Ask a film critic to list their Top 10 best movies of the year, and they will give you a Top 20 list with runners-up and several annotations. This is true any year, but it was especially true at the end of 2021, which Vulture’s Alison Willmore describes simply as “overwhelming.” Not just because the sheer amount of movies released seemed dramatic after months hibernating at home but also because so many of those movies arrived late — held back by pandemic forces, of course — and stuffed into the fall season. List-making is always capricious, but the decision to include a particular movie on this year’s Top 10s felt subsequently more personally haphazard. Red Rocket, Titane, The Last Duel, and Spencer — great films that have garnered recognition from one awards-bestowing body or another — could easily have made someone’s final cut. But they didn’t. Consider the following lists snapshots of moviegoing in the year in-person cinema truly returned, almost too late and with a vengeance:
Alison Willmore’s Top 10 Movies
Eric André and Kitao Sakurai’s howlingly good hidden-camera movie temporarily cured me of the secondhand embarrassment that prevents me from enjoying cringe comedies. Not that Bad Trip is all that cringeworthy — there’s a sweetness to it that’s anchored by the friendship between Eric André’s lovelorn human cartoon and the long-suffering straight man played by Lil Rel Howery, a movie relationship planted in a real-world setting. But the true delight comes from how the first impulse of so many of its unwitting cast members is to help when met with whatever scene of inspired chaos the film’s creators have dreamed up. A golfer tries, with surprising patience, to talk André and Howery through extricating their dicks from a Chinese finger trap. A nurse attempts to treat André when he spews explosive vomit all over a bar. And a wide-eyed man watches Tiffany Haddish crawl out from under a prison bus in an orange jumpsuit, then informs her, “You better take off — you better run.” It’s not gotcha comedy, it’s comedy in which the whole world is a co-conspirator.
Artistic purity is a prison in Chaitanya Tamhane’s wonderfully textured portrait of an aspiring Indian classical musician, but it takes Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak) a long time to understand that. It takes half a lifetime, in fact, during which we get to know Sharad like a friend, watching him struggle in an impossible industry and try to square ideas of authenticity and transcendence with being able to have things — like a life, a home, and an existence that isn’t defined by poverty and petty grievances the way his beloved guru’s can be. The Disciple is about the realization, common in real life and rarely dramatized onscreen, that you are not going to achieve your dream, or at least not in the form those dreams took when you were younger and less familiar with the world. In Tamhane’s film, this realization isn’t a defeat but a hard-earned liberation, a way for Sharad to come back to the thing he loves from another angle rather than lose his passion for it entirely.
Hundreds of millions of dollars are regularly spent on would-be extravaganzas that look like warmed-over ass, so Dune earns a spot on the strength of its spectacle alone — the chilly grandeur of its far-future universe, with its massive sandworms rising nightmarishly out of the sands and its spaceships hovering in the sky with eerie steadiness. But what makes Denis Villeneuve’s take on Frank Herbert’s strange, strange sci-fi saga so hard to shake is its strategic touches of the familiar — the bagpipe that makes an appearance during an arrival ceremony; the titles left over from European nobility that adorn the heads of the rival factions; the bullfighting that an Atreides ancestor apparently kept up as a hobby. For all Dune’s psychic space witches, the messiah-breeding eugenics programs, and incomprehensible alien motivations, it’s the reminders that this onscreen universe is meant to be a descendant of our own that turn out to be the most disconcerting aspects of all.
Nicolas Cage plays the wild man so often in movies that it’s easy to take the choice for granted and to assume, when he’s cast as a bedraggled hermit who trudges out of the Oregon wilderness on a mission to retrieved his kidnapped truffle pig, that you’ll be in store for a lot of yelling and outsize violence. But Michael Sarnoski’s mournful, tender movie is so much richer and more interesting than a revenge saga. It’s a contemplation of the soul-warping power of clout by way of the Portland restaurant scene — clout, the pursuit of which fuels the underground service-worker fight club as much as it does the competition to have the hottest place in the city. As Robin Feld, Cage is a foodie Orpheus trying, impossibly, to retrieve his swine Eurydice, but he’s also a man mourning the wife whose death forever changed his priorities. The scene where Robin brings Adam Arkin’s big-shot Darius to his knees, not in combat but by cooking him an emotionally resonant meal, is one of the loveliest of the year.
Drive My Car
Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s stunner of a film — his second in U.S. theaters this year — has an intricate construction that’s almost impossible to appreciate until it’s over. As it’s playing, Drive My Car just feels so miraculously present that it repels all thought of structure, each encounter seeming to unfold organically without any grander plan in place. Theater director Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is still grieving his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), but he’s also trying to understand her in a way he was never able to in life, to wrap his head around how she could profess to love him so much while also having assignations with other men. As he travels to Hiroshima and puts together a multilingual production of Uncle Vanya, Yusuke ends up spending time with different characters who provide insights into his marriage — not because they’re all fragments meant to help him on his way, but because the relationships he develops teach him something about himself.
Compact and delicate as a homemade dollhouse, Céline Sciamma’s perfect little film pivots on a bit of unassuming magic. There’s never an explanation given for how Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is able to encounter an 8-year-old version of her mother, Marion (played by Sanz’s twin sister, Gabrielle). They simply meet out in the woods while Nelly is visiting Marion’s childhood home and strike up an immediate friendship, the way that kids can. It’s the why that matters, as if this warping of reality were somehow born out of young Nelly’s yearning to better understand the melancholy her mother seems to always be struggling with. Petite Maman is a film about a child trying, with heartbreaking earnestness, to parse the mysteries of adult behavior. But it’s also about the impossible desire to return someone to a moment before life had its chance to shape them quite so thoroughly, as if looking for some fundamental essence that was there before everything that followed.
I have no particular attachment to the 1957 musical or the 1961 movie adaptation, so it was a surprise to find myself welling up during the opening shots of Steven Spielberg’s remake. No song had started, and the Jets had yet to gather onscreen, emerging from crevices and corners to saunter down the street, snapping and strutting. The beauty of the way the camera moved across the shadows thrown by the demolished wreckage of apartment buildings was enough, and how it glided past a sign touting the razing of the neighborhood as part of a “slum clearance” project to make way for the future Lincoln Center — one of many ways Tony Kushner’s script grounds and gives new context for the doomed battles fought by characters fighting over territory that’s just going to be stripped from them by the powers above, anyway. You can feel, especially after almost two years of public life being curtailed and everything seeming scaled-back, that movies also have permanently shrunk to just more content to be streamed. And then you see something like West Side Story, which is just so vibrant and alive and larger than life in every possible way, and it’s a reminder that the movies haven’t gotten smaller at all, that there’s still nothing like them, especially when they’re like this.
The Worst Person in the World
Joachim Trier’s movie is about a quarter-life crisis, pinned to a lovable flake named Julie (the radiant Renate Reinsve) who bounces from career to career and between relationships with a Gen-X cartoonist (this year’s reigning Euro art-house heartthrob Anders Danielsen Lie) and a sweet-tempered barista (Herbert Nordrum) while fretting about the approach of her 30th birthday. But while it may be raucous in its portrayal of its heroine’s personal and romantic travails — at one point she and a man she’s spent the night flirting with pee in front of one another in a quest to create intimacy without crossing the line into cheating on their respective partners — it’s never small. It feels anything but, really, with Trier’s fleet-footed montages, wry voice-over, and ecstatic moments of magical realism creating a sense of an artistic work with its arms flung wide open. Julie may be another millennial woman fumblingly trying to figure out what she wants to be when she grows up, but what bigger questions are there? The Worst Person in the World is about no less than a 21st-century quest to lead a meaningful life.
Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn
The most jokerfied movie of the year is also the first great one born out of COVID — or, more precisely, out of a brittle, testy world that’s had all its existing fractures widened by months of death and lockdown. Radu Jude’s gleefully obscene opus against prurience, hypocrisy, and respectability begins with a homemade sex tape and ends with — well, I don’t want to spoil things, but let’s just say it’s a fantasy sequence providing the closest thing to catharsis Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (and our era) is able to offer. Emi (Katia Pascariu), the weary heroine, is a teacher as well as one of the participants on that tape, and the movie is about how she prepares for and then endures a humiliating parent conference that will decide her professional fate. But for long stretches, this “sketch for a popular film,” as it describes itself onscreen, barely maintains the pretense of having a plot at all. The camera keeps drifting away from Emi to gaze at MMA billboards and gamblers glued to slot machines and the statues atop the crumbling edifice of a shuttered movie palace. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn vibrates so strongly with restlessness and rage that it actually shakes apart entirely in the middle, giving way to a caustically entertaining Devil’s Dictionary for 2021 Romania and beyond.
The Lost Daughter
Every line in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s stunning directorial debut lands like a fistful of razor blades, cutting in all directions, including into the flesh of whoever’s throwing the punch. Adapted from an Elena Ferrante novel, The Lost Daughter follows Leda Caruso (played by Olivia Colman in the present and Jessie Buckley in flashbacks) with such unrelenting closeness as she goes about her working holiday on a Greek island that it often feels like we’re in her head. The Lost Daughter has a clarity of vision that borders on cruel, capturing the vulnerability of being a middle-age woman traveling alone and trying to cut loose while being acutely aware of how she’s perceived by everyone around her. When an encounter with a family of fellow vacationers, including the young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson), sends Leda spinning backward into regrets that rise up and consume her, Gyllenhaal delivers the claustrophobic sensation of being unable to escape your own intrusive memories with skill that’s downright panic-inducing. The Lost Daughter fearlessly delves into the darkness of its women and their complicated feelings about motherhood without preaching or softening its characters in the slightest. No other film this year feels so ruthlessly, breathtakingly grown-up.
Bilge Ebiri’s Top 10 Movies
In the Heights
This was a major year for musicals, even if none of them particularly broke out at the box office. And to be fair, Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s In the Heights was originally slated to come out in 2020; in fact, it was the last film I saw in a theater (at a press screening on March 9, 2020) before the world went into lockdown. And for much of that year, I felt that, all things considered, it wouldn’t be a bad one to go out on. Its warmth, its ramshackle grandeur, its loving but elegiac portrait of its corner of the city (“Say it, so it doesn’t disappear: Washington Heights!”) served as reminders of a world we had come close to losing. Of course, In the Heights is all about the fact that we were already losing these things. The notion of a community — indeed, the very idea of community itself — becoming a memory is the melancholy concept on which this story is built. And Chu’s ability to blend elaborate choreography with rough-hewn, offhand moments creates a cinematic world unlike any other musical.
The Worst Person in the World
Joachim Trier’s playfully structured look at a young Oslo woman’s journey of self-undiscovery is a moving portrait of millennial angst, but it’s also surprisingly expansive. Numerous characters in the film, at various points, could be referred to as “the worst person in the world” (even if it’s just for a moment), and the cumulative effect is a sense of how difficult it is for anyone to live a life that is both happy and good. If there is any justice in the world, Renate Reinsve, who won the Best Actress award at Cannes, will be an Oscar contender.
Nicole Riegel’s gritty drama follows a bright but down-and-out Rust Belt teen (Jessica Barden) living on the margins with her brother while their addict mother does a stint in jail. When they join a crew that strips abandoned homes and factories for scrap metal, their situation becomes even more dangerous. That logline sounds like a lot of independent movies that make it through the festival meat grinder, but I’ll happily put any five minutes of this incredibly atmospheric, despairing film against almost any other movie I saw this year.
Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters
There are few things in life more glorious than a dance documentary that really pulls off the whole dance part. Rosalynde LeBlanc and Tom Hurwitz’s look at Bill T. Jones’s seminal 1989 modern-dance piece D-Man in the Waters weaves Jones’s personal history and the tumultuous (and tragic) creation of his masterpiece with scenes of a group of students from Loyola Marymount University preparing for a new performance. The camera dives in among the kids, conveying the movement, the energy, the difficulty, and the beauty of the dance. Meanwhile, these young people try to find ways to connect to the meaning of D-Man in the Waters, which originally hit at a time when AIDS was ravaging its world. This is a work of art about a work of art that makes it clear that art is work.
“They’re not real. You get that, right? None of it is real. The critics aren’t real, the customers aren’t real, because this isn’t real. You aren’t real. Derek, why do you care about these people? They don’t care about you — none of them. They don’t even know you because you haven’t shown them. Every day, you wake up and there’ll be less of you. You live your life for them, and they don’t even see you. You don’t even see yourself. We don’t get a lot of things to really care about. Derek, who has my pig?”
An Afghan man looks back at his childhood years in Kabul and his family’s terrifying, arduous journey to flee the country in the 1980s, all the while he struggles to come to terms with his homosexuality. That’s already a fascinating story, but Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated documentary is about so much more — about all the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that life as a refugee forces you to rethink your sense of who you are and your relationship to everyone around you. It also has what might be the most powerful climax of any film I’ve seen this year.
Drive My Car
Full disclosure: There was a point early on in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Haruki Murakami adaptation — like, somewhere in the first 20 minutes — that I thought, Oh, no, is the whole movie gonna be like this? But lo and behold, Hamaguchi then proceeds to pull off a pretty bold structural gambit that not only sends the film spinning in a startling and riveting (not to mention heartbreaking) new direction, but it also retroactively redeems that strange first act. It’s a tale of slow-boiling grief and shame and the ways that art complicates the way we contemplate our own lives. And I couldn’t be happier to see that it has been greeted enthusiastically by audiences and awards-giving bodies.
The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion’s return to big-screen filmmaking might seem at first like an atypical subject for her: a Western ostensibly about what it means to be a man in 1920s Montana. But look closer and you’ll find a fascinating, gorgeous companion piece to The Piano, a film about elemental passions on the far edges of society. As the cruel rancher who terrorizes a sensitive young man (Kodi Smit-McPhee) but has surprising secrets of his own, Benedict Cumberbatch gives the most layered performance of his career.
At the heart of Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s mesmerizing drama from Lesotho is an indelible performance by the late Mary Twala Mhlongo as a grieving mother and widow fighting against the inevitable relocation of her village due to a nearby dam project. She is honestly so transfixing that you might miss the subtle ways in which the movie shifts around her — from a story about solitude, grief, and ghosts, shot in isolating close-ups, to a story about collective action, community, and rebirth, filmed in a wider, more inclusive manner. Mosese’s style can be jarring, but that’s the point: This is formalism in service to story, meaning, and emotion. Frankly, many of today’s more experienced directors could learn a lot from this stunning picture.
I’m as surprised as anyone else to see Leos Carax and Sparks’ insane rock musical topping my list since I didn’t even know if I liked it the first time I saw it; all I knew was that it had a couple of scenes that moved me enormously and that I had to see it again — immediately. But this absurdist showbiz melodrama about the doomed romance between a world-famous opera singer and a bad-boy comedian, and the international celebrity journey of their angel-voiced puppet toddler offspring, now stands as one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen about the cruel paradox of creation. It’s also the best musical of a year replete with them.
Angelica Jade Bastién’s Top 10 Movies
Petite Maman is a testament to a kind of film I was moved by this year: films defined by their tonal quietude, films that choose suggestion rather than explanation, films that solemnly champion the complications of living. It is all too rare to see kid characters treated with the humanity they deserve without veering into snappy precociousness. But it isn’t just writer-director Céline Sciamma’s approach to the narrative nor the moving performances by Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz that work here. It’s Sciamma’s visual bravura, making the space of nature one where possibilities are endless and beauty is found on every corner.
There’s something piercing about watching a woman navigate her own artistic goals, which seem frustratingly out of reach, while balancing them with the domestic matters most men choose not to fully concern themselves with. In Bergman Island, writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve’s latest feature, the concerns of familial and artistic legacies are considered against a backdrop of the work of famed auteur Ingmar Bergman, peered at from different angles. There’s much pleasure to be found here, namely the performances from Vicky Krieps and Mia Wasikowska, alongside the bold choice to blend fictional work and real life with formal ingenuity.
What lands a movie on my top-ten list — a year-end procedure I am admittedly not fond of — is ultimately a single question: Did this film haunt me? C’mon C’mon, with its dreamy black-and-white cinematography and gorgeous sonic landscape (including a score from Aaron and Bryce Dessner), got to me in ways very few films did this year. I was especially moved by Joaquin Phoenix’s yearning performance, which allows him to do career-best work in a register very rarely seen from him. Sometimes, the most powerful thing a film can do is chart the difficulties inherent to daily life, which writer-director Mike Mills does with aplomb.
The Lost Daughter
For those who know me, it likely isn’t surprising how many films on this list concern motherhood and familial bonds — thematic underpinnings that have always intrigued me. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s stark debut as a filmmaker for this adaptation of an Elena Ferrante novel moves seamlessly through time in order to interrogate the regrets and pitfalls of a woman (played by both Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley) on a holiday, occupied by another woman’s turmoil (Dakota Johnson) that brings up memories from a past she’d rather not reckon with.
This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection
I have been thinking quite a bit this last year about the possibilities of
Black cinema throughout the diaspora.“What if black film could be something other than embodied?” Michael Boyce Gillespie asks in his powerful work of criticism Film Blackness. “What if black film was immaterial and bodiless? What if film is ultimately the worst window imaginable and an even poorer mirror? What if black film is art and not the visual transcription of the black lifeworld?” This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection — with its potent lead performance and lushly rendered aesthetics — provides a stunning answer to these questions, pushing me not just as a critic but as a viewer to imagine more boldly what Blackness can do for film when unfettered and unbound.
Drive My Car
Before I watched Drive My Car, I had been inundated with praise for the film from other critics and worried, as I began the three-hour watch, that it wouldn’t move me in the ways I needed. But it did. It wrecked me. The performances — especially by Hidetoshi Nishijima — reminded me of the emotional expansiveness a film can tap into by simply focusing on the human face in all its contradictions and revelations. There has been so much discussion of grief and trauma in pop culture, but few projects handle these subjects with the sensitivity of co-writer and director Ryusuke Hamaguchi.
The Gaze — an hourlong film by Barry Jenkins that is linked to his astounding limited series The Underground Railroad — is living portraiture. Without a shred of dialogue and carried along by Nicholas Britell’s amazing score, the film is simple: the major and minor players of the series simply look at the camera in different environs that defined The Underground Railroad. The cumulative effect of all these gazes is the sense that we’re privy to a history that can’t be fully evoked in literature due to the historical and personal gaps that impact our understanding of slavery in America. It felt as if the unnamed ancestors I want to understand were reaching through time and space. The Gaze is a masterwork that moved me, deeply and spiritually, to consider my place in these strange cosmos and the continuous rippling aftershocks of life as a Black woman in the aftermath of slavery.
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
The second Ryusuke Hamaguchi film on this list has a playfulness and curiosity in its approach to anthology shorts that I found stunning. I am especially struck by the first section of this work — “Magic (or Something Less Assuring)” — concerning a surprising love triangle. When Hamaguchi played with expectations, lobbing a bomb into the characters’ lives only for it to be revealed that certain events didn’t actually happen, I was delighted by the narrative twist. Heartbreaking in its sincerity and focus on human connection, elevated by striking performances (I especially loved Kotone Furukawa), Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy truly got under my skin and hasn’t left.
The Worst Person in the World
I look for many things when I sit down to watch a film for the first time: an assured sense of place that treats geography as identity. Characterization that feels soulful. Aesthetics that pierce the imagination, no matter how gently and quietly. Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World provided me with all that and then some. The film centers on Julie (an evocative Renate Reinsve) as she journeys from her 20s into her 30s and stumbles romantically and professionally along the way. I found myself particularly moved by her first partner, Askel (Anders Danielsen Lie), whose shifting story line indeed haunted me. But what led it to find a spot so high on my list is that it affected me so deeply I dreamed about the characters and their lives.
Writing a top-ten list is a tender prospect. What landed Jessica Beshir’s Faya Dayi — the tone poem of a documentary concerning the psychoactive plant that plays an important role in Ethiopian life — at No. 1 on this list is simple: It demonstrates, visually and sonically, the might of what film offers as a medium; it pushes the form of documentaries in intriguing directions; and it made me reconsider the bonds of family and communal responsibility. Faya Dayi may seem impenetrable as a movie option to some, but it’s far from it, and that’s another reason it ranks so high for me. The black-and-white film dips into the lives of the people touched by this plant and lulls its audience into submission, opening us up to a world of wonder and fables and power we might otherwise not experience.
Other Movie Highlights From This Year
Throughout 2021, our critics maintained “Best Movies of the Year (So Far)” lists. Many of those selections appear above in our Top 10 picks. Below are more of the films (but not all) that stood out to them this year. (A reminder about methodology: This list is restricted to films that had their first official release in 2021 — so no The Father, Minari, Night of the Kings, or Nomadland, which all had qualifying runs in 2020.)
Maud, the hospice nurse played with electric conviction by Morfydd Clark, is either possessed by the Holy Spirit or something darker. What’s so cunning about writer-director Rose Glass’s debut is how little that matters, because Maud’s newfound religious fervor has an intensity that’s terrifying either way. Having reinvented herself after a traumatic work incident as an ecstatic ascetic who believes that God has a special purpose in store for her, Maud gloms onto her latest client, a choreographer with terminal lymphoma played by Jennifer Ehle, sure that she’s supposed to save the embittered bohemian’s soul. Disaster seems inevitable, but what makes Saint Maud so nail-bitingly tense is that it’s impossible to guess the form in which it’ll come, especially as we become immersed in Maud’s warped, hallucinatory way of seeing the world. — Alison Willmore
(Available to stream on Amazon, Sling TV, and Philo.)
I Blame Society
When your friends tell you that you have the makings of a good murderer, do you take it as a compliment? Filmmaker Gillian Wallace Horvat runs with that idea in her feature debut, a bitterly dark comedy in which she stars as a hilariously warped version of herself who finds that killing might actually be more creatively fulfilling than floundering to secure financing for a film. I Blame Society is a scabrous satire about navigating an industry that parrots all the right things about wanting women’s stories, but doesn’t actually seem to have changed that much at all in terms of who has power and who gets to determine which of those stories are the right kind — a realization that’s enough to make anyone snap. — A.W.
Simon Stone’s The Dig opens sometime in the 1930s with humble excavator and amateur archeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) being called to the stately Suffolk home of wealthy widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) to dig up a series of large, mysterious mounds on her property. Soon enough, he’s uncovering something far grander than anyone previously imagined — an entire ship buried underground, the tomb of an ancient Anglo-Saxon king and proof that the people who inhabited this land were more than mere Vikings. As the dig goes on and our characters learn more about the past and the people who came before them, the small gestures of their own lives begin to feel both inconsequential and seismic. To convey these seemingly paradoxical ideas, Stone and screenwriter Moira Buffini adopt an elliptical, glancing style that treats the present almost as if it were already a memory. Scenes weave in and out of each other. Conversations happen without anyone moving their mouths, the sounds of one intimate moment intruding on the images of another. Time jumps backward and forward. Death is intercut with passion, as tragedy and glory tangle onscreen. It’s as if the dig itself radiates out a new understanding of existence, revealing both the broad arc of history and the curlicues of love, loyalty, and loss that abound within it. — Bilge Ebiri
(Available to stream on Netflix.)
Initially intended to be the site of a reservoir but never actually filled up, Vacaresti Nature Park has stood in the center of the Romanian capital of Bucharest for decades, neglected by bureaucrats and slowly emerging as a rich marshland with startling biodiversity, the largest urban wilderness in Europe. It’s also the unofficial home of a man named Gica Enache, who, with his wife and nine children — not to mention a few pigeons, chickens, dogs, cats, and pigs — has resided here for nearly 20 years, away from the world in a kind of impoverished, idyllic life off the grid. Shot over three years, Radu Ciorniciuc’s film follows Gica and his family as their existence is interrupted by the growing demands of the modern world. But Acasa is not exactly a movie about paradise lost. Ciorniciuc seamlessly blends intimacy and lyricism with a clear-eyed honesty about what he’s depicting. The film comes in at under an hour and a half, but we see Vacaresti transformed and the Enache family sent into an existential tailspin. Over and over in this poisoned pastoral, the lost dream of the idyll clashes with the sad workings of reality. — B.E.
(Available to rent on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.)
Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo play a pair of midwestern best friends who head to sunny Florida and find themselves in a heap of trouble. It might look on its surface like the zany, mass-appeal comedies on which Wiig has built much of her success. But make no mistake about it — this is weirdo cinema all the way, filled with non sequiturs, oblique cutaways, and an impressive level of commitment to the bit from its stars. Delivering their lines with complete-each-other’s-sentences brio, Wiig and Mumolo give off all the charming energy of a duo who have built these characters over a lifetime. Special mention must go to Jamie Dornan’s conflicted and lovesick villainous henchman Edgar, who gets one of cinema’s great musical numbers, flouncing, splitting, leaping, and twirling around on a beach, singing lines like “I’m going up a palm tree / Like a cat up a palm tree / Who’s decided to go up a palm tree” and “Seagull on a tire, can you hear my prayer?” — B.E.
(Available to purchase on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.)
The World to Come
The first time Abigail (Katherine Waterston) kisses Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), she blurts out, with the astonishment of someone whose universe has just tilted on its axis, “You smell like a biscuit.” Mona Fastvold’s film is the latest in what’s become a trend of lesbian period romances, but it’s unique in being set in the 1800s in the wilds of New York state, where Abigail and Tallie are unhappily married to neighboring farmers — the stolid Dyer (Casey Affleck) and the controlling Finney (Christopher Abbott), respectively. Theirs is a difficult way of life, with the women having little by way of freedom or relief from the isolation, and Finney, in particular, becoming increasingly resentful of Tallie’s lack of interest in what he believes are her wifely duties. But the friendship and then the love that arises between Abigail and Tallie is portrayed as a delight in a world almost entirely devoid of such an emotion, something to be greedily held onto even as any future it could have is desperately uncertain. — A.W.
(Available to rent on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.)
Rodney Ascher’s documentary exploration of simulation theory is stuffed with ideas and stories and builds toward the kind of emotional conclusion one would not expect from a movie so immersed in abstract thought. It’s also just plain creepy: Ascher structures his journey around footage of a 1977 lecture by visionary sci-fi author and legendary paranoiac Philip K. Dick, who declares to an audience in Metz, France, that we are living in a computer-programmed reality, one of many. Dick looks and feels like a cult leader, assured in his lunacy. Significantly less intimidating, Ascher’s other interview subjects (who include artists, scientists, and researchers) are hyperintelligent, articulate, and entertaining. The temptation is great to sit there and poke holes in their so-called evidence, but the tenor of the film isn’t one of doubt or ridicule. For the most part, these people’s stories aren’t all that bizarre or surreal; they are universal and relatable. Ultimately, A Glitch in the Matrix becomes a film not about whether we’re living in a simulation but about the many understandable reasons someone may think this. In effect, it winds up being about the mysteries of the human experience. — B.E. (Available to rent on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.)
It may take some emotional fortitude to make it through the first half of Julie Delpy’s devastating parental drama. Watching Delpy’s single mom shower affection and attention on her young daughter, always looking out for the child’s safety, it’s hard not to get a sense that something truly horrible is about to happen. And be prepared — it does. But also know this: This film also features Daniel Brühl, and once he shows up, it gets way crazier and more entertaining. My Zoe is a strange, moving picture about how we process grief — or, in some cases, fail to — but it’s also a powerful and complex exploration of scientific, emotional, and familial ethics. And it ends on one of the most subtly unsettling images in recent memory. — B.E.
(Currently unavailable to stream.)
Test Pattern (for February)
What makes Shatara Michelle Ford’s feature debut so devastating is not just its dread-filled portrayal of the sexual assault that its main character Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) experiences after a night out at a bar with friends. It’s the way the attack then lands like a ten-ton weight on Renesha’s relationship with Evan (Will Brill), widening all the stress fractures that were already there and causing new ones. Renesha is a Black woman, and Evan is a white man, and as they navigate the nightmarish bureaucracy of obtaining a rape kit, Ford deftly highlights the differences in what each has learned to expect from the system.
There are only a couple of jump scares in Canadian writer-director-cinematographer-editor-composer-visual-effects-artist Anthony Scott Burns’s Come True — mild ones at that — but the movie’s elusive sense of menace lingers for days, weeks, possibly forever. It’s about a troubled 18-year-old insomniac (Julia Sarah Stone) who signs up for a sleep study and winds up getting pulled further into her nightmares. There’s a bare-bones story there, and an insane howler of a twist at the very end, but the film’s most indelible moments come whenever Burns portrays the unnerving, spectral world of our heroine’s dreams, with their grim, surreal imagery. The movie captures something elemental, a vague but familiar terror scratching at the edge of our consciousness. — B.E.
(Available to rent on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.)
A princess story by way of a dystopian action adventure, Raya and the Last Dragon is Disney displaying how ably it’s about to adapt its animated formula to the blockbuster era. Its heroine (Kelly Marie Tran) is both the daughter of the chief and a fiercely determined martial artist. Its requisite adorable animal sidekick, the armadillo-pill-bug hybrid Tuk Tuk, is also a trusty steed capable of navigating Raya through chase sequences. But while Raya and the Last Dragon can feel slick to a fault, its Southeast Asia–inspired fantasy realm is beguiling and beautifully rendered. And for all the trundling forward motion of its save-the-world narrative, the film still has bursts of genuine heart — many of them courtesy of Sisu, the innocent and generous dragon of the title, who’s winningly voiced by Awkwafina. — A.W.
(Available to purchase on Disney+, Amazon, YouTube, and Google Play.)
Weighing in at a backbreaking four hours and two minutes, the so-called Snyder Cut – effectively restoring the version of Justice League director Zack Snyder wanted to make before departing the project in 2017 — sprawls, and scatters, and loses itself in story lines. There are times when you’re convinced it’s entering the final act, only to realize there are still more than two hours to go. But lose all these melodramatic curlicues and oversize narrative distractions, and you’d lose what makes the film special. There, in its great, glorious bloat, lies the movie’s heart. You can sort of understand why length-concerned executives might have wanted the running time cut in half and the story spruced up with dumb jokes and fewer subplots. But there’s nothing cynical about Snyder’s indulgence: He believes that superheroes directly tie into our ancient myths and religious symbols, and he wants to make the rest of us believe too. He repeatedly goes overboard with the ritual and the portent and the stone-faced gravity, but it’s hard not to respect the guy. The Snyder Cut has its share of problems — when you get the best of Snyder, you also get the worst — but it’s an undeniably passionate and moving work. It earns its self-importance. — B.E.
(Available to stream on HBO Max.)
Pedro Almodóvar’s English language debut is a divine half-hour short in which Tilda Swinton gets tired of being trapped in her apartment, puts on a pair of gold lamé pants, and burns the whole place down. Relatable! The Human Voice is a loose adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s 1930 monodrama, which is entirely composed of a woman speaking and pleading on the phone with an unseen lover who has left her to marry someone else. Almodóvar’s interpretation turns the work into an ode to the deliciousness of melodramatic impulses, with Swinton pacing her home — exquisitely furnished, and quickly revealed to have been built entirely on a soundstage — in AirPods, and also downing a colorful but nonlethal handful of pills and taking an ax to her ex’s favorite suit, all in an effort to free herself from the shadow of their relationship. — A.W.
(Available in select theaters.)
A kind of companion to Kedi, that 2016 documentary about Istanbul’s street cats, Elizabeth Lo’s film is a tender look into the lives of some of the city’s free-roaming dogs. It’s also, inevitably, a dog’s-eye view portrait of the Turkish metropolis, with Lo setting her camera on the level of her four-legged subjects but also catching the human dynamics happening around them. In particular, she lets her expressive main character, a tan-colored lovely named Zeytin, bring the audience into the lives of a group of Syrian refugees living covertly on a construction site. Stray doesn’t need to push the point that the wild dogs are welcomed more freely than these painfully young men, who huff glue and sell packets of Kleenex to get by while being denied work permits. To exist from day to day is an animal’s prerogative, but it’s a lot harder on humans who can’t conceive of what their life will look like a week, a month, or a year from now. — A.W.
(Available to rent on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.)
To try to describe a SpongeBob Squarepants movie is to flirt with madness. This one follows SpongeBob and his best friend Patrick as they go on a dream quest/road trip to the Lost City of Atlantic City, a glittering, neon-drenched metropolis where the vain, domineering King Poseidon is keeping SpongeBob’s pet snail, Gary, captive, using its slime for facials that keep his face young and healthy. It’s all a scheme engineered by the show’s primary nemesis, Plankton, who comes up with this demonic plot only after yet another of his attempts to land the secret recipe for Krabby Patties ends with him getting stuck in a French-fry cutter and having the long slivers of his sliced-up body dumped into an industrial-strength deep fryer, an image more unsettling than anything the horror genre has given us in years. Along the way, there’s a Western ghost town populated by zombie cowboys; a rolling, sentient tumbleweed soothsayer known as Sage, portrayed by a gently aflame Keanu Reeves; a whole bit where they become gambling addicts and lose their minds; an elaborate courtroom trial; and at least two covers of “My Heart Will Go On.” It’s Thelma and Louise meets The Quick and the Dead meets Inception meets Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar meets Rain Man meets Inherit the Wind, and somehow it’s also a summer-camp movie? — B.E.
(Available to stream on Paramount+ and to rent on YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.)
No one makes movies like Roy Andersson, and if About Endlessness ends up being the 78-year-old Swedish filmmaker’s last, we’ll never see anything like it again. Andersson makes feature-length collages out of intricately composed, fiercely deadpan scenes that go from mundane moments to glimpses of sometimes dark history. In his latest, a man gets the cold shoulder from a childhood acquaintance he’d forgotten he was once unkind to, a spontaneous dance party erupts outside a café, and a defeated army marches through the snow toward a prison camp. The connections between these sequences are indirect but also profound — they give a sense of grandeur to the most mundane of struggles while finding the terrible absurdity in grand acts of human cruelty.—A.W.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines
This wild animated film about a bickering family of misfits whose road trip happens to coincide with a robot apocalypse brought about by a huge tech company’s runaway digital assistant is both a takedown and a celebration of our dissonant, tech-obsessed world. Director Mike Rianda and co-director Jeff Rowe use speed, wit, and a delirious combination of animation styles — mixing variations on 3-D, hand-drawing, and even live-action — to create something frenetic and inventive and new. The film portrays a reality in which the background noise of technology often reveals our true feelings. There’s a warning here, of course, about putting all our emotional lives into the objects around us, be they physical or virtual. But beneath it all, the film also has some affection for its attention-deficit universe. It’s in many ways a love song to all the weirdos who can’t quite bring themselves to say the things they need to say and instead express themselves in other, less efficient and convenient ways (which could be, at various times, any of us). — B.E.
There are vintage Sesame Street clips in this documentary from Marilyn Agrelo that provide a rush of recognition heady enough to dilate the eyes, Requiem for a Dream-montage-style. But the film, which is based on a book by Michael Davis, isn’t interested in just wallowing in nostalgia. In examining the early years of the landmark children’s television show, it outlines the forces of idealism and public funding that allowed it to be, mixing interviews with surviving creators and cast members with archival footage of Jim Henson and Jon Stone talking to journalists. The behind-the-scenes shots are invaluable, and the acknowledgments of the personal sacrifices and pain of the production process give the film a bittersweet tinge. Mostly, though, the problem with Street Gang is that you might wish it could go much longer, delving deeper into the ways that values and ambition met reality on this enormously influential feat. — A.W.
Slalom is being billed as a Me Too movie set in the world of competitive skiing, but that does the picture a mild injustice. The film is too human for any kind of categorization. It’s a delicate, authentic look at the complicated ways in which abuse works. Much of its power derives from the performance of newcomer Noée Abita as Lyz, a 15-year-old girl studying in the Swiss Alps, where she has joined an elite ski team led by Fred (Jérémie Renier), a tough coach who thinks nothing of observing and manhandling the kids’ bodies, supposedly to make them better skiers. Although we know where things are generally headed, almost nothing in Slalom feels specifically predictable. The electrifying camerawork of the skiing sequences might at first feel a bit off-note, but it’s important to show Lyz’s exhilaration, the intoxication of victory that pushes her and Fred closer together. Fred is not so much a scheming, serial predator, but rather a man whose confident exterior hides someone even more screwed up and immature than the young, lost girl that he’s become drawn to. He’s a broken narcissist who doesn’t understand anything about boundaries, or agency, or even trust. — B.E.
Thrumming with danger and eroticism, Oliver Hermanus’s adaptation of André Carl van der Merwe’s apartheid-era memoir centers on a gay South African teenager who’s sent to complete his compulsory military service. It’s 1981, a time when anti-Black and anti-communist fears are being stoked to an all-time high, and Nicholas (Kai Luke Brummer) is one of a group of young men being readied to participate in the country’s border war with Angola. It’s a coming-of-age movie that plays like a thriller, its main character navigating a brutal institution in which masculinity, racism, nationalism, and violence are all inextricably linked, and finding an unexpected connection with fellow conscript Dylan (Ryan de Villiers). — A.W.
Set during the ’70s in the U.K., when battles between the Conservative government and striking coal miners union led to electricity restrictions and regulated blackouts, Corinna Faith’s film features an all-timer of a horror setting. It takes place in a sprawling, underfunded hospital in which a novice nurse named Val (Rose Williams) is forced to take on a night shift on her first day of work. It doesn’t take long for frightening things to start happening in the unlit hallways and shadowy wards, though if there’s a ghost lurking, it seems to be drawn to Val not out of an urge to destroy her, but because they share something. The Power elegantly knits together atmospheric terrors and institutional ones, providing a reminder that it’s not always the things that go bump in the night that are the true threat. — A.W.
Viktor Kossakovsky’s mesmerizing, gorgeous documentary about the life of a mother pig and her babies on an unnamed farm somewhere in the world serves as a bracing corrective to the way animals are usually portrayed on film. The director wants to establish a connection between us and these creatures that we think of primarily as food, but he doesn’t want to do it at the expense of truth. To try and give these human personalities or traits would be not just dishonest, but counterproductive; it would make the whole movie (and any message its maker may want to convey) dismissible as fantasy. So we don’t necessarily understand these animals. We are, however, transfixed by them. There have been lots of movies about pigs over the years, but this is the rare movie that lets the pigs onscreen just be pigs. — B.E.
Riders of Justice
It’s clear by now that there’s nothing that Mads Mikkelsen can’t do — whether it be performing a surprisingly athletic bit of jazz ballet, crying blood at a poker table, surviving a plane crash in the Arctic Circle, or elegantly supping on human flesh. In Anders Thomas Jensen’s revenge drama Riders of Justice, Mikkelsen manages to simultaneously lean into and dismantle tough-guy tropes while playing a stoic soldier reeling from the death of his wife in a train crash. Rather than confront his repressed grief or console his mourning daughter, he embraces a theory that the accident was actually planned and starts working with a trio of programmers who think they’ve uncovered a conspiracy. It’s the rare action movie that concludes with the idea that everyone should have just gone to therapy. — A.W.
This Australian thriller, a big hit in its native land, is filled with such an overwhelming sense of grief that you may lose sight of the central mystery for stretches of the movie. But it works as genre, too. Eric Bana plays a federal agent who returns after many years to his drought-stricken rural hometown to look into a ghastly murder-suicide allegedly committed by his oldest friend. As he investigates, flashbacks dredge up another mysterious death from years before, when they were all kids. It’s a tangle of suspicion, shame, and buried memory, and the land becomes something of a metaphor for the corrosive power of evil as our hero wanders around this shriveled, devastated community. On the surface, Bana plays the haunted cop as a calm, methodical professional — but there’s a vindictive gleam in his eye as well, a streak of self-destructiveness to his quest for the truth. This is a beautiful thriller that leaves us not with explanations but with unshakable sadness. — B.E.
The sequel to John Krasinski’s 2018 alien-invasion horror hit is almost as nerve-racking as the first. It opens with a bravura flashback — an explosive, stomach-gnawing look at the day the sound-seeking aliens first came to the quiet town of Millbrook — but then continues from where the previous film left off. After the death of her husband, Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt) struggles to find safe harbor for her surviving children, Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe), and her newborn baby. They shack up with their traumatized, paranoid, grieving neighbor Emmett (Cillian Murphy) but wind up separated again when Regan strikes out on her own, convinced she’s hearing a radio message about where to find the rest of human civilization. Krasinski directs like an old suspense master. Because characters usually can’t talk, story beats and revelations have to be conveyed visually through cinematic language. But he also brings subtlety, artistry, and texture to the story. Beyond the many jump scares involving aliens and the terrifically terrified-out-of-their-wits performances, what makes A Quiet Place Part II special is the sheer joy we get from feeling like we’re in the hands of a confident filmmaker. — B.E.
Summer of Soul
There’s no better reminder of the alchemical magic of film than long-unseen archival footage, which can make years vanish in an instant, restoring the past with an immediacy that’s all the more vibrant because it offers a glimpse into what was thought lost. That’s definitely the case with Hal Tulchin’s half-a-century-in-store footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which provides a breathtaking window into a major but underdiscussed event (and the ecstatic audience), featuring performances from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, and Sly and the Family Stone. But what makes Summer of Soul so multifaceted is the way that Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, in his directorial debut, cuts interviews by and about the artists in with each song, providing context to the moment, to the music, and to shifting ideas of what it meant to be Black in America.
All Light, Everywhere
Theo Anthony makes films that are as much visual essays as they are documentaries, delving into history and technology in order to make provocative connections between the past and present. His 2016 debut, Rat Film, used Baltimore’s rodent problems as the jumping-off point for an examination of redlining and inequality. His new film, All Light, Everywhere, is a meditation on the impossibility of an objective lens, particularly when it comes to police enforcement. Anthony weaves together a tour of Taser and body-camera company Axon Enterprise, the history of astronomers’ attempts to observe the transit of Venus, and the story of a man trying to sell the citizens of Baltimore on an aerial-surveillance program, drawing a line from early, gun-inspired advancements in photography to the inherent bias in camera footage.
They drove a car in space.
Eyimofe (This Is My Desire)
Like Chungking Express, this stunner of a debut from twin filmmakers Arie and Chuko Esiri is split in two, following first a middle-aged mechanic name Mofe (Jude Akuwudike), and then a pretty salon worker and bartender named Rosa (Temiloluwa Ami-Williams. While the paths of these Lagos residents may cross, their stories remain separate — what binds the characters is thematic. They both dream of migrating to Europe, where they hope to find better opportunities for themselves and their loved ones. But there’s no off-kilter Wong Kar Wai lushness to be found in Eyimofe (This Is My Desire), in which all efforts to get ahead prove Sisiphean, and everyone hustles just to stay in the same place. The film is a bitter set of tales about the illusory promises of capitalism, presenting a bustling city in which there’s no softness to be found when tragedy strikes — the characters’ desperation just makes them easier marks.
Saudi director Shahad Ameen’s grim, lovely fable is set on a desolate island in a dead sea, where a group of villagers survives by annually sacrificing a daughter from each family to a race of mysterious, mermaid-like creatures in the water. One baby, Hayat, survives the sacrifice thanks to the last-minute mercy of her father. When she grows up, she distinguishes herself by her ability to hunt down and kill the mermaids. Things get way weirder, and way darker, from there on out. Ameen’s film is mesmerizingly bleak and otherworldly: The lunar landscape, the dusty village with its dark, smoky interiors, the eerily placid sea shimmering marvelously in the moonlight — the film’s textures, all shot in black-and-white, enchant us with their spectral beauty. There’s great metaphorical power in her tale, but the director seems less interested in sending messages than in providing a cinematic experience. A close-up of a giant fin being dragged across hard, cracked earth may not explain anything, but it still says more than any expository dialogue ever could. Scales doesn’t give us answers because life itself so rarely does.
David Lowery’s sumptuous interpretation of the Arthurian tale leans into the otherworldliness of its famous tale, but also into the earthiness of its characters, with Dev Patel playing the future legend as a present-day gadabout who prefers carousing to going in pursuit of greatness. But when a mysterious, tree-like figure rides into the king’s court during a Christmas feast, that pursuit is forced upon him, and Gawain’s left honor-bound to seek the Green Knight out in a year for what seems like certain death. Lowery turns the young man’s journey into one that’s filled with encounters that appear meant to impart lessons that he can’t parse. It’s a movie that luxuriates in allegory without answers, allowing its lush imagery to carry a story that’s ultimately about how honor is not a prize to be won at the end of a quest, but a quality that comes from within.
Playing With Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story
Early in her career, diving icon Valerie Taylor gained fame for being an expert spearfisher and scuba diver who also had pin-up style looks. But she soon became one of the most committed conservationists of her time, dedicating herself (along with her cameraman husband Ron) to visually capturing the majesty of the underwater world while also working to preserve it. Sharks were a natural area of focus. Ron and Valerie Taylor were the world’s foremost chroniclers of sharks – they even wound up shooting the live shark footage in Jaws, which was instrumental to that film’s success. (They would later regret the fact that Jaws wound up making sharks even more feared and endangered than they were before.) Sally Aitken’s marvelous documentary captures this remarkable woman’s life and career through the mountains of incredible footage she and Ron created over the years, but it also follows Valerie today, in her mid-80s, as she continues to dive and cavort with her beloved shark friends, all the while working overtime to save our oceans.
The Boy Behind the Door
This thriller from David Charbonier and Justin Powell is beautifully made and unstintingly brutal about the peril its young protagonists find themselves in. Bobby (Lonnie Chavis) and Kevin (Ezra Dewey) are besties who are grabbed while killing time before a baseball game, and find themselves in a remote house belonging to captors with some very nefarious intentions. When he discovers that Kevin’s been chained up in a locked room, Bobby creeps around the dark building looking for a way to help his friend. Child endangerment can be one of the cheapest ways of getting a reaction out of an audience, but The Boy Behind the Door treats its characters’ fear and determination with an unaffected seriousness that eliminates any sense of exploitation, leaving only heart-in-your-throat suspense. Plus, Kristin Bauer van Straten makes for an impressively sadistic big bad.
Todd Stephens’s comedy is a wonderfully bittersweet tribute to small-town gay men, and to staying and carving out communities in places that weren’t always welcoming. But it’s just as much a tribute to Udo Kier, a professional oddball of the highest grade who steps into a rare leading role as Pat Pitsenbarger, former hairdresser and enduring big personality. Asked to posthumously style the hair of the woman who was once his most important client, and whose betrayal he never forgave, Pat leaves his nursing home and sets off on a trek across Sandusky, Ohio, that manages to be sweet, funny, and deeply elegiac.
Norman Nordstrom, the menacing blind antagonist placed by Stephen Lang in the first Don’t Breathe, becomes — well, not the hero, exactly, in this sequel, but certainly the avenging main character. The results, as stylishly directed by Rodo Sayagues, are nasty and tremendously fun. Madelyn Grace plays Phoenix, who Norman’s been raising as his daughter without ever letting her know he’s not actually her father, and Brendan Sexton III is the leader of a gang who grabs the young girl — not, it turns out, by accident. The film features multiple twists and turns of sympathies, but ends in the right place, with the acknowledgement that you’re watching various monsters attempt to end one another.
Through interviews with historians, authors, and activists, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s documentary looks at the cult around Hitler and Nazism — but it’s not really about the 1930s and 1940s. Rather, it examines what that period has to say about the darker side of human nature, and how it relates to the rise of fascist and ultra-nationalist movements today. It’s a massive subject, of course, but Tucker and Epperlein manage to condense and synthesize an enormous number of ideas into a fascinating and engaging journey. That the film ends in the U.S., with the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, adds an extra chilling note: The political and governmental catastrophe underlines how much we’ve stopped functioning as a society, and the opening this gives to humanity’s worst impulses.
Matt Yoka’s lively documentary is about the married Los Angeles couple who transformed TV journalism — and the media landscape in general — with their use of helicopter shots to cover breaking news. In the 1980s and ’90s, Marika Gerrard and Bob Tur were often the first on the scene of dramatic events. It didn’t matter how major or minor the event was — they got incredible footage. (O.J. fleeing in the Bronco? That was them. The footage of Sean Penn and Madonna’s wedding? Also them.) In doing so, however, they hyper-accelerated the sensationalization of modern news. Along the way, their own relationship was incinerated, and there’s a fascinating personal story here as well. Bob eventually came out as trans; she is Zoey, and speaks openly about the toxic masculinity and aggression she was once prey to with a self-reflection that’s quite moving. Because of his access to the couple’s massive archive, Yoka is able to tell this story in present-tense fashion, with both compassion and suspense.
Andreas Fontana’s chilling drama is a heart of darkness journey through the airy houses and tony clubs of Argentina’s elite. It’s 1980, at the height of the Dirty War, and people have been disappearing — including Keys, the colleague that Swiss banker Yvan de Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione) has come to replace. As de Wiel and his Lady Macbeth-esque wife Ines (Stéphanie Cléau) wind their way up the tiers of power, they come into contact with people wealthy enough to live lives that have been largely unchanged, but not invulnerable enough to be immune from fear. Azor is an elegant nightmare about professionally as a kind of psychopathy, with its reminders that violent regimes need their money serviced too.
William Tell, the tormented Abu Ghraib jailer turned professional gambler played by Oscar Isaac, may be another one of Paul Schrader’s feverishly solitary men, but The Card Counter comes across as just as intriguingly impatient with his angst as it is empathetic. Maybe it’s that Cirk (Tye Sheridan), the young man William takes under his wing, makes revenge look like a juvenile dead-end goal. Maybe it’s that Tiffany Haddish, as fellow poker player La Linda, opens up the possibility for one of the year’s most off-kilter sexy romances. Or maybe it’s just that Schrader’s brilliantly woozy thriller makes being trapped in the past look as colorless and uncomfortable as the tarp-wrapped motel rooms its hero prefers.
Like a Spanish answer to Little and Big Edie, Leonor (writer-director Amalia Ulman) and María (Amalia’s real parent Ale Ulman) are a daughter and a mother living together in a kind of grand downward mobility. They’re getting evicted from their apartment in the seaside city of Gijón, which has been devastated by the financial crisis. But what gives El Planeta its darkly comic charm are the ways in which the pair try to cling to the vestiges of a higher-end lifestyle that’s quickly slipping out of their grasp. They do so with a combination of denial and grift, shoplifting in a fur coat and dipping a toe into sex work and encountering endless small humiliations as they’re faced with the fact that they’re no more entitled to comfort and clout than the people they try to see themselves as above.
Fran Kranz’s directorial debut has the claustrophobic airlessness most often found in awkward play adaptations, though in the case of Mass, it’s entirely by design and brutally effective. It consists almost entirely of Reed Birney, Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, and Martha Plimpton sitting in the meeting room of a church none of them attend, trying to navigate their way through an unspeakable tragedy. Isaacs and Plimpton are the parents of a young man who was murdered in a mass shooting, and Birney and Dowd are the parents of his killer, and while all four offer remarkable performances, the writing is what makes the film so haunting. While never losing sight of the individual humanity of each member of its quartet of shattered adults, Mass moves through a miniature version of the conversations had on a larger scale after every incident like this, going from grief to blame to an attempt to find answers to a desire to pinpoint what should have been done, all before ending on the question of grace.
Despite the title, Mia Hansen-Løve’s multilayered movie isn’t actually about Ingmar Bergman. It’s more about the complexities of the relationship between an artist’s life and their work, something that applies to Bergman as much as to the filmmaking couple (played by Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth) who head to the Swedish auteur’s beloved Fårö island for a writing residency during the annual Bergman Week festival. The pair’s dynamic (possibly inspired by Hansen-Løve’s own ended partnership with Olivier Assayas) is one of collaboration and easy affection, though little heat. After establishing its rhythms, with wit and warmth, the film is taken over by the project Krieps’ character has been working on, a swoony drama about first love and longing starring Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen Lie that makes you consider what’s come before in another light. Maybe the movie within a movie is an expression of an absence its author would like to address, or a nostalgic glance back at an age when even heartbreak could have a kind of luxuriant scale to it. Maybe it’s simply a testament to the way that movies are able to make an experience look larger and more vivid than in real life, which inevitably evens out those highs with hefty doses of the mundane.
Calling The French Dispatch the most Wes Anderson movie Wes Anderson has ever made might sound like a warning as much as a recommendation, but despite some ups and downs that come from its omnibus structure, his latest is pretty damn wonderful. So dense with detail that it could benefit from a few rewatches and some strategic freeze framing, and packed with regulars from the director’s past work, the film is as much an act of New Yorker fan fiction as it is an ode to the American romanticization of France. Made up of shorter segments representing the stories in the last issue of the glossy French outpost of a Kansas-based newspaper, The French Dispatch would be worth it simply for the last of the three main parts, starring Jeffrey Wright as a journalist who sets out to write a story about an haut cuisine born from the needs of policemen, and ends up witnessing a hostage situation.
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