10. “Writing With Fire”
I don’t get excited about documentary films very often, but “Writing With Fire” is one that I loved from start to finish. The filmmaking team of Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh have crafted an inspiring feature about the women journalists who run Khabar Lahariya, India’s only all-female news network. You likely haven’t heard of them before, but you’ll be inspired by their fearless work after watching this film.
The subjects of the documentary are all incredible, strong women who have had enough. The film documents the newspaper’s evolution from print to the digital age, and their fearless reporting takes off globally with a growing YouTube counter.
As chief editor Meera puts it, journalism is the essence of democracy and a vehicle for fighting for justice. She and her staff understand the huge responsibility that rests on their shoulders, and they bravely take on the corruption from the major political party, demand answers from the ineffective local police force, expose unsafe working condition of miners, bring the neglect of India’s citizens at the hands of authorities to the forefront of the conversation, relentlessly persue justice for women who are raped (unchecked sexual assault is a huge problem in their country), and refuse to be intimidated by those in power (who happen to be men).
India has been declared one of the most dangerous places in the world to practice journalism, but these brave, strong, and intelligent ladies keep reporting in spite of the threats. Their fortitude is one we should all admire.
“Writing With Fire” is an entertaining, engaging, well-made, and inspiring film about women making a positive difference not only in their own country, but around the globe.
9. “The Guilty”
It’s best if you know as little as possible about the plot of director Antoine Fuqua‘s “The Guilty,” an Americanized remake of the 2018 Danish film, before diving in. Those familiar with the original film on which this is based may be slightly disappointed in the (relatively) kinder, gentler direction this version takes, but viewers who avoid spoilers are in for a tense thrill ride.
Taking place over the course of a single morning in one location (a 911 dispatch call center), LAPD police officer Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) is manning the phone lines as part of a punitive action from the force ahead of a disciplinary hearing that may get him suspended for good. The end of his shift is near when Joe gets an emergency call from a woman in great distress who may have been abducted by her ex-husband. Joe becomes obsessed with the caller, doing everything he can to save her. When things take a turn, Joe must face his own failures and the demons that lie deep inside.
It’s a dark story that tackles a lot of heavy themes, from mental illness to the behavior of policing. Joe is great at his job: he’s calm and knows exactly what to do. But as things escalate, frustrations grow and tempers flare, leading to an unimaginable deluge of distress.
The film is carried by another substantial turn from Gyllenhaal. He’s so good at portraying law enforcement characters and is tailor-made for roles like this, a man who has a slightly unpleasant intensity and swagger, yet is still one the audience can feel both sympathy and empathy towards. It’s not hard to see the mental anguish that a job like this would dish out, and it’s just as easy to understand the massive emotional toll that could swiftly damage someone’s well-being when one mistake could mean a matter of life and death for the person on the other end of the phone line.
Fuqua is adept at creating intensity and suspense, and this film ramps up the stress level almost to a breaking point. Extreme close-ups build anxiety as the audience is right there with Joe in that room, racing against the clock, desperately trying to come to the heroic aid of a woman who may be in grave danger. Some horribly tragic events occur, but we only hear them over police radios or phone calls. It’s effective, especially when the story flips your emotions and alliances in such a dramatic fashion.
The script (by “True Detective” writer Nic Pizzolatto) goes to some very dark places, but ultimately chickens out from pushing American audiences too far by backing down from one of the original film’s most disturbing plot points. That’s why going in blind will make “The Guilty” so much more potent.
In Kosovo, a woman (Yllka Gashi) believed to be widowed by the war is searching for answers (and her husband’s remains) so she can finally be at peace in “Hive,” writer / director Blerta Basholli’s stunning debut feature. The film is based on true events, and it’s an empowering tale of one woman’s strength and will to survive in an increasingly hostile environment.
Fahrije’s (Gashi) husband has been missing since the war, and she’s been making a modest amount of money selling honey from her bee hives. With business drying up and her bees producing less and less, she decides to take action and start a new business making homemade ajvar (a traditional red pepper relish) with the women in her village.
Faced with anger and disgust from the patriarchal society that treats females as second class citizens, Fahrije faces pushback from the men in the village. She must navigate a minefield of sexism as men hurl insults (and rocks) at her, try to sexually force themselves on her, and spread horrible gossip to everyone around town. They get even more enraged when she learns how to drive a car, telling Fahrije that her husband would’ve been so ashamed if he could see her behind the wheel.
While the story is set in Southeastern Europe, it highlights common struggles that women around the world can identify with on some level. It’s inspiring how determined Fahrije is to do all she can to make the best life for her struggling family.
Basholli’s excellent storytelling and rapid pacing highlight Gashi’s impressive lead performance, and the film feels more hopeful than demoralizing. That’s not an easy thing to do when the heart of the story is so sad.
“Hive” is a film about ambition, independence, and the will of a trailblazer to take a stand and make a change. It’s a fantastic cinematic expression of issues facing many women today, and it feels so good to see a film about a strong female challenging the status quo by pushing back on her society’s traditional gender roles.
7. “Licorice Pizza”
Writer / director Paul Thomas Anderson‘s “Licorice Pizza” is a film that feels casually comforting, like a warm blanket of nostalgia. It’s pure and genuine in a way that will make you want to reminisce about fond moments from your own teenage years. This coming-of-age story puts an original spin on the classic boy meets girl romance, with organic (and noteworthy) feature debut performances from the two leads.
California, 1973. It’s yearbook photo day, and 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is convinced in love at first sight when he meets Alana Kane (Alana Haim), the twentysomething photographer’s assistant. He wants to take her to dinner, and he won’t take “no” for an answer. After reluctantly showing up out of curiosity, Alana and Gary quickly become friends. Hanging out together in San Fernando Valley, the pair are side-by-side for a series of adventures and schemes that include a pinball business, mayoral campaign, waterbeds, film auditions, cross-country plane trips, and a gas crisis.
The plot is loose, but not messy. In terms of narrative structure it’s all over the place, but the unexpected avenues the film takes is part of the joy of the ride. Anderson’s strong dose of nostalgia is fully realized through his thoroughly developed characters. He takes great care to give extreme detail to every aspect of his script and characters, which lends an enviable richness to his storytelling. He also does a great job directing his actors.
Hoffman and Haim’s performances radiate an awkward confidence that’s charming and relatable, especially when it comes to exploring the experience of a first love (and the acknowledgement that there’s a line that simply cannot be crossed due to the age difference). Their chemistry is authentic, and they make Alana and Gary feel like cinematic characters who are destined to become cult classics, if not instant favorites. The supporting cast of big name heavy hitters is terrific too, with Sean Penn showing up as a William Holden-esque, Old Hollywood actor, and Bradley Cooper portraying a hilariously exaggerated version of Barbra Streisand’s then-boyfriend, Jon Peters.
The cinematography (from Anderson and Michael Bauman) is handsome, and the film looks as if it was plucked from a 1970s Hollywood time capsule. The golden-hued settings instantly transport you back in time. Visually, everything about this film feels vintage in the most pleasingly sentimental way. It’s gorgeous to look at, so see this one in 70mm if you can.
Anderson thankfully sticks to his recognizable directorial style, and it’s clear this is the work of a confident filmmaker who’s relishing the chance to have a little fun. He’s known for his technically proficient, long tracking shots, and boy, are there plenty here. They’re showy yet not at all distracting, which is something I can’t say about some of his earlier works. Anderson flips the script on expectations when it comes to the subject matter, as this film is his most optimistic. This isn’t heavy and dark, but light and hopeful.
Big screen love stories have been told for ages, but “Licorice Pizza” is different and refreshing. It’s a lot of fun to watch, and the attention to detail makes it memorable.
6. “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is a fresh superhero origin story that deserves great success at the box office. This visually dazzling film has a substantial scale (with its $150 million budget), an engaging cast with a terrific chemistry, an emotional father / son dynamic that drives the story, and exciting, inspired action sequences combined with special effects that will satisfy those looking for a traditional blockbuster Marvel experience.
Thousands of years ago, Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung) finds a set of weapons known as the ten rings, which grant the user immense power and immortality. Wenwu uses his strength to form an army that assists him in overthrowing governments and conquering kingdoms over the course of many decades. In the 1990s, Wenwu begins a search for the mythical village of Ta Lo, where he meets guardian Ying Li (Fala Chen). The two fall in love and have two children, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). Fast forward to present day, where Shang-Chi (who now goes by the Americanized “Shaun”) and his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) are working as valet parking attendants in San Francisco. When the duo are attacked by henchmen from the Ten Rings, they discover that Xialing may hold the key to their safety, and they must travel to Macau to search for her before it’s too late.
The plot keeps going from there, with co-writer (and director) Destin Daniel Cretton introducing a large number of characters in a relatively short period of time. It’s not exactly a complicated script, but the inclusion of so many details prevents the adventure from becoming stagnant (and should keep audiences on their toes). There are a few Marvel crossovers thrown in, but their brief appearance is a testament to how strong this standalone story is.
This film marks a milestone in the MCU, with Shang-Chi being the first Asian superhero (and Liu the first Asian actor) to lead a Marvel film. The cast is predominantly Asian and Asian-American. It’s an important advancement towards cultural representation in big budget blockbuster movies, and it’s nice to not only see Asian characters presented with none of the all-too-common stereotypes, but to also watch strong women have their time to shine.
There’s so much to enjoy here performance-wise, from Awkwafina’s slightly restrained comic relief (thankfully, she doesn’t cause a distraction with her usual over-the-top excess), to an inspired cameo from Ben Kingsley, to a bonafide star-making turn from Liu. The film is absolutely perfectly cast, and the chemistry between everyone onscreen reaches optimal levels.
Other elements of the film unite to distinguish this Marvel entry from the rest. There’s a series of elaborate martial arts and fight choreography that creates action sequences as elegant as they are exciting. The stunts are thrilling, including an unforgettable piece that involves a fight onboard a runaway public bus.
The costume design is gorgeous and culturally-appropriate, and the film accurately incorporates elements of Chinese mythology in new and inventive ways. The theme of finding your own strength by facing the pain of your past and learning to know, understand, and accept yourself is one that many who feel like outsiders (or are saddled with regret) need to hear. All of these pieces are assembled in a way that work together so well.
While “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” easily makes the grade as one of the top 10 best Marvel film to date, it isn’t immune from a bulky grand finale. The huge battle climax overstays its welcome a bit, but it’s hard to criticize a movie with a denouement that features not one, but two warrior dragons.
I cannot think of one person to whom I wouldn’t recommend “CODA,” an uplifting, emotionally rich movie from writer / director Sian Heder. This crowd-pleasing film is one of the first real gems to debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and I’m still riding the wave of good vibes hours later.
Being a teenager is difficult enough, but try being Ruby (Emilia Jones). The 17-year-old is the only hearing member of a deaf family, and she spends most of her spare time working on her parents’ (Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur) fishing boat along with her older brother, Leo (Daniel Durant). and serving as their sign language interpreter. Ruby juggles her family responsibilities, her schoolwork, and a newfound passion for her high school’s choir club (and her cute duet partner, Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo)). When her music teacher (Eugenio Derbez) hears that special something in Ruby’s voice, he encourages her to think about a life beyond fishing and supports her in applying to a prestigious music school. This unfairly puts the responsibility of the household on Ruby’s shoulders, and she must choose between keeping her family afloat or pursuing her dreams.
This very funny and very honest story has a universal appeal, with charming performances and a likeable family that you’ll want to spend time with. Kotsur and Matlin are terrific as Ruby’s randy parents, and Derbez brings a genuine charisma to his role as the young woman’s mentor. The cast includes three deaf actors, so much of the dialogue is expressed in sign language — and everything about that feels normal. This film goes a long way in shattering stereotypes about people who are hearing impaired, and that is to be commended.
Heder has created a film that’s filled with insight, refreshingly direct dialogue, and a fully developed cast of characters that all add up to solid storytelling all around. Not only is this a coming-of-age story for Ruby, but it’s one for her family, too. The four of them struggle through the disappointment that life throws their way, hoping to work together to emerge stronger than ever.
Heartfelt but never corny, “CODA” is a really special movie about unwavering support, unconditional love, and what it means to be a family.
4. “Compartment No. 6”
The bond formed by two strangers on a train isn’t a new idea for a film, but director Juho Kuosmanen‘s “Compartment No. 6” doesn’t take the expected, traditional love story path. Based on Rosa Liksom‘s novel, the story of a young Finnish woman (Seidi Haarla) on her way to see ancient petroglyphs after leaving behind a troubled relationship and a boorish Russian miner with a criminal past (Yuriy Borisov) is not just an odd couple pairing, but one of connection, insight, and understanding.
The majority of the film takes place onboard a train across Russia, with the characters headed to a remote city in the Arctic circle. The confined space boosts the tension between the two, as they share a sleeper cabin and irritate each other. There’s much conflict early on, until they began to peel away the layers, growing comfortable enough to let their true selves emerge. The pair develop an intense friendship in a matter of days, learning so much from each other — even if they don’t realize it yet.
Borisov and Haarla have a natural chemistry that evolves from skeptical to soul mates who begin to discover a new maturity together. They’re both aimless in their lives, but fate opens a door where they’re exactly what each other needs at that particular time. It may sound contrived, but the story is presented in such a genuine way that it never feels forced.
The beauty of this film lies in its subtlety. It’s talky and poignant, and Kuosmanen takes his time with the narrative as his characters explore their own needs for human connection. “Compartment No. 6” has a timeless feel in both story and tone, and the finished product is simple, eloquent, and to the point.
Northern Ireland in the late 1960s comes alive in writer / director Kenneth Branagh‘s “Belfast,” a semi-autobiographical tale about a 9-year-old boy whose world is turned upside down by unrest and turmoil in his life and home. I loved everything about this touching, funny, poignant, and beautiful film, and it is among the very best of the year.
Buddy (Jude Hill) is growing up in tumultuous times. There’s violence in the streets of his working class neighborhood, and Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and Pa (Jamie Dornan) are doing the best they can to shield him from the troubles of the world. The young boy can sense the changes in the air at home too, as Pa wants to uproot the family and move far away. Buddy takes comfort in his relationship with his grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds, who steal every scene they’re in), and struggles with a sense of belonging as he navigates an ever-changing reality.
Branagh creates a fully realized sense of time and place with Haris Zambarloukos‘s stunning black and white cinematography and the use of Belfast-born musician Van Morrison’s extensive catalog of pop songs to aid in telling his story. The look of this film is exceptional, with beautiful camera work and a richly detailed visual composition. It’s absolutely gorgeous.
It’s contagious how Buddy finds joy in a time of considerable instability, and Branagh does a great job of expressing visually that this story is seen through the boy’s eyes. We see what Buddy sees, we hear what he overhears. This adds a depth of sadness that’s touching and moving, yet never overly sentimental. It’s a coming-of-age drama that’s as timeless as it is inventive.
The script (written by Branagh) feels highly personal as well, making it effortless to feel an instant connection with Buddy. There’s just the right balance of humor, heart, and sadness in the storytelling.
Every single element of “Belfast” comes together to make a cohesive whole, from the acting, directing, screenplay, cinematography, and the lovely original jazz score. This is a strong, outstanding film.
2. “Nightmare Alley”
Considering the current state of the world, it may not seem like the ideal time to bring the dark story of “Nightmare Alley,” director Guillermo del Toro‘s adaptation of the 1946 William Lindsay Gresham novel, to audiences searching for an escape. The sleazy, shadowy world of carnival grifters is haunting, grim, and certainly doesn’t offer a feel-good experience. But if you are seeking a modern noir thriller that’s executed in a near-perfect fashion, here is where you’ll find it.
Charismatic Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) finds himself down on his luck. Searching for work, he stumbles upon a second-rate carnival and is welcomed by Clem (Willem Dafoe) as part of the crew. He becomes fascinated with clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her has-been mentalist partner Pete (David Strathairn), learning their tricks of deception. With his newly acquired insider secrets and a flair for showbiz, Stanton runs away with performer Molly (Rooney Mara), taking their mentalist act to the deep-pocketed elites in the city.
Stanton becomes a master manipulator and excels at telling his marks what they want to hear, often claiming to speak with dead loved ones. With the aid of a mysterious psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett) feeding him insider information, Stanton devises a dangerous “spook show” grift that will result in a massive payday from wealthy tycoon Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins). Despite dire warnings, the man decides to proceed.
It’s a terrific story of crime and betrayal, and Del Toro has crafted a modern noir thriller that hits all the high notes. The material is the perfect fit for the director, and he creates a fully realized, nightmarish world that begins with one filled with unsavory carny barkers and con artists, and ends with the tantalizing glamour of high society. It’s a story of wealth and power and seduction, a cautionary tale of a man so consumed and controlled by having it all that he never realizes his greatest weakness is his own ego. Of course, his downfall is inevitable.
Clocking in at 150 minutes, the film takes its time setting up the story, yet it never feels overly long. There’s a sense of doom and dread that hangs over the entire film, from Dan Laustsen‘s gorgeous cinematography to Nathan Johnson‘s haunting original score.
The performances are fantastic, from the major roles (which are incredibly well cast) to the smaller supporting turns (including Mary Steenburgen, Ron Perlman, and Tim Blake Nelson). The production design is impeccable too, aided by equally strong hair, makeup, and costumes.
The script elevates the idea of uncontrolled ambition, being both lost in and enchanted by the American ideals of power and strength and money and fame, even as one man sells his soul to reach the top.
Every element feels flawless on its own, but Del Toro brings them all together to craft a film of near perfection. This type of magic is what happens when the material fits the director.
“Nightmare Alley” is a fully realized nightmarish world filled with unique characters and a fascinating story. Provocative and macabre, this psychological thriller is unforgettable. It’s also one of my favorite films of the year.
Perhaps it’s a result of where I currently am in my life at this moment, but “Pig” kicked me in the gut with its haunting exploration of isolation and loss. This film warms your heart while proceeding to rip it right out of your chest. The somber tone is emotionally devastating, and I felt this film in every atom of my being.
Robin (Nicolas Cage) is a former chef turned recluse who lives alone in a rustic cabin in the Oregon wilderness with his only companion – a truffle foraging pig. He begins supplying his discovered delicacies to Amir (Alex Wolff), who in turn resells them at a profit to the swankiest restaurants in Portland. After a surprise late night attack and pignapping, Robin is distraught without his porcine friend and is desperate to bring her back home where she belongs. Suspecting that his pig was taken by someone in the culinary world, Robin asks Amir to drive him into the city to search for the culprits at some of Portland’s underground cuisine hotspots.
This is Cage’s movie through and through. His performance is stellar, and it is one of the best of his career. His subtle, nuanced performance is a reminder why he’s one of the modern greats. While he hasn’t always been able to tone it down, and nobody has ever accused him of making the most prudent choices when it comes to his filmography, Cage is an extraordinarily talented weirdo whom you can always count on to take interesting roles. The actor has had a lot of rough patches in his life, and he portrays Robin with an unbearable sense of suffering and sadness that feels genuine. Not many actors could carry a film like this in the way that Cage does.
It’s an accomplishment behind the camera as well, with first-time feature film director Michael Sarnoski setting the bar high for his future endeavors. Sarnoski co-wrote the film with Vanessa Block, and while they could’ve easily (and lazily) taken the route of a dumbed-down revenge thriller, the pair fashioned a quiet meditative study on the death of creativity, the bittersweet agony of memory and grief, and the need for connection, be it human or animal.
The most complex parts of the film arrive in the form of little details that are never explained. They can be found in the way Robin positions his body when confronting ghosts from his past, or in the beauty of a plate of food, or in Amir’s brief mention of a childhood experience he desperately wishes he’d had. The audience is left to draw their own conclusions based on their personal worldview and life experiences. This in turn makes for an intimate viewing experience.
Grief is healed only by time and eventual acceptance, but letting go still takes a part of your soul that you’ll never get back. The attachments we form in life are what shape us and make us whole, and “Pig” offers a poignant reflection on just how fragile those relationships actually are. This is a moving, meaningful, and profound film.