Solo, Blockers, and Book Club.
Memorial Day weekend is here, and if you plan to spend any of your God-given days off at the movies, there are plenty of films out in theaters right now to choose from — from action blockbusters, to rom-coms, to thoughtful indies. To make your decision a little easier, we’ve compiled a list of our critics’ top picks from the last few weeks.
Avengers: Infinity War
The third film in Marvel’s Avengers series, Infinity War “is going to dazzle, stagger, and rile people up,” says our critic David Edelstein. In this chapter, the plot revolves around a new villain, the strong-jawed Thanos, who has plans to kill of half the universe in order to combat overpopulation. “It doesn’t occur to him to make a large donation to Planned Parenthood,” jokes Edelstein. Leaving carnage in his trail, Thanos spares no prisoners, and the film will surprise some Marvel fans, Edelstein suggests, with some of its violent plot points. “Flagrantly, bombastically extravagant, it plays its audience like a hundred million fiddles,” he writes.
Blockers stars Leslie Mann, John Cena, and Ike Barinholtz as three parents, who, upon learning of their daughters’ prom night “sex pact,” attempt to prevent the fulfillment of said pact, and inevitably face a slew of obstacles on the way. It’s a silly premise, but in this case, it works to hilarious effect. “Beneath the whacking, smutty, in-your-face teen sex farce, Blockers is a mature, thoughtful exploration of parental responsibility and the capacity of burgeoning adults to navigate life’s difficult choices,” says David Edelstein. “Mann hasn’t been this delightful since Knocked Up,” while “Barinholtz — of The Mindy Project — should be Blockers’ breakout star,” Edelstein says. “At any given moment his face is doing five different things, all of which are funny and some of which are downright alarming: He looks dissipated, haunted, like a human car wreck.”
Book Club is such a Nancy Meyers movie that you may be surprised to discover it wasn’t actually made by Nancy Meyers. (It was directed by Bill Holderman and written by Holderman and Erin Simms), Provenance aside, it’s still an ensemble-cast rom-com with surprising depth. Though the premise of the film is based around a group of senior women reading Fifty Shades of Gray, “Book Club is only tangentially ‘about’ the Fifty Shades trilogy, and that’s what makes it so smart,” says our critic Emily Yoshida. “It uses E.L. James’s notoriously silly BDSM saga as shorthand for a kind of romantic adventurousness, but the four leads all quickly pick up the beat and explore that idea on their own, outside the limited realm of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey.” These four leads, it should be noted, are played by none other than Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and “the irresistibly charming” Mary Steenburgen. “There’s a maturity and warmth to director Bill Holderman and Erin Simms’s script, which respects these ladies and understands that they’ve got a wealth of life experience that doesn’t exactly fit into one rom-com,” says Yoshida.
“A retelling of the eponymous incident that rocked, but notably failed to derail, the youngest Kennedy brother’s political career, Chappaquiddick is somehow both cynical and deeply inquisitive about the morals of every character involved,” says Emily Yoshida. “Writers Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan are not merely satisfied to tell a WASP-porn, Vanity Fair-esque soap opera of regattas and manslaughter, nor is it merely a gimlet-eyed examination of the precedent-setting image-making and media-wrangling of the late 1960s, but the film is pretty skilled at being both,” she says. Jason Clarke’s performance as Ted Kennedy fits the story’s perceptive, and unromantic view of history. “Rather than simply point out that the famous man did a bad thing, Clarke’s Kennedy is something more elemental, a snapshot of a failure of all the things masculinity was and to some degree is still billed as. He didn’t save the girl, he couldn’t win the race, and he let an old man boss him around.”
“The searching loss-of-faith drama First Reformed is the happy result of Paul Schrader’s entering the what-the-hell-let’s-go-for-it stage of his long and bravely self-lacerating career,” says David Edelstein. The film stars Ethan Hawke as a depressed and guilt-laden pastor of a small congregation in upstate New York. He is confronted with a spiritual dilemma when Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a young pregnant woman, asks him to counsel her environmental activist husband, whom she believes wants her to have an abortion. In this role, “Hawke is as committed as I’ve seen him,” says Edelstein. “He drives himself to a feverish pitch that makes you pray — whatever your degree of faith — for the character’s continued existence.”
Let the Sunshine In
“Let the Sunshine In feels cream-puff light, but is deceptively rigorous, and about so much more than one woman’s quest to find the One,” says Emily Yoshida of Claire Denis’s latest film, a romantic comedy starring Juliette Binoche as the female lead, Isabelle. “Binoche has never been more radiant,” says Yoshida. “Isabelle feels everything all the time, her eyes often sparkling with the beginning of tears at the slightest provocation.” The film also features, what Yoshida calls “one of the great end-credits-as-scene sequences of the last year.”
“Both the film and the ‘notorious’ figure at its center are the best imaginable retaliation to mansplaining,” says David Edelstein of RBG. The documentary, directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, explores the life and career of Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. “Yes, RGB is a hagiography, but it has its cheeky aspect,” says Edelstein. “It begins with a montage of government landmarks, many in the shadow of the Washington Monument. Sometimes a Washington Monument is just a Washington Monument, but one could be forgiven for watching the film and thinking that our nation’s capital operated for 200 years under a sort of penile code.”
Solo: A Star Wars Story
“The Han Solo ‘origin’ feature, Solo: A Star Wars Story, is smoothly directed by the reliable Hollywood hand Ron Howard and smoothly written by Lawrence Kasdan (who co-wrote, among many other things, the best of all the Star Wars movies, The Empire Strikes Back) and his son, Jonathan,” writes David Edelstein. The performances, including those of Woody Harrelson and Thandie Newton, are “largely excellent,” he says. The film’s nonhuman characters, and production design are also impressive. “The creature designs are wittier than anything since the first Star Wars films,” says Edelstein, and “The production design is just as striking, with extraordinary wintry vistas, especially when a train carrying some sort of MacGuffin (a powerful explosive) threads its way through the mountains as Han and Beckett attempt an aerial assault.”
The Death of Stalin
The Death of Stalin, a dark, satirical comedy, which tracks the power struggles within the Soviet Union following Stalin’s death, “transforms the trivial into the tragic,” says David Edelstein. The film, directed by Armando Iannuci, stars Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev, and Simon Russell Beale as the Deputy Prime Minister Lavrentiy Beria (both of whom are vying for the position of party chairman), along with an impressive supporting cast which includes Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, and Jason Isaacs. “It takes some time to adjust to the mix of silly, peevish bureaucrats and the serious atrocities they inflict. But that’s the beauty of the thing. Iannucci gets that grotesque horrors often emanate from egotists, clowns, and stumblebums, from small-minded people with vast and unchecked powers,” says Edelstein. “Iannucci’s pacing — both deadpan and lickety-split — is like an exquisite straitjacket for farceurs, and it’s a pleasure to watch the Americans, Buscemi and Tambor, keep up with their seasoned British counterparts.”
“In telling the story of a disappearing slice of America, Zhao has created a portrait of resilience, and the bonds that last even after the rodeo’s over,” says Emily Yoshida of The Rider, Chloe Zhao’s second full-length feature, based in the badlands of South Dakota. The docu-drama follows Brady Blackburn (played by real-life rodeo veteran Brady Jandreau) an injured former rodeo rider, as he attempts to navigate life and work outside the rodeo circuit. It is beautifully shot, and the story is told with a moving (but unsentimental) level of sensitivity. “The connection between men and horses is one of the most enduring themes in cinema, if an increasingly abstract and nostalgic one,” says Yoshida. “But Zhao’s framing of Brady’s story is unmistakably contemporary; she gets so close up that the screen practically exudes the smell of hay and sweat.”
Tully, screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman’s third film together, follows the story of Marlo (played by Charlize Theron), a mother who is struggling under the weight of child-rearing and postpartum depression. She is overworked, underslept, and desperate, until a night nurse named Tully (played by Mackenzie Davis ) enters the scene to share the load. At this moment, “the movie enters uncharted territory and comes to life,” says David Edelstein. It “contracts in a good way, deepens, and becomes very impressive.” Davis’s performance as Tully helps too. “She’s a vivid actress and fearless on camera, which doesn’t mean that she overemotes, but that she’s comfortable letting go, putting all her attention on the other actor; and Theron responds by loosening up and entering Davis’s orbit.” The script also benefits from this plot transition. “The Tully-Marlo relationship is born of solipsism and inner drama, and Cody turns out to be amazingly gifted at it.”