Lin-Manuel Miranda went the semi-autobiographical route for his theater debut In the Heights, a musical set in the working class Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. Though Miranda’s professional family lived in the adjacent neighborhood, he had the good sense to notice that the better stories were with the nurses than the doctors, the storefront owner than the chain owner. After In the Heights’ success on Broadway and the greater success of Miranda’s Hamilton, the inevitable film version of In the Heights arrived during the thwarted hot vax summer, a time when the brief window of normalcy between COVID variants could be celebrated onscreen with a crowded production of singing stars and hundreds of dancing extras. Jon Chu’s adaptation didn’t receive the commercial reception it was aiming for, but it is nevertheless a joyous explosion for the musical-skeptic that overpowers the corniness baked into the genre with Latin verve and charisma.
Lee Isaac Chung goes back to his childhood in the pastoral Minari, an autobiographical breakout from a promising filmmaker. A Korean American whose father moved the family to an Arkansas farm when he was a boy, Chung dramatizes exactly that as his characters navigate various divides and ambitions. An immigrant story of the kind that American filmmakers keep returning to, for good reason, Minari’s down-to-earth roots and naturalistic style make for an affecting film.
A school is a difficult place to imagine Danny Ocean setting up shop for his latest heist, but where there are piles of cash and minimal oversight, anything can be turned into a big payday for the unscrupulous. Cory Finley’s Bad Education tracks the perpetrators behind the largest theft involving a school in US history, turning a dry case of embezzlement into a plot with verve and momentum and insight into the thieves and the community they were supposed to be serving. A major leap forward for Finley after his impressive debut in Thoroughbreds, Bad Education provides mid-budget excellence that is an anti-hero character study, a coming of age tale, and a piercing satire all at once.
Difficult actor Dustin Hoffman takes on his truest role in Tootsie, wherein he plays a difficult actor. The same guy who slapped Meryl Streep on the set of Kramer v. Kramer and famously was told by Laurence Olivier to take it down a notch during filming for Marathon Man connects with the part of himself that abuses and alienates his costars, except Sydney Pollack’s landmark comedy treats it as a joke instead of a serious character flaw that finally bit Hoffman in the ass during the MeToo era. That Tootsie itself is a sharply edited, clever, and relevant comedy washes some of the bad taste from the viewer’s mouth at what looks like an attempt launder Hoffman’s own reputation. If I can laugh at my bad behavior, the film implies, why can’t you? That’s a lot of meta-text to bring into Tootsie, but satire like this wants the viewer to think about the broader world.
Cartoon Saloon took a brief and productive detour into Afghanistan with The Breadwinner, but they return to their roots of Irish mythology in Wolfwalkers, the small studio’s best entry yet. Where The Secret of Kells found fairies in the forest and Song of the Sea found selkies in the ocean, Wolfwalkers goes back to the forest for its titular creatures. The usual template of a child finding a hidden magical world is recreated with the wrinkle of said child becoming the creature instead of just investigating it, and the result is a fantastical brew of discovery and adventure that also has something to say about fear and loss and submission to unjust authority. This is a stunning work that allows Cartoon Saloon to measure its best against that of competitors like Pixar and Laika.
Jonathan Glaser’s Under the Skin put Scarlett Johannson in the role of a predatory alien who entices men to come back to her home, which doubles as an inky-black slaughterhouse. Her prey willingly strutted to their deaths even when confronted with the otherworldly appearance of her ‘bedroom.’ Candy-colored companion piece Promising Young Woman entices its male targets with a moral morass instead of a deadly one, and per Casey Mulligan’s Cassie, they never make the right decision when presented with the opportunity to make the wrong one. Emerald Fennel’s caustic debut Promising Young Woman puts a contemporary spin on the revenge drama, adhering to the expected themes of those kinds of stories in unexpected ways.
The years before Agnieska Holland, icon of Polish cinema, was born in 1948 placed her parents at the center of some of humanity’s worst crimes. Her father, a non-religious Jew and a Communist activist, served in Polish resistance armies while her Catholic mother fought in the Warsaw Uprising and was named as Righteous Amongst the Nations for hiding Polish Jews. That kind of center-of-history background has informed Holland’s work and led her to make several films about World War II and the postwar Communist regime in Poland. With In Darkness, she tells the gripping story of another person named Righteous Among the Nations, and sculpts an impossible morality play around the role of Poles under Nazi occupation.
After an outpouring of support following a 2021 heart attack revealed him to be one of the culture’s most beloved figures, Bob Odenkirk is primed to move forward into the next logical phase of his career. The pioneering sketch comedian turned compelling dramatic actor goes the Liam Neeson route in Nobody, staking out the next decade as one that will put Odenkirk in plenty of old-man action flicks once Better Call Saul wraps up next year. Produced by David Leitch of John Wick fame and directed by Ilya Naishuller, Nobody recapitulates the John Wick arc of a retired violence-dealer brought back into action when his home is invaded. Odenkirk’s a better actor than Keanu Reeves, but not as fluid a physical presence. Nobody could’ve leaned into that distinction but the lure of mowing through goons is too tempting to pass up. After Wick films ran out my personal bloodlust two entries ago, middle-aged white-guy brutality has run out its thread.
Alleged teenager whisperer John Hughes puts on his supposedly deepest work in The Breakfast Club, though the competition includes the cat poster aphorisms of Ferris Bueller and the Asian stereotypes of Sixteen Candles. One has to imagine a world where teenagers aren’t the center of the culture to buy into Hughes’ idea that they’re overlooked and underestimated, despite the film taking place twenty years after the youth revolutions of the 60’s. It’s not like The Breakfast Club is the first film to take teen emotions and social dilemmas seriously, but it might be the film with the longest reach. If that’s the standard, however, The Breakfast Club fails by its own measure of success. Stripped of its larger weight, Hughes gets some excellent performances out of his Brat Pack actors and, when he can pump his brakes, scripts lived-in moments that sculpt the characters from archetypes into rounded human beings. The Breakfast Club is a strong showcase for its talent, but that doesn’t mean it’s worthy of its reputation as some kind of Rosetta Stone into American adolescence.
In his 2006 iconic phenomenon, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat came from the backwards land of Kazakhstan to experience the joys of America, a place with hospitable people who often say horrible things. Americans, boorish and racist and consumed with empty courtesy though they may be, at least didn’t stage offensive parades and give wide swaths of their population over to anti-Semitic conspiracy mongering. Thirteen years later, Borat returns to the US to attend anti-COVID-lockdown gatherings and hangs out with Qanon adherents who believe the world’s most powerful liberals distill the blood of children for precious hormones. In Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, America has turned into something like Cohen’s imagined Kazakhstan, except no one from the South Carolina tourism department is going to sue him for defamation. Cohen justifies his sequel by simply observing how strange and poisonous America has become, and then justifies it again by gaining a worthy sidekick. It takes more than one Kazakh to satirize America in 2020.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.