Discussing film on social media — where the generational interplay is a lot wider than it is in social settings in person — one sometimes senses a certain hunger, a certain hope. When Robert Eggers’s long-awaited mytho-historical action epic “The Northman” was released in April of this year, much of the talk around it had a very “this is it” tone to it.
Yes, Eggers’s feature debut, “The Witch,” was striking, galvanizing; his second feature, “The Lighthouse,” was jaw-droppingly stylized. But, the buzz implied, “The Northman” was going to be the one. The not-quite tacit anticipation was that this film would prove Eggers to be . . . the new Kubrick. Or the new Nolan. Or the new Lynch. Or something.
And it didn’t.
When I saw “The Northman,” a period revenge tale, I admired the craft and integrity and what you could call the sheer bloody-mindedness of the movie. About two-thirds of the way through, however, I was struck by a very specific thought, which was: “This isn’t it.” Whatever the “it” is that makes a filmmaker “major” (for lack of a better word), “The Northman” didn’t have it. What I was seeing on the screen was strain. And I wasn’t transported or awed. Just kind of impressed, as in, “That was a lot.”
I had a similar feeling after watching “Everything Everywhere All at Once” directed by the team called Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert). While watching, the movie’s energy and inventiveness felt new, and it was exhilarating. A lot of its multiverse conceits didn’t quite come off, and the occasional jejune giggliness (ooh, look, butt plugs!) rankled a bit, but the movie did sweep me up. To a point.
Less inspiring was the platitudinous message of the movie, and a forced quality that I call the “Ohana means family” vibe. (That’s from “Lilo And Stitch.”) Also the disingenuous notion that someone would actually prefer drudging for a martinet spouse to pretty much any other lifestyle choice. It’s not radical filmmaking if it’s serving up tired sentimental ideas.
Ari Aster is another newish guy who inspires mixed feelings. “Hereditary” used an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach to horror that had me wishing he would make up his damn mind already. “Midsommar,” about a depressed young woman swept up by a decidedly strange summer festival, was more focused, and properly ruthless in its shocks. But there was a protest-too-much aspect to its feminist finale.
All these directors lean into genre. (I think Jordan Peele has made a strong enough showing with his three features to constitute his own category.) And on those terms, when I think of new voices in American cinema that’s, let’s say, not quite genre, but not quite not genre, I think of female and nonbinary filmmakers — none of whom get the kind of social media love or marketing muscle that the aforementioned guys do. Josephine Decker, Amy Seimetz and Ana Lily Amirpour are, to my mind, more aesthetically and ideologically forward-facing than Eggers, the Daniels, or Aster.
Decker’s early features “Butter on the Latch” and “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” were examinations of dangerous longing, lyrical and blunt. And 2018′s “Madeline’s Madeline” about the outer and inner life of a teenage actor, is a horror movie of human consciousness. So, too, is 2020′s “Shirley.” Adapted from a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, it’s a fictionalization of part of the life of horror writer Shirley Jackson. The plot intertwines the evolution of Jackson’s novel “Hangsaman” with a dance of two couples: Jackson, her critic husband Stanley Edgar Hyman, and two newly married younger people who fall under their spells, literary and otherwise. The atmosphere is one where flirtation is tinged with threat. In both these pictures, Decker beautifully conveys how the wonder of living is underscored by a form of dread, all the while making deft points about female autonomy. (Decker’s most recent film, “The Sky Is Everywhere” steers away from genre, applying the yearning quality of her early work to a YA narrative.)
Seimetz’s 2020 “She Dies Tomorrow,” released (such as it was) in the peak days of the COVID-19 pandemic, is a raw nerve of a movie. In retrospect, I’d say it looks even more prescient now than it did then. It tells a story that’s deliberate in its irrationality: The film’s lead character, played with almost frightening conviction by Kate Lyn Sheil, is suddenly hit with the unshakable belief that the day after this one, she’s going to die. The movie’s complex flashback structure has a relentlessness that at times makes “Everything Everywhere” look as quiet as an Eric Rohmer picture. It’s a harrowing “the way we live now” movie with not an ounce of soppiness. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll say I’m cordially acquainted with Seimetz.)
Amirpour’s 2021 “Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon” was the director’s own version of a fairy tale (her earlier picture, the controversial “The Bad Batch,” was pretty much an inversion of one). Bloody and nasty but also tenderhearted, it stages the story of a young woman who can control people’s minds and her alliance with a young boy in an up-all-night New Orleans. It’s funny, shocking, suspenseful, and ultimately crowd-pleasing. While it does have that “Ohana means family” vibe, it earns it.
And there’s more talent on the horizon: Nonbinary filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun’s 2021 “We’re All Going to The World’s Fair” is a striking micro-budget psychological horror picture depicting an online ritual that spurs a young woman’s mental breakdown. While the actress Dasha Nekrasova cohosts a noxious podcast called “Red Scare,” her 2021 film “The Scary of Sixty-First” is a purposefully abrasive, not-quite ghost story in which two tetchy young women move into an apartment that was perhaps once owned by sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein — the used furniture in the place may have been part of his criminal activities. The critic A.S. Hamrah noted of the film that “as an actual work of horror-exploitation, ‘The Scary of Sixty-First’ is only posing as irony.” That slippery aspect helps make this picture genuinely unsettling.
Whether any of these filmmakers are “it” isn’t ultimately the point, of course. Their exciting, provocative films are.
Glenn Kenny is a film critic and the author of “Made Men: The Story of ‘Goodfellas.”