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 (2021)
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 father and daughter are on their way to dance camp when they spot the girl’s best friend on the side of the road. When they stop to offer the friend a ride, their good intentions soon result in terrible consequences.
Welcome to the Blumhouse. Based on a 2015 German film, Canadian thriller The Lie begins with Kayla (Joey King) killing her best friend Britney en route to a ballet retreat. Kayla’s father Jay (Peter Sarsgaard) decides to help cover up the crime and soon thereafter Kayla’s mother (and Jay’s ex-wife) Rebecca (Mireille Enos) is brought into the fold. Together the estranged family must protect Kayla from the authorities and Britney’s father (Cas Anvar), whose mounting frustration with the lack of answers as to the whereabouts of Britney becomes more and more threatening.
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.
Premise: This post-apocalyptic tale follows Augustine, a lonely scientist in the Arctic, as he races to stop Sully and her fellow astronauts from returning home to a mysterious global catastrophe.
George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, The Midnight Sky, tells of a world evacuated and a dying man keeping the light on to notify the last remnants of humanity. Unfortunately, what could have been a thought-provoking exploration of regret and isolation ultimately turns into a piecemeal rehash of genre and wilderness survival elements that were done much better in the films from which Clooney draws inspiration. He forsakes exposition in favor of needless ambiguity that leads to a payoff lacking the emotional resonance the film desperately needs. What’s left is a hollow and joyless expedition into the last days of Earth that’s devoid of any real intrigue.
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?
Premise: Chicago, 1927. A recording session. Tensions rise between Ma Rainey, her ambitious horn player and the white management determined to control the uncontrollable “Mother of the Blues”. Based on Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson’s play.
Adapted from August Wilson’s play of the same name, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has the energy of watching a stage production that’s morphed effortlessly onto film. This isn’t an easy accomplishment by any stretch and the fact that it’s pulled off so brilliantly here is a testament to George C Wolfe’s direction and overall vision for the film. The way the camera swings through sharp and incisive dialogue spoken between multiple characters in a green room gives the film a fluidity that can only be matched by seeing a stage performance. The camera commandeers the drama and makes it feel like the film itself is a ride through the interpersonal spats and ambitions of the characters without letting up. In terms of pacing, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is spectacular.
Fail Safe (1964)
Premise: A technical malfunction sends American planes to Moscow to deliver a nuclear attack. Can all-out war be averted?
Sidney Lumet’s classic political thriller Fail Safe is a masterpiece of tension and horrific verisimilitude. The film boasts a remarkable cast of characters played to wonderful effect by talented actors like Henry Fonda, Fritz Weaver, and Walter Matthau, to name a few. What is most striking (no pun intended) about Fail Safe is the manner in which the events and philosophical debates play out. Fail Safe uses an intense situation as a backdrop to address the fear of communism and “the other” head on. It also works overtime to depict a world where the people in charge of nuclear superpowers are human and fallible creatures. This creates an immersion like no other and a sense of unease that still hits home decades after its release.
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.