Kanopy houses its great selection within a multitude of well-curated categories. Among these groupings, Art House Favorites contains some of the best titles. Many of them are personal favorites. If you want something challenging, interesting, or just plain weird to watch, consider these!
Art House Horror
Art house horror has been a thriving subgenre for about as long as the medium itself. As a devout movie geek and film critic, I obviously love art films. I’m also drawn to horror in all media. Almost every year there’s at least one art house horror flick in my Best Of list. The Art House Favorites category alone has several, but don’t let that stop you from further exploring the catalog.
Scarlett Johansson plays an alien disguised as a mysterious and beautiful woman in London in this atmospheric and disturbing sci-fi art-horror film. Encountering several men, she draws them to a mysterious dwelling consisting of nothing but blackness and a deep pool of water, and hypnotizes them in order to feed. Slowly she begins to absorb the concepts of empathy, compassion, and fear, becoming more and more like a human being as a result.
Not all of the film has a distinct horror bent, but its early sequences are surreal and unsettling, sometimes containing beautiful but frightening imagery. As the film progresses, it becomes difficult to discern which characters are good or bad, and the themes of the film tend to be equally cryptic. In many instances the story is distinctly feminist, specifically revolving around sexual agency and retribution for a culture of objectification and sexual violence. Without spoiling anything, the story veers in directions that complicate these themes and make them less specific, opening up a far richer dialogue that extends into the darkness, loneliness, and existential nature of life.
The debut feature of Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse), The Witch, demonstrates a mastery of the craft one would expect from a veteran filmmaker. A religious family, exiled from their colony in 17th century New England, builds a home near the edge of the woods and falls prey to a witch. It wouldn’t spoil anything to say that, yes, there’s a real witch; it’s not just in their heads. Still, the film epitomizes top shelf psychological horror, utilizing it in a claustrophobic environment to intensify and elaborate on the paranoia and impotency introduced in seminal witch-in-the-woods film, The Blair Witch Project.
The prevailing subtext, here, concerns the root of self-destructive puritanism within the American legacy that has time and time again led to suspicion, judgement, and violence. The tried and true symbol of the malevolent woods, especially in a colonial New England context, adds another layer of distinctly American folklore, namely the supernatural punishment of settlers, the unknown terrors that await those who trespass on stolen land.
Film by Yorgos Lanthimos
Yorgos Lanthimos is one of my favorite working directors. His films topped my Best Of list two years in a row. Initially garnering fame in Greece and, later, the foreign film and festival market, Lanthimos rose to international recognition for The Favourite. For those of you who thought The Favourite was weird or dark, you might be surprised to hear that it’s his most accessible and inoffensive. These three films in Kanopy’s Art House Favorites best represent his voice. In all Lanthimos films, vulnerable protagonists rebel against oppressive strangleholds, whether they be totalitarian systems of social control or interpersonal power struggles. Constraining his characters in bizarre, rule-driven environments, we become transfixed by the curious specifics of them while never losing sight of their horror, whether blatant or implied.
Dogtooth depicts the lives of a family with three adult children who have been sequestered from the outside world by their authoritarian father. While appearing to be in their thirties, the children possess the maturity of preteens, and have been made to believe that no other beings exist outside of their secluded property except for monsters.
This premise sounds almost whimsical. However, the puzzling execution mystifies rather than indulges. Robotic dialog, stilted performances, and jarring camera work responds to the the expected thriller conventions with the atmosphere of a subtly unsettling dream with foreign logic, serving to alienate rather than permit complicity. The result boils down the mechanics of totalitarian societies into the inner workings of one family. The use of intimidation, propaganda, political silencing, and humanitarian crimes all have corollaries in this story.
In the World of The Lobster, single adults must go to a resort to find a mate within 45 days or else be turned into an animal. Again, the premise sounds whimsical. And, to be sure, it contains far more humor than Dogtooth, albeit extremely dry and absurdist humor. It’s not without a fair share of darkness, though, either.
Here, Lanthimos skewers the social conventions of romance and dating, mainly the expectations placed upon older single people. His style of directing actors with unnatural dialogue and stilted delivery works especially well in this case, both elevating the deadpan humor and illustrating the forced quality of so many social interactions.
Colin Farrell plays Steven Murphy, a heart surgeon who attempts to mentor a socially awkward teen whose father died under his knife. The teen (Barry Keoghan), then reveals that he’s, for lack of a better term, hexed Murphy’s family as revenge. Each of them will lose their ability to walk and eat before bleeding from the eyes and dying. The only way to prevent each of their deaths is for Murphy to kill one of them himself.
Lanthimos strays from the broader examinations of society to focus on interpersonal relationships in Sacred Deer. An arrogant, highly logical man, Murphy attempts to override the inexplicable supernatural phenomenon with medicine, prolonging his family’s suffering as a result. He refuses to account for his flaws and mistakes, debasing himself and paying a terrible price for not acquiescing to the unstoppable power of fate.
Sacred Deer is a movie that ruins your day. For my taste, that is the highest praise. Additionally, it’s one of his most beautiful films, along with The Favorite. The intricate and rich production design works wonderfully with his eye for jarring, sometimes clinical composition. The score is jolting and unnerving, recalling Krzysztof Penderecki’s string pieces used in The Shining. The film is one long, puzzling, squirmy tale of inexplicable harm and downfall which just begs to be re-watched for all of its sneaky allusions and deeper meanings, if you can stomach another viewing.
Strong Female Leads
Each of the films in this category feature a great performance by an actress portraying a complex and ultimately strong-willed character.
Michelle Williams plays Wendy, a homeless woman travelling by car to find work in Alaska. Her dog, Lucy, is her only companion. Out of necessity, she attempts to shoplift from a local store and gets caught. She’s subsequently arrested and Lucy gets left behind. The rest of the film follows Wendy as she attempts to relocate Lucy and get her car repaired.
Williams has always been incredibly talented at playing weary, vulnerable women fighting for survival in a cruel and indifferent world. Her quiet desperation, tenacity, and wounded outlook powers every scene with a sense of urgency. Director Kelly Reichardt, a mainstay of the independent film scene, is able to distill her recurring focus on small-town life and nature into a sad, tender character study including a powerful but not overbearing look into the poverty crisis.
If you’re a dog-lover who likes a good tearjerker, I can’t recommend Wendy and Lucy enough.
Director Lars Von Trier is a sacrilegious and extreme filmmaker, a cheeky Dane with an abstract vision and a tendency to stir up controversy everywhere he goes. Melancholia is the middle film in his “Depression Trilogy”, the first being Antichrist and the second being Nymphomaniac Vol I and II. If you couldn’t tell by those titles, Melancholia is the more subdued of the three.
While a rogue planet, Melancholia, hurtles towards Earth, a dysfunctional family attends the wedding of clinically depressed Justine (Kirsten Dunst). At this point, clearly, humanity has not yet learned of its impending doom. Nevertheless, Justine acts erratically at her wedding. She sits emotionless during the reception and alienates her extended family and boss. This behavior, a concrete depiction of the sudden lows one can take when suffering from depression, leads to the dissolution of her marriage before going to the second act of the film. Justine now lives with her Sister and Brother-in-Law (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland), and they await the coming of the Melancholia planet, unsure if its path will truly collide with Earth or not.
Von Trier has openly talked about suffering from depression, and got the idea for this film during therapy sessions, where he learned depressed people tend to be more calm in disastrous situations because they already expect the worse. While functioning as an allegory, Melancholia also works well as a character-driven, minimalist science fiction film.
Taking place in 1980s East Germany, Barbara (Nina Hoss) is a doctor banished to a small country village for applying for an exit visa in Berlin. She struggles to adapt to her new assignment and suspects that some of the residents may be Stasi informants.
I, personally, have yet to see this one. With Barbara, Director Christian Petzold began an informal trilogy of sorts consisting of love stories in oppressive regimes. The third film, Transit, was among my favorite films of 2019. He has an unconventional narrative approach that combines straightforward storytelling with unusual conceits. Transit depicts a refugee in Europe escaping an occupation. The look of the time period suggests it’s the Nazi occupation, but things like modern cars and surveillance cameras in the background intentionally contradict the old fashioned clothing and language evoking the Third Reich. In this sense, the story is about every war and every refugee outside of time.
French Candian director Denis Villeneuve, known for Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival, made a great first impression with the independent feature, Enemy, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Adam Bell (Gylenhaal) is a college history professor who sees his double in a movie. He digs deeper and discovers the man, Anthony Claire, is an up-and-coming actor who, indeed, appears to be his identical twin.
That’s really about all that can be said, because to delve deeper into the plot would spoil too much. I will say that it really earns its place in “Art House Favorites”, taking some intriguing and cryptic turns that leaves almost everything up to interpretation. The film is just as fun to talk about and read about as it is to watch.
After her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) kills her husband and other daughter before targeting students at school, Eva (Swinton) must navigate life in a community where she has become ostracized due to Kevin’s actions. Via flashbacks, Kevin’s pathology is shown to be innate and unchanging, exploring the role of personality disorders in children as well as nurturing outcomes by the parents. Eva attempts to understand and accept her son in a character arc that tests the limits of parental love.
Swinton’s performance is among her best and Ezra Miller (known for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) proved to be a magnificent talent with this early role. Their dynamic onscreen provides reason enough to view the film, but its nuanced and emotionally wrought treatment of school massacres makes it especially stand out among other works of fiction on the subject.
While about ghosts, A Ghost Story is no horror film. The most striking quality would be its aspect ratio, or the shape of the frame. Shot in a vignetted 4:3, it mimics the look of an old photograph. Sure enough, timelessness is at the core of the film, taking a deceased man played by Casey Affleck through multiple periods of time after leaving behind his beloved wife (Rooney Mara).
Philosophical, sweet, sad, and universal, this small and intimate tale has grand overtones about life’s cyclical nature and the passage of time. Of course, the second most striking quality is that Casey Affleck’s ghost takes the form of an actual bedsheet with black holes for eyes. The old-fashioned Halloween imagery, while having the possibility of coming across as comical, works perfectly for director David Lowery’s dramatic purposes, as he expertly maintains a somber but storybook tone. The choice to use such a literal interpretation could have any number of applications. I’m not even totally sure why it works. It just does.
There’s more to the category, as with the entire collection. But there’s only so much I can cram in here. Among others I’ve not seen but have wanted to are the documentaries Obit, Ex Libris: New York Public Library, and Rat Film.
Of course, the ones I’ve listed carry the highest of recommendations, but I encourage you to find what you like!