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Men

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“Men” is a somewhat deep, body horror take on toxic masculinity.

Written and directed by Alex Garland (Ex-Machina, Annihilation) “Men” follows Harper (Jessie Buckley) who after her ex-husband commits suicide, decides to go to an English countryside estate to clear her mind. Once there, she eats an apple from a tree and then meets a man, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) the caregiver of the house Harper will be staying in. He is nice enough; sheepish and awkward, but “harmless”.

The first day there she decides to venture out into the sprawling countryside for a walk, which leads her into the woods. As her walk continues, she seems more and more at peace. And then, off in the distance she sees a man. He is seated, but soon gets up and suddenly begins to run after at her. She runs back to the house, losing him and deeming this an isolated incident. But soon she will meet the men who live in a nearby town, who all seem to share the same face as the man from the woods.

A “woman in peril” A24 film just hits different. Sure, a movie like “Men” contains the traditional thriller/slasher tropes. We get an emotionally and literally isolated woman. We get the running and chasing sequences. We get countless sequences of a woman not being believed by authority figures. What this movie attempts to add is biblical symbolism atop the social commentary. “Men” contains lots of Adam and Eve, Garden of Eden, woman and nature verses patriarchy stuff. But the overarching story concerns our female protagonist’s grieving process post abusive relationship; similar to 2019’s “Midsommar”.

Much as in other A24 horror productions, dramatic lighting techniques act as an additional character, giving the story the proper atmosphere to allow a horror film with almost no jump scares to contain that slow burn unnerving effect throughout. Also adding to the unease was the wonderfully uncomfortable chemistry between the two leads, Buckley and Kinnear (Kinnear actually playing multiple roles). And Garland’s pacing was that of a well-made horror film; efficient and never boring.    

The criticisms: “Men” is the kind of horror that will help A24 fans sleep at night; right after they make a twenty-minute YouTube video entitled, “Men: Ending Explained”. It will also be a downright frustrating watch for those who are not looking for introspective horror.  There will be others who will give “Men” no points for ambition and somehow write this film off as not deep at all.  Furthermore, we must also be conscious as always, that “Men” is a film based entirely on female trauma told through the perspective of a woman, written and directed by a man.  That said, the flaws I took away from this were based on the fact that more than a few ideas and sequences here were very on the nose. Garland just doesn’t seem to trust that his audience understands his arguments and thus adds additional sequences to drive home his point. A continuous example of this is Garland’s representation of abuse throughout the film. For example: There is a scene where Harper tells her husband that she wants a divorce and he then threatens to kill himself. This is clear abuse on his part, but Garland then adds an additional sequence where the husband physically assaults Harper. It could be argued that this scene pertains to the story, but for me this and a few other sequences come off as repetitive, not giving audiences credit that we understand that abuse comes in many forms. But if that is my biggest criticism in a film which contains Cronenbergian birthing sequences, then Garland did a fairly good job.

Final Thought: I believe Garland’s point with “Men” was to capture what different kinds of male abuse look and feel like to a woman; but in a concentrated format. Does he accomplish this? I think he does. But again, as a man I can only speculate if the goal of a film like this was fully met.

Follow me on Twitter @moviesmarkus and on Instagram @moviesmarkus1      

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Cow

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Ever wonder why you never see documentaries about dairy cows?

The premise here is simple. We follow the lives of two dairy cows on a farm in England; a mother and her calf.

Directed by Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, American Honey) “Cow” doesn’t contain much talking throughout (other than some background conversations from the humans who work the farm) and would be considered a silent film; though the chorus of moos as baby cows are taken away from their mothers after the birthing process is deafening.        

The camera work is unflinching as well as astounding, as throughout my viewing I repeatedly asked myself how access to such abuse was allowed to be filmed by the farm in question. For the most part this documentary consists of handheld close-ups of everything from the birth of a cow, to the eyes of the mother cow as she frantically looks for her young after its removal, to the udders of a cow as milking machines are hooked-up to them for hours at a time.

The film is not relentless in the way you may think. Arnold breaks up the scenes of abuse with a few scenes of respite, where cows are eventually allowed to graze in an open field and gallop around a bit. The direction during these scenes work to reinforce that what we are seeing is a living, breathing, sentient creature. We get a scene of our main cow staring off into the horizon and then up into the sky and then curling up on the grass and taking a nap. And then inevitably, she is transferred back into her holding area where we follow her as she makes her daily walk back and forth from holding pen to milking pen, as radio pop hits play in the background; undoubtedly for the workers.     

We then get scenes of human males sticking their arms into her vagina over and over again, as they conduct inspections prior to insemination. Most of this in unbelievably hard to watch. “Cow” not only shows the physical toll this process takes on these cows, but also displays the slow spiritual death that occurs within these animals as they are used and abused for years until they are no longer viable.

Final Thought: The animal rights films which usually get a lot of exposure are the larger Netflix documentaries, where we are witness to mass animal genocide. These films come with stats and are quite important to the movement. But there is a place for smaller movies like “Cow” and “Gunda”. Documentaries which follow a few animals at a time, in this same world, under these same conditions, but allowing audiences to form a bond and empathize with the individual a bit better. The simple fact is all dairy cows are treated as depicted in this film; if not worse. They are inseminated. After they give birth, their calf is taken away from them and bottle fed. The mother cow is then hooked up to a machine and milked for human consumption. Then cows are inseminated again and the process starts all over again until they can no longer produce milk or their bodies break down so much that they can no longer stand. What Arnold does here is allow for this empathy to occur by showing us every part of this process. 

If you’ve gotten this far into my review you are probably sympathetic towards the plight of dairy cows already. You probably already are in agreement that these are sentient creatures and should not be treated in this manner. But after watching “Cow”, it’s clear that Arnold’s thesis goes a bit further. She put it in our faces that there is a species of female whose abuse is championed for profit. With this film she makes the claim that the abuse of cows in the dairy industry is a feminist issue on par with any other feminist issue in the world today.   

 Follow me on Twitter @moviesmarkus and on Instagram @moviesmarkus1

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Markus’ Oscar Predictions

The Oscars are upon us! Aren’t you excited? No? Still worried about the potential beginning of WW3? Fair enough. But why not take a break from that, and fill out an Oscar ballot with me.

For this article I will run down my picks for who I think will win along with who I would love to see win an Oscar for each of the 23 categories. And unlike the Oscars, I will be telling you the winners of every category, live, as you read this. And yes, I will go over my three-hour runtime.

Let me explain that last joke. The following categories will not be shown live during the Oscars telecast this year: Documentary short, film editing, makeup and hairstyling, original score, production design, animated short, live action short and sound.

OK, so admittedly this is not the best thing I’ve ever written, but…

Let’s begin!

BEST PICTURE:

What I want to win: “West Side Story”. I get it. You didn’t watch it. But trust me, it’s really good. And the funny thing is, it won’t win even though this “Steven Spielberg cut” is actually better than the original 1961 film which won Best Picture. Hmmmm…

What I think is going to win: “The Power of the Dog”. A lot of front-runners on this list seems to have lost momentum throughout these past few months, such as “Licorice Pizza” and “Belfast”. And “The Power of the Dog” is a movie which has already picked up a few of the bigger awards this season (Best Picture at the Critics’ Choice Awards and the Golden Globes) for reasons I’ll never understand. Sorry if I sound snarky, but I’ve seen this movie twice and it really didn’t meander any less the second time around. The acting is great, yeah, but to be honest I’ll be mad if it wins.

You know what? I’m changing my mind. Yeah, I can do that. I think “CODA” is going to win. It’s a solid heartwarming film for the whole family and it’s not “The Power of the Dog”.

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE:

Who I Want to Win: Anybody but Javier Bardem for “Being the Ricardos”. I’m so mean. But seriously, literally anybody else in this category (Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Garfield, Will Smith, Denzel Washington) deserves to be recognized for their spectacular performances. But Bardem as Desi Arnaz, that’s not it.  

Who I think will win: Will Smith for “King Richard”. Proving yet again why he is such a powerhouse actor; Smith has been cleaning up this awards season and rightfully so.

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE:

Who I want to win: Troy Kotsur for “CODA”. Kotsur, who has also been sweeping up this awards season, really delivers in his role as a deaf parent. Not only that, but his award worthy performance is yet another statement on how far Hollywood still needs to come in terms of inclusivity.  

Who I think will win: Troy Kotsur: See explanation above.

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE:

Who I want to win: Kristen Stewart for “Spencer”. Though I still feel that this is a two-person race between Stewart and Jessica Chastain for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”, I believe Stewart holds the better performance. Also, after seeing a lot of her more recent independent work, wouldn’t it be great to see her receive an Oscar?

Who I think will win: Kristen Stewart for “Spencer”.  What makes this category so hard to predict is how Stewart was a lot of people’s picks to sweep this category for awards season back when “Spencer” was released. But it seems she’s lost a lot of momentum, as she’s continued to lose out to Chastain, as well as having not even been nominated for a SAG or a BFTA award.

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE:

Who I want to win: Ariana DeBose for “West Side Story”. My love for “West Side Story” doesn’t end with Spielberg. She sings, she dances, DeBose gives one of the best performances of any actor in 2021.  That said, I’d also love to see Aunjanue Ellis win for “King Richard”. She gives an understated performance that will likely be acknowledged when Will Smith makes his acceptance speech.

Who will win: Ariana DeBose for “West Side Story”: She’s won every supporting role award this season. Did I mention she sings and dances?

ANIMATED FEATURE FILM:

What I Want to Win: “Luca”. So many outstanding films in this category, but “Luca” was one of my favorite films of the year and one of the most important with the portrayal of homosexual central characters; I don’t care how hard Disney tries to deny it. Also, quick shout out for “Flee”, a movie that will have no chance to win in any of the categories it’s nominated in, but is an award worthy contender in every one.

What will win: “Encanto” because all of your kids and the voter’s kids have seen it and can sing every song.

CINEMATOGRAPHY:

Who I want to win: Greig Fraser for “Dune” is my runaway pick to win. That said, this is one of the only categories where I wouldn’t be upset if “The Power of the Dog” won. Ari Wegner is a talented cinematographer who makes tepid films watchable.

Who will win: Greig Fraser for “Dune” because, have you seen “Dune”?!

COSTUME DESIGN:

Who I want to win: Paul Tazewell for “West Side Story” is my pick. My proof being every dress in this movie.

Who will win: Jenny Beavan for “Cruella”. Disney’s “Cruella” is a film about fashion designers. Game over. Admittedly Beavan is a super accomplished costume designer with eleven Oscar nominations to her name. And what she does with the costumes here are pretty creative. In fact, the costume aspect of this film was such a standout in what I found to be a simply above average film, that a win here will be an opportunity to recognize “Cruella” for something it actually got right.   

DIRECTING:

Who I want to win: Steven Spielberg for “West Side Story”, because (as I stated earlier) he is a huge reason as to why this film is better than an original, which is arguably the greatest theatrical musical of all time.

Who will win: *SIGH* Jane Campion for “The Power of the Dog”. Not, to say that she isn’t deserving for the look of this film (I would give more love to the cinematographer than Campion herself). But the fact that the film is almost intentionally dull for the majority of its runtime, has to fall on her. This is just my opinion of course. And I’m in the minority, as many critics and audiences alike loved this “slow burn” of a western. Also, I personally don’t care to hear more Campion acceptance speeches. But again, maybe that’s just me.  

DOCUMENTARY (FEATURE):

Who I want to win: “Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised)”. While every film nominated in this particular category should be sought out, I really want to see Questlove’s documentary debut “Summer of Soul” take this one home. Also, as much as I love the fact that “Flee” again pops up in this category, “Summer of Soul” and the story behind how it was filmed, put together and why footage from this Black Woodstock (The Harlem Cultural Festival) is only being seen today, is a historical achievement.

Who will win: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Joseph Patel, Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein for  “Summer of Soul (or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”, for all of the reasons I stated above, and also It’s another film that has been sweeping it’s category this awards season.   

DOCUMENTARY (SHORT SUBJECT):

Who I want to win: Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk for “Lead Me Home”. I may be biased because I am from an area where this was partially filmed, but I found this really moving and eye opening. It focuses on the unhoused community who live on the streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles, putting a face and a name and a story to these individuals who are suffering every day in our own backyards.

Who will win: Ben Proudfoot for “The Queen of Basketball” is the heavy favorite to take this category. An important and powerful story about the first and only woman to be drafted into the NBA. So, if this film wins, it will be well deserved.

FILM EDITING:

Who I want to win: Joe Walker for “Dune”. It’s one of the best put together films of the year. And for how much information needs to come across to audiences, Walker succeeds in making this very dense narrative feel like a well-paced sci-fi blockbuster.

Who will win: Joe Walker for “Dune”. I feel like it’s just extremely difficult to deny what “Dune” does in terms of its watchability.

INTERNATIONAL FEATURE FILM:

Who I want to win: “Flee”. I would love for this animated documentary about a gay man retelling his escape from mid-80’s Afghanistan as a young boy, take this award. “Flee” is a film I didn’t see until recently, but the subject of “Flee” is a voice that needs to be recognized on a larger stage. I just wish this was the stage.

Who will win: “Drive My Car”. Okay, so here is another critically acclaimed film that I just didn’t love. The dialogue is well written, but boy was this a slog to get through. And that’s shocking because I usually love three-hour films about depression, sorrow and loss.

MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING:

Who I want to win: Linda Dowds, Stephanie Ingram and Justin Raleigh for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”. The first shot of the movie is a close up of Tammy Faye’s face. This sets the tone for the makeup and hairstyling for the rest of the film.

Who will win:  Linda Dowds, Stephanie Ingram and Justin Raleigh for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”. Jessica Chastain’s eye makeup is good too.

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SCORE)

Who I want to win: Jonny Greenwood for “The Power of the Dog”. For the amount of shade I’ve thrown at “The Power of the Dog”, there is a lot it gets right. And Jonny Greenwood’s unsettling score is one of those things.

Who will win: Jonny Greenwood for “The Power of the Dog”. I feel that the acclaim for this film is already there and so this will assuredly be one of the most noncontroversial wins of the night.

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SONG):

What I want to win: “No Time To Die”, music and lyrics by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell.

What will win: “No Time To Die”, music and lyrics by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell.

OK, SO…here’s the thing. “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from Encanto has become this smash hit that’s on the radio 24/7 and now we can’t stop (or refuse to stop) singing it. So, why is the one “Encanto” song nominated “Dos Oruguitas”? a song nobody cares about. This is baffling.  

PRODUCTION DESIGN:

What I want to win: “Dune”. Again, I believe “Dune” is just that visually stunning. While a close second would be a tie between “West Side Story” and “Nightmare Alley”, the team of Patrice Vermette and Zsuzsanna Sipos build this world that many filmmakers have attempted and failed. But they nailed it.

What will win: “Dune”. This is a clear opportunity to acknowledge the visual achievements of this film, although I don’t think this category is as “open and closed” as many may think it is. If the award does go to “West Side Story” or “Nightmare Alley”, I wouldn’t be at all shocked.

SHORT FILM (ANIMATED):

Shockingly, the most disturbing category of the Oscars. You heard me.

Who I want to win: I really really really really REALLY want to say Hugo Covarrubias and Tevo Diaz for “Bestia” (the animated film with bestiality), because it’s so twisted and so Lynchian and so “am I supposed to be seeing this?”. But my newly found tender heart will say Dan Ojari and Mikey Please will win for “Robin Robin”, the only child-friendly film of the bunch. Even though I believe its songs are really lackluster, “Robin Robin” is undeniably cute.

Who will win: Dan Ojari and Mikey Please for “Robin Robin”. It’s a stop motion animated film about a bird who is raised by mice and just wants to fit in. It’s undeniably adorable and the least offensive of the group. It’s also the least important in terms of the evolution of animation. Which means, it will definitely win.

SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION):

Who I want to win: There was only one film (“On My Mind”) which I thought was underwhelming. The rest are so hard hitting and disturbing in most cases. My pick to win is Aneil Karia and Riz Ahmed for “The Long Goodbye”, even though the odds where high that I’d choose a film called “The Dress” because of my nihilist tendencies. With “The Long Goodbye” we are given a disturbing look at a violent and racially charged dystopia that may be closer than we want to believe.

Who will win: Aneil Karia and Riz Ahmed for “The Long Goodbye”. Although, this is yet another category where I wouldn’t be surprised if a few other films won. “Please Hold” is a form of sci-fi anti-capitalism comedy that we don’t see enough, done exceptionally well. But “The Long Goodbye” is a film I’ve been hearing awards talk about for nearly a year now, so in fact this may not be as close of a race as I’m trying to make it seem.

SOUND:

Who I want to win: Is it a negative that I think “Dune” should win every technical award? I don’t think it is. Denise Yarde, Simon Chase, James Mather and Niv Adiri for “Dune”.

Who will win: Denise Yarde, Simon Chase, James Mather and Niv Adiri for “Dune”. As, much as I want to pick “West Side Story” because of how good this musical sounds, “Dune” is the clear winner here. Unless the Academy voters wants to mix things up, “Dune” will win.

VISUAL EFFECTS:

OK, so this is a tough one, only because any of the films nominated could and should win this category.

Who I want to win: Am I going to really say “Dune” again? Yeah. I am. Paul Lambert, Tristan Myles, Brian Conner and Gerd Nefzer for “Dune”.

Who will win: Anybody could take this, but actually I feel that the 007 franchise is so beloved by the industry, that Charlie Noble, Joel Green, Jonathan Fawkner and Chris Corbould are likely to pick this one up for “No Time To Die”.

WRITING (ADAPTED SCREENPLAY):

Who I want to win: Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe for “Drive My Car”. Just kidding. It’s still boring. The script was admittedly very well written, but I’d love to see Maggie Gyllenhaal’s script for “The Lost Daughter” win. It was personally my favorite script nominated of 2021.  

Who will win: I feel this will be a strong night for Jane Campion and “The Power of the Dog”. I’ve heard that “CODA” is the front-runner in this category, but I feel strongly that “The Power of the Dog” could take another “W” at an awards show like the Oscars.  Although, “The Lost Daughter” has a good chance as well.      

WRITING (ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY):

Who I want to win: Adam Mckay for “Don’t Look Up”. I continue to champion all aspects of this satire, especially the script. Allegorical, hilarious and timely, this screenplay is my favorite McKay piece of writing.

Who will win: Paul Thomas Anderson for “Licorice Pizza” will be thrown a bone here. This category is clearly a two-way race between two films that seem to have lost a lot of momentum this awards season. In reality, Kenneth Branagh’s script for “Belfast” could take the Oscar as well. “Licorice Pizza” recently won Best Original Screenplay at the BAFTA’s and “Belfast” won in the same category at the Critics’ Choice Awards. This is a completely 50/50 category. A race to see what movie isn’t totally humiliated after so much initial buzz.

So, there you have it. My picks. As always, this does not constitute legal advice and if you want to see more of my work follow me on Twitter @moviesmarkus and on Instagram @moviesmarkus1

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The Batman

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I understand that a superhero movie with the runtime of nearly three hours may not be continuously entertaining. That said, there was a lot I liked about “The Batman”.

Synopsis: When the Riddler (Paul Dano) begins to kidnap and record the murders of high-profile individuals in Gotham City, Batman (Robert Pattinson) is forced to intervene.      

The film’s flaws do stem from its runtime, as this episodic story doesn’t warrant anything over two hours and fifteen minutes. But as a Batman movie, what director Matt Reeves does to separate himself from the Christopher Nolan’s or the Tim Burton’s of the world, is two things:

1. Reeves tweaks the genre. In this neo-noir, Reeves takes his time establishing the world of Gotham and blends it quite nicely with a predictable murder mystery. He makes the argument that his film is a whodunit where the detective role just so happens to be played by a superhero. And while a detective may be an accurate description of what Batman has always been, in the past it has been action/superhero elements that have been the focus.

2. Reeves grounds Batman in a level of realism. This is one of the younger versions of big screen Batman. And so, he’s also visually a skinnier, less imposing version. This Batman is shown to have a privileged, immature mindset towards the concept of right and wrong at times, as would be expected being he is a young billionaire. And lastly, Reeves makes the world around Batman react to the fact that this is not only a “vigilante”, but a man in the suit and mask, and the entire getup. When Batman walks into clubs or onto crime scenes, he is looked at by others exactly as most of us would look at someone who was entirely out of place in the world, standing in the middle of the room with a Batman costume on. I believe Reeves highlights this aspect throughout purposely to create an imposing, but less authoritative character. This may be the most vulnerable Batman I’ve ever seen.

Since the story and the atmosphere play such a heavy role, I feel as though the acting did become sidelined and masked by a melodramatic tone throughout. Not to say that there aren’t fine performances. Most here are completely serviceable. Although, I think Dano is a damn good Riddler, even if some may downplay his performance, comparing him to Heath Ledger’s Joker.  As for Pattinson, I feel it’s hard to judge if he is actually good or bad in this. Much in the same way that I found it hard to judge Ben Affleck or Christian Bale, as these brooding Batmen are tasked to simply not smile. And, Pattinson does just that.

Final Thought: There have been so many versions of Batman in recent years, that in retrospect going into “The Batman” all I really wanted was something different. So yes, a chunk of my high rating is due to this particular Reeves interpretation of the character and not so much the story itself.  While I do agree that the movie doesn’t hit as hard as anything in the Nolan trilogy, “The Batman” gives us said different look, on top of being an entertaining film overall, with some of the better-looking action sequences I’ve seen in recent years. 

Follow me on Twitter @moviesmarkus and on Instagram @moviesmarkus1

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My Top Ten Films of 2021

I hate long intros, so let’s get right into this list. In a year packed with more film excellence than 2020 (for obvious reasons) the following are what I’d say were the ten best films of 2021.

10. Don’t Look Up:

A movie that warmed my anti-capitalist heart, “Don’t Look Up” reaffirms that nobody in power cares about you, social media is a distraction, and we are stuck in a patriarchal society that hates women and wouldn’t believe them even if a female scientist had evidence of a comet hurdling towards earth to kill us all. Moral of the story…welcome to earth (specifically the United States). 

In what is an allegory for the climate crisis, this story sees a scientist (Jennifer Lawrence) discover that a comet is going to hit the earth in six months and fourteen days. This will be an apocalyptic level event. She and a colleague (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) alert the proper authorities and even the President, but nobody seems to take the scientists seriously until the comet suddenly becomes a capitalistic opportunity. This is a comedy.

Writer/director Adam McKay absolutely hits the mark here, creating a giant timely reference. In his “fictionalized” version of the United States billionaires run the world, the main stream media only cares about headlines and so do influencers and so does the President. And also, dumb people hate science. This is the most Terry Gilliam film I’ve seen in a while, with a sprinkle of Coen brothers realness.

9. CODA:

This may be the strangest film on my list, not for any other reason than its damn formulaic and damn uplifting. I’m usually very much into downer films.

“CODA” stands for “Child of Deaf Adults”. It follows a high schooler named Ruby who is the only person in her family who isn’t deaf. One day she decides to join a music class, as she is a very talented singer but doesn’t seem to realize it yet. An eccentric teacher sees potential in her and spends the movie trying to challenge her to go off to music school. But as the only non-deaf person in her family, she feels that her destiny is to stay and take care of her parents. F-O-R-M-U-L-A-I-C! That said, the formula works quite well.  Very Disney in tone, with every loose end tied up by the end, “CODA” is undeniably heartfelt, funny and contains real gravity and stakes.

The characters are all likeable and we root for them the entire time. The acting is quite effective (the mother is played by Marlee Matlin) and the director does a great job of spotlighting deaf dialogues, with scenes of real deaf actors communicating for entire scenes without vocal breaks; which sounds like an obvious move in a film with this subject matter, but it’s something that really isn’t seen in film today. Sure, there are plot holes. And yes, movies like this may not make a lot of people’s top ten, but it’s really not up for debate how well this gets you right in the feels and never let’s go.

8. Spencer:

“Spencer” portrays Princess Diana, trapped at the end of a loveless marriage, surrounded by the most powerful family in the world, hopelessly marching towards the gallows, accompanied by a Jonny Greenwood orchestral score which swings back and forth between avant-garde jazz and classical; a decision which wonderfully complements a woman who famously stood in between two worlds. Beginning with a screen text which reads “A fable from a true tragedy”, visionary director Pablo Larrain (Jackie) gives us a brief glimpse into the life of Diana, as she attempts to break free from a world that at first glance could be mistaken for a fairytale.  His vision gives us something different, more surreal and far less narrative driven. The camera floats alongside Diana as she ventures outside on her own, almost getting lost amongst the seemingly never-ending world around her. And inside the estate Larrain creates a very claustrophobic feel, as the walls of opulence close in on the princess; establishing this as a fully immersive Diana experience. But also layered, because as much of a movie about Diana as “Spencer” is, it very much attempts to be a film about women trapped under the weight of the patriarchy. For as we root for Diana’s rejection of this life, Larrain quietly but consistently reminds us all about how these fairytales tend to end. 

Also, Kristen Stewart plays Diana in the role that will win her an Academy Award, creating a character all her own, not so much doing an impression, but an interpretation, giving a very Meryl Streep level performance.  And so it goes, a Kristen Stewart movie has finally made it onto one of my top ten lists. I totally get it. I’m late getting on this bandwagon.  

7. Dune (part one):

Denis Villeneuve makes perfect sci-fi. I need this on a tee-shirt.

Writer/director Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2024, Arrival) adapts Frank Herbert’s notoriously difficult to adapt “greatest science fiction novel of all time”. (Seriously, look up the history of attempts to adapt “Dune).

The film sees House Atreides gain power over the planet Arrakis aka Dune; a desert planet filled with many dangers, including massive Godzilla-sized worms (sandworms); calling them worms may be selling these visually grandiose creatures short. This planet is also the home to a native peoples called Fremen and a valuable mineral referred to as “spice”, which makes interstellar travel possible. The story soon finds Paul Atreides (the youngest member of this house) encountering conflict involving spice mining, double crossing, and the aforementioned big ass worms. But Paul is no ordinary duke. He may or may not be a messiah of sorts, whether he wants to be or not.      

As expected, there is a ton of exposition which I saw and accepted as necessary in order to adapt a book like “Dune”; even again when you take into account that it’s a two hour and thirty-five-minute “part one”. Villeneuve handles the pre-action stuff by acknowledging the extensive exposition and (with the help of cinematographer Greg Fraser) establishes his brand of spectacular visual effects from minute one. This along with Han Zimmer’s score, carry the first hour of this movie until everyone is up to speed.  While there are many reasons why this film works, it’s greatest achievement will not be the film’s adaptation integrity, but the fact that as a visual sci-fi experience it works for the masses. And with a world this complex, this is the best compliment I can give.  

6: Titane:

The hardest sell on this list. Even though “Titane” is an award-winning film, it’s not one for everyone and will definitely turn people off who aren’t into extreme visuals. Also, even though I saw this film months ago, I will admit that I still don’t fully understand everything the director was trying to say and am eager for a second viewing. So, why would a film that I’m not totally sure I understood, be on this list?

Allow me to explain: Written and directed by Jula Ducournau, this is a horror film which follows a woman who develops a sexual attraction to cars after a childhood car accident. This car accident has left her with a titanium plate in her head. As an adult she works as a dancer, dancing atop classic cars for men. She has become a celebrity to these men, who find her as irresistible as she finds them repulsive. One night, she kills an aggressive fan after he chases her to her car. After which, she has intercourse with a car. After that she goes on a killing spree. Mid-spree she discovers she is pregnant with what we can only assume is a car baby. As she attempts to evade the police, she hides disguising herself as the long-lost son of a local fire chief. And then things get weird.

How am I doing selling this movie?

On its face “Titane” can be shrugged off as a body horror, extreme cinema and nonsensical slasher. But like Ducournau’s previous picture “Raw” there is so much more going on with this movie than just surface and visuals (the visuals are beautifully shot by the way). At its core this movie challenges and addresses gender stereotypes, toxic masculinity, childhood trauma and transphobia in very profound ways.

It’s easy to say that this is simply a movie about a woman who kills. And I think that’s the point. This brilliantly chaotic piece of filmmaking seems to being saying that if all you see is the violence or the sex, and/or all you get out of this movie is “a woman dresses like a boy”, this may say something more negatively about you than you’d like to admit.

5. Shiva Baby:

An anxiety attack told in one hour and seventeen minutes, “Shiva Baby” is a dark comedy about a woman in her early twenties named Danielle who finds herself at a Jewish funeral with her overbearing parents, her ex-girlfriend and her “sugar daddy”, who turns out is married with an infant.

Written and directed by Emma Seligman, as much as “Shiva Baby” is a comedy of unfortunate events, it’s filmed at times like a zombie movie (frantic soundtrack and all) as Danielle, unable to leave this situation, is surrounded by a crowded room full of flippantly passive aggressive family conversation, random family friends touching her stomach and commenting on how she’s “too skinny” and the aforementioned crying infant.

The movie is sharp, hilarious and had me on the edge of my seat. It’s basically the party sequence from “The Graduate”, just cranked up to eleven.

4. Gunda:

The only documentary on my list and it’s the anti-meat one, shot in black and white. Sounds about right.

Directed by vegetarian Viktor Kosakovskiy and produced by vegan Joaquin Phoenix, “Gunda” is a nature documentary without narration and without any soundtrack (all sounds are diegetic). It’s about ninety minutes long and in it we follow a group of animals; some who are living on an animal sanctuary and others who are living on a farm. The animals prominently featured are a mother pig and her newborn piglets. The film opens with a scene of a mother pig feeding her newborn litter. And we follow the mom and her children as the newborns grow.

The point of this film is animal activism. As a vegan I have seen all the slaughterhouse videos. I have seen cruel and unspeakable acts by humans towards living sentient creatures. These videos are commonplace in the community and used as ways to open people’s eyes to the atrocities of animal agriculture. And it does work sometimes. “Gunda” gives an alternative to videos of brutality and throat slashing violence. And it does it majestically.

I believe there is a place for film like “Gunda” which makes the same case (if not stronger) for animal sentience. It shows that a piglet or calf, etc. will suckle from their mother’s teat, will play like puppies and will look to their mothers for guidance when navigating a large field, if you let them. Also, a mother pig or a cow, etc. will feed and raise their young, if you let it. 

While there is no blood and no slaughterhouse shown in this film, there is a third act which will have audiences emotionally distraught as we begin to understand the fate which awaits these creatures.

3. Luca:

“Luca” is the story of a young boy sea monster named Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) who has become infatuated with seeing what lies above the surface and on the coastal Italian town of Portorosa. He is told by his parents that good kids (sea monsters) don’t venture to the surface. But when another boy sea monster his own age, Alberto (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer) sparks his curiosity by showing him that he can venture onto land and change into human form once on the surface, Luca soon discovers that this place may be where he’s meant to be.

This is a whimsical Pixar Italian folktale for sure, with all that entails. High quality animation, entertaining story with lots of levity, but also themes of fear, loss and acceptance told in a way that a child can digest. That said, it’s not hard to see “Luca” for what it is, with a particularly tender relationship between these two boys at its forefront and telling a story where these boys must hide their identity for fear of being hurt; where on multiple occasions they are referred to as “kids who are different”. While the plot of “Luca” could be seen as more simplistic than others in the Pixar canon, it’s more than a little exciting to finally see a film like this. An animated film which carries the same Pixar award worthy standards, and also celebrates an LGBTQ+ story; even if the corporate machine behind it attempts to gaslight us all, denying this watershed moment.     

This is one of the most important movies in the history of animated film.  

2. West Side Story:

How do you make arguably the greatest musical in history even better? Let Steven Spielberg have a go. This remake of the 1961 film and/or the 1957 Broadway production, is a masterclass.

We all know this Romeo and Juliet inspired story. Boy (Ansel Elgort) and girl (Rachel Zegler) from different sides of the tracks (one white, the other Puerto Rican) fall in love despite their families wishes and fighting ensues. Anyway, expectations were high and expectations were exceeded.

Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner actually add elements to the source material, which in another director’s hands would be catastrophic. But every element added gives this version more life and context and allows the characters to become more three dimensional. It’s undeniable.    

Spielberg continues, giving audiences camerawork which seems to dance and glide alongside choreography so breathtaking that it made the entire theater vibrate. 

He also gives us Latino characters speaking Spanish without the addition of subtitles, a move which may not seem like much to some, but to those who never looked to the original for representation, this is one of the touches which reinforces that this is also a Latino story. Furthermore, this film contains far more Afro-Latino representation than Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” (big eyes emoji).

This acclaimed filmmaker is asked to remake a legendary film. And what he does is make it his own while also pausing at times to reenact iconic shots, paying homage by creating sequences which look visually as though we are back watching the 61’ version; giving us fans all the nostalgia feels. 

Watching this movie reminded me why Steven Spielberg is the greatest director alive.

1. Last Night in Soho:

If anyone could fit this much movie into one experience it would be Edgar Wright.

In this female lead horror, with the best soundtrack of the year, writer/director Edgar Wright tells the story of Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie), a young woman from the country who gets a chance to go to London to pursue her dream of becoming a fashion designer. It’s alluded that she’s had some sort of breakdown in the past and that London might be overwhelming for her. Ellie rents a room in an old house and when she falls asleep, she begins to have dreams (or visions) where she is transported to 1960’s London, where she seems to become this other woman, an aspiring singer played by Anya Taylor-Joy. Ellie becomes enamored as each night she falls asleep and lives through this mysterious other woman. But theses dreams turn to nightmares, as she discovers that London has a darker side and the true monsters in this horror story are men.

Visually this film is delicious, with every stylized sequence popping and grabbing and pulling the audience into the film, just as the protagonist is pulled into 1960’s London. The script is perfect, fluidly sliding in, out and around the horror genre, building into a quite unexpected mystery.  

“Last Night in Soho” is the culmination of every Wright movie. It is a masterpiece which gave me the same feeling I got the first time I watched Hitchcock.

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Here are 15 movies that didn’t make my top ten list, but I still enjoyed and would recommend.

11. Eternals

12. Violet

13. Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

14. Candyman

15. A Quiet Place Part 2

16. Godzilla vs. Kong

17. Benedetta

18. Annette

19. Encanto

20. The Mitchells vs. the Machines

21. C’mon C’mon

22. Judas and the Black Messiah

23. In the Heights

24. The Green Knight

25. Licorice Pizza

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Belfast

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Mostly shot in black and white (cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos does some award worthy work here) and written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, “Belfast” is the semi-autobiographical story of Branagh’s childhood set in Belfast, Ireland 1969 during a series of mounting attacks on Catholic families by Protestant gangs.

We see this through the eyes of a young boy named Buddy, played in memorable fashion by Jude Hill. Hill does for this movie what Roman Griffin Davis did for “Jojo Rabbit”. Buddy is a fairly happy child who enjoys spending time with his parents (Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan) and grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds). He also has a crush on a girl at school, goes to church and prays that God will make him a famous soccer player and loves to go to the cinema. In the background we see the unrest in this neighborhood and the pressure to pick a side that eventually forces Buddy’s parents to make a life altering decision regarding their future in Belfast.  

Other than the fantastically warm performances from the entire cast, “Belfast” is enjoyable due to its levity throughout. The story of a family who must choose whether or not to leave their home set against the backdrop of the Northern Ireland riots, shockingly plays out as pretty standard. It’s the continuous moments of charm from the children’s coming of age conversations, to the grandparent’s playful banter and words of wisdom, making this film feel nostalgic, that creates a strong heartbeat for “Belfast”. This also seems to be a love letter to the American cinema, and the music of Van Morrison…for better or for worse.

Final Thought: “Belfast” is a film which has had a ton of Oscar buzz around it. And because of that, my expectations going in where set at a relatively high level. And while it’s extremely charming and had me caring about this particular family, I wouldn’t regard this as one of the best films of 2021. There really isn’t much more to say about this film, which sounds like a bad thing, but it isn’t necessarily. It is simplistically enjoyable, just not wildly memorable.

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Spencer

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Beginning with a screen text which reads “A fable from a true tragedy”, visionary director Pablo Larrain (Jackie) gives us a brief glimpse into the life of Princess Diana, as she attempts to break free from a world that at first glance could be mistaken for a fairytale.

During a three-day fictional Christmas gathering with the royal family at the Sandringham estate in England, we follow Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) during the final days of her marriage; though the film is much more a haunting foreshadowing of her death.

Kristen Stewart should be the frontrunner to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. Let’s make that clear. She is made to look like Diana and as an American actress, her British accent is quite impressive. That said, after only a bit of time spent watching her, it begins to hardly matter how closely she embodies the princess. It’s almost irrelevant, as Stewart creates a character all her own, not so much doing an impression, but an interpretation, giving a very Meryl Streep level performance.

Alongside Stewart’s performance, “Spencer” as a film should very much be a part of the “best of” conversations, as it is clearly one of the best movies of 2021, due very much to Larrain’s direction, in conjunction with a solid script and an unsettling score.

“Spencer” portrays a woman at the end of a loveless marriage, surrounded by the most powerful family in the world, hopelessly marching towards the gallows, accompanied by a Jonny Greenwood orchestral score which swings back and forth between avant-garde jazz and classical, a decision which wonderfully complements a woman who famously stood in between two worlds.

The script written by Steven Knight (Locke, Eastern Promises) is simply marvelous. At one point Diana describes her situation as something akin to getting her limbs ripped off one by one, as those doing the ripping comment on how much she struggles. I can’t remember the last time I applauded a writer for being this on the nose with their dialogue, but it does work extremely well.

Final Thought: I remember coming out of “Jackie” and feeling more or less empty about the entire film. So, my fear going into “Spencer” was that it would be a movie made only for the monarchy obsessed. For those who had read every book, heard every podcast and binge-watched “The Crown”. But credit to Larrain’s vision, as he gives us something different, more surreal and far less narrative driven. The camera floats alongside Diana as she ventures outside on her own, almost getting lost amongst the seemingly never-ending world around her. And inside the estate Larrain creates a very claustrophobic feel, as the walls of opulence close in on the princess; establishing this as a fully immersive Diana experience. But also layered, because as much of a movie about Diana as “Spencer” is, it very much attempts to be a film about women trapped under the weight of the patriarchy. For as we root for Diana’s rejection of this life, Larrain quietly but consistently reminds us all about how these fairytales tend to end. 

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Dune

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Before I begin, if you don’t know already this film is a part one, meaning “Dune” ends on a transition point; notice how I didn’t say cliffhanger.

Writer/director Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2024, Arrival) adapts Frank Herbert’s notoriously difficult to adapt (seriously, look up the history of attempts to adapt “Dune”) “greatest science fiction novel of all time”, which follows the youngest member of House Atreides, Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet). The beginning of this film sees House Atreides gain power over the planet Arrakis aka Dune; a desert planet filled with many dangers, including massive Godzilla-sized worms (sandworms); calling them worms may be selling these visually grandiose creatures short. This planet is also the home to an indigenous peoples called Fremen and a valuable mineral referred to as “spice”, which makes interstellar travel possible. The story soon finds Paul encountering conflict involving spice mining, double crossing, and the aforementioned big ass worms. But Paul is no ordinary duke. He may or may not be a messiah of sorts, whether he wants to be or not.       

For cinematic reference sake, I’ll describe the tone of this story as a darker “Star Wars”. Although within “Dune” fandom, I acknowledge how blasphemous a statement like this is. To those I have offended, I will add that there is definitely some “Game of Thrones” in this, with a tiny bit of “Mad Max”, just not as cranked up to eleven.

And now for the only question that matters: Do you have to have read the novel or even be aware of the novel to enjoy Villeneuve’s “Dune”? I am familiar with the history of “Dune”, including the novel. So going into this, my concern was that due to the sheer amount of material in the novel along with the lore attached to it, this is a world that would take a while to establish, and thus may bore audiences who are expecting “Star Wars” (there I go again). But I should’ve known better, as Villeneuve eased my concerns rather quickly.  

As expected, there is a ton of exposition which I saw and accepted as necessary in order to adapt a book like “Dune”; even again when you take into account that it’s a two hour and thirty-five-minute part one. Villeneuve handles the pre-action stuff by acknowledging the extensive exposition and (with the help of cinematographer Greg Fraser) establishes his brand of spectacular visual effects from minute one. This along with Hans Zimmer’s score, carry the first hour of this movie until everyone is up to speed.   

Final Thought: While there are many reasons why this film works, it’s greatest achievement will not be the film’s adaptation integrity; which Villeneuve does stay as loyal as possible to considering the time constraints. Sure, it can be picked apart by purest, but THERE IS NO WAY TO ADAPT EVERY ASPECT OF “DUNE” INTO A FILM THAT IS UNDER TEN HOURS LONG! So, as far as a film adaptation of a novel which touches on themes such as colonialism, 2021’s “Dune” (part one) does hold true to the spine of the source material. Anyway, the success of “Dune” will be because it works for the masses. I saw this film with my wife, who knows nothing of the novel. And as I sat there geeking out, I looked over and saw her enjoying this as the epic spectacle it was intended to be. And that is really the highest recommendation I can give.

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Candyman

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This sequel/reboot sees a young Black painter (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) named Anthony, who is forced to explore the infamous, mostly abandoned Cabrini-Green public housing projects after his white boss asks him to create a new and preferably Black poverty porn inspired art piece for an upcoming gallery opening. Anthony soon finds that this housing project is rife with a history of Black tragedy, stemming from the legend of Candyman (Tony Todd); a Black boogeyman with a hook for a hand who kills those who say his name five times in front of a mirror. At first this journey simply changes Anthony’s art, as he moves from creating pieces which symbolize violence to pieces that actually depict violence. But after he says Candyman’s name, he finds that he has not only summoned a single entity, but something much more powerful.

In the 1992 original, a white grad student becomes obsessed with the legend of Candyman and decides to venture into the projects to see for herself. For how beloved it is, in retrospect the original is problematic, as it is a story about Black mythos told through the eyes of white people (a white main character, writer and director) who treat a segment of Black culture/trauma as something too terrifying to speak aloud. 2021’s Candyman takes the legend and not only removes the white main characters, but uses the original story as an allegory for gentrification and culture vultures; the white fascination with Black “ghetto” culture and the theft of Black art that is then repackaged into something which titillates white suburbanites. This version is based on the theory that white people are turned on by the history of Black poverty and trauma.

Executive produced by Jordan Peele, there was a standard I walked into this horror film expecting. A standard that had nothing to do with jump scares or gore, and everything to do with depth of story. No “Candyman” is not a “scary movie”. But in the same way learning about the real-life brutalities inflicted upon Black bodies throughout history would be, I would classify this as a terrifying watch. Also, the direction from director/co-writer Nia DaCosta is so poetically claustrophobic, it makes me eager to see what’s next for her fledgling career. As for the story itself, the few tangential scenes throughout that struggled to propel the story forward, didn’t take away from the impact of any underlying message.

Final Thought: As I alluded to earlier, the original depicts Candyman as basically a demon; a single man turned monster who punishes and kills and torments, relishing in indiscriminate violence. What DaCosta’s suggests with her version is that while violent, the Candyman is not evil for the sake of evil, but more so an accumulation of Black pain; an amalgamation of persecution towards the Black community throughout history, and thus, justifying the violence of Candyman. But she doesn’t stop there. In the end, DaCosta puts forth the argument that as terrifying as Candyman is, he very much is something liken to a Black superhero.  

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Luca

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This Pixar movie about two boys who dream of riding a Vespa together, is only available on Disney Plus (a curious move, given that Pixar Animation Studios is one of the biggest money makers for Disney).

“Luca” is the story of a young boy sea monster named Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) who has become infatuated with seeing what lies above the surface and on the coastal Italian town of Portorosa. He is told by his parents that good kids (sea monsters) don’t venture to the surface. But when another boy sea monster his own age, Alberto (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer) sparks his curiosity by showing him that he can venture onto land and change into human form once on the surface, Luca soon discovers that this place may be where he’s meant to be.  

This is a whimsical Pixar Italian folktale for sure, with all that entails. High quality animation, entertaining story with lots of levity, but also themes of fear, loss and acceptance told in a way that a child can digest. That said, it’s not hard to see “Luca” for what it is, with a particularly tender relationship between these two boys at its forefront and telling a story where these boys must hide their identity for fear of being hurt; where on multiple occasions they are referred to as “kids who are different”. Hell, the entire first act is Luca’s parents attempting to shelter him from a world they feel wouldn’t accept him because of differences nobody (no human) can actually see. And to top it off, the movie was released during Pride month. While it’s not implicitly stated, “Luca” is very much a gay allegory.

And I want to root for a movie which sees Disney and Pixar’s first gay leads, when it’s just so obvious. And I will still do so. But to have the director Enrico Casorosa come out publicly and dismiss any homosexual themes, as Disney blames the fact that “Luca” didn’t get a theatrical release due to COVID, when “Cruella” a Disney release from a few weeks ago, is playing in theaters worldwide, is upsetting to say the least. But I’m also not shocked. This is Disney we are talking about. A corporation that will give the world a gay character, but in order to appease shareholders and conservatives, they’ll also downplay the significance of the character publicly. That said, is this still a beautiful movie that is one of the most important films Disney has ever produced? Most definitely. Two things can be true at the same time.

Final Thought: While the plot of “Luca” could be seen as more simplistic than others in the Pixar canon, it’s more than a little exciting to finally see a film like this. An animated film which carries the same Pixar award worthy standards, and also celebrates an LGBTQ+ story; even if the corporate machine behind it attempts to gaslight us all, denying this watershed moment.      

Follow me on Twitter @moviesmarkus and on Instagram @moviesmarkus1