Eliza Hittman continues her realist deep-dive into the subverbal misery of the American teen with Never Rarely Sometimes Always. More procedural than earlier films It Felt Like Love and Beach Rats, both of which lived entirely in the psyches of their protagonists as they acted out sexually, Hittman’s latest follows a young woman as she takes steps to quietly terminate a pregnancy. The film focuses on protagonist Autumn’s attempts to solve a problem, where Hittman previously made her bones on the leadup to riskier and riskier behavior. Never Rarely Sometimes Always loses some emotional and character beats in its step-by-step recreation of something that’s made more difficult than it should be, but it’s another strong outing from a director who has yet to make anything less than a compelling and piercing portrait of American adolescence.
The façade of stoic men being cracked open by a horse taps into a primal corner of the mind, planted by some ancient instinct to get closer to nature or bond with another species or who knows what. What better place for this story to get retold than in a prison? Perfectly cast with man-mountain Matthias Schoenaerts as a simmering inmate desperate to get away from people, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s soulful debut The Mustang hits all the right beats in a film that simply works. Everyone involved surely knows that audiences have been in cinematic places like this before, and Clermont-Tonnerre takes the audience down an exceptional version of this comfortable road.
With Traffic, Steven Soderbergh popularized the hyperlink film, wherein multiple branching characters and plots intersect with each other around a broad theme, and perfects it eleven years later with Contagion. Scott Z. Burns’ rigorous and deeply-researched script combines with Soderbergh’s clinical yet empathic direction to produce a believable global response to a new pandemic, complete with both the dedicated public servants and the exploitative hucksters that can and do arise in such a scenario. Contagion tragically provides a window into a competent world that seems further and further away, as the antagonist of the film shares far too many qualities with the current president. This is a film that could be judged as accurate upon its release but now seems quaint. A unified governmental response and a population that grudgingly accepts what must be done? Soderbergh, you naïve rube!
Director Kitty Green’s past as a documentarian is all over her first feature, The Assistant. Her journalistic drama is the recreation of a single day in the life of a fictionalized movie producer’s office. This producer, never seen and only heard through doors and over phones, exists in a pre-MeToo world that allows him to flaunt his casting couch practices and berate his staff, particularly new-ish assistant Jane (Julia Garner). Jane’s day is so stressful that one can see her life expectancy shorten the longer she stays in her job. One more implied demand to look the other way, and her telomeres shorten. One more tacit acknowledgement that everyone is complicit in their own way, and her resting blood pressure rises. In its dedication to a single shift and its setting, The Assistant can become as interminable as an actual white-collar day but the complete experience is greater as a whole than in parts. It’s worth the gray atmosphere and harsh lighting to absorb the lesson.
Harry Dean Stanton’s final role must be in consideration for one of his best. In actor-turned-first-time-director John Carroll Lynch’s Lucky, Stanton’s wiry, weathered presence dominates a film that is, fittingly, about endings and death. Stanton’s titular character is a version of himself that never acted or became tangentially famous. Many of the details are the same. Neither Stanton nor Lucky ever married or had children, they both served in the Navy during WWII, both lived much longer than their actuarial tables would suggest, and they’re both friends with David Lynch, who plays a barfly who’s lost his tortoise. From that shared backstory, the film puts Lucky in a dusty California town and simply observes his daily routine and the philosophy that has guided his life. The film knows that Stanton is a charismatic presence in spite of himself, and it’s a pleasure to watch him do anything, even if it’s as acinematic as working on a crossword puzzle in a diner.
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.
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.
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.