweeney likes to note that Mad Max: Fury Road is a great Trump-era film that predates the Trump era itself. The same is true of Green Room, in which a punk band led by the late Anton Yelchin takes a last-minute gig in rural Oregon, only to find out they’re performing at a skinhead lair. After witnessing a backstage stabbing, they get a firsthand lesson in something the rest of us would learn soon: Nazis don’t negotiate in good faith; they’ll kill you and blame you for your death. Director Jeremy Saulnier’s other films have given him a reputation as a cinematic edgelord, but here he’s made a thriller that embodies the punk ideal. It’s short, punchy, and uncompromising.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)
When a film is this extravagantly aestheticized, it’s easy to say it’s got more style than substance. But what style! Loosely based on the life of star and co-writer Jimmy Fails, Joe Talbot’s film follows a semi-fictional version of Fails who’s secretly restoring his family’s ancestral home from under the eyes of the middle-aged white couple currently inhabiting it. The film feels as monumental as that old Victorian, boasting painterly cinematography from Adam Newport-Bera, Emile Mosseri’s majestically arpeggiated score, and a career-making performance from Jonathan Majors as Fails’s sensitive best friend. A melancholy mood piece that loses steam when it attempts to adhere to traditional narrative, Last Black Man works best as an exploration of who and what gets left behind in a gentrifying city. In a darkly appropriate twist, by the time the film came out many of its locations had already been torn down.
Ex Machina (2015)
Alex Garland’s directorial debut is the perfect blend of smart and stupid: a thriller about a programmer (Domnhall Gleeson) sent by a tech CEO (Oscar Isaac) to test the consciousness of a sexy lady robot (Alicia Vikander). I dug Ex Machina the first time I saw it, but it holds up slightly less well on re-watch. I don’t know if the film ultimately has much to say about artificial intelligence, and any broader philosophical questions soon take a backseat to the issue of whether hot girls can be trusted. But as a techno-noir about a patsy who gets in over his head, it’s a cracker. Garland had the good fortune to cast his trio at the exact moment each actor was popping, but the clear standout is Isaac, whose dead-eyed megalomaniac is a villain perfectly suited to the times. And to the memes: His late-night disco dance was an early beneficiary of A24’s viral magic. (Fun fact: This was the first A24 film to win an Oscar, when it unexpectedly beat Fury Road and The Revenant in Best Visual Effects at the 2016 ceremony.)
The Humans (2021) (co-produced)
Something is rotten in the Chinatown apartment where the Blakes are celebrating Thanksgiving. It’s nothing they’ve done: They’re warm, good-hearted people who get along reasonably well. Nevertheless, their celebrations are haunted by a palpable unease. Strange noises erupt from the ceiling. The walls harbor cancerous growths. The rifts between parents and children — geography, class, religion — are growing wider. Nothing is as good as it used to be, and we’re all going to die alone. Happy holidays! Rather than expand his Tony-winning play, Stephen Karam digs deeper into the alienation that overtakes this most average of families, creating a sense of existential dread that’s as scary as any slasher villain. A shame A24 buried The Humans on Showtime, when it could have been the feel-bad movie our pandemic malaise deserves.
As depressing as the Thanksgiving in The Humans is, the one in Krisha is worse. Trey Edward Shults’s debut follows Krisha (Krisha Fairchild), a 60-something alcoholic who’s shown up at her family’s doorstep determined to make amends. She’s an open wound, and Shults shoots her inevitable breakdown like a horror film — he makes the baying hounds and macho antics of this middle-class suburban home feel as freakish as the goings-on at the Overlook Hotel. Krisha was made for only $30,000, but its cloistered psychodrama has an authenticity money can’t buy. (Fairchild is Shults’s real-life aunt, and the other cast members are mostly family or friends from the Texas film scene.) Krisha announced Shults as a gifted young director, and it rightly earned him the opportunity to make bigger and more ambitious films. But he couldn’t have done it without Fairchild, a bit player and voice actress who makes the most of her nephew’s spotlight. Even when Krisha’s at her most monstrous, she never lets us lose sight of the needy little girl underneath.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
Nice bourgeois society you got there; it’d be a shame if someone revealed the moral rot at its core. Lanthimos brings his deadpan banalities to the tale of a cardiac surgeon (Colin Farrell) mysteriously beholden to a teen (an indelible Barry Keoghan) whose father died on his operating table. The title comes from Greek mythology, and there’s a touch of myth here too, both in the unexplained workings of Keoghan’s character, and in the way Farrell’s self-assured patriarch proves utterly useless at protecting his family from them. There was a thought that Sacred Deer might be the movie where its director made the leap to Oscar respectability, but that would have to wait until his next, slightly more conventional, project. This an astringent piece of work, even for Lanthimos — it begins with a shot of a diseased heart, and nearly every character is hiding deep reserves of cruelty, egoism, or neediness. All of them must bow to forces greater than themselves, whether that be a stone-faced kid from Dunkirk or the Greek auteur who’s created this moral fishbowl.
A Most Violent Year (2014)
A film about architecture. J.C. Chandor takes us from industrial no-man’s-land through the backrooms of immigrant Brooklyn to the luxe Westchester suburbs, where a new-money modernist mansion has slammed down like the monolith in 2001. Heating-oil magnate Abel Morales’s (Oscar Isaac) superpower is being able to traverse all these spaces at will without ruffling his pompadour or soiling his immaculate camel coat. His one weird trick? Lying to himself — about his wealth, his business practices, and his own morality. His mobbed-up wife, played by a delicious Jessica Chastain, has fewer illusions, and as his empire begins to crumble, the gap between his self-image and the truth is laid bare in terrifying terms. “I have always taken the path that is most right,” Abel says after one particularly brutal encounter, and the scary thing is, he actually believes it.
Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (co-produced)
Welcome to the multiverse, where the fate of human existence has come down to Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), a middle-aged laundromat owner who regrets all the paths her life didn’t take. To save the day, Evelyn must acquire skills from alternate-universe versions of herself: one where she’s a movie star who bears a striking resemblance to Michelle Yeoh, another where evolution gave humans hot-dog fingers. Oh, and to unlock this ability, a person must first do something totally random, like chomp into chapstick. Directing duo Daniels’ merger of gonzo humor with the therapeutic language of the millennial internet proved more winning than anyone expected: EEAAO ranks as 24’s all-time box-office champion. Its first 90 minutes are the funniest film A24 ever made, and Yeoh’s physical mastery makes this the closest a movie can get to being a live-action Looney Tunes. But the setup also write catharsis checks that the sentimental and repetitive third act can’t cash. (Turns out human existence can be saved by … a hug?) When it comes to their plots, the Daniels demonstrate boundless imagination; maybe one day their emotional palette will, too. Until then, their films feel like brilliant drawings done only in primary colors.
Tier I: The Masterpieces
Enduring milestones, studio-defining hits, and a few sleepers that deserved better. Strip away all the nonsense surrounding the A24 brand, and this is the foundation: 20-plus films that rank among the cinematic achievements of their era.
Spring Breakers (2013)
Three films, each set in Florida, released three years apart. Spring Breakers was the studio’s third film, and it was the one that introduced the public to A24’s singular brand of ostentatious provocation. (In an alternate universe where Ginger & Rosa was the one that hit, we might have been treated to a wave of films about ‘60s British schoolgirls instead.) Spring Breakers’ release in the spring of 2013 marked the point where indie kids threw away their cardigans and aughts twee died for good. It’s doesn’t matter that not much actually happens in the film, because its appeal stemmed from what we were not yet calling “vibes”: Four college girls head south on spring break and enter a world of gleeful hedonism, which director Harmony Korine treats like the circles of hell. One moment, it’s frat boys and beer bongs, the next it’s a criminal underworld where guns are dicks and dicks are guns. A decade on, it’s apparent that this was also the close of another micromoment, run by the “fuck it, nothing matters” ethos of post-crash culture, which would close definitively when Miley Cyrus twerked on Robin Thicke and suddenly everything mattered. But this was before that, a more innocent time when you could still culturally appropriate without worrying about having to answer for it. Like many such works, it’s hard to get a sense on rewatch of how much Spring Breakers powered the Zeitgeist, but do not undersell its impact. Every subsequent A24 project about young people behaving badly should pay royalties.
Eighth Grade (2018) (co-produced)
Plenty of filmmakers have tackled the hurdles of growing up in the Instagram age, but the genius of Eighth Grade is in never condescending to its teenage heroine, Kayla (Elsie Fisher, in a guileless performance). The movie’s multitude of cringe moments bring youthful mortification rushing back to vivid life, particularly for anyone who remembers being too fat or too awkward in middle school (which is to say, most of us). They work so well, though, because writer-director Bo Burnham takes pains to pair them with an appreciation for the genuine pleasures of Kayla’s life, those small moments of connection and bravery. Keeping with Burnham’s empathetic approach, the film is also remarkably sanguine about the Internet itself: In a montage of Kayla on her phone set to Enya’s “Orinoco Flow,” the banal thrill of scrolling through the feed has rarely felt like such an adventure.
First Reformed (2018)
Paul Schrader’s return from the VOD desert is as austere and severe as an old church pew. You get the sense any stylistic embellishment might physically pain him, or at least distract from the big moral questions he’s posing. Ethan Hawke stars as a priest called to minister to an environmental activist convinced it’s wrong to bring a child into an impending climate disaster. Initially opposed to despair, the reverend soon finds it contagious: The compromises the church’s work entails become increasingly untenable to him, and even his own body begins to rebel against him. First Reformed takes place in a gray world sapped of any joy; in its rigid close-ups, the frame itself becomes a prison. Years after its release, Schrader’s vision of the old ways breaking down feels more prescient than ever. How do we live in hopelessness without letting it win?
First Cow (2020)
Whenever I watch a period piece, I think of an old Roger Ebert quote from his review of The New World. The events in that film, he wrote, “seem to be happening for the first time. No one here has read a history book from the future.” One of the best things I can say about Kelly Reichardt’s Oregon Territory buddy movie is that despite a modern-day framing device, it too is told in the present-tense. The Northwest’s polyglot mix of Chinook, British, Russian, American, and Chinese have no sense where the wave of history will take them. All they can do is ride it as best they can. For BFFs Cookie (John Magaro) and King Lu (Orion Lee), that means making a fortune in oily cakes before anyone realizes the secret ingredient is milk they’ve stolen from the only cow in the area. Reichardt’s storytelling is delicate and composed, a gentle style for the weightiest of themes: capitalism making its first ruinous steps into a state of nature. Inside this tender tale of friendship are two key insights. One, crime hides at the heart of most every great fortune; and two, once the machinery of business gets going, it’s nearly impossible to stop.
The Lobster (2016)
Much of A24’s early reputation was built on offbeat efforts from established European auteurs. In the case of The Lobster, it almost didn’t happen: The studio missed out on buying the film at Cannes and snapped it up only when the people who had gotten it went out of business. What a match it proved to be. Yorgos Lanthimos’s absurdist rom-com was not a huge hit, but it was a signpost of their sensibility, the kind of film you could point to if someone asked, “What’s A24?” It takes place in a dystopia where being single is outlawed; anyone dumped or widowed is sent to a resort where they have 45 days to find a new mate or else be turned into an animal. In what would become a directorial trademark, characters speak with childlike bluntness, and it’s taken for granted that a couple can work only if their defining traits line up exactly. Such extreme quirkiness might have been grating, if stars Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz weren’t able to invest Lanthimos’s deadpan with such soul and spirit. They bring life to a universe that runs on its own bizarrely calibrated logic.
One silver lining of the pandemic-disrupted 2020 awards season was that, in the absence of big-league Oscar bait, lower-key contenders like Minari got their due. Lee Isaac Chung’s meditative autobiographical drama follows a family of Korean immigrants (Steven Yeun and Yeri Han are the parents, the adorable Alan Kim Chung’s stand-in) who move to rural Arkansas so Dad can stake out his American Dream on 50 acres of fertile soil. The locals are not unkind, but even so, it’s a strange, strained existence — not what Mom signed up for. Help arrives in the form of her mother (Oscar winner Youn Yuh-jung). “She isn’t like a real grandma,” her grandson complains, and thank goodness for that: Direct and uninhibited, she shakes both film and family out of their melancholy. Chung’s turned his family’s story into a gentle tearjerker, a profile of resilience at a time when that quality was sorely needed.
Good Time (2017)
The Safdie brothers make movies that pulse with the beat of New York City: Somehow, they’ve managed to distill onto celluloid the feeling of jaywalking. In their breakout hit, which became the dominant aesthetic influence on New York’s downtown scene, things go well for Robert Pattinson’s Queens lowlife for about ten minutes. The next 90 are one colossal fuck-up after another, as Pattinson roams the neon-bathed night in search of a way to free his mentally handicapped brother (Benny Safdie) from jail. Good Time is Uncut Gems’ scruffy outer-borough cousin, a scrappy thriller that gets by on pure momentum. In the hands of the Safdies, failure has a relentless energy all its own. It’s like riding a roller-coaster that only goes down.
The Green Knight (2021) (co-produced)
Joining Die Hard in the ranks of Christmas movies released in July, David Lowery’s adaptation of the 14th-century poem is a sumptuous swords-and-sorcery epic that aims to immerse us in the values of Arthurian legend. In this case, that means honor, a quality Dev Patel’s callow Gawain is desperate to obtain as long as he can keep his head in the process. While his compatriot Robert Eggers prefers to maintain kayfabe about his 21st-century perspective, Lowery is a little looser; we can feel his grin peeking through the robes and chain mail. In The Green Knight, he gives us a very modern depiction of honor, one that swaps the rigid expectations of a medieval social order for a more existential, and at times downright surreal, view. Its standout is a near-wordless 15-minute sequence in which the consequences of Gawain’s cowardice are laid bare — Scared Straight for the Plantagenet generation.
American Honey (2016)
Andrea Arnold’s road movie marks the apex of 2010s Berniecore, a wave of kitchen-sink dramas about young people in a shitty economy trying to get by however they can. Here, a girl in going-nowhere Oklahoma (Sasha Lane) falls for Shia LeBeouf’s rat-tailed lothario, then falls in with his ragtag crew of teens, who traverse the Great Plains selling magazine subscriptions. You could call them burnouts, except they were never “in.” (Most are nonprofessionals essentially playing themselves.) Naturalistic and unadorned, the film plays like a documentary portrait of the wreckage of empire — a world of lowlives, eccentrics, and schemers, of fraying bonds and makeshift families. It takes chutzpah for a British director to call their film “American” anything, but Arnold’s got us dead to rights.
The Lighthouse (2019) (co-produced)
Hark! Robert Eggers’s tale of maritime madness sees the Witch director taking his obsession with period effluvia to new heights, to the extent that Eggers almost seems to be in a competition with himself about how many different bodily fluids he can cram into one film. (The answer: quite a lot!) It’s a gross-out psychodrama about two turn-of-the-century lighthouse keepers (Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe) who go insane after being cut off from civilization. That sounds like a setup for a horror movie, but eldritch terror is just one element in a tonal brew that includes odd-couple comedy, salty sea lore, and male sexual disfunction. It’s like someone threw the entire syllabus of Bard College in a blender and let ’er rip. As is his wont, Eggers shoots the whole thing in a style reminiscent of German silent films, though I’m guessing Conrad Veidt didn’t have to put up with nearly this many farts.
The Souvenir (2019) & The Souvenir Part II (2021)
For years, Joanna Hogg had a reputation as the best British director Americans had never heard of. Only when A24 distributed her intimate cinematic memoir did Stateside audiences finally get to see what all the fuss was about. In part one, a naïve film student (Honor Swinton-Byrne) in ’80s London strikes up a romance with an older man (Tom Burke, whose snobbish charm brings to mind a curdled Hugh Grant), only to learn he may not be entirely what he seems. In part two, she attempts to turn that romance into her thesis film, only to find that the process of transmuting pain into art is not as simple as just shooting exactly what happened … which perhaps explains why it took 30 years for the director herself to work up to it. Hogg’s style is elusive and elliptical, as much of the drama plays out in oblique angles or in gaps between scenes, fitting for a relationship where the ground seems to be shifting with every interaction. Even without knowing how many scenes are drawn from the director’s own past, the films have the texture of memory: fingers on a dress, footsteps up the stairs. By the end, it’s almost like you lived it, too.
Midsommar (2019) (co-produced)
In his second feature, Ari Aster puts poor Florence Pugh through the wringer: a murder-suicide, an uncaring boyfriend, and a soul-crushing breakdown … and that’s just the inciting incident! After all that tragedy, a grief-stricken Pugh tags along on a bro’s trip to a Swedish folk festival, which turns into an opportunity for Aster to indulge his grisliest impulses. It’s all too much — an orgy of squashed skulls, internal-organ origami, and frankly impressive feats of taxidermy. But these violent delights wouldn’t mean anything if, as in a pagan Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the ugly Americans hadn’t first demonstrated their individual unworthiness. Selfish, uncommitted, and grasping, the Yanks make a poor contrast to the gentle, communitarian Swedes (as well as a hilarious example of A24 skewering its core audience). When the sun-drenched horrorshow gets going, it’s an appropriate payback for the preceding two hours of emotional violence. In Pugh’s place, who wouldn’t overlook a little human sacrifice if it meant someone would finally listen to you?
The Witch (2016)
Not the first A24 horror film, but certainly the most influential. Before this, did fans ever cheer a scary movie for its commitment to historical verisimilitude? Robert Eggers’s Puritan thriller is so exhaustively researched that every character talks in nigh-incomprehensible period diction and even the sets were built with 17th-century tools. It was the first test run of an idea that would become Eggers’s signature, taking a trip into the past not just physically, but also mentally: If the devil was as real as the rain to these people, then he would be real here, too. One of A24’s first big hits, The Witch wound up setting the mold for much of the studio’s subsequent genre output, from the general (esoteric settings, a studied indifference to prevailing box-office trends) to the specific (pagan cults, creepy birds, the suggestion that the woods are full of terrible things lurking just out of frame), to the meta (turning the malevolent goat Black Phillip into a Twitter sensation). Even the ending, in which Anya Taylor-Joy’s Thomasin finally gives into the dark forces plaguing her family, would be more or less repeated in every other critically acclaimed A24 horror flick.
Uncut Gems (2019) (co-produced)
After Good Time became Reservoir Dogs for Canal Street fuckboys, A24 got into the Safdie business full-time by producing their follow-up. Gems plays like Good Time, squared: higher stakes, a more frenetic pace, and a bigger star. To use a comparison Howard Ratner might appreciate, adding Adam Sandler to the Safdies’ stable of weirdos was like adding Kevin Durant to the Warriors — a self-contained stylistic universe suddenly exploded with creative possibilities. Sandler proved to be the brothers’ ideal leading man, employing every ounce of his charisma to make an utterly repulsive character not merely sympathetic but even charming. His Howard is so convinced that this time will be his big score you can’t help but go along with him. Compared to the leaner Good Time, Gems certainly has lower lows. (That sexting scene!) But just like that climactic triple-parlay bet, the ambition speaks for itself. As did the results: Until Everything Everywhere All at Once, this was A24’s biggest domestic hit.
Under the Skin (2014)
Stars — they’re not like us. Jonathan Glazer’s spartan sci-fi ports an alien played by Scarlett Johansson in full Elizabeth Taylor glam to gray, gritty Glasgow, where she picks up random men, then traps them in a featureless black void. (A special effect so good it was ripped off wholesale by Stranger Things.) The gulf between film stars and regular people has never felt wider, as the subtext powering Hollywood since the beginning — what if you, a normal bloke, had a chance with a woman like this — is made into horrifying text. Accordingly, it’s also one of the great movies about bodies: the hypervisibility of an attractive female body, the meaning of a “deformed” body, the fact that underneath our higher aspirations we’re all just bags of meat. Not a film with the rosiest view of existence, but there’s stark purity in its nihilism.
The Farewell (2019)
How does The Farewell swerve around all the clichés of the Snowball Lie plot? Probably because it’s based on an actual one: When director Lulu Wang’s grandmother got cancer, the family really did hide the diagnosis from her. In Wang’s film, that deception sets up a culture clash between Billi (Awkwafina, in a finely-honed dramatic turn) and her Chinese family, who see concealing the truth as an act of love, a way for the group to carry the emotional weight instead. The film itself is attuned to that communal spirit. In the sham wedding that’s an excuse to get everyone back together, The Farewell nails the internal dynamics of a big family gathering: the gossip, the in-jokes, the subtle jockeying for position. The showdown over the lie becomes a stand-in for East vs. West, but Wang is smart enough to know she doesn’t have to pick a side. With warm humor and a touch of magic realism, the world she’s created feels at once very big and very small.
The Florida Project (2017)
“You’re having too much fun, and it’s not supposed to be fun,” an adult tells some children near the beginning of The Florida Project. You could say the same about Sean Baker’s neorealist gem, which takes place on the outskirts of Disney World at a collection of roadside motels that play home to people the American Dream forgot. One of them is Moonee (the exuberant Brooklynn Prince), a 7-year-old who spends her days scampering around, tormenting the kindly handyman (Willem Dafoe), and generally being an adorable little hellion. There’s less plot, more slowly escalating chaos — much of it driven by Moonee’s volatile mother (Bria Vinite, cast from Instagram) — but Baker’s camera has the energy to keep up with their boundless imagination. Featuring cinematography as creamy and colorful as an ice-cream sundae, The Florida Project is both a masterful sketch of life on the margins and a gorgeous ode to childrens’ ability to find joy no matter their circumstances.
20th Century Women (2016)
With its bittersweet tone and first-person-omniscient narration, 20th Century Woman feels like the film adaptation of a short-story collection that doesn’t exist. And yet, it’s never anything less than cinematic, thanks to writer-director Mike Mills’s bold use of time-lapse and found footage, which drops us into late-’70s Santa Barbara like a stone in the river of time. Annette Bening stars as Dorothea, a boarding-house matriarch who deals with her increasing bewilderment about her teenage son (Lucas Jade Zumann) by enlisting her tenants (Greta Gerwig and Billy Crudup) and the boy’s crush (Elle Fanning, one last time) to help raise him as a good man. They think it’s a terrible idea, but they decide to give it a go anyway. What I love about 20th Century Women is that it’s a movie all about people trying to reach out to each other, and largely failing … but they keep doing it anyway! Mills has given us a vision of found family that’s messy, nuanced, and above all, full of life. As a perfect instance of life imitating art, when I showed it to my parents, they hated it. But this isn’t their list. What a lovely film.
Lady Bird (2017)
Unapologetically basic — a love letter to the suburbs, DMB, greatest-hits compilations, and calling your mom. But basicness is as valid an aesthetic choice as any other. The real problem is being phony, which despite the viral takedowns, this movie is not. It comes by its convictions honestly. Greta Gerwig’s solo debut takes us through a whirlwind year in the life of a high schooler (Saoirse Ronan) who longs to escape her middle-class Sacramento life. Like any teen, she’s self-obsessed and a little performative, but Gerwig takes Lady Bird’s ambition seriously, if not literally — just as she knows Mom (Laurie Metcalf) is right about her daughter being a brat but could also stand to cut her a break now and then. What’s remarkable about Lady Bird is its finely honed balance: in the push-pull dynamic between mother and daughter, the way an argument can ebb up then just as suddenly recede; in the pacing of its vignettes, which are sketched with the deftness of a veteran storyteller; and in the tone, which is wistful but never indulgent. (It’s also one of the best recent films about class; witness how Lucas Hedges’s rich kid blithely reveals something he shouldn’t, twice.) While A24 has a fine track record with female directors, the clique of its buzziest hits has been a bit of a boy’s club. Lady Bird is the exception, and alongside the next two films on this list, it solidified the studio’s reputation as a launchpad for the next great American filmmakers.
Moonlight (2016) (co-produced)
Three films, each set in Florida, released three years apart. Moonlight marks the peak of the A24 house style — pure, uncut expressionism, delivered with unrivaled intimacy. Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s play is in some ways a throwback to the melodramas of yore: a young gay Black man falls in love, gets betrayed, and finally finds self-acceptance. (There’s something positively Sirkian about Jenkins’s use of color, his swooning blues and raging pinks.) Its third act in particular is near-perfect cinema. As one-time lovers Trevante Rhodes and André Holland reunite, their smallest interaction is fraught with the weight of everything that’s come before. The diner scene between them may be the most romantic of the decade: a dream of someone cracking through all your defenses and seeing you just as you are. The first film A24 ever produced itself, Moonlight was a bet on Jenkins, who had only 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy to his name. Its wager paid off and then some: To date, this is A24’s only Best Picture winner, one of the rare occasions Oscar got it completely right.
Hereditary (2018) (co-produced)
And yet, as magic as Moonlight is, it feels like a film that a number of studios might have released. The No. 1 spot goes to a movie that could have been put out only by A24, and, well, have you seen Hereditary? Ari Aster’s debut is one of the hallmarks of what became known as “elevated horror,” but you don’t need to subscribe to that label to appreciate the emotional extremity he brings to the genre. At first, it seems like it’s going to be the story of a grieving mother (Toni Collette) and her creepy kid … until that scene happens and we realize just how deep Aster is prepared to burrow into the pit of human misery. Hereditary’s real subject is the wounds families can’t help but inflict on themselves, a metaphor through which Aster infuses the kitschy aesthetic of suburban Utah with its own kind of dread. At the center of it all is Collette, who gives a tour de force performance that combines rage, desolation, and pitch-black comedy. (Her delivery of the line “All I get is that fucking face on your face!” should have earned her a nomination all by itself.) Does it matter that the film has essentially the same ending as The Witch? Would you ding the Beatles for re-using four-part harmonies? It’s just A24 developing its signature, throwing viewers into the mouth of madness with no prospect of relief. Raw, fucked up, and filled with images you’ll never forget no matter how hard you try, Hereditary is an A24 movie at its most A24, not just a great film, but one so powerful that it defined an entire studio.