Tag Archives: Christie Robb

Poetry in Motion

Benediction

by Christie Robb

A languid, disjointed film about British WWI poet Siegfried Sassoon, Terence Davies’ Benediction sets the stage for several exquisite recitations of Sassoon’s poetry.

And the poetry is really the star of the show.

This isn’t to say that Sassoon’s life is boring and without conflict. Not at all. As a lieutenant fighting in France, Sassoon was horrified by trench warfare, and the tone of his poetry shifted from romantic and patriotic to a gritty depiction of rotting corpses, suicide, and a growing sense of futility amidst the mud and gas attacks.

He was awarded the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry” and then wrote a letter to his commanding officer (forwarded to the press and House of Commons) refusing to return to active service, condemning the motives of an unjust war. Instead of being shot for treason, he was sent to a Scottish war hospital to recover from “shell shock.”

After the war, he had several love affairs with men (writers, actors, and aristocrats). He married a woman, had a son, converted to Catholicism and was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Writer/Director Davies doesn’t give the story of Sassoon a clear focus/narrative arc. It bounces back and forth in time, setting the few jewel-like moments in which the poems are performed among a series of vignettes from the author’s life. In these, he searches for authenticity and connection in a fractured world. Sometimes we wander about through tasteful interiors while people in sumptuous clothing shout about relationships that aren’t completely explained. Occasionally this is intercut with archival footage from WWI.

This experimentation in form and use of stream-of-consciousness is a technique employed by literature in the period after the Great War. It allows us to experience Sassoon’s longing and disappointment as he tries to find meaning and salvation in political action, relationships, family, and religious devotion—all of which fail him.

Both the actors playing Sassoon, Jack Lowden (young) and Peter Capaldi (old), give heroic, emotionally vulnerable performances. My only real criticism here is that there isn’t enough of a throughline connecting Lowden’s open-hearted optimism (even post-war and post-breakup) to Capaldi’s cantankerous hatred of all things modern.

Lowden does such a good job of keeping Sassoon’s emotional self locked behind a façade of genteel wit and English manners that, in the scenes from his later life depicted by Capaldi, the Sassoons seem like two completely different people.

Still, the fragmented structure of the film and the character does a superb job of depicting the trauma sustained by a generation who experienced the unprecedented horrors of what was supposed to be the War to End All Wars.

City of Love

Paris, 13th District

by Christie Robb

Director Jacques Audiard’s Paris, 13th District is slow. Languorously slow. Like honey oozing off a comb. Like a flower unfurling. Like a relationship evolving over time.

Audiard’s film, which he co-wrote with Nicholas Livecchi and Lea Mysius based on stories by graphic novelist Adrian Tomine, follows the intertwined lives of Emilie, Camille, Nora, and Amber over the course of a year, give or take. Friendships develop and wane. Love affairs start and end.

All is shot in gorgeous black and white except for a bit that’s rather startling and in color.

The cast members are stunning (Lucie Zhang as Emilie, Makita Samba as Camille, Noemie Merlant as Nora, and Jehnny Beth as Amber) and the camera delights in lingering over their often naked bodies.  Their characters are complex and the actors play them with a realism and vulnerability that is frankly impressive.

It’s a realistic portrayal of a set of modern relationships with all the ecstasy and ugliness that makes them complicated and exciting and worth having.  

The plot features dating apps, cam girls, death, real estate,  cyberbullying, and MDMA. To say more about the story would wreck the experience of watching it and trying to anticipate how the characters’ lives will interconnect.

Teenage Wasteland

Coast

by Christie Robb

Directors Jessica Hester and Derek Schweickart take us on a spin through the life of alienated 16-year-old Abby (Fatima Ptacek) who has always felt like an outsider in her rural California town, certain she has to make it out to find herself.

Writer Cindy Kitagawa nails the egocentrism of adolescence. The arrival of a cool new girl in town (Mia Rose Frampton) and an indie rock band stuck in the area while their tour bus receives repairs precipitates Abby’s first life crisis. She’s thrown for such a loop that she’s willing to alienate her parents, teachers, and childhood friends in order to discover herself and her potential life path.

Is it with Dave (Kane Ritchotte), the sexy front man who tries to sweet-talk her into performing?

Running in counterpoint to Abby’s story is her mom’s (Cristela Alonzo). Abby is now the same age her mom was when she got pregnant. Mom’s hoping the apple falls very, very far from the tree on that one. Now, in her 30s, Mom is drinking a little too much, smoking in bed, and staring down the barrel of a divorce from a husband who got his coworker pregnant. During her job as a night nurse she hangs out with an older patient (played by the great Melissa Leo who doesn’t have nearly enough to do), also a former teenage mom, now estranged from her grown daughter.

At school, Abby struggles to complete a hometown history report. The purpose of the report, as the class frequently recites in unison is because: “Those who forget the past are condemned to relive it.” The hope is that Abby will come to terms with the past and learn from it so she can choose the path forward that is right for her. A somewhat heavy-handed final act directly addresses this.

Coast doesn’t exactly break new ground in the coming-of-age genre. Far too much time seems to be spent on the thinly-developed stock characters of edgy-new-friend and dreamy-boy when Abby’s childhood friends and her mother seem much more charismatic and potentially interesting. But Ptacek’s Abby believably cycles between the joyful naivete of childhood, the judgmental anger of adolescence, and the more balanced perspective of adulthood. And the soundtrack kinda rocks.


The Horrors of Garage Entrepreneurship

Madelines

by Christie Robb

Madeline (Brea Grant, Eastsiders) and her husband Owen (Parry Shen, General Hospital) are two independent scientists working on a time travel device in their garage laboratory. Everything seems to be going well. They successfully moved an orange across time and space. They secured investment capital from their backer Rory (Richard Riehle, Office Space/legendary “that guy”). And they are all set to try experimenting on human subjects.

But one night, Madeline starts coding after she’s had a few too many wines and sends herself into the future only to return and find out that, due to a typo in the code, she and Rory can expect a new Madeline to return from the future every day at the same time for 3,600 days. What to do?

It’s a real conundrum.

Directed by Jason Richard Miller (who produced Frozen—no, not the Disney one) and co-written by Brea Grant, the film manages to entertain despite its minuscule cast of three and limited setting. A lot of the credit goes to Grant, who gives individual quirks to the various Madelines that she embodies.

Matt Akers’s 80s-inspired synth score is also a real delight, providing the entire project with a late-night direct-to-syndication guilty pleasure vibe.

It’s not a movie that can stand up to much logical scrutiny, though. And both the horrific and comedic elements could have been dialed up somewhat. But as an experiment, I think the team is on to something.

Move Over Batman, There’s a New Vengeance in Town

Measure of Revenge

by Christie Robb

Life imitates art when famous Broadway tragedian, Lillian Cooper’s rock star son and his pregnant girlfriend die of an apparent drug overdose. Or is it murder?

Inspired by intrusive thoughts of revenge that manifest as visions of famous characters Lillian has portrayed on stage, the heartbroken mother stalks the streets of New York searching for those responsible and hatching a plot to make them pay for their misdeeds.

Along the way, Lillian (Melissa Leo) joins forces with young photographer/drug dealer, Taz (Bella Thorne) whose motivations may not be entirely transparent.

Like a stage performance, first-time director Peyfa’s Measure of Revenge can lean a bit toward the histrionic—sudden, jarring discordant tones of the score; dialogue that runs backward when Lillian is having a tough time emotionally; characters literally rending their clothes in grief.

But it’s a clever film, a mystery that isn’t entirely linear with an ending that doesn’t tie itself up in a neat little bow. You gotta work for the resolution and there’s room for debate (and some discussion about how forensic evidence could probably play a greater role in the fate of at least one character).

However, the film may spend too much time on its theatrical gimmick to the detriment of character development. This is especially true of the dead son and those who may have been motivated to do him wrong. 

Academy Award-winner Leo (The Fighter) is magnetic, showing an incredible range—from bubbly anticipatory delight at seeing her son return from a successful rehab stint through to wrathful avenging angel. And along the way, we are treated to snippets of some of the greatest tragic characters of all time—Hester Prynne, Hedda Gabler, Lady Macbeth, and Hamlet’s Ghost among them.

A Slow Slack through China

Striding into the Wind

by Christie Robb

Director Shujun Wei starts this film with a shot of identical white sedans slowly completing a set driving course. The cars follow each other down the established path until one jerks to a stop for a moment before peeling away, erratically weaving in and out of the course until the driver jumps out and runs away.

It’s a metaphor for the protagonist Kun’s (You Zhou) approach to life. A film school student studying to be a sound engineer, Kun takes his dad’s money and invests in a ’97 Jeep despite failing to obtain a license. The film, co-written by Shujun Wei and Gao Linyang, follows Kun as he and the Jeep erratically weave in and out of the life path others attempt to set.

As is the case in other slacker films, it’s clear here what Kun doesn’t want. But it’s unclear if he has anything in the way of a vision for himself and his future. Like a toddler having a tantrum, Kun wants to break what he doesn’t like, but he lacks the ability to envision what would make him happy. So all his flailing around results in quite a bit of self-harm.

Eventually, Kun, his mullet, and his Jeep make their way out of Beijing and out into the countryside of Inner Mongolia for a film shoot, suffering an escalating series of misadventures and indignities along the way.

Very slow in its pacing, the film’s best moments are Shujun Wei’s wry presentation of the Chinese film industry. It serves up amusing caricatures of crew members—the video guys who can’t be quiet enough to capture ambient sound, the needy director requesting reassurance that his aesthetic sensibilities are up to snuff, and the lead actress trying to make sense of vague instructions while rebuffing the advances of her co-workers.

In the end, it’s a solid enough entry in the manchild coming-of-age genre, even if the ending tends toward the bleaker edge of the spectrum.

Totalitarian Noir

Servants

by Christie Robb

Set in 1980s totalitarian Czechoslovakia, director Ivan Ostrochovský’s Servants follows teenage Catholic seminarians at Bratislava Theological Faculty. Here even religious texts are prohibited, banned as a threat to state security.

A real-world association of priests outwardly loyal to the Communist leadership, Pacem in Terris, controls the school and works in tandem with the government to uphold the Communist party line. This forces freethinkers who want full access to religious texts to go underground, exchanging books and meeting in secret.

The film starts with a noir-style drive along a secluded road. Eventually, the car parks under a bridge,  two men emerge, and a body is dumped from the trunk.

One of the men is a priest, the other a State Security operative. Although they claim the dead man was a victim of a hit and run, it’s clear he’s been brutally tortured to death. The rest of the story is told mostly in flashback and relates the events of the previous 143 days.

Servants is a spare film. Shot in black and white, the camera often lingers—the white curl of smoke against a black background, the security operative’s bleak little apartment, overhead God’s Eye shots of the seminary boys playing in the courtyard, or agonizing behind the prison bar-like frames of their bunk beds about whether they should collaborate with the government and become informants or put themselves at risk of becoming targets.

A lot of the lingering shows the routine minutiae of life—eating, bathing, practicing a musical instrument, for example. This is in contrast to the oppressive feel of constant surveillance and possible eruptions of violence.

Combined with a very understated score, this illustrates how normalized the culture of censorship and menace became. But it also makes Servants a little hypnotic. It can be easy to let the mind wander to other things. Other banned reading materials. Other stirrings of authoritarianism.

Dogs and Cats Living Together…

The Wolf and the Lion

by Christie Robb and Emmy Clifton

Gilles de Maistre’s Mia and the White Lion is a stunt. According to RivieraBuzz, it was born out of a conversation between the director and two animal wranglers in which the three realized that there had never been a film featuring a wolf and a lion. So they raised some pups and cubs in front of a camera and developed a script.

The story revolves around Alma, who returns to her family’s private island in rural northern Canada following the death of her only living relative, the grandfather who raised her. After the funeral, a plane carrying a circus-bound lion cub crashes on her property. Luckily for the lion, the grandfather had befriended a mother wolf who is happy to nurse the cub as well as her own pup.

Once the mother wolf is captured by a group of scientists looking to start a breeding program geared toward releasing more wolves into the wild, the fate of the young wolf and lion is debated.

Where do they belong?

To provide a well-rounded perspective of this film, I’ve asked my 8-year-old daughter and animal enthusiast, Emmy, to contribute her thoughts.

Mom says…

I respect the guts of lead actor Molly Kunz. There are many scenes in which she had to get up close and personal with the animals, in some instances picking them up or lying down between them. It’s nuts. Somehow she manages work with the animals while radiating confidence and serenity and looking like a cover model for Faerie Magazine.

Props also need to go to animal coordinator Andrew Simpson and his team for keeping everyone safe.

Serge Desrosiers’s cinematography is glorious. He captures the four seasons of the forest in such sweeping, breathtaking shots that they made me long to book a vacation. The set design for Alma’s lakeside home is peak cottagecore—cozy, romantic, and nostalgic.

The movie, however, seems to suffer from a lack of self-reflection. It explicitly ponders the question of where these animals belong and celebrates the animals’ unlikely friendship amid the wacky circumstances in which it developed (as these two species do not naturally coexist). The use of animals as entertainment in the circus is clearly coded as monstrous.

Alma even gives a big speech to this effect at the end to sum up the film.

Although they love each other like brothers, it’s only because as babies they were deprived of their liberty by human beings…They managed to be happy in spite of us.

Yet…

The filmmakers here deliberately manufactured a situation in which the cubs and pups were raised artificially and made to interact with each other for the entrainment of an audience. How is this functionally different than the circus the movie vilifies?

Pure cognitive dissonance.

The humans really are the weak link in this film. The acting isn’t great and the story is a bit random with logical inconsistencies, stakes that evaporate, and character traits that are dropped suddenly in dialogue because the plot demands it (apparently the lion is afraid of water because…reasons).

Some of this was no doubt caused by script revisions necessitated by what the developing animals were willing to do on camera as well as production delays caused by COVID.

Ultimately, to me, the film was kind of a beautiful mess.

Kid says…

I think it was good, but it was kind of confusing cause some of the timeline of events was unclear.

I liked the fact that it was really realistic and adorable. Watching a wolf and a lion interact was really cute. The wolf reminded me of one of my favorite kinds of dogs—a husky—and the lion reminded me of my cats Tormund and Pumpkin.

Some parts are scary, like when the lion didn’t go into the water and there were guns. But the ending wasn’t devastating.

Mom’s Verdict:

Kid’s Verdict:

Phantom of Felonies

The World We Knew

by Christie Robb

The World We Knew is haunted by the ghost of a better script.

Directors Matthew Benjamin Jones and Luke Skinner have an interesting concept here: six robbers running from a job gone sideways hide out in a haunted house.

The setting is good: creepy, decaying, isolated farmhouse. Arts and Crafts-style wallpaper peels away from rotten plaster. Lights flicker from a generator in need of refueling.

Laurens Scott’s cinematography is effectively eerie. Low camera angles and jump cuts keep us in an ominous holding pattern, gazing into the darkened edges of the frame waiting for things to get creepy.

The acting is good—nothing excessively melodramatic or hammy. All the characters feel lived-in and relate to each other extremely realistically. As Barker, the patriarch of armed robbery, Struan Rodger (the Three-Eyed Raven from Game of Thrones) is especially good when he captivates the others with a story.

But, in the end, the script doesn’t captivate. There’s a missed opportunity to peel back the onion layers of each character’s backstory by way of their conversation. They are all one-note. The kid who can’t shake his first kill. The boxer who killed a dude in a fight. The rat. The dying guy. The old jail-bird. The big bad.

Failing interesting character development, there’s also no suspense with the haunting or the violence. And with the exception of some blood gurgling from an open mouth, not all that much gore either.

It’s a slow slog to a predictable end. But I’d like to see this concept resurrected with better writing.

25 for 2021

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Looking back, what will we remember about the 2021 year in film? Musicals, black and white palettes, smoking, ensembles and impressive debuts are the trends we’ll think of first. But more specifically, we’ll remember these 25 favorites:

1. Licorice Pizza

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is loose, forgiving, and along for the ride as 15-year-old entrepreneur Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) woos life, Hollywood and, in particular, Alana Kane (Alana Haim), his much older paramour.

Danger edges but never fully punctures the sunshine of youth that brightens every scene of the movie. But that darkness is there, looming like the creepy guy staring at your office window, or the cops who arrest you mistakenly, or the volatile Hollywood producer who may or may not smash your window (or your head) in with a crowbar. (Thank you, Bradley Cooper, by the way, for that brief but unforgettable performance.)

It’s nostalgic. It’s uproarious, dangerous, just-this-side-of-innocent fun. It’s a near-masterpiece.

2. The Power of the Dog

Even if you haven’t read the celebrated source novel by Thomas Savage, director Jane Campion’s adaptation unfolds with enough subtle poetry to convince you that it must be a wonderful read. Onscreen, the Oscar-winning Campion (The Piano) contrasts the vast majesty of the American West (kudos to cinematographer Ari Wegner) with delicate details that shift the nature of love, trust and strength within a family.

Kodi Smit-McFee, Jesse Plemmons, Kirstin Dunst and a particularly brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch bring her story to life. The Power of the Dog finds its own power in what it shows but never truly tells. It’s a film that is hauntingly lyrical and masterfully assembled, with a beauty that lingers like an echo in the Montana wilderness.

3. The Tragedy of Macbeth

Coen brother Joel delivers a vision that’s both decidedly theatrical and profoundly cinematic with his solo directorial effort. Filmed in Bergman-esque black and white to glorious ends, Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand play the Lord and his Lady and this, friends, is a dream team. Two of the most celebrated and talented actors of modern cinema square off, and the veterans give an inconic relationship a depth that tinges the eventual madness with touching grief.

A uniformly brilliant ensemble (kudos in particular to Kathryn Hunter’s inspired turn as the witches) gives this dreamy take on the Bard its life.

Coen’s venture into Shakespeare, though it strips away the humor and quirk you may associate with Coen Brother filmmaking, stands as a strikingly Coen film. And that has never one time been a bad thing.

4. Summer of Soul

According to director Amir “Questlove” Thompson, the first time he saw some of the digitized footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival concerts, he nearly wept.

You might, too.

From the gospel of Mahalia Jackson to the blues of B.B. King, from the 5th Dimension’s smooth pop to Sly Stone’s psychedelic funk, the musical styles blend gloriously in the summer sun and the goosebump moments mount. But even more impressive than Thompson’s musical direction is the way he frames the entire festival through a deeply effective context of time, place, and population.

5. West Side Story

Right from the opening minutes, Steven Spielberg’s camera seamlessly ebbs and flows along with the street-roaming Sharks and Jets. From one musical set-piece to the next, Spielberg’s touch is smoothly precise, starting wide to capture the breadth of Justin Peck’s homage to Jerome Robbins’s iconic choreography, zooming in for intimacy, and then above the dancers and rumblers for gorgeous aerials set with pristine light and shadow.

It just looks freaking fantastic.

And in bringing his own vision to a classic story, Spielberg gently adds a perspective that makes Tony and Maria’s quest soar with a renewed, more universal vitality.

Just like most everything else in this West Side Story.

Christie Robb’s favorite film of 2021: Luca

Pixar/Disney’s Luca fosters self-acceptance and bravery in kids who were in the process of transitioning back to in-person school.

6. Flee

Like so many other headlines of numbing enormity that we regularly scroll past, stories of the worldwide refugee crisis rarely come with an intimacy that makes the stakes feel palpable. Flee brings an animated face to the discussion, using one man’s incredible story to re-frame the issue with soul-stirring humanity.

Using that man’s actual voice in the conversations with director Jonas Poher Rasmussen adds startling depth to the reenacted memories, and as our childlike comfort with animated scenes clashes with the uncomfortable scenes depicted, Flee‘s bracing resonance only intensifies.

7. Nightmare Alley

What director Guillermo Del Toro brings to this remake of a 1947 noir classic, besides a breathtaking cast and an elegantly gruesome aesthetic, is his gift for humanizing the unseemly. As usual, Del Toro wears his feelings proudly on his sleeve, with unmistakable but organic foreshadowing that ups the ante on the stakes involved. Anchored by another sterling performance from Bradley Cooper as Stan, the journey rises to biblical proportions. An actor whose gifts are often deceptively subtle, Cooper makes sure Stan’s pride always arrives with a layer of charming sympathy, even as it blinds him to the pitfalls ahead.

For Del Toro fans, the most surprising aspect of Nightmare Alley might be the lack of hopeful wonder that has driven most of his films. As the title suggests, this is a trip to the dark corners of the soul, where hope is in damn short supply. As much as this looks like a Del Toro film, it feels like a flex just from taking his vision to the sordid part of town. But what a vision it turns out to be – one of the year’s best and one of his best.

8. Drive My Car

Adapting a short story into a three-hour class on screenwriting, writer/director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi turns a seemingly simple premise – a visiting theater director begrudgingly accepts a chauffer from festival organizers – into a sprawling study of the human soul.

As secrets are revealed and burdens lifted, Drive My Car becomes a soaring testament to grief, forgiveness, moving on and the unending lure of a fine automobile.

9. Riders of Justice

Men will single-handedly gun down an entire biker gang rather than go to therapy. That’s the premise from prolific writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen, as he reunites with Mads Mikkelsen in this dark comic revenge fantasy.

But Jensen isn’t nearly as interested in the physical mayhem as the emotional wreckage his oddball characters are all coping with. Riders of Justice treats its characters with such forgiving empathy that it’s easy to forget that the group is also almost certainly responsible for the most murders in Denmark since the Vikings.

Matt Weiner’s favorite film of 2021: Riders of Justice

It’s the feel-good Christmas comedy that brings the whole family together with good cheer, redemption, philosophical detours on the meaning of life and a body count that puts Die Hard to shame.

10. Wild Indian

As angry a movie as you’re likely to see, Wild Indian pushes you to hope compassion and tenderness come to the most unlikeable man onscreen.

Writer/director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. refuses to lean on stereotypes that would make the central performance more comfortable viewing. Makwa (a stunning Michael Greyeyes) is neither victim nor noble wiseman. Not entirely a villain, he’s nonetheless ill-suited as antihero or, God forbid, hero. He’s a survivor bound up in his own guilt and shame, taking advantage of whatever he can and hating himself and everyone around him because of it.

It’s a desolate world Corbine Jr. creates, but no less remarkable for its bleakness. A character study unlike anything else on screen this year, Wild Indian gives longtime character actor Greyeyes the opportunity to command the screen and he more than rises to the occasion.

11. Pig

This touching film—a tale of love, loss, authenticity and a good meal— is essentially the anti-John Wick. And we are better for it.

Nicolas Cage is almost always the center of attention in every film he’s in. It’s tough to look away from him because you’re afraid you’ll miss some insane grimace or wild gesture, but also because filmmakers love him and never pull away. Here, co-writer/director Michael Sarnoski asks you to wait for it. He gives Cage time to pause, breathe, and deliver his most authentic performance in ages.

Brandon Thomas’s favorite film of 2021: Pig

Pig is a beautiful commentary on grief while also serving as a reminder that Nicolas Cage never stopped being one of our finest actors.

12. Passing

Making her feature debut behind the camera, Rebecca Hall adapts Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel about women unable to find a place to truly belong. Hall mines Larsen’s insight and longing to produce a visually stunning, melancholy period piece.

The languid beauty and comment on class play like a more delicate take on Gatsby, Hall subtly drawing attention not only to the racial divide but to the socioeconomic divide within Irene’s (Tessa Thompson) home and life. Never showy, never heavy-handed, the film’s themes prick at the audience just as they slowly, cumulatively wound Irene.

Thompson delivers an introspective performance unlike anything thus far in her impressive career. Likewise, Ruth Negga is superb as Irene’s friend/nemesis Clare, just incandescent and haunting as a damaged, elegant survivor.

13. Belfast

Belfast is a man’s reminiscence of his own childhood, informed by the movies and songs that bleed together with memory and saturated in the wonder of youth.

Director Kenneth Branagh has yet to make a film with such precise visual purpose or style. Every black and white frame, every movement or lack of movement from the camera carries the vision of the film. 

It is sentimental. It is nostalgic. It is unapologetically sincere. But by taking the perspective of a 9-year-old boy (a magnificent Jude Hill) trying to make sense of a suddenly and profoundly confusing and frightening world, the film gets away with it.

14. The Green Knight

Lutes and mead, chainmail and sorcery—director David Lowery’s Camelot is just as rockin’ as ever in his trippy coming-of-age style The Green Knight. The story itself may be more than 700 years old, but credit Lowery, who adapted the old ballad for the screen, with finding fresh intrigue in the old bones. He’s slippery with symbolism and draws wonderful performances from the ensemble.

His visual storytelling has always been his greatest strength as a director and this tale encourages his most fanciful and hypnotic style to date. The Green Knight is gorgeous. The color and framing are pure visual poetry. Together with a never-better Dev Patel and an exceptional ensemble, Lowery’s created a magical realm where you believe anything could happen.

Cat McAlpine’s favorite film of 2021: The Green Knight

The Green Knight is a visual spectacle that matches the scale of journeying within oneself, masterfully portrayed by a wide-eyed and constantly wet Dev Patel.

15. C’mon C’mon

A man’s changing relationship with his young nephew mirrors his deepening bond with his estranged sister. That man, Johnny, is played by Joaquin Phoenix, particularly endearing in this film. Nine-year-old Woody Norman soars as the nephew, his chemistry with Phoenix couldn’t be more charming or genuine. Gaby Hoffmann is wonderful as well as Norman’s mom, Johnny’s sister Viv.

C’mon C’mon wraps the messy, awkward, disappointing realities of being human in a blanket of hope. As cloying as that sounds, the film is so sincere it’s hard to deny its warmth.

16. The Lost Daughter

Unnerving intimacy marks Maggie Gyllenhaal’s debut as a feature director. Luckily for all of us, Gyllenhaal’s uniformly subline cast meets the challenge.

Adapting Elena Ferrante’s novel, Gyllenhaal challenges romantic preconceptions about motherhood (sometimes quite bitingly, thanks to lines delivered with acidic precision by the remarkable Olivia Colman). The film acknowledges what is given up, what is lost, when you essentially transfer ownership of yourself—your time, your attention, your future—to someone else, to your children. The theme is deeply and honestly felt, and that, too, is unnerving.

17. The Humans

Two of 2021’s most prominent film themes – impressive debuts and stellar ensembles – come together in rookie writer/director Stephen Karam’s The Humans.

Adapting his own stage play, Karam displays wonderful instincts for how his story of a family reunion could move from stage to screen with relevant new layers. Buoyed by a first-rate cast including Richard Jenkins, Steven Yeun, Amy Schumer, Beanie Feldstein and Jayne Houdyshell, The Humans slowly revels itself as a domestic horror show, with familiar tensions and deep-seeded fears becoming more frightful than anything going bump in the night.

18. The Worst Person in the World

Led by a revelatory performance from Renate Reinsve, the latest from Norwegian writer/director Joachim Trier effectively fuses coming-of-age sensibilities and romantic drama.

As one woman navigates what she wants in a career, in a relationship, and ultimately what she wants out of life, Trier crafts small, indelible moments that bind together for a refreshingly honest look at how, as John Lennon once said, life happens when you’re busy making other plans.

19. Zola

Is it surprising that movies are now born from Twitter threads? Maybe, for a minute. But you’ll find good stories on Twitter, and with Zola, director/co-writer Janicza Bravo tells a ferociously good story, even if some of it may not be exactly true.

Bravo, Taylor Paige and Riley Keough (with solid support from Colman Domingo, Nick Braun and Jason Mitchell) all bring indelible talent to Zola, and the sheer buzz of this wild ride becomes irresistible.

Is it truth? Fiction? A bit of both?

It matters only in that it doesn’t matter at all. Because whatever truth still exists in the digital age, Zola speaks it.

Rachel Willis’s favorite film of 2021: Adventures of a Mathematician

Adventures of a Mathematician offers devastating insight into why some of the world’s most brilliant scientists lent their skills to the creation of the deadliest weapons in history.

20. Spider-Man: No Way Home

This third installment of Jon Watts’s Spidey franchise showcases the naïve optimism and youthful sweetness that has made his first two episodes such a great time, that are so perfectly embodied by star Tom Holland.

Rather than feeling like those Marvel overreaches in defining their own universe, No Way Home uses the opportunity of pulling in other movies to celebrate the hero, his roots, and what he stands for as an icon of comics, heroes, and childhoods the ‘verse over.

Oh, sure, it’s nostalgic. It panders. It also spills over with joy.

21. Spencer

The opening credits of Spencer include a declaration that the film is “a fable from a true tragedy.” Indeed, this look at the final weekend in the marriage of Princess Diana and Prince Charles is draped in sadness and longing, but it’s one that uses what you already know about its subject to its advantage, completely enveloping you in an otherworldly existence.

If you haven’t been keeping up with Kristin Stewart’s string of fine performances since the Twilight films, don’t be surprised when she starts collecting the award nominations this performance richly deserves.

Filmmaker Pablo Larrain chooses the word “fable” at the start for a reason. This film is no fairy tale, but Larraín’s committed vision and an achingly poetic turn from Stewart make Spencer a completely fascinating two hours of story time.

22. Saint Maud

Maud (an astonishing Morfydd Clark) has some undefined blood and shame in her recent past. But she survived it, and she knows God saved her for a reason. She’s still working out what that reason is when she meets Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a former choreographer now crumbling beneath lymphoma. Maud cannot save Amanda’s body, but because of just the right signs from Amanda, she is determined to save her soul.

As a horror film, Saint Maud is a slow burn. First-time writer/director Rose Glass and crew repay you for your patience, though, with a smart film that believes in its audience. Her film treads the earth between mental illness and religious fervor, but its sights are on the horror of the broken-hearted and lonesome.

23. Candyman

This new Candyman is the most delicious brand of horror sequel. Thanks to the startling vision of director/co-writer Nia DaCosta, it is a film that honors its roots but lives so vibrantly in the now that it makes you view the 1992 original from an urgent new angle.

DaCosta’s savvy storytelling is angry without being self-righteous. Great horror often holds a mirror to society, and DaCosta works mirrors into nearly every single scene in the film. Her grasp of the visual here is stunning—macabre, horrifying, and elegant. She takes cues from the art world her tale populates, unveiling truly artful bloodletting and framing sequences with grotesque but undeniable beauty. It’s hard to believe this is only her second feature.

By the time a brilliant coda of sadly familiar shadow puppet stories runs alongside the closing credits, there’s more than enough reason for horror fans to rejoice and…#telleveryone.

24. The Last Duel

This is a brooding, brutal, violent and sexually violent film, one that utilizes a Rashomon-style narrative to frame an often debated moment in history around a centuries-old struggle that continues today.

Director Ridley Scott presents the tale with exceptional craftsmanship and spectacle, getting big assists from Dariusz Wolski’s gritty, expansive cinematography and Michael Fentum’s detailed sound design. Scott’s remarkable cast — Jodie Comer, Adam Driver, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck — digs in to these old ideas to find startling relevance.

The Last Duel aims for more than just a gripping history lesson. It’s ultimately able to use that history to remind us that the way society treats women generally – and women’s sexuality specifically – has changed little since the freaking Middle Ages. 

25. No Time to Die

Opening with a tense and expansive 26-minute prologue, Cary Joji Fukunaga unveils thrilling set-pieces and gorgeous visuals that beg for a big-screen experience. Aided mightily by a soaring, throwback score from Hans Zimmer, Fukunaga infuses Daniel Craig’s final Bond film with a respectful sense of history while it marches unafraid into the future.

The one-liners, callbacks and gags (like Q’s multi-piece tea set) are well-placed and restrained, never undercutting the nearly three-hour mission Fukunaga clearly approached with reverence.

Where does James Bond go from here? Hard to say, but this 007 doesn’t care. Five films in 15 years have changed the character and the franchise for the better, and No Time to Die closes this chapter with requisite spectacle and fitting emotion.

Daniel “Schlocketeer” Baldwin’s favorite film of 2021: No Time to Die

No Time to Die is a fantastic action adventure epic, a pitch-perfect ending to the Daniel Craig era of James Bond and a wonderful modern encapsulation of the writings of Ian Fleming.

Almost Made It:

Lamb

Beta Test

The Harder They Fall

Mass

Shiva Baby

CODA