25. The Swing (dir. Cyril Aris, Lebanon)
Morally ambiguous doc about a family keeping their nonagenarian patriarch in the dark about the death of his daughter. As his health and mind slip away, the lingering camera – meticulously composed and shot on smeary home video – occasionally suggests he senses something is up. But then he’ll ask again where she is. And again. And again. It will haunt me forever. More info.
24. To Die in the Desert (A Morir a Los Desiertos) (dir. Marta Ferrer, Mexico)
A compassionate and dusty portrait of the last worn vestiges of the “Cardenche” style of music that was born out of 19th century slavery in Northern Mexico. The disobedient but harmonic a cappella music contrasts the steady stream of firsthand accounts of heartbreak and loss, and the beleaguered nature of its origins. I could’ve watched three hours of this. More info.
23. Aleksi (dir. Barbara Vekarić, Croatia/Serbia)
Messy, immature 28-year-old Aleksi shirks responsibilities to crash her parents’ winery and indulge a number of flings with the men in the area, leaving a trail of emotional debris in her wake. Restless and uncompromising, Tihana Lazovic as Aleksi is your new dreamboat metropolis. More info.
22. Holiday (dir. Isabella Eklöf, Denmark/Netherlands/Sweden)
A real feel-bad trip following a gangster’s moll on an exotic vacation that mangles into a nightmare of brutality. Eklöf’s difficult but rewarding debut approaches its graphic violence with clinical precision and aesthetic excess, making it both stomach-churning to watch but impossible to look away. More info.
21. Thick Lashes of Lauri Mäntyvaara (dir. Hannaleena Hauru, Finland)
The bond between two teens – whose main thrill is to elaborately ruin weddings and save nearly-weds from a potentially dead-end life together – is broken when one of them falls for a local hockey player sporting the titular eye coif. Come for the spunky attitude, stay for the most epic kitten shots you’ve ever seen. More info.
20. Island of the Hungry Ghosts (dir. Gabrielle Brady, Germany/U.K./Australia)
Every year, forty million crabs make their migration across Christmas Island in Australia. The care to ensure they reach their destination is contrasted against the comparatively inferior treatment of human asylum seekers nearby. Bleak and beautiful, with a score and sound design that makes your whole body vibrate, and a visual palette resembling outtakes from Von Trier’s Antichrist, Brady’s debut rightfully won Best Doc at Tribeca. More info.
19. Suburban Birds (dir. Qiu Sheng, China)
Transfixing, temporally twisted, nearly impenetrable puzzle that’s equal parts Stand By Me and Kafka’s The Castle. More info.
18. Miriam Lies (dir. Natalia Cabral & Oriol Estrada, Dominican Republic)
Searing coming-of-age sliver that understands and deftly articulates how a moment in adolescence can seem world-ending but is actually just one of many bumps in the road to Hell I mean adulthood. More info.
17. When She Runs (dirs. Robert Machoian & Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck, U.S.)
Quiet, sturdy, nakedly personal drama about how everyone has limits, and how some – in this case a competitive runner following her harsh training regiment – cope when pushed up against them. More info.
16. En Liberté! (The Trouble With You) (dir. Pierre Salvadori, France)
A giddy bubble-wrap screwball farce with a perfectly scrumptious cast including The Unknown Girl‘s Adele Haenel, Amélie‘s Audrey Tautou, Pio Marmaï, and Thirst Street‘s Damien Bonnard. Remember how good it feels to laugh? More info.
15. Rafiki (dir. Wanuri Kahiu, Kenya)
A neon-bright affectionate confection that was temporarily banned in Kenya because its breezy portrayal of queer romance wasn’t “remorseful” enough. Kahiu coined the term “Afrobubblegum”, a label under which she and an emerging band of African filmmakers make films that dare to be joyful, frivolous, and hopeful. More info.
14. The Dead and the Others (dir. Renée Nader Messora & João Salaviza, Portugal/Brazil)
Timeless and elemental tale of an indigenous Krahô boy whose hope to release his father’s spirit to the afterlife requires him to first become a shaman. Magical and meditative, with indelible imagery, and an impossible final shot. Won the Jury Prize at Cannes in Un Certain Regard. More info.
13. When Lions Become Lambs (dir. Jon Kasbe, Kenya)
Unsparing and suspenseful, with no shortage of serendipitous moments that would make any docmaker weep with gratitude. In Kenya, poachers hunting elephants are themselves hunted by rangers, whose fraught connection goes beyond simply adversarial. An intimate non-fiction film that plays like grand, sweeping fiction. More info.
12. Two Plains & a Fancy (dirs. Whitney Horn & Lev Kalman, U.S.)
A refreshingly irreverent skewering of the 1800s American West. Shot on gloriously granular 16mm, packed with sparkling one-liners, and features time-traveling inventors, ghost orgies, and a demonically possessed cat. More info.
11. Ladyworld (dir. Amanda Kramer, U.S.)
Eight teenage girls become trapped inside a house during a birthday party after an earthquake sinks it into the ground. More of an anxiety attack than a movie, with sound effects and a musical score that are entirely vocalized, and an arena showcase of writhing and animalistic screaming from its versatile and unhinged cast. There’s plenty of wit, too. The key line: “Friendship is propaganda.” More info.
10. Fake Tattoos (dir. Pascal Plante, Canada)
A lean, swoony, heart-chipping punk romance. I sniffled. More info.
09. The Return (dir. Malene Choi, Denmark)
Formally audacious and emotionally robust, there’s nothing quite like Malene Choi’s docu-hybrid debut about a woman from Denmark traveling to South Korea to find her birth mother. More info.
08. Acid Forest (dir. Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Lithuania)
Fun, immersive, experimental doc from multimedia artist Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė featuring daredevil photography, pristine sound design, and flocks of ancient black birds with an enviable routine function: They shit acid. More info.
07. Pig (Khook) (dir. Mani Haghighi, Iran)
Heads are lost both literally and figuratively in Mani Haghighi’s endlessly inventive phantasmagoric black comedy about the ever-looming death of art by ego. Or decapitation.
06. Alaska is a Drag (dir. Shaz Bennett, U.S.)
Don’t ask me to pick a favorite set piece from Shaz Bennett’s glittering feature expanding on her terrific short about an aspiring drag queen working at a fish cannery in Alaska, okay? There are just too many. Prepare yourself for a lifelong obsession with superstar Martin L. Washington, Jr. More info.
05. Butterflies (dir. Tolga Karaçelik, Turkey)
Morbidly funny and cathartically confrontational comedy about three estranged adult siblings on the road together after receiving a cryptic invitation from their father. There isn’t a single false note throughout, even as the tone whips from farce to melodrama and back again. Watch out for the chickens. More info.
04. All Good (Alles ist Gut) (dir. Eva Trobisch, Germany)
Eva Trobisch’s monumental debut about a woman processing her rape by a coworker is an immaculately spun web of emotional and psychological havoc and meaning. Every line of dialogue and facial tic could be dissected and defined (and debated) for generations. At the center of it all is an unshakeable performance by Aenne Schwarz. More info.
03. Hellhole (dir. Bas Devos, Belgium)
For his sophomore feature, Bas Devos taps the same vein of his 2014 debut Violet, which confronted grief intimately and directly. This time he anoints the 2016 suicide bombings in Brussels as a catalyst to mine the same ground, but on a much grander landscape, exploring how people mourn from afar, the dissociation, the inarticulable anger, and the helplessness generated by that kind of generalized attack. Technically it’s a marvel, too, unleashing camera tricks and color schemes that feel ported in from another world.
02. Fugue (dir. Agnieszka Smoczyńska, Poland)
The director of The Lure follows up her unfollowupable debut in ways both unexpected and necessary. While Fugue is decidedly lacking the bombast and spectacle of that mermaid-horror-disco-musical, it retains the seductive mood and atmosphere, malleable scope, and dizzying unpredictability. It also builds on the same themes of female subjugation in society, albeit in a more grounded and recognizable context. Smoczyńska is a relentlessly valuable cinematic voice. More info.
01. Blonde Animals (dirs. Maxime Matray & Alexia Walther, France)
A doe-eyed former ’90s sitcom star with short-term memory loss stumbles in and out of people’s lives, gathering the moss of their misfortunes, and goes on an unlikely cosmic journey to come to terms with his own tragic past. A nonstop carousel of twisted delights that one-ups itself with each fanciful and psychedelic set piece, and by the end manages to be unexpectedly poignant and moving. I could watch this on a loop, and given the opportunity, I just might. More info.