With releases from dad David, son Brandon, and daughter Caitlin on the tentative schedule for 2022, the entire Cronenberg family will be bringing body horror and psychological trauma to theaters for some time to come. While each of these upcoming films achieve the status of must-see based on pedigree alone, Brandon has established himself as current king of the hill with his most recent film, Possessor. After his long-ago debut Antiviral, Brandon has sat dormant for almost a decade, gestating a horror masterpiece and singular cinematic experience that ranks amongst the most accomplished works of anything with a Cronenberg name on it. Immediately recognizable as something David would be proud of and eventually something that builds on and contemporizes the themes of his father, Possessor is both of the moment and concerned with uncomfortable human truths as old as the species. The genre that David Cronenberg thrived in is in very safe hands.
Early pandemic articles contained grabby headlines about the nuclear family not being enough to sustain a full life, especially when broader alternatives are ruled out by public health concerns. It’s been almost two years, and while I don’t think Pablo Larrain wrote those articles for Slate and similar publications, his boundary-breaking film Ema has the same sentiment. At least its protagonist shares the view that restricting the human heart (and genitals) to a small group of people is folly, and her task over the course of the film is to convince, or entrap, others to feel that same. Ema throbs with physical and sexual energy, part music video and part psychodrama and all the best work of Larrain’s unique career.
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.
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.
Sean Durkin’s long hiatus from film directing finally comes to an end with The Nest. After breaking out with intense cult psychodrama Martha Marcy May Marlene, a film that also marked Elizabeth Olsen as a major talent, audiences have had to wait nine years for a follow-up and Durkin delivers with a marital drama that retains the level of unbearable intensity that his debut also demonstrated. A film that feels like it could’ve been made at any time during the last seventy-five years, The Nest has a timeless quality that evokes the great actors of Hollywood past and puts it out of step with the grand spectacle that so much of modern filmmaking is increasingly consumed with. Though it’s easily imaginable as a film that Elizabeth Taylor or Paul Newman could have acted in, The Nest also reaches back into recent history and presents a version of the kind of greed that will reshape the world for the worse, all while presenting a picture of a marriage with a rotted foundation. Durkin’s multi-faceted film represents a major leap for him as a filmmaker, or it would if The Nest received any of the widespread recognition that it deserves.
By Jon Kissel
Watching movies at home just isn't as good as in the theaters. The drive-in isn't much better. As coronavirus shuttered theaters and decimated the release schedule, I realized how much the forced concentration of sitting in a dark room with a socially-enforced no-distractions custom boosts the viewing experience. Maybe that's why 2020 was the first year in a decade where I watched less than 70 year-of releases before it ended, or one that had so few to reach the A-tier. Maybe the heavier straight-to-streaming schedule made everything seem less urgent, even as it put more obscure fare in front of more eyes. I'm sure exactly no one would've seen Straight Up without a Netflix release. If a lessening of passion for cinema is the worst thing that happens to a person in 2020, then they sailed through a momentous period of history unscathed. That alone is something to be grateful for, and it's not like 2020 didn't have its fair share of exceptional movies, several of which are listed below.
Victor Hugo’s classic Les Miserables has retained all of the raw power of its depictions of the French underclass some 160 years after its publishing, and in Ladj Ly’s fiery film of the same name, circumstances haven’t improved all that much. The gamins of the present-day Montfermil banlieue still grow up in an environment where state authority is abusive and local authority is corrupt. To paraphrase Hugo, both forces contribute to the clouds that will inevitably produce a thunderbolt, and Ly’s film does indeed strike lightning. A film that has only become more relevant throughout 2020, as France has its own version of Black Lives Matter protests in response to police brutality and stop-and-frisk tactics, Les Miserables is a work that places a lot of pressure on itself with its iconic name and meets those expectations by embracing an angry humanist streak that Hugo would recognize.
Kelly Reichardt’s austere vision of the Pacific Northwest, crafted over half a dozen films, gets a little bit warmer with First Cow. Having already filmed a trip-to-nowhere on the Oregon Trail with the excellent Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt starts her latest with the journey already over, focusing on what comes next once the wagon’s been repaired and the river’s been forded. With her second period-set film, Reichardt has wrapped her arms around the American frontier, a place where, in the words of one of the leads, history hasn’t arrived yet. All the optimism and the naivete contained in that phrase, and the willful blindness to the people that have been there long before waves of traders and migrants swooped in, is the country in a nutshell, a place that sends out useful idiots to do the dirty work of settlement and clearance before capitalizing on their brutal labor and brushing them aside as surely as they just did the brushing. As clearly as Reichardt sees this, she also understands the intoxicating sense of possibility that drives the entire project of America, and despite opening her film on an unmarked grave discovered in the present, she manages to convince the viewer that she’s telling a different story than the one she initially suggests. There’s nothing more American than lulling a mark into a warm sense of security.
Horror movies that attempt to achieve relevance based on their technological era are frequently duds. Leigh Whannell’s chilling The Invisible Man does better than the instantly forgettable schlock fests that rely on some social media platform and goes to the tech bro source for its shorthand scares. I don’t know that the Travis Kalanick’s or Adam Neumann’s of the world are using their obscene piles of wealth to jealously entrap women, but I would certainly believe it. Whannell, a veteran of the Saw and Insidious franchises, uses his considerable horror chops to construct a remake of a classic that marinates in what made said classic inherently creepy while also tapping into a modern-day zeitgeist of the rich and their greedy possessiveness.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.