Tag Archives: film reviews

Royal Scam

The King’s Daughter

by George Wolf

If The King’s Daughter seems like an uninspired title, keep it mind it does roll off the tongue a bit better than “Just Release It in January and Get It Off the Books Already!”

Because after nearly seven years in limbo, the film’s arrival has the distinct smell of rushed opportunism in a very quiet week of openers.

Vonda McIntyre’s source novel “The Moon and the Sun” beat out George R.R. Martin’s “A Games of Thrones” for the Nebula Award (best science fiction/fantasy novel) in 1997, and a film adaptation was set to begin two years later. But years of studio and cast changes pushed filming to 2014, only to have the planned 2015 release pulled at the last minute for vague reasons about more time for special effects work.

Well, whoever’s been working on these effects for the last several years should be arrested for stealing, right alongside those responsible for turning a thoughtful sci-fi allegory into a weak-sauced YA reimagining of The Princess Diaries.

Yes, that is the voice of Julie Andrews, narrating the picture book introduction to the story of young Marie-Josephe (Kaya Scodelario), a talented musician who’s living in a convent unaware that she’s really the daughter of King Louis XIV of France (Pierce Brosnan).

Then, under the guise of needing a new royal composer, Dad summons Marie to where there’s a makeover waiting, along with the promise of an arranged marriage to a man Marie doesn’t love (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), adventure with a swashbuckling sailor she does (Benjamin Walker), and a heartless plan to cut the life force from a captured mermaid (Bingbing Fan under some terrible CGI) so it can make the king immortal.

Director Sean McNamara (Soul Surfer) and veteran screenwriter Ronald Bass (Rain Man, The Joy Luck Club, Waiting to Exhale) paint it all with the broadest of brushes and an impatient, illogical pace that begs you not to think much at all.

Scodelario is a charismatic presence, both Brosnan and William Hurt (as the Court’s High Priest) seem to enjoy elevating the material, and some of the interior set pieces are lovely and lavishly presented. So what gives with the outdoors? What action there is boasts all the authenticity of a live-action theme park show and some not-nearly-ready-for-prime-time underwater effects.

But hey, Scodelario and Walker met while filming, and now they’re married with two kids! So take it away legendary Julie Andrews:

“And they live happily ever after….”

Like Red But Not Quite

The Pink Cloud

by George Wolf

Want to know tomorrow’s lottery numbers today? Check in with filmmaker Iuli Gerbase, because if The Pink Cloud (A Nuvem Rosa) is any indication, she’s got a window to the future.

And the first of many fascinating aspects in the film comes right up front, when a disclaimer lets you know that Gerbase wrote the script for her debut feature in 2017, filming it two years later.

The timeline may not seem like much at first, but soon you’re wondering how your perception of the film might change if that disclaimer was placed at the end, or perhaps not even placed at all.

Giovana (Renata de Lélis) and Yago (Eduardo Mendonça) are a Brazilian couple waking up on a terrace after what appears to be a one-night stand when a government warning orders them inside. There’s a strange pink cloud in the sky, and it’s lethal after just ten seconds of exposure.

Welcome to a new world of quarantine.

Except in 2022 that premise is anything but new, which instantly gives the film an ironic prescience that’s just as likely to attract an audience as it is to repel it.

As the days of lockdown turn to weeks and then to years, Gerbase crafts a quietly unsettling clash of the complex intimacies seen in The Woman in the Dunes and Room with a more universal rumination on how the seams of a population react to forced isolation.

And while our shared experience the last two years will reveal some of Gerbase’s internal logic to be a bit unsteady, she hits an eerie amount of bulls-eyes, including one bit of dialog that lands as much more of a reveal than Gerbase could have possibly imagined.

On a video chat with Giovana, a desperate friend tearfully pleads for any salvation from the crippling loneliness, leading the film to a Twilight Zone moment that dramatically re-frames the arrogance driving one of today’s biggest flashpoint issues.

Lélis and Mendonça both deliver wonderfully insightful performances, as their characters try their best to make a go of a relationship never meant to be long term. The cloud works on Giovana and Yago in different ways, leading to some extreme measures as they drift away from each other and then slowly back again.

Disclaimers aside, The Pink Cloud is an absorbing peek inside the delusions that hide our frailties. But viewing it through the lens of our recent history reveals a filmmaker finely tuned to human nature who should command more attention in the future.

And Scream Again

Scream

by Hope Madden

A quarter-century ago, horror master Wes Craven reinvented his genre of choice—again—with a savvy, funny, scary murder mystery. Scream was an inside-out spoof of the genre, a clever dissection of the tropes and cliches wrapped up in a celebration of those same elements.

It was not our first meta-movie, but it was the first movie to refer to itself as such.

Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (Ready or Not) return to Woodsboro for the franchise’s fifth installment. This go-round comments blisteringly (and entertainingly) not just on horror, but on the post-internet realities of cinema in general.

They really have a good time with that.

Tara Carpenter (the first of maybe 300 horror name drops), played by a remarkable Jenna Ortega, is home alone when she receives a threatening phone call. She doesn’t want to talk about slashers, though. She’d rather discuss “elevated horror.”

That’s an in-joke, one of dozens, each landing but none taking away from the larger story. In that one, Tara’s older sister Sam (Melissa Barrera, In the Heights) returns to Woodsboro upon hearing of Tara’s attack. She follows advice from someone who would know and assembles Tara’s close-knit ring of friends to suss out suspects.

But to really anchor these newfangled reboot/sequels (or, in the parlance of another inside gag, “requels”), Gillett and Bettinelli-Olpin will need some familiar faces. Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox and David Arquette are three excellent reasons to see the new Scream, a film that is both a fan of the franchise and a cynic of fandom.

The young cast excels as well—Dylan Minnette and Jasmin Savoy Brown, in particular. In fact, Barrera in the central role is the only real weak spot. As was the case in In the Heights, she poses more than acts, a flaw that’s never more obvious than when she shares the screen with the noticeably more talented Ortega.

The filmmakers, along with writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, fill scenes with nostalgia too cheeky to be simple fan service. Their clear affection for the franchise (a surprisingly strong set of films, as horror series go) is evident and infectious.

You do not have to know the 1996 original or any of its sequels to enjoy Scream. It’s a standalone blast. But if you grew up on these movies, this film is like a bloody message of love for you.

Life Is a Highway

Drive My Car

by George Wolf

Adapting a short story into the three-hour class on storytelling that is Drive My Car (Doraibu mai kâ), writer/director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi turns a seemingly simple premise – a visiting theater director begrudgingly accepts a chauffeur from festival organizers – into a sprawling study of the human soul.

The key word here is seemingly, because there is nothing simple about the way Hamaguchi structures a screenplay.

Yasuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is a Japanese stage actor and director who shares an unusual method of creative inspiration with his playwright wife Oto (Reika Kirishima). But just when you think this is a film about their complex relationship, it’s not.

Jumping ahead two years after a sudden tragedy, Kafuku travels to a Hiroshima theater festival to direct an adaptation of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. Though he cherishes thinking through his projects alone in the car during long commutes, Kafuku is forced to accept a chauffeur during his time in Hiroshima.

Casting and rehearsals get underway, and Kafuku’s art begins to imitate his life, and vice-versa. Just as one of his star actors gradually reveals long held feelings for Oto, Kafuku slowly learn to trust his driver Misaki (Tôko Miura), a stoic young woman with a complex past of her own.

Hamaguchi’s resume includes both four hour and five-hour films, and he has become a master at layering long form narratives so skillfully that there isn’t one minute that seems self-indulgent, or the slightest of human interaction that doesn’t weigh heavy with meaning.

The performances from Nishijima and Miura are equally understated and affecting. They peel away their characters’ defenses with a deep sense of purpose, cementing Hamaguchi’s use of those long drives as a metaphorical journey.

As secrets are revealed and burdens lifted, Drive My Car becomes a soaring treatise on grief and trauma, of forgiveness and moving on.

Not to mention the unending lure of a fine automobile.

Face of the Nation

France

by George Wolf

France is the setting for this movie called France about a woman named France. So, subtle it’s not. But the latest from writer/director Bruno Dumont does manage to deliver some stylish eye candy with a fluffy middle that tastes plenty familiar.

Léa Seydoux is mesmerizing as France de Meurs, a celebrity journalist and host of “A View of the World,” one of the most popular talk shows in all of France. She’s juggling fame, her career, and family life with a blasé attitude about it all.

Her home life seems to bore her, the fame is satisfying only when it feeds her ego, and the integrity of her profession never seems to cross her mind. But a sudden traffic accident delivers the overdue wake-up call, and France begins to question if the person she’s become is the person she wants to be.

In the opening minutes, when some nifty editing has France asking pointed questions during an actual press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron, Dumont sets the stage for an over-the-top satire that never emerges.

Instead, it settles into a very repetitive, 133-minute groove that questions the increasingly blurry line between news and entertainment. But as France continually stages her pre-recorded reports, you realize the breezy nature of the opening has given way to an overwrought narrative that spends 30 minutes belaboring a point that Broadcast News made in 5.

Dumont is clearly speaking to his homeland first, though the message will be instantly relatable to U.S. audiences. It’s the film’s tone that becomes more curious in translation.

Seydoux is almost enough to forgive it all, with Dumont making sure his lens loves her as much as the TV cameras love France herself. And while that might not seem a difficult task when the luminous Seydoux is involved, it’s a crucial element that goes a long way toward helping the film resonate as much it does.

Women of the World

The 355

by George Wolf

Apparently, Jessica Chastain pitched the idea of an all-female Bond/Bourne hybrid to director Simon Kinberg while they were making Dark Phoenix together.

Now three years later The 355 is here, and while it’s more memorable than their X-Men installment, the project can never give the duo’s ambitious vision its own identity.

Chastain is “Mace,” a CIA agent sent to Paris with her partner (and maybe more?) Nick (Sebastian Stan). The job is to get their hands on a new cyber weapon that serves as an untraceable master key – and instant entry into any closed system on the planet.

But surprise, Mace and Nick aren’t the only agents hot for that drive, so after 45 minutes of chases and exposition, Germany’s Maria (Diane Kruger), MI6’s Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o) and Columbia’s Graciela (Penelope Cruz) agree to team up and fight for the future. Then after another 15 minutes or so, China’s Lin Mi Sheng (Bingbing Fan) joins the world party.

Actually, Gracie’s a reluctant guest, as she’s really a psychologist and not trained for combat. So while her secret agent sisters do get to be the impressive badasses, it’s Cruz who brings the film some welcome fish-out-of-water levity.

Kinberg, who also co-wrote the script, pushes all the buttons you’d expect from a mixtape full of Bond’s high-style sexy, Bourne’s lethal brooding, and some Danny Ocean misdirection. And most of it – from Chastain in this role to the cybercrime stakes to the moments of telegraphed action and even the girl power makeover – feels pretty familiar, and that familiarity breeds discontent with the two-hour run time.

Events finally escalate in the third act, and as the globe-trotting and the double-crosses mount, Kinberg does deliver one nicely orchestrated set-piece that truly grabs your attention with tension and bloodshed.

Is it enough to merit that next adventure the finale hints at? Not really, but it’s just enough to make one three-year-old conversation worthwhile.

Holding Out

A Hero

by George Wolf

If you’re familiar with Asghar Farhadi films such as The Past, A Separation and The Salesman, you already know what to expect from his latest. The Iranian writer/director’s calling card has become the intimate drama of complex moralities and lasting impact, wonderfully layered stories that probe the societal strife of his homeland while ultimately revealing universal insight.

Farhadi does not disappoint with A Hero (Ghahreman), a film that finds him questioning the increasingly blurred lines of truth and perception.

When we first meet Rahim (Amir Jadidi), he is coming home on a two-day leave from prison. Locked up for failing to repay a debt, Rahim is hoping to use his brief amnesty to talk his creditor into withdrawing the complaint in exchange for partial payment.

It doesn’t look promising, until Rahim finds a lost handbag full of gold coins – and returns it instead of selling the coins to pay his debt.

Suddenly, Rahim is a hero. But today’s hero is tomorrow’s milkshake duck, and it isn’t long before distrust of Rahim’s story begins to threaten the promise of freedom and a new job.

Is resisting temptation even worthy of such celebration, and how far will Rahim go to retain his perceived nobility? Is it possible to recognize the moment when the best of intentions can no longer justify a possible deception? Is “the truth” even a realistic goal in the social media age of constantly manipulated realities?

Jadidi crafts Amir with a deeply sympathetic balance of earnestness and suspicion, and the terrific ensemble cast helps cement a sharp morality play that often crackles with the tension of a thriller. Farhadi seems more than comfortable moving further from his stage roots than ever, illuminating Amir’s journey with a realism that patiently waits until the final shot to get showy.

Farhadi makes sure that separating the good guys from the bad guys won’t be easy. The moral high ground of A Hero is constantly shifting, which proves to be the perfect anchor for a gifted filmmaker’s latest examination of modern life’s often messy ambiguities.

TOGETHER AGAIN

American Siege

by George Wolf

American Siege is already the fourth film that writer and/or director Edward Drake has done with Bruce Willis in just the past two years.

And if you’ve seen any of these projects (Breach, Apex, Cosmic Sin), you know the business model: give Willis a limited role he can shoot in a day while you fill the running time with limp action, painful performances and hackneyed dialog. It’s an assembly-line approach that gets cheers for efficiency, but jeers for quality control.

This time out, Willis is Ben Watts, a former NYC cop enjoying the quiet life as a sheriff in smalltown Georgia. But his lazy days canoodling with his deputy (a Janet Jones sighting for the first time in nearly ten years) are interrupted by a hostage situation.

A small gang of baddies has taken the town doctor (Cullen G. Chambers) hostage, and they have an unusual request: reopen the case of a local woman’s disappearance, or else.

Okay, give Drake credit for a somewhat interesting setup, but it’s one that quickly gets buried under ridiculous plot turns, lazy execution and heavy-handed declarations.

The town is run by one of those Ben-Gazarra-Road House guys (Timothy V. Murphy) who can can summon a goon squad at a moment’s notice. And this one does, because there are secrets in the good doctor’s place that must be protected.

We know this because of the warning Doc gives his captors about opening that household vault with a door right out of Ocean’s Eleven.

“Some things can’t be unseen!’

But don’t be too concerned with the doctor’s realization that “I’ve already said too much!” He’ll be blurting out Not Ben Gazarra’s evil plan in no time, while making sure to blame the entire bloody mess on “coastal elites.”

Mess is right. Even the shoot-em-up payoff is lackluster, while the film’s prevailing worldview is simplistic and pandering, and the ensemble’s forced emoting makes Willis’s latest sleepwalk feel like Daniel Day-Lewis.

But, after about 90 minutes, just remember Drake and Willis already have two more of these gems in post-production, so one of them has to be better than American Siege.

Right?

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

Glass Half Empty

The Tender Bar

by George Wolf

Look past the tabloid fodder and you’ll see that onscreen, Ben Affleck is having a fine second act. Last year’s impressive turn in The Way Back showed him more than comfortable in his older skin, and his standout support in The Last Duel is generating some Oscar buzz for this year’s best supporting actor race.

This focus on substance over leading man style is a smart one, but while Affleck digs into his pivotal role in The Tender Bar, the film itself struggles to find anything truly relevant to say.

Based on J.R. Moehringer best-selling memoir, it’s an account of his journey from a poor, dysfunctional household to a Yale education and a career in writing. Guided by voiceover narration from adult JR (Ron Livingston), we’re introduced to little JR (Daniel Ranieri) when he and his mother (Lily Rabe) are moving back into the Manhasset, New York home of Grandpa (Christopher Lloyd), Grandma (Sondra James) and Uncle Charlie (Affleck).

JR’s violent, alcoholic father (Max Martini) is a radio deejay who’s rarely around, so 11 year-old JR looks to Uncle Charlie as a role model, often soaking up life lessons found at “The Dickens,” the Long Island bar where Charlie works. Young adult JR (Tye Sheridan) continues the barstool education until it’s time for the Ivy League, new friends, and a hard-to-really-get new girlfriend (Briana Middleton).

Director George Clooney and screenwriter William Monahan craft a respectful and well-meaning adaptation, but it’s sadly lacking any hint of why they found the source material so moving. From Charlie’s advice to JR’s awakenings, the messages are broadly drawn, well worn and self-satisfied, too generic for even the Oscar-winning Monahan (The Departed) to polish into inspirational shape.

And where is the eye for vibrant period detail that helped bring Clooney that well-deserved directing nomination for Good Night and Good Luck? Here, soundtrack choices and costume design blur the stated timeline, while the young actor playing JR at 11 looks closer to 8 and shockingly unlike Sheridan. Even the “golden voice” we’re told that JR’s deejay dad possesses never materializes when he finally speaks.

A film such as this needs authenticity to resonate, but this true story never feels like one, and the chance for us to really connect with JR is derailed at multiple turns. While Affleck adds another fine showing to his current winning streak, there’s not much else in The Tender Bar to convince you the book was worth a big screen adaptation at all.