2021 films of the year: Herself, The Lost Leonardo, Our Ladies and more
A look at the new movie releases
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”.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
We’re always being told that the latest superhero movie is a stand-out of the genre – but this new one from the Marvel canon really is a “blast”, said Tim Robey in The Daily Telegraph. The Canadian martial artist Simu Liu – Marvel’s first Asian film lead – plays Shaun, a genial San Francisco parking valet whose friendship with co-worker Katy (the actress and rapper Awkwafina) creates some sparky slacker comedy in the opening scenes. Then, a crew of tough guys corner the pair on a bus, and we discover that Shaun is really ShangChi, the estranged son of The Mandarin (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), a 1,000-year-old Chinese warlord bent on stealing Shang-Chi’s magic pendant. Fearing his father has evil plans for the world, Shang-Chi flies to Macau to join his long-lost sister (Meng’er Zhang) and reclusive aunt (Michelle Yeoh) in an effort to thwart him.
Adapted from a novel by Alan Warner, this comedy-drama about six Catholic schoolgirls from the Highlands on a day trip to Edinburgh in the mid-1990s is often hysterical, but it is shot through with “compassion”, said Kevin Maher in The Times. Escaping the supervision of their teacher, Sister Condron (Kate Dickie), our young heroines embark on a “booze sodden, foul-mouthed, sex-obsessed” adventure, taking in karaoke, flaming sambucas, an alarming encounter with a naked bodybuilder, and more. Their yearning for “a wee shag” unites them, but so too do the harsh realities of their lives (including poverty, unwanted pregnancies and illness) – and “the eternal rewards of friendship and love”. All six characters are “vivacious” and acutely played, making their company an instant pleasure.
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.
A sequel to Bernard Rose’s 1992 horror classic of the same name, Candyman is “one of the most original, beautiful and savagely satirical films of the year”, said Charlotte O’Sullivan in the London Evening Standard. The Candyman is the spirit of a black artist who was lynched in the 19th century for loving a white woman, and who returns to his old Chicago stomping ground – now a fast-gentrifying housing project – to kill anyone who speaks his name five times in a mirror. In this film version, a socially conscious young artist named Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) explores the urban legend in his latest work, which includes a mirror entitled “Say My Name”. A white gallery owner and a snobby art critic unwisely act on the instruction, and soon the bodies are piling up.
This “ingenious” film starts out looking like a traditional revenge thriller, albeit with a twist, said Clarisse Loughrey in The Independent. Rob (Nicolas Cage) is a former chef from Portland, Oregon, who has been driven by private grief to hunker down in a woodland cabin with just a truffle pig for company. His only visitor is Amir (Alex Wolff), who sells the truffles they find to upmarket restaurants. When Rob is assaulted and his pig stolen, he sets out to retrieve the animal – and nothing will stand in his way. Cage’s past roles and his appearance here – mountain-man beard, straggly hair, dishevelled clothes – lead us to expect a descent into madness; but what Cage really brings to the role is a sense of “profound connection” with food.
I’m Your Man
The last thing Berlin academic Alma (Maren Eggert) wants, in this “smart” German comedy, is a new relationship after a messy break-up, said Wendy Ide in The Observer. Nevertheless, she’s persuaded to take part in a three-week trial of a humanoid robot named Tom that has been designed to be her perfect companion. Her scepticism initially seems well placed as Tom (Dan Stevens) draws on a database of cornball compliments – “Your eyes are like two mountain lakes”. But because he’s programmed to learn from her responses, he starts to resemble the kind of man she could live with – and even love. Stevens produces a “deft” comic performance in a film that has unexpected depth, raising pertinent questions about a world in which algorithms can know us better than our human partners ever will.
With his “eerily generic” looks and knack for clowning, Ryan Reynolds is perfectly cast in this “cheerfully silly” action comedy as Guy, a character in a violent computer game who develops self-awareness, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. Guy is a non-player character (NPC) – a perpetually smiley bank teller who lives an ordinary-joe life in a shiny modern city that just happens to have a wildly high crime rate. But then an encounter with Millie – a glamorous avatar controlled by a nerdy Seattle gamer (Jodie Comer) – kicks off his journey to free will and agency. The former background character starts to write his own story, with the privileges of a human-controlled player, and a romance thrown in.
Benedict Cumberbatch shines in this Cold War thriller about the emotional bonds that can form in “the brutal world of spycraft”, said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times. He plays Greville Wynne, the salesman selected in real life by MI6 to contact Oleg Penkovsky, a Soviet intelligence officer who was so alarmed by Khrushchev’s nuclear brinkmanship that he leaked information later credited with averting war during the Cuban missile crisis. Wynne was recruited for his sheer ordinariness, and his strong head for alcohol, and Cumberbatch exudes an “unpretentious conviviality” that duly charms Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze). Drinking, sightseeing and attending the ballet on Wynne’s trips to Moscow, they develop a sense of mutual personal loyalty that will sustain them when Wynne’s mission goes awry.
The first ever cinematic adaptation of a Twitter thread, this comedy-cum-thriller is “a blast” – a “brash, aggressively showy joyride to the dark side”, said Wendy Ide in The Observer. “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out?” began exotic dancer A’Ziah “Zola” King’s uproarious, 148-tweet account of a 2015 Florida road trip that went horribly awry. In the film, Zola (Taylour Paige) is persuaded by a woman she’s just met – fellow dancer Stefani (Riley Keough) – to drive to Tampa for a weekend of lucrative pole-dancing. The trip there with Stefani’s weedy boyfriend (Nicholas Braun), and a pimp known as X (Colman Domingo), is fun – but then X turns nasty. What we’re witnessing is “sex trafficking by another name” – and Zola’s “sharp wits” are her only hope of getting out unscathed.
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”.
The Suicide Squad
Released in 2016, the original Suicide Squad was “an absolute mess of a superhero film”, but just five years on, Warner Bros. has made a new version of the niche DC series, and it’s a triumph, said Ed Potton in The Times. It has a new writer-director in James Gunn, but the story set-up is essentially the same – a black-ops team of minor supervillains is plucked from prison to conduct a “foolhardy” mission for the US government. Margot Robbie reprises her role as “squeaky-voiced psychopath” Harley Quinn, but the team is now led by Idris Elba’s has-been assassin Bloodsport, and raucous comedy is introduced by other newcomers, including Ratcatcher (Daniela Melchior) with her army of vermin, and Nanaue, a man-cumshark voiced by Sylvester Stallone.
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”.
The latest Marvel superhero film is a “spy romp” starring Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, a character often “reduced to sassy cartwheels in catsuits” in previous outings, said Kevin Maher in The Times. In a plot that owes more to James Bond (or Austin Powers) than Iron Man, she is reunited with her estranged little sister Yelena (Florence Pugh), a fellow graduate of the Red Room, a Russian academy for training brainwashed female assassins. Yelena has been deprogrammed and plans to free the other girls with her sister’s help. To do so, they must take down the evil General Dreykov, a “Blofeld wannabe” played by Ray Winstone with a “conspicuous Moscow-via-Cape-Town-via-Enfield accent”. Luckily, they have the help of their adoptive parents, scientist Melina (Rachel Weisz) and former spy Alexei (David Harbour).
Winner of an Oscar for best international feature, this tragicomedy is director Thomas Vinterberg’s finest film since Festen (1998), said Mark Kermode in The Observer. Mads Mikkelsen plays a high-school teacher and reformed hellraiser who is in the throes of a mid-life crisis. Inspired by the notion – attributed to the real-life psychiatrist Finn Skårderud – that all humans are born a tiny bit alcohol deficient, he and three male colleagues start drinking secretly at work, hoping to “learn to live again”. They treat their drinking as a scientific experiment, with “severe and absurd” rules, and at first they amaze themselves, their pupils and their wives with their new-found lucidity, enthusiasm and spontaneity. But they struggle to limit their consumption, and are soon “spiralling towards self-destruction”.
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”.
First-time director Emma Seligman, 25, “comes bolting out of the gate” with this “scabrously funny” comedy set during a single afternoon at a “highly stressful” Jewish shiva (a wake-like gathering) in Brooklyn, said Kevin Maher in The Times. Our protagonist is Danielle, a “droll, deadpan and bi-curious” 22-year-old (Rachel Sennott) who is going to the wake with her liberal but “acid-tongued” parents. There, she meets a succession of relatives and family friends who ask her prying questions about her professional aspirations (she’s “studying gender”) and her appearance (“You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps,” says one); a childhood friend with whom she hadafling; and, to make matters even more awkward, the businessman who has become her sugar daddy – and whose wife is on the way. Her attempts to navigate all this set the stage for a “busy, briskly edited, beautifully played comedy of errors with a sweetly psychotic undertow”.
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.
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.
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.
Army of the Dead
He made his debut in 2004 with a high-octane remake of George A. Romero’s zombie classic Dawn of the Dead, and his recent, four-hour cut of Justice League was spectacular, but Army of the Dead is director Zack Snyder’s most “cinematic” blockbuster yet, said Kevin Maher in The Times. In this gory and “giddily entertaining” mash-up of the zombie and heist genres, an outbreak of the zombie plague in Las Vegas has been contained, and the city walled off. But a shadowy tycoon (Hiroyuki Sanada) has $200m locked in a vault there, and hires a “fractious” band of mercenaries, led by man-mountain Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), to retrieve it. Mayhem ensues, all “cleverly orchestrated”, with an impending nuclear strike to add to the “countdown pressure”.
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”.
Shot in “haunting monochrome” and permeated with the “chill of political fear”, this “deeply disturbing” film is about the covert power struggle between Church and state in communist-era Czechoslovakia, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. Two “fresh-faced” teenagers, Juraj (Samuel Skyva) and Michal (Samuel Polakovic), arrive for their training at a Catholic seminary in Bratislava, only to find themselves in “an austere haunted house of shame, reeking of paranoia, exhaustion and self-reproach”. The Dean (Vladimír Strnisko) belongs to Pacem in Terris – a real-life regime-sponsored organisation of Catholic clergy – but dissident young priests are secretly in touch with the Vatican. Into the ferment steps the “deeply malevolent”, blackmailing policeman Dr Ivan (Vlad Ivanov).
Set in an eerie version of contemporary Athens – strikingly depopulated and shorn of digital technology – Apples is an “unexpectedly moving” tragicomedy about an unexplained outbreak of amnesia, said Mark Kermode in The Observer. Gaunt-faced Aris Servetalis “cuts a mournful figure” – half Charlie Chaplin, half Daniel Day-Lewis – as a loner (also called Aris) who wakes up to find he’s forgotten everything about himself. To help him forge a new identity, doctors set him tasks – ride a bike, go to a fancy-dress party, and so on – and instruct him to take regular Polaroid selfies. A tentative romance develops between him and a fellow amnesiac Anna (Sofia Georgovassili), during which they crash a car (she can’t recall how to stop) and, in a moment of comedy gold, listen to another patient relate the plot of Titanic.
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.
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.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines
The plot of this animated film is unhindered by convention, said Ben Travis in Empire: in other words, it’s “nuts”. The Mitchells are a dysfunctional nuclear family struggling to connect with each other in the world of modern technology. As daughter Katie (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) prepares to leave for film school, her father (Danny McBride) realises how distanced they’ve become. His solution is to turn her journey into a family road trip – which is then derailed by a robot apocalypse. With the rest of the world’s population enslaved by an Alexa-like AI (Olivia Colman), it’s left to the Mitchells to save humanity. Marrying dynamic visuals with a script that’s “as funny as hell”, the award-winning producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller show themselves to be “light years” ahead of the competition.
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.
Brazilian musician and YouTuber Joe Penna made his directorial debut in 2018 with Arctic, an excellent wilderness survival story – and Stowaway, his second film, is “just as intricate and immersive”, said Charlotte O’Sullivan in the London Evening Standard. In the near future, three astronauts – seasoned commander Marina (Toni Collette), upbeat medic Zoe (Anna Kendrick) and nerdy botanist David (Daniel Dae Kim) – set off on a mission to Mars, where they are going to lay the ground-work for a colony. All goes well until Marina finds an accidental stowaway, Michael (Shamier Anderson), a young engineer who was injured and knocked unconscious during launch prep. It transpires that, owing to a malfunction, there is only enough oxygen for three people to survive – meaning that unless the crew find a practical solution, one of them will have to be sacrificed, or all will die.
Promising Young Woman
Writer-director Emerald Fennell’s Oscar-nominated debut, Promising Young Woman, is a pitch dark film for the #MeToo era that “fizzes with style and wit”, said Kevin Maher in The Times. It stars Carey Mulligan as Cassie, a “brittle” coffee shop barista who is still full of rage about the rape and subsequent suicide of her best friend, Nina, some years ago. To avenge Nina’s death, she poses as reeling drunk in nightclubs, where she lets supposed “nice guys” take her home – then snaps out of her stupor when, inevitably, they try to take advantage of her state. These are bleak but funny scenes, from whose outcome – violent or otherwise – we are tantalisingly excluded. Meanwhile, Cassie pursues the individuals who wronged Nina, including the university dean who ignored her report of rape, and the lawyer who put pressure on her to drop her case.
Love and Monsters
With “splattery” visual effects and a “silly but satisfying” hero’s journey, this post-apocalyptic romp is “a daffily lightweight throwback to the teen action-adventures of the 1980s and ’90s”, said Jessica Kiang in Variety. Dylan O’Brien – “liberated from the dourness” of the Maze Runner films, for which he has amassed a huge teen fanbase – is our protagonist, Joel. Seven years ago, humanity used all its nuclear weapons to break up a killer comet, saving the planet but releasing so much radiation in the process that the world’s creepy-crawlies turned into human-eating monsters. In the resulting chaos, most people were killed, including Joel’s parents, and he was separated from his sweetheart, Aimee (Jessica Henwick). Now he learns that she is living just 85 miles away from his underground colony – and he decides to make the “kamikaze” journey to find her.
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.
Palm Springs borrows its basic premise from Groundhog Day, but this romcom has a charm of its own, and it “fairly crackles with surprises”, said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times. Like Bill Murray’s character Phil in the earlier – and rather more family-friendly – film Nyles (Andy Samberg) is stuck in a temporal loop, reliving the same day repeatedly. He’s at a friend’s wedding in the eponymous resort and, having tried killing himself and sleeping with all the guests, he has already reached the “nihilistic-hedonism” phase of the Murray cycle. Where the film parts company with its predecessor is that another guest – Sarah (Cristin Milioti) – is in on the trick, repeating her day alongside his, a “goofy co-conspirator, sharing his godlike dominion over events”.
Godzilla vs. Kong
The first three instalments in Warner Brothers’ Godzilla/King Kong franchise were “gloomy” and “incoherent”, said Kevin Maher in The Times. But “fourth time appears to be the charm”: the latest “giant beastie movie” is “suitably camp” and pretty exciting, too. The plot is silly, but does its main job – bringing King Kong and Godzilla face to face – well enough: the result is a series of “catastrophic city-levelling donnybrooks” between the two titular creatures. In the earlier films, both beasts had become protectors of humanity, but now Godzilla attacks the headquarters of a mysterious robotics company, Apex Industries – and Kong is recruited to help protect his human friends, initially by leading a mission to the centre of the Earth in order to tap into a formidable source of power. The film is “remarkably handsome”, and the human characters “propel things along” nicely, said Benjamin Lee in The Guardian. Most affecting is Jia (Kaylee Hottle), a little girl whose bond with Kong almost gives the film a “heart”.
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.
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.
Shot through with “blood-draining frights”, this rape revenge thriller has a pitch-dark mood that is not easy to shake or describe, said Tomris Laffly in Variety. Co-writer and co-director Madeleine Sims-Fewer plays Miriam, a young Londoner who visits her sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and Greta’s husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) at their remote home in Quebec. Miriam’s own marriage to Caleb (Obi Abili) is on the rocks, and rivalries left over from childhood distance her from Greta, too. Only Dylan offers her warmth, and one night, Miriam kisses him beside a lake. Later, he enters her room and rapes her. Unable to confide in Caleb, and scorned by Greta, Miriam takes matters into her own hands. What follows is “possibly the most brutal woman-on-man ordeal since Audition”, said Phil Hoad in The Guardian. But it also “feels like something from the ancient world” – a “single, abject act of reprisal”, not a “fantasy spree”.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Released in 2017, the original Justice League was “one of cinema’s great catastrophes”, said Kevin Maher in The Times. The DC superhero blockbuster’s first director, Zack Snyder, pulled out during post-production following a personal tragedy, and his replacement, Joss Whedon, then reshot large chunks. The result was a critical and box office disaster. But three years later, DC Films capitulated to a campaign by fans demanding that Snyder be allowed to finish his version, and gave him $70m to do it (on top of the original $300m budget). The gamble has paid off. His film runs for over four hours – twice the length of Whedon’s – but it is “an extraordinary cinematic landmark, and a comic-book epic like no other”. The plot holes have been eliminated, along with the “godawful banter”, and, crucially, he has given the film some much-needed emotional depth.
This biopic of the founder of Creation Records is a “lairy, likeable” account of Alan McGee’s rise from musically talentless Glaswegian punk to self-described “President of Pop”, said Cath Clarke in The Guardian. Trainspotting alumnus Ewen Bremner brings just enough “working-class gobshite cheekiness” to the central role to “balance out the myth-making and megalo-mania”. McGee founded his label in London in 1982, having left Glasgow and his violent father behind, and signed the likes of Primal Scream, The Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine. It’s a life of “inspired chaos”, and the film – adapted by Irvine Welsh and Dean Cavanagh from McGee’s memoir – “hilariously downplays” his biggest discovery, of Oasis, in 1993. He’d only gone to the gig because he’d missed a train. But thus was Britpop born.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Two “barnstorming” performances underpin this “fiercely watchable” thriller about the FBI’s assassination of the Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. Shot aged 21 while lying asleep in bed, Hampton was a charismatic figure, and the “muscular force” of his rhetoric and his “instinctive leadership” are brilliantly conveyed by Daniel Kaluuya. LaKeith Stanfield is similarly impressive as William O’Neal, the petty criminal who was strong-armed by the FBI’s Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) into infiltrating the Black Panthers. Promoted through the ranks, he grows to like and admire Hampton; but he is also in thrall to Mitchell and the FBI. He is not exactly in denial, but nor does he quite face up to what he is doing: he is the Judas of the film’s title.
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.
Raya and the Last Dragon
The heroine of this “sizzlingly enjoyable” animation is in many respects a traditional Disney princess, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph – but hand her a sword and she’ll show you some moves that would make Rapunzel’s hair stand on end. Orphaned martial arts expert Raya has the task of restoring harmony to the kingdom of Kumandra, whose people have been divided by an ancient curse. To do this she enlists the help of a dragon called Sisu, among other animal allies. They’re charming enough, but it’s the Southeast Asian kingdom itself – a beautiful and “teemingly strange” world of temple cities and bamboo forests – that really bursts with personality and colour. Driving the plot is Raya’s rivalry with another princess, Namaari, who shifts from standard villain to something more enigmatic. This is “a feast of a film”.
My Donkey, My Lover & I
This easygoing comedy is one of “unparalleled Frenchness”, said Cath Clarke in The Guardian. Teacher Antoinette (Laure Calamy) is having an affair with a pupil’s father, but their plan for a week alone together is upended when his wife surprises him with a donkey-trekking holiday in the Cévennes. Impulsively, Antoinette books a place on the same trip – only to find herself in charge of a very stubborn animal, with her lover nowhere in sight. But as she and her donkey bond, the film switches from a gentle farce into a journey of emotional growth: “You might call it Eat Bray Love – except it’s European, so there’s less pseudo-spiritual self-discovery and more drunken snogging.” Calamy (Noémie in Call My Agent!) holds the film together with a funny, generous performance.
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”.
I Care a Lot
In this “exquisitely nasty”, blackly comic thriller, Rosamund Pike gives us “her most outrageous Hitchcock-blonde turn since Gone Girl”, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. With a “sociopath haircut, shades and fashion-plate outfits”, she exudes “pure predatory wickedness” as Marla Grayson, a ruthless scammer who, aided by corrupt doctors, insinuates her way into the lives of wealthy but lonely elderly people in Boston. She becomes their legal guardian, has them committed to care homes, then fleeces them of their possessions. One day, she lands what she thinks is a particularly tame fish – sweet Mrs Peterson (a fabulous Dianne Wiest). She duly visits the old lady’s house, all “kindly, sorrowing smiles”, and entraps her during a scene of true emotional “horror”. But there’s something she hasn’t bargained for – Mrs Peterson’s connections in the Russian Mafia.
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.
The French writer-director Charlène Favier’s “astounding” debut starts out as a classic sports movie in the Rocky mould – then “morphs into something far more sinister”, said Kevin Maher in The Times. A promising but petulant 15-year-old skier Lyz (Noée Abita), neglected by her parents, is taken on by “no-nonsense” coach Fred (Jérémie Renier). Under his tutelage, the lonely girl’s talent blossoms, and there is talk of Olympic selection. Then, midway through the film, at an elite ski camp in the French Alps, Fred starts systematically to abuse his teenage charge. At this point, your stomach drops, said Jessica Kiang in Variety: you “realise that of course this was the story” this “difficult” film “was going to tell, and almost feel foolish for holding out the hope that” it would go any other way. The warning signs, after all, were all there. From early on, Fred “has been grooming Lyz, manipulating her insecurities, her gratitude and her naivety” to fuel her dependency, while slowly crossing the boundaries of physical intimacy. But the depressing familiarity of the film’s trajectory makes it no less compelling.
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.
Greenland is the latest in a recent string of action movies starring the Scottish actor Gerard Butler, but this one is without the “jingoistic bombast” of predecessors such as Olympus Has Fallen, said Clarisse Loughrey in The Independent. Instead, this deliberately low-key disaster film is “laced with a palpable sense of fear”. Butler plays an Atlanta-based engineer, John Garrity, who – when asteroids start pounding Earth – must get himself and his family to a US government bunker near the North Pole. But with his estranged wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) and diabetic son, Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd), he gets caught up in the social chaos that inevitably unfolds: traffic jams, failing phone signals and trips to the chemist for Nathan’s medication all become panic-inducing matters of life and death.
Quo Vadis, Aida?
Serbian director Jasmila Žbanic’s “incendiary” new 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.