Best drama films of 2021
Top movies include Nomadland, Tick, Tick…Boom!, and Mothering Sunday
I’d love to tell you that the film that scooped the Oscars for best picture, best director and best actress is overhyped, said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times. But no: this “melancholy poem” about restlessness and loss feels like the perfect summation of a precarious year. Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a recently widowed woman in her 60s who, having lost her job and her home in the recession, heads west in a customised van in search of work. Along the way, she meets up with a group of nomads in Arizona, who teach her how to survive on the road. Chloé Zhao’s film is based on a non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, and many of the people Bruder interviewed appear as themselves: the stories they tell have a “blunt, granular power”, yet what emerges from them is grace, and stoicism.
Set in the late 1980s, Tick, Tick… Boom! is an “explosively entertaining” rock opera, adapted from an autobiographical stage show, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. Its author, and central character, is Jonathan Larson, a struggling writer and composer living in a grotty New York bedsit as he works on a rock musical. He’s been at it for eight years, and with the clock ticking down to his 30th birthday, it’s starting to occur to him that he might never achieve his dreams. The piece is “painfully prescient”, for Larson would die aged 35, just before his show Rent became a global hit.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut is a “bittersweet, fun-fuelled assault on the senses”, said Francesca Steele in The i Paper. Andrew Garfield is “delightfully peppy” in the lead role, and some of the numbers are great. At times, the structural conceits involved in this musical about writing musicals overwhelm the plot, but Miranda has fashioned something “kinetic and intimate” out of difficult material.
With its jump-cuts and “gymnastic” camera work, the film is exhausting to watch – but that’s as it should be, said Danny Leigh in the FT: its energy “is that of every next-big-thing-but-one in New York”. Yet the film is lent gravity by the shadow of real tragedy, in the form of the Aids crisis haunting New York, and Miranda gets the tonal balance just right. There’s a danger of films about the musical theatre descending into luvvy-ish self-indulgence, said Clarisse Loughrey in The Independent, but this one dodges that pitfall by constantly acknowledging Broadway’s “narcissistic insularity”. The film is a graceful balance of fact and fiction, in which art is both a heightened form of self-obsession and “the most magical and important thing in the world”.
The Power of the Dog
The Power of the Dog could just as well be called The Power of Benedict Cumberbatch, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator, as he is so “spectacular” in this “wonderfully complex” western. The Sherlock actor plays a “ruggedly masculine cowboy” named Phil who runs a cattle ranch with his brother George (Jesse Plemons) in 1920s Montana. The pair are opposites: Phil is “clever, but mean-spirited and cruel”, and so macho he can castrate a bull with his bare hands; while George is “slower, softer, kinder, stockier”.
Their equilibrium is upset by the arrival in their lives of Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow who marries George. When she comes to live at the ranch with her delicate teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Phil immediately resolves to make their lives “hell”. It’s been said the film is about toxic masculinity – but it is more than that: it explores “the pain of anyone who is expected to be a certain way, and conforms at the expense of their true identity”. Phil, a man who knows he will never be loved, is revealed to be as tragic as he is brutal.
Director Jane Campion has produced an “indecently powerful” film, said Kevin Maher in The Times, in which not a line of dialogue is wasted; and while Cumberbatch is “mesmerising”, he’s not acting in a vacuum – Dunst too is “formidable”. Campion won an Oscar in 1994 for her “very different frontier romance”, The Piano, said Danny Leigh in the FT; her new film was also shot in her native New Zealand – which doesn’t quite work (your mind may wander to The Lord of the Rings). Still, with “a sure touch and epic sweep”, she has created a film “loaded with menace but something rarer too: unpredictability”. This is “potent cinema” that glints “like a new knife”.
House of Gucci
Ridley Scott’s “fantastically rackety, messy soap opera” about the fall of the house of Gucci is rescued from pure silliness by Lady Gaga, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. She is “glorious” as Patrizia Reggiani, the daughter of a trucking magnate, who married the Gucci heir Maurizio Gucci (a gallantly diffident Adam Driver), before becoming so “incensed” by his infidelity that she hired a hitman to kill him. In this film, the pair meet at a disco in Milan in 1970, falling in love despite the “furious disdain” of Maurizio’s father (Jeremy Irons, in a charcoal-line moustache). Patrizia hopes for better luck charming the rest of the clan, which includes Jared Leto in “serious latex” as Maurizio’s “loser” cousin, and Al Pacino as a genial uncle. Scott’s “touristy, pantomimey approach to Italy and Italian culture” will set some viewers’ teeth on edge; but every time Gaga comes on screen, “you just can’t help grinning at her sly elegance, mischief and performance-IQ, channelling Gina Lollobrigida or Claudia Cardinale in their early-50s gamine styles”.
Gaga is indeed terrific, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator, but given its all-star cast and juicy subject matter, the film is a let-down. The middle act drags, and the decision to have the cast “a-speak-a in Italian accents” was surely misguided. Yes it is “messy structurally”, said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times, “but God is it enjoyable”. Few directors are more at home in the world of extreme wealth than Scott, and here the scalpel with which he lays bare “the desiccated morality and decadence” of the obscenely rich is sharper than ever. The film is a “conga line” of characters seducing one another – and proof that Scott, who is now 84, has lost none of his touch.
Adapted from Graham Swift’s slender novel, Mothering Sunday is a “gorgeous, poignant” tale of forbidden love, said Tim Robey in The Daily Telegraph. The date is 30 March 1924, and the absence of the young men killed in the First World War is felt everywhere in the winding lanes of Oxfordshire. Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor) is the one survivor out of three brothers, while the owners of the neighbouring grand estate, the Nivens (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman), have been left childless. Paul is supposed to be attending a lunch to celebrate his engagement to a woman from his own class, but instead he lingers in bed with the Nivens’ maid, Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young), with whom he is pursuing a tender affair. Alice Birch’s script does “remarkable” things in opening up the story for the screen, and the production values are terrific. O’Connor gives a tragically disarming performance, while Glenda Jackson, who plays the older Jane in flashforward, is on fine form.
Told from Jane’s point of view, this is an “ingenious, sensuous and quietly subversive film” that turns typical costume drama conventions on their head, said Geoffrey Macnab in The i Paper. The characters’ emotions are explored obliquely, but the scenes in which Paul and Jane make love are unusually frank. There’s a dreamlike feel to it all, enhanced by Morgan Kibby’s mournful score. A French director isn’t the obvious choice for a British period drama, said Anna Smith in Time Out, but Eva Husson nails this one. A sad indictment of a society unable to articulate its emotions, Mothering Sunday isn’t exactly a cheery watch, but it’s an intelligent, affecting drama “with a splash of French sensuality”.
At 91, Clint Eastwood still looks good in a cowboy hat, said Simran Hans in The Guardian. In this gentle road movie he plays a former rodeo rider named Mike Milo, tasked with retrieving his boss’s rebellious teenage son Rafo (Eduardo Minett) from his feckless mother Leta (Fernanda Urrejola) in Mexico; on the ride with them is Rafo’s cockfighting rooster, Macho. This is safe territory for Eastwood – all feels right with the world as we watch him sleep under the stars and tenderly tame wild horses – and he and Minett have “wonderful chemistry” as the two lone rangers learn stuff from each other. It’s touching to see the veteran actor-director in such a reflective mood.
There’s a deceptive simplicity to this hokey, bittersweet yarn, said Danny Leigh in the FT, which Eastwood directs with stripped-back grace. The plot strains credulity by having two younger women fall for the nonagenarian, but it’s carried off “with a wry half-smirk” in a film that is nothing if not self-aware; while appearing to do nothing very much, it addresses Eastwood’s status in cinema history: “the futility of machismo, the toll of a career entertaining the public – such weighty things are raised”. The action is set in the 1970s, said Sara Stewart in the New York Post, and in some ways, Cry Macho could have been made then too: with its epic landscapes and slide-guitar soundtrack, it feels like a welcome return to “a leaner, less franchise-obsessed” Hollywood. Some of the acting is a bit cardboard, and the plot rarely surprises, but Eastwood casts “a Zen cowboy spell” that makes it all irresistible. It’s his most charming movie in years.
Adapted from a play written by its director, Florian Zeller, and anchored by an Oscar-winning performance from Anthony Hopkins, The Father is a film about dementia that is both deeply frightening and unbearably moving, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. Without using “obvious first-person camera tricks”, it puts us inside the head of Hopkins’s character, a “roguishly handsome” widower now suffering from Alzheimer’s. His “affectionate and exasperated” daughter (Olivia Colman) regularly visits him at his elegant west London flat. He suspects she is about to abandon him by moving abroad, but he can’t work out what is going on. His disorientation is evoked by the use of time slips and loops in the film, by subtle changes in the set, and by different actors playing the same characters. It’s as if reality itself is “gaslighting” him.
Sound of Metal
This “thoughtful, sombre” drama stars Riz Ahmed as Ruben Stone, a heavy-metal drummer who experiences sudden hearing loss while on tour in the US, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. A recovering heroin user with serious relationship problems, he lands up in a remote Missouri retreat for recovering deaf addicts. Its manager is a greying Vietnam vet called Joe (Paul Raci), who believes that hearing-impaired people need to find enough “stillness” inside themselves to accept their condition as a “valid alternative existence”. But Ruben is determined to have risky surgery that would restore some of his hearing – even if the cost of it might make it difficult for him to resume the career he’s desperate to save.
As a child, Rebecca Hall sometimes wondered if her mother, the American opera singer Maria Ewing, was black, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator, but it wasn’t discussed, so she never asked. Only later in life did the actress – whose father was the theatre director Peter Hall – discover that her maternal grandfather had been biracial, but that he had passed as white. The subject of passing is at the core of her “riveting” directorial debut, an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella. Two well- to-do, light-skinned black women, Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), who were friends at school, bump into each other again years later, in an elegant whites-only hotel in New York. Both are passing as white, but while it is rare for Irene to wish to do so, for Clare it is routine: her Caucasian husband (Alexander Skarsgård) is “chillingly racist” and has no inkling of her heritage. The film, available on Netflix, is beautifully shot in monochrome, which may sound a cliché, but in fact works “terrifically well”; after all, black and white is mostly shades of grey.
Actors-turned-directors often make space for performances to shine, said Danny Leigh in the FT, and Hall is no exception. Both leads are superb: Negga is “impish but mournful”, while Thompson conveys the sense of a woman “hemmed in by race, gender”, everything. Hall’s debut has the “strange mesmerism of an old photograph come to life”; it is “at once a story of race in America, and something still more universal”. As Irene says, we’re all passing as something. In terms of plot, it is “slender”, said Donald Clarke in The Irish Times, but Hall’s feel for the period, and her gift for folding “potent discourse into the attractive visuals”, raises it to “high art”.
The French Dispatch
The French Dispatch is not on a par with Wes Anderson’s greatest works, said Charlotte O’Sullivan in the London Evening Standard. But compared to the average film, this zesty yet tender ode to journalism is still a “winner”. We kick off in 1975 with the death of Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), the editor of an American magazine – based on The New Yorker – which has been run for years from a fictional French city called Ennui-sur-Blasé. The editorial team must now put together a farewell issue, consisting of an obituary and three of the best articles from past editions – the creation of which we follow. “Brainy actors are sewn into the folds of the plot” of this anthology “like pearls on an haute couture dress”. There’s Tilda Swinton as an art critic, wafting around in a flowing gown; Benicio Del Toro, playing an unstable, incarcerated modernist genius; and Timothée Chalamet as a Left Bank student writing “innocently bad” manifestos that need brutal editing.
As you would expect from an Anderson film, the sets are glorious, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. But the film suffers from his trademark “terminal whimsy”, and a narrative that proceeds at “such a lick”, there’s no time for the characters to live and breathe. The result is that they come across as merely cartoonish: you’d “struggle to care” if they all fell in the Blasé and drowned. Visually, it is impressively inventive, said David Sexton in the New Statesman: this is Anderson’s “most stylised film to date”. It is also, I am “sorry to say, a bit boring”. The director has always enjoyed making his films look like puppet shows, dioramas, cabinets of highly curated curiosities; this time, the tendency has run away with him, leaving no room for emotional depth at all.
The Last Duel
All hail Ridley Scott, said Kevin Maher in The Times. The 83-year-old has become “fiercely productive” in the autumn of his career, and his latest epic is arguably “his most modern film” yet. Set in France during the Hundred Years’ War, and based on a true story, it follows Jacques (Adam Driver), a “swaggering squire” who is challenged to a duel by a self-important nobleman (Matt Damon, sporting a “hideous mullet”), whose wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer) has accused him of rape.
The Rashomon-like “trick” is that the screenplay – co-written by Damon, Ben Affleck (who also stars) and Nicole Holofcener – delivers the drama three times, each recounting events from a different perspective. Scott “delights” in this device, repeating scenes with identical dialogue, but subtly altering the lighting or performance to create “completely different moods and meanings”. He also brings to the film his taste for “eye-gouging aesthetics”: the drama unfolds in a brutal era, which enables him to make “unflinching statements about the historical sweep of barbarism”.
There is some impressive acting here, said Mark Kermode in The Observer: look out in particular for a scene-stealing Harriet Walter. But the film gets a bit bogged down in the blood and the mud of its period milieu. “From firelit interiors to rural exteriors, all is shrouded in murk, with random flutterings of poultry”, and nuance is lost amid the “spectacle”. Still, there is no lack of momentum, said Manohla Dargis in The New York Times: the film, though bleak, is “weirdly entertaining”. Where it falls short is in its attempt to flesh out the character of Marguerite. Although she gets to tell her story, the film still leans towards the battling men, while “she remains frustratingly opaque”.
My Little Sister
Identical twins have proved a “fine addition” to horror movies, said Tara Brady in The Irish Times, but “brother and sister twinships” are rarely seen, let alone explored in films. My Little Sister steps into the vacuum.
Nina Hoss plays Lisa, a gifted playwright who has put her career on hold to facilitate a “gilded Alpine life” for her family: her husband (Jens Albinus) is head of an “impossibly snooty” Swiss boarding school, where she teaches literature. Her twin brother Sven (Lars Eidinger) is also coming to terms with a career that has stalled – a theatre actor, he is hoping to reprise his role as Hamlet as soon as his cancer is in remission. The script’s “bumpy naturalism” makes for some uneven moments, but Hoss and Eidinger electrify scenes “that might not otherwise have worked”.
Submitted as the Swiss entry for the foreign-language Oscar last year, My Little Sister is a “terrific, prickly drama about family ties tested to the limits”, said Wendy Ide in The Observer. Marthe Keller is “gloriously toxic” as the twins’ mother – a “grande dame of theatre” whose idea of an appropriate response to a family medical emergency is to make a round of kir royales. We know when Lisa starts to care for her brother that “collision is inevitable”, but the film’s climax is still “unexpectedly devastating”.
There is something “vital” about this perceptive drama, said Jeannette Catsoulis in The New York Times. “Small in scale and big in heart”, it has unwavering confidence in the power of art, and the idea that “when medicine can’t heal you, sometimes words can fill the breach”.
The Many Saints of Newark
“Tony Soprano is back!”, said Kevin Maher in The Times. It’s been 14 years since the mobster was last seen, in the ambiguous closing scene of the TV drama, and eight since the actor who played him, James Gandolfini, died aged 51. Now, The Sopranos’ creator David Chase’s prequel has hit the cinemas – featuring Gandolfini’s own son, Michael, as the teenage Tony. He delivers a “soulful, sad-eyed turn that fills” the story with “crushing levels of authenticity”. But the focus of this “outlandishly satisfying” movie is not Tony but the man who becomes his mentor: mid-level mobster Dickie Moltisanti (his surname gives the film its title), who is played with “incendiary charisma” by Alessandro Nivola. Dickie is “silky smooth” on the outside, but internally torn apart by “conflicting professional loyalties, his resentment towards his abusive father (a terrifying Ray Liotta)” and his sexual desire for his young stepmother (Michela De Rossi).
You don’t need “a PhD in Sopranos-ology” to enjoy the film, said Tim Robey in The Daily Telegraph, but it is not for “total novices”. In a “ghoulish touch”, our narrator is Christopher Moltisanti, the protégé Tony murdered in season six of the series. And the film has “bombshells” that will shock its devotees. Where it deviates most is in the introduction of Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.) as a Moltisanti street enforcer, said Clarisse Loughrey in The Independent. He does Dickie’s bidding while swallowing his boss’s racism – but for how much longer? Anger is growing on the streets, and in one powerful scene, Harold finds himself in the midst of the Newark race riots. This is a “fierce and brilliant” film that “both expands on and complicates” The Sopranos’ cultural legacy.
This “wonderfully absorbing and moving” family drama has been nominated for six Oscars, and “already has the look of a well-loved classic”, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. Set in the 1980s, and inspired by writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s own childhood, it stars Steven Yeun as Jacob, a Korean immigrant who gives up a dead-end job in California and moves his family to a trailer home set on five acres in Arkansas. His plan is to farm Korean produce and bring up his daughter Anne (Noel Cho) and son David (Alan Kim) in Edenic bliss. But his wife, Monica (Yeri Han) is sceptical, and as tornadoes and fires strike and crops fail, despite his backbreaking labour, their marriage hits the skids.
Rose Plays Julie
This gripping psychological drama from the acclaimed Irish duo Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor has a MeToo contemporary edge, but its underlying themes, of what film-makers call “identity under duress”, are ancient and timeless, said Mark Kermode in The Observer. Ann Skelly is Rose, a student vet in Dublin who discovers that she was adopted as a baby, and decides to track down her birth mother, an actress named Ellen (Orla Brady) – who once played a vet. Ellen wants no contact, but Rose infiltrates her life, initially by posing as a possible buyer of her house. This leads her to her father, an archaeologist (Aidan Gillen). Claiming to be an actress called Julie, she enters his “predatory orbit”, hoping to uncover his true identity by not revealing hers – a risky move with consequences for all three.
Compared to Phyllida Lloyd’s earlier films – such as Mamma Mia! – this story about an Irish cleaner is a low-key affair, said Charlotte O’Sullivan in the London Evening Standard. But don’t be fooled: “Herself is destined for great things.” Sandra (Clare Dunne) musters the courage to leave her violent husband, but finds that she and her two daughters will have to wait years for a council home; in the meantime, they’re stuck in an airport hotel where they’re treated as second-class citizens, not even allowed to use the front entrance. Sandra’s solution is to build her own house, and with the help of a doctor (Harriet Walter) andano-nonsense builder (Conleth Hill), she sets to work. It’s all very hopeful to start with – but when the setbacks come, they are “horribly” plausible. The result is an “enchanting” radical fairy-tale that is both universal and thoroughly Irish.
The Lost Leonardo
Early in this “sensational” documentary there is one of those “Whoa!” moments, said Owen Gleiberman in Variety. The year is 2005: acting on a hunch, two art dealers have spent $1,175 on a dirty old painting of Christ at a New Orleans auction, and taken it to a respected art restorer. As she works, she realises that the mouth matches that of the Mona Lisa – and declares that what she is looking at is a lost Leonardo da Vinci. Authenticated by various experts, it eventually sells for a record $450m. Director Andreas Koefoed briefly allows us to enjoy this dream of a rediscovered masterpiece – before bringing in the sceptics, and inviting us to use our own eyes, to consider whether this painting really could be the “male Mona Lisa”. Combining “a bubbly sense of play with a gravity of purpose”, he exposes the greed and venality of the art world, and shows how the monetary value of a painting can become “the tail wagging the dog of its (actual) value”.
Jude Law’s “insincere salesman’s smile” is put to good use in this unsettling drama, a film about family dysfunction with the stylistic trappings of a horror movie, said Wendy Ide in The Observer. Law plays handsome, “brash City boy” Rory, who has decided to relocate his American wife Allison (Carrie Coon) and their two children from New York to a 17th century mansion in Surrey. It is 1986 and, having had professional luck in the past, Rory is determined to ride the deregulation of the UK financial markets to great wealth and social glory. But we soon recognise him for the none too clever blowhard he is, and must watch as cheques bounce, bills go unpaid and Allison gradually starts to realise the full extent of his lies and empty promises.
Tom McCarthy’s first film since the Oscar-winning Spotlight is “the kind of mid-budget grown-up movie that Hollywood supposedly doesn’t make any more”, said Ian Freer in Empire. A “mostly entertaining, if overlong”, mix of thriller and relationship drama, it stars Matt Damon as Bill Baker, an oil driller, recovering alcoholic and self-declared “f**kup” from Oklahoma who is now adrift in Marseille, where his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), is in prison for her girlfriend’s murder. Allison insists she is innocent, and Bill is determined to clear her name. Facing impenetrable cultural barriers, he is helped by an actress he befriends, Virginie (Call My Agent!’s Camille Cottin). There’s real chemistry between this odd couple – the chic, liberal French “thesp” and the “God-fearing, gun-loving” American – and the “taciturn” Bill discovers “tenderness and a different way of living”.
Politics and poetry meet in this “eccentric” film about refugee lives in limbo, said Alex Godfrey in Empire. Housed together on a bleak, unnamed Scottish island (the film was shot on North and South Uist), four asylum seekers must wait as their applications are processed agonisingly slowly. Barred from working, they have nothing to do but attend “ridiculous” cultural-awareness classes and watch teenagers drive doughnuts in the “drab” local town. Omar (Amir El-Masry) is a Syrian musician who feels so “stuck” he can’t bring himself to play his oud (a Middle-Eastern lute). His Afghan friend Farhad (Vikash Bhai) keeps a chicken named Freddie Mercury. And Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) is a Nigerian football fan whose plan to play for Chelsea invites ridicule from his Ghanaian friend Abedi (Kwabena Ansah).
“M. Night Shyamalan has had a rum old career,” said Ed Potton in The Times, “lurching from creepy triumphs (The Sixth Sense) to flawed but intriguing curios (The Village) to outrageous turkeys (Lady in the Water).” Old belongs in the flawed but intriguing group. Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps star as Guy and Prisca, a couple on holiday in an unnamed tropical country with their children. Dropped off at a remote, supposedly secret beach, they are surprised to find other guests present, including Charles (Rufus Sewell), an arrogant British surgeon, and Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), a famous American rapper. But far more sinister are the events that follow: all the characters start ageing at a wildly accelerated rate, and no one seems able to leave. With a premise worthy of early Star Trek and an ensemble cast straight out of Agatha Christie, Old is pure “hokum” – but ingenious and hugely entertaining too, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian.
Summer of Soul
This new documentary is “an absolute joy, uncovering a treasure trove of pulse-racing, heart-stopping live music footage that has remained largely unseen for half a century”, said Mark Kermode in The Observer. The Harlem Cultural Festival was a series of open-air concerts that took place in New York in 1969, and which were dubbed the “Black Woodstock”. The concerts were filmed by the television producer Hal Tulchin, who planned to make a TV film out of it. But he was turned down by all the main networks, and his footage sat in a basement for 50 years. The director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson discovered it, and has made it into a debut feature which “intertwines music and politics in one of the best concert movies of all time”.
Set in Italy, Pixar’s latest offering is a “gorgeous parable” about the relationship between two young sea monsters, said Kevin Maher in The Times. Bookish Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) and bold Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) are merboys who find they are able to assume human form to explore the nearby fishing village. With the aid of a spirited teenager (Emma Berman), they set out to win the local triathlon. However, the villagers loathe sea monsters, and the risk of discovery creates a thrilling tension. Some viewers have read the story as an allegory about growing up gay. Pixar insists the boys’ relationship is not romantic, but the film does deal with themes of belonging and identity, and with its tear-jerking finale, it is “soul food for kids of all ages”.
The Reason I Jump
A world teeming with thoughts that you have no way to express is the stuff of panic dreams – and also of this “poetic and revelatory” documentary, said Danny Leigh in the FT. Based on the bestselling book by Naoki Higashida, a 13-year-old with non-verbal autism, it introduces us to young people from four continents with similar conditions, explaining how they struggle to construct a wider reality from the fine details which can overwhelm their senses, and the difficulty they have in separating recent events from long-ago ones. The result is moving and imaginative – “the young people are beguiling, their parents’ love profound” – though one wishes that some alternative views of this highly controversial topic had been accommodated.
In The Heights
It’s a “looser, simpler” musical than Hamilton, but In the Heights – Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit from 2005 – brims with the same energy, and this film version is like “a shot of summer holiday” to the arm, said Helen O’Hara in Empire. Set in the largely Hispanic neighbourhood of Washington Heights in Manhattan, it features intertwining plot lines about people’s efforts to get on in the world. Our hero (Anthony Ramos) is a young bodega owner who hopes to return to the Dominican Republic to open a beach bar, but we’re also privy to the dreams of his girlfriend (Melissa Barrera), a straight-A student named Nina (Leslie Grace), and a supporting cast of “salon girls, small cousins and caring grandmothers”. A “joyous, expansive” account of the immigrant experience, In the Heights looks set to be “the film of the summer”, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph.
“The feelgood Brit-com is back!” said Kevin Maher in The Times. Whereas recent Brit-coms such as Military Wives and Fisherman’s Friends have been marred by a “horrible” focus on X-Factor-like celebrity, Dream Horse is a “purer” form of the genre, which harks back to Ealing classics such as The Titfield Thunderbolt “with its carefully calibrated characters and often unforgiving dissection of class politics”. Based on a true story, and set in South Wales, it stars Toni Collette as Jan Vokes, a barmaid in a former mining village who puts together a local syndicate to buy a racehorse. An empty nester living in penury, she is inspired by accountant Howard (Damian Lewis), whose love of racing provides an escape from the “crushing tedium” around him. Their “scrappy, allotment-raised” gelding, Dream Alliance, “crashes the snooty owners' paddock at Aintree”, and goes on to win the Welsh Grand National.
This “beautifully surprising” prequel to The Hundred and One Dalmatians is a “fabulous-darling air kiss” of a movie, said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times. Set in the late 1960s or early 1970s London, it imagines how the young Estella de Vil grew into the dognapping anti-heroine of Dodie Smith’s novel. Taken up by two pickpockets (Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry) after her mother’s death, Estella (Emma Stone) is groomed for a big-time heist by immersion in the fashion world, landing a job with a fearsome designer called the Baroness (Emma Thompson). To carry out the crime, she develops “a black-and-white vamp persona, only to find the mask sticking”. Brimming with retro pop hits and “profoundly satisfying” plot twists, it’s an “entirely smashing” experience.
The power of the western to reinvent itself never ceases to amaze, said Kevin Maher in The Times. Its latest incarnation is a “tender heartbreaker” set in the forests of 19th century Oregon, with a travelling cook (John Magaro) and an enterprising Chinese immigrant (Orion Lee) as the unlikely heroes. The pair hit on the idea of selling delicious biscuits as a rare treat for the local settlers and fur traders, using milk from the first cow imported into the territory. But the cow belongs to a powerful local merchant (Toby Jones), and milking it is a dangerous act of theft. From this idiosyncratic material director Kelly Reichardt fashions a “delicate” parable about American destiny, environmentalism and the value of friendship.
This “intimate” film about love and mortality is carried by the “heartfelt” performances of its leads, Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. Tusker (Tucci) and Sam (Firth) are a couple who have been together for decades. The former is a novelist, the latter a classical pianist, but their careers are on hold because Tusker has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia. Now they are setting off on a road trip to the Lake District. Their plan is to visit Sam’s sister, but this is also a chance - possibly their last - to spend a bit of time together while Tusker is still well. The pair make a sweet and likeable odd couple, and their instinct is to try to jolly their way through. But they must eventually face up to the reality of their situation, and when they do, it is “painful in ways that none of their shared jokes or shared love can really anaesthetise”.
Billie Piper’s first film as a writer-director is a “peculiar anti-romcom”, an “ambitious, nervy work that occasionally trips over its own stylistic heels”, said Mark Kermode in The Observer. Piper stars as Mandy, an “angry, seething” single mother who is professionally driven but still living with her own mother, (Kerry Fox). Her son (Toby Woolf) is “beset by anxious tics”, and her father (David Thewlis) is consumed by “bitterness and regret”. On a “toe-curling” date with a buttoned up workmate (Leo Bill), Mandy spots that he’s a misogynist, but starts a “laceratingly awkward” relationship with him nonetheless. In their verbal sparring matches, “deadpan sparks fly” – the script is “gleefully overwrought” – but ultimately, the focus of the film is Mandy’s personal battle “to define who she is”.
From its opening images of a father and son camping together in the Montana wilderness, Cowboys taps into classic images of American masculinity, said Clarisse Loughrey in The Independent. But this “sweetly realised” road movie uses them to gently subversive ends. We soon learn that the boy, 11-year-old Joe (Sasha Knight), is trans, and has recently come out to his parents. His mother Sally (Jillian Bell), “fixated on the idea of having a mini-me daughter”, is hostile and uncomprehending. But his father, Sally’s ex-husband Troy (Steve Zahn), is keen to protect his child’s happiness and decides, “in a moment of loving desperation”, to flee with Joe for Canada. It’s effectively a kidnapping. Sally calls the police, who are quick to assume that the bighearted Troy – an alcoholic, bipolar ex-convict – is a violent threat, and a manhunt ensues.
Black Bear is a “tricky, twisty and relentlessly inventive drama” that plays on the weirdness of movie-making, said Kevin Maher in The Times. Suffering from a creative block, writer-director Allison (Aubrey Plaza) checks into a writers’ retreat in upstate New York, where she becomes involved in the “vicious and mutually destructive struggles” of its husband and wife owners, Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon). Matters descend to Polanski-like darkness – and then the action resets. We’re in the same place, but now a film crew is present, shooting a drama whose story resembles the events we’ve just seen – except that the characters’ roles have changed. In this version, Gabe is the writer-director, Allison is his wife and the star of the film, and Blair is her co-star and real-life rival for Gabe’s affections.
This “absorbing” drama about forbidden love in 1840s Dorset “brings together two superb performers”, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. Kate Winslet plays Mary Anning, the palaeontologist whose extraordinary fossil finds were “coolly appropriated” by the male scientific establishment, forcing her to run a curios shop in Lyme Regis to get by; and Saoirse Ronan is geologist Charlotte Murchison, a gentlewoman who is sent to lodge with Mary by her husband Roderick (James McArdle) in the hopes that “sea air and healthy scientific thoughts” will cure her melancholia. In fact, Charlotte’s problem is his “passionless dullness”. Joining Mary on windswept fossil hunting expeditions, she gradually comes alive and, though Mary is a tough woman, who wears “a look of perpetual wary resentment”, their friendship gives way to passion.
Having established their reputations with superhero blockbusters such as Avengers: Endgame, the Russo brothers have now turned to more “grown-up” material with this adaptation of an autobiographical novel by former US soldier Nico Walker, said John Nugent in Empire. Its protagonist, Cherry, is a quiet college student who joins up as a medic, serves in the Iraq War, and returns to the US with PTSD and a growing drug habit that he ends up funding through armed robbery. With its episodic structure, the film feels “like multiple movies in one”, and runs to “an Endgame-approaching two-and-a-half hours”. Some sections are “fuzzy or formulaic”, and the whole thing has “a fidgety, unfocused feel”. But it’s worth watching for Spider-Man actor Tom Holland’s central performance, in a “demanding, complex” role.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday has always been “a monster of a role”, said Mark Kennedy in The Independent. Diana Ross and Audra McDonald have both tackled it; now singer Andra Day takes it on, in her acting debut – and she shines. In a remarkable performance, she portrays the great singer in her final years as “a haunted and crushed icon, an addict with terrible choices in men but the voice of an angel”. The film flashes back and forward in time, but centres on events in 1947, when the authorities were so alarmed by the impact of her anti-lynching song Strange Fruit, they apparently conspired to have her jailed for possessing heroin. Lee Daniels’s film is unfocused and meandering, but it’s interspersed with scenes that feel “like a punch in the gut”.
The biopic trend “trundles on, chewing up one children’s author after another – C.S. Lewis, J.M. Barrie, A.A. Milne, J.R.R. Tolkien”, said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times. Now it’s the turn of Roald Dahl – in a film that is especially weak and contrived. Based on Stephen Michael Shearer’s biography of Dahl’s first wife, the American actress Patricia Neal, To Olivia is set in the years leading up to the author’s first big success, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in 1964. At home in Buckinghamshire, Dahl (Hugh Bonneville) is “all fun and games” with his three children, but bickers “horribly” with Neal (Keeley Hawes) before retreating to his writing shed to drink. The death of their seven-year-old daughter Olivia, from measles-related encephalitis, plunges Dahl into depression, and the increasingly lonely Neal heads to Hollywood to give her Oscar-winning performance opposite Paul Newman in Hud.
Chinese-American director Cathy Yan made her name internationally last year with the superhero blockbuster Birds of Prey. That was her second film; now her first, Dead Pigs, has been released in the UK, said Ella Kemp in Empire. Premiered at the Sundance festival in 2018, it’s a “fizzy” social satire inspired by a real-life event in 2013, when around 16,000 dead pigs floated down the Huangpu River through Shanghai, having been dumped by farmers upstream. Yan traces the effects of this bizarre event through the interlinked lives of five characters. At the heart of the web is Candy Wang – a beauty parlour owner, who is coming under pressure to sell her family’s old wooden house, owing to her pig-farmer brother’s financial plight – and Sean, a US architect who has wildly ambitious plans for the site.
News of the World
Tom Hanks is at his “twinkliest and crinkliest” in this old-fashioned Western, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. He plays Captain Jefferson Kidd, a veteran of the Civil War’s losing side who now makes a living by travelling around Texas reading news stories to the illiterate masses. On the trail he comes across an abandoned, mute white girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel). Her German parents had been killed years earlier, by the Kiowa tribe, who raised her – until they were themselves killed by white settlers. At this point, Kidd decides to take her on the road, in order to deliver her to her closest living relatives, an aunt and uncle on the far side of the state.
Quo Vadis, Aida?
Serbian director Jasmila Žbanic’s “incendiary” film is about the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 – the worst civilian atrocity in Europe since the end of the Second World War, said Kevin Maher in The Times. We see it through the eyes of Aida (Jasna Đuricic), a local teacher-turned-translator who scurries frantically between the representatives of the 20,000 terrified Bosnian Muslims who are gathered in and around the UN’s supposed “safe area” (a disused factory), and the commanders of the UN’s Dutch peacekeeping forces – “eviscerated here as weak and spineless” – while the Bosnian Serb leader Ratko Mladic (Boris Isakovic) and his paramilitary thugs “await the green light for mass extermination”.
Based on the true story of the excavation at Sutton Hoo, and adapted from John Preston’s novel, The Dig is a “moving and beguiling” period piece that offers “a well-timed double dose of consolation and escape”, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. In the summer of 1939, when the world was preparing for war, Suffolk landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) employed Basil Brown, a local self-taught archaeologist (Ralph Fiennes, sporting a broad Suffolk accent) to investigate the mysterious grassy mounds on her estate. The dig revealed them to be a ninth century Anglo-Saxon burial site, concealing, among other treasures, an 89ft-long ship; and so, “just as the nation’s future became obscured by shadow, a shaft of light was suddenly thrown on its distant past”. At first, we follow the relationship that develops between Brown and Pretty. But as excitement about the find intensifies, and the professionals descend on it, the film’s scope widens, to focus in particular on the romance between married archaeologist Peggy Piggott (Lily James) and Pretty’s nephew (Johnny Flynn), who is waiting to be called up.
The massacre of around 80 unarmed protesters in the Russian city of Novocherkassk in 1962 – an atrocity kept secret for 30 years – is the subject of this riveting drama from veteran director Andrei Konchalovsky, said Kevin Maher in The Times. Winner of the Special Jury Prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival, it strikes a “wry”, satirical note at first, with “droll one liners about Soviet ineptitude” as workers at the city’s power plant go on strike over rising food prices. The subsequent massacre, however, is depicted “unsparingly”. The film’s protagonist, local Communist Party member Lyuda Syomina (Julia Vysotskaya), has a reputation for endorsing this kind of crackdown. But when her teenage daughter, Svetka – a worker at the plant – goes missing, she is torn between her loyalty to the party, and her personal anguish.
One Night in Miami
Oscar-winning actress Regina King’s directorial debut features both “big ideas and barnstorming turns”, said Kevin Maher in The Times. Based on the 2013 play by Kemp Powers, the film imagines the conversation that might have taken place during a real-life meeting between four black American icons – Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), as he was then, Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr) and NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) – in Miami on the night of 25 February 1964, to celebrate Clay’s defeat of world champion boxer Sonny Liston. The dialogue is witty and fluid, but gradually their conversation homes in on a single weighty topic – what it means to be, in Clay’s words, “young, black, righteous, unapologetic, famous” in white America. The result is a “timely and serious commentary on American racial politics”.
The White Tiger
Adapted from Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Booker Prize winner, The White Tiger is a darkly humorous rags-to-riches tale set in India in the economic boom of the late Noughties, said Owen Gleiberman in Variety. Its protagonist is Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), a charming but dirt-poor peasant who talks his way into a job as a Delhi-based driver for a ruthless landlord, The Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar). Balram is grateful and obsequious at first, in awe of The Stork’s suave son (Rajkummar Rao) and his sophisticated, New-York-raised wife (Priyanka Chopra Jonas). But he comes to see his servile mentality as a curse when the family makes him the fall guy for a crash he didn’t cause. Learning to emulate their ruthlessness and cynicism, he turns the tables, lining his pockets and launching himself on a corrupt path to success.
Ham on Rye
Writer-director Tyler Taormina’s debut feature is a surreal, “disquieting” take on the Hollywood coming of age genre, said Glenn Kenny in The New York Times. It’s spring in the suburbs, and teenagers wearing sundresses and jackets and ties are heading to a dance. The boys talk, crudely but naively, about sex; the girls about fashion and popularity. The dance is held at a local deli and has a strange, ritual air. The girls form one line, the boys another, music begins and, communicating with hand gestures, they pair off. The scene builds to a dreamy climax – but then the film turns to those who got passed over at the dance, or were too anxious to go, and things become stranger still.
From its first feature – 1995’s Toy Story – onwards, Pixar has never been shy of tackling the big questions. In Soul, the animation studio takes on the greatest of them of all – the meaning of life, said Clarisse Loughrey in The Independent, and it does so with all the “beauty”, “humour” and “heart” for which it has become known. Pixar’s first film with an African American protagonist is about a New York jazz pianist, Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), who is scraping a living as a high school teacher while longing for success as a performer. Then, moments after being booked for a potentially life-changing gig, he falls down a manhole. His soul ends up in The Great Beyond, a fuzzy pastel afterlife; but such is his desperation to realise his dream, he manages to slip back to Earth with another soul named 22 (a “delightfully irritating” Tina Fey), who has never occupied a physical body before.
The Harder They Fall
Historical correctives don’t often come in as “sexy and stylish a form” as The Harder They Fall, said Clarisse Loughrey in The Independent. This “thrilling” new Netflix drama redresses the “whitewashed history” of the American West, by aligning its story more closely with the reality, which is that a quarter of cowboys and rodeo riders were black. Jonathan Majors stars as Nat, a gunslinger who sets out with his gang on a revenge mission against the man who killed his family when he was a child: the real-life 19th century outlaw Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). Characters neatly slot into the “broad archetypes” of the western genre: we have “the upstart, the romantic, the damsel, the sharpshooting poet”; but the “magnetism” of the performances breathes life into the familiar tropes.
This “headbangingly, face-splatteringly violent” film is often “terrific”, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. Every shot, every scene and exchange is “combat-ready”, and director Jeymes Samuel, also known as the singer-songwriter The Bullitts, brings energy and “freaky mayhem” to proceedings. More “witty or tender dialogue” would have been nice – and a less “silly” ending too – but even if the film is more style than substance, it is “tremendous style”. It didn’t work for me, said Kevin Maher in The Times. I found it visually ugly – “painfully overlit” – and “structurally patchy”. Elba is “on autopilot”; it’s badly written, with chunks of “sub-Tarantino dialogue”; and the supporting cast, including Regina King, is underused. The film is a mishmash, and a waste.
“Halloween may be over, but there’s an artfully ghoulish quality to Spencer,” said Alistair Harkness in The Scotsman. Made by the Chilean director Pablo Larraín, this “audacious” new film is about Princess Diana’s last Christmas as a member of the royal family in 1991 – and there is something “gleefully macabre” in the way it presents the monarchy.
Sandringham comes across as a “gilded cage” version of the hotel in The Shining, and the military-style operation to prepare it for the festivities subtly suggests that the princess – desperate to leave her husband, but determined not to lose her children – is entering a battleground. What follows is not a Crown-like dramatisation, but something more like an “expressionistic horror film” in which Diana’s “overly scrutinised reality” distorts around her “like the warped landscapes of an Edvard Munch painting”.
For all the film’s dramatic invention, I found it “remarkably truthful”, said Mark Kermode in The Observer. Carried by a “note-perfect” Kristen Stewart as Diana, it dances between “ethereal ghost story, arch social satire and no-holds-barred psychodrama”. Every move Diana makes is monitored – by the press, by her dressers, by a “Lurch-like” equerry (Timothy Spall).