Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

Although it might seem like I’ve sworn off all sequels, I realize there are a select few that are able to garner my affections. A movie like Top Gun: Maverick cares about its lineage, grappling with the past, and building an even more exhilarating future. In other words, it doesn’t feel like a myopic cash grab begetting movies that are soulless with their brand of easily merchandised fan service. Its primary intention seems to be galvanizing its legacy.

The care and concern are felt all throughout this movie, and it’s filtered from Tom Cruise all the way down to the last frame. He really is a marvel of cinema. A friend likened him to the Tom Brady of action movies, and while this is true in a sense, he seems to stretch the comparison to its limits. In an age where just about everyone seems to proclaim that the movie star as a box office entity is dead, he still manages to live on like a running, jumping, flying, motorcycle-riding freak of nature.

In truth, Maverick feels like the archetype for all his most iconic heroes, and if he came of age in a movie like Risky Business, almost 40 years ago, Maverick propelled him into another stratosphere of stardom.

But it’s Cruise’s own history as much as the character’s that bleed together in giving him such a rich and contoured backstory. Because how do you begin to separate the two? And Cruise’s gift to us is not only donning those aviators and jumping back into the cockpit; it’s far more ambitious than that.

I almost feel like I’m writing the same review I did for Mission Impossible: Fallout, but he’s always aiding our suspension of disbelief by submitting himself to all sorts of rigors in order to give us the most authentic experience. In Top Gun: Maverick he all but outdoes himself by filming in actual fighter jets and subjecting all his costars to a lot of Gs.  It’s just one example of something that cannot be fabricated for the screen. He’s giving us a palpable experience augmenting the cinematic reality and totally immersing us in the action.

But beyond its technical endeavors, it also feels like a well-balanced movie. Sure, we expect action, and Top Gun: Maverick provides that in ways its predecessor never could. We have callbacks to the same San Diego milieu, motorcycles, fast planes, and obligatory beach scenes. it’s all present and accounted for. However, its emotional poignancy feels equally important if not more so.

We’re provided some opening backstory to remind us of the man’s reputation lest we forget. He’s a rash hothead, who, despite all his exploits, has never broached the rank of Captain, but he also cares deeply about others. It’s the throughline of the entire movie.

When he is called upon by his old buddy Iceman (Val Kilmer), there is an obvious objective laid out before him. He must train up the best up-and-coming pilots in preparing for a suicide mission to destroy a holding of uranium in 3 weeks’ time. The parameters are set, and Maverick’s direct superior (Jon Hamm) makes it very clear that he was hardly the first choice for the job. Let’s just say his reputation proceeds him, and again, that is a very complicated thing to contend with.

While the man calling the shots only has eyes for this tangible objective, it’s Maverick who sees the end game.  He wants to bring these fighters home. And so when they fail in their training, it’s not merely a failed assignment, it represents the death of copilots and friends. Future uncomfortable conversations with loved ones. This is his bottom line. And why?, because Maverick knows precisely what it’s like to lose someone. As we all probably know by now, he lost his best friend.

While the original Top Gun felt mostly like a cultural curio — I never grew up with the original, and I appreciated the movie most for its San Diego locales — this movie has a newfound resonance.

Jennifer Connelly shows up as Penny Benjamin, a once-mentioned flame of Maverick. It feels like the token part of a love interest, but between its ties to the original movie and Connelly’s own confident candor, it creates an added dimension. Although Connelly came of age a bit later than Cruise (Career Opportunities springs to mind), she still seems to orbit in the same spheres, and she falls seamlessly into the part.

What is time if not a way to tap into memories and an audience’s goodwill toward characters? They have a history built into the earlier film, and it’s a pleasure to see it explored.

The same might be said of the reintroduction of Iceman Kazansky. Val Kilmer, who has famously struggled with throat cancer and lost most of his vocal abilities, is venerated with a hero’s welcome throughout the movie. By now, he’s become an admiral while remaining a stalwart ally of Maverick.

There’s something meaningful about tying Kilmer’s real life into his part because his backstory begins to become all the more real in our eyes. He and Cruise have a shared history together, both real and imagined, and when he entreats his good buddy to “let it go,” the simple words he types out feel like lasting pearls of wisdom.

I’ve all but failed to mention it thus far, but Top Gun and Top Gun: Maverick could not exist without the relationship of Maverick and Goose (Anthony Edwards) or Maverick and Rooster (Miles Teller). They are inextricably linked to the core dilemmas of the franchise.

The movie provides several pivotal choices for Maverick. It’s these decisions that the whole emotional axis of the movie turns on. Confiding in Penny, he says he either has a choice to send Goose’s son on the suicide mission or not allow him to go. Rooster would never speak to him again so either way, he loses.

But what makes this movie something more is the genuine outpouring of feeling. The final act has something special because it ties the movie together through its most profound relationship. If you’re like me, you realize Top Gun would not be what it is without the death of Goose, and it is this wound at the heart of two main characters: his best friend and his son.

Now they must reckon with the aftermath. What a spectacular thing it is to see. Full of sparks and bitterness and anger. Then fear, tough decisions, and the kind of sacrificial love that speaks to us in the deepest ways possible. It’s quality storytelling taking this central relationship echoed down through a generation and making it all the more impactful.

I was thinking throughout Top Gun: Maverick, we are never given an exact enemy. Pilots on the other side are faceless. There is no consequence to them other than how they affect the pilots we come to know and love. You could say this is a commentary on a world that’s more ambiguous than even the hard-bitten Cold War days of the ’80s. However, it’s also a reminder that this is a story ultimately about these pilots. They have a mission, yes, but the movie does its best work by tying these outcomes back to its characters on their most fundamental level.

Thus, any kind of resolution yields tenfold because it means far more than a target getting hit or some other seemingly arbitrary objective. If you’ve seen the original Star Wars (or Force Awakens), it’s nothing new.

But Tom Cruise — we like him. We want to see Maverick be Maverick against all odds. And he’s that and then some. Miles Teller has been under the spotlight for more than a decade now; he’s still got the same baby face, and I have to say I’m fond of him. Even a hotshot like Glen Powell, whose entire purpose is to make a nuisance of himself, proves his inestimable worth in the end.

I couldn’t help thinking when they touch back down on that aircraft carrier — having gone through the gauntlet — there’s a euphoria there that’s almost hyperbolic. It’s built out of close-ups, swirling music, and characters embracing who we grow to care about. But rather than get pulled out of the moment, we imbibe their joy and get stirred up because we want to be a part of their success and live vicariously through it. You could feel the energy surging in the audience.

And when it was all said and done, Top Gun: Maverick made me oddly patriotic and proud of my country. In recent years, we have learned how unchecked nationalism can become perverted and made into a far cry from what it was meant to be. Then, on the other extreme, patriotism is often scoffed at in the face of our societal sins.

But this Top Gun never feels like a trumped-up showcase of American exceptionalism. It’s not that superficial. All you have to see are those photos of Maverick and Goose or Maverick and Rooster. That’s what it should mean to be American. It can be fun, yes, but there’s also an import and a magnitude to our humanity. Caring for others well, risking our well-being for the sake of loved ones, and rising out of the ashes with mutual trust only to make us stronger.

I’d like to believe these tenets represent us at our finest and this film at its best. So please go and enjoy Top Gun: Maverick with your father, with your family, or with your friends. And whether you recognize it or not, perhaps it will move you in unexpected ways even as it offers up one of the best full-blooded action movies in recent memory.

4/5 Stars

More Film Reviews of 2021

Undine
Christian Petzold is the master of methodical cinema and with the conceit for Undine, he proves he’s more than up for imprinting his style onto a modern-day mythical fairy tale. He reunites again with Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski from Transit. Once more it’s a world from a distant past somehow planted in contemporary society. There are successive moments that feel so mundane it makes the scenes breaking the mold all the more startling.

They shatter an aquarium and lie sprawled on a coffeehouse floor. Undine pays a wordless visit to her former boyfriend as he does laps in his outdoor pool. The diver resuscitates her to the beat of “Stayin Alive” even as she resurrects him through some mystical romantic force. It borrows some visual language from underwater love stories like Creature from the Black Lagoon and Splash, but it’s also sculpted by the director’s unmistakable outlook from post-modern Berlin. What a pleasure it is to watch a filmmaker who doesn’t find a need to explain all his choices. We must watch them unfold and wait to be enchanted.

The Power of The Dog
The Power of The Dog is a fine film, and Jane Campion’s touch is deft in bringing her version of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel to the screen. Benedict Cumberbatch plays a role almost antithetical to the image he’s slowly gone to work dismantling since the days of Sherlock and impeccably British dramas like The Imitation Game.

There’s something leathery and caustic about Phil Burbank, a man who has learned to lead the demanding life of a cattle rancher. And even as he remains skeptical of his brother (Jesse Plemons) marrying a new bride (Kirsten Dunst), and he openly belittles her tenderhearted son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), his persona continually erodes and shifts before us. It is a movie about a neutered form of masculinity. Although there aren’t too many pulse-pounding interludes, this element alone feels almost startling given the general conception of the western genre.

If there is any issue with the picture, it’s really no fault of its own. It’s simply not what I was expecting. But I don’t want that to totally sour my expectations. There’s a quiet tension to the picture as it goes through its paces. There’s no murder, no perpetual row of histrionic Oscar-worthy scenes of drawn-out drama, and it seems to continuously bend away from what is expected toward more nuanced observations.

It has the vistas one might expect from the West, set on a family’s ranch, and yet it’s strangely contained like it was perfectly suited for the Covid age despite being a 1920s period piece. Mostly it’s a film doled out in relational dynamics – this is its currency – the emotional and relational psychology that governs how people exist with one another. In The Power of The Dog, the evolution occurs gradually, over time, and it might just surprise you if not totally gratify your want for catharsis.

The French Dispatch
The French Dispatch is less of a narrative film and more of a clockwork cinema machine where we have the pleasure of watching Wes Anderson orchestrating his preferred world with its myriad of players. It’s an ode to the art of writing – the journalistic form – and its best spurts boast comic objectivity with a perfectly calculated and colored intricacy. The initial French milieu of Ennui-sur-Blase blended with this perspective feels almost Tatiesque.

It’s not so much a story as a style, and it’s an extraordinary style. Anderson is so singular in his aesthetic, and it seems so specific by now that it never wavers for a moment. We always know intuitively that we are existing fully in an Andersonian world as he splits his homage (or pastiche) into three distinct stories. Anderson’s stock company, which keeps ballooning while retaining all his own usual consorts, ensures the frames are full of familiar and eminent faces (even if some have next to nothing to do). There’s a trolly ride into a prison asylum that feels like it’s literally sagging under the weight.

There’s a droning literary nature to The French Dispatch as it dabbles in all sorts of creative whims. There’s Bill Murray as an avuncular editor. Benecio Del Toro and Lea Seydoux as a crazed artistic genius and his prison guard-turned muse respectively. Timothee Chalamet becomes a college-aged dissident plucked out of Godard’s Masculin Feminin (or David’s Death of Marat). The black and white mimesis and Lyna Khoudri are compelling if not the vignette itself. Jefferey Wright gives an amusing turn recounting a food column devolving into a kidnapping thriller. Oddly, there’s nothing to be taken too seriously in Anderson’s French Dispatch, which gladly gives itself over to ligne claire animation before writing its own editor’s obituary.

As an artistic achievement, it’s extraordinary though it lacks any true narrative absorption. We must appreciate the individual accents and moments, not a centralized sense of comedy or drama. By now Anderson’s vision is so well-attuned and everything is humming just as he likes it. He’s trusting his audience knows what they like too. Anderson connoisseurs should and for others, it could be a mixed bag.

King Richard
If King Richard were merely a rags-to-riches sports movie, I would hold issue with the fact there seems to be so little adversity on the road to professional success. However, to its credit, in an age where biopics need an angle if they’re ever going to see the light of day, here is a version of the familiar story that feels more like a character piece than your typical insurmountable sports story defying all odds. To be sure, it has all of that, but Will Smith, as Richard Williams, helps bring life to a deeply stubborn, idiosyncratic visionary, who helped cultivate his two daughters into the greatest tennis players ever.

I was chomping at the bit for more Venus and Serena, and Venus (Saniyya Sidney) grows into the movie as she gains traction in junior tournaments and then becomes one of the most sought-after endorsements while making her professional debut. In a conventional sense, these are the beats we expect, but the movie never totally pulls away from King Richard, whether he’s butting heads with his daughter’s well-meaning coaches (Tony Goldwyn and Jon Bernthal) or getting chewed out by his wife (Aunjanue Ellis) for his own delusions.

He’s not all saint and some grievances are aired, but no matter how odd his tactics seem, he still was a man of principles and someone who seemed to genuinely love his daughters. The adage holds true that it takes a village to raise a tennis player, but King Richard did something pretty spectacular. I’m not sure if this is Smith’s best performance, but the film will definitely resonate with the intended audience who appreciate this kind of uplifting story in a year where we could always use more. The fact that Serena is still in the cultural spotlight decades later still astounds me.

Nightmare Alley
Guillermo Del Torro’s version of Nightmare Alley vows for a methodical establishment of its world and characters. We get a sense of the carnie life and the 1940s sensibilities. The cinematic antecedents could be spouted off in passing like The Uknown, Freaks, and, of course, Tyrone Power’s own iconic turn as Stan Carlisle in Nightmare Alley (1947). While I don’t dislike Bradley Cooper, he somehow lacks the wheeling-dealing charisma of his predecessor. It comes with time, and yet he seems to play the role close to the vest until the drama really starts to capitulate.

They throw around the word panache though it hardly seems to characterize the kind of performance he’s looking to achieve. Willem Dafoe feels like a standout not solely due to the craggy contours of his performance. He feels like this film’s individual creation. Cate Blanchett is much the same taking arguably the juiciest secondary role from the original and turning it into a blood-red femme fatale.

This version does have the opportunity to be more shocking and vile in where it can take the material, and since it is hardly a contemporary picture, there’s a different kind of appreciation the set dressings can garner. A world seems to be resurrected before us. Del Torro’s chooses to draw out the story to become more of a psychological mood piece that lacks the more timely pacing of the earlier rendition though it does finally spiral into a dark abyss of its own making.

It’s this final chapter that earns the moniker of noir and though it doesn’t divert drastically from the original, the vision of its maker is unmistakable. He does his very best to make Nightmare Alley his own. I must admit I maintain a fondness for the original, and I’m not sure if he’s bound to find a broad new audience.

Last Night in Soho
There’s this sense Edgar Wright has been dying for this day: to curate a British Invasion soundtrack for one of his films. For him, this is all homegrown music. It’s set up immediately with a heroine named Ellie (Thomasin Mackenzie) who holds an obvious affection for all things retro – a college-bound fashion designer infatuated by Swinging London – and “World Without Love” feels like one of the quintessential anthems of the times (along with “Downtown”).

I was fond of Midnight in Paris because it reminded us that every generation wants to return to the good ol’ days. As Petula Clark also sang, “the other man’s grass is always greener.” But Last Night in Soho takes these sentiments and gives them the chilling tinge of horror. Nostalgia can be a deadly thing too.

It morphs into a nightmare of the sixties where the rose-colored glasses are cracked and whatever an immaculate soundtrack might suggest, we’re still left ill at ease by leering men and a kind of pervasively misogynistic culture. It’s precisely why a movie like The Knack..And How to Get It feels so offputting to me. Because you feel gross. Character identification becomes so crucial as we fill Ellie’s shoes and we empathize as the horrors engulf her and her surreal double (Anya Taylor-Joy).

It might just be the presence of Matt Smith, but there is a sense this could be an episode of Doctor Who in an alternate dimension while also paying homage to the old guard like Terrence Stamp, Diana Rigg, and Rita Tushingham. Still, it’s not like we were plucked out of one world and put in another. I also can’t remember ever seeing a Wright picture where there was such an obvious theme tied with the kind of unabashed entertainment he’s always capable of providing. The only problem is that in trying to derive a twisty payoff, he somehow muddles the meaning of the movie.

House of Gucci
Trailer expectations make House of Gucci feel like a mild disappointment. There’s a hope that Ridley Scott’s latest film might lean wholeheartedly into the camp to become a bizarre story of decadence and machiavellian wheeling-dealing gone horribly wrong. We are being sold a murder in the upper echelon of the fashion industry. I’m reminded of I Tonya, a surprisingly ingenious film telling a larger-than-life story with conflicting perspectives on recent history that formerly covered the tabloids. The movie pays off thanks to the weight of the performances and the stranger-than-fiction narrative.

House of Gucci has some performances that work well enough. Lady Gaga gives her role a real go of it, but far from being just a backbiting femme fatale, there’s attempts to make her character, a woman who married into the Gucci family, more of a human being. This is not wrong, and it can be lauded as she gels with her new husband (Adam Driver) navigating the hierarchy governed by his father (Jeremy Irons) and his uncle (Al Pacino). But in trying to be a genuine relational drama while also jostling for future camp status, it’s not able to capably manage either.

It feels impossible to have our want of theatricality sated while getting the sincerity too, thus the movie falls into this realm of overlong mediocrity. It’s not bad in its totality, but we leave the story feeling mostly underwhelmed, especially given all the talents assembled. Like Gaga, Jared Leto, who readily “uglifies” himself for the role, looks poised to go for the fences. However, it represents some of what I dislike about this approach to acting at times. There’s very little that feels real about it, and I kept on questioning why they could not get someone else – someone older – for the role. It’s disheartening because I didn’t know what kind of story Gucci was trying to tell, and it suggests maybe the team didn’t know the best story to tell either.

No Time to Die
Daniel Craig burst onto the scene with Casino Royale as a darker, more mercurial Bond for the 21st century, and it gave the franchise a level of rejuvenation and relevance in the arena of action movies. Vesper Lynd gave Bond a bona fide relationship that did not feel totally disposable but in grappling with Hollywood expectations, demanded to be disposed of. So the fact Bond is found at Lynd’s grave marker, conveniently also setting up the film’s best setpiece, feels like an early signifier of good things to come.

No Time to Die gives Bond an inkling of a back story and the weight of a human connection (with Lea Seydoux) that almost feels incongruous with his very image where women are merely objects and enemies are to be vanquished all in a days work. It seems only fitting Bond feels more human than ever given Craig’s history with the character. Despite its runtime, it’s not a gargantuan, earth-shaking film. The villains as they are (Christoph Waltz and Rami Malik) are fine if not totally out of this world.

Still, in our restricted era, there’s something appealing about a globetrotting thriller married with a character who seems to recognize the weight of the real world. Whether it looks suave and debonair or not, sometimes it takes vulnerability and sacrifice to win the day. Bond seems to have stakes that he never had, much less cared about, before. It’s up to the viewer to decide if they embrace this or not.

The Card Counter
“Forgiving another and forgiving oneself are so much alike.”
There’s often an austere quality to Paul Schrader’s cinema, whether it’s about a priest or a card counter. A lot of it is inert and internalized. They are meticulous with composition books, deep in thought, and always ready with a drink to nurse nearby. His heroes seem to live by a certain code and more than simply being religious, they operate on a level of penance for sins, both their own and the world around them. These might seem like weighty words to describe movie characters, but then Schrader is not your typical, average, everyday filmmaker.

There are no warm and fuzzy feelings in The Card Counter nor the kind of comedy release valve we’re taught to expect in our movies. Schrader doesn’t seem to have time or patience for this as he tackles heady, more existential topics. It’s cool and brooding in tone and atmosphere, mostly shot in the fake interiors of casinos.

It’s poker as a character study rather than the crowd-pleasing sports drama of Cincinnati Kid, and Oscar Isaac is our hero, a war vet who also served a stint in military prison. Now he devotes his life to counting cards and playing poker but not for the normal reasons. His backer (played by Tiffany Haddish) pointedly tells him, “You have to be the strangest poker player I’ve ever met.”

It also doesn’t have the feel of a 2021 film, and yet the space from its historical past is probably necessary. Because it dredges up the crimes perpetrated in Abu Ghraib. Will says, “Nothing can justify what we did” And he cannot change the past so he looks to watch over a young man (Tye Sheridan) and search after the man (Willem Dafoe) responsible for all the evil in his past.
The first time I heard Pickpocket evoked in reference to The Card Counter, everything clicked into place; it all makes sense because Robert Bresson’s film was at the center of the cinematic transcendental revelation that hit Schrader in the mid-seventies. He does his best to evoke some of that here. Once it’s mentioned, you can’t unsee it.

Passing
There is no movie without the performances of Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga. There’s something delicate and tempered about the way they carry themselves through this movie only matched by the 1920s color palette. It’s a curious reference, but I was thinking how, like the black and white in Some Like it Hot, here it allows us to buy into the charade that this woman would play: living the life of a white woman.

The world conjures up images of The Cotton Club, a space where we don’t see Jim Crow segregation as much as these oddly stratified and “separate but equal” spheres of existence. Blacks build a vibrant community for themselves in Harlem out of the prying eyes of whites because it is a fragile peace. We meet Irene (Thompson) in a scene where she attempts to pass as white. The one person who catches her, Clare (Negga), does so because she has made a life of infiltration. She’s married a white man and effectively given up her past life for the preferential status she now owns.

Passing is a quiet film, and there are only a few scenes I can look back on. The opening scene could have been the set-up for a chilling race horror film. Scenes in the jazz club are alive with the energy of the age. And the ending has an anesthetized tragedy to it. As we watch the snowfall on the street, we realize this is a story formed in the silent void and not in vocal tumult. In the ever-shifting, always malleable, and confounding spectrum of human identity, there are so many adjacent conversations to Passing that I find fascinating.

Rebecca Hall must as well or she would not have undertaken this story as her directorial debut. I need more time with it, but I couldn’t help thinking I liked the idea of the story (and the book) more than I actually enjoyed the film. Then again, maybe it falls to the fact the movie was not the one I was expecting. It’s not an easily digestible message picture. Somehow it’s more nuanced and complicated. It feels like this deserves further consideration.

Favorite Films of 2021

This has felt like a strange year in movies, and I’m not even trying to make reference to the pandemic. 2020 had a bounty of great movies, and 2021 did as well, but it somehow felt different. Still, here are a handful of films that I enjoyed for various reasons. I want to go ahead and highlight them now as our new (old) year runs ever onward.

Some minor spoilers ahead…

Drive My Car
Ryosuke Hamaguchi is well-aware of what he’s doing when the title credits show up 40 minutes into a 3-hour movie. Because without this opening prelude about a husband and wife, the film, while never a dramafest, would lose a dose of its quiet power dispelled over time. It does take some time to hone in its ambitions since it never feels like the characters have an agenda in a movie sense. They have jobs and relationships, but they just seem to exist, share conversations, and slowly over time we get to understand them better, even appreciate them.

Our protagonist is a theater director and so we spend our time observing the mechanisms of a multilingual stage production of Uncle Vanya he hopes to put on in Hiroshima. His Korean assistant is a fascinating individual fluent in Korean, Japanese, English and throw in some Korean sign language. He’s indicative of an entire cast who connect through their art form.

Kafuku-san directs the production but opts to give the lead role easily earmarked for himself to a young man who is very familiar. It comes out later he had his reservations because “Chekhov is terrifying. When you say his lines he drags out the real you.” They might be the words of Chekhov, framed by a story from Haruki Murakami, but the fact that we struggle and cry and God has pity on us is a message of some hope. That we will look back on our current sorrow with rejoicing and finally find rest…

In a movie about many things, it becomes a story about how we replay our deepest regrets, and they stay with us, gnawing at our insides. If they lay dormant and generally unspoken in most of us then it’s even more common in Japanese culture. Living in Japan, I very rarely hugged people, and so Drive My Car has one of the most tender embraces I recall in recent memory. It takes so much, means so much, and the moment itself plays like an understated exclamation point if there can be such a thing. If you sit with the movie long enough perhaps you’ll know exactly what I mean.

The Tragedy of Macbeth
I have a fear of Shakespeare on par with anyone else who’s ever looked at the bard’s work with trepidation. His words can be as witty to the ear as they are mystifying. However, in watching Joel Coen’s latest adaptation of his work, it felt like we were given something new and formidable without making a total mockery of the text. For lack of a better word, it didn’t feel stagy or at least it blended the forms of the stage with elements that make it deeply cinematic because this is the language that Coen knows best.

It’s suffused into his very DNA as a filmmaker and cineaste. You never want to overstep your bounds, but there’s a cavernous immersion and at times claustrophobic drama to the picture. It’s a bit like watching some of Welles’s European works: The Trial was literally made in a giant hangar and Chimes at Midnight provides his finest adaptation of the Bard full of his own artistry. Coen resolves for black and white, but he also shoots entirely in these manufactured and measured interiors.

Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand fill up the spaces to great effect. We see their age, but also the intent behind their eyes. It’s fierce before devolving toward the crazed and maniacal. We see the fruit of such fateful decisions as portended by the baleful Weird Sisters (Kathryn Hunter).

There’s thumping sound design, murders of crows, whirling cauldrons, an army of trees, and gorgeous mise en scene reminding me ever so briefly of monochromatic De Chirico paintings. But most importantly, beyond the artistry and the performative qualities is a film quaking with ready-made danger. Because it’s a crime movie. It’s about treachery and paranoia in the name of power. I’m not a foremost mind on Macbeth, but this is something that stays with me.

Petite Maman

I couldn’t help thinking how the title made so much sense in retrospect and yet Petite Maman quietly ambushed me. Here is a film about a little girl and in the wake of her grandmother’s death, she helps her mother sort through effects. She winds up going off into the forest and befriending a young girl, who’s her spitting image. It’s no coincidence. In fact, this little girl winds up being her mother!

Given the premise, it would be easy to take this film in either one of two ways: Either we’re befuddled by this development or we accept it unabashedly. Employing literalism doesn’t aid the cause. And yet if we embrace what’s laid out before us, we’re opened up to all sorts of cinematic magic. Celine Sciamma chooses to do the latter. It is a quiet fairy tale without special effects – a modern-day incarnation like Pezold’s Undine – though even more simplified.

Still, where so many other movies have plot points and reversals to move the story toward a specific destination, Pettite Maman is one of the lucky few that just seems to happen in front of us, and we can experience the minor revelations as they come unhurriedly. Two young girls acting out their story or making pancakes together in a fit of giggles. There’s so much palpable satisfaction in experiencing these moments and part of this is borne in the adorable performances of the twins.

However, there’s also a level of kinship in the movie that feels infectious, and it’s given a deeper level of meaning in that this is a mother bonding with her daughter in some form. They are equals and they can meet each other on equal footing. What a gift this is, and I’m sure all parents would love for such an opportunity. It does feel a bit like a miracle of a film.

MASS
There’s an idiosyncratic way in which Mass functions; I couldn’t help reminiscing about the free-flowing ensemble in Patrick Wang’s Bread Factory though this is even humbler in scope. The staff of the church with their particular foibles effectively prepare the table for the main attraction.

Mass has the sensibilities of the stage. It plays like a mini 12 Angry Men where you have this petri dish of two couples, one still together, and one we believe might be split up. We have four folks in a room navigating emotional space in such an excruciating scenario, dancing around the tension wedged between them by circumstance. They both had sons implicated in a mass shooting: one a victim, the other the perpetrator.

These are characters clearing their chests (and their minds) as they debate and discuss, slowly beginning to open up and let their own private hurts come to the fore. What I appreciate about Mass the most is how it doesn’t feel like a monumental drama, and it would feel like a lesser film because of it partially because any grandstanding would not fit the humble intimacy of the space or its budget.

Like Lumet before him, Fran Kanz, who utilizes some quicker cuts and an active camera nearing an hour in, is not about manufacturing drama. He trusts his material and his cast. These are theater actors so they know how to carry themselves. We witness forgiveness manifested in excruciating seemingly insurmountable circumstances. It’s fragile and imperfect.

There’s no clear mark of clarity or complete healing. This can never be achieved. What matters is the incremental steps that have taken place in this back room. But these events themselves are cushioned by the surrounding moments reminding us life is continuous; it keeps on moving. Even as our hurt lingers and grief waxes and wanes, we must find a way to muddle through as best as we can.

Bergman Island
When the name of Bergman comes off the lips of the locals it initially sounded unidentifiable to my ear, but over time it becomes familiar and like this film, the entire world begins to suffuse into our consciousness. The island of Faro just happens to be where one of the great masters of cinema made his home. It’s hallowed ground albeit idyllic and unassuming.

Could it be an enchanted space where the muse comes down to christen men and women in their creative endeavors? More likely the battle rages as per usual as a filmmaking couple (Vicki Krieps and Tim Roth) look to work on their latest projects. It becomes a landscape fit for this kind of pensive cinema, a meditation on love, art, and the creative process.

There’s a certain dissonance when the artists we love don’t behave well in real life. Strangely the lot we are given as human beings, having our fractured souls reflected back at us through a glass darkly, doesn’t make it any easier to come to terms with the outcomes.

Certainly, there are layers to be appreciated to the movie if you are familiar with the shadow cast by Bergman and his work, and yet I imagine there’s a different kind of mystifying quality of you don’t know him because it is a bit like he is floating around the edges of this movie like a spectral presence. We get to know him somewhat – see the spaces he frequented – and yet although this is intimate, it’s still rather like we’re trespassing on someone who is no longer with us.

Instead, it becomes about inspiration and conceiving movies. What holds us back and makes us anxious. We come to have life mimicking art or at the very least becoming the launching pad for stories. There’s a level of magic even seeing Chris’s movie materialize before us in the flesh. But it goes deeper than that where the creator gets to see her creations materialize before her. If there was something morose and at times oppressive about Bergman’s cinema, the film acknowledges these by sheer proximity, and yet Mia Hansen-Løve makes a dreamy film full of longing and warmth. It feels much more like the beginning of My Summer Monika than the end.

Belfast
It seems like every filmmaker has a personal story inside of them, and it’s a pleasure to receive Kenneth Branaugh’s latest offering Belfast. My face lit up immediately because from the first note I knew intuitively we were being blessed with the voice of Van Morrison. As we fall back into the late 60s, we appreciate the rhythms of a close-knit community nevertheless embroiled in The Troubles and the faultlines of Catholic-Protestant conflict.

The corollary to High Noon throughout the film including Tex Ritter’s ballad felt deeply moving. Because as someone who has cherished that film in my youth, it feels almost more universal to me than hearing Morrison. It has to do with those boyish inclinations – to want to see the world through the black and white mentality of the West. There’s a fork in the road and two obvious directions toward good and evil. Of course, rarely is it that easy to delineate.

Through the chipper, innocent eyes of Buddy (Jude Hill), we see events as only he can. His parents are not perfect, and yet to him, they are larger-than-life heroes, beautiful, beloved, and strong. Likewise, movies are revelatory, life-changing experiences like flying cars in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I’m not sure if the black-and-white images were something I necessarily needed, but the choice to put the scenes in the movie theater in color almost makes it worth it. Because it is in this space where Branagh suggests we can find magic, wonder, and sustenance to take back into our lives. This is a film where the little moments speak the loudest.

Spencer
Kirsten Stewart has grown steadily in my esteem thanks to her evolution from movies like Adventureland and then Cloud of Sils Mar. She continues to venture out into a territory fit for a consummate actor who looks to stretch herself and take on new and varied roles with worthy collaborators. Spencer is no different and she proves herself, not unsurprisingly, game for the task of taking on Princess Di.

I have to keep on getting my early notions of Stewart out of my head because with each new role she seems to exert herself as an ever-watchable performer and even walking the tightrope of the part that might so easily have pitfalls. Given the subject’s public persona, somehow it’s easy enough to buy her, and she falls seamlessly into the world with her mannerisms and the intonations of her voice.

It also helps Pablo Larrain’s film is a fable and not a biopic. Normally this term leaves room for Hollywood license and interpretation, but here the limits have been stretched even further as Spencer becomes more and more a character piece inside one woman’s splintering isolation on the eve of Christmas.

She begins to relate with Anne Boleyn, who had her head cut off for another woman; Diana can see the dissolution of her own marriage and her impending divorce before them with her own husband all but absent and Camila just off at stage right. Her relationship with her two darling boys is warm and affectionate. It only puts the rest of her royal world in sharp relief. If you don’t recognize the suffocating circumstances at first, it becomes supremely evident as we follow Diana at the hip. This is not a life we would wish on anyone.

Test Pattern
Test Pattern showcases a filmmaker with a level of bravery, and I don’t mean that primarily because of subject matter, although that is part of it. Because this is a film about an interracial couple (Britanny S. Hall and Will Brill). It is partially about the perplexing bureaucracy getting in the way of a resolution – the woman goes through a traumatic sexual assault – her boyfriend wants to get her answers. It leads to chafing, anxiety, and a relational tiff not because they don’t love each other but precisely because they do.

But the level of bravery comes with a filmmaker who is willing to hold their camera; it stretches out moments to the point of excruciation. It makes us uncomfortable and nervous waiting with the characters, breeding another form of empathy as we exist in the scenes alongside them caught up in their personal drama.

There’s nowhere to hide, and Shatara Michelle Ford doesn’t try to. What’s most petrifying is the fact we are left with no obvious resolution. Our couple, once so united and for one another, now feels listless and uncommunicative. Given the context built up for them at the beginning of the movie, it feels like the most troubling place to leave them. Again, this is brave. It’s not a giant send-off with a fight, but we feel this helpless sense of isolation even as they share the same space together. There’s no easy fix for what we have witnessed. It’s a sobering reminder for us all.

CODA
Coming of age films are a recurring pleasure of mine. They often traffic in very familiar ideas and tropes. CODA is no different, and it comes out of the East coast lineage of Mystic Pizza. It stars a young heroine (Emilia Jones) looking to find her voice, whether that’s by literally joining her school’s choir or sharing her feelings for the boy who doesn’t know she exists (Ferdia Walsh Peelo).

She has an impish best friend and a demonstrative teacher with a heart of gold as two primary talking partners. However, what sets the movie apart is her family life. The pun of the title becomes evident in this space. Because she is a child of deaf adults (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kosur).

She’s ashamed of how shameless her parents seem and also frustrated with how tied down she is to them. She lives by the lie that they are helpless without her that she can’t go off to college and leave them. Ultimately, she wants to protect them. The movie’s at its best not forcing conflict and leaning into these relationships.

Her budding boyfriend points out just how much he envies her because her parents actually love one another and their ramshackle abode is actually a home. CODA’s mixture of fishing milieu and glossy glee club covers don’t cater to my whims, but there is so much surrounding these nominal cliches making CODA wholly worthwhile. And any passing chance to get an earful of Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell, or Joni Mitchell is something to be appreciated.

Sing Street (also with Walsh-Peelo) was a favorite of mine. This is yet another movie where music becomes such a vital life force, and it can lead teenagers in pursuit of remarkable dreams. It’s the family in this movie that feels even tighter and altogether more extraordinary because we see very few like them put to film.

The Worst Person in The World
The title of Joachim’s Trier latest film is easily misconstrued to mean “bad” whereas the suggested hyperbole is more about failure. We’ve all been there feeling like we’ve flunked out of life. Chris is in her quarter-life crisis, pondering her career outcomes, her current relationship status, and the lukewarm feelings she has about having children at the moment. It feels a bit like The Graduate without a Mrs. Robinson. She has two men in her life, first a comic artist, older than her, who brings stability, and then a more carefree barista who she meets quite by chance.

There are times where it is scatological, moments where it’s downright trippy, but there’s also some serendipity sprinkled in. I think of the sequence when the world seems to stop – humanity is at a standstill, and we see two lovers existing together totally present with one another in the expanse around them. It shrinks their world down in such a romantic way. Still, life goes on. It becomes about so much more than a romance or even the arc of one character. It’s about the men in her life too.

Trier said, “The films George Cukor made, like The Philadelphia Story, were films not only about finding the right partner but existential films, films that dealt with important life choices.” It’s hard to totally dismiss the inspiration because The Worst Person In The World becomes a film about insecurities, about how we become petty, and even as people leave our life, the memories of them are never completely gone.

It’s progressively all the more evident that being the worst person in the world is simply a marker of being human. That is to say, we have all been there; we can all relate in some capacity. We’re all the worst person in the world. This is the greatest gift of Trier’s film, and Renate Reinsve gives a performance worthy of this superlative.

Attica

If Summer of Soul was one of the most joyous discoveries of 2021 — a piece of Harlem’s culture all but relegated to a historical waste paper bin, then Attica has to be one of the most devastating. In some ways, they seem to run parallel. Whether it’s my own ignorance or 50s years of mild suppression, my only inkling about the uprising is the famed evocation of Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon.

I didn’t live through those current events, but seeing them excavated in this documentary was deeply unnerving, and rightfully so. It brings together many of the eyewitnesses from all sides who were present during those days. Prisoners took control and found hostages, they brought their demands before prison leadership and waited only for negotiations to break down. Finally, everything spiraled toward premeditated chaos

I can’t explain what happened exactly and even though this event is notorious somehow the gravity and atrociousness of this third act of history still scalded me. It highlighted this uneasy gulf between the sides. You had discontented prisoners, the majority black, being subjugated and just wanting some human dignity — the rights Americans are supposed to be accorded. Their requests were not all unreasonable. Then, on the outside you have families worried sick over husbands, uncles, fathers being held hostage. It’s possible they might never see them again. The consequences are steep and racial tension is magnified.

We are forced to reconcile these spaces as viewers and come to terms with this void between them full of unrest and entropy that no one could have foreseen; not the news cameras or the mediators. And yet we cannot deny the facts. Something horrible happened, beyond belief, and we are forced to grapple with it. It makes me hope and pray for empathy and true justice even as I question the inevitability of violence sometimes. If there is so much humanity within the frames of this documentary, how did it still culminate in Attica? Each of us must point the question back at ourselves.

Dune (2021): The Archetype for Modern Sci-Fi

For being such an influential piece of Science Fiction storytelling, I must admit I have very little history with Frank Herbert’s Dune. I was aware of David Lynch’s adaptation, and I’ve recently been dipping my toes into the impressive mythos of the original novel. 

It works in archetypes that feel exceedingly familiar because they’ve helped lay the groundwork for modern sci-fi as we know it. In a contemporary landscape that’s shifted toward stories highlighting the universality of heroism, there’s something intriguing about a story willing to dig into the ancient monomyths that have remained foundational for many cultures. 

There’s the tradition of the chosen one – in this case, young heir apparent Paul Atreides (Timothee Chamalet) – who has untapped potential as well as pedigree that might make him the Messiah who has been prophesied about for generations. 

This overtly spiritual language would certainly inform the worldbuilding of Star Wars and the hero’s journey of Luke Skywalker, conceived by George Lucas and ultimately captivating the world over. This is how Dune indirectly affected my entire childhood and I see it so clearly now. 

Because Dune’s reputation precedes it and for people like director Denis Villeneuve, the passion for this material is palpable. Obviously, his aspirations are to do justice to a piece of literature while giving it a visual resonance for a new generation. 

As this is the man who gave us the worlds of Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), Dune is hardly an aesthetic surprise. I know, since he is an avid cinephile, Lawrence of Arabia is a major touchstone for his latest film, and given the indelible desert locales, the comparison seems inevitable. After all, both of these films aspire for vast grandeur with the kind of scope other films merely dream of. 

Villeneuve’s sleek metallic drabness serves him again. It’s at one time immaculate and sometimes a bit soulless. However, this is less a full-on criticism and more so indicative of epics in the 21st century. In other words, it doesn’t have the vibrancy of Lawrence or the golden hues. Still, there’s a vague kind of wonder when we watch it blending real-life locations with digital magic while also underlining this ominous sense of oppression.  

My mind drifts easily to the oddly bewitching bagpipe and drum-infused score of Hans Zimmer. Like the organ in Interstellar, this rather unique choice does wonders in providing a layered soundscape to evoke the ever-expanding world in front of us. Zimmer’s work takes the individual images and transforms them into a full-bodied experience, lending some drama and emotion to a mise en scene otherwise running the risk of aloofness. 

Equally important is how famed elements like the sandworms or bits of technology are realized onscreen. Oftentimes this can be a detriment because these visions no longer live in the mind’s eye, once a creator has brought them into reality. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t marvel both at Herbert’s imagination and also how they have been brought to us. 

Although Timothee Chalamet is not my favorite actor, he functions as a fine avatar throughout this movie. Because he is the character Villeneuve identifies with, and he is our way into a story. Paul’s father (Oscar Isaac) and his family are displaced and called upon to govern the planet of Arrakis vacated by the Harkonnen, a brutish people who gained exorbitant wealth, but not without repercussion. 

Like all the grandest stories, it has this galactic scale but maintains a level of relational intimacy. It could work in no other fashion. It’s a pleasure to see Rebecca Ferguson given such a striking role that at first glance feels so subordinate but is almost covertly imbued with so much power. Because she is a member of the line of female Truth Sayers, even going so far as to pass down their sacred abilities to her adolescent son. In some fashion, Paul is a two-culture kid, different from others, and situated to be a priestly king, blending his two unique bloodlines. This pervasive biblical language is hard to totally dismiss. 

Stellan Skarsgaard and Charlotte Rampling show up almost unrecognizably and since I have no context for their characters, I appreciated their level of menace. It makes no difference whether they are good or bad. They are not to be trifled with. Jason Momoa arguably has an easier role, but still, he must be a likable mentor figure and a formidable warrior. He handles both with casual aplomb bringing a refreshing lightness to the movie which could otherwise be a completely dour affair. 

It is these characters against this backdrop who begin to suggest the primary thematic ideas passed down from Herbert and taken up by Villeneuve. There are themes ranging all over the spectrum from familiar social and political dynamics, wars of cultural influence, and certainly religious omens. There’s is something somehow Medieval and Machiavellian about it. It is a world of royals, serfs, and fiefdoms, and stratified hierarchies jockeying for survival. 

As alluded to before, one of the most overt representations has to do with the Fremen, a people native to the desserts of Arakkis who called the sand-swept world home long before their captors came to rule it. The Fremen, identified with a mostly illusory Zendaya, are rather reminiscent of the Tusken Raiders, although they are more charismatic and given a human face. They are fierce, loyal, attuned to the desert, and they know the treachery that comes with betrayal and the fundamental struggle to survive. 

The most unsurprising spoiler might be that this is, in fact, only part 1 of what’s envisioned to be a long saga. I’m hopeful that it might lithely move through the imminent films ahead instead of totally obliterating everything in its wake like a giant sandworm. Because this is the perpetuated fallacy of many serialized blockbusters. Hopefully Herbert’s work won’t suffer the same grisly fate signified by bloated runtimes and oversaturation. If you remember, David Lean only ever made one Lawrence of Arabia, and somehow I’m content with that.  Star Wars is a slightly different story, but that’s a subject for another time.  

4/5 Stars

More Film Reviews of 2020

A Brazen Riff On 'Groundhog Day,' 'Palm Springs' Is Better Suited For The Small Screen | The ARTery

Since I watched more contemporary films than I usually do for award season, I put together some capsule reviews. There’s not too much rhyme or reason to these, but I thought I would include them here. Let me know what you thought of these movies. Thank you!

Palm Springs

In some serendipitous twist of fate, Palm Springs feels like the film made for the year of the pandemic — where the days are recycled and we are besieged by all the existential questions the world has to offer. It’s not just Groundhog’s Day redux because while Andy Samberg and Cristin Miloti spark romantic chemistry, the key is how they are stuck in a wedding day time loop together.

There are two ways to go about it: either accept the status quo or rage against it in the pursuit of something better. It speaks to love and intimacy and marriage in a way that wades through the refuse and the raunch and comes out with a resolute optimism. Life’s not just about finding your “Irvine.” It’s also made better when you find someone to walk alongside, especially when it’s for an eternity. 

The Way Back

If you’ve seen Hoosiers or any of those sports movies of old, there’s nothing particularly new about The Way Back. In spite of this, there’s something compelling; it’s borne on the performance of Ben Affleck — the inner demons of his character and this fractured road to redemption. It means something genuine and true to people who have played sports — been filled with that indescribable elation — and those who have been subjected to tragedy. It’s not just Affleck, but there’s a quiet and reserved profundity to many of these performances. I appreciated it a great deal more than I was expecting. 

Promising Young Woman

It grieves me that a film like this is deemed relevant in our contemporary society and of course I have no argument to the contrary because it’s true. Although the pieces of plot and fluctuating tone never totally gel with me, Carey Mulligan gives an evocative showing as per usual. I’m particularly fascinated by Fennell’s use of the thriller genre as a commentary, which feels perhaps more incisive than a one for one based on a true story expose might be.

All the pieces are there, the twists and turns, and the stings to a misogynistic society. But rather like last year’s Joker, I still rue the fact we’ve come to such a place in contemporary cinema — another discomforting representation of man’s inhumanity of man — much less man’s inhumanity to woman. It’s not like we were totally unaware of it before. However, we’ve given ourselves over to the vindictive nihilism of it all. I hope and pray for restoration. 

Mank' Official Trailer: Netflix Brings David Fincher Back to Theaters | IndieWire

Mank 

The film itself boasts a bounty of Classic Hollywood references and the kind of mimesis that might well turn moviegoers into black and white junkies. Alas, for me it had the opposite effect and despite any amount of technique and artistry by David Fincher, there never was a sense of true suspension of disbelief. Like Trumbo or Hitch, and other films before it, regardless of some notable performances, it all felt a bit like play-acting. And of course, such material cannot be taken as gospel. It’s a movie about movies after all.

But somehow the picture also lacks movie magic. I never felt truly captivated. For a film that took a closer, more personal look at one of the architects of that grand monolith Citizen Kane, somehow I wished the film had taken a more intimate even mundane scale. Oldman is winsome, but I couldn’t help flashing to Seyfried and Collins. Somehow their characters proved his most fascinating talking partners, though many have all but forgotten them in the shadow of Orson Welles and others.

Wonder Woman 84

Although it’s slow to get going and the pieces don’t always feel totally cohesive, there’s still a modicum of relish to be had from Patty Jenkins’s latest actioner. The 80s are not simply set dressing and eye candy, but they provide the perfect apex of consumer culture. Beyond hairstyles and workout regimens, it’s the emerging generation of instant gratification. Comfort and easy fixes are the world’s salve for any number of discomforts. But society still manages to splinter at its seams into an unfathomable entropy.

Diana (Gal Gadot) is once more a mighty protector of the nations, but the absence of Steve (Chris Pine), leaves a void in her life. This is her version of discontentment. While it never delivers the emotional import of its predecessor, it does attempt to synthesize some moderately intriguing thematic ideas. The ultimate temptation comes with the devil telling her she can have everything she wants. It becomes a tension of trading out selfish gain for a kind of utility, even personal sacrifice in service of truth. Wonder Woman’s greatest strength once again is her perceptive empathy. This doesn’t fail even when the blockbuster does. 

The Truth

While it provides a radically new context for Koreeda’s cinema, the quietly meditative quality that pervades his work is still present. The content feels foreign to us, but the form is familiar. Logistically, you can only imagine how the principal members were able to pull it off without a shared language. Still, cinema prevails. It’s steeped in this history, real and imagined, as the real-life legacies of Deneuve and Binoche, in particular, provide a richer backdrop for the film. Within the context of this tenuous mother-daughter relationship, it’s hard not to consider aspects like the tragedy of sister Francoise Dorleac or the missed opportunity to work with Hitchcock.

However, as Deneuve has her granddaughter brush her hair, we see the actress’s face in the mirror, and it must give us pause. She’s older but poised and immaculate as she has been for generations.  It’s so easy to impart our own desires of what the movie might be. After all, we have some of the greatest talents in French cinema. In comparison, Koreeda’s picture feels slight and deliberate. But for the gracious viewer, all these elements might just play to its advantage. 

Christopher Nolan's 'Tenet' Hopes to Kick Off Moviegoing Again - Variety

Tenet

Christopher Nolan is a director with unparalleled ambitions in the realms of narrative. It’s true Tenet is firmly entrenched in the traditions of Memento and Inception as he sculpts with time, in this case inverted, like we’ve rarely seen it before. It brings together many of his fascinations and folds them into a globetrotting spy thriller. There is so much here. We sit back, our minds racing as we take in the spectacle and look to play catch up with the story.

Because it is a puzzle and cipher for us to break as John David Washington, Robert Pattison, and Elizabeth Debicki are all implicated. There’s only one problem; it seems like comprehensible emotional stakes are missing altogether because we spend the whole time trying to crack Nolan’s code. There’s room for nothing else. If you’re contented with the perplexity of it all, the pincers through time might be enough, but I have an inkling a myriad of people will be dissatisfied. Still, others will feel he’s outdone himself. He’s a director always up for a new challenge.  

Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods stands at the crossroads of Vietnam and the black experience carved out across a tumultuous half-century of American history. There can be no other soundtrack than Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Spike Lee is made to tell this story and he uses the tableau of newsreel footage to lay the groundwork for our story if it’s not already inculcated within our collective consciousness. It’s an impassioned collage of history, culture, and the like from Apocalypse Now’s “Flight of the Valkyrie” to John Huston’s Treasure of The Sierra Madre.

There are moments where the scripting feels corny and even the special effects feel abruptly unpolished. However, it revels in these moments of b-grade thrills creating a vehicle for a band of brothers to reunite in one last mission.  As our Bogey stand-in, Delroy Lindo positively seethes. Although when he marches off into the woods bellowing out the words of Psalm 23 or embracing his long-lost comrade Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), there’s a semblance of healing rising up through his veins. He aids in making the movie about something substantive.

My Top Films of 2020

These are some of the films that I enjoyed from 2020. Because I watched more new releases than is typical in the last few years, I went ahead and wrote capsule length reviews to keep it more manageable. Enjoy!

Minari 

Minari plays as another perspective on the American Dream. It’s an immigrant story insulated by the family unit. You have a melding of cultures born across a smattering of languages and cultural references from Mountain Dew to the resilient minari plant. I can’t think of anything more resolutely American. Any conflict comes from within and there are real decisions to be made, whether it’s in service of a father’s compulsion to provide for his family or a mother’s commitment to stay together at all costs. Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri are wonderful, but it’s just as much a story about their children or about the spirited grandma who comes to live with them.

These are living, breathing folks inspired by Isaac Lee Chung’s own experience and colored with the deep affections of personal filmmaking. There’s a tranquility about the film that feels like some sort of balm for the world we live in — if not this entire year — because hardship besets them as it does us. It’s taxing and dire. This is all but inevitable. This is life. Our only true sustenance comes from bringing family together, holding onto our loved ones, and praying for God’s daily mercies as we push forward. Though our experiences all differ, they converge at this one vital crossroad of understanding. Notice there is no “ending” to Minari. The fact that this lowly water wort flourishes, only after hardship, provides a symbolic glint of hope. 

Nomadland

There’s a reassuring shorthand that comes with Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again” familiar to anyone who has ever trekked across America or been on a road trip. Chloe Zhao’s film is cinema, travelogue, and National Geographic all rolled into one with spectacular images of both intimate and indescribable beauty. Because they are snapshots of life imbued with a resolute empathy. What an incomparable and honest treasure Frances McDormand remains fully humanizing this itinerant lifestyle. There’s a striking a cadence between Fern and the flora and fauna of the world around her. It joins the lineage of meditative, hypnotic moviemaking that’s come before it — films collaborating with nature — and thus blending God’s green earth and the human experience. By the end, we come to realize how unified they really are. 

Wolfwalkers

Draped in folklore and armed with long-held political division, Tomm Moore’s latest with Ross Stewart is as visually resplendent and verdant as ever with its golden hues of green. The fact that the local city is the picture of Cromwellian drudgery and repression only puts the adjoining forest in sharp relief. The populous is made to fear it and the wolves that live there, but it’s also a space of unimaginable magic.

Myth is effectively brought down to its most relatable and intimate. It becomes a war between worlds and ideologies made tangible through the trials of an intrepid girl and her hunter father. There’s a debilitating fear in the face of the powers that be and religious faith is militarized. Life is man vs. wolf. And yet in the face of this unyielding landscape, something extraordinary is born. Fairy tales become fact. Resurrection is real. Grief is ultimately supplanted by newfound joy.

Sound of Metal 

Riz Ahmed proves himself to be thoroughly committed to his role as a drummer who is impacted by a sudden loss of hearing. The premise is immediately intriguing, but he busts the story wide open as it becomes far more than a handy idea. We get so much in the realm of performance and sound, existential weight, and deep wells of human empathy. Olivia Cooke is in a symbiotic relationship with him — his fellow bandmate and lover — and as the movie evolves what a revelatory thing it is to see them both change. He finds a community that he can grow into even as he comes to terms with his hearing and the distant hope of regaining his senses through the latest technology.

She also has facets of her character and background that we only understand when they reconvene overseas. But we also witness how lives can go in different directions, and that’s not always a bad thing — it can somehow be cathartic even in the waves of ambiguity. The same might be said of silence in the face of noise. That stillness can be the Kingdom of God for some people. It’s not a deficiency or a tragedy, but an entirely new beginning. Sound of Metal also featured one of my favorite extended cameos of the year. 

Small Axe: Mangrove

I’ve seen In the Name of the Father and I’ve seen Notting Hill, but what Mangrove gives us is a powerful portrait showcasing another facet of this world. That is the rich Trinidadian culture that holds its rightful place in the ecosystem of mid-century London. Steve McQueen’s film makes it more about the world than the words spoken. We have the privilege of existing in a neighborhood, frequenting a local establishment fraught with all sorts of opposition.

Mangrove is a validation that big historical events are not the only way to galvanize — though the movie does evolve into a stunning courtroom drama. Still, this only reaps fruit when the grassroots ambitions of everyday people standing up for what they see as justice, join together as one. Self-representation is a powerful thing indeed and there’s something extraordinary about McQueen bringing to life a world that is so near and dear to his own heart. 

Small Axe: Lovers Rock

It feels like such an unassuming picture. We’re accustomed to blockbusters or Oscar hopefuls with often gluttonous runtimes. Lovers Rock is nothing like that. It’s lithe and exuberant in all the best ways, identifying this universal sense of burgeoning romance. And yet it plays as such a full-bodied, deeply engaged, and present evocation of a specific moment. This specificity is key, supplying its vital life-blood and culture while allowing it to be a fitting ode to a bygone era.

However, director SteveMcQueen also allows time to flow at its own pace, capturing the vibes in a room alive with black joy and a myriad of a cappella voices. It’s so easy to get lost in it as if we are in that very room experiencing the tremors and pulses making their way across the dance floor. Far from being a mere jukebox movie, it has a kind of real-world substance about it that feels genuinely pure and honest. For the uninitiated, it’s a pleasant surprise and no doubt worthy of future viewings. 

The Assistant 

Kitty Green’s film shies away from sensationalized drama and settles into a far more harrowing and morose sense of powerlessness. I’ve had the ability to stay well outside the film industry so it’s never been able to fully envelop me. But here there is no place to hide. We imbibe the weight of depression and helplessness piled on Julia Garner. One particularly excruciating scene with an HR rep turns painfully cruel.  However, this is not only a film about sexual harassment — although this is a crucial piece — it’s indicative of a toxic culture and mindset from the top down. 

Still, in showing her plight and the network of similarly situated co-conspirators, it doesn’t so much provide them greater agency as it shifts the story away from the bosses. It also provides some much-needed empathy. In the quiet rhythms of an oppressive job, undertaken by aspirational people who feel like they’re trapped and their dreams have turned into a nightmare, suddenly we’re there with them. It’s a powerful film just as it is pressing. It speaks into our cultural moment not with a blaring megaphone, but a whisper we would do well to heed. 

Collective 

This Romanian documentary exposé lays out the groundwork for the story ahead of us so there is no initial confusion. That comes later when we are enveloped in a harrowing world that feels akin to the “follow the money” moments in All The President’s Men and even takes cues from the dirty black marketeering immortalized by Orson Welles’ charismatic cad Harry Lime in The Third Man.

Here everything is current and fresh happening in front of us. First, a horrible fire and then incompetence throughout the national health system that leads to greater human tragedy. The aftermath brings out shockwaves of negligence within the government and more sinister intentions with national implications. It’s worthy of righteous anger from us all, but what’s greater and more profound is this pursuit of veracity in the face of deception. Transparency and truth are still powerful instruments for good. 

Farwell Amor

The movie begins with the kind of opening shot that makes you hold your breath. Long takes can be boring, but they can also imbue scenes with such a greater understanding. Farewell Amor is about a family living in the transitory state as immigrants reunited after many years apart. It becomes increasingly apparent that they must now cross another great divide. It’s no longer geographical but beholden to cultural differences and lost time. A husband and wife hardly know one another. Religious faith does not hold the same import in their lifestyles.

Meanwhile, a daughter must acclimate to a father who she has not seen since her youth. Through its Rashomon structure, we are privy to three empathetic points of view, and it makes for a powerful experience. How lives can be outwardly connected — sharing the same space — and somehow disengaged and aloof. You have three people living in their own worlds, coming to terms with what it means to be a family again. There’s such care and sensitivity, when it falls apart it galls me. There’s not so much a Pollyanna happy ending to the movie. Rather it’s a vow to abide and share each other’s burdens. After all, that’s what families are meant to do. 

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

The film title remains effectively obscured until a pivotal scene where the submerged depths of the iceberg are unearthed and human frailty is made fully known to us. But until that point, the movie is defined by this overarching bleakness — a high schooler’s slice of life — inundated with the numbing rhythms of work and school. Sidney Flanigan brings so much to the young woman even as she bends away from us. A pilgrimage to New York with her cousin to take care of an unwanted pregnancy makes us come face to face with her innate wounds.

Suddenly the movie unravels and becomes one of the most emotive empathy machines of the year. It breaks your heart. It’s so vulnerable. But the bottom line, the song she sings, is “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying.” The very same issues at the core of this film are full of emotional baggage in both religious and social spheres, but here they are allowed to be fully human, and I won’t say anything more for the time being. Broken people deserve dignity. This film looks to extend them this basic courtesy even as we can still grieve the outcomes. 

Beanpole 

Set in the context of post-WWII Russia, more so than almost any other country, you feel like these people know what hardship and tragedy engenders. There’s a matter-of-fact immediacy to everything that happens to these people — two young women who fought in the antiaircraft during the war and now serve the wounded as nurses. Of course, they have their own wounds both physical and emotional. Written on the page, moments of grief, pain, and blackmail feel like high drama, and yet here they are distilled into something both mundane and vulnerable. What a beautiful cast of characters they are and by this I mean in a way antithetical to conventional Hollywood glamor.

They feel real and honest with bodies and features that take on almost classical dimensions. Eyes say so much as do silence or an uninhibited, frenzied twirl in a dress. Against the rigidness and the jadedness of the world, there are these tiny acts of rebellion and by that I mean humanity. What does it mean to try to condone their behavior? Far more than that, it starts with beginning to understand even an iota of what they have experienced. 

One Night in Miami…

There are four men at the center of Kemp Howard’s reimagination of a fateful meeting: Malcolm X, Muhammid Ali, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown. It’s sobering to acknowledge that only one of them is still living and only two lived into old age. It’s talky and stagy, for good reason, but it’s also a film about those core issues at the very fabric of America’s tumultuous heart. There’s a moment late in the movie where Leslie Odom Jr. as Cooke sings “A Change is Gonna Come.” It signals a change in Cooke’s ambitions as an artist — more in the vein of a Bob Dylan perhaps — but I wasn’t thinking of that. I was nearly moved to tears. It’s moments like these I turn out to movies for — to be moved in unexplainable ways — but what is this emotion if it doesn’t lead to a visible change in my own life?

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Denzel Washington has shouldered a sacred mission to introduce the works of August Wilson to the uninitiated such as myself. What Ma Rainey has to offer has much to do with performance and a dialogue with heady topics, nevertheless carried out in a kind of cajoling, free-flowing style brimming with life, laughs, and animosity. It’s a film born on the stage and as such, it utilizes a limited, intimate space to navigate the cultural climate of the Jazz Age for black folks in particular. Conversations of cultural clout, the arts and ambitions of blacks in a white man’s world remain pertinent to this day.

While Viola Davis feels like the obvious standout as the eponymous, irascible, unfathomable Ma Rainey, it’s equally easy to be entranced by Chadwick Boseman. His spiritual anguish is probably one of the most affecting and terrifying cinematic experiences of this year. Oftentimes we are quick to heap praise or christen a posthumous performance a triumph, and yet in Boseman’s case, it feels true. He tears through his role with relish, alive with an irrepressible vitality and plagued with the kind of demons that make the film burn with a fire far greater than its simple premise. It’s the kind of characterization that sears into your mind’s eye, not soon to be forgotten. The same might be said of him. 

News of the World

Paul Greengrass hardly feels like a director of westerns, but here he helms one that takes the grand, blustering landscapes of the West and somehow makes them feel slight and less consequential. Try as I might, this is meant to be a compliment. Because at its center is Tom Hanks and a perfect riding companion Helena Zengel. Although, as the modern generation’s Jimmy Stewart, I would love to see Hanks dip into his vengeful side out on the range, his steady candor provides a disarming uprightness.

He need not revise the West just as he doesn’t rewrite his persona. Aside from his trade, he’s no Herculean gunslinger, and there are few grandiose moments, but the bits of characterization give us something to be relished for their universal humanity. Sometimes all you need is an actor set against a cinematic panorama and being rapt up in the moment is enough. It’s not quite John Ford and hardly Anthony Mann and yet it’s still a distinct pleasure to have a western again. 

On The Rocks

What a light and marvelous film this is because it’s not trying to be anything more. It’s about the mid-life malaise, it’s about a wife’s (Rashida Jones) suspicions of her ambitious husband (Marlon Wayans), and fathers and daughters, but it never aims for anything sordid. The streets of New York feel out of reach to me, but they are magical, and Coppola looks to be in love with the world as she is with Bill Murray. He has that same winking charm, older now (aren’t we all); always incorrigible, but real and honest. When he and Jones whistle “Laura’s Theme” in the back of a limo, I knew I was invested in the ride. It’s not Lost in Translation, and I’m thankful for that. 

Recommend: Driveways, I Used to Go Here, The Personal History of David Copperfield, I’m Your Woman, Boys State, Athlete A, Apocalypse ’45,