Films Of 2021

BIL’S TOP TEN OF THE YEAR

 

  1. Drive My Car
    BBBBB  (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Japan)   A popular actor goes to Hiroshima to direct a multilingual production of Uncle Vanya in order to escape a personal tragedy, forced to take on a taciturn and mysterious but not unfriendly chauffer while working with a lead actor with ties to his painful past.  There’s a genuine human sympathy, that rare and beautiful thing that so many movies aim for but so few achieve, that makes every moment feel magical, while the setting itself, the themes of art, life, sex, love and jealousy and the delicate performances combine beautifully to make a complex but incisive experience.  Oscar: Best International Feature Film; Nominations: Best Picture; Best Director (Ryusuke Hamaguchi); Best Adapted Screenplay. Cannes: Best Screenplay. TIFF:  2021.  Trailer


  2. Memoria
    BBBBB  (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Colombia/Thailand/France/Germany/Mexico/Qatar/United Kingdom/China/Switzerland)  A Scottish ex-patriate working in Medellín is awakened at the crack of dawn by a case of exploding head syndrome, which she investigates until discovering its mystical, otherworldly origin.  Tilda Swinton has long proven her ability to maintain a lengthy intensity on camera that is perfectly suited to Weerasethakul’s long takes, as always tinged with an unearthly magic in their frames, and in this case enhanced by a fascinating, enveloping soundscape.  Cannes: Jury Prize.  TIFF: 2021.  Trailer


  3. Compartment No. 6
    Hytti nro 6
    BBBBB  (Juho Kuosmanen, Finland/Russia/Estonia/Germany)  A Finnish archaeology student who is improving her Russian language skills in Moscow goes on a trip to the northern outpost of Murmansk to see the geological wonder of the petroglyphs, while dealing with the frustration of her girlfriend canceling and making her go alone.  It’s possible that Kuosmanen’s expert adaptation of Rosa Liksom’s 2011 novel wants to tell us about our inability to get along in a world overwhelmed by communicating through secondary technology (which this film, possibly a period piece, includes very little of); the inspirational relationship at the heart of the story, between our heroine and an obnoxious Russian brute, never feels like a lecture, so regardless of whether or not it’s intentionally a message picture, it’s a magnificent one.   Cannes: Grand Jury Prize.  TIFF: 2021.  Trailer


  4. Benediction
    BBBBB  (Terence Davies, United Kingdom/USA)  A biography of poet Siegfried Sassoon, who served in the Great War and whose fiery, impassioned verses declaiming this great folly of humanity influenced his work, his love life and his eventual fate.  Told in the carefully measured beats that Davies pulls off with his own poetic brilliance, this film’s moments of great wit and humour, which the host of appealing gay characters pull off with such sophistication, rest comfortably within a moving, melancholy but cathartic examination of a soul that has been set ablaze by the trauma of battle and which can never find rest.  TIFF: 2021.  Trailer


  5. No Time To Die
    BBBBB  (Cary Joji Fukunaga, United Kingdom/USA)  Bond is as far out of the game as he ever could be, once again betrayed in love and determined to retire to a life on a fishing boat while another agent takes over the 007 designation, but after MI6’s laboratory is broken into and a bioweapon that could end life on this planet is stolen by bad guys connected to SPECTRE, he is recruited by his CIA contact and friend Felix Leiter to help find out who is at the bottom of the scheme.   Audiences will be shocked at the highly controversial final moments of this magnificent adventure, but Cary Joji Fukunaga’s sturdy direction actually plants the emotional atmosphere of the ending from the opening scene and works slowly towards its inevitability (and you can easily argue that it has been inevitable since the beginning of Casino Royale). Oscar:  Best Original Song (“No Time To Die”); Nominations: Best Visual Effects; Best Sound.  Trailer


  6. Summer of Soul
    BBBBB  (Questlove, USA) The Harlem Music Festival of 1969, often referred to as “Black Woodstock”, occurred barely over 100 miles away from that better known series of concerts, a summer of Sunday performances featuring top-rated music acts which were shot on film that has mostly been ignored until now.  The collage of musical performances, news footage that gives context of the culture of the time, and testimonies of those who appear on camera operate in a rhythm of call and response, for every reminder of pain and injustice there is the sound of triumphant music that lifts the audience out of their despair, and for every image of glorious, beautiful talent being celebrated on screen there is the reminder of change that has yet to come.  Oscar: Best Documentary Feature.  Trailer


  7. The Power of the Dog
    BBBB.5  (Jane Campion, United Kingdom/Australia/USA/Canada/New Zealand)   The marriage of a gentleman rancher and a restaurant waitress causes friction between his roughly unpleasant brother and her quiet and unassuming son.  Campion boldly presents a spare and deceptively uneventful plot in which actors are presented in solitude against wide open spaces, pushed to the brink of madness in the desert-like flatness of Montana (actually shot in New Zealand to potent effect). Oscar:  Best Director (Jane Campion); Nominations: Best Picture; Best Actor (Benedict Cumberbatch); Best Supporting Actor (Jesse Plemons); Best Supporting Actor (Kodi Smit-McPhee); Best Supporting Actress (Kirsten Dunst); Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Cinematography; Best Art Direction; Best Film Editing; Best Sound; Best Original Score. Venice:  Best Director (Jane Campion).  TIFF: 2021.  Trailer


  8. Great Freedom
    BBBB.5  (Sebastian Meise, Austria/Germany) A concentration camp survivor experiences various bouts of imprisonment under Paragraph 175 (the Germany law’s criminal code for homosexuality), experiencing his own daring version of freedom with friends and lovers behind bars, but when the world changes and inhumane laws are abolished, what place does he have relating to men like himself when the parameters around which he has learned to define himself have been completely removed? It’s a magnificent and moving film, and often very sexy (sometimes a bit too sexy, in many ways prison seems like a nice way to meet guys), and has a full-bodied, earthy and powerful performance by Franz Rogowski in the lead, his large eyes telegraphing naked, vulnerable emotions and shrewd confidence at the same time. Trailer


  9. A Hero
    Ghahreman
    BBBB.5  (Asghar Farhadi, France/Iran)  A man on a prison furlough is tempted to use a randomly found bag of gold coins to help his debt situation before deciding to turn it in to the authorities instead, his actions bringing him national press coverage and good PR for the prison until careful examination reveals that his story has holes in it.  There’s a tough brilliance to the manner in which Farhadi layers in the tiers of information as he quietly, confidently places his protagonist in a seemingly innocuous situation that quickly turns devastating, as much because of his own tragic flaws as because of the people around him, who had no problem celebrating him when it suited them but hang him out to dry when things go sour.  Cannes: Grand Jury Prize (tie).  TIFF:  2021.  Trailer


  10. Ascension
    BBBB.5  (Jessica Kingdon, USA) Collage-style documentary that offers observations of modern-day China’s intertwined social and industrial lives, in which the abundance of opportunity being provided by a massive manufacturing landscape comes with a great deal of compromise.   Kingdon never influences our experience with commentary or purposely calculated moments of emotional indulgence: meditative and entrancing, the film feels like it has captured the inner workings of the worlds it portrays, keeping a steady rhythm that never feels rushed but holds your attention throughout.  Oscar Nomination: Best Documentary Feature.  Trailer

 

  • BEST ACTOR
    Simon Rex, Red Rocket
    Honour Roll: Nicolas Cage, Pig; Andrew Garfield, Tick…Tick Boom!; Joaquin Phoenix, C’mon C’mon; Will Smith, King Richard
  • BEST ACTRESS
    Lady Gaga, House of Gucci
    Honour Roll: Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye; Andra Day, The United States Vs Billie Holiday; Alana Haim, Licorice Pizza; Nicole Kidman, Being The Ricardos
  • BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
    Bradley Cooper, Licorice Pizza
    Honour Roll: Ben Affleck, The Tender Bar; Ciaran Hinds, Belfast; Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah; Calam Lynch, Benediction
  • BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
    Kirsten Dunst, The Power of the Dog
    Honour Roll: Nina Arianda, Being The Ricardos; Ariana DeBose, West Side Story; Ruth Negga, Passing; Martha Plimpton, Mass
  • BEST DIRECTOR
    Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Memoria
    Honour Roll: Sean Baker, Red Rocket; Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog; Juho Kuosmanen, Compartment No. 6; Sebastian Meise, Great Freedom

 

OSCAR NOMINEES

 

Attica
BBBB (Traci Curry, Stanley Nelson)   In September of 1971, prisoners of New York’s Attica Prison decide they have suffered enough under inhumane living conditions and, when the opportunity presents itself, instigate a riot that lasts five days and results in half of the institution’s population living in the courtyard and holding guards as hostages.  This sober recounting of the events of that very dark week pulls no punches and adds no unnecessary flourish, there are a surprising amount of survivors still on hand fifty years later to provide powerful reminiscences of the experience, not just former prisoners of Attica but family members of the guards, lawyers and reporters who were on the scene.   Oscar Nomination: Best Documentary Feature.  TIFF: 2021.  Trailer

Being The Ricardos
BBBB  (Aaron Sorkin, USA)  Lucille Ball must deal with a crisis in her marriage, her career and an accusation of Communist sympathy by Walter Winchell in time for a live taping of the hit comedy I Love Lucy at the end of the week.  Writer-director Sorkin neither condescends to a cheesy Girl Power celebration of Ball’s badassery nor undercuts her unfiltered personality by telling us to feel sympathy for her rocky marriage or political troubles, her harshness is her work ethic and there’s a reason why her show still stands up among the best comedy sitcoms.  Oscar Nominations: Best Actor (Javier Bardem); Best Actress (Nicole Kidman); Best Supporting Actor (J.K. Simmons).  Trailer

Belfast
BB.5  (Kenneth Branagh, United Kingdom)  Buddy is the pre-teen younger of two sons whose parents are worried about their titular city’s anti-Catholic riots of 1969 and are tempted to accept his dad’s job offer in London, despite its meaning that they would leave behind the people they know and love.  In telling this semiautobiographical story, Branagh relies on a series of increasingly irritating photographic and dramatic cliches and overloads the soundtrack with Van Morrison songs to compensate for the lack of depth.  Oscar:  Best Original Screenplay; Nominations:  Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor (Ciaran Hinds); Best Supporting Actress (Judi Dench); Best Director (Kenneth Branagh); Best Sound; Best Original Song (“Down To Joy”).  TIFF: 2021.  Trailer

CODA
BBBB  (Sian Heder, USA/France/Canada)  A teenager grows up the only hearing member of a deaf family and, upon making plans to pursue scholastic goals outside her seaside Massachusetts town, threatens to tear apart a support system that has relied on her as a connection to the outside world.  Reminiscent of Caroline Link’s similarly themed Beyond Silence and featuring elements of Running On Empty (still the definitive word on coming of age family-estrangement drama), this beautifully etched film allows each perspective a great deal of grace, with a subtle, never overstated but complex understanding of the pain that is at the heart of these characters’ lives.  Oscars:  Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor (Troy Kotsur); Best Adapted Screenplay.  Trailer

Coming 2 America
B.5  (Craig Brewer, USA)  Akeem needs a male heir to ascend his country’s throne, returning to Queens to meet the son he had with a one-night stand during his initial voyage there more than thirty years earlier.   After a fun beginning, everything starts to sag thanks to far more emphasis being placed on satire and callbacks to the first film than on making things urgent in the here and now (where is Eriq La Salle when you need him, is basically what I am saying). Oscar Nomination: Best Makeup.  Trailer

Cruella
BBB  (Craig Gillespie, USA/United Kingdom)  Estella lands her dream job at a London department store, then gets hired at the couture house of an exacting designer with ties to her dark and unhappy past.  As a revenge heist it’s a thing of beauty, but as an origin story to a Disney character it’s hard to see how it sensibly ties to the Dodie Smith stories that we already know, and the attempt at feminist politics in rehabilitating another Disney villainess is laughable considering that she’s as much the result of her circumstances as a sleeping princess, her bad choices always forced upon her.  Oscar:  Best Costume Design; Nomination: Best Makeup.  Trailer

Cyrano
BB (Joe Wright, United Kingdom/Canada/USA) Famed for his duelling skills with both a sword and his tongue, Cyrano is in love with Roxanne but she is in love with handsome young Christian and, despite the fact that this destroys his hopes at ever winning his heart, he agrees to take over communicating romantic endearments on behalf of the inarticulate young man.  Based on Erica Schmidt’s musical adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s eternally beloved play, this one does not veer from the main action of the play but has none of its emotional poignancy, with a score mostly taken up with Pasek and Paul-ripoffs that sound like modern-day pop songs, and which no one in the cast, particularly Peter Dinklage poorly performing the lead, can sing particularly well.  Oscar Nomination: Best Costume Design. Trailer

Don’t Look Up
B.5  (Adam McKay, USA)    A Michigan doctoral candidate and her supervising professor spot a comet heading towards Earth and share their findings with NASA, the Oval Office and, eventually, the world, but plans to save humanity meet with a great deal of resistance from an administration more interested in popularity and a global community that sees science as an elitist conspiracy. Loaded with Oscar-winning stars and a heady, seemingly provocative premise, but featuring so little nuance to its broadly funny concept that one might wish to be hit by an asteroid rather than watch a five-minute concept stretched into an offensive 143-minute running time.   Oscar Nominations: Best Picture; Best Original Screenplay; Best Film Editing; Best Original Score.  Trailer

Dune
BBB.5  (Denis Villeneuve, USA/Canada)  The House of Atreides are ordered to leave their paradise of a planet and take over the ruling of a desert world on which a precious resource is mined, but soon realize that they have been duped into a dangerous war of succession by the evil House of Harkonnen.  Beautifully shot and featuring a strong cast and elegant visuals, this latest adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel has as dull a plot as ever it did (two hours of political factions outmaneuvering each other isn’t all that thrilling just cause it takes place in space) and, as it has no ending in order to make room for Part II, the question is not whether or not it’s a good movie, but if it’s a movie at all.  Oscars:  Best Cinematography; Best Visual Effects; Best Art Direction; Best Film Editing; Best Sound; Best Original Score; Nominations: Best Picture; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Makeup; Best Costume Design. TIFF: 2021.  Trailer

Encanto
BBB  (Jared Bush, Byron Howard, USA/Colombia)  Mirabel has grown up in a spiritually gifted family with no special powers of her own, but when she learns that her family’s magic is in trouble of being extinguished, which could spell trouble for their whole village, she decides that she must be the one to go on a quest to fix the problem and finally prove that she belongs.  While this one is not nearly as derivative as the same year’s similarly-themed Luca, it is interesting just how many of these animated Disney films repeat the same theme of the odd person out who needs to find a way to be accepted by their community.  Oscar:  Best Animated Feature; Nominations: Best Original Score; Best Original Song (“Dos Oruguitas”).  Trailer

The Eyes of Tammy Faye
BBB  (Michael Showalter, Canada/USA)  The relationship between Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker from their humble college days to his national success as a televangelist, before his hubris destroyed his career and left her to survive in the rubble.  Jessica Chastain gives her first truly loveable performance as the only wife of a televangelist who ever became as famous as her husband, the famous giggle is situated within the character’s insecurity and the makeup is her desperation to be adored, though ultimately it’s little more than a prestige television film with an award-bait performance at its head. Oscars: Best Actress (Jessica Chastain); Best Makeup.  TIFF: 2021.  Trailer

Flee
Flugt
BBBB (Jonas Poher Rasmussen, Denmark/Sweden/Norway/France/USA/Spain/Italy/United Kingdom)   A Danish man who has lived his whole life on the run from his war-torn childhood in Kabul confronts the fact that he has also been running away from a very hard truth, telling his life story to an old school friend who records his harrowing testimony.  Beautifully animated and expertly written, this film focuses solely on its narrative and moves through each stage of Amin’s journey swiftly, emphasizing the heartbreaking tragedy inherent in his tale by never trying too hard to focus on it.  Oscar Nominations: Best International Feature Film; Best Documentary Feature; Best Animated Feature.  TIFF: 2021.  Trailer

Free Guy
BB.5  (Shawn Levy, USA/Canada)  A video game NPC enjoys his existence until a mysterious woman inspires him to change the rules of his life and world.  This combination of The Truman Show and Ready Player One has neither the humanity of the one nor the technical wonder of the latter, relying solely on Ryan Reynolds’ as-always appealing blend of hunky looks and self-deprecating humour to guide us over some very basic screenplay construction and lazy direction.  Oscar Nomination: Best Visual Effects.  Trailer

The Hand Of God
È stata la mano di Dio
BBBB (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy/USA)  A host of boisterous, memorable characters are part of an extended Neapolitan family surrounding teenager Fabietto, whose coming of age happens in relief of the antics of his aspiring actor brother, hopeless prankster parents and mentally unstable aunt.  The actors bring vivid life to the rich personalities they have been given to play without ever letting anything turn to cute sentimentality, while a series of dazzling sequences maintain the director’s skill for creating eye-popping visual landscapes that never remain solely on the surface.  Oscar Nomination: Best International Feature Film.  Venice: Grand Jury Prize.  Trailer

House of Gucci
BBB.5  (Ridley Scott, Canada/USA)  Patrizia Reggiani marries Maurizio Gucci and enjoys the glamorous ride up the social ladder, but when he begins to pull away and makes her insecure about her status as an outsider in their family, she takes her vengeance while the famed fashion house is disassembled by careless business decisions.  For the price of one movie ticket, you get high fashion (expertly designed by Janty Yates), gorgeously decked-out villas, greed, passion, betrayal, and showdowns at ski resorts, though a more indulgent filmmaker would have been a better fit for bringing out the campy possibilities of the juicy narrative and, in particular, appreciating Lady Gaga’s remarkably watchable performance in the lead.  Oscar Nomination: Best Makeup.  Trailer

Judas And the Black Messiah
BBB (Shaka King, USA)  The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover catch Bill O’Neal stealing cars while impersonating an agent and give him the option of either going to jail for a decade, or going undercover to help them catch Black Panther Chicago chairman Fred Hampton.  King and co-writer Will Berson appear to be interested solely in the skeletal structure of the two-man plot, there’s very little to suggest that an investigation of a spiritual struggle is happening on screen, and it results in most of it feeling like it’s killing time until the explosive conclusion.   Oscars: Best Supporting Actor (Daniel Kaluuya); Best Original Song (“Fight For You”); Nominations: Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor (Lakeith Stanfield); Best Original Screenplay; Best Cinematography.  Trailer

King Richard
BBB.5 (Reinaldo Marcus Green, USA)  Richard Williams is determined to make sure his daughters Serena and Venus go all the way to the top and beyond as tennis players, pushing them hard and landing the services of prestigious coaches before facing the possibility that his desire for their success is more about his own insecurities than their glory.   This film does nothing to push the boundaries of the inspirational biopic genre, but earns points for never allowing the touchy-feely moments to spill over into excessive indulgence.  Oscar:  Best Actor (Will Smith); Nominations: Best Picture; Best Supporting Actress (Aunjanue Ellis); Best Original Screenplay; Best Film Editing; Best Original Song (“Be Alive”).  Trailer

Licorice Pizza
BBBB (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA/Canada)   An assistant for a school photographer is amused by a fifteen year-old boy who turns out to be an actor and natural business entrepreneur, his schemes making up the varying adventures of this film set in the San Fernando Valley in the early seventies.  Shot in gorgeous widescreen like a classic MGM musical but with Anderson’s trademark fascination with understated conflicts between warring personalities, presenting the Valley as a real-life Wonderland, where an audition could suddenly turn into late-night martinis and a motorcycle stunt over a fire pit, and where the oil crisis that has Americans lining up at gas stations can become, in the film’s best sequence, a nocturnal, unwieldy drive up and down a canyon in a gasless truck.  Oscar Nominations: Best Picture; Best Director (Paul Thomas Anderson); Best Original Screenplay.  Trailer

The Lost Daughter
BB.5  (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Greece/United Kingdom/Israel/USA)    A Harvard professor vacationing alone on the Greek island of Spetses has her tranquility interrupted by the arrival of a loud, overbearing family with whom she immediately butts heads, and which flashes her back to her own haunted memories of feeling a failure in her own maternal duties.  That we’re watching a character who contradicts so many common expectations of women in cinema by never being particularly likeable is refreshing (as is Gyllenhaal’s refusal to ever apologize for this), but what feels so muscular on Elena Ferrante’s page quickly feels indulgent and uneventful on screen, even with an actor as complicated and captivating as Colman playing her.  Oscar Nominations: Best Actress (Olivia Colman); Best Supporting Actress (Jessie Buckley); Best Adapted Screenplay.  Venice: Best Screenplay.  Trailer

Luca
BB.5  (Enrico Casarosa, USA)  Families of sea monsters live off the coast of the Italian Riviera, one of whom runs away from his overprotective mother to live as a human on land but is constantly afraid that his new friends will find out his true nature.  There’s also very little here that Pixar hasn’t done plenty of times before and the tropes are beginning to sag, from the anthropomorphizing of animals to the, no pun intended, fish-out-of-water scenario that leads to a moral message about tolerance and co-operation, but little children will have a great time with it.  Oscar Nomination: Best Animated Feature.  Trailer

Marcel The Shell With Shoes On
(Dean Fleischer-Camp, USA)  Director Fleischer-Camp meets the tiny, cycloptic seashell with the shy voice and bright pink sneakers living with his careworn grandmother while AirBnbing their once-happy home, deciding to make a documentary to help reunite Marcel with his missing family members.  Jenny Slate’s voice work supplies both the quiet sentimentality and ripping, sly wit of this delightful comedy, aided by a terrific Isabella Rossellini in a film whose generosity of spirit is deeply satisfying.  Oscar Nomination: Best Animated Feature.   Trailer

The Mitchells Vs. The Machines
(Michael Rianda, Jeff Rowe, USA/Canada/Hong Kong)  The eldest daughter of a family of misfits is struggling with her decision to move away for college, but her personal problems take a back seat when the latest breakthrough in A.I. technology becomes sentient and mobilizes millions of robots to destroy humanity. Creative and beautifully animated, it never quite gets far beyond its clever concept, this is a sweet but not necessarily lively adventure that reads well but lacks a great deal of personality.  Oscar Nomination: Best Animated Feature.  Trailer

Nightmare Alley
BB  (Guillermo del Toro, USA/Mexico/Canada)  Remake of Edmund Goulding’s 1947 classic, about a drifter who gets a job as a carnival mentalist before leaving to becoming a classy nightclub act and suffer from an excess of hubris.  Del Toro outdoes himself with the glinty cinematography, eye-popping production design and the assemblage of a dazzling cast of stars, but he doesn’t actually want to remake his favourite movie, he wants to enter it, sit around in it and explore every possible corner, and what plays like sharp drama with high stakes in the original has been dulled down to very vague plot turns and character motivations that aren’t always clear.   Oscar Nominations: Best Picture; Best Cinematography; Best Art Direction; Best Costume Design.  Trailer

Parallel Mothers
Madres paralelas
BBB (Pedro Almodovar, Spain)  A photographer meets a forensic anthropologist and they collaborate on a project involving an unmarked Spanish Civil War mass grave, then she befriends a woman with whom she shares a maternity ward and, because of that, a devastating experience.  Cruz is wholly credible and sympathetic as she falls slowly apart because of her inability to tell the truth, but at times it feels that the screenplay, which links big themes of the past to more intimate ones of the present, is constructed from pieces that fit together a bit too neatly.  Oscar Nominations: Best Actress (Penelope Cruz); Best Original Score.  Venice: Best Actress (Penelope Cruz).  Trailer

Raya and the Last Dragon
BBB (Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada, USA)  In the once peaceful, now warring nation of Kumandra, a woman goes on a quest to find the last of the once powerful dragons to reverse the curse of demons from the netherworld.  The set-up is far too complicated for a film that actually ends up being the same incident-laden quest as most Disney animated films, with a heroine who is, yes, a refreshingly fierce feminist heroine, but one who has been cobbled together from a number of cliched personality traits but doesn’t have much of a personality.  Oscar Nomination: Best Animated Feature.  Trailer

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
BBBB (Destin Daniel Cretton, USA)   A parking attendant is attacked by random strangers on his way to work and reveals himself to be an exquisite fighter, then must go to China to find his sister and save her from what he believes is his father’s wrath.  The very fun action set-pieces (among them a multi-person fight on the scaffolding outside a Macao skyscraper) and the assortment of terrific actors in richly written roles make wonderful distractions to the same old superhero plot that we can all predict like clockwork, something’s coming to destroy the world and only one man can do anything about it (and he’ll let the gals in his life do something to help so that nobody thinks its sexist).  Oscar Nomination: Best Visual Effects.  Trailer

Spencer
BBB.5  (Pablo Larraín, Germany/Chile/United Kingdom/USA)  Princess Diana contemplates a personal crisis after a decade of misery in a loveless marriage while spending Christmas at Sandringham with her children and the rest of the reigning Windsors.  Anyone looking for biographical accuracy will be annoyed, this film’s purpose is emotional reality and nothing else, with Kristen Stewart pulling off the duties of biopic performances with impressive, if visible, effort, but there’s simply no getting away from the fact that as thoughtful and sensitive as this exploration of Diana’s story is, it’s not revelatory in any way.  Oscar Nomination: Best Actress (Kristen Stewart). TIFF: 2021.  Venice: In Competition.  Trailer

Spider-Man: No Way Home
BBBB (Jon Watts, USA) Spider-Man’s secret identity is revealed to the whole world and he appeals to the magical abilities of Dr. Strange to wave his wand and make the world forget, but when he gets carelessly picky about the terms of the spell mid-casting, he throws a wrench into the works in his customarily youthful, well-meaning way and, oops, upsets the balance of the entire multiverse.  While most of the films in the Marvel series are brimming over with cross-references and Easter Egg factoids for fans to feel like they’re at a convention for disingenuously alienated people (you all feel like such outsiders but you’re also fans of the most profitable entertainment on this entire planet), this one gets a lot of fresh energy from its open-heartedly embracing its nostalgia factor.  Oscar Nomination: Best Visual Effects.  Trailer

Tick, Tick… Boom!
BBB.5  (Lin-Manuel Miranda, USA)   Jonathan Larson’s monologue piece, posthumously revamped on Broadway as a hidden track for Rent fans, has been turned into a filmed autobiography of his short life’s path to greatness, fighting uphill to complete a major piece while dealing with the frustrations of love and money in the Big Apple.   Andrew Garfield is endearing as Larson and the story has a great deal of respect for the struggle of artistry, Miranda just lets it run on a touch too long and never quite turns the characters who aren’t Larson into much more than symbols of his emotional expression. Oscar Nominations: Best Actor (Andrew Garfield); Best Film Editing.  Trailer

The Tragedy Of Macbeth
BBBB (Joel Coen, USA)  Macbeth and his ambitious wife fulfill three witches’ prophecy of his taking the throne by killing all their path, their misinterpretations of these pronouncements turning him more tyrannical while she goes insane.  Coen combines a sense of the theatrical with a feeling for the highly cinematic, it’s rare that the balance is struck so well, though the film’s great aesthetic pleasures often come at the expense of its dramatic urgency.   Oscar Nominations: Best Actor (Denzel Washington); Best Cinematography; Best Art Direction.  Trailer

The United States Vs Billie Holiday
BB.5  (Lee Daniels, USA)  Holiday is headlining the finest establishments of the 1940s and her delivery of “Strange Fruit” earns her threats from law enforcement, black music fans criticize her for being a poor role model for the community while her personal life descends into the chaos of failed love affairs and addiction.  The theme of America as a game in which some people are set up to fail is put across intelligently but without enough drama, Daniels runs out of plot after the first third but Day’s electrifying performance is enough to make it well worth the watch.  Oscar Nomination:  Best Actress (Andra Day).  Trailer

West Side Story
BBBB  (Steven Spielberg, USA)   Remake of the multiple Oscar-winning 1961 film, adapted from the hit Broadway musical by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, about a white boy and Puerto Rican girl who meet and fall in love but are separated by gang warfare resulting from the pressures of impending gentrification.   Spielberg, who joins the roster of recent directors who don’t apologize for making a musical while filming one, brings a sheen of retro beauty to the images without fully going in for the expressionist primary colours of Robert Wise’s original, and the dancers are all flawless.   Oscar:  Best Supporting Actress (Ariana DeBose); Nominations: Best Picture; Best Director (Steven Spielberg); Best Cinematography; Best Art Direction; Best Costume Design; Best Sound  Trailer

The White Tiger
BBBB  (Ramin Bahrani, India/USA)    Balram was born in a low caste but wends his way up the ladder of success, becoming a driver for the village landlord and taking all manner of abuse and exploitation in the name of earning his future before realizing that he is being taken for a ride and needs to rewrite the rules in order to win the game. Based on Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize-winning 2008 novel, this film has a powerful, kinetic force moving through it helped by Bahrani’s avoiding any indulging in stereotypes of tragic, exotic India, focusing instead on his modern-day Henry Fielding-style protagonist.  Oscar Nomination:  Best Adapted Screenplay. Trailer

The Worst Person In the World
Verdens verste menneske
BBBB  (Joachim Trier, Norway/France/Sweden/Denmark/USA)  Julie is suffering the woes of a gifted and promising millennial, nearing thirty and in medical school she switches to psychology on an instinct before dropping out of school to pursue a career as a photographer and then a writer, equally confused in her relationship choices when she leaves her long-time boyfriend for a cartoonist that she meets at a bar. Trier has no judgments to make of his character, both sympathizing with her indecisiveness and celebrating her natural charisma, which is brought to life with verve by Renate Reinsve.   Oscar Nominations: Best Original Screenplay; Best International Feature Film. Cannes: Best Actress (Renate Reinsve).  TIFF: 2021.  Trailer

Writing With Fire
BBBB (Sushmit Ghosh, Rintu Thomas, India) In a society still defined by a rigid caste system that would normally never see anyone but a man from a higher rank become a professional journalist, the reporters at the Khabar Lahariya outlet are all women of the “untouchable” Dalit Caste, and this documentary observes its reporters move their work beyond their print newspaper and into the world of digital outreach.  The experience of watching this magnificent feat of underdog success is good for the heart, and while the film openly celebrates the success of its participants, it never patronizes them as adorable symbols. Oscar Nomination: Best Documentary Feature. Trailer

 

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL

 

Ahed’s Knee
Ha’berech
BBB.5  (Nadav Lapid, France/Israel/Germany)   An Israeli filmmaker is drawn away from preproduction on a film about a Palestinian activist by a film festival in an isolated desert town that is paying him tribute.   Lapid is not ambivalent about his views on the topics he has chosen and the movie feels more like a well-written screed than the complex drama of The Kindergarten Teacher or the intelligent absurdity of Policeman; it’s almost as if he’s upset that the message wasn’t received in more obscure cinematic efforts of the past and he has let go of most of his pretences at artifice. Cannes: Jury Prize (tie).  TIFF: 2021.  Trailer

Annette
BBBB  (Leos Carax, France/Mexico/USA/Switzerland/Belgium/Japan/Germany)  The paparazzi-encased romance of a post-modern comedian and an opera singer results in a child, who offers the only redemption possible after their relationship grows brittle and ends in tragedy.  Based on a concept album by the Sparks Brothers and set to their tunes, this is a film where the aesthetics are its substance but are pulled off with expertise and flair.  Cannes: Best Director (Leos Carax).  Trailer

Benedetta
BBBB (Paul Verhoeven, France/Belgium/Netherlands)   Raised in a Tuscan monastery from childhood, Benedetta is frequently the subject of powerful and strange near-death occurrences, often lost in violent visions but, after striking up a passionate affair with a fellow postulant, her being seized by the power of fleshly desire makes her vulnerable to scrutiny from higher seats of power in the church.  Verhoeven, ever the loveable misanthrope, maintains his delicious, career-long habit of a perfect balance between sublimely ridiculous and gruesomely serious, genuinely admiring the main character’s accomplishments with his tongue hovering somewhere in his cheek.  Cannes: In Competition.  Trailer

Bergman Island
BBBB  (Mia Hansen-Løve, France/Belgium/Germany/Sweden/Mexico)  A filmmaking couple show up on the Swedish island of Fårö, most famous for its having become the residence of noted theatre and film director Ingmar Bergman after he discovered it, to struggle with their creative pursuits before we see the film within a film that one of them is writing.   Mia Hansen-Løve’s confident ease in guiding these two stories compels you to stay with a series of characters and events that never show themselves as significant or astounding in any overt manner, but do maintain their tension and stakes within the pleasant atmosphere that both narratives take place in.  Cannes:  In Competition.  TIFF:  2021.  Trailer

Everything Went Fine
Tout s’est bien passé
BBBB.5 (Francois Ozon, France/Belgium) Novelist Emmanuelle Bertheim’s memoir about taking care of her father Andre after he suffers a stroke has been adapted to film, in which she is forced to take on the topic of assisted suicide when the ailing patient decides he no longer wants to keep going.  A cantankerous old man, two daughters trying to grapple with an adulthood littered with bad childhood memories, and a third act crisis that has them all having to outsmart the police is enlivened by the emotional toll that all these experiences have on the two women at the centre of the story, Ozon balances everything beautifully and moves through the story with a strength of pace that feels energetic but never rushed. Cannes: In Competition. Trailer

Flag Day
BB (Sean Penn, USA/United Kingdom/Canada) Journalist and author Jennifer Vogel’s memoir of living with, loving and eventually forgiving her troubled career criminal father John, and her own difficult journey from escaping an unstable childhood to become a successful writer.  Dylan Penn at 30 does not for half a second convince you she is a teenager, father Sean Penn’s direction is tonally all over the map, and whenever the story requires us to really mine Jennifer’s personal experience, we got a montage instead. Cannes: In Competition. Trailer

France
BB  (Bruno Dumont, France/Germany/Italy/Belgium)  A nationally famous anchorwoman in a time when the medium has, in McLuhan’s words, become the message is involved in a minor traffic incident that threatens her cult of personality and sends her on a journey of self-reflection and discovery.  This one at least looks better than most of Dumont’s films do, the haute couture clothing and dazzling digital lighting schemes are there to symbolize the cruel artificiality of the modern world, but when the director runs out of ideas as to how to look beneath the surface, he just has another stranger ask his protagonist for a selfie to highlight the emptiness of celebrity culture. Cannes: In Competition. TIFF:  2021.  Trailer

The French Dispatch
The French Dispatch of The Liberty Kansas Evening Sun
BBB  (Wes Anderson, USA/Germany)    The final issue of the Liberty Kansas Evening Sun‘s French edition, published in the town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, its various sections played out a series of humorous shorts.  Every bit of this film is a pleasant reverie, fans of Anderson won’t mind watching him play his greatest hits, but viewers are sent home with little more than the feeling of having had a good meal, overwhelmed by content, comfortably sated and ready to expel it and move on.  Cannes: In Competition.  Trailer

Lingui: The Sacred Bonds
Lingui
BBBB  (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, France/Germany/Belgium)  Amina sells baskets by the side of the road and is unconcerned that she is looked down upon by her community for being a single mother, but when her teenaged daughter tells her she is pregnant, the two women go in search of an abortion that is forbidden by the law and their Muslim religion. Rather than exploit these women and aggravate the audience with an issue-led indulgence in their misery, Haroun reveals, with a gentle reverence, a tier of Chadian society that exists beneath the patriarchal power of politics and religion, a support network of women who could be fairy godmothers for the way their comforting whispers of advice and assistance pop up in an undetectable and unforced, almost magical manner. Cannes: In Competition.  TIFF:  2021.  Trailer

Nitram
BBB (Justin Kurzel, Australia) Turning the real-life case of mass murderer Martin Bryant into a film risks the possibility of romanticizing a cold-blooded killer by making him the hero of a story about unexpressed rage and under-examined mental illness, but Kurzel makes sure his main character is never an offbeat, misunderstood rebel.  The real emphasis is on pressure, which slowly piles onto the character with each passing scene, put across effectively through haunting music and evocative cinematography, but the longer the film goes on, the more it seems that the aesthetics are there to replace substance rather than comment on it. Cannes: Best Actor (Caleb Landry Jones). Trailer

Paris 13th District
BBB.5 (Jacques Audiard, France) Alienation in the big city is examined through the experiences of two women and the people they meet while living in the Les Olympiades neighbourhood of Paris’s 13th arrondissement.   Filmed in lovely, milky monochrome and expertly performed by a top-flight cast, this film works through its quirky plot with elegant ease and has no excess fat on any of the interactions on display, but like Audiard’s earliest and most enjoyable films it is also a film about deep, soulful people that cannot access much more than their surface experience. Cannes: In Competition. Trailer

Red Rocket
BBBB  (Sean Baker, USA)  A burned out, mid-forties former porn star who has left Los Angeles with nothing but the tank top on his back arrives in his dusty Gulf Coast town of Texas City looking to start again, working his way back into his ex-wife’s house before beginning a relationship with a teenager that he hopes will be his ticket back to the limelight.   Simon Rex is mesmerizing in the lead role, and watching him chase his hubris until the inevitable happens (by way of a magnificent Judy Hill as his boss) is a fascinating experience that Baker highlights with his familiar command of photographic richness.  Cannes: In Competition.  Trailer

The Story Of My Wife
A feleségem története
BB  (Ildikó Enyedi, Hungary/Germany/France/Italy)   A melancholy ship captain is medically advised to take a wife and is accepted by a woman in Paris cafe, who agrees to an open commitment that is threatened when her love affair with another man sees him overtaken with jealousy whenever he returns to shore.  Enyedi adapts Milan Fust’s 1942 novel with all the plush beauty that a period film deserves, but there’s very little juicy drama worth savouring, and after a spirited and measured beginning the film devolves into a plot that wanders in search of a pulse. Cannes: In Competition.  TIFF: 2021.  Trailer

Titane
BB.5  (Julia Ducournau, France/Belgium)  A performer at underground car shows discovers that she is pregnant by an automobile, going on the run from the law after committing a series of murders and taking refuge in the home of a firefighter by pretending to be his long-lost son.  Anyone hoping that the story’s hints at playing with traditions of gender will be disappointed to find that it does so only in the most superficial ways, it starts out vicious and uncompromising but in its second half gives in to the tired tradition of having women reclaim their “feminine” softness through learning to love.  Cannes:  Palme D’Or.  TIFF:  2021.  Trailer

 

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL

 

The Card Counter
BBBB  (Paul Schrader, United Kingdom/China/USA)  An ex-con spends his time in casinos using the card-counting skills he honed in prison to positive outcomes, agreeing to be promoted by an enterprising gambling manager before the son of a man from his troubling military past complicates his fate.  The voyage into the moral voids that this film explores has fascinating dramatic stakes, helped by the main character’s being perfectly underplayed by Oscar Isaac, and a hypnotic atmosphere guided by a moody musical score.  Venice: In Competition.  Trailer

Official Competition
Competencia oficial
B.5  (Mariano Cohn, Gastón Duprat, Spain/Argentina)  A pharmaceutical tycoon decides to produce a movie for the sake of his legacy, buying the rights to a Nobel prize-winning novel and hiring Spain’s most admired director to plunge her two lead actors, one a shallow movie star and the other a venerated theatre legend, into a series of increasingly bizarre rehearsal exercises.  Penelope Cruz has a marvelous time with a far more extreme character than she ever gets to play, but there’s a logical failure in making a movie about the film industry that takes place entirely in rehearsals, it’s a shallow effort that starts out mildly amusing and becomes insufferable and tiresome by the time it’s over.  Venice: In Competition. Trailer

 

BERLIN FILM FESTIVAL

 

Bad Luck Banging Or Loony Porn
BBBB  (Radu Jude, Romania/Luxembourg/Czech Republic/Croatia/Switzerland/United Kingdom)  A Bucharest schoolteacher knocks off a few errands around the city before heading to a town hall meeting where she will be forced to face a panel of parents upset that a sex tape she made with her husband has leaked onto the internet.  This film is galvanizing, sometimes truly troubling, but told with a great deal of sharp, mordant humour that makes Jude the first director to criticize themes of social media and technology without seeming, as was the case with Happy End and The Square, like a bitter old man delivering a lecture.  Berlin: Golden Bear.  Trailer

I’m Your Man
Ich bin dein Mensch
BBBB  (Maria Schrader, Germany)  An academic who needs funding for her project on Sumerian cuneiform agrees to assist a tech corporation by testing their human android, living with him in order to see if he makes the perfect life partner for future buyers.    Schrader focuses her beautiful cinematography on the charming interactions between her stars, who have sparkling chemistry and bring intelligent and lighthearted energy to what is probably the most endearing off-beat love story between human and object since Lars And The Real Girl.  Berlin: Best Acting Performance (Maren Eggert).  TIFF:  2021.  Trailer

Introduction
BBB.5 (Hong Sang-Soo, South Korea) A young aspiring artist goes to visit his doctor father at his clinic, where a famous actor is being treated, then heads to Berlin where his girlfriend has gone to study fashion design, then back home meets his mother at a restaurant where she is dining with the actor who had been his father’s patient.  Shot in a beautiful, hazy black and white and unfolding without the slightest feeling of manipulation, this is not Hong at his most arresting, but it still manages to show off his perceptive and generous understanding of human interaction. Berlin: Best Screenplay. Trailer

Petite Maman
BB.5  (Celine Sciamma, France)  A little girl staying at her recently deceased grandmother’s house encounters a child with whom she becomes friends, eventually realizing that she is actually someone with a special connection to her past.  This minor charmer by Celine Sciamma, who has already shown her deft touch with exploring the mind’s life of young characters, is detailed enough to avoid just being an adorable gimmick, though ultimately it’s little more than that.  Berlin: In Competition.  TIFF: 2021.  Trailer

What Do We See When We Look At The Sky
Ras vkhedavt, rodesac cas vukurebt?
BB.5 (Aleksandre Koberidze, Georgia/Germany)  Two people in the gorgeous historic Georgian city of Kutaisi are destined to fall in love, bumping into each other a few times by accident before deciding to do it again on purpose, then stricken with a mysterious malady that we are told by the narrator has taken the form of some kind of curse and makes them unrecognizable to each other.  Charming and elegant, the film is also remarkably shallow and, because it is constantly demanding that you acknowledge how unusual and poignant it is, ultimately feels forced and unremarkable.  Berlin: In Competition.  Trailer

Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy
Gûzen to sôzô
BBBB (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Japan)   Three short stories are combined into one feature, the first about a model who confronts her ex-boyfriend when she learns that he’s dating her stylist, the second about a university student who asks his girlfriend to seduce his professor into scandal as revenge for having given him a bad mark, and the third about two friends who run into each other years after attending university together.  Played out in a series of mostly two-hander scenes in lengthy dialogue exchanges, this subtle and deft film is a finely wrought exploration of the nuances of human interaction.  Berlin:  Silver Bear.  Trailer

 

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

 

All My Puny Sorrows
BBB (Michael McGowan, Canada) A Toronto novelist is called home to Winnipeg when her celebrated concert pianist sister attempts suicide, face the family past and religious upbringing that inspired her to leave years earlier.  Things never feel like real life in this movie, it’s always like you’re watching a movie about real life, but it’s so well acted and directed that its dramatic conceits are never difficult to watch despite how relentlessly dour the subject matter is. TIFF: 2021. Trailer

Arthur Rambo
B.5  (Laurent Cantet, France)   A newly published author takes France by storm with the publication of a powerful memoir before his extremist tweets, posted a few years earlier under a satirical alias, come to light and make him a pariah among the same people who had just been celebrating his success.  What director Laurent Cantet wants to say about modern-day fame, the devaluing of celebrity by the ubiquity of the internet and the pressure of social media commentary in the form of “cancel culture” isn’t at all certain, as he sets his story’s pins up and fails to knock a single one down and, in his inability to decide on an ending, simply stops the story without one.  TIFF: 2021.  Trailer

Becoming Cousteau
BBBBB  (Liz Garbus, USA)  The life and career of celebrated oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who began diving in the thirties and later achieved worldwide fame through Oscar-winning films and a television series capturing the undersea adventures of his Calypso crew.  Garbus always manages to make films that are both deeply emotional and remarkably intelligent, in this case skilfully arranging Cousteau’s life into the streamlined narrative of a good biopic without ever letting it feel simple, respecting the subject’s position as many a child’s hero (including this former child) while never ignoring the reality of his having been a complicated person in his private life.  TIFF: 2021.  Trailer

Costa Brava Lebanon
BB.5  (Mounia Akl, Lebanon/France/Spain/Sweden/Denmark/Norway/Qatar)   The real-life headlines about Lebanon’s garbage crisis form the jumping-off point for a narrative set in the not too distant future, in which a family of five have fled to the last green spot in the country and try to shut the rest of the world out.  Akl has plenty of wise things to say about the environmental dangers facing her characters and, by extension, the rest of the world, but at the halfway point the plotting stops trying to be about conflict and runs out of ways to keep the drama going until a brief lift at the end. TIFF: 2021.  Trailer

Dear Evan Hansen
BB  (Stephen Chbosky, USA)  A teenager struggling with social anxiety and depression is mistaken for his bully’s friend when a note he wrote to himself is mistaken for a note from a boy who has committed suicide.  This well-intentioned but ultimately lifeless cinematic rendering of Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s Tony-winning musical opens up the screenplay to make the songs the exception and not the rule, relying instead on a lot of heavy drama being directed by Chbosky, a filmmaker whose previous two films (The Perks of Being A Wallflower, Wonder) are among the most unintelligent renderings of sentimentality of their time. TIFF:  2021.  Trailer

Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over
BBB.5  (David Heilbroner, Dave Wooley, USA)  Documentary on the career of the legendary singer, a child of modestly middle-class parents from East Orange, New Jersey who began singing as a teenager, recording demos for record companies that led to her signing her own contract and eventually enjoying mass popularity for her smooth vocals and elegant demeanor.  Warwick herself sits down before the camera to relate memories of her life and career, it’s more valuable as an archival record for future generations to remember the artist than as an incisive, thematically motived documentary, glossing over as it does the darker aspects of her experiences (like her bankruptcy) or ignoring them altogether (including the accusations made in Kevin MacDonald’s Whitney Houston documentary about her sister Dee Dee, who is not mentioned here at all). TIFF: 2021.  Trailer

The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain
BB.5  (Will Sharpe, United Kingdom)  Examination of the painter famous for images of cats that contributed to their popularity as domestic pets at the end of the nineteenth century.  Sharpe’s insistence on making everything as quirky and cute as possible, right down to the backgrounds turning into watercolours, eventually becomes wearisome the more he uses it to replace actual substance, which the film never has.  TIFF: 2021.  Trailer

The Girl And The Spider
Das Mädchen und die Spinne
BBB  (Ramon Zürcher, Silvan Zürcher, Switzerland)  Mara and Lisa are ending their time together as roommates, and as one moves furniture around and put dishes on racks, the mysterious and practically wordless other observes and sometimes comes close to causing damage before we switch to a new, seemingly identical apartment where characters perform numerous microscopic manipulations. The Zürchers aren’t interested in sweeping narratives but are trying to pinpoint the various ways in which humans interact in seemingly innocuous but, in actuality, devastating ways, though in the final analysis there is more being explored here than is discovered.  TIFF: 2021.  Trailer

The Good House
BBB (Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky, USA) A realtor in the lovely, picturesque and fictional Massachusetts town of Wendover uses her prestigious heritage to cover for a personal history of an abusive, alcoholic mother, her own stints in rehab and a struggle to keep her business in the black.  Sigourney Weaver hasn’t had a role this rich in a long time and there’s absolutely no doubt that the film is worth watching for her, but there’s something trite about the plot that never quite gets anchored in either fantasy or reality, characters and situations veer very quickly between spontaneous and hopelessly contrived at an alarmingly speedy rate and a third-act supernatural touch isn’t treated with enough whimsy to be palatable.  TIFF: 2021. Trailer

Huda’s Salon
BBB  (Hany Abu-Assad, Egypt/Netherlands/Occupied Palestinian Territory)   A Bethlehem hairdresser secretly works for the Israeli Secret Service, blackmailing her clients into spying on their community before being arrested by the Palestinian resistance and forced to explain her reasons for working for the enemy.  As with his earlier films about the conflict between two nations on one land, Abu-Assad is interested in examining an explosive situation as more than just a case of good versus evil or oppressor and oppressed, but the film, while not a dull one, rarely goes beyond small talk and familiar bullet points.  TIFF: 2021.  Trailer

The Humans
BBB.5  (Stephen Karam, USA)  A couple have just moved into a pre-war duplex in New York City’s Chinatown that is cavernous and dank, her family has come in from Scranton to gather around a makeshift table for Thanksgiving and their benign and friendly conversations are soon affected by a threatening atmosphere that puts everything into context.   The performances are flawless and Karam does a terrific job of making everything feel slightly off-base, often filming conversations from a distance or weaving in and out of an intimacy with the sound of voices to make sure the audience never feels at ease, but even at its best, this is evidence that theatre is not a comfortable bedfellow with cinema.  TIFF: 2021.  Trailer

Last Night In Soho
BB.5  (Edgar Wright, United Kingdom)  A fashion student arrives in London to study at a design school and is haunted by the spectre of a dead woman who once lived in her flat.  Inspired by giallos of the past in both tone and milieu, this retro horror doesn’t have the narrative drive or charismatic personality that would be necessary to make up for what is ultimately a mystery plot with very little mystery and a twist that, if you pay close enough attention to the casting, is easy to see coming.   TIFF: 2021.  Trailer

Mothering Sunday
BB.5  (Eva Husson, United Kingdom)  A chambermaid attends to the house of a miserable aristocratic couple who lost their son in the war, carrying on a carnal affair with the son of a nearby estate that reaches its climax when their secret tryst delays him from attending a family gathering.  The two leads are attractive and their sex scenes are lush and fleshy, but their chemistry is only adequate, not exciting, and the intertextual inclusion of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway only serves to make this film look that much thinner, the best moments coming from the actors who deserve more screen time (Colin Firth, Olivia Colman, Glenda Jackson).  TIFF:  2021.  Trailer

Out of Sync
Tres
BBB.5  (Juanjo Giménez Peña, Spain/Lithuania/France)  A Madrid foley artist begins suffering a strange phenomenon, when she claps her hands she hears it a fraction of a second later, the next day a full second later, and so on as the days pass and the sounds around her go so far offline that people mouth empty words at her that she hears minutes later. What starts out as a pleasurable indulgence in nostalgia for analog lovers suffering a digital world somewhat loses its path as it veers into Three Women territory by the end, never confident in its inclusion of supernatural story elements and more than a bit smug in its opting for obscurity by the conclusion. TIFF: 2021.  Trailer

The Rescue
BBBB (Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, United Kingdom) The 2018 dramatic rescue of twelve Thai boys who were trapped in a cave is detailed with the sharp focus and clear chronology that one can count on from National Geographic, not to mention a non-controversial take on every aspect of the story as would be expected of the generally apolitical publication.   Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi cover multiple angles on their way towards the climax, from the cultural legends attached to the caves (Princess Nang Non, whose doomed love affair made it her permanent resting ground) to a charming investigation of the personality types attracted to cave diving. TIFF: 2021. Trailer

Scarborough
BBB  (Shasha Nakhai, Rich Williamson, Canada)  The Toronto suburb of the title is the setting for an ensemble piece that revolves around the lives of three children of various backgrounds in an economically underprivileged neighbourhood.  This heavy drama is very much concerned with making sure we empathize with the lives of people who are vulnerable to being forgotten by a system that, in having become stretched so thin, has little to offer the people who need it most, but in their fear that some people might not get the message, directors Nakhai and Williamson oversimply a number of situations and reduce more than a few characters to boring stereotypes both good and bad.  TIFF:  2021.  Trailer

Silent Land
Cicha ziemia
BBBB (Agnieszka Woszczynska, Poland/Czech Republic/Italy)  A Polish couple staying at a rented villa in Italy call for service on their pool but, when it results in a fatal accident involving a possibly undocumented migrant worker, their involvement casts a dark shadow over what should have been easy, sunny break from their busy lives.  Stunningly photographed and subtly directed, Woszczynska’s feature directorial debut is a sharp and intelligent examination of xenophobia, class privilege and EU politics that never allows its characters to ever feel like messengers for the symbolism intended by the narrative.  TIFF: 2021.  Trailer

The Tsugua Diaries
Diários de Otsoga
BBB  (Maureen Fazendeiro, Miguel Gomes, Portugal)  A cast and crew are taken to a farm in Sintra and photographed against some beautiful rural backdrops, with scenes from the film and its production presented, as referenced by the title’s spelling August backwards, in reverse order. Nothing that occurs on screen is particularly commanding or resonant, the whole thing is an experiment in aesthetics, but as such is a very pleasant one, you can smell the grass and summer air under the hot sun and the many of the film’s uncomplicated tableaux invoke a sense of peace more than boredom. TIFF:  2021.  Trailer

Violet
(Justine Bateman, USA)  A studio executive is working for a production house whose head doesn’t respect her despite her high rate of success, while her brother back home criticizes her lack of concern for their ailing mother, whom she has not seen in years, and blames it on her devotion to her “Hollywood lifestyle”.   The intention of Bateman’s insufferable directorial debut is to immerse you in the experience of the main character with rapid cuts to fast-paced childhood memories that sometimes grace the corner of the screen, narration by the voice of doubt in her mind while on the actual screen words appear in giant, cursive script detailing her thoughts; the lack of faith in Olivia Munn to transmit all this information without an instruction manual is an insult to the actress and an assault on the audience.  TIFF: 2021.  Trailer

 

THE REST, BY RATING

 

BBBB.5

 

C’Mon C’Mon
(Mike Mills, USA)  An NPR-style radio host travelling around the country and questioning young people about their opinions on the current state of the world is asked to look after his sister’s nine year-old son while she deals with her emotionally unstable husband.  This beautiful, perpetually spontaneous work of wonder  really gets at the heart of what it is trying to capture, and does so without ever seeming like it’s trying, which might be its most miraculous attribute.  Trailer

The Last Duel
(Ridley Scott, USA/United Kingdom)   The details of a true-life case in fourteenth-century France are repeated three times in medieval Rashomon style, all surrounding a noblewoman’s accusation of rape against her husband’s squire and leading to the final showdown of the title. An exciting and enveloping drama enriched by intelligent writing and very nuanced moralizing is also a fascinating exercise in the impossibility of moral certainty and justice in a world that leaves things up to as vague a concept as the higher power of God.  Trailer

Wrath of Man
(Guy Ritchie, United Kingdom/USA)  At a security company that transports large amounts of money in armored vans across the city of Los Angeles, a new hire is shown the ropes and takes to the job quite naturally, wowing his colleagues when an attempted robbery fails because his sharp-shooter skills take out the criminals as easily as if he was changing lanes.  The deeper elements of the expertly plotted-out story, which hint at a culture so poisoned by legitimized violence (namely sending men to war and having little concern for them if they come back), are embedded into the action with just the right level of frankness, allowing the emphasis to remain on explosive entertainment and the juicy thrills of revenge. Trailer

 

BBBB

 

After Yang
(Kogonada, USA) A father is anxious to have his household android repaired because of his daughter’s love for him, but a memory device discovered on the robot’s body reveals memories of past lives that spark questions about the man’s own connection with his family as well as, what else, what it means to be human.   Director Kogonoda’s gentle direction keeps all emotional devastation under tight control and never overplays the futuristic handle of the story, this is an alternate version of Marjorie Prime that benefits from a much more interesting script (at least on film) and appealing characters who are always kept at an intelligent remove. Trailer

Azor
(Andreas Fontana, Switzerland/France/Argentina)   A Swiss banker comes to 1970s Argentina with his wife during a military dictatorship, officially as tourists but actually so that he can replace his predecessor who disappeared without a word to his clients, but as he moves up a chain of contacts towards suited men in private clubs and begins to find out more, eventually has to choose whether it’s more important to find out the truth or to survive.  The low hum of quiet but dangerous gossip and government intrigue is intoxicating despite so much of this film’s plot feeling esoteric, the conversations about politics that seem so cryptic are that much more exciting for their obscurity, and the perfect casting of the supporting performers as members of an unmotivated elite lacking in ambition provides a roster of fascinating personalities.  Trailer

Boiling Point
(Philip Barantini, United Kingdom) The chef of an elegant London restaurant shows up late for meal prep before the place opens, then once things are in full swing no end of crises arise that need to be addressed, on this particular night during the Christmas holidays at an even more intense level than normal. Unlike other films that have given the appearance of being filmed in one take through digital visual effects, this movie was actually done in one solitary shot, and the dexterity with which the actors keep the pace going is mind-blowing, the camera never misses a single important fascinating detail, and despite the fact that some of the crises feel turned up to eleven simply for the sake of entertainment, they never feel overly contrived. Trailer

The Dig
(Simon Stone, United Kingdom)  The widowed landowner of a giant estate in Suffolk hires a self-taught archaeological excavator to dig into the ancient mounds on her property, but his astonishing discovery sees him pushed aside when a Cambridge archaeologist arrives with his own team to claim the dig for the British museum.  The luxurious cinematography threatens to lend itself to tired cliches of prestige period pieces, but the moody skies and vast acres of verdant fields are a character in the story, woven into the sense of possibility and exploration that this tale is so richly steeped in.  Trailer

Faya Dayi
(Jessica Beshir, Ethiopia/USA/Qatar)  A rural village in Ethiopia is barely kept going by the harvesting and selling of khat, a plant that has long been a significant part of ritual and respite in the culture and is now a cash crop, and in some cases, an addictive blight.  Beshir’s hypnotic images are honest about the crushing poverty that places these people on the precipice of survival every day, and subtly presents the commodification of a sacred cultural plant into an industry that, ironically, is helping to preserve this culture.  Trailer

The First Wave
(Matthew Heineman, USA)  Doctors and nurses at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens fight a hydra-like virus whose contagiousness is alarming and whose unpredictability is, in the cases that find themselves fighting for their lives in their hospital beds and on ventilators, terrifying.  Heineman, who has previously shown great bravery in taking his cameras into the dangerous environments of drug cartels and war-torn Raqqa, engages in what might be his most daring project yet, focusing attention on a handful of patients whose stories are deeply moving.  Trailer

The Green Knight
(David Lowery, Ireland/Canada/USA/United Kingdom)   Gawain is challenged by Arthur and Guinevere to prove the accomplishment of a great feat, so his mother Morgane Le Fay summons up a Green Knight that he must set out on a great journey to destroy.  The well-worn stereotypes of quest narratives (such as the temptations to abandon it for something more instantly gratifying) are infused with new life by Lowery’s exciting visuals, while the lightly philosophical treatment of themes of masculinity, bravery and the meaning of life are poignant without ever becoming pretentious, providing depth and meaning to a film that never feels self-important but always enchants you with its mysteries and inventions. Trailer

Hive
(Blerta Basholli, Kosovo/Switzerland/Albania/North Macedonia) Still looking for answers regarding her husband’s disappearance, a Kosovo widow comes up with the idea to get together with the other women of the village and make homemade ajvar to sell in the local supermarket, which ruffles feathers in a conservative Muslim community where driving a car earns her the label of a wanton woman.  Ignoring all the cheesy inspirational tropes that usually bog down the intelligence of a fact-based drama, first-time feature filmmaker Basholli encourages near-documentary-like realism from her actors as she builds the tension surrounding a seemingly simple but actually very emotionally involving and complex story. Trailer

In The Earth
(Ben Wheatley, United Kingdom)  As the world suffers under a global virus, a researcher heads deep into the woods to a government-run outpost find a former lover and fellow scientist who disappeared after being sent to investigate the medicinal possibilities of fungae. The surprises, involving pagan worship of nature gods and plants’ ability to communicate with each other, keep rolling in until the bitter end in a film that, despite a small budget filmed under lockdown conditions, feels rich and uncompromised, with actors who are genuinely convincing in the terrifying, squirm-inducing situations that they find themselves in.  Trailer

Mass
(Fran Kranz, USA)   A meeting room in an Episcopalian church hosts two couples who, after some agonizing small talk, reveal that they are survivors of a very dark tragedy that has connected them in a powerful, devastating way.  The dialogue sometimes feels forced, as if Kranz started with an issue he wanted to exorcise through art and sacrificed a few natural instincts in the name of doing so, but what he really gets right is capturing the impossibility of good intentions in circumstances as challenging as this one, performed with dynamic charisma by an outstanding cast.  Trailer

Nobody
(Ilya Naishuller, USA/Japan)  Living a mind-numbing suburban routine with his wife and two kids in white picket fence bliss, a construction worker has his finely honed skills as a fighter drawn out when prowlers break into his house and set off a violent confrontation with his secret past.  This movie might not be the morally dubious classic that Straw Dogs was but, in using the genre as an opportunity to examine and satirize a crisis of masculinity affecting its generation, provides a fresher motivation for its events than the usual tropes of the revenge genre (conservative anger over private property, or hypocritical love of vigilante justice).   Trailer

Passing
(Rebecca Hall, USA/United Kingdom/Canada)   A black woman who occasionally uses her fair-skinned appearance and a conveniently low-riding hat to pass as white reconnects with an old friend from her Chicago days who is doing the same in her marriage.  Hall makes an assured feature film debut with this adaptation of Nella Larson’s 1929 novel of the same name, risking overdoing her visual metaphors with starkly coded black and white imagery but saved by her employing such a stunning exactitude to the way each image is shot.  Trailer

Pig
(Michael Sarnoski, United Kingdom)  A unkempt and dishevelled truffler farmer living a solitary life in the country travels to the city and reconnects with the life he abandoned years earlier, in search of his kidnapped porcine companion.  Cage delivers a wise and contained performance, and while a few story elements feel like contrived indie strangeness (an underground restaurant fight club? Sure) the cinematography is effectively haunting and the streamlined plot is sleek and efficient, more devastating the more it insists on staying away from any emotional indulgences.  Trailer

Procession
(Robert Greene, USA)  Six men who have spoken up about the abuse they suffered as children at the hands of Catholic priests are asked to collaborate on a project in which they write, direct and perform in dramatic scenes that recreate and relive their worst moments, coming up with creative, alternative ways to change their outcomes.  There’s a great deal of pain emanating from the screen for two straight hours of this riveting documentary, but don’t take that to mean that watching it is a burden, rather an act of gorgeous generosity that the participants allow us to enter their world and share their attempt to work towards catharsis, dealing with their past trauma in a unique and, hopefully for them, beneficial way.  Trailer

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain
(Morgan Neville, USA)  The breakout success of Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential turned him into a relatively late-life television star, his success coming to a crashing halt when he took his own life in 2018 at the age of 61.  His friends and family show themselves to be suffering grief tinged with feelings of guilt and regret in this sensitive documentary that audaciously uses “deepfake” narration by Bourdain created through A.I. technology (the ethics of which is a standing point of contention between Neville and Bourdain’s ex-widow, Ottavia Busia).  Trailer

The Souvenir Part II
(Joanna Hogg, United Kingdom/Ireland/USA) Begins almost immediately after the events of the first film, with Julie recovering from the sorrow of her loss and learning to process her grief and guilt before sublimating that energy into her graduation project from film school. There is something more electric and exciting about all the growing and learning that the character is doing while slowly establishing her artistic voice, which Hogg charts through subtle, almost imperceptible changes in the way her protagonist reacts to the overwhelming personalities she encounters, the film has a charm that will last and a style that will linger. Trailer

 

BBB.5

 

Beckett
(Ferdinando Cito Filomarino, Italy/Brazil)   A happy couple enjoying a vacation in sunny Greece get into a car accident that exposes them to a kidnapping, which turns out to be part of a dangerous criminal conspiracy.  Filmed on location with a marvelous sense of reality to the crowd scenes, it has a main character whose inability to see what lies ahead can sometimes be frustrating, and paranoid thrillers should be told with a lot more humour than is on display here, but things do build to a very exciting climax and it ends with a very satisfying bang.  Trailer

Coming Home In The Dark
(James Ashcroft, New Zealand) Having stopped for a meal by a lake, a family are approached by two threatening strangers who immediately turn their world upside down, and within minutes are driven by the bad guys to a destination that remains a mystery until the end.   Played out on a corkscrew of a plot, this film inspires more than its fair share of philosophical quandaries that only make the trauma of its relentless violence that much harder to bear, taking the audience on a thrilling, entertaining ride while making ample room for a treatise on the wisdom of vengeance and the reality of a country’s checkered (and though it’s not exclusively stated, colonial) history. Trailer

The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet
(Ana Katz, Argentina) A man’s devotion to his pet dog forces him out of his neighbourhood and his job and sends his life in increasingly strange directions as the world is shut down by a mysterious deadly virus that also helps our hero narrow his perspective and find his grounding. Told with the quiet and unassuming rhythms of Argentina’s school of social realism but with touches of absurdism and science-fiction thrown in, this film’s brief running time covers expansive themes and the delicate performances make sure they never overwhelm you. Trailer

Fast & Furious 9
F9
(Justin Lin, USA/Thailand/Canada)  Dom and Letty are living quietly in the country when old friends show up and tell them that they’re needed to save the world, this time from a snotty German ambassador’s son who is going trying to take possession of a mechanism that can control of every weapons system on the planet (somebody paid to have that made?) The chases are exciting, the near-fatal stunts are thrilling and most of the crew’s brushes with death wholly, ridiculously unbelievable, and if that’s not appealing enough, there’s the fact that two of the cast drive a car into outer space (I’m not kidding). Trailer

Godzilla Vs. Kong
(Adam Wingard, USA/Australia/Canada/India)  Godzilla risks his reputation when he surfaces in Florida and takes out an entire coastline, on the other side of the globe King Kong lives in an enclosed, protected environment being watched over by a scientist and her adopted Skull Island-survivor daughter, while elsewhere a scientist is approached by a tech CEO to head up an expedition to the centre of our planet and find “Hollow Earth”.   The film’s writers twist themselves into pretzels spewing scientific jargon to justify a plot that is merely an excuse to bring two large creatures together in combat, but the dull and uncommitted performances are actually one of the pleasures of this shameless indulgence, and it pays off in a climactic showdown set in a gorgeously neon-lit Hong Kong.  Trailer

Old
(M. Night Shyamalan, USA)  A family vacationing at a luxury seaside resort spend a day on the beach that they realize has the effect of rapidly aging its inhabitants, going from youth to old age in a matter of hours.  Shyamalan wants to be liked even more than he wants to be admired, suggesting a thoughtful investigation of big themes that never happens, giving us the pieces of a very fun puzzle before the self-congratulation of a full solution at the end that, ultimately, marks the experience as being there to serve no one but himself. Trailer

Simple As Water
(Megan Mylan, USA) Five individuals do their best to stay connected despite having been scattered from either their home or their sense of home by the Syrian Civil War, a catastrophe that one man in the film states will make it impossible for his people to raise their heads again for decades to come.   Director Mylan has a gentle approach to all the figures she studies, they manage to remain private about their troubles despite our witnessing it so close, and she does not try to make them uncomfortable by forcing their candor; the film feels a bit shallow for this, it veers into hagiographic infomercial at times, but when it is touching it really accomplishes the task beautifully. Trailer

The Suicide Squad
(James Gunn, USA/Canada/United Kingdom)  A harried top-secret government operative once again plucks a host of dangerous, incarcerated criminals from their jail cells and assigns them a case so dangerous that only those with no future could take it on, an expedition to a fictional central American island where a former Nazi research laboratory houses a project that could be dangerous for the universe. There are points at which the jokes are a bit too self-consciously desperate to make sure we know that this is a superhero movie for cool people, but for the most part the irreverent violence and good-natured camaraderie between characters is successful and engaging.  Trailer

The Tender Bar
(George Clooney, USA)   J.R. Moehringer’s memoir of growing up on Long Island in the seventies, his hard-scrabble working-class family rife with intellectuals including his book-loving, beer-slinging uncle who educates him from behind the bar.  Clooney doesn’t find the centre of the story anywhere in the assembled narrative, there’s never a point at which things reach a strong moment of realization that would really make the movie a deeply satisfying and unforgettable experience, but there is so much to enjoy here that it won’t be until it’s over that you even notice.  Trailer

 

BBB

 

Barb And Star Go To Vista Del Mar
(Josh Greenbaum, USA)  Two chattery, culturally dim Nebraska divorcees lose their dream jobs at a furniture store and decide to go to a Florida resort town, at the same time that a powerful and pale supervillain is on her way to wreak destruction upon the town’s annual Seafood festival.  Think back to all the SNL film projects of the past and prepare accordingly, knowing that if you like the main characters and what they do, it won’t matter to you what’s going on around them and whether or not it passes muster as great filmmaking.  Trailer

The Black Phone
(Scott Derrickson, USA)  A pre-teen survives school bullies only to become the latest kidnapping victim of the neighbourhood serial killer, his only hope of escape a mysterious black phone in his cell, through which the villain’s dead victims give him helpful messages.  The supernatural element of the story only serves the function of convenience, and cheapens the efforts of a powerful cast and a number of genuinely scary sequences.  Trailer

Blue Miracle
(Julio Quintana, USA)  A financially struggling Florida orphanage has a chance at salvation when its director, himself a survivor of a rough childhood, enters a local fishing competition that is offering a $25,000 reward.  There’s far too much Disneyfication in the way the orphans are presented for you to believe that this is a film about learning to live with disappointment, the actors practically break out in song at every turn (and have a surprisingly easy time struggling with a sea creature that once made Spencer Tracy’s hands bloody for days on end), but it’s a beautifully shot and good-natured family film that has moments of wisdom.  Trailer

Bull
(Paul Andrew Williams, United Kingdom) An organized crime family in southeast London are terrorized by the reappearance of an in-law with a grudge, who begins viciously killing everyone who was involved in a past grievance while also looking for his young son. A juicy revenge tale with gory violence that will put off more squeamish viewers, this one loses a great deal of its power with a capricious twist in its final moments that undermines the gravity of everything that went before it. Trailer

Candyman
(Nia DaCosta, USA/Canada/Australia)  Thirty years after Virginia Madsen took her instamatic into Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing projects, the buildings have been cleared away and luxury condos stand in their place, but the terrifying spectre who comes when bidden in the mirror is still within reach and the neighbourhood is soon being upended by a series of grisly murders.  Jordan Peele shares producing and screenwriting duties on this entertaining if ultimately unsatisfying return to a franchise that managed to involve exciting horror and thoughtful social commentary in equal measure, in this case overwhelmed with exposition and a plot that eventually falls apart.  Trailer

Copshop
(Joe Carnahan, USA) A Nevada police officer realizes that her holding cell contains both a fixer for a casino’s mob boss who is being forced by the Feds to inform on his buddies, and a hit man who has been sent to take care of him, which then leads to violent mayhem when a third bad guy guns down every cop in the precinct and makes his way down to the sealed-off holding cells.  It’s a series of bland and familiar character types until Toby Huss comes on the scene and really gets things going, but it’s a cheaply made film that looks cheap, the effects are bad, a lot of the violence feels staged and the sets look threadbare and hastily put together. Trailer

Cry Macho
(Clint Eastwood, USA)   An aged rodeo cowboy is asked by his boss to retrieve his estranged son from his neglectful, alcoholic ex-wife in Mexico.  While we his fans hope he lives forever, Eastwood is looking very frail and just the premise of sending a man who looks like he could be knocked down with a poke in the shoulder on a lengthy cross-border voyage, to more or less kidnap a wild teenager from the wild streets of a dusty Mexican town, puts this film’s plot into a category of highly suspended disbelief, but it doesn’t help that the stakes are never that high and most of the complications are solved too easily. Trailer

In The Heights
(Jon M. Chu, USA) A variety of characters sing and dance up a storm about their dreams and woes in Washington Heights, with Uznavi running a convenience store until he can make his plans of moving back to the paradise of the Dominican Republic come true.   This adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical has a gorgeous score performed by a host of talented singers, and the brightly lit, eye-popping widescreen images turn the musical’s urban jungle setting into an edgy, colourful paradise, but the screenplay adds a great deal of dramatic interaction without ever making the characters as interesting as the people playing them.  Trailer

Land
(Robin Wright, USA/Canada)  A grieving woman packs up her city life into a rental truck and drives up to a remote cabin in the mountains of Wyoming (actually Alberta), determined to stay as remote and self-supporting as possible before a near-fatal setback sees her nursed back to health by a hunter. Director-star Wright does a wonderful job of keeping this story down to its essentials, but there’s something about it that never quite goes deep enough, all the shots of her gardening and cleaning feel like she was only doing it for as long as the camera was on, and the more emotional scenes feel scripted and performed. Trailer

The Mauritanian
(Kevin Macdonald, United Kingdom/USA)  Mohamedou Ould Slahi is arrested by the U.S. government on suspicion on having been a key player in the events of 9/11, subjected to sixteen years of imprisonment in Guantanamo while his defense attorney Nancy Hollander is infuriated by the injustice of his never having been charged or brought to trial before his incarceration.  The explicit dramatization of Slahi’s torture will make for a cathartic calling out of America’s failings in trying to heal its own wounds, but Macdonald undercuts the intelligent legal aspect of the story by emphasizing sympathy, treating Hollander’s need to defend the letter of the law as mere story structure and undercutting the film’s own attempt at being intelligent and thought-provoking.  Trailer

El Planeta
(Amalia Ulman, Spain/USA) Leo and her mother María are struggling under the country’s economic crisis, anxious to maintain the comforts of their regular middle class life but, with the money running out and the utilities being turned off in their home, resorting to methods desperate and dishonest to get by.  Shot in stark black and white until the full-colour coda that puts the argument on blast in the final credit sequence, this short and smart diatribe doesn’t rewrite the world of films as snarky social commentary, but it never belabours its points and tells its tale through a series of engaging characters. Trailer

Stillwater
(Tom McCarthy, USA)    A midwestern roughneck goes to Marseilles to visit his incarcerated daughter, determined to prove her innocence in the murder of her girlfriend, and befriends a French woman who helps him as translator.   Matt Damon is unconvincing in Trump voter drag and, while the story’s jumping off point is clearly inspired by the Amanda Knox scandal of 2007, it’s more interested in telling us about America’s being a prosperous and powerful nation whose citizens don’t seem to be aware of how little they share in that success; ultimately it’s far too long and dramatically unsatisfying a movie to justify its lecturing nature.  Trailer

 

BB.5

 

Black Widow
(Cate Shortland, USA)  Russian sleeper spies raise two unrelated children to become assassins who, years later, have been turned into killing machines forced to reckon with the past when the man who ran their training program is still at large.  So simple a plot goal for these heroines needs a great deal of interruptions or to be populated by interesting characters to be entertaining for over two hours, but try as she might to squeeze some good, juicy blood out of such a wooden script, Shortland cannot manage much more than a PG version of a Killing Eve episode with a tech upgrade.  Trailer

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It
(Michael Chaves, USA/United Kingdom)   The number one name in ghostbusting power couples, the Warrens, take part in the exorcism of a little boy and the process almost kills them, with Ed knocked out during the ritual after being the only one to witness the demon leaving the boy but not the room.  The plot barely strings together its situations and characters to form a cohesive logic, but it does manage numerous fun scares and, in creating a detective story out of its elements, at least manages to carry you through its highly familiar tricks much more successfully than its bloated and overlong predecessors. Trailer

Ghostbusters: Afterlife
(Jason Reitman, Canada/USA)  Egon Spengler’s cash-strapped daughter and her two children move into his debt-riddled farm, and while she strikes up a romance with the small town’s handsome schoolteacher, the kids resurrect ghost-busting activities of the past when they discover paranormal energy in the area.  It seems that nothing will ever match up to the combination of imagination and spontaneity that made the original so good, the painfully uneven script takes a great deal of time to get set up before skipping a second act and giving the characters no significant obstacles towards completing the end goal.  Trailer

Last Looks
(Tim Kirkby, USA) A retired cop trying to live the life of a rural ascetic is pulled back to the city of Lost Angels to investigate the murder of a famous actor’s wife. Mel Gibson has a great time in a supporting role as the roguish murder suspect, but the messy script too often sacrifices narrative cohesion in favour of unearned bursts of quirky character behavior that eventually ring hollow. Trailer

Madame X
(Ricardo Gomes, Sasha Kasiuha, SKNX, Nuno Xico, USA) Madonna goes a different route from her previous stadium gigs and stages a concept show in more modest venues to promote her 2019 studio album Madame X, highlighting what is usually a very theatrical element to her shows by performing as the persona of the album’s titular character and, allegedly, creating something of a throughline to the songs she has assembled.  The home viewer is denied the opportunity to really enjoy feeling like they’re taking in live theatre thanks to rapid-fire editing that, very annoyingly, blends together bits of the same moments from various tour dates, while the singer’s taking on a lot of liberal low-hanging fruit in a manner that she doesn’t seem to realize isn’t all that nuanced or complicated makes her seem unintelligent, which might be the most shocking disappointment of all. Trailer

Malignant
(James Wan, USA/China)  A traumatized woman begins to have visions that transport her to strangers’ homes to witness a series of grisly murders being committed by an otherworldly stranger.  In a nearly two hour movie, there is far too much dithering over the details before we find out the truth about who the killer is and, while it represents, conceptually, some of the most imaginative plotting of any of Wan’s mostly identical horror movies, the preposterous story deserves a far more original treatment than this haunted house ride with jump scares that you can predict with a timer. Trailer

More The Merrier
Donde Caben Dos
(Paco Caballero, Spain/France)  A high-end swingers club hosts a series of couples whose devotion to each other is in various degrees of distress.  It’s 2021 and director Paco Caballero has made the naughtiest film of 1971, this comedy pretends to be delivering the next level in cinematic sexual permissiveness when it actually has a very conservative spirit, with a heavy emphasis on heterosexuality (including the girl-girl action, which is performed for the male gaze), and when the plot actually tries to think outside the box and get a little transgressive, it for some reason chooses incest as the way to go. Trailer

Those Who Wish Me Dead
(Taylor Sheridan, Canada/USA)  A firefighting smoke-jumper haunted by a past tragedy takes a boy separated from his father under her wing and helps him outrun some dangerous killers who are at a disadvantage on the terrain that she knows so well.  The digitally created forest fires are never convincing enough and rob the experience of stakes, perfectly summarizing a film that is both enjoyable and shallow.   Trailer

 

BB

The Addams Family 2
(Greg Tiernan, Conrad Vernon, USA/Canada) They’ve settled into the neighbourhood without destroying it, but now the Addamses have a new problem on their hands when they go on a road trip to establish whether or not Wednesday was accidentally switched with another baby at birth.   It does seem to be a problem, as with the previous animated film, that the directors of this particular franchise don’t appreciate the subversion that should come naturally to any adaptation of Charles Addams’ world: these characters might seem ghoulish but they are actually more wholesome than the people who style themselves good and normal, but in a continuing misunderstanding of the way they should be presented, this film has biology trumping history and individual thinking stamped out in favour of conformity. Trailer

Blue Bayou
(Justin Chon, USA/Canada) A tattoo artist struggling to support his family is arrested by his wife’s cop ex-husband and, thanks to his having been adopted from Korea when he was a small child, learns that he is to be deported despite only ever having known America as home.  Admirable intentions abound, but star-director Chon’s sense of the dramatic runs to the ridiculously overstated and oversimplified at every turn, he piles on the challenges with no sense of intelligent spontaneity and indulges himself in contrived manipulation in order to squeeze the heartstrings until they choke. Trailer

Eternals
(Chloé Zhao, United Kingdom/USA)  Monstrous creatures called Deviants need to be kept in check by the humanoid Eternals that the god Arishem crafted and sent to Earth, their mission to not interfere in any human conflict except when battling these villains, which they are called upon to do when they appear for the first time in centuries and threaten all of human life.   Any time the story crosses back on its own logic it tries to compensate with more endless jargon to explain yet another origin story of the universe, adding no depth but far too much gooey misery to a film that mistakenly thinks it is succeeding at its own importance by never being the least bit fun.  Trailer

Firebird
(Peeter Rabane, United Kingdom/Estonia) Sergey is stationed in Soviet-occupied Estonia in the late seventies where he serves as a driver to fighter pilot Roman, instantly friends until favourable circumstances allow them to express their  forbidden physical attraction to each other.  A sincere plea for tolerance places this film’s heart in exactly the right place, but it also means that the characters are flat and dull in the name of purity, while the actors are lifeless as a result of their replacing any kind of complicated humanity with a plastic, noble ideal. Trailer

Halloween Kills
(David Gordon Green, USA/United Kingdom)    Moments after the end of the 2018 reboot, Laurie Strode is rushed to the hospital while Michael Myers goes on yet another killing spree that inspires the people of Haddonfield to form a frenzied mob, then quickly turn on each other. Such examination of the human monster within us all is referenced more than once in the generally terrible dialogue, and such shallow silliness could be forgiven if the movie spent more of its time being entertaining and scary rather than simply dragging us through one ponderous killing after the other.  Trailer

The Little Things
(John Lee Hancock, USA)   Sent to Los Angeles on a routine pick-up of evidence for an upcoming trial, a county police officer stumbles into an unsolved case of a serial killer who escaped his grasp.  Hancock wants to deliver a serial killer thriller with a twist, it’s not about catching the bad guy but finding the bad guy in ourselves (ooh!), but the dramatic interactions are never particularly interesting, with Jared Leto’s scenes as the prime suspect the only time that there is any notable tension thanks to his perfect pitch between crazy and cool.  Trailer

No Sudden Move
(Steven Soderbergh, USA)  Gunmen on a blackmail job take a family of four hostage to recover a top-secret document related to breakthrough car technology, but things don’t go as planned and one of the hoods is forced to hit the road after realizing he’s been set up.  Films that play a secret shell game with persons and events that the audience isn’t fully privy to are only fun when we’re tricked into thinking we’re ahead of the story, but as we spend most of it trying to catch up, there’s little satisfaction in seeing what surprises pop up and there’s no pay off in the end. Trailer

Respect
(Liesl Tommy, Canada/USA)  The career of Aretha Franklin, from shaking the rafters in her father’s church to landing a recording contract that puts her on the rocky road to legendary status.  Working from a numb script and very basic direction, this biopic follows the Coal Miner’s Daughter formula like instructions in a cookbook, with a forced performance by Jennifer Hudson and a disappointing lack of joy in celebrating the great singer’s legacy.  Trailer

The Scary of Sixty-First
(Dasha Nekrasova, USA) Two roommates find a great, if odd, apartment in New York City and are excited to move in, but almost immediately upon taking over their new digs are approached with information about the unit’s dirty secrets that leads to stranger, more dangerous occurrences that take over their lives.   Nekrasova elicits fine performances from herself and her cast and edits, scores and paces her film seamlessly, there’s very little to indicate that it’s made on a small budget and she embraces her modest means by emphasizing the grainy look rather than apologizing for it, but none of this compensates for the fact that it’s just not that interesting. Trailer

Single All The Way
(Michael Mayer, USA)   A social media ad campaign manager is excited to put his glamorous Los Angeles life on hold to bring his new boyfriend home for Christmas, but when that relationship goes up in smoke at the last minute, he begs his roommate to come and pretend that they’ve fallen in love despite having been best friends for almost a decade.  The Hallmark Christmas cliché map is spread out on the table and screenwriter Chad Hodge makes sure to hit each landmark on it, the one glaring exception being that Hallmark movies, best applied as background noise for when you’re wrapping presents or, perhaps, planning to murder your family, are absolute torture to endure at 85 minutes and here, at 102, the pain is increased by many more exponents than a mere seventeen.  Trailer

Swan Song
(Todd Stephens, USA) An aging hairdresser lives in a nursing home following a stroke, and after receiving a visit from the lawyer of a recently deceased socialite asking him to style her in her coffin decides to break out for one big voyage into town.  Everything about it is lovely in theory, but between the bad editing, ugly cinematography and some truly hammy acting from a number of performers who come off surprisingly inept (lead Udo Kier at times doesn’t seem to know his lines), it’s very difficult to see through the bad stuff and appreciate the things that make this film cherishable. Trailer

 

B.5

 

Jungle Cruise
(Jaume Collet-Serra, USA)  A World War I-era botanical scientist aims heads to the Amazon to find a tree that legend says can cure all ailments, hiring a wisecracking boat captain to take them up the famously dangerous river in his aging, barely seaworthy vessel while a German army captain pursues them to get the tree for his country’s glory.  These elements, along with the undead cadavers of Aguirre and his fellow conquistadores, sound like non-stop adventure, but Collet-Serra somehow manages to get each element of the process completely wrong, with unconvincing period details, a hacky script and green-screen backdrops that reveal their technique too easily.  Trailer

The Matrix Resurrections
(Lana Wachowski, USA)  Thomas Anderson is a successful but mentally unstable video game developer who learns from a hacker that what he thought were disturbing dreams are actually memories of real experiences of the past, then finds himself back in the Matrix and in need of being freed from the amniotic fluid pod once more.  Narratively, the whole thing is a mess of nonsense jargon, the excuses to have different actors replacing those who don’t return (Hugo Weaving, Laurence Fishburne) are laughably complicated, and by the time we reach the last act it feels like Wachowski (who takes over directing solo with this one) is just making up all the rules of Neo’s powers and abilities as she goes along. Trailer

Stowaway
(Joe Penna, Germany/USA)  A ship on its way to an early colonization effort on Mars is inhabited by a crew of three whose perfect balance is upset when a fourth person is discovered on board and threatens the resources available to the rest. Fascinating concept, except that director Penna is fully asleep at the wheel and it’s likely because the script is a snooze, the characters don’t engage in a particularly interesting battle of wills, and even the detailed production design, which creates a believable spaceship environment and lights it beautifully, is a bland and lifeless environment.  Trailer

 

B

 

Moxie
(Amy Poehler, USA)  A high school student anonymous creates a magazine promoting the rejection of societal toxic masculinity that ignites a movement among her peers.  The canned dialogue never for a second sounds like the way real people speak or respects real people’s conflicts, Poehler’s characters are cardboard cutouts who have too few complications to come across as anything more than illustrated Instagram quotes in human form, and she allows dull scenes to run long without ever finding the dramatic core in any of them.   Trailer

Music
(Sia, USA) Kazoo, a struggling addict who is in and out of rehab learns that, with the passing of her grandmother and her drug-addicted mother already long gone by this point, she has inherited the responsibility for taking care of her autistic half-sister Music.   Periodically we get to step inside of Music’s mind and experience her vibrant perspective through songs by director Sia, but while a few of the numbers are great they’re not convincing as the character’s world, and there’s no denying that Maddie Ziegler in the title role comes off as little more than a collection of deeply researched, highly mechanical physical functions and very little else. Trailer

Red Notice
(Rawson Marshall Thurber, USA)  An FBI agent chases a top-drawer art thief who has just made off with one of the world’s greatest and most exotic treasures before they are both sent to prison in Siberia, then are forced to team up when another world-class thief enters the picture. Dwayne Johnson has his good-natured plucky charm and Reynolds whips out the sarcastic zingers at every opportunity, but we could honestly be watching moments pieced together from a number of their other films and not know the difference, while Gal Gadot, herself often in this wryly amused but physically confident vein, barely seems to care about doing more than the minimum effort.  Trailer

 

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Deadly Illusions
(Anna Elizabeth James, USA)   A bestselling author who has no desire to return to the popular series of mystery novels that have made her a big name finds out that her husband has bungled their finances, hiring a beautiful young woman to supervise her children while she returns to writing before being disturbed by the new nanny’s unstable personality.  If it turned out that each page of the script of this movie was made by different people who didn’t consult each other, it would accurately explain the feeling of trying to make your way through this clunker.  Trailer

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