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Nope

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I hate using the term “elevated horror”, since most memorable horror films are allegorical as hell. With a Jordan Peele film there’s always something deeper at play; a social commentary, critiques on the relationship between America and its Black citizens, and an abundance of well-placed Black history morsels baked into a fictional story. “Nope” is no different, as his overall statement draws attention to how cinema has historically treated its non-white actors.

Synopsis: OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) are in financial distress. They own a horse ranch and are in fact the only Black horse wranglers in Hollywood, but are struggling to find work after a sudden family tragedy. One night after one of the horses jumps a fence and runs off, OJ thinks he sees something resembling a UFO flying above the ranch. When he tells his sister she’s skeptical, but soon realizes that if they could get a clear photo of it, they could monetize this event.

The rest of the movie follows the siblings (with the addition of a couple of eccentric characters) as they attempt to capture evidence of a UFO on film. This is a quest which leads them to the horrifying truth about this particular UFO; with a twist which I did not see coming.

There is also a side story, told as a flashback, which documents the violent event surrounding a chimp who was once the star of its own television sitcom. As bizarre as this tale is, it clearly stands as the most intriguing thing in the movie.   

The characters themselves are fairly two-dimensional, which is somewhat surprising given how Peele usually presents his leads. That said, these simplistic characters really complement the type of story where a small group of “nobodies” band together to defeat an insurmountable bad guy. Oddly enough it’s this “simplicity”, along with Keke Palmer’s standout performance, that allows for a concentrated level of pre-third act entertainment value, which is maintained for most of the film.

The ending is where things came back down to Earth for me. After maintaining said high level of entertainment which allowed me to shrug off some of the more confusing aspects with ease, the final fifteen minutes felt complete, but underwhelming; leaving me longing for a third act that was just as profound as some of the themes throughout the film.

Final thought: When speaking of an auteur like Jordan Peele, it is hard not to start comparing “Nope” to his other films. If at all possible, I would encourage you not to do that. What “Nope” lacks in certain aspects, it makes up for in being a fully original story, as well as being his most visually ambitious film to date. This is a movie which comes to the table with new ideas, while also borrowing from movies like “Jaws”, “Tremors” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. And while it does fall short of those classics, I will continue to proclaim that my least favorite Jordan Peele movie is still a good movie.

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Spiderhead

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Every time I see a good Miles Teller movie like “Top Gun: Maverick”, I hope against hope that he’s done with throwaway material like “Spiderhead”. But here we are.

The funny thing is, this movie is directed by the same guy (Joseph Kosinski) who brought us the aforementioned visually spectacular box-office hit “Top Gun: Maverick” starring Miles Teller. So, what happened here?

Synopsis: In the near future certain prisoners are brought to an Alcatraz looking incarceration facility for voluntary drug trials. In this facility, the prisoners, one of them being Jeff (Miles Teller) are allowed to walk freely, wear regular clothes and have access to a ping pong table. At least once a day, a “good cop” character named Mr. Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) takes two prisoners and puts them into an observation room together, where a drug is voluntarily administered to them. This drug seems to make the two instantly fall into a state of hyperactive love. But as these trials move forward, we see that there are other drugs; drugs that push the recipients to the extreme edge of a single emotion.

Okay so, the acting is clearly the best thing going for this film. Let’s get the lone positive critique out of the way first.  

A fairly simple sci-fi premise, “Spiderhead” is set up to be quite easily digestible. Visually the setup looks to be mimicking some notable social experiment that we learned about in psychology class.

The soundtrack is a series of 80’s pop hits that are annoyingly on-the-nose, but this can be forgiven if you enjoy these songs.

The plot is very much predicated on the promise of a big third act twist, similar to something from M. Night Shyamalan. It’s just turns out to be simply not as creative.

The movie is bogged down by many things. It’s too long, it feels like something we’ve seen a million times and it’s built upon a terribly unfunny script (written by Rhett Reese, based on a short story by George Saunders) that so badly wants to be a dark comedy. Not to say that humor cannot exist in sci-fi. Of course, it can. And not to say the likes of Chris Hemsworth can’t deliver this form of humor, because he very much can: see any of his films, it’s kind of his thing. It’s the humor in this movie in particular. The humor in “Spiderhead” is akin to being trapped in a conversation with a person who thinks they are funnier than they are. There are moments of reprieve by way of action, but not enough to keep from cringing every time a character tells a joke or does an actual pratfall.    

Final Thought: I really want to be done with talking about this movie, but I must touch on one more thing; the direction. Kosinski can direct. If you’ve seen “Top Gun: Maverick”, “Oblivion” or “TRON: Legacy”, then this statement seems more than obvious. That said, the direction in “Spiderhead” is uninspired and dull. Looking back, I can’t think of one memorable moment. And unfortunately, as the plot twists happen and reveals are made (some silly, but others that are meant to be powerful) they all fall flat because everything leading up to it has been made to feel like such a who-cares-fest. What a shame. “Spiderhead” is a completely forgettable movie. But to be fair, if “Spiderhead” was just a little better it could’ve been considered something likened to a completely forgettable episode of “Black Mirror”. So, there is that.

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Hustle

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

There is definitely a huge market for movies like these. Ones which lean hard into the underdog/inspirational/feel good stuff. And yes, afterword I did want to go outside and shoot some hoops, which does mean “Hustle” succeeded in its basic sports movie obligation. But with nothing really new to offer, a by-the-numbers storyline, speeches that never quite become inspirational and a couple of Rocky-esque montages that were never going to be as good as the real thing, all praise must go to the filmmakers for understanding how to make this story into a film that was more entertaining than it had the right to be.

Synopsis: Middle-aged disillusioned scout for the Philadelphia 76ers, Stanley Sugerman (Adam Sandler) discovers a diamond in the rough, street ball player in Spain named Bo Cruz, who he believes might be the next big thing in the NBA, and also Sugerman’s ticket off the road and into the NBA coaching job of his dreams.  

Director Jeremiah Zagar saved this movie from becoming background noise, by both using handheld camerawork, giving “Hustle” it’s gritty feel, and more importantly giving Netflix audiences what they came to see from movie like this; don’t bore us, get to the chorus. “Hustle” is conventional, but also is never not moving forward.

And if all you came to see was NBA superstars, “Hustle” has got you covered too. This is a basketball film that would like you to know that it spent a lot of money on numerous NBA cameos. Cameo’s ranging from Shaq, to Charles Barkley, to Dr. J (Julius Erving) himself. There are also plenty of current players in this, the two who get the most screen time being Juancho Hernangomez of the Utah Jazz, who plays Cruz, and Anthony Edwards of the Minnesota Timberwolves, who plays a highly sought-after college superstar, the Apollo Creed of this film and the antithesis of Cruz. As first-time actors, Edwards and Hernangomez give performances that are good enough not be distracting.

But Adam Sandler is the lead here. And love him or hate him, Sandler is a charismatic actor who can act when he wants to, and he is good in this. Queen Latifah, who plays his wife, does a wonderful job in regards to making their relationship seem believable. But the real standout performance comes from Ben Foster, who plays the evil and spoiled billionaire Philadelphia 76ers owner. He’s not even in that many scenes, but his presence is felt as someone we should love to hate.    

Final Thought: “Hustle” is no “He Got Game”, but is entertaining enough to get the job done. Also, you don’t have to know basketball to enjoy it. In fact, during the gameplay sequences where the majority of Bo’s opponents are substantially shorter than him, it might be better if you’ve never witnessed a minute of professional basketball.

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Top Gun: Maverick

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Capt. Pete Mitchell aka Maverick (Tom Cruise), who after more than thirty years as a naval aviator, playing by his own rules, is ordered to return to the infamous flight academy Top Gun, for one last job. There he must lead a class of young hotshot pilots on a mission that has previously been deemed unachievable.  

If you saw this movie or are planning on seeing this movie, it was/is undoubtedly for the stunts and/or the nostalgia. So, let’s get into it:

The Stunts: Before the movie begins, Cruise literally pops up on-screen, basically telling audiences that what we are about to see is real. “Top Gun: Maverick” is worth buying a ticket to see on visuals alone. From jets doing backflips, to the many sequences where a camera is fixed on an actor as they attempt to maintain control of said jet, it all looks pretty damn real. There were a few times where it looked as though Cruise’s life was very much in danger, so kudos to the entire film crew for that achievement. Directed by Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion) “Top Gun: Maverick” is one of those movies where it’s quite obvious that the actors had to go through extensive training to pull off what was done on-screen; even with millions of dollars of movie magic at work. This style of stunt focused filmmaking was definitely a choice by Cruise and producers, that does pay off. That said, much of the more irresistible action sequences don’t arrive until almost an hour and a half in.

The Nostalgia: At this point we’ve all heard and seen multiple reactions to this film, all of which have been pretty positive; even by those who weren’t in love with the original. So, when talking about the first chunk of this movie, it’s easy to see where the focus was going to be. “Top Gun: Maverick” walks into the room nostalgia first. This is a film made by filmmakers who love 1986’s “Top Gun” and display this fact early and often. Right away and for the first two-thirds, we are smothered with sequences that pay visual homage to the original; sequences solely for people who have seen the original. We walk into a room and are introduced to overconfident characters who all have nicknames and speak almost entirely in quippy one-liners. Even the story is predictable in a very comforting way. Again, that said, this is the section of the film that may take some time to acclimate to for those who have never seen the original or are not used to 80’s style dramatic camp. Honestly, I don’t think it matters if you were a huge fan of the original, but more so if you’ve seen it at all.   

Final Thought: While it co-stars Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly and Jon Hamm (with a heartwarming cameo from Val Kilmer) this is clearly a Cruise vehicle. Not only because he is in every scene, but also because his perfectionist touch is all over this movie. It’s easy to recognize why he is a box-office draw and an action superstar to this day. “Top Gun: Maverick” has its flaws, but if the point of the film is to appease with a healthy dose of nostalgia and wow-factor visuals, it delivers.   

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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.

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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.   

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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. 

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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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