A24, The Indie Film Company Movie Buffs Love To Love…
Cinephiles are used to talking in terms of “Have you seen the trailer for the latest Tarantino movie?” or “Tilda Swinton’s new one looks pretty interesting”, but over the last nine years, A24 has become something unique - a film production and distribution company whose name generates as much buzz as the director or stars.
A24 has plenty of those, too. Directors Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse) and Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar) have quickly become the darlings of horror fans. If you follow anything A24-related on social media you’ll see how much people really, really love Midsommar. Their movies have given major breakthroughs to the likes of Anya Taylor-Joy and Florence Pugh, two of the hottest young actors around right now.
Other A24 films have provided meaty material for more established actors to get stuck into, resulting in some of the most interesting work of their careers. Intense, offbeat movies like Good Time, High Life and The Lighthouse mean The Twilight Saga is nothing but a distant memory for Robert Pattinson; Adam Sandler gave the performance of his life in Uncut Gems; Willem Dafoe has found even more range to his abilities with brilliant roles in The Florida Project and playing alongside Pattinson in The Lighthouse.
The New York-based company was founded in 2012 by Daniel Katz, David Fenkel and John Hodges. Along with producing original IPs, they also distribute quality indie projects that fit the house style and might otherwise struggle finding a wider audience, which can be a double-edged sword. Saint Maud, the stunning debut from Rose Glass, was met with confusion by some A24 fans because the early buzz and trailer pitched it as the next Hereditary. Apart from one key image, it had far more in common with Paul Schrader's First Reformed.
It has been a remarkable run from the company, but their first film wasn't exactly a hit. A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III had a pretty decent cast including Bill Murray, Charlie Sheen, Jason Schwarzmann and Patricia Arquette, but nobody saw it and the film was universally panned by critics.
2013 saw the company start to hit their stride with Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring and the film that really announced their arrival, Harmony Korine’s divisive Spring Breakers. It was somewhat misleadingly marketed as a crime thriller with hot girls in bikinis. Instead, viewers got a woozy, meditative, neon-drenched dissection of the American Dream. It was one of those films you either love or hate, but it set the template for what A24 was all about - fiercely individual, dark, edgy, stylish, auteur-led projects that provide room for big performances and unforgettable moments.
Not every film in the A24 is noteworthy, but they continued to break new ground regularly with bold, intelligent and sometimes challenging material. Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin took a chilly, unblinking look at what it means to be human and gave Scarlet Johansson a career-best role, playing an alien seductress who begins questioning herself when humanity starts creeping in.
Elsewhere Tom Hardy gave an impressive one-man-show in Locke while Kevin Smith made the gross and gory Tusk, a box office bomb that has started to receive a reappraisal. Oscar Isaac also starred alongside Jessica Chastain in the underrated dark crime drama A Most Violent Year before giving one of his best performances in Ex Machina, another key early A24 film.
Isaac played Nathan Bateman, a reclusive and fabulously wealthy CEO of a search engine company who brings Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), an unassuming programmer, to his isolated home/research bunker to meet his latest creation - an android named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb’s task is to perform a Turing test and determine whether Ava has true artificial intelligence.
Ex Machina was an assured directorial debut from novelist Alex Garland, who also wrote the screenplay. It was a moderate hit and received widespread critical praise. It also won A24's first Oscar, taking home the award for Best Visual Effects.
A24 films became a regular feature on various award ballots and more Oscars followed. Asif Kapadia’s heartbreaking documentary Amy, charting the rise and tragic fall of Amy Winehouse, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary; Brie Larson won Best Actress for her performance as a mother held captive by a rapist in the titular Room.
In February 2016, a few weeks before Larson's Oscar win, A24 released a slow-burning folk horror called The Witch. Along with Hereditary and Midsommar, it is one of the films that has cemented the company's association with the genre, although comparatively few of their titles are actually horror movies.
Meticulously researched and written in dialect based on 17th-century accounts of witchcraft and demonic possession, first-time director Robert Eggers gave a startling debut role to Anya Taylor-Joy, a young actor of precocious talent who would go on to convert millions of people to chess with The Queen’s Gambit. The Witch was a brilliant package from Eggers, shot beautifully using only natural light and with an immersive sense of period detail. It also made a star of a menacing goat named Black Phillip.
Variety and originality is key to A24's success; Trey Edward Shults' acclaimed Krisha starred his real-life sixty-something auntie, Krisha Fairchild; Jeremy Saulnier's suspenseful Green Room had a surprising appearance from Patrick Stewart as the leader of a gang of violent skinheads; Daniel Radcliffe played a corpse in the extended fart joke that is Swiss Army Man; Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz were deliriously deadpan in Yorgos Lanthimos's surreal The Lobster.
Then came that infamous night at the 88th Academy Awards when Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty stepped up to announce the winner for Best Picture. After a few moments of befuddlement and awkward laughter, the pair read out La La Land as the victor. Several minutes of applause, cheering, hugs, kisses and speeches followed, during which an Academy official was seen dashing around checking envelopes. Amid the confusion, an ashen-faced Beatty returned to the mic stand again. Then Jordan Horowitz, one of La La Land's producers, showed great magnanimity and told the audience there was a mistake and Moonlight was the actual winner.
The mix-up was one of the most bizarre moments in Oscar history but a tremendous victory for A24 and Moonlight's writer-director, Barry Jenkins. With a record-breaking 14 nominations, La La Land had seemed a dead cert for the award, but the hit musical was beset by a critical backlash at the worst time. Some people took exception to a white male character "mansplaining" jazz, the great African American art form. Meanwhile, Moonlight, made on a tiny budget, quietly overhauled the favourite. It was a deserved winner, a tender portrait of a young man growing up black, gay and socially deprived in Miami, but also included universal themes of friendship and coming to terms with who you are.
More socially conscious cinema followed. Sean Baker's The Florida Project took a look at the "hidden homeless" living month-to-month in The Magic Castle, a cheap hotel in the shadow of Walt Disney World. First Reformed tackled climate change as an alcoholic pastor contemplates assassinating an industrialist and polluter who funds his church. Both films featured Oscar-worthy roles - Willem Dafoe was nominated for his lovely performance as the grouchy but kindly manager of the hotel; Ethan Hawke was criminally overlooked for his fearless, mature turn as the tortured priest.
A24 have continued their rise, spending the past five years releasing a string of critically acclaimed films. Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird received a Best Picture nomination while we also saw daring films including Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, David Lowery’s beguilingly strange A Ghost Story, the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time, Yorgos Larinthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Jonah Hill’s well-received directorial debut Mid90s, Gaspar Noé’s Climax, Claire Denis’ enigmatic High Life, Peter Strickland’s peculiar In Fabric, and Robert Eggers’ bonkers second film, The Lighthouse.
Among all this came two of A24’s tentpole horror films - Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Midsommar, two of their biggest grossing movies to date, and two of the most popular among their ever-expanding fan base. Hereditary was brilliantly marketed, a dread-filled supernatural tale about a fraught family finding out increasingly sinister secrets about their ancestry in the wake of a horrific bereavement. Toni Collette gave a career-best performance as a deranged grieving mother and, although the film lost its way in the final act, announced Aster as a major new talent.
His follow up, Midsommar, is perhaps the most overrated film in their catalogue, although wildly popular among fans. The story follows a grief-stricken young woman, played by Florence Pugh, who accompanies her “toxic” boyfriend and his pals to a strange festival in Scandinavia, where they fall foul of a pagan cult. Aster borrowed liberally from the folk horror canon, especially Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man, while ham-fistedly invoking the abysmal remake in his muddled conclusion.
Despite A24’s ever-increasing commercial clout, they have stuck to their guns artistically, offering a rich and rewarding alternative to mainstream cinema’s overabundance of superhero movies, reboots, and all-conquering franchises. Their dedication to providing quality material for cinephiles has also extended a podcast and a website with excellent articles.
As we approach the 10th anniversary of A24, what does the next decade hold for the company? The immediate future looks bright. This month sees the release of the Val Kilmer documentary, Val, and The Green Knight, David Lowery's long-awaited take on Arthurian Legend. Several other intriguing-looking films are on their way, including the mysterious Icelandic supernatural drama Lamb.
However, there is some uncertainty about their long-term plans after recent news emerged that the company was seeking a sale potentially worth $3 billion. The rumours sparked concern among fans that a buyout might compromise A24's artistic integrity.
As for now, let's just keep on enjoying their films and take a look at my Top 10, with one exclusion that may infuriate A24-heads:10. Spring Breakers
8. The Florida Project
7. High Life
6. Saint Maud
5. Ex Machina
3. Under the Skin
2. First Reformed
1. The Witch
Do you agree with my picks? What are your favourite A24 films? Let us know!