Based on its recurrence in my recommendations, Youtube’s been dying to show me a video essay entitled ‘The Last Jedi is a complete cinematic failure’ for years. While I’ve never clicked on the link because I like Rian Johnson’s eighth episode of the Star Wars saga well enough, someone at Disney must have seen it based on JJ Abrams’ conclusion, The Rise of Skywalker. The Last Jedi had its issues, namely an intense conversation with fandom that continuously broke the film’s spell, but it also was a daring attempt to subvert the franchise’s storytelling tropes and push them in a more egalitarian direction, in addition to being a rejection of Abrams’ mystery-box plotting in favor of more considered characterization. For Abrams and his Disney paymasters, turnabout is fair-play and every major reveal in The Last Jedi is undone in The Rise of Skywalker, resulting in possibly the most bland and unimaginative entry of the entire franchise, including George Lucas’ misbegotten prequels.
Singing show competitor turned rising film star Jessie Buckley’s gets a centerpiece role in Tom Harper’s Wild Rose, a film bursting with charisma and energy thanks to its irrepressible lead. Harper and writer Nicole Taylor break out from the many movies similar to this one and find new wrinkles and pathways for the aspiring musician protagonist to follow. They incorporate class and the limited choices a lesser financial status provides with a clear-eyed vision of what it takes to distinguish oneself in a crowded market, and with Buckley at the helm, construct a lead with considerable stage presence while also showing how that might not be enough. With uniquely American country music as the chosen art form and a setting in Glasgow, Wild Rose pits the social strata of the old world against the optimism of the new and lets them fight it out.
Seven directors have taken a crack at adapting Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women, and it’s difficult to imagine any of those versions or a future version topping the one that Greta Gerwig has brought to screens. Gerwig’s second film avoids the autobiographical trap so many indie-bred directors fall into, where her first film, Lady Bird, succeeds based on a deep personal connection and future projects lack the same authenticity. Instead, she seals herself as one of the greatest auteurs of her generation. Her directorial resume might be short, but when both of a director’s films are the best of their respective years, attention must be paid. With Little Women, Gerwig recreates the tonal structure that she brought to Lady Bird, a structure that foregrounds irresistible world-building with a melancholic back half, and builds a hang-out movie out of a beloved text that is also deftly updated for the current moment. Alcott’s original work is clearly powerful if it has persisted for so long: Gerwig’s take should endure indefinitely alongside it.
Rian Johnson, having dipped into noir, heist, and sci-fi, tries his hand at chamber mysteries in Knives Out and continues his unbroken streak of inventive takes on established genres. In his films, Johnson can be counted on to distill his tightly-crafted plots into one big takeaway, wherein the journey is plenty compelling but the residue sticks around long after the end credits. In Looper, he used the cliched questions of time travel to great effect, and in The Last Jedi, he somehow was allowed to subvert the entire Star Wars franchise, at least until the follow-up entry undid all his work. With Knives Out, an airtight mystery plot tramples upon the pretensions of second-generation wealth and leaves the viewer with a perfect final image and more to think about than merely whodunit.
After Morgan Neville’s tear-jerking, highly successful documentary about Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, one might think the public’s interest in once again spending time with the beloved-by-all children’s TV host might be satisfied. Marielle Heller disagrees, and proves that interest is bottomless with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, an equally great fictionalized depiction that casts the equally beloved Tom Hanks as Rogers. Unlike Neville’s documentary, Heller and writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster make Rogers a supporting character to Matthew Rhys’ irritable journalist, but Rogers’ calming and mystifying presence radiates out over the film. It might be the tumultuous times we live in, but as long as the cinematic output around Rogers is so strong, his presence and message remains welcome and needed.
The vast meat grinder that was World War I doesn’t often serve as the setting for war films. There’s so little triumph or catharsis to be had amongst the millions of lives spent, all so the various relatives of Queen Victoria can decide whose boot gets pressed on the neck of the colonized world. At an individual soldier’s level, cinematic heroism is an impossibility; no one’s writing a tribute for the man who avoided the rats in the trenches and successfully hid in an artillery crater during today’s suicidal charge. For Sam Mendes, these impediments don’t stop him from crafting a technically-immaculate tribute to his WWI veteran grandfather in 1917. Mendes’ desire to honor his ancestor brilliantly splits the difference with a thrilling solo mission that transcends its ahistoricity with a dedicated resistance to triumphalism and a commitment to fatalism. 1917 imagines the best possible 24 hours of the war, and leaves the viewer with the bitter sense of how fleeting such a period would be.
It was only a matter of time before Scott Z. Burns, the diligent screenwriter behind deeply-researched thrillers like Contagion and The Informant, would make his version of Spotlight or All the Presidents Men. Burns makes his blow-by-blow journalistic recreation about one of the last decade’s great works of investigation with The Report, a volcanically angry dedication to the years of lonely work that went into determining who, why, and how the CIA tortured detainees in the time directly after 9/11. This is a bulletproof film that, in an ideal world, would be a required civic lesson for all US citizens. Not only has it gone essentially unchallenged and praised by those most in the know, with the exception of the CIA war criminals and flacks it relentlessly indicts, but, like Contagion, Burns doesn’t let the drier, technical aspects of the script slow down a well-paced and propulsive film. The American people seem to have long forgotten about the crimes of the early 21st century, but The Report ensures that a chronicle of one of the most egregious lives on.
Wes Anderson meets Downfall in Jojo Rabbit, a film that, to its credit, I’m still turning over long after I’ve seen it. Something rankles in Taika Waititi’s self-described anti-hate satire about a young German boy who can’t make himself into the perfect Nazi soldier he aspires to be. The balls required to make a film about a member of the Hitler Youth who has Hitler himself as an imaginary friend are considerable, but they shrivel up when confronted with a tone that can’t decide on stakes or jokes and in turn undercuts both. Armando Ianucci provided Waititi the way forward with his miraculous comedy The Death of Stalin, but Soviet war crimes have a harder time translating to the Third Reich.
There is something so strange and off-putting about the Hasidic community in New York. In the midst of a multicultural metropolis, a cloistered, repressive, and conformist group remains dedicated to staying in a bygone era of vaccine-preventable disease and women informally barred from the workplace. The Amish just come off differently, probably because it makes more sense to be insular in a rural community. The oddness of the Hasidim is on display in Joshua Z. Weinstein’s Menashe, a film about a man on the outside of his community who wants to return to full status. Though Menashe doesn’t sell why that would be the best option for him, it does provide an opportunity for a peek inside a closed-off world.
It’s easy to forget that, despite their Scandinavian progressivism, Denmark has been at war in Afghanistan for almost the entirety of the 21st century. This particular kind of warfare, where the combatants are mixed in with civilians, seems especially hard to square with a generous welfare state that sees all people, including Afghanis, as worthy of dignity and support. As depicted in Tobias Lindholm’s A War, this is an admirable and perhaps impossible way to wage war. His thorny moral quandary forces the viewer to question their own assumptions and biases, and is also one of the best films made about the war in Afghanistan.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.