Every product was carefully curated by an Esquire editor. We may earn a commission from these links.
The year has provided some incredible films, many you can stream right now.
With December now here, the finish line is in sight for the cinematic year. The pandemic may have done a number on the industry’s theatrical business, but it hasn’t stopped filmmakers from churning out great works, many of them debuting in the coming month, which is set to be as busy as any in recent memory. From Steven Spielberg’s highly anticipated remake of West Side Story and Guillermo Del Toro’s star-studded re-do of Nightmare Alley, to Aaron Sorkin’s classic-TV biopic Being the Ricardos and Joel Coen’s Shakespearean The Tragedy of Macbeth, the race to qualify for best-of lists (and the Oscars) should pay immense dividends for moviegoers in the coming weeks, who are going to have a heck of a time figuring out which titles are worthy of their dollar.
Still, while a plethora of must-see offerings lay directly ahead, the current multiplex, art-house and VOD landscapes are immensely crowded as well. For the first time this year, a whopping ten new films have been added to this feature, speaking to the depth and breadth of domestic and international films presently available to intrepid cinephiles. At the forefront of that batch are Radu Jude’s scathing Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s entrancing Drive My Car and Paul Thomas Anderson’s joyous Licorice Pizza, all of which have cracked the top ten. Whether they remain in those coveted positions remains to be seen, especially given what’s set to premiere in the forthcoming few weeks. But for now, they help lead our picks for the best movies of 2021.
Don’t eat anything of unknown origins–a warning that goes unheeded by oft-bickering Riley (Malin Barr) and Sam (Sawyer Spielberg, son of Steven) in Honeydew. On a New England camping trip, the couple have a run-in with an unfriendly landowner who evicts them from their sleeping spot, forcing them to embark on a nocturnal trek through the woods that leads to the home of Karen (Barbara Kingsley). Though Riley and Sam are vegans, they’re compelled to chow down on some of Karen’s home-cooked beef and bread, the latter of which is especially dicey given that this region is notorious for having lost crops and cattle to a poisonous spore. That’s just the beginning of the ordeal writer/director Devereux Milburn has in store for his protagonists, who are joined at their dinner by a dazed-looking man with a bandaged head, and who soon discover that Karen has devious plans for them–some of it having to do with her daughter. Crafted with jarring edits and split screens for maximum disorientation, the ensuing mayhem is stunning, scary and considerably gross, heralding the arrival of a uniquely out-there horror voice.
Timeless art is often born out of highly particular experiences. At least, that was the case with dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones’ D-Man in the Waters, a famed 1989 piece that was inspired by the fatal battles of both his partner Arnie Zane and company star Demian “D-Man” Acquavella with AIDS. Director Tom Hurwitz and Rosalynde LeBlanc’s documentary Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters is both a historic tribute to that work and an examination of its continuing relevance, which comes to the fore via former Jones collaborator LeBlanc’s staging of the number with a group of students at California’s Loyola Marymount University. The young performers’ attempts to make their adaptation of D-Man in the Waters speak to today is a pressing concern during rehearsals, and also factors into Jones’ visit to LeBlanc’s studio, where he provides casting pointers and background on the origins of the show, which Jones and original troupe members discuss with insightful poignancy. Decades after their original losses, their pain doesn’t appear to have dimmed, and Hurwitz and LeBlanc’s documentary illustrates how grief, survival and swimming-against-the-current resolve can be core catalysts for lasting creativity.
Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) brings glamorous style to familiar spy-movie clichés in Cliff Walkers, a knotty 1930s-set espionage saga in which four Chinese communist agents sneak into Japan-occupied Manchuria to smuggle out the sole survivor of a torture camp. This quartet splits up into couples to achieve their covert aim, only to be immediately and constantly beset by encounters with comrades who may be double (or triple?) agents. Be it early shots from the perspective of its parachuting-through-trees protagonists, or a snowy attempt to infiltrate a metropolitan gala, Zhang blends Hitchcockian suspense with Dr. Zhivago beauty, all while shouting out to (among others) Charlie Chaplin and Sergio Leone. Virtually every convention in the Spy Fiction 101 book makes an appearance at some point, but the thrill is in the director’s orchestration of numerous set pieces that are all the more suspenseful for being somewhat inscrutable–a situation caused by plotting that keeps identities and relationships fuzzy and in flux. It may be dedicated to the Communist Revolution, but its real heart belongs to classic Hollywood.
Things go horribly wrong in The Vigil for Yakov (Dave Davis), a young man who–having left his ultra-orthodox Jewish community for a secular Brooklyn life–accepts a job sitting vigil for a recently deceased Holocaust survivor. That task not only returns him to the neighborhood (and faith) he rejected, but puts him in the crosshairs of an evil demonic force that, it turns out, plagued the dead man over whom he watches, and his wife (Lynn Cohen), who behaves creepily around David in her darkly lit Borough Park home. Keith Thomas’s feature debut has a great sense of its insular milieu as well as the trauma and stress of escaping an extremist religious environment, and the writer/director drums up suspense from set pieces that exploit silence to eerie effect. Davis’s harried countenance is the glue holding this assured thriller together, lending it an empathetic anguish that helps cast its action as a story about confronting the (personal and historical) past as a means of transcending, and escaping, it.
Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci don’t just craft indelible portraits of affection and grief in Supernova; they suggest, in the stillness and silence between them, the invisible but unbreakable ties that bind them together. Harry Macqueen’s understated drama charts Firth’s Sam and Tucci’s Tusker as they travel in their RV across the English countryside, their nominal destination a comeback concert for classical pianist Sam and their purpose a farewell tour for Tusker, who’s beset by irreversible early onset dementia. Their story is light on bombshell incidents but heavy on quiet, barely suppressed anguish and fear, both of which are amplified by their enduring amour. Macqueen’s gentle and deft writing is in harmony with his imagery of his pastoral setting, allowing his performers–Firth defiant and pent-up; Tucci brave and terrified–to fully embody their protagonists’ fraught emotional circumstances. Supernova understands the tragedy and triumph of love, and the way in which our lives, at best, shine brightly before burning out, their dying embers touching and transforming those left behind.
Clint Eastwood’s movies are almost always best when they star their director. Back in the literal saddle for the first time in decades, the Hollywood legend’s latest finds him playing a broken-down ex-rodeo star named Milo who, to repay a debt to his former boss (Dwight Yoakam), travels to Mexico to retrieve the young man’s son Rafo (Eduardo Minett). The two embark on an odyssey back to the States with his fighting rooster Macho in tow. Eastwood underlines Milo’s virility at every turn–he punches out a bad guy, holds an adversary at gunpoint, tames wild steeds, and proves irresistible to the ladies–but simultaneously has him comment on the emptiness of violent machismo, which has left him with nothing but loneliness, heartache and regret. An adaptation of N. Richard Nash’s novel that moves at the same pace as its 91-year-old headliner, the film moseys along from one minor incident to another, playing a familiar Western tune with sweet sensitivity. Eastwood may be physically past his prime, but he’s still got plenty of grit and grace.
Archaeology is the means by which the past is resurrected in The Dig, a based-on-real-events drama about the famous 1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo, which unearthed innumerable 6th-century Anglo-Saxon finds contained within an intact ship. Driven by the “hunch” of Sutton Hoo’s owner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), local excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) searches for secrets buried in the mounds on her estate. Working from Moira Buffini’s script (based on John Preston’s book of the same name), director Simon Stone crafts a supple tale about our quest to revive yesterday through the investigations of today. As his film expands to address the impending threat of WWII, and the way in which it impacts the circumstances of Edith’s RAF-bound cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn) and the wife (Lily James) of a researcher (Ben Chaplin), it also becomes a poignant examination of life’s impermanence, and the importance of seizing–and cherishing–whatever brief moments of joy and love one can. Its exquisite visuals (often indebted to Days of Heaven) enrich its graceful storytelling, as do sterling performances from all involved, led by Fiennes in one of his most understated and quietly moving performances to date.
Documentarian Heidi Ewing’s first narrative feature recounts the true-life story of Ivan and Gerardo, a gay Mexican couple who fled their fraught home lives for a new start in America. Dislocation is central to their tale, with Ivan in particular caught between love for his partner and for his son and family, whom he chooses to leave behind in search of freedom, tolerance and a potential career as a chef. I Carry You With Me exudes empathy for these individuals’ plights, which includes suffering sidewalk beatings from random homophobes and the slings and arrows of their disapproving clans. Ewing shoots their travails in warm hues and with handheld camerawork that often spies them through barriers, suggesting their imprisoned condition. Those circumstances don’t completely change once they reach the United States, as conveyed by late non-fiction passages that address the real Ivan and Gerardo’s present-day trapped-between-two-worlds situation. There are no easy answers proffered by this tender and compassionate film, just an irreconcilable combination of happiness, relief, and frustrated longing for an unachievable happy ending.
Natalie Morales’ Plan B is a refreshingly candid and open-minded celebration of pro-choice teen sex and friendship, but the real draw of this abortion-themed comedy is its potent humor. Convinced to throw a house party by her best friend Lupe (Victoria Moroles), Sunny (Kuhoo Verma) has sex not with her crush Hunter (Provost) but with religious nerd Kyle (Mason Cook)–a decision that leads to crisis when, the next morning, she comes to fear that she’s pregnant. Thus a rollicking mission to obtain a morning-after Plan B pill is born, driven by Sunny’s fear of not only teen parenthood but disappointing her demanding Indian mother (Jolly Abraham). Punctuated by a bevy of hilarious one-liners, Prathi Srinivasan and Joshua Levy’s script is raunchy and sweet in equal measure, capturing its protagonists’ anxieties and desires (for sex, for acceptance) with absurd heart. As the hesitant-to-come-out Lupe, Moroles is a consistent delight, and Verma is even better as the frazzled Sunny, in what may be the breakout performance of the year.
With The Lego Movie and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller set new standards for visually and narratively inventive animated features, and they continue that hot streak with The Mitchells vs. the Machines, a wild tale of warfare between a family and a legion of robots controlled by an angry outdated AI (Olivia Coleman). This unlikely battle breaks out during the Mitchells’ cross-country trip to deliver wannabe-auteur Katie (Abbi Jacobson) to college, which itself is instigated by dad Rick (Danny McBride), who’s desperate to reconnect with his from-different-worlds girl. Father-daughter rifts are at the heart of writers/directors Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe’s adventure, which blends CGI, hand-drawn and live-action material to create a zany rainbow-hued aesthetic that’s constantly surprising and inherently attuned to 21st-century online reality, where cartoons, memes and DIY styles reign supreme. Aided by an expert voice cast and a script that piles on gags and one-liners with verve–highlighted by a showdown with a legion of evil Furbys–it’s a manic ode to accepting and embracing the future while retaining bonds with the past.
Bob Odenkirk takes one hell of a beating in Nobody–and, per a joke made by his Hutch Mansell, you should see the other guys. Director Ilya Naishuller’s film is an obvious riff on John Wick, concerned as it is with a nondescript and seemingly meek family man who, following a home invasion, taps back into his government-assassin true nature and goes on a rampage that eventually inflames the ire of a Russian gangster (Aleksei Serebryakov). Yet a lack of novelty is hardly necessary in light of Odenkirk’s masterful performance as a man brought low by self-deception and, consequently, resurrected by facing his inherent angry identity. Odenkirk’s ability to handle the barrage of brutal set pieces thrown his way is itself part of this affair’s conceit, and yet once he proves his action-movie mettle, the proceedings lose none of their verve, delivering gory mayhem with a tongue planted firmly in cheek. The late participation of Christopher Lloyd and RZA only boosts the goofy charm of this R-rated romp, which goes for broke–and breaks a lot of bones in the process–to amusingly ferocious ends.
In Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson doesn’t just restore never-before-seen footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival; he expertly cuts it together to create a lively and passionate tapestry of Black America at a turning point. Resurrecting the memory of this forgotten concert–which took place on the day of the Moon landing, and in the same season as Woodstock–Thompson finds a Black and Latino Harlem in the throes of change, driven by a variety of factors that the director seamlessly integrates into his copious performance clips featuring the likes of Stevie Wonder, BB King, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Nina Simone, The Fifth Dimension and Mahalia Jackson. The canny, rhythmic structure of the film, which also includes commentary from those who played and attended the event, is key to its pointed power. Ultimately, though, it’s the music that lifts up these proceedings, which peak whenever Sly & the Family Stone take the stage.
The seductive past is not to be trusted in Last Night in Soho, Edgar Wright’s musical-period piece-thriller about an aspiring fashion designer (and medium) named Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) whose infatuation with 1960s London leads her down a dark rabbit hole when, upon relocating from the countryside to the city for school, she begins experiencing visions of a wannabe-singer beauty (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her charming manager (Matt Smith). Mirrors, staircases, pulsating colored lights and descents into literal and figurative infernos are all part of Wright’s stylish film, which eventually takes a sharp turn from Repulsion-style psychological freak-out to supernatural fright-fest. The director swings big with every bold aesthetic gesture, aiming to deliver scares and sexiness alongside pointed commentary about inherited female sexual trauma. Its soundtrack awash in era-specific deep cuts, Last Night in Soho is a cautionary tale about the dangerous allure of nostalgia that nonetheless radiates affection for ‘60s Soho’s electric energy. Reveling in its own deliriousness, it’s a mash-up spearheaded by an enchanting Taylor-Joy as a specter whose dashed dreams are the stuff of nightmares.
The Night House boasts the year’s best jump-scare. Better still, it features one of 2021’s finest performances courtesy of Rebecca Hall as a woman whose anguish over her husband’s recent suicide is complicated by unnerving discoveries about the secret life he’d led. Director David Bruckner’s follow-up to The Ritual concerns Beth (Hall), a teacher whose attempts to cope with sudden widowhood are interrupted by strange noises, visions, and clues that suggest her spouse Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) was up to something strange in and around their lakeside home in woodsy upstate New York. The revelations that follow are of a semi-oblique sort, the better to cast an eerie pall that never tips over into exposition-heavy leadenness. Grief and guilt are an identical monster in this disquieting thriller, which gets suspenseful mileage out of shrewd perspective-manipulating imagery and skillful pacing. Most of all, though, it benefits from Hall, whose superb turn as the devastated Beth is equal parts solemn and seething, vulnerable and fierce, unstable and assured.
Jia Zhangke investigates the ongoing transformation of China–and the inextricable relationship between the past and the present, the urban and rural–through the prism of three famed authors in Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue. Guided by interviews with writers Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and Liang Hong, each of whom grew up in the same Shanxi province as Jia (albeit in different decades), the director examines the way in which their own travails before, during and after Mao’s Cultural Revolution helped inform their feelings about their fractured families, their remote countryside hometowns, and themselves–pressing and complicated issues they address through their artwork. That they recount their own biographical narratives here only further underlines Jia’s focus on the act of storytelling as a means of understanding, processing, expressing and passing down unique and universal human experiences. Split into chapters and shot with a lyrical focus on contemplative faces and serene, changing landscapes, Jia’s snaking, inquisitive non-fiction work proves a subtle rumination on shifting individual and national Chinese identity.
Loss leads to retreat for Edee (Robin Wright), a woman who responds to an unspecified tragedy by moving to a remote Wyoming cabin in Land. Willfully cut off from civilization, Edee finds her new survivalist existence more than a bit difficult, what with the bitter cold, the sparse food (courtesy of fishing), and the occasional outhouse run-in with a bear. In her directorial debut, Wright employs compositions that call understated attention to the alienated anguish of her protagonist, whom she embodies as a fragmented (and potentially suicidal) woman with a sorrow as deep and cold as the vast wilderness. A spark comes at her moment of wintery death courtesy of Miguel (Demián Bichir), a rancher who revives her first literally, and then figuratively, teaching her to hunt (as her personal Yoda) and reminding her of the vital human connection that gives everything purpose. Guided by Wright’s expressively interior performance and Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam’s spartan script, the film captures the universal desire for escape in the face of grief, and the way resurrection often comes from accepting death as an inescapable facet of life.
The sound of chopping wood and cocking pistol hammers are incessant in The Killing of Two Lovers–jarring and ominous sonic punctuations that do much to fortify the roiling suspense of writer/director/editor Robert Machoian’s tormented domestic drama. In a barren Utah town where the sky seems to weigh down upon its inhabitants, David (Clayne Crawford) strives to deal with an unwanted separation from his wife Nikki (Sepideh Moafi), who lives in their old home with their four kids, and is sharing a bed with Derek (Chris Coy), much to David’s chagrin. Opening with the sight of David pointing a gun at his wife and her lover in bed, the film proceeds to detail its protagonist’s efforts to mend his marriage while coping with the barely suppressed killing rage ignited by his circumstances. The struggle to keep inner turmoil from begetting external bloodshed is brought to tumultuous life by Crawford, who embodies David empathetically with a hurt, rage, and desperation that’s mesmerizing, as well as by Machoian’s direction, full of long takes and hardscrabble compositions that place an emphasis on anguished faces and interpersonal dynamics.
The giant glowing sun-like orb on stage behind dancer Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) at the start of Ema could be a symbol of creation or destruction, both of which are pressing undercurrents throughout Pablo Larraín’s scorching drama, which tracks the young title character as she copes with the fallout from her and husband/dance troupe director Gastón’s (Gael Garcia Bernal) decision to give back their adopted son Polo (Cristian Felipe Suare) after the boy nearly incinerated Ema’s sister in a fit of pyromania. Fiery tensions are everywhere in this hypnotic film–be it between love and sex, passion and reason, sanity and madness, or modern art and reggaeton street culture–as Ema reacts to her situation by concocting a scheme to get her child back through carnally devious means. Larraín stages his material like a sweaty, pulsating fever dream-cum-dance-routine, all of it revolving around his alternately entrancing and horrifying protagonist, whose quest for motherhood takes on increasingly demented form. There’s palpable volatility to his study of Di Girolamo’s intriguing Ema, who proves to be a figurative and literal flamethrower.
Not only do you not need to be a fan of Sparks–the L.A.-via-London band led by siblings Russell and Ron Mael–to enjoy The Sparks Brothers; you don’t even have to know who they are. Edgar Wright’s enthusiastic non-fiction portrait of the group provides a chronological rundown of their unkillable career, which has continued to thrive despite failing to achieve the household-name status that often seemed to be its destiny. Exuberant singer Russell and Hitler-mustached Ron are front-and-center in Wright’s film, providing droll commentary (alongside scores of collaborators and admirers) about their eccentric path, which has included ahead-of-their-time pitstops in pop, electronica, punk and alternative rock (not to mention an abiding love of cinema). Cleverly edited archival-footage montages and diverse animated sequences are instinctively attuned to Sparks’ all-over-the-place wavelength, expressing the joyous anything-goes attitude that has long guided their music. Sparks’ madcap trajectory resembles that of a rollercoaster (apt, given their participation in 1977’s Rollercoaster), and Wright’s film is a celebration of the enduring vitality of their unique art.
Jesus is a source of both pleasure and pain in Benedetta, Paul Verhoeven’s playful based-on-real-events provocation about 17th-century nun Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira), who’s bequeathed by her father to God and, then, to a Tuscan convent administered by a stern Abbess (Charlotte Rampling). Experiencing visions of becoming Christ’s bride and exhibiting signs of the stigmata, Benedetta is revered by her fellow nuns and assumes the position of the Abbess, creating convent conflict that’s complicated by her budding lesbian romance with incest sufferer Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia). From revelations in which Jesus hacks, slashes and beheads his enemies in flamboyant fashion, to repeated instances of Rampling’s Abbess prizing money as much as faith, to Bartolomea fashioning a sex toy from a wooden carving of the Virgin Mary, Verhoeven’s latest amusingly investigates the intersection of devotion and heresy, humility and pride, suffering and ecstasy. Set during the plague, cagey about its heroine’s true nature, and energized by a love of titillation and gore–replete with a scene that, in this heaven-hell context, recalls a memorable set piece from The Omen–the film investigates the divine with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek…among other places.
The story of a tormented man of ritual who writes his (narrated) thoughts of grief and regret in his journal, and who seeks redemption and solace through companionship and blood, The Card Counter is a kindred spirit to many prior Paul Schrader films, and something like a direct companion piece to 2017’s First Reformed. The aptly named William Tell (Oscar Isaac) is an ex-con with a dark past who now makes his monotonous way through life earning a living as a small-time card-counting gambler. His path is altered by run-ins with La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), an alluring financial backer, and Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a college dropout with an ugly connection to William. The unlikely trio are eventually united on a mission to not only win big at the blackjack tables but, more importantly, to achieve a much-coveted, if elusive, measure of peace, healing and salvation. Isaac’s controlled, layered performance is in harmony with the clipped noir-ish mood created by Schrader, who strikes a moving balance between distressed severity and fatalistic romanticism with this saga of a tortured torturer’s quest for forgiveness and deliverance.
Acclaimed East Village artist David Wojnarowicz spit politicized fire with every painting, song, and piece of writing he produced. A spirit capture, piercingly and with urgency, in Chris McKim’s Wojnarowicz: F–k You F-ggot F–ker. Composed of Wojnarowicz’s home movies, audio recordings and voicemails, as well as collages of his art as well as snapshots of New York City in the ‘80s and early ‘90s that are embellished with interview snippets from colleagues, lovers, curators, and admirers, the documentary is a tribute to an outspoken and unconventional (and, at times, controversial) queer firebrand who spoke truth to power right up until his 1992 death from AIDS, which itself became a late focus of his output and activist energy. Locating the intersection of personal, cultural, and political trauma–beginning with an abusive upbringing that he fled at an early age, to his time as a street hustler and, then, a gallery star–McKim’s film is an immersive peek inside the iconoclast’s mind and heart, its eclectic form exuding the mixture of sorrow, warmth and jagged rage that defined Wojnarowicz.
Faces don’t come more sorrowful than that of Mantoa (Mary Twala Mhlongo), an 80-year-old woman whose solitary life in a rural African village is rendered lonelier still by the unexpected death of her miner son. This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection begins with that man failing to return home, and ends with Mantoa reuniting with the dearly departed for whom she pines. In between, it recounts–via the narration of Jerry Mofokeng Wa Makhetha’s lesiba-playing sage–a quasi-mystical fable of grief and loss, as Mantoa and her compatriots face a crisis of disconnection thanks to news that a dam will soon flood their land and, consequently, the cemeteries where their dead slumber. Through boxy-framed imagery that’s simultaneously gritty and ethereal, and a score that cries out with its protagonist’s misery, Lesotho-born director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese conjures a lightly magic-realist mood of mourning and yearning. Disaster born from “progress” arrives at regular intervals for these forlorn individuals, none of whom are more distressed than Mantoa, embodied with a mixture of ferocity, despair and determination by the magnetic Mhlongo.
A love letter to The New Yorker and its particular brand of erudite journalism, The French Dispatch is another Wes Anderson effort brimming with idiosyncratic humor and charm. Employing the symmetrical compositions, jaunty pop tunes, and spirited wit that have become his trademark, Anderson’s film is both about the fictional publication The French Dispatch–headquartered in the made-up city of Ennui-sur-Blasé and overseen by departing editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Billy Murray)–and a dramatization of its final issue. In those segments, an illustrious cast (including Frances McDormand, Benicio Del Toro, Owen Wilson, Timothée Chalamet, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton and Adrien Brody) navigates droll scenarios that champion the virtues of painting, media, cooking, theater, revolution and, of course, the movies. Anderson’s fondness for eccentric cinematic storytelling can be felt in every one of his immaculate images, animated interludes and deadpan asides, all of which are in tune with his characters’ desire to tell their tales in whatever unique and honest way they see fit. Epitomized by Howitzer Jr.’s maxim, “Just try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose,” it’s a celebration of creativity in all of its diverse forms.
Tall tales about crime, war, power, and survival are layered upon each other in Night of the Kings, Philippe Lacôte’s drama about an Ivory Coast prison ruled by an incarcerated kingpin named Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) who, on the night of the blood moon, demands that a new inmate (Bakary Koné) become a “Roman” and spin a yarn that will last until dawn. The ensuing fable that Roman recounts concerns a local gangster whose blind father was counselor to a queen, and who rose to prominence in the aftermath of a revolution–a legend that boasts echoes with the predicament of Roman himself, trapped as he is in a jail where treacherous schemes are afoot. In both the present and in CGI-enhanced flashbacks, Lacôte conjures an atmosphere that mixes stark City of God-style grit (Fernando Meirelles’ 2002 film is even cited as an influence) with dreamy magical realism, the latter augmented by the many men who surround Roman during his oration, acting out his narrated action with dancer-like movements. Harrowing and lyrical, it’s a film about the transformative and redemptive power of storytelling.
The gig economy gets satirized in oblique, mysterious sci-fi fashion in Lapsis, Noah Hutton’s low-fi tale about a futuristic new exploitative industry. Tired of delivering lost airline luggage to its owners, and in need of money for treatment for his brother Jamie (Babe Wise) – who’s suffering from a chronic-fatigue syndrome known as Omnia – Ray (Dean Imperial) joins millions of Americans in laying cable between giant quantum server cubes in the forested Allegheny mountains. Writer/director/editor Hutton provides myriad clever details about the intricate mechanics of cabling without every quite explaining the larger implications of the business, which serves as the MacGuffin powering this tale of worker subjugation at the hands of a monopolistic tech conglomerate. Hutton’s film is like a blend of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, carefully doling out specifics (and establishing relationships and rebellious plots) while leaving solid answers just out of reach. It’s a balancing act that Hutton pulls off with aplomb, his suggestive widescreen visuals as unnerving as Imperial’s lead performance as desperate-everyman Ray is charismatic.
The Enache family–comprised of father Gică, mother Niculina and their nine kids–live a primitive off-the-grid life in Văcărești, an untamed stretch of wetlands situated right beside sprawling Bucharest. Theirs is an existence of fishing by hand, burning trash, and hiding children from social services, and here, journalist-turned-documentarian Radu Ciorniciuc’s Acasa, My Home accompanies this unruly clan as they’re forced to integrate into the very civilization Gică rejects. Far from a saga about idyllic rural life torn asunder by modernity, this patient and incisive film instead reveals itself to be a story about selfishness and togetherness, conformity and rebellion, and the responsibility parents have for their children, the last of which comes to the fore once Gică’s eldest son Vali begins resenting his father for raising him as an illiterate, unskilled vagabond, even as he follows in his dad’s footsteps. There are no easy answers here, only longing for a happier (if unhealthier) time, and fury over an inheritance of a squandered past and a bleak future.
Few acts were as revolutionary as The Velvet Underground, and Todd Haynes’ bio-doc pays inventive tribute to their abrasive energy and experimental legacy. Comprised of interview narration that’s married to marvelous archival footage of the band–including performance clips, photos, and movies shot at Andy Warhol’s art-collective The Factory, where the Velvet Underground served for a time as house band–the film creates a sly disconnect between sound and image, in the process attuning itself to the group’s innovative and unconventional spirit. Less interested in being a definitive account than an authentic portrait of their attitude and ethos during their brief late-1960s heyday, The Velvet Underground refuses to play by normal non-fiction rules, and thrives because of it. Then again, it’s hard to falter when in possession of this much fantastic material, which both contextualizes the band’s ascension amidst a burgeoning counterculture art scene (and flower-power moment in time), and captures them at the height of their simultaneously dissonant and lyrical power.
Commissioned by the Lutheran Society to highlight the problems of aging and elder abuse, George A. Romero’s newly restored 1973 “lost film” The Amusement Park is a nightmare about the myriad indignities of growing old. Trapped in a cycle of torment, an aged man in a white suit (Lincoln Maazel) visits an amusement park where he and other senior citizens suffer one misfortune after another, be it getting into a bumper car accident with a derisive younger driver, being accused of perversion for talking to children, or getting mugged by bikers who resemble not-too-distant cousins of A Clockwork Orange’s droogs. Bookending sequences make plain the project’s message, but such obviousness does little to diminish the discomfort of these proceedings, whose awful surrealness benefits from Romero’s rough-around-the-edges aesthetics, full of ragged handheld cinematography, jagged cuts and unexpected transitions. Running a concise 52 minutes, the Night of the Living Dead auteur’s allegorical horrorshow is a lament for the ugliness of life’s twilight years, and a plea for compassion in the face of disregard and cruelty.
17 Blocks is awash in trauma, wrought not only from gun violence and addiction, but from individuals’ knowledge that they’re partly to blame for the tragedies that befell them. Davy Rothbart’s immensely moving documentary charts twenty years in the life of the Sanford family, comprised of narcotics-abusing mom Cheryl, her dealer son Smurf, daughter Denise and youngest Emmanuel, all of whom help shoot this self-portrait with video cameras. Drugs are a destructive scourge on this Washington, DC household, culminating with the senseless murder of Emmanuel, an infectiously cheery kid and good student who seemed destined to transcend his difficult circumstances. In the aftermath of that heartbreaking calamity, his relatives struggle to cope with guilt over their own roles in Emmanuel’s fate, all while attempting to right their wayward courses and not repeat the sins of the past–both for themselves and for their clan’s youngest members, including Emmanuel’s nephew Justin, who in many ways is his spitting image. Rothbart’s film is an empathetic study of hardship, loss, and the way that change often comes from finally taking responsibility for one’s self and loved ones.
A packed Jehovah’s Witness prayer house in Tbilisi, Georgia is firebombed, throwing the congregation–and, in particular, Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), the wife of the sect’s leader–into disarray. That incendiary incident is the catalyst for director Déa Kulumbegashvili’s slow-burn debut, which uses prolonged, visually static compositions to consider the plight of its harried protagonist, whose circumstances are worsened by her husband’s (Rati Oneli) departure and the arrival of a local police officer (Kakha Kintsurashvili) who has menacing intentions. Often staring at individuals for minutes at length while dramatizing conversations in which one participant is situated just off-screen, Kulumbegashvili scrutinizes Yana’s position–within her pious community, and in relation to her male counterparts, be it her spouse or her young son–with rigorous empathy, allowing larger truths about sexism, marginalization and despair to emerge from the patient action at hand. Blending neo-realism and mannered stylization, and led by an agonized Sukhitashvili performance, Beginning is a sober and mysterious character study that announces Kulumbegashvili as a filmmaker of immense promise.
Billy Tipton was a regional jazz musician who, beginning in the 1930s, toured the country and recorded two albums with his The Billy Tipton Trio. More astonishing still, however, is that Tipton did all this–as well as later got married and started a family–while hiding a secret: he was trans. No Ordinary Man is the story of the pioneering Tipton and his improbable professional and personal life, recounted by directors Aislin Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt in inventive fashion. Analyzing Tipton’s journey through archival material, interviews and staged movie auditions in which trans actors play the role of Tipton at key moments of his life, their documentary processes real-world events via the intricate interplay of art and fiction. The diversity of their chosen thespians is a celebration of the trans community as a melting pot, and those individuals’ personal thoughts about identity, acceptance, presentation and performance allow for a multifaceted view of Tipton’s (and other trans men and women’s) personal experiences. Also including conversations with Tipton’s adopted son, who’s still grappling with conflicted feelings about his father, the film is a celebration of a little-known trailblazer and a study of changing attitudes and perspectives
Watch on Apple TV
Confirmation that sometimes more is more, Dune is an epic that values scale–of image, of sound, of titanic import–above all else. An adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 sci-fi novel (or, at least, its first half), Denis Villeneuve’s film is gargantuan in every respect, setting its tale of intergalactic political intrigue, chosen-one prophesy and coming-of-age adventure in concrete palaces, circular chambers and alien deserts that seem to go on forever. From the monolithic ships that transport characters to strange new worlds, to the sand worms that lurk beneath the surface of inhospitable Arrakis, to the thunderous roars and oppressive silences of Hans Zimmer’s score, Villeneuve prizes overwhelming size. That goes for his narrative as well, which recounts the journey of young Paul (Timothée Chalamet) from heir-to-the-throne to would-be messiah after his father (Oscar Isaac) is awarded control of sandy Arrakis and its valuable spice reserves. Treachery, terror and warfare ensue, all of it thrillingly staged by the director, who–with the aid of an all-star cast featuring James Brolin, Jason Momoa, Stellan Sarsgård, Javier Bardem, Zendaya and the magnificent Rebecca Ferguson–crafts a Middle Eastern-influenced odyssey that feels legitimately mythic
With Bergman Island, Mia Hansen-Løve pays overt and subtle tribute to Ingmar Bergman via a story about both a filmmaking couple (Vicky Krieps’ Chris and Tim Roth’s Tony) that ventures to the Swedish master’s Fårö home in search of inspiration, as well as Chris’ ensuing movie, whose protagonists Amy (Mia Wasikowska) and Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie) are echoes of her and Tony. (Not to mention past Bergman characters.) The two-way street between experience and creativity is evoked throughout this gentle drama, which luxuriates in the atmosphere of Fårö and the complex rapport between Chris and Tony (and their fictional counterparts). With a beguiling lightness of touch, Hansen-Løve suggests the ties that bind all of her narrative threads, yet she refrains from one-to-one explanations, her dramatic dynamics just oblique enough to stimulate the imagination. The desire for psychological, romantic and familial connection–and the sadness born from the alienation that often takes its place–is ever-present, with the performances of all four leads contributing to a wistful atmosphere of personal and artistic longing and contentment.
Del Shannon’s classic “Runaway” factors into a late scene in Siberia, which is fitting given that Willem Dafoe and Abel Ferrara’s latest collaboration plays like a dreamy flight through a dark, fraught past. Tending a remote bar in the Arctic, Clint (Dafoe) is overwhelmed by swirling visions and apparitions from yesteryear, including his long-dead father (also Dafoe), his bitter ex-wife, and various versions of himself at different points in his life. The connective tissue binding these hallucinatory passages is sometimes difficult to discern, but Ferrara’s elegant editorial structure and alternately soaring and up-close-and-gloomy visuals create a piercing sense of his protagonist’s unsettled inner state. Whether gutting a fish, wrestling with a bear, plummeting down a shadowy crevasse, having sex with a former lover, visiting travelers in the desert, or happily skipping around a maypole in the sunshine with other children, a worn-out Dafoe communicates a melancholy impression of the hang-ups plaguing his Jack London-ish protagonist, whose anxieties, fears and regrets seem to have sprung forth from some deep, distraught part of Ferrara’s subconscious.
A spiritual companion piece to his 2013 psychotronic freak-out A Field in England (not to mention Alex Garland’s Annihilation), writer/director Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth is a beguiling supernatural thriller fit for our pandemic-wracked times. In a world grappling with a viral outbreak that requires quarantine zones and sanitation protocols, researcher Martin (Joel Fry) is accompanied by park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) into a forbidden forest in order to rendezvous with scientist Olivia (Hayley Squires). That trip is complicated by a run-in with a dangerous hermit (Reece Shearsmith) with ulterior motives, and primal forces–emanating from a giant stone monolith with a hole near its peak–that may be related to an ancient god known as Parnag Fegg. Aided by a soundscape of sinister electronic tones, unnatural bird squawking and heavy breathing, Wheatley’s direction proves oppressive and hypnotic, whiplashing between ominous calm and hallucinatory madness. A journey into a dark abyss of violence and corruption, it’s a story about nature’s unstoppable, inhuman power–and mankind’s helplessness in the face of it–that taps directly into present-day anxieties about infection, isolation and insanity.
Separation and (re)unification are central to Undine, as is the notion of transformation–all concerns that writer/director Christian Petzold (Transit, Phoenix) addresses via his trademark motifs of water, trains and spirits that haunt the living. When not giving lectures about Berlin’s 20th-century urban-development history, Undine (Paula Beer) contends with the loss of one lover (Jacob Matschenz) and the acquisition of another, Christoph (Franz Rogowski), an industrial deep-sea diver whom she meets following one of her speeches. Their romance begins and ends in submerged fashion, which is fitting given that Undine appears to be a water nymph. Still, what’s real and what’s illusory remains ambiguous throughout. Petzold strikes a mood of lyrical melancholy wrought from personal and political predicaments of disconnection and union, with Beer’s playfully intense, unreadable eyes doing much to elevate her amorous dynamic with the excellent Rogowski. Another of his sagas about women attempting to remake themselves following a traumatic loss–a plight echoed by the German metropolis in which its action takes place–as well as the difficulty of doing so without honesty, compassion and forgiveness, Petzold’s latest is a beguiling fairy tale of fractured hearts and lives.
Documentaries don’t come much more nerve-wracking than Sabaya, a suspenseful portrait of sacrifice, suffering and courage under fire. Director Hogir Hirori’s gem concentrates on Mahmud and his fellow volunteers at the Yazidi Home Center, a Syrian outpost dedicated to liberating kidnapped female Yazidi (a Kurdish ethnic and religious minority) from sexual slavery at the hands of ISIS (here referred to by their Arabic acronym Daesh). His camera right up alongside Mahmud as the brave man embarks on nighttime raids–gun drawn at all times–to locate and extricate these victims with the aid of undercover “infiltrators,” the filmmaker depicts his action in in-your-face fashion. Such proximity to danger generates powerful anxiety and empathy, not only for Mahmud but for those he rescues, whose stricken visages and forlorn testimonials speak to the nightmares they’ve endured at the hands of their captors. Both a series of stunning nocturnal rescue missions and a study of lingering (and potentially permanent) trauma, Hirori’s non-fiction film boasts more thrills–and tears–than most Hollywood productions.
Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is an enthralling triptych about romantic desire, alienation, regret and the often magical connections we make with others—including strangers. In the film’s opening chapter, a woman (Hyunri) tells her friend (Kotone Furukawa) about a once-in-a-lifetime night with a man she’s just met (Ayumu Nakajima), who just so happens to be the friend’s ex-boyfriend. The second tale concerns a woman (Katsuki Mori) who’s cajoled by her young lover (Shouma Kai) into honey-trapping the author-professor (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) who humiliated him, only to strike up an unlikely bond with the man. And in its finale, two women (Fusako Urabe, Aoba Kawai) who think they’re high-school classmates share a reunion, during which they discover that they don’t know each other and, therefore, are free to express their long-suppressed feelings. Hamaguchi dramatizes his action with long takes that are heavy on dialogue and light on action, focusing his concentrated gaze on the rollercoaster emotional and erotic journeys of his unsettled protagonists. Through their encounters, and the surprising revelations that ensue, these characters come to grasp both the power of individual agency, and the role of fickle fate, in their searches for love and inner peace.
When talent agent Jordan (Jim Cummings) receives an anonymous invite to a no-strings-attached sexual encounter, he can’t resist. And the fallout from his fateful decision is the subject of The Beta Test, Cummings and co-writer/director PJ McCabe’s savagely sharp and funny satire about toxic Hollywood masculinity. Operating like a hybrid of David Fincher’s The Game and Kitty Green’s The Assistant, this caustic comedic thriller is led by Cummings’ ferocious performance as Jordan, a salesman whose every word and action oozes smarmy insincerity, and whose rickety façade of power-broker cool and control comes crumbling down once he goes through with his tryst and, afterwards, can’t shake the discontent and hunger it breeds. Driven by frantic montages that accentuate its anxious energy, as well as plot twists that keep suspense levels high, the film manages the not-easy feat of making entertainment industry phoniness and greed seem simultaneously horrifying and hilarious, with both modes operating in concert up to, and through, a finale that brutally denounces a Harvey Weinstein-esque culture that’s corrupt to its core.
What if reality wasn’t actually real? That’s the question plumbed by A Glitch in the Matrix, Rodney Ascher’s latest documentary to traverse unreal terrain in search of answers about human existence, alternate realms, and our conscious and unconscious connections to our celluloid dreams. Like his prior Room 237 and The Nightmare, Ascher’s film features a chorus of out-there voices, who articulate opinions about the likelihood that we’re all cogs in a program about which we’re unaware, and which is operated by higher beings we can’t understand. Ascher chats with these individuals via Skype, recreates their stories with computer animation, complements their hypotheses with movie clips, and conceals their identities through the use of digital avatars, creating a seamless (and playful) marriage of form and content that speaks to the material’s issues of self, truth, alienation and loneliness. Simulation theory comes across as a fantasy of both enslavement and escape, and Ascher’s amusing and critical inquiry posits it as a reflection of timeless human impulses to explain the inexplicable. Via the patricidal story of Joshua Cooke, it also exposes this Matrix-inspired idea’s capacity for catastrophic chaos.
An Arthurian epic that straddles the line between John Boorman’s opulent Excalibur and Robert Bresson’s stripped-down Lancelot du Lac, David Lowery’s majestic The Green Knight is a medieval tale of magic, murder and the nature of heroism and storytelling. With a self-consciousness that aids its inquiry into the very subjects it’s celebrating, Lowery’s adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight follows drunken, immature Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) on his quest to find the tree bark-covered Green Knight, whom a year earlier he beheaded, and who now–as part of their “game”–owes him a return blow. A misty atmosphere of doom envelops Sir Gawain as he treks through fields, marshlands and forests, with a charismatic Patel evoking his protagonist’s staunch determination and mounting self-doubt and cowardice. There’s a specificity to the director’s every surreal frame, and yet also an ambiguity about Sir Gawain and the lessons to be derived from his odyssey. What’s not in doubt, however, is the enchanting spell cast by Lowery’s dreamy adventure, which is energized by a bevy of ancient wonders and a deconstructionist attitude that feels altogether modern.
Hell hath no fury like a religious zealot scorned, as demonstrated by writer/director Rose Glass’ feature debut, which concerns a young hospice nurse named Maud (Morfydd Clark) who comes to believe that her mission from God–with whom she speaks, and feels inside her body–is to save the soul of her terminally ill new patient, famous dancer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). What begins as a noble attempt to share pious belief and provide comfort for the sick swiftly turns deranged, as Maud is possessed by a mania impervious to reason, and enflamed by both the slights she receives from Amanda and others, and by her own mortal failings. The sacred and the profane are knotted up inside this young woman, whom Clark embodies with a scary intensity that’s matched by Glass’ unsettling aesthetics, marked by topsy-turvy imagery and pulsating, crashing soundtrack strings. A horrorshow about the relationship between devoutness and insanity, it’s a nerve-rattling thriller that doubles as a sharp critique, punctuated by an incendiary final edit that won’t soon be forgotten.
The conscious and unconscious, and the organic and mechanical, coalesce in Come True, Anthony Scott Burns’ hypnotic sci-fi thriller about an 18-year-old girl named Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone) who participates in a mysterious sleep study. The doctor running this trial is, in fact, watching his subjects’ dreams on grainy black-and-white monitors via wired contraptions and devices, and what he sees are gliding visions through misty, murky landscapes populated by crumbling structures, abyss-like doorways and spectral figures with glowing red eyes. Inspired by the works of David Cronenberg, Philip K. Dick, Stanley Kubrick and Wes Craven (among others), Burns’ sleep paralysis-steeped saga descends into a dark subconscious realm whose inhabitants appear to seek entry into our reality. Whether riding her bike Donnie Darko-style through tranquil suburban neighborhoods, or freaking out while wearing a patch to cover her bleeding eye, Stone embodies Sarah as a loner who’s equally empathetic and enigmatic. The same might be said of the film itself – an oblique, atmospheric tale about the terrors that bind and plague us, and the difficulty of truly understanding the nature, and limits, of our minds and world.
Ambition and devotion collide with reality in The Disciple, Chaitanya Tamhane’s focused study of an Indian musician whose dreams appear to exceed his reach. Set in the world of Northern Indian classical music, whose vocal compositions are improvised and cascade in ways that are hard to predict (at least to the untrained ear), it recounts the struggles of Sharad (Aditya Modak) to impress the mentor (Arun Dravid) under whom he studies, and to hone his skills in order to secure a professional career–even though this endeavor is treated as a lifelong, borderline-spiritual undertaking. Often traversing his metropolitan home at night on his motorcycle while listening to a famed musician’s lectures, Sharad is a man desperate for something he may not be cut out for. Tamhane’s intensely patient film (full of long, unbroken takes) gazes at him while he performs, practices and, years later, teaches, with the director’s diagonal line-structured compositions helping to draw us into this foreign milieu. Bitterness, determination and disillusionment all factor into his evenhanded portrait, which empathetically tackles the question of whether desire, and hard work, can ever beget true talent.
It’s always difficult to say goodbye to a loved one, but especially so when you’re a child, a struggle Petite Maman gracefully taps into through the tale of eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz). In the autumnal aftermath of her grandmother’s death, she finds herself abandoned by her mother Marion (Nina Meurisse) at the family’s rural home. Left to her own devices, Nelly strikes up a magical friendship with her adolescent-aged mom (Sanz’s twin sister Gabrielle), with whom she builds a forest fort, plays detective, makes pancakes, and discusses their conjoined future. Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire evokes a piercing sense of childhood fear and confusion, with Marion unnerved by the complicated adult emotions and actions she does not (and cannot) fully grasp, as well as the camaraderie of youth, in which fanciful games and everyday activities can be heartening lights in dark and uncertain times. The Sanz sisters’ expressive performances beautifully suggest these unspoken notions, while Sciamma’s cozy and affectionate direction taps into both her protagonists’ particular mindsets and the universal feeling of facing a world of complex tumult and joy.
Rebecca Hall is one of Hollywood’s finest actresses, and with Passing, she also establishes herself as a writer/director of exquisite skill. An adaptation of Nella Larsen’s novel of the same name, Hall’s behind-the-camera debut concerns Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), two well-to-do Black childhood friends who reconnect in 1920s New York City while both are passing as white women, with the latter even married to a Caucasian man (Alexander Skarsgård) who doesn’t know his wife’s true race. Their ensuing relationship is fraught with tangled feelings of shame, self-loathing, and jealousy, all of it further knotted up by the escalating attraction shown to Clare by Irene’s Black doctor husband Brian (André Holland) A study of racism’s complex effects on the Black psyche, as well as the difficulty of Black mobility in such an intolerant environment, Hall’s chiaroscuro period piece tackles its subjects with graceful and expressionistic precision, her every image wielding shadow and light to subtly convey the spoken and unspoken (and internal and external) dynamics ensnaring her protagonists. Bolstered by superb turns from Thompson, Negga and Holland, it confirms Hall’s status as a filmmaker of intense empathy and vision.
Steven Soderbergh is the modern maestro of ensemble crime films, and No Sudden Move is another feather in the director’s genre-filmmaking cap. In 1954 Detroit, Curt (Don Cheadle) and Ronald (Benicio Del Toro) are hired to babysit the family of an accountant (David Harbour) who has a document coveted by their secret employer. That plan inevitably goes off the rails when Curt and Ronald’s third accomplice, Charley (Kieran Culkin), proves less than trustworthy, and they wind up trying to save their lives and fatten their wallets at the same time. Alternating between elastic panoramas and intense close-ups–both of which often boast canted angles, for an even greater noir feel – Soderbergh expertly handles the ins and outs of Ed Solomon’s tight script, which integrates racial and socio-economic concerns into its caper narrative with a light, humorous touch. Also featuring Jon Hamm, Ray Liotta, Julia Fox, Amy Seimetz, Brendan Fraser and Matt Damon, it’s a twisty-turn affair that thrillingly reaffirms that there’s no honor among thieves, that greed is the engine that makes the world go round, and that there’s no more well-oiled criminal machine than corporate America.
Bill Morrison is a filmmaker who converses with the past via rediscovered lost movies (which he scores with contemporary music), and the object of his latest fascination is not a rare relic but, rather, an incomplete print of the 1969 Mihail Žarov-headlined Soviet comedy The Village Detective, which was dredged up by an Icelandic fishing vessel. Just as the lines on an aged person’s face tell their story, so too do the water-damage blemishes on this celluloid work speak to its place in history, and to our time-travel-ish experience of viewing it from the present. Thus, Morrison’s examination of the popular hit functions as an act of communion with a distant yesterday. Through careful editorial collages and juxtapositions of clips from Žarov’s many other big-screen efforts, the director creates an overpowering sense of the way in which Žarov’s career and life were influenced by, and reflected, the changing circumstances of his homeland during the 20th century, to the point that he even crafts certain sequences to resemble a young Žarov interviewing his older self. Dreamily wistful, it’s another Morrison ghost story steeped in life—and art’s—simultaneous transience and immortality.
In Pig, Nicolas Cage plays a reclusive truffle hunter who returns to Portland to find his kidnapped pig, and though that premise suggests a John Wick-style rescue/revenge saga, director Michael Sarnoski’s feature debut is instead a far more reserved and melancholy affair. A ragged man living a remote, rustic life, Cage’s Robin partners with his smarmy buyer Amir (Alex Wolff) to retrieve his beloved swine, thus instigating a quest that invariably forces him to revisit the modern corners of the world he long ago left behind. In the process, Sarnoski and Vanessa Block’s script reveals itself to be a meditation on the finality of loss, and the inability to escape the anguish that it inevitably breeds. A quiet lament as well as a poignant paean to the transcendent power of food (and art) – not to mention the solace that comes from focusing on what really matters – it’s a film marked by formal grace (Sarnoski wields doorway-framed compositions to haunting effect) and a masterful Cage performance of roiling inner turmoil, trauma and heartache.
Few crimes are more despicable than the Catholic Church’s protection of sexually abusive priests, and Procession lays bare the trauma created by such heinous conduct through the unique story of six midwestern men. As with his prior release, Bisbee ’17, documentarian Robert Greene’s latest tackles historical crimes by having survivors reenact their ordeals in dramatically staged sequences, the aim being to bestow these wounded individuals with a measure of therapeutic solace. Decades after being raped and molested by the adults charged with mentoring them, Michael Sandridge, Tom Viviano, Mike Foreman, Ed Gavagan, Dan Laurine, and Joe Eldred bravely revisit the worst moments of their lives, both physically (by traveling to the locations where they were abused) and cinematically (through shorts performed by themselves as well as young actor Terrick Trobough). Segueing between the past the present, the real and the fictional, and the heartbreaking and the inspiring, Procession is a formally daring non-fiction effort that not only plumbs the depths of human monstrousness and suffering, but locates a measure of catharsis via the camaraderie of kindred souls and the magic of the movies.
After losing his wife in a train accident, atheist soldier Markus (Mads Mikkelsen) is informed by Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas)–a statistical analyst who survived the crash, and who believes he can predict the future through math–that the calamity was no accident; rather, it was a hit carried out by a biker gang known as the Riders of Justice, who wanted to take out a snitch. The ensuing story is many things at the same time: a violent revenge saga in which Markus, Otto and Otto’s weirdo friends Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and Emmanthaler (Nicolas Bro) plot to execute the Riders; a drama in which Markus and his teen daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) try to come to grips with senseless tragedy (and mend their own damaged relationship, while creating a new surrogate clan); and a comedy about the push-pull between destiny and the randomness of life. Writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen’s film straddles those modes with aplomb, wringing humor and pathos from its motley characters’ quests to overcome regret, attain peace, and forge bonds of familial togetherness. It strikes just the right oddball-moving tone, led by Mikkelsen in a masterful turn that’s at once deadpan and deadly serious.
Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn wastes no time delivering on its title’s promise, presenting an X-rated sex tape made by teacher Emi (Katia Pascariu) and her husband which proves troublesome for the former when it leaks online. Romanian director Radu Jude’s film is split in three, with its first and third passages concentrating on Emi as she navigates her urban hometown and defends herself at a parent-teacher conference (respectively); its middle segment is structured as a scathing cine-essay on a wide range of social, political and philosophical issues that pertain to present-day Romania. Jude’s target is a culture of crass, sexualized consumerism, hostile nastiness, and nationalist racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny, all of which he slices and dices with cutting black humor. Emi’s plight is cast as emblematic of a pandemic-stressed country of intolerance, hypocrisy, absurdity and anti-intellectual hate, with Jude’s eclectic film making its points first visually–through searching POV-style shots of city streets dominated by crumbling buildings, garish corporate logos and horny advertisements–and then verbally in a final trial-by-morons. It’s a critique of furiously disgusted humor.
Philosopher, poet and critic, documentarian Theo Anthony (Rat Film) is a cinematic visionary, and his sophomore feature All Light, Everywhere is an astonishing inquiry into perception, and the means by which it constrains, alters, warps and fundamentally shapes our understanding of reality. From Baltimore Police Department training sessions for body cameras and the sleek offices of Axon (which manufactures those devices, as well as tasers), to contentious community meetings about a private firm’s God’s-eye-view surveillance technology and narrated passages about the historical development of photography–and its inherent links with militaristic and law enforcement applications–Anthony’s latest investigates the myriad advantages and limitations of our modes of awareness. Employing dreamy transitional fades, stark juxtapositions and meditative music to suggest a wide range of narrative associations that are never overtly articulated, his cine-essay is a work of formal daring and intellectual depth, tackling its subject in ways that are as graceful as they are complex. As conveyed by its coda, it’s also a self-reflexive commentary on itself, as well as its audience’s experience of what it’s presenting in its illuminating and highly engineered frame.
Stalin’s March 5, 1953 death rocked the Soviet Union, and Sergei Loznitsa’s State Funeral revisits the days immediately following his momentous demise via forty hours of archival black-and-white and color footage shot by over 200 cameramen. Far from just a reconstructed historical record, this magnificent documentary repursues its state-produced material for its own ironic ends. Fixating its gaze on recurring sights and sounds–of processions of citizens shuffling through outdoor and indoor spaces to pay tribute to their fallen leader, and of speeches lionizing his accomplishments and the country’s bright future – it presents a stinging critique of the delusion and desperation of totalitarian societies. In thrall to a cult of personality, these Soviet men and women reverently bow their heads and weep for a man who’s incessantly praised as a beacon of hope, but the drab, miserable reality of the nation’s situation is plain for all to see, and underscored by the hypnotic uniformity of both the film’s images and formal structure. Until its stinging textual coda, there’s no overt censure made by Loznitsa’s film, but as with all great cinematic works, its images speak–loudly, and damningly–for themselves.
Quo Vadis, Aida? is a historical nightmare of unrelenting agony, charting the efforts of UN translator Aida (Jasna Đuričić) to save her husband and two sons at a camp in Srebrenica (in eastern Bosnia) where innocent civilians have taken shelter from the murderous Bosnian Serb army. Aida’s job affords her a voice but she’s nonetheless powerless to affect this mounting crisis, which is destined to end with the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8,372 men, women and children. With harrowing immediacy, writer/director Jasmila Žbanić thrusts us into the chaos and madness of this situation by sticking closely to Aida, whose efforts to enable communication between Dutch UN commanders and Bosnian-Serb General Ratko Mladić (Boris Isaković) are doomed to fail. In a towering performance, Đuričić’s frantic, desperate countenance conveys the unthinkable tragedy faced by Aida and her compatriots, which was facilitated by United Nations officers who knew full well that a genocide was taking place, and yet failed to maintain the “safe area” they were tasked with overseeing. A damning account of active and passive war crimes, the film–as evoked by its final moments–forces us to witness that which many didn’t want seen.
Whether seen in agonized close-ups or at an alienated remove, director Fernanda Veladez’s characters are alone–and forlorn–in Identifying Features, a masterful Mexican drama of grief, guilt and dislocation. Consumed with finding her son, who’s gone missing while trying to cross the Mexican-American border, single mother Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) embarks on an investigative journey through a dusty, dangerous country of migrant shelters, remote gas stations, vacant homes and wide open plains that echo their inhabitants’ lonely sorrow. Her path eventually crosses with Miguel (David Illescas), a young man who, having been deported by the U.S., now seeks to reunite with his long-abandoned clan–one of many lyrical parallels found in this haunting descent into a national heart of darkness. Though dialogue is minimal, Hernández and Illescas’ pained-yet-resolved countenances speak volumes about the anguish and terror of a people plagued by separation and yearning. The film’s stunning formal beauty enhances its unholy nightmarishness, as Veladez alternately frames his protagonists amidst expansive landscapes and constricting structures in order to highlight their simultaneously lost and trapped condition. And in an unforgettable late sequence set to an indigenous speaker’s un-translated recollection, the filmmaker presents a vision of demonic cruelty so horrifying, it can barely be comprehended.
Art provides a vehicle for communicating that which might otherwise be difficult to express. Nonetheless, in Drive My Car, achieving true understanding–of each other, and one’s self–remains a difficult prospect. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s superb three-hour drama charts Tokyo actor and theater director Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) as he navigates a thorny relationship with his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) and, following an unexpected tragedy, embarks on a stage production of Uncle Vanya–a play that shares many similarities with his own situation–with a disparate group of actors in Hiroshima. Kafuku’s odyssey is marked by innumerable car rides, many of them with hired driver Misaki (Toko Miura) behind the wheel, during which he diligently rehearses lines with a cassette recording made by his spouse. Storytelling is a two-way street in this patient and poetic drama, which employs long, unbroken conversational scenes that highlight the way in which we seek to comprehend our mysterious and secret selves through back-and-forth dialogue. Hamaguchi poses no answers about the questions he raises, instead telling a tale that is itself about the complicated, and, frequently inconclusive, nature of engagement.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza is the story of two go-for-broke hucksters in mad love, bursting with affection for the freewheeling 1970s California of the writer/director’s youth. In the San Fernando Valley, high schooler Gary (Cooper Hoffman, son of Anderson favorite Philip Seymour) and twentysomething Alana (musician-turned-actress Alana Haim) strike up an unlikely quasi-romance thanks to their shared desire for something more than their current lot in life, and their likeminded gung-ho approach to getting what they want. Their on-again, off-again relationship is the through-line for Anderson’s rollicking period piece, which finds Gary and Alana trying to make it big–and escape their Encino home–by selling waterbeds, working as actors, and running a pinball arcade, all of which lead to encounters with an assortment of Hollywood characters including marquee star Jack Holden (Sean Penn), director Rex Blau (Tom Waits), and producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper). Rife with images of kids running toward various (sometimes-unspecified) futures, and scored with a pitch-perfect collection of era-specific rock and pop tunes, Anderson’s electric reverie of days gone by locates the universal in the personal—and, in the performances of Haim and Hoffman, heralds the arrival of two sterling new actors.
Roy Andersson is cinema’s drollest dramatist of the anguished human condition, and About Endlessness is a more sorrowful extension of the inquiries he began with Songs from the Second Floor (2000), You, the Living (2007) and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014). A collection of vignettes marked by static single-take compositions full of muted hues and inviting diagonal visual lines, the film tackles the question of what awaits us on the other side–and what that means for our current Earthly predicaments–with a placid solemnity that’s only occasionally alleviated by his trademark humor. Grief, longing, regret, guilt and shame are all ever-present in this rumination on spiritual and literal loneliness, which Andersson executes with the aid of his typically manicured, static aesthetics. High above its many forlorn and adrift characters, an embracing couple soars through the cloudy sky, a vision of togetherness sought by so many and yet achieved by so few. Andersson doesn’t shy away from such despair, examining his wayward souls (and encouraging us to do likewise) with deep empathy, along the way finding–at unexpected moments–brief glimmers of hope for solace from the storm.