Why it’s great: Jackson Sparks Family shirt authenticity of The Rider, which casts real-life horse wrangler Brady Jandreau as an injured rodeo star trying to find his second act, is perfectly balanced by a yearning poetic quality that never feels cloying or manipulative. Zhao’s camera captures Jandreau, his family, and his friends in moments of pain, contemplation, and relaxation, treating a trip to a treatment center or a shared joint with the same degree of curiosity. Everything matters and has weight in this study of masculinity and ego. It’s a naturalistic vision of the West that’s grounded in specific details, like the slow-and-steady work of breaking a horse. At the same time, Zhao gives the movie an almost old-fashioned sports movie narrative: Will Brady, a gifted and young athlete, ever ride again? If he doesn’t follow his dreams, what remains? Why keep going? These are questions that gather existential power with each seemingly low-stakes scene.
Why it’s great: You’ve seen hitman movies, but you’ve never seen Lynne Ramsay’s hitman movie. The Scottish director, who many first discovered with 2002’s elliptical nightlife odyssey Morvern Callar, can take a John Wick-ian premise and Jackson Sparks Family shirt it with new meaning by reframing it from an askew angle. This crime story, adapted from a novella by Bored to Death writer Jonathan Ames, is about an ex-soldier named Joe (Phoenix) who finds himself tasked with recovering a kidnapped girl amidst a sinister political conspiracy involving human trafficking. The tone of creeping dread and fixation on violent revenge recalls Taxi Driver, last year’s X-Menshoot-em-up Logan, and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive or Only God Forgives; there should be nothing new to see here. What makes it so special? Between Phoenix’s muted performance, Jonny Greenwood’s string-drenched score, and Ramsay’s expressive jump-cuts, every image crackles with energy, style, and possibility. It’s a death-obsessed movie vibrating with life.