While July is a bit of a lighter month for worthwhile cinematic offerings, it’s only because a trio of blockbuster hopefuls, while anticipated, are taking up so much oxygen. Thankfully, there’s still room for my favorite film of the year, a few worthwhile directorial debuts, and more. Check out my picks to see below and catch up with the best films from the first half of the year.

9. Talk to Me (Danny and Michael Philippou; July 28)

A horror hit at Sundance that was quickly snatched up by A24. John Fink said in his review, “Featuring a great premise from which to build a franchise, YouTube creators Danny and Michael Philippou’s directorial debut Talk To Me is a refreshing retread, imagining tantalizing “micro-possessions” that get stronger the more you use them. The premise is simple enough: a possessed hand that seems to have been passed down for generations opens a supernatural portal to the unknown, which can offer a brief moment of clarity before it inflicts unthinkable violence. As far as the violence goes, the film checks all the boxes with a murder/suicide opening sequence at an out-of-control house party, setting the affair in motion without giving away what’s to come.”

8. War Pony (Riley Keough and Gina Gammell; July 28)

Stemming from her experience working on American Honey, Riley Keough has helmed her directorial debut after getting to know a couple of locals who’d been cast as extras: Bill Reddy and Franklin Sioux Bob. Luke Hicks said in his review from last year, “Among many films that tackle class, race, and privilege at Cannes this year (with R.M.N.Triangle of SadnessArmageddon Time), War Pony is more subtle in its pursuit. The stories aren’t plotless but the emphasis isn’t on any one narrative conflict. Keough and Gammell make it more about witnessing the culturally and spiritually rich world of Pine Ridge—a place and people not often seen onscreen—altogether: the interconnected everyday lives of the Natives on the rez and socio-economic degradation wrought by a long history of institutionalized oppression.”

7. Joy Ride (Adele Lim; July 7)

No Hard Feelings proved the studio comedy is alive and well, and we thankfully don’t have to wait long for the next one. John Fink said in his SXSW review, “Often hilarious and moving, Adele Lim’s anticipated directorial debut Joy Ride takes the girls-trip formula (see: Bridesmaids and, of course, Girls Trip) in both new and familiar directions, crossing borders and breaking boundaries. Meeting as the only two Asian kids on the playground in a Norman Rockwell-esque, all-white town in the Pacific Northwest (aptly named White Falls), Audrey and Lolo become fast friends. But they couldn’t be any more different––while Audrey’s adoptive but somewhat uncomfortable guardians (David Denman and Annie Mumolo) encourage her academic pursuits and law career, Lolo’s successful parents accept her as a rebel artist making work about sexual liberation in everyday objects.”

6. Kokomo City (D. Smith; July 28)

Brimming with style and intimacy, the simple conceit of D. Smith’s directorial debut allows space for its subjects––four transgender sex workers––to tell their stories with an entertaining and moving amount of humanity. Ranging from the harrowing dangers of their profession––only amplified by the recent devastating news of the murder of one of the film’s subjects, Rasheeda Williams aka Koko Da Doll––to the power held in satisfying their clients’ desires to delivering a humorous frankness in recalling certain stories, Kokomo City is a captivating window into lives often silenced.

5. Barbie (Greta Gerwig; July 21)

Considering her track record as director, I’m rooting for Greta Gerwig’s Barbie inasmuch as one can be excited for a Mattel toy adaptation. Working with her partner Noah Baumbach on the script, along with the pitch-perfect casting of Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling––not to mention Michael Cera coming along for the ride––here’s hoping they’ve concocted something a bit smarter than the average I.P. vehicle, replete with Demy and Powell & Pressburger inspirations. While WB has forbidden reactions from early junket screenings, giving one a bit of pause in anticipation, the embargo reportedly breaks next week––brace for impact.

4. Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One (Christopher McQuarrie; July 14)

While full reviews of Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie’s latest Ethan Hunt adventure are embargoed just a bit longer, it’s safe to reveal that the latest Mission: Impossible delivers the goods. A slick, thoroughly entertaining spectacle that, while not reaching the highs of the last three installments, thankfully satisfies in its own right despite the “Part One” moniker.

3. Earth Mama (Savanah Leaf; July 7)

Conceived with a remarkable amount of filmmaking confidence, Savanah Leaf’s directorial debut Earth Mama follows the trials and tribulations of a pregnant single mother struggling to get by day-to-day, restricted to seeing her other two children, currently in foster care, only one hour per week during supervised visits. With a history of drug addiction, she must find her way through a system that stacks the odds against her, exploring the possibilities of adoption and the pain of knowing the court may immediately take away her soon-to-be-born baby. It’s a difficult, demanding portrait of a life in shambles, susceptible to being relegated to poverty porn or a social-realistic bent that surrenders to one-note misery. It’s a miracle, then, that Olympian-turned-director Leaf finds both the humanity and beauty of every frame, bringing empathy to an impossible situation and delivering an abundance of grace notes. Continue reading my full review.

2. Oppenheimer (Christopher Nolan; July 21)

After being disappointed in Christopher Nolan’s post-Inception output, the meticulous director got back in good graces with Tenet, a delightfully silly, vibes-first, maximalist sci-fi thriller that admirably suggested a perfect encapsulation of what he finds most gleeful in filmmaking. He’s now back in more serious territory with this J. Robert Oppenheimer biopic, a three-hour drama about the making and unmaking of the man who oversaw the creation of the nuclear bomb. Having finished the film’s source material, American Prometheus, earlier this year, I greatly look forward to seeing Nolan plumb the complexities and contradictions of the man who held the fate of the world in his hand.

1. Afire (Christian Petzold; July 14)

Emerging as one of the great directors of this young century, Christian Petzold’s latest work Afire is a perfectly formed portrait of procrastination, narcissism, depression, and eroding self-worth––and neck and neck with Albert Serra’s Pacifiction for the best film of 2023 so far. Following a frustrated writer who barely needs to be convinced the manuscript for his latest novel isn’t up to snuff, he heads to a seaside holiday home with a friend as all of his insecurities start to bubble up. Working in a Rohmerian register, with clear nods to The Green Ray, Petzold’s latest masterpiece humorously and then devastatingly depicts life’s frustrations through beautifully articulated performances from Thomas Schubert and Paula Beer. For more, read Rory O’Connor’s review from Berlinale.

Honorable Mentions

  • Amanda (July 7)
  • Biosphere (July 7)
  • 20 Days in Mariupol (July 14)
  • Final Cut (July 14)
  • Lakota Nation vs. United States (July 14)
  • The YouTube Effect (July 14)
  • Theater Camp (July 14)
  • The Deepest Breath (July 19)
  • Return to Dust (July 21)
  • Streetwise (July 21)
  • Susie Searches (July 29)

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