Premise: A live-action prequel feature film following a young Cruella de Vil.
How refreshing is it to finally see a Disney live-action film with some real style to it? Far too often with their live-action remakes, the end result works as an adaptation, but fails to make a convincing argument for its own existence. Beauty and the Beast looked great but was essentially a beat-for-beat remake of the animated classic. The same goes for The Lion King and Mulan. This time around, Disney had the good sense to forego the same route with 101 Dalmatians and explore an origin story by focusing on that film’s memorable villain.
Premise: Following a zombie outbreak in Las Vegas, a group of mercenaries take the ultimate gamble, venturing into the quarantine zone to pull off the greatest heist ever attempted.
A zombie Siberian tiger. An undead corpse’s microwaved hand. A needle-drop of The Cranberries’ “Zombie.” Sean Spicer. All of this – and so much more – are part of the lunacy and silliness that we have to look forward to with writer-director Zack Snyder’s newest film Army of the Dead. A master of opening credit sequences, Snyder includes a moment with a paratrooper dropping into a horde of zombies, where the parachute envelopes the screen, splattered with blood. The image is undoubtedly striking, but try to parse out the logic of the sequence, and your head will surely explode. Much like Snyder’s earlier 2021 release, Zack Snyder’s Justice League, and the majority of his filmography, the film continues to establish the director’s legacy of creating memorable images that reveal themselves to be fairly hollow upon further scrutiny.
Premise: David desperately tries to keep his family of six together during a separation from his wife. They both agree to see other people but David struggles to grapple with his wife’s new relationship.
With a title like The Killing of Two Lovers, you’d be forgiven if you were to go into it expecting a more violent drama. But director, screenwriter, and editor Robert Machoian has more on his mind than surface-level passion. Namely the slow and painful disintegration of a marriage, and everyone that gets sucked into its wake. Machoian’s film uses many impressive tricks and techniques to sell the ideas he’s working towards, but the film could ultimately be polished more in its shadings of some of the secondary characters.
Premise: A stowaway on a mission to Mars sets off a series of unintended consequences.
When a company like Netflix resolves to release at least one film per week in a given year, it remains harder and harder for any single film to stand out amongst the pack. For every Mank or The Irishman or Mudbound, there’s a hundred more films that serve as glorified filler material, taking up the same amount of bandwidth on the platform and competing for the same space in our ever-dwindling attention spans. Stowaway manages to hold its own in spite of all of this, and becomes a well-intentioned, character-based space drama.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)
Premise: Zack Snyder’s definitive director’s cut of Justice League. Determined to ensure Superman’s ultimate sacrifice was not in vain, Bruce Wayne aligns forces with Diana Prince with plans to recruit a team of metahumans to protect the world from an approaching threat of catastrophic proportions.
The internet can, on very rare occasions, be used as a force for good in the world. In 2017, Disney pulled the insufferable short film Olaf’s Frozen Adventure from Coco’s screenings after audiences voiced their overwhelmingly negative reactions. In 2019, Paramount re-tooled Sonic the Hedgehog after fans recoiled in horror at the reveal of the titular character’s look. And now, 4 years after its initial release, Warner Bros. has caved to its fans and released the long-fabled “Snyder cut” of Justice League.
Judas and the Black Messiah (2020)
Premise: Bill O’Neal infiltrates the Black Panther Party per FBI Agent Mitchell and J. Edgar Hoover. As Party Chairman Fred Hampton ascends, falling for a fellow revolutionary en route, a battle wages for O’Neal’s soul
I couldn’t help but think of Kurt Vonnegut’s famous quote from his 1962 novel “Mother Night” while watching Judas and the Black Messiah: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Vonnegut’s protagonist secretly worked to undermine the Nazis while still wearing the uniform, but was publicly and privately chastised for the rest of his life because of it. The novel, along with director Shaka King’s newest film Judas and the Black Messiah, brings to light an interesting moral conundrum: will we ultimately be remembered for our contributions to a cause, or our best intentions that we keep under the surface?
The Map of Tiny Perfect Things (2021)
Premise: Two teens who live the same day repeatedly, enabling them to create the titular map.
Filmmakers tend to take on projects in familiar genres for one of two reasons: One could be to explore a previously untapped or underutilized element of the genre. The other could be to put their own personal spin on the material. Martin Scorcese explored the long-lasting effects of the typically short-lived life of crime in The Irishman. Ryan Coogler imprinted the Black experience on Black Panther. Even last year, the time-loop genre went through a reinvention of sorts with Palm Springs. I’m not saying that the release of The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is hindered by its proximity to Palm Springs; rather, it’s that it has hardly anything new to say, in a genre with fairly limited breathing room to begin with.
Premise: An ex-convict strikes up a friendship with a boy from a troubled home.
Many elements of AppleTV+’s Palmer will probably seem familiar to many of its viewers, but the film still does offer some redeeming qualities. Fortunately, director Fisher Stevens imbues the film with enough heart, and fills the cast with capable actors from top to bottom, to get past any glaring issues. Stevens, primarily a documentarian behind the lens, makes the film feel like a real place, populated with real people, rather than mouthpieces trying to get an agenda across. Too often we take for granted that aspect of movie-making, and here it’s one more feather in Palmer‘s cap.
Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order):
- Athlete A
- Bad Education
- Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
- Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
- Dick Johnson Is Dead
- I Used to Go Here
- I’m Thinking of Ending Things
- Let Them All Talk
- The Nest
- Palm Springs
- Sound of Metal
- Yes, God, Yes
Premise: A young apprentice hunter and her father journey to Ireland to help wipe out the last wolf pack. But everything changes when she befriends a free-spirited girl from a mysterious tribe rumored to transform into wolves by night.
It’s been 6 years in the US since the latest film from Japanese master filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, which means that the animation world (and yours truly) has been sorely lacking an animated film with enough style and heart to break through the candy-coated onslaught of Disney and Pixar films.
Let Them All Talk (2020)
Premise: A famous author goes on a cruise trip with her friends and nephew in an effort to find fun and happiness while she comes to terms with her troubled past.
The title of director Stephen Soderbergh’s latest film feels less like a thematic summation and more like a way to describe Soderbergh’s method of approaching his subject matter. Filmed almost entirely aboard a cruise ship as it makes its way from New York to Southampton, the script reportedly consisted of minimal outlines from scene to scene, and the actors were left to improvise the rest. Soderbergh, who has made a habit lately of experimenting behind the scenes by filming entire movies on iPhones, may have finally found a gimmick that meshes successfully with his sensibilities. Of course, a film with no script can only be buoyed by the performances of its cast, and Let Them All Talk is brimming with talented actors.
Sound of Metal (2020)
Premise: A heavy-metal drummer’s life is thrown into freefall when he begins to lose his hearing.
I had an optometrist appointment several years ago, in which I was told by the end of it that my vision in my right eye was slightly worse than my left. Naturally, the diagnosis wasn’t ideal, but, considering my work as a photographer, the development left me even more worried. As most photographers do, I primarily use my right eye to look through the viewfinder while using my camera. How could I continue on as a photographer if I couldn’t see the pictures I wanted to take?
David Byrne’s American Utopia (2020)
Premise: Spike Lee documents the former Talking Heads frontman’s brilliant, timely 2019 Broadway show, based on his recent album and tour of the same name.
How does David Byrne follow-up Stop Making Sense, the concert documentary that birthed an entire genre, even if it’s had 36 years to marinate? As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Many of the elements that make Sense such a delight – the boundless joy and energy of everyone onstage, the production value, the musicality – are on display here, and it feels like Byrne hasn’t missed a step in the intervening years. And yet, it’s the moments between the music that sets American Utopia apart from its predecessor. Sense was simply a documentation of a band’s place in time, while Utopia has more on its mind, as Byrne tries to make sense of his place in the world. Sure, Talking Heads had larger ideas on display and made some grand statements with their lyrics, but Sense never aspired to be more than a concert documentary.
On the Rocks (2020)
Premise: A young mother reconnects with her larger-than-life playboy father on an adventure through New York.
Sofia Coppola’s films have, regrettably, been one of my biggest film blind spots of the 21st century. Until recently, when I watched her directorial debut (1999’s The Virgin Suicides), I had yet to see any of her films. Suicides revealed an auteur who could confidently write complicated characters in a unique and interesting way. Her latest film, On the Rocks, which is streaming now on Apple TV+, retains those same capabilities but slightly misses the mark on some crucial character work. The film reunites Coppola and Bill Murray, the star of her most successful film, Lost in Translation, for the first time since 2003 (save for a holiday special in 2015). Murray has built up a solid reputation as a comedian-turned-dramatic actor, and while his role here steers more towards comedic relief, he has clearly found a director who can utilize him properly while keeping him from going off the comedic deep end (again, I haven’t seen Lost in Translation, but he was nominated for an Oscar for the role).
Molto Bella (2020)
- Narrative Feature
- Director: Alexander Jeffery
- Screenwriters: Alexander Jeffery, Paul Petersen
- Producers: Alexander Jeffery, Paul Petersen, Richard Wharton
- Executive Producer: Wanda and Bob Ragsdale, Mary Jo and Steve Scott, Paul Burns, Tamra Corley
- Cast: Paul Petersen, Andrea von Kampen, Jason Edwards, Elizabeth Stenholt, Vincenzo Vivenzio
Premise: In the Sicilian town of Taormina, Italy, an aspiring poet in search of inspiration meets a folk singer trying to write a follow up to her breakout hit.