This seems like one of the best years for movies in quite a while. Big epic’s like “Flower Moon” and “Oppenheimer,” and quirky art films like “American Fiction” and “Poor Things.” Watch them all, even if you missed them on the appropriate big screen.
- American Fiction – Dir. Cord Jefferson (Jeffrey Wright, Erika Alexander)
There hasn’t been a comedy quite this brutally funny and politically audacious film in many years. The story is relentless in its ironically non-PC commentary on the state of the literary world, pop culture, and academic elitism. But what makes it a truly great film is the way that first time director Cord Jefferson uses Jeffrey Wright’s perfectly nuanced performance as a “too white” black man, to have an honest almost upside down conversation about race in America.
The wonderfully absurdist plot, which meanders unpredictability right up until the very last scene, is so dialed into modern media that you forget how wokeness has made bold comedies like this almost impossible to pull off anymore. But at its core, the film is also really about familial dysfunction, love, and forgiveness. This is easily the best comedy of the year, in a time when it seems that only serious films garner critical attention.
- Past Lives – Dir. Celine Song (Greta Lee, John Magaro, Teo Yoo)
There is a patience to “Past Lives” that almost mirrors the story that it sets out to tell. Is there such a thing as a soul mate? Is it a random coincidence how we end up with the people that we fall in love with? Is it bound up In-Yun (past lives) or something more pedestrian like basic time and place? I don’t suppose we’ll ever know the answer AND it’s also possible that some of these factors might be true for some people some of the time?
Either way, Celine Song has created a minor masterpiece filled with nuance and heart. She effortlessly explores ideas like where is home, what is love, and are memories real or imagined constructs of the past. Under the weight of these universal themes, “Past Lives” could have been overly sentimental and spiritual but instead Greta Lee and her two loves take us down a path of self-exploration towards a wonderfully satisfying meditation on love.
- Oppenheimer – Dir. Christopher Nolan (Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt)
This larger than life story about Dr. Oppenheimer and his voyage to create the atomic bomb is a masterpiece at the scale we’ve come to expect from Christopher Nolan. From the flowering of his genius at a variety of beautifully captured college campuses to the scale and desolate expansiveness of the New Mexico desert where the machine was created, there is a speed and precision both in the filmmaking and the mind of Oppenheimer that blends seamlessly.
Cillian Murphy (Oppenheimer) delivers a performance so nuanced that we get to evaluate the man so filled with brilliance and internal conflict that judgment is hard to decipher. This film, like the man, is so complex and accomplished it will go down as one of the finest bio-pics of all time.
- Killers of a Flower Moon – Dir. Martin Scorsese (Robert DeNiro, Leonardo DiCaprio)
Although the scale and scope of this film are on par with many of his best films, Scorsese has managed to make a film that highlights a lesser known piece of tragic American history without the more typical bias and personal experience of his more typical gangster films. The Western landscapes and flat overcast weight of the location itself helps with the weight of the subject matter.
For people that never really knew much about the Osage Indians and the oil that happened to be under the soil that they were relegated to, this is a fascinating piece of modern history. But mostly this film is a character of two men, the complicated or not so complicated character played by DiCaprio who is either complicit or too daft to really understand what he is caught up in, and the sinister old white man who is trying to take back the small fortune the Osage were lucky enough to inherit. At 3+ hours, this is a film that deserves a big screen or the kind of discipline to watch it all at once, getting into the rhythm and suffering of the story.
- The Holdovers Dir. Alexander Payne (Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph)
Cut from the same cloth as the best boarding school films (Dead Poets Society, School Ties) Alexander Payne’s retro classic drops Giamatti onto familiar ground (he went to Choate) playing a grumpy history teacher stuck taking care of a handful of strangers over Christmas break. Shot at Deerfield, Groton, Northfield Mount Hermon, and a few other schools, during the bleak winter, the film captures the beauty and privilege, as well as the loneliness of prep school perfectly.
All of the characters are wounded, suffering through loss and rejection, what might have been predictable and cliche, is actually a wonderful study in healing and unlikely friendship. This is a truly great film that will no doubt endure for decades.
- Anatomy of a Fall – Dir. Justine Triet (Swann Arlaud, Sandra Huller)
A man falls out of a window on the third floor of an A Frame house in the snowy French mountains where he lives with his German author wife and young blind son. Exactly what happened? Was it an accident or a suicide or perhaps he was pushed? Over the course of the next two hours the detectives assigned to the case will methodically and patiently try to unravel the ball of thread.
Of course because this is decidedly not a Hollywood film, there is no explicit need for a happy ending or a definitive answer to the many questions. As the details come together and we are able to pull back and see the whole picture, what once seemed clear becomes blurry and the blurrier details become crystal clear. This is a beautifully shot and complex film where it is easy to lose yourself.
- Saltburn – Emerald Fennell (Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elodi)
I saw this film in the theater based almost entirely on my love of Fennell’s debut “Promising Young Woman.” But a few weeks later after little fanfare except for my own, it showed up for free on Amazon and became a sleeper hit. Not surprisingly it shares a truly depraved psychology with star Jacob Elordi’s other hit “Euphoria.”
Compared in some ways to a modern “Brideshead Revisited,” the film is really that age old take on youthful ambition and the dark jealousy that comes when looking at people with old family money. Slick and artfully designed, the diabolical plot helps balance the pure evil delivered by Barry Keoghan right up until the bitter end. This is a wonderfully twisted affair.
- Blackberry – Dir. Matt Johnson (Glenn Howerton, Jay Baruchel)
How does a company as innovative and dominant rise and fall as quickly as Blackberry did? They didn’t break any rules like so many fallen tech giants, but more they couldn’t see around the corners, and anticipate the future while Apple and Google recognized that a touchscreen was infinitely more important than a keyboard.
The film is as quirky as and weird as the ragtag band of Canadian misfits it portrays. Like the rock star innovators of early Silicon Valley, these guys were deep nerds less committed to the world domination they ignited, but more a testament to a bit of luck and timing back before the internet was dominated by the FANGMA companies that eventually make it virtually impossible for a company like Blackberry to succeed.
- Bottoms – Dir. Emma Seligman (Ayo Edibiri, Rachel Sennott)
“Bottoms” is a comedy about an afterschool girl fight club. The premise alone is enough to almost guarantee a winner, but between the hilarious performances by Ayo Edibiri (The Bear) and Rachel Sennot and the occasionally over the top violence, the film plays like a classic John Hughes film on acid.
It takes all of the stereotypical high school tropes (popular girls, cool jocks, and nerdy smart outcasts) and supercharges them with a kind of twisted revenge of the nerds ethos. A few films in and director Emma Seligman is already beginning to channel a kind of young female Judd Apatow vibe which is an excellent development.
- The Iron Claw – Dir. Sean Durkin (Zac Ephron, Jeremy Allen White)
I think the last film I saw about wrestling was the incredible comeback performance by Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler,” and like that film “The Iron Claw” is a bleak, but compelling family tragedy focused on the demise of the real life Von Erich family. Driven by their ambitious father’s quest for his sons to finally bring the heavyweight belt home, the close knit family seems inextricably plagued by a mythical curse.
It is easy to become distracted watching the unsettling physical transformations by Zac Ephorn and Jeremy Allen White who each added nearly fifty pounds of muscle to play the Hulk-like main characters, but the entire cast delivers uniformly strong performances which help relieve some of the weight of the sadness. Director Sean Durkin maintains just the right pacing throughout and in the end delivers a criminally underrated film in this all but forgotten genre.
- Poor Things – Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos (Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo)
The great Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has made a career out of creating truly strange characters and storylines (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Favourite). This time out he’s reunited with Emma Stone to create one of the sexiest, weirdest modern day Frankenstein tales ever conceived. Imagine “Young Frankenstein” meets Tim Burton meets the surrealism of “Delicatessen,” with almost non-stop sex and you have the ironically titled “Poor Things.”
When the premise of the film is about a woman whose life is saved by replacing her brain with that of her unborn daughter, you know you’re in for something truly bizarre. But the real joy is watching the kind but grotesque surgeon played by Willem Dafoe, the bumbling hedonist played by Mark Ruffalo and Emma Stone navigate a world that seems like a mix of heaven and hell.
- Infinity Pool – Dir. Brandan Cronenberg (Mia Goth, Alexander Skarsgard)
This pitch black illusion which wraps a twisted enigma in a riddle and then dresses it in a high end “Eyes Wide Shut” puzzle will either fascinate and entertain or mortify and sicken you. The film revolves around a writer’s-blocked author played by Skarsgard on vacation in a poor country filled with rich tourists caught up in a twisted game.
After accidentally killing a local in a car accident, layers of corruption are mixed with graphic sex, drug fueled orgies and some of the most creative and visual filmmaking of the year. This is decidedly not a family film, but if you’re looking for something slick and sick, this is the one.
- Dumb Money – Dir. Craig Gillespie (Paul Dano, Seth Rogan)
Who doesn’t love a good underdog story? Especially one that played out right before our eyes during the darkest days of covid where most of the billionaire masters of the universe somehow managed to further extend the inequality gap from massive second home fortresses as the stock market surged and their fortunes multiplied. But out of the chaos and weirdness of covid, the online communities that created the glue that held society together, produced a band of rogue stock traders who sought to beat Wall Street at its own game.
The David and Goliath story pits Paul Dano, and his passion for Gamestop, against an arrogant hedge funder played by Seth Rogan. This is a fun, funny battle between an unlikely hero and an army of misfits and the rigged game that is the stock. Hard not to enjoy every second of it.
- Beau Is Afraid – Dir. Ari Aster (Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Ryan)
“Beau is Afraid” is an epic three hour journey into surrealistic modern hell that follows Joaquin Phoenix through the burned out hellscape of a decrepit modern city into a bizarre rural world visited by a traveling carnivalesque theater troupe. All Beau wants to do is go see his rich mother (Patti LuPone) with whom his mommy issues lie strangely at the heart of this descent into madness.
Like the films of Charlie Kaufman, channeled through the horror infected lenses of director Ari Aster, this is an almost impossible to fully comprehend mish mash of allegory and nightmare. The incredible cinematography and set design help elevate this film into something so unique it almost doesn’t matter if you like it, but more appreciate the ambition of it and bathe in another disturbed anti-hero expertly played by Phoenix.
- A Thousand and One – Dir. A.V. Rockwell (Inez de la Paz, William Cartlett)
This Jury Prize winning Sundance film, captures the textures and nuances of New York city between 1994-2005 so vividly that the beepers, 90’s hip-hop and retro fashion seem like yesterday. In it a recent ex-con mother kidnaps her son from foster care, and starts a new life disappearing into the vastness of Manhattan.
The child, Terry, is played by three different actors culminating with an incredible performance by Josiah Cross who is a gifted student forced to switch into a better school en route to a better life. But like so many people trapped in the urban cycle of struggle and temptation, even with the appearance of a loving father figure, happy endings don’t seem to come as easily as we’d like them to. This is a powerful film about the black experience, and the power of sacrifice and love.
- How To Blow Up A Pipeline – Dir. Daniel Goldbacher (Sascha Lane, Lukas Gage)
This feels like an old school Sundance film. It has all the ingredients from a cast of vaguely familiar up and comers, hipster music, and a rogue anarchist spirit. The film brings together an alternative group of twenty-somethings who are all driven to eco-terriorism as a reaction to a climate induced trauma.
There is a kind of lo-fi style at work from the very few shots. The bleak Texas landscape mirrors the sense of hopelessness within each of the characters impassioned, yet misguided souls.There are very few unicorns and rainbows here, but there is a perversely optimistic undercurrent buried in the fact that Gen Z is paying attention to what is happening even though their solution is most definitely the wrong one.
- May December – Dir. Todd Haynes (Julianne Moore, Natalie Portman)
In less capable hands “May December” is merely a predictable and creepy after school special story about a 36 year old woman who has an affair with a teenager, and then eventually marries him and has a family. But this is a Todd Haynes film, so the story is more of a nuanced character study about the nature of love, longing and family.
This is all seen through the eyes of an actress played by Natalie Portman who is spending time with the family as research for the film she is starring in about the family. It’s all very meta, but it never feels contrived, more a mixture of sadness and resignation mixed with a kind of subtle optimism and commitment. It’s another quiet work where life is stranger than fiction.
- Sanctuary – Dir. Zachary Wigon (Christopher Abbott, Margaret Qualley)
“Sanctuary” reminds me of the kind of film that used to break out in the glory days of Sundance. Like “sex, lies and videotape, or “The Secretary,” it is a film featuring two characters caught up in a sexually charged game of cat and mouse that all unfolds over the course of 24 hours in a single hotel room.
In it a rich hotel heir tries to unwind a relationship with the ambiguous companion, but eventually it becomes clear that power dynamic isn’t exactly what it seems to be. The two wrestle back and forth trying to figure out who really has the upper hand. Both actors disappear into their characters so completely which adds to the already disorienting labyrinth, leaving you satisfyingly confused right up until the very end.
Also very much worth it …
- Fingernails – Dir. Christos Nikou (Jessie Buckley, Riz Ahmed)
- Reality – Dir. Tina Satter (Sydney Sweeney, Josh Hamilton)
- You Hurt My Feelings – Dir. Nicole Holofcener (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tobias Watkins )
- Are You There God It’s Me Margaret – Dir. Kelly Fremon Craig (Rachel McAdams, Abby Ryder Fortson)
- All of Us Strangers – Dir. Andrew Haigh (Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal)