I wouldn’t have pegged Asghar Farhadi as a Rick and Morty fan, but in the acclaimed Iranian director’s latest film, he’s depicted the perfect Jerry. In Rick and Morty, Jerry is the pathetic son-in-law of a multiverse-trotting genius, a monument to weakness who aspires to mediocrity and uses pity as deftly as Rick uses his trademark portal gun. With A Hero, the lead isn’t as loathsome as the comically inept Jerry, but the comparison cannot be missed. Farhadi has long used the exposed cultural tripwires within Islamic Republican Iran to make his penetrating social dramas, and here, his protagonist uses some fuzzy feel-goodery to step over them. In Farhadi’s best film in a decade, the society that makes a man pathetic can perhaps be manipulated by pathos.
Restraint isn’t a word I would use to describe the films of Pedro Almodovar. Sometimes, that’s an asset in his Spanish melodramas. When the amount of plot points are in the right combination and proportion, he can cram in all the soapy details that he wants. However, it doesn’t take much overseasoning to spoil the batch. Parallel Mothers, yet another collaboration between Almodovar and Penelope Cruz in the lead, soars as one of Almodovar’s best, at least until the point where he gambles on a late development that turns the film from a thing that was working tremendously well into something less successful. Parallel Mothers contains one of the best performances of 2021, though, overstuffed as it is, it misses out on being one of the best films of the year.
Two of the greatest female tennis players, if not outright tennis players, make a biographical appearance on the big screen but the movie that contains them is about their father. King Richard provides a baffling starring vehicle for Will Smith, whose salary eats up 80% of the film’s production budget, and though the premise is fatally flawed, the resulting film provides competence while depicting the pursuit of all-around excellence. Reinaldo Marcus Green’s third film is aware of the tropes of sports films and biopics, and while he doesn’t subvert them in this straightforward work, he does polish them. King Richard doesn’t reinvent anything in the way its child subjects will, but with a compelling story and the cast to inhabit the roles, it does a recognizable thing well.
Without taking a poll, I suspect that I’m in the minority of preferring Wes Anderson’s last decade of work to his previous one-and-a-half. Moonrise Kingdom proved a much better fit for Anderson’s children who act like adults, as opposed to his adults who act like children. The Grand Budapest Hotel became my favorite of Anderson’s films after a second viewing, a perfect blend of eccentricity and melancholy that also happened to be more thoughtful and meaningful than anything he'd done previously. His latest, The French Dispatch, follows in Grand Budapest’s footsteps, an anthology where all the ingredients are perfectly calibrated to amuse and affect in a film that’s unmistakably Anderson’s but is completely lacking in the things that used to annoy me. In telling the story of a magazine editor who wanted everything just so, Anderson writes another autobiographical character whose control and vision leads to something wonderful.
In The Card Counter, Paul Schrader’s lonely men get another workout. The film functions as a loose continuation from First Reformed, such that the cause of the self-imposed loneliness is located in the War on Terror. Where Ethan Hawke’s Father Toller encouraged his son to enlist and die in a pointless conflict, Oscar Isaac’s William Tell took a more direct approach. Isaac, long overdue for a return to prestige filmmaking after several lucrative but creatively bankrupt years in the superhero/Disney Star Wars wilderness, couldn’t have found a better vehicle than a Schrader starring role to catapult back into critical good graces. However, where Schrader’s grasp of Big Christianity and black-pilled environmentalism was ironclad in First Reformed, the world of The Card Counter is loose and undefined, while Isaac’s costars aren’t given the material necessary to keep up with him. The director-lead actor combination here is brilliant, but the film that contains it is not.
Nicolas Cage, patron saint of ham, has a low hit rate. Whether for financial distress or a love of being on a set, the man doesn’t say no to much, regularly appearing in half-a-dozen or more films every year. Most of those go straight to video, never to be seen by anyone but bad-movie podcasters and insomniacs who’ve already watched every other movie in existence. However, Cage’s considerable talent sometimes runs into the right project and the viewing public remembers that under the accents and the random voice modulation and the bulging eyes is a man who can readily access depth and sincerity when he wants to. It’s only been three years since Cage’s last reminder, with Mandy and Into the Spider-Verse, but he’s amassed another 11 movies in that space. With Pig, Michael Sarnoski’s stunning debut, Cage puts away his high-volume theatricality for a quiet performance that, while lacking in volume, is missing none of the actor’s unforgettable presence. An untouchable lead performance paired with Sarnoski’s precise direction and a lacerating script makes Pig into one of the best films in recent memory, thus lending Cage the credibility to go make another ten straight-to-video money laundering schemes.
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.
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.
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.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.