BEING THE RICARDOS
RELEASE DATE Dec. 10
CAST Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda
Hollywood adores few things more than a Hollywood story, so there should be no shortage of folks nostalgic for bygone studio days, ready to eat up Being the Ricardos. But this chronicle of a fraught week in the production of CBS’ phenomenally popular 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy, and the personal and professional lives of its married stars, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, arguably is as much about Aaron Sorkin as his celebrated subjects. From the walk-and-talks to the smug swipes at almost everyone in positions of power and influence to the patronizing reminders of mid-century gender inequality, the hand of the writer-director seldom goes unnoticed.
Favoring deep-dive characterization over physical resemblance or mimicry, the performances of Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem as golden-age TV’s best-loved couple can’t be faulted. Likewise, those of J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda as actors William Frawley and Vivian Vance, who played the Ricardos’ best friends and neighbors, Fred and Ethel Mertz, on TV. All four do standout work, with sturdy backup from Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat and Jake Lacy as the three writers room fixtures struggling to pull together an episode amid constant disruptions.
Being the Ricardos feels like a project Sorkin has shaped to fit his interests rather than one organically rooted there, and that assiduous molding drains its emotional charge. Anyone curious about the mechanics of a pioneering sitcom will be entertained by Being the Ricardos, and there’s no denying that the performances offer much to savor. I just wish there was more of a sense of the director serving the subject rather than making the subject serve him.
STUDIO Focus Features
RELEASE DATE Nov. 12
CAST Jude Hill, Jamie Dornan, Caitríona Balfe, Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds
TOP AWARDS AND NOMS TIFF audience award, National Board of Review top film and best supporting actor (Hinds)
With Belfast, Kenneth Branagh shifts gears rewardingly from his Agatha Christie adaptations to a far more personal film about his childhood in Northern Ireland. Set in 1969 during the height of the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, the feature mainly steers clear of politics to focus on family drama instead.
Filmed in black-and-white with a few bursts of color, the picture opens with a quiet domestic tableau that suddenly explodes in violence. Our protagonist, 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), tries to fathom what is happening to disrupt his life. As far as he knows, his Protestant family has always lived side by side with Catholic neighbors, but this August morning forces him to see the world in a different way. Most of the story is told through Buddy’s eyes, and young Hill is a marvelous camera subject. The core family unit consists of Buddy, his older brother (Lewis McAskie), their mother (Caitríona Balfe) and their father (Jamie Dornan), who travels frequently to England for construction work, and who wants to move his family out of Northern Ireland for their safety. But their loving ties in the community make this an extremely difficult decision.
The main characters are so well drawn and beautifully played that we cannot help getting caught up in their daily struggles as well as the larger decision they face about whether to abandon their home for the uncertain prospect of new horizons. The period is eloquently evoked by Branagh, cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos and production designer Jim Clay. The period score, mainly provided by Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison, also helps to transport us back in time. Branagh’s most personal film is imperfect, but the emotion that it builds in the final section is searing.
RELEASE DATE Nov. 19
CAST Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann, Woody Norman
TOP AWARDS AND NOMS Gotham Award noms for lead performance (Phoenix) and supporting performance (Hoffmann)
In Mike Mills’ captivating reflection on the mysterious byways of cross-generational communication, the character played by Joaquin Phoenix is liberated from that confining box after being thrown together with his unfiltered nephew during a family crisis. In Phoenix’s first feature role since his divisive best actor Oscar win for Joker, it’s amusing to witness him imploring another character — a 9-year-old boy — to be less weird. Phoenix plays Johnny, a New York radio journalist working on a series that takes him and his small team city to city interviewing kids about the uncertainties of what lies ahead: what scares them, what needs to change, what could adults have done to make things better.
This is another warmly personal family affair from Mills, who drew inspiration from his father in Beginners and his mother in the underappreciated 20th Century Women. This time he’s thinking about his own recent experience of becoming a parent, exploring the tricky and maddening but ultimately rewarding challenges of the relationship between children and grown-ups within an imagined family. It’s a wispy yet insightful and emotionally satisfying film, shot with affecting intimacy in pellucid black-and-white by the great Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan, and graced with a shimmering score by brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National that works in tandem with Mills’ eclectic music choices to shape the enveloping mood.
Mills stirs in excerpts from a number of texts, both fiction and nonfiction, that relate to the characters and their relationships in ways that are playful, poetic, even didactic at times, though never banal. C’mon C’mon is more about the cumulative effect of shared, often seemingly inconsequential moments than any dramatic events within the period of its narrative. The relationships are drawn with affection and authenticity.
STUDIO Apple TV+
RELEASE DATE Aug. 13
CAST Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin, Daniel Durant
TOP AWARDS AND NOMS Sundance audience award, directing award, grand jury prize and special jury award for best ensemble; National Board of Review top film; 2 Gotham Awards for breakthrough performance (Jones) and supporting performance (Kotsur)
There are films that upend conventions and subvert expectations. And there are those that lean into them — hard. CODA, a U.S. remake of 2014 French dramedy La famille Bélier, about the sole hearing member of a deaf family who discovers she’s a gifted singer, is of the latter ilk. Even with its unusual premise (CODA is an acronym for “child of deaf adults”) and the representational novelty of three out of four leads being deaf — a notable difference from the original — the movie hardly feels like uncharted territory. CODA faithfully works its way through a checklist of tropes from high school comedies, disability dramas, musical-prodigy and inspiring-teacher narratives, coming-of-age tales about young people struggling to declare independence from overbearing families and indie chronicles of blue-collar America. It is a radiant, deeply satisfying heartwarmer that more than embraces formula; it locates the pleasure and pureness in it, reminding us of the comforting, even cathartic, gratifications of a feel-good story well told.
One of writer-director Sian Heder’s most impressive feats is how shrewdly she handles the more familiar elements. Though all the expected plot points are present and accounted for — the school concert and conservatory audition, the first kiss, fights and heart-to-hearts — the filmmaker stages them with uncommon delicacy, flaunting a finely tuned sense of when to push, how much and when to pull back. There’s a lot of plot, and tones that should, in theory, clash. But the unfussy warmth and feeling of the performances and direction should overcome even the staunchest resistance. CODA is an honest crowd-pleaser — one that gently charms, rather than claws or cloys, its way under your skin.
STUDIO MGM/United Artists
RELEASE DATE Dec. 31
CAST Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Ben Mendelsohn
During the pandemic, director Joe Wright decided that what the world might need is a new musical version of Edmond Rostand’s classic 19th century poetic drama Cyrano de Bergerac. The basic story hasn’t changed here: Cyrano (Peter Dinklage) is a wit and a master swordsman harboring unspoken and unrequited love for his childhood friend Roxanne (Haley Bennett). When Christian, a handsome soldier, joins the regiment, he and Roxanne fall in love, but Christian needs Cyrano’s help to craft the stirring romantic missives that Roxanne craves. When the two men are forced to go into battle, the story moves toward its tragic conclusion.
The always reliable Ben Mendelsohn, as the villainous De Guiche, delivers a musical manifesto that is quite compelling. Kelvin Harrison Jr., who plays Christian, is certainly handsome enough to make a convincing object of Roxanne’s affections. And he also has a strong singing voice. Wright has chosen to set the film around the time that Rostand imagined, the late 17th century, and he has eliminated Cyrano’s famous nose, with Dinklage’s short stature providing a perfectly convincing variation on the theme.
Wright has long had a taste for bringing classic literature to the screen. His attempts to reimagine the classics grow out of genuine passion for the material rather than a lust for gimmickry. The romantic conclusion of the play — the scene when Roxanne recognizes Cyrano’s love for her and affirms her love for him — packs an emotional wallop that only confirms why this story has endured and transported audiences for well over a century. Dinklage and Bennett score a triumph in this final scene that makes the whole movie soar.
DON’T LOOK UP
RELEASE DATE Dec. 10
CAST Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Rob Morgan, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Timothée Chalamet, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Melanie Lynskey
TOP AWARDS AND NOMS National Board of Review top film
In 1998, Earth braced for dueling annihilation events as Deep Impact and Armageddon hit multiplexes two months apart. Twenty-three years later, Hollywood is again sending an extinction-level comet hurtling through space toward us in Don’t Look Up. It’s probably only fitting that in 2021 we get the end-of-the-world movie we deserve — a cynical, insufferably smug satire stuffed to the gills with stars that purports to comment on political and media inattention to the climate crisis but really just trivializes it.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Kate Dibiasky, a doctoral student in astronomy at a Michigan college, a character defined mostly by her two nose rings and razor-cut red bangs. Leonardo DiCaprio — whose long-standing advocacy on environmental issues reportedly was instrumental in him signing on to the project — plays Kate’s professor, Dr. Randall Mindy. “What would Carl Sagan do?” Dr. Mindy asks himself when Kate alerts him to her discovery of the killer comet rocketing toward Earth, predicting a direct hit in just over six months.
In McKay’s manically busy idea of plot development, the life-threatening discovery is undermined by a whole world of heedless arrogance. NASA’s head of damage control downplays their findings; the FBI steps in to silence them; Kate’s online journalist ex-boyfriend paints her as a lunatic; and President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) adopts their plan to blow the rock off its course, albeit with a few tweaks to better serve her political purposes.
McKay’s brand of satire never merely prods a target when there’s a sledgehammer to be swung, and Nicholas Britell’s jazzy score nudges along the noisy, bombastic, numbingly broad laff riot at a frantic pace.
STUDIO Warner Bros.
RELEASE DATE Oct. 22
CAST Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgard, Dave Bautista, Zendaya, Jason Momoa
TOP AWARDS AND NOMS National Board of Review top film
Denis Villeneuve’s attempt to tame the notoriously difficult novel about an interstellar empire at war over control of a precious natural resource has no lack of cinematic spectacle — from its majestic landscapes to its monumental architecture, nifty hardware and impressive spacecraft. It also benefits from a charismatic ensemble led by Timothée Chalamet in intensely swoony form as the young messiah who might lead the oppressed out of tyranny.
Dune has a reasonable semblance of narrative coherence, even if a glossary would be helpful to keep track of the Imperium’s various planets, dynastic Houses, mystical sects, desert tribes and their respective power players. What the film doesn’t do is shape author Frank Herbert’s intricate world-building into satisfyingly digestible form. The history and complex societal structure that are integral to the author’s vision are condensed into a blur, cramping the mythology.
There’s much to admire in Patrice Vermette’s production design, particularly the Zen elegance of the aristocratic Atreides household on their beautiful oceanic home planet of Caladan and the Arrakis stronghold Arrakeen, a sprawling structure that combines ancient Egyptian and Aztec influences. The costumes by Jacqueline West and Robert Morgan also are full of eye-catching touches, from the women’s gauzy gowns billowing in the desert wind to the utilitarian body-cooling “stillsuit” developed by the Fremen for survival in the desert and equipped with a fluid-recycling system.
Dune is only the first part of Villeneuve’s adaptation, with the second film in preproduction. That means an awful lot of what we’re watching feels like laborious setup for a hopefully more gripping film to come — the boring homework before the juicy stuff starts happening.
RELEASE DATE Dec. 3
TOP AWARDS AND NOMS Sundance grand jury prize; Gotham Award for best documentary; National Board of Review Freedom of Expression Award and top documentary; 2 Critics Choice documentary award noms
There’s a genre-defying boldness to Flee, which mixes mood-driven, hand-drawn animation with archival footage to trace the harrowing history and lasting psychological scars of an Afghan man, Amin Nawabi, hiding from his past for the two decades since being granted political asylum in Copenhagen as a child. It’s a powerful and poetic memoir of personal struggle and self-discovery that expands the definition of documentary.
In addition to its perceptive examination of the lasting trauma imprinted on the minds of vulnerable young refugees, Flee also stands out as an unconventional queer love story, revealing how complete acceptance of one’s own troubled identity is essential in order to find love, marriage and stability. The captivating, at times almost childlike simplicity of much of the animation provides a poignant counterpoint to the wrenching story of a displaced family, hiding from authorities eager to exploit their statelessness and their precarious financial situation and safety. Rasmussen and ace editor Janus Billeskov Jansen interweave newsreels of Communist Party ceremonies, political speeches from the Mohammad Najibullah government and the death and destruction of the Afghan Civil War to contextualize Amin’s tortured memories in hard fact.
There’s a kind of spontaneous purity to the storytelling, built on the empathetic connection established between the filmmaker and his subject. The emotional expressiveness of the images, darkening during the more alarming interludes into disturbing visions, is complemented by the sorrowful strains of Uno Helmersson’s string score. And the ending suggests the almost Rohmer-esque influence of nature as Amin’s story of flight becomes one of love, chance and emancipation from the brutalities of the past.
THE FRENCH DISPATCH
STUDIO Searchlight Pictures
RELEASE DATE Oct. 22
CAST Benicio Del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Jeffrey Wright, Bill Murray
Wes Anderson pens an extravagant love letter to the adventurous editors of sophisticated literary magazines like The New Yorker, and to the writers, humorists and illustrators nurtured up through their ranks. Bursting at the seams with handcrafted visual delights and eccentric performances from a stacked ensemble entirely attuned to the writer-director’s signature wavelength, this is the film equivalent of a short story collection. The Searchlight release is a beguiling curio, and one that no other filmmaker could have created.
Regular collaborators who make vital contributions include DP Robert Yeoman, his visuals mixing black-and-white with color and alive with all the trademark symmetries, skewed angles and careful compositions; and composer Alexandre Desplat, whose doodling piano themes help shape the jaunty tone. Continuing his affection for narrative boxes-within-boxes, Anderson structures the movie as an obituary, a travel column and three feature articles, all appearing in the final issue of the widely read magazine that provides the title.
While The French Dispatch might seem like an anthology of vignettes without a strong overarching theme, every moment is graced by Anderson’s love for the written word and the oddball characters who dedicate their professional lives to it. There’s a wistful sense of time passing and a lovely ode to the pleasures of travel embedded in the material, along with an appreciation for the history of American foreign correspondents who bring their perceptive outsider gaze to other cultures. The mission of the magazine is summed up thus near the end of the film: “Maybe with good luck we’ll find what eluded us in the places we once called home.”
THE HAND OF GOD
RELEASE DATE Dec. 15
CAST Filippo Scotti, Toni Servillo, Teresa Saponangelo, Luisa Ranieri, Marlon Joubert
TOP AWARDS AND NOMS Venice Film Festival grand jury prize and Marcello Mastroianni Award (Scotti)
If The Great Beauty was Paolo Sorrentino’s extravagant homage to La Dolce Vita — with nods also to 8½ and Roma — The Hand of God is the Italian Oscar winner’s Amarcord. But although the Fellini inspiration is acknowledged in the story in an amusing audition scene, this is an intensely personal film, very much imprinted with Sorrentino’s own signature.
Returning to his Neapolitan roots to reflect on the experiences of the tender teenage years that shaped him has brought out sumptuous veins of joy and sorrow that feel richer, deeper, more searingly poignant than anything the director has done before. This exquisitely crafted homecoming doubles as a hymn to the glories of Naples — the beauty of its gulf coast, the decaying splendor of its architecture, the lusty musicality of its vernacular and the vitality and natural humor of its people. It’s the work of a director in full command of his gifts, from the kaleidoscopic vignettes of family life that make the first half such a constant delight through the supple modulation of tone midway, when shocking tragedy prompts a shift into a more ruminative mood.
There’s a lovely, limber quality to the way Sorrentino strings scenes together, more like an immersive mosaic than a traditional narrative, with none of the ironic distance that has often characterized his work, and few of the stylistic flourishes. There’s no self-aggrandizement in Sorrentino’s introspection, and no sticky sentimentality in his nostalgia. Instead, there’s an intimate candor that sneaks up on you as the film’s fragmented storytelling comes together into something quite special, a coming-of-age story marked by indelible tragedy, an unspeakable pain that becomes a companion. The emotional resonance is amplified by the elegant compositions of Daria D’Antonio’s cinematography and the melancholy pull of Lele Marchitelli’s score.
RELEASE DATE Nov. 12
CAST Amir Jadidi, Mohsen Tanabandeh, Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy, Sahar Goldust
TOP AWARDS AND NOMS Cannes Film Festival grand prix award; National Board of Review best original screenplay and best foreign-language film
Perhaps owing to his work in theater, writer-director Asghar Farhadi seems able to find drama in the most surprising places. He makes a welcome return to his native Iran with A Hero (Ghahreman), a very fine film about honesty, honor and the price of freedom. Prisons are one of the key locations in contemporary Iranian cinema, both as overcrowded places of punishment and, naturally, of metaphoric confinement within a tough society. In A Hero, the prison is an open-door cage that’s well serviced by buses, where the working-class hero pops in and out, as his fortunes ebb and flow. It is through this door that the unemployed Rahim (Amir Jadidi) chooses his own fate.
A far cry from the director’s middle-class drama A Separation, the first Iranian film to win the Academy Award for best foreign-language film, A Hero returns Farhadi to the basics of national storytelling in an increasingly complex tale of half-truths and lies that eat away at all those who traffic in them, which is to say, everybody. Interestingly for an Iranian film, the power of social media plays a huge role in the hero’s unraveling, and several plot points turn on whether or not certain facts will be posted and made public.
Perhaps the film’s most moving scene shows a prison warden feeding lines of not-completely-true testimony to Rahim’s little boy, who bravely struggles to get through a few sentences being recorded on camera to improve his father’s image. The film’s simple, lower-class setting is met with equally direct camerawork, lighting and editing. This feels like the farthest Farhadi has come from his stage work and the sometimes-unconvincing dramatic elements that occasionally creep into his films.
HOUSE OF GUCCI
STUDIO MGM/United Artists
RELEASE DATE Nov. 24
CAST Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Jeremy Irons, Al Pacino, Salma Hayek
TOP AWARDS AND NOMS New York Film Critics Circle best actress (Lady Gaga)
Ridley Scott’s film is a trashtacular watch that I wouldn’t have missed for the world. It fails to settle on a consistent tone as it careens between high drama and opera buffa. Snappy exchanges between characters recall the gloriously hoary 1980s heyday of Dynasty, when the emotions were as big as the shoulder pads and hair, and the tawdry goings-on behind the wealth and glambition of a family business empire provided outrageous plot fodder. The difference here is that the seedy saga of love, betrayal and murder is based on fact.
Alongside the inevitably fabulous period costume and production design, the high point is Lady Gaga’s full-tilt performance, more often than not dialed up to 110. Gaga puts on a transfixing show, bringing fierce charisma and ferocious drive to Patrizia Reggiani, an accountant at her family’s trucking company who married Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) in 1972 and had him gunned down by a hitman in 1995. Whenever she’s onscreen, the movie bristles with electricity. By contrast, Driver is quite subdued, crafting a complex character by more nuanced means. That puts the two leads pretty much in different movies.
Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski mixes glitz with a faded period look to underwhelming effect, but Arthur Max’s production design and Janty Yates’ costumes provide plenty of lavish detail. As does Gaga, who commands attention in a vehicle much more solely dependent on her than A Star Is Born, where the spotlight was shared equally with Bradley Cooper. Her work here may be chewy, but she’s enthrallingly alive in the role, bringing heat to Patrizia’s hunger and growing desperation in an otherwise muddled movie that seldom ignites.
IN THE HEIGHTS
STUDIO Warner Bros.
RELEASE DATE June 11
CAST Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz
The title song that opens In the Heights starts quietly with a tentative percussion beat as Anthony Ramos, in a star-making turn as narrator-protagonist Usnavi, eases into the intro’s freestyle rapping while the camera lovingly salutes the slice of Upper Manhattan that provides the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical with its pounding heart. This is a stirring valentine to a neighborhood and its people that, as the film tells it, stared gentrification in the eye and stood their ground, staying true to their cultural identity. Both the George Washington Bridge and the 168th Street subway station loom large as symbols of escape to the world beyond the barrio. But this is a paean to home — as a cocoon, a state of mind and a legacy for first-generation immigrants.
If the material shows Miranda’s formidable creative talents at a relatively nascent stage, it nonetheless remains clear why the show was a breath of fresh air on predominantly white Broadway, where it ran for almost three years. Just the celebratory representation of striving working-class Latino characters — with one foot in cultural tradition and the other seeking traction in the American dream — alone was refreshing. Likewise, the musical vernacular, a buoyant blend of Latin American pop, hip-hop, jazz, salsa and merengue with traditional Broadway show tunes. Those same qualities make the film a representational breakthrough for mainstream Hollywood.
It’s futile to resist the generosity of spirit that powers In the Heights. The movie glows with an abundance of love for its characters, their milieu and the pride with which they defend their cultural footprint against the encroaching forces of New York development that continually shove the marginalized further into the margins. The resilience with which the characters claim their place in the fabric of city life is exhilarating.
STUDIO Warner Bros.
RELEASE DATE Nov. 19
CAST Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton
TOP AWARDS AND NOMS National Board of Review top film, best actor (Smith) and best supporting actress (Ellis)
Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard is an unusual picture to come from a major studio these days, its nuances and complexities more likely to be found in indie releases.
Richard Williams (Will Smith) is the father of Venus and Serena Williams, who drove his two daughters to unprecedented success on the tennis court as their monomaniacal coach. The story focuses on Venus Williams’ early success, with Serena more in the background. And with the two sisters still at the top of their game after almost 30 years in the limelight, the film should hold undeniable fascination for audiences. It is far from a perfect film, but it tantalizes, thanks to the strong subject matter and the sharp characterizations and performances.
Smith conveys Richard’s frustration, simmering resentment and genuine love for his family, and Aunjanue Ellis shines as the girls’ sensible mother, who has the strength to defy her husband when he gets carried away on his ego trip. Hers is not as flashy a role as Smith’s, but she balances him with understated warmth and wisdom. Jon Bernthal is excellent as Venus’ savvy coach; he brings humor and a believable mix of exasperation and resignation to his battles with Williams, which he almost invariably loses.
King Richard is willing to make us uncomfortable in its portrayal of a man motivated as much by his own disappointments as by love for his children. Zach Baylin’s script honors these nuances. The film builds to Venus’ entrée to professional tennis at age 14, and her fight for the championship doesn’t end in a formulaic way. Adhering to some sports movie formulas, the movie is most memorable when it plays against expectations.
THE LAST DUEL
STUDIO 20th Century Studios
RELEASE DATE Oct. 15
CAST Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck
TOP AWARDS AND NOMS National Board of Review top film
Ridley Scott made the jump from directing commercials into features with his 1977 debut, The Duellists, so there’s a certain symmetry to his return, 44 years and many distinguished films later, to another deathly challenge fought on historical French soil in The Last Duel. The film adopts a cumbersome Rashomon structure to negotiate a much more legitimate point of honor. Only the last of the three perspectives from which the events are recounted acquires cogency. That imbalance is somewhat intentional, since a key element of this story based on true events is the distorting way in which the violation of a woman is viewed as an affront to male vanity.
That point is made laboriously in a script that spends too much time trudging through the overlapping accounts of the indignant husband and his former friend, the self-deceiving rapist, before setting the record straight by letting the wronged noblewoman (Jodie Comer) speak for herself. While it seemed an interesting experiment to have original screenwriters (and co-stars) Matt Damon and Ben Affleck write the male perspectives and recruit Nicole Holofcener to illuminate the female point of view, the division of responsibilities results in a lengthy, two-and-a-half-hour film that feels lopsided and unwieldy.
Even if it dawdles frustratingly before getting there, this is the woman’s story and her bitterly fought victory — not that of the men caught up in their petty rivalries, their warring pride and their loyalties to France’s smirking idiot of a teenage monarch, King Charles VI (Alex Lawther). It’s only when Comer steps forward to give the drama’s most nuanced performance as Marguerite de Carrouges, a woman with the backbone to speak her truth and quite literally put her life on the line, that The Last Duel fires on all cylinders.
STUDIO MGM/United Artists
RELEASE DATE Nov. 26
CAST Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie
TOP AWARDS AND NOMS National Board of Review best film, best director and breakthrough performance (Haim and Hoffman); New York Film Critics Circle best screenplay
Paul Thomas Anderson’s return to his native San Fernando Valley finds wonderful alchemy in the lead casting of another celebrated child of that urbanized Los Angeles County sprawl, Alana Haim. She time-travels back to the Valley in 1973 to play Alana Kane, a too-cool-for-school 25-year-old floating through experiences in romance, retail and politics. Creating a character whose warmth and humanity are tempered by hilariously deadpan humor and prickly detachment, Haim makes one of the most exciting screen debuts in recent memory.
The intoxication generated the instant Alana saunters across the widescreen frame gives Anderson’s eagerly anticipated film a narrative buoyancy that lasts more or less through its first hour. But the more the restless focus widens to incorporate loopy plot tangents and idiosyncratic vignettes, the more baggy and shaggy Licorice Pizza begins to feel. Make no mistake, this is an entertaining, Altman-esque fictionalized remembrance of things past, crafted with contagious affection for the period and bursting with eccentric delights — not to mention a punchy soundtrack of late ’60s/early ’70s bangers.
The lovestruck teenager in this scenario is Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a sometime child actor and enterprising business hustler loosely inspired by the adolescent adventures of Anderson’s pal Gary Goetzman, a onetime performer now better known as Tom Hanks’ producing partner. The film is a rambunctious chronicle of Gary’s impulsive entrepreneurial endeavors, from selling water beds to the opening of a pinball palace. But more than Gary’s coming of age, it’s Alana’s spiky navigation of the world that keeps you glued. “I’m cooler than you, and don’t forget it,” she tells him in a moment of exasperation. No one will disagree.
THE LOST DAUGHTER
RELEASE DATE Dec. 17
CAST Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, Ed Harris, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Mescal, Dagmara Dominczyk
TOP AWARDS AND NOMS Gotham Award for best feature, screenplay, lead performance (Colman) and breakthrough director; New York Film Critics Circle best first film; Venice Film Festival Golden Osella award for best screenplay
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s feature directorial debut is a sensitively observed though sharp-edged adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel. Its strong cast and the story’s granular psychological texture will make it a must-see while putting Gyllenhaal on the map as a neophyte writer-director already graced with maturity and restraint.
The reclusive Italian author’s familiar themes of female relationships, sexuality, motherhood and women’s struggle to carve a professional space outside it are beautifully served in this uncompromising character study, illuminated by performances of jagged brilliance from Olivia Colman as Leda, an English professor vacationing alone in Greece, and Jessie Buckley as her younger self. Surrounding herself with first-rate craft collaborators, Gyllenhaal modulates the mood with great skill, keeping the viewer guessing. And French cinematographer Hélène Louvart gets intimate with her probing close-ups here.
Gyllenhaal and ace editor Affonso Gonçalves sustain a fluid back-and-forth between Leda’s past and present, where her moments of liberated sensuality clash with feelings that might be remorse or guilt but are seldom so cut-and-dried in Colman’s enigmatic performance. As material for a first feature, The Lost Daughter is certainly ambitious, with a protagonist defined by her murky interiority and the odd, often unreadable nature of the relationships she forms with everyone she encounters. But Gyllenhaal and her impeccably chosen cast make it a mesmerizingly cinematic psychological drama.
STUDIO Searchlight Pictures
RELEASE DATE Dec. 17
CAST Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Richard Jenkins, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn
TOP AWARDS AND NOMS National Board of Review top film
The first half of Guillermo del Toro’s blood-dark jewel of an American saga is set within the itinerant subculture of carnies at the tail end of the Great Depression. “Folks here, they don’t make no never mind who you are or what you done,” Willem Dafoe’s carnival barker assures a newbie, Stanton Carlisle. That’s good news for Stan, who’s played by Bradley Cooper with an inscrutable chill and who has drifted into the carnival after a long bus ride from some things he’d rather forget.
Cooper’s performance takes a while to fully grab hold, no doubt as intended, and when it does, it’s riveting, at once alluring and repellent, holding the center of a superb cast. Not just a quick study but a coolly aggressive one, Stanton rises through the ranks of the low-rent carnival shows, with their lurid come-ons (mind-blowing creatures!) and soul-salving enticements (mind-reading psychics!). But whatever the carnies’ ruses and sleights of hand, it isn’t until Stanton becomes a star in the big city, where he meets an impossibly glamorous psychologist who’s named Lilith Ritter and played by a smooth-as-satin Cate Blanchett, that the real grifting begins.
The expressive camerawork by Dan Laustsen and the designs of Tamara Deverell and Luis Sequeira create two vivid worlds, beginning with the dust and smoke of the carnival midway, with its theatrical outfits and the lights of the Ferris wheel against a middle-of-nowhere night sky. The screenplay can at times be too literal, but Nathan Johnson’s score never fails, creating a potent fusion of the majestic and the uneasy and encapsulating the dueling impulses in del Toro’s vision. With a semi-playful nod to the 1945 film Detour and more than a few rain-drenched streets, Nightmare Alley pays tribute to noir. But it’s also its own dark snow globe, luminous and finely faceted, and one of del Toro’s most fluent features.
NO TIME TO DIE
STUDIO MGM/United Artists
RELEASE DATE Oct. 8
CAST Daniel Craig, Rami Malek, Léa Seydoux, Lashana Lynch, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Jeffrey Wright, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes
Anyone who has developed an attachment to the grit and gravitas, the coiled physicality and brooding demeanor that Daniel Craig has brought to the reinvigorated James Bond franchise, starting in 2006 with Casino Royale, will feel a surge of raw feeling in the devastating closing act of his fifth and final appearance in the role in No Time to Die.
The 25th installment in the venerable 007 series is the first to be directed by an American, Cary Joji Fukunaga, who handles the action with assurance and the more intimate interludes with sensitivity, never forgetting that there’s a wounded, vulnerable human being beneath the licensed-to-kill MI6 agent. Viewed within the context of Craig’s tenure, No Time to Die certainly allows the actor to dig deeper on the rewarding character work he’s been doing since his 21st century reinvention of the role. Previous incarnations of Ian Fleming’s British secret agent have been defined by the sexy swagger, the arched eyebrow and the cool, calm composure even in the hairiest of situations, that glib characterization growing particularly tired in the Roger Moore years.
Craig has steadily minimized those more caricatured aspects as he explored the interiority of a man haunted by loss — notably of Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale and Judi Dench’s M in Skyfall — and at war with his own trust issues. He’s also fighting against time, as the new film’s title implies. But what’s notable here is that this is arguably the most tender portrait of James Bond we’ve ever seen; the emotional stakes are raised by a love that’s far more than the usual passing flirtation. It’s a moving valedictory salute to the actor who has left arguably the most indelible mark on the character since Sean Connery originated the role.
STUDIO Sony Pictures Classics
RELEASE DATE Dec. 24
CAST Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit, Israel Elejalde, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Rossy de Palma
TOP AWARDS AND NOMS Venice Film Festival Volpi Cup for best actress (Cruz)
Pedro Almodóvar reaffirms his status as the most munificent of directors with a part of corresponding complexity for a faithful member of his recurring acting stable, Penélope Cruz. As its title suggests, Parallel Mothers is an examination of the maternal instinct, a theme central to so much of the great Spanish director’s filmography. Likewise, the complicated comforts of relationships between women, the legacies of a hidden past and the importance of the pueblo as a repository for those memories.
In the maternity ward, Cruz’s Janis, a commercial photographer, meets the teenage Ana (Milena Smit), and a fast friendship is formed over labor pains. Both are single mothers whose pregnancies were unplanned, and while Janis is filled with joy by the surprise of a daughter at this relatively advanced point in her life, Ana, for reasons revealed only later, is overcome by depression. Ana’s actress mother has promised to help raise her granddaughter, named Anita, while Janis’ steadfast rock is her agent and dear friend Elena (Rossy de Palma). Both are present for the births, filmed in intimate close-ups on the mothers’ faces as agonizing miracles.
Janis and Ana remain in contact at first, but the photographer makes an alarming discovery that prompts her to cut herself off from almost everyone. She wrestles with a moral dilemma in the present as she pursues a project that aims to bring to light the secrets of the past in her native village. When a newly emancipated Ana — physically transformed and untethered from both her mother and the father who rejected her — finds her way back into Janis’ life, the nature of their relationship changes dramatically, making it inevitable that the truth will surface.
RELEASE DATE Oct. 27
CAST Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Alexander Skarsgard, Bill Camp
TOP AWARDS AND NOMS Gotham Award noms for best feature, screenplay, lead performance (Thompson), supporting performance (Negga) and breakthrough director
Exquisite performances from Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga provide the pulsing, emotionally heightened center to Rebecca Hall’s assured move behind the camera, adapted with great sensitivity from the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen. “We’re all of us passing for something or other, aren’t we?” muses Thompson’s melancholy character Irene Redfield. This is a dreamily atmospheric evocation of 1920s New York, its bursts of Jazz Age exuberance offset by the contained threat of people being unmasked. It tells an intimate story of two women on either side of the “color line” while undertaking an intersectional exploration of identity in relation to race, gender, class and sexuality.
Hall’s choice of material for her debut as writer-director is elevated by her evident personal investment in the story, having learned years ago that her American maternal grandfather, who died before she was born, was Black passing as white for most of his life. That intense connection pervades every lovingly composed shot of a work that takes an unwaveringly measured, subtle approach to subject matter frequently treated in the past as high melodrama, notably in films like Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life.
Passing is shot in gauzy black-and-white, in this case framed in the old Hollywood standard 4:3 aspect ratio to suggest portrait photography but also a strictly contained world of self-imposed boundaries — “safe,” except when it’s suddenly not. Spanish cinematographer Edu Grau’s images are enhanced by top-notch craft collaborations from production designer Nora Mendis and costumer Marci Rodgers, both of whom provide rich detailing. The underscoring of composer Devonté Hynes’ gentle jazz piano strains contributes further to the vivid conjuring of a lost world. Hall has crafted a work that’s thoughtful, provocative and emotionally resonant.
THE POWER OF THE DOG
RELEASE DATE Nov. 17
CAST Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee
TOP AWARDS AND NOMS Venice Film Festival Silver Lion for best director; New York Film Critics Circle best actor (Cumberbatch), supporting actor (Smit-McPhee) and director
Twelve years after her previous feature, Jane Campion makes a thrilling return with a work as boldly idiosyncratic, unpredictable and alive with psychological complexity as anything in the revered director’s output. For a filmmaker who has predominantly focused on forensic investigations of the female psyche, this riveting adaptation of the 1967 Thomas Savage novel represents an assured thematic shift to corrosive masculinity and repressed sexuality. The intimately uncomfortable drama is a chamber piece on an epic canvas, driven by transfixing performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and, in a stunning breakout turn, young Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee.
This is an exquisitely crafted film, its unhurried rhythms continually shifting as plangent notes of melancholy, solitude, torment, jealousy and resentment surface. Campion is in full control of her material, digging deep into the turbulent inner life of each of her characters with unerring subtlety.
Cumberbatch hasn’t had a role that makes such stimulating use of his unique qualities as an actor in years. His Phil Burbank is a darkly charismatic man, more cultured than he cares to show. He’s cold almost to a reptilian degree but damaged and yearning for something beneath his unfeeling exterior. Dunst makes her character, Rose, as fragile as fine porcelain, adhering to codes of womanhood imprinted on the era. Plemons’ George is soft-spoken and even-tempered, initially making him seem weak. And Smit-McPhee is simply extraordinary, maintaining his character’s mystery until the very end.
RELEASE DATE Dec. 10
CAST Simon Rex, Suzanna Son, Bree Elrod, Ethan Darbone
TOP AWARDS AND NOMS National Board of Review top film; Gotham Award noms for lead performance (Rex), breakthrough performer (Son) and best screenplay
Played by Simon Rex in a magnetic full-tilt performance of wired physicality and hyper-caffeinated loquacity, Mikey Saber, as he’s known professionally, is basically a charismatic douche, a user and a loser. It’s no accident that director Sean Baker and his regular co-writer, Chris Bergoch, have set Red Rocket against the casually observed backdrop of the 2016 presidential primaries. While Mikey is funny and even endearing for much of the movie with his shameless survival tactics and compulsive lies, he’s also a wicked embodiment of the Trumpian ethos of conning people with big talk and empty promises, milking them for whatever he can get and then moving on with zero accountability. He’s part self-delusion and part calculated deceit.
That makes Baker’s new film a tougher creature to love, even if many of the same virtues of his recent successes are on glorious display — notably shaping fully lived-in performances from a cast made up predominantly of nonactors and finding shabby poetry in an enveloping milieu that ranges from sleepy through seedy. But it’s a pleasure to put yourself in Baker’s capable hands as he ambles through his loose story with its affectionate, slyly humorous character observations and immersive sense of place. Shooting in 16mm with special anamorphic lenses, DP Drew Daniels captures the heat-saturated colors of summer sunset skies, the environmental blight of the oil refinery and the sun-parched stretches of drab suburbia.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle for A24 in marketing this film will be the incontrovertible fact that it centers on a self-serving dude looking to steer a high schooler into the sex trade — an audacious choice for the #MeToo age that many will no doubt consider counterintuitive. But Baker and Bergoch are crafty about forging allegiances among the women.
STUDIO MGM/United Artists
RELEASE DATE Aug. 13
CAST Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Mary J. Blige
Aretha Franklin chose Jennifer Hudson to play her in a dramatic feature based on her life, and Hudson repays that act of faith by honoring the late singer’s towering legacy in Respect. A powerful account of self-actualization spanning 20 formative years, Liesl Tommy’s biopic is also an intimate gift of love, rich in complexity, spirituality, Black pride and feminist grit rooted not in didactic speeches but in authentic experience. The ageless music, of course, is the galvanizing force, but it’s the personal struggle behind it that makes the story so affecting.
Tommy doesn’t escape the conventions of the bio-drama, but she injects every scene with genuine feeling that elevates the material — as much as Hudson’s mighty pipes opened up in song. This is easily the star’s most persuasively committed screen performance since Dreamgirls, alive not just in the musical interludes but also in the frequently combative interactions with the people closest to Aretha.
It’s a credit to the filmmakers and to Hudson that the movie never loses our investment in the woman it so clearly reveres — a character drawn as both larger-than-life and fragile. Ending with the recording of Amazing Grace at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles was a smart choice, serving to tie up multiple narrative threads as well as tethering the story to music that’s inseparable from the Black experience in America.
The movie has an attractive sheen thanks to Kramer Morgenthau’s crisp cinematography and the luxuriant detail and bold colors of Ina Mayhew’s midcentury production design. But the most eye-popping element is Clint Ramos’ costumes, notably a series of fabulous gowns and statement jewelry showing Black women’s styles of the era at their most glamorous. The music production by Stephen Bray and Jason Michael Webb also is first-rate. Respect gives the Queen of Soul the regal treatment she deserves.
RELEASE DATE Nov. 5
CAST Kristen Stewart, Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall, Sean Harris, Jack Farthing
Any film in which a woman who left an indelible mark on the popular culture of the late 20th century finds comfort in the ghost of Anne Boleyn is unlikely to be your grandparents’ Princess Diana biopic. Pablo Larraín and screenwriter Steven Knight’s audaciously original Spencer reins in its tight focus to a three-day Christmas weekend at Queen Elizabeth II’s Sandringham estate in Norfolk in the early ’90s, when the sham of Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles had become unendurable. Billed as “a fable from a true tragedy,” this is a speculative study of a woman in extremis, played by an incandescent Kristen Stewart.
Stewart’s Diana is on the edge of hysteria from the start. She’s jittery, brittle, often abrasively defensive and yet deeply vulnerable in a film that puts her through a psychological wringer with shadings of outright horror. This is a long way from the more decorous treatment of Netflix’s The Crown, which depicted the painful unraveling of Diana and Charles’ marriage in season four in tones of resolute sympathy for the outsider caught in the chill of a royal PR nightmare. The arc of Spencer follows her wrestling with the decision to stay and endure the agony of imprisonment in an artificial world that has proved inhospitable to her or to bolt for freedom and reclaim her selfhood, taking her children with her.
Knight’s script certainly doesn’t lack compassion for the tragic figure at the center of the maelstrom. But the writer and director also make a lot of gutsy choices that put her at a distance — as Diana herself describes it in the film, like an insect under a microscope with its wings being tweezed off. Spencer won’t be for everyone, though the eternal cult of worship around the Princess of Wales will make it a must-see for many.
SUMMER OF SOUL
RELEASE DATE July 2
TOP AWARDS AND NOMS Sundance Film Festival grand jury prize and audience award; National Board of Review best documentary; 6 Critics’ Choice Documentary awards, including best documentary feature and director; 6 Cinema Eye Honors noms; 4 International Documentary Association noms
Over six weekends in the summer of 1969, the Harlem Culture Festival showcased more than five dozen acts and drew 300,000 people, who were charged not a cent to see — are you ready? — Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, B.B. King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Staple Singers and Sly and the Family Stone.
But this monumental alignment of the stars — what some would later refer to as the Black Woodstock — generated little media attention, in part because it was overshadowed by the actual Woodstock, which took place during the Harlem event’s penultimate weekend, turning Max Yasgur’s farm into ground zero for a generation.
Thus the subtitle of Summer of Soul, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s electrifying documentary on those concerts and the political climate in which they unfolded — a subtitle that riffs on an immortal turn of phrase from the late great Gil Scott-Heron: Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised. Footage sat in storage for decades until Summer of Soul‘s producers set the ball rolling to give it its long-overdue spotlight.
It’s no surprise that Thompson, an accomplished and celebrated musician, has a knack for revealing the emotional core of concert performances. He also lends the long-lost material the eye of an assured director, approaching it on three eloquently interwoven narrative tracks: the knockout concerts themselves; a piercing capsule portrait of 1969 as a turning point in Black identity; and a collection of lovely, charged Boomer reminiscences from those who were there, some onstage and some in the audience. The film captures several of them as they view the previously unseen footage, dazzling evidence of a moment in time that seemingly had been written out of the official story.
TICK, TICK … BOOM!
RELEASE DATE Nov. 12
CAST Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin De Jesús, Vanessa Hudgens, Judith Light
Before Rent, there was Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical Tick, Tick … Boom!, a smaller-scale, 1990-set rock musical about a New York playwright struggling to find his voice as the days and minutes tick down to his 30th birthday. As he was first coming to prominence with his Broadway production of In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda played the lead in a New York staging of Tick, Tick … Boom!, laying the groundwork for the current film adaptation, his feature directorial debut.
In his frequently self-referential style, Larson created the character of Jon (Andrew Garfield) as the protagonist of Tick, Tick … Boom! A struggling playwright who waits tables at a diner, he’s trying to complete Superbia, the futuristic dystopian musical he’s been working on for the past eight years (which was also Larson’s first original musical theater piece). The filmmakers use a staged performance of Tick, Tick … Boom!, with Jon leading a small electric band in a selection of songs, to frame the central narrative, consisting of dramatic scenes as well as more elaborate production numbers featuring Jon’s girlfriend, Susan (Alexandra Shipp), his gay roommate and childhood friend Michael (Robin De Jesús), and the supporting cast.
Once the film hits its stride, the alternating onstage and on-set scenes provide a palpable sense of variation and energetic pacing. Most of the first act focuses on Jon’s preparation for a workshop staging of Superbia and his sense of time slipping away as his friends begin to move on from the theater world.
Garfield, who studied musical performance to prepare for his role, latches onto the Larson character with inspired enthusiasm, digging deeply into Jon’s creative struggles and conflicted emotions, consistently surfacing the bittersweet rewards of his artistic life path.
RELEASE DATE Oct. 1
CAST Vincent Lindon, Agathe Rousselle
TOP AWARDS AND NOMS Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or; National Board of Review top foreign language film; Gotham Award nom for best international feature
The image of French cinema as mainly consisting of artily shot black-and-white movies about straight men smoking and having sex with their mistress(es) is dealt a final stake through the heart by Julia Ducournau’s brash and ballsy experiment. Looking at it alongside similarly adventurous out-there films, one could almost speak of an exciting new current in Francophone cinema that plugs queer concerns into genre filmmaking in punky and transgressive ways. Call it the French Punk Queer Wave. Here, quite hard-core genre conventions are spiked with contemporary considerations of femininity, queerness and gender-bending to explore issues related to bodily intimacy and independence, sex and relationships in this new millennium.
In Titane, there are elements of body horror, female revenge films and pedal-to-the-metal car-obsessed movies (though don’t think the audience of the Fast & Furious franchise will automatically be into this film). But while Titane wants to shock and surprise — two things a lot of contemporary films seem to have forgotten how to do — it also wants to tell a strangely affecting story.
The film, with a fluid sense of spatial depth, color and light courtesy of Belgian DP Ruben Impens, does suggest, through comical exaggeration, what women are up against in this world. When exotic dancer Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) has an encounter with a creepily insistent fan, Ducournau makes clear what most women would dream of doing in a situation like that: nip these awful aggressions in the bud as soon as they can. The entire film works on an exaggerated allegorical level, so anyone complaining about any lack of realism or believability doesn’t understand where Ducournau wants to take the viewer.
THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH
STUDIO A24/Apple TV+
RELEASE DATE Dec. 25
CAST Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Alex Hassell, Bertie Carvel, Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling, Moses Ingram, Kathryn Hunter
TOP AWARDS AND NOMS National Board of Review top film, best original screenplay and best cinematography; New York Film Critics Circle best supporting actress (Hunter)
Furious and fleet, emotional and elemental, Joel Coen’s stripped-down take on the Scottish play instantly secures its place among the most audacious modern-screen adaptations of Shakespeare. The extended title makes sense, given that Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, leading a superlative ensemble, play not just the ruthless thirst for power but also the anxious race against time to seize their place in history, instead sealing their self-destruction. The Tragedy of Macbeth is a raw, lucid retelling, rendered spellbinding by its enveloping stylized design and its masterful black-and-white visuals, evoking the chiaroscuro textures of Carl Theodor Dreyer.
That latter aspect makes French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel as indispensable a collaborator to Coen as his fine actors, with the otherworldly plot elements of superstition, dark magic and compressed time embedded in the aesthetic fiber of the film. But the same could be said of production designer Stefan Dechant, who has created a Scottish landscape of the dissembling mind on Los Angeles soundstages, with stark exteriors and cold, forbidding castles that recall the geometric architecture in the metaphysical paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, their long, deep shadows threatening to engulf the characters.
Both lead performances are among the best of the actors’ celebrated careers, fiercely driven yet underscored by haunting notes of desolation as they see the price of their folly. It’s as contemporary as it is classical, hurtling toward grim finality with the same gale force that blows a torrent of leaves into the castle when Birnam Wood moves to Dunsinane Hill, as the witches warned.
WEST SIDE STORY
STUDIO 20th Century Studios
RELEASE DATE Dec. 10
CAST Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Corey Stoll, Rita Moreno
TOP AWARDS AND NOMS National Board of Review top film and best actress (Zegler); New York Film Critics Circle best cinematography
The new West Side Story won’t take the place of the glorious 1961 screen version, co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, whose dances remain untouchable. But with its more inclusive, ethnically appropriate and youthful casting, this is an emotionally charged and deeply affecting retelling of a timeless tale for a new generation.
In his third collaboration with director Steven Spielberg, following Munich and Lincoln, Tony Kushner has adapted the material with a respectful avoidance of cultural stereotypes and a trenchant depiction of the sadly still timely scourge of racial intolerance. The production is equal parts grit and gloss. The expert period re-creation of Adam Stockhausen’s production design and Paul Tazewell’s fabulous costumes create a throbbing sense of place, evident in every gorgeously composed widescreen frame of Janusz Kaminski’s visuals. Yet the saturated colors and their radiant glow often recall vintage Technicolor movie musicals. Perhaps those pretty CG-enhanced skies that are such a part of the Spielberg Amblin signature could have been toned down a notch. But there’s no pain in surrendering to the sheer beauty and high style of a big-screen entertainment that’s both a reimagining informed by contemporary values and a lavishly mounted throwback.
The physical settings are breathtaking, paramount among them the busy streets, with cars honking and pedestrians nervously ducking out of the way as the cocky gang members strut their way through the “Jet Song.” The same streets crackle with vitality in “America,” with Anita leading the women as they claim their place in a new life about which their boyfriends remain ambivalent, their high spirits gradually drawing in the entire community. The back alleys between apartment blocks, festooned with colorful laundry, lend a magical effect to the love songs “Maria” and “Tonight,” with Tony scrambling up the fire escape with uncontainable boyish excitement in the latter.
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.