Hello, 615ers! We’ve got more Letterboxd-ing to do. Strap in and buckle up and … y’know … huddle. I don’t know.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
We may never get a movie exactly like Black Panther: Wakanda Forever again, a film so engulfed in tragedy and grief, grappling with a bright future cut far, far too short. For the film’s flaws, there is a ferocious undercurrent that Ryan Coogler will be damned if he fumbles. Great movies are allowed to be imperfect, but they must strike with something that will last. This one does that.
Rather than simply pay homage to series heart-and-soul Chadwick Boseman, this film deals with a story that’s absent a lot of heart and soul. It’s about hollow feelings and unresolved grieving. This has to be one of the most downtrodden major studio films in years, a film that’s not really trying to smile through the pain of what’s been lost. As much as you see the MCU-iness of it all, the wisecracks, power-suits, spin-offs and cost-cutting CGI, you also feel the pulsing anger, unfixed sadness, dangerous retribution. Coogler seems hellbent here to let this film bleed it out rather than cover his sequel with just a Marvel logo that memorializes the past without really dealing with how catastrophic and unwieldy death can leave those who don’t expect it.
The film’s more jagged edges make it what it is. This isn’t the first film as much as it is a far deeper exploration of its more uncomfortable themes. I’ve never felt Killmonger was as cutting as a character as he was the ideas and traumas that fueled him, but Namor gives Killmonger’s mission a far more sympathetic-yet-believably intimidating face. Tenoch Huerta Mejía‘s eyes give you everything you need, even if we get a mournful backstory about an outcast who sees what happens when foreign influence infiltrates paradise. Colonialism has been a theme in all of these films, but Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s script feels much more focused here on exactly how it sets our tension in motion, spanning hundreds of years from ancient times to now. It’s as much the film’s villain as anything else, with Coogler and Cole refusing to fully twist Namor in directions we can’t at least understand. He’s a fantastic character, fully imagined and portrayed with a real fire.
Angela Bassett and Letitia Wright carry the most of the film’s messy emotions, and the film latches itself onto the way they both process the loss of T’Challa (and Boseman in a grander sense). Coogler doesn’t let this film shy away from the uglier sides of what happens when we lose someone we love, and what happens when we find something to blame. The film lets its characters make spiteful decisions, hurt people they care about, and put lives on the line to pursue vengeance. The MCU has never really embraced the messiness of its characters like this, but that’s because these films usually have some Captain America-like figure who always does the right thing. Here, that figure was T’Challa, and it’s quite powerful, and realistic, to see nobody really fill that void. We feel the actual consequences of a kingdom losing its protector, and of a family losing its guiding light.
This is a movie that the typical MCU bullshit can’t take center stage with. You don’t think about whatever the hell phase this is, and the references to the grander universe are scarce. The MCU story implications seem darker for the future of the series, but in such a way with actual stakes that could get actually serious in ways Disney might have to look the other way on. That’s enough to keep you engaged, even if there would be legitimate power in letting this be it.
The themes of not letting grief cloud your morality aren’t new. Heck, that’s basically the whole deal with Spider-Man. Though, this film takes those ideals and supercharges them with the screaming anguish of an actual death. This film series losing its leader has brought forth a true elegy for not only the dead, but the burden the grieving carry with them. It’s the price of loving someone, after all.
While it’s hard to top the jubilant arrival of the first film, and what it means to the world around it, I really don’t know how you go from what happened in 2020 to now. Coogler did it, though, and made what’s going to be one of the boldest franchise films of its time. The film can be a lot, but it’s unrelenting in what it came to do. The MCU will come and go, but the power of purging emotions through cinema will last. I can’t say this about many of its counterparts, but this Marvel movie is what Scorsese was talking about when he talked about what cinema is. On the screen, real-world shit gets dealt with. Through all the fantasy, you get something real. Boseman’s death is one of the biggest tragedies of Hollywood, and Coogler wasn’t about to let this film be anything but the audacious, downright bleak, ultimately cathartic journey these characters, this cast and crew, and this audience needed to take to really process the pain.
This is an all-time achievement for a filmmaker, to be able to pull off such a jolt after such a tragedy. At times it’s a little sloppy, at times it’s overwhelming, at times it’s not entirely sure how to pace itself and really hit every note the right way, but damn it, even those missteps feel just right. Coogler is the best director to work on a superhero movie since Christopher Nolan, and it’s because both of them understand something intrinsic to comic book movies: you’ve got to let these things get honest so that they can feel real.
Where to Watch: Theaters
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
There is not enough hyperbole I have for this.
It’s one of the greatest animated films of the 2000s. Del Toro taking on stop-motion is an unbelievable development for animation. He thrives in ways even for him that are pretty surprising.
This really is just one of the all-time accomplishments for the art form of stop-motion, and maybe for animation in general.
Like holy cow. Not sure what else to say. Just watch it, and see for yourself.
Where to Watch: Select Theaters, Netflix on Dec. 9
The Banshees of Inisherin
As someone who still thinks Three Billboards is the uncomfortable social commentary masterwork of a filmmaker who kicked America right where it hurt and called us out on our collective bullshit as to how we are destined to repeat the same mistakes because we refuse to try and understand each other, and how we refuse to look inward and find our own faults and biases out of vanity and self-righteousness, and how even a vague attempt at doing either of these can heal generational wounds … damn, Martin, why’d you go harder this time?
This is one of the best films of 2022, but it’s also not about America as much as it is the fragile human condition that pits an inner war between ego and empathy. Colin Farrell has a drunken monologue in this about the utter futility of prioritizing meaningless achievements over the people you love and the virtues we survive by, and it broke my heart so much that it still hasn’t healed. We have ruined ourselves by making niceness something that’s simple, by taking friendliness away from the pantheon of success. McDonagh understands people more than any filmmaker I’ve seen in a while, about how corrosive loneliness is, and about how damaging it is to ignore the responsibilities we have to those who love us.
Bailing on your friend without warning here is as explosive as dropping a bomb on a house, and the carnage wrought by one man pointlessly chasing a melody he’ll never see leave his sad, little Irish island, and how desperate he is to cling to that ideal, will send shivers down your spine.
I saw a critic point out that this is the ultimate movie about how social media has ruined our lives, and that made me ponder. Then, I realized how many relationships have been ruined over petty things in the social media age (and in general), and how ideas have zapped us from seeing humanity. Then I got what he was saying. And I went home and hugged my dog, texted my wife who was out of town and tried to remember how many people I have in my life. The danger of the social age: throwing away everything you care about just so you can be right, or be validated in your own ego. McDonagh, man. He gets us more than we want to admit.
Also, Farrell’s best performance. He is a gift. Gleason, Condon and Keough are all so great, too.
Where to Watch: Theaters
Just bowled over we got an intellectual, mid-budget family drama with a murderer’s row of actors and a real sense of place and time. Focus is a real one for putting this and The Northman out this year.
James Gray is such a great filmmaker, and this is one of his best. There is so much going on as we move from warmth to ice as the story progresses and see a very challenging, messy story play out in the way only reality can bend to its will. It’s about privilege, sure, about family and fortune, but also about how we all get a choice to determine our values. We all have family members who pull is in either direction, and it’s on us to figure out who is right. For a film with such a lively, at times very funny tone, Gray isn’t afraid to drop the hammer in the end and stick the point right where it hurts.
Anthony Hopkins is on a tear lately, and Jeremy Strong, Anne Hathaway, Banks Repeta and Jaylin Webb are all excellent. Jessica Chastain’s cameo is also quite effective.
Give Gray more money. Let him make the Hathaway prequel. This is another 2022 home run.
Where to Watch: Theaters
If you’re want to watch one of those “this is why I make movies; look at my parents,” things without really having to suss through knowing way too much about the filmmaker going in, this is your best bet.
The Cathedral is a fascinating little drama, told with very minimal detail and structured narration. It’s a bit like someone is reading you a book, and you’re piecing together the sights and sounds in your mind as the story goes along. It’s a neat way to make a family drama. I’ve seen people compare this to Bresson, but my Millennial ass just kept thinking of this being a Wes Anderson film if it were directed by an actual architect. It’s so precise in assembly, but not in a cutesy way, more like a “please don’t touch; I spent a month building this model ship in a bottle” way.
Brian D’Arcy James is fantastic in this, and boy, does he have a hard job here. He’s got to interject the little emotion we do get in the movie, provide the actual sorrow for the father this kid is trying to figure out.
It’s something that we get this movie in the same year as The Fabelmans, Aftersun and Armageddon Time, all films about filmmakers trying to understand their parents. This has a lot in common with Aftersun in particular, just more with the buildup and not the explosive finale.
Real good flick, though.
Where to Watch: Mubi
The Woman King
Just a good-old-fashioned swords-and-sandals epic told with a fresh, diverse spin. Viola Davis is a cannonball in this, which is the most interesting/best performance she’s given since Fences. Also, Lashana Lynch is such a great actress.
Take note, studios. This isn’t that hard. Just keep making these.
Gina Prince-Blythewood deserves so much credit for pulling this off. I didn’t care for The Old Guard as much as I wanted to, but this is a strike down the middle. What a rip-roaring success.
Where to Watch: Theaters
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story
As a lifetime member of the Weird Al Society, I have as much love in my heart for Mr. Yankovic as anyone can have.
So this is in my back pocket. I think it’s 75% of the movie UHF is, which is still pretty darn commendable. UHF will always be Al’s definitive cinematic masterpiece, but watching Daniel Radcliffe jump head first into this is downright moving. If Rami Malek won an Oscar for Bohemian Rhapsody, Radcliffe should win 5 Oscars for this.
With the budget thin and concept stretched far, there’s only so much this movie can do, but it’s still quite funny and does enough to put the Weird Al stamp on the Walk Hard-inspired parody.
The end credits are hilarious. Keep watching as long as you can.
Where to Watch: The Roku Channel
This is a perfectly fine and touching Sundance movie elevated five floors by two of the best actors to emerge in the past 20 years.
Jennifer Lawrence and Bryan Tyree Henry are just major, major talents who rarely misstep, even when the movies aren’t great. This one just so happens to be very solid, even though the third act kind of tries to force conflict where it wasn’t needed. The low-key hang-out-and-heal vibe was more than enough to prove the film’s point, and it was just way more satisfying than whatever that last-minute twist is.
Henry also manages to outact Lawrence during some of their biggest scenes, further cementing that he’s just going to keep blowing people out of the water with his generational ability to just slide into a moment and take it over without a lot of effort.
I think the film’s strength is its ability to not manufacture drama or tension, and just let the wounds these two kindred spirits have reveal themselves naturally. The third act betrays that a little, trying to shoehorn in a little too much too late in the game that’s not needed for either character. It’s a shame, but not a dealbreaker. Lawrence and Henry are both just too good to let a frustrating story quirk throw the mood off completely.
Where to Watch: AppleTV+
Soft & Quiet
Saw Blum raving about this and wanted to check it out. He wasn’t wrong!
The film’s first 5-8 minutes are just mysterious enough to hide the shock of what’s to come. Go in blind, but be warned and keep your guard up. This is how you do social horror.
More spoiler-y thoughts below:
There is a reveal with an engraving in a pie that is so blood-curdling, so out of left field, so “what the everlasting Hell is about to happen?” It keeps growing like a fungus in real-time until you begin to see the noxious fumes spill out into the real world.
This is a horrifying movie, if only because it’s one of the first real horror films to show what happens when online fanaticism and hushed bigotry spills out past chatrooms and private gatherings into the real world. We saw how January 6 happened, sure, but this details an event so shocking, but so, so likely to happen if people don’t wake up to the fact of how seemingly normal people are tiptoeing to the fringes of moral thought, soon to go straight off the cliff of putting a horned hat on your head and storming the capital, calling yourself the “Q Shaman.”
The film’s purposefully overwrought, blending in a very particular sense of dread with utter ridicule. This film is like Reservoir Dogs for Nazi Karens. The brilliance of Reservoir Dogs was how Tarantino took the coolest slow-motion shot in cinema history – the bank robbers walking – and devolved them into a bunch of outmatched sadists, liars and cowards. It’s the perfect undressing. Here, we get something to that effect, even though this film never even vaguely tries to make these horrible women seem anything but pathetic and dangerous.
The final shot of the film redeems that sinking feeling that this is purely a cautionary tale. You feel the rush of redemption this poor woman will get, the justice she will smother the racists with that will stretch across the world. We won’t see that, no, but we can feel it coming.
This film makes you hate evil people. You don’t feel sorry for them. You don’t wish to understand why they are the way they are. You just want them to suffer. For those who have plunged so far into hate that they can’t see any other way than to enact violence against innocent people because of their race, you really want to watch a sequel where these evil people get what they deserve. We won’t see that, but it’s safe to say, one final narrative decision turns this from a pure tragedy without consequence to a righteous vengeance just waiting to happen. If we can’t always get justice in real life, at least we can find it in the movies.
This is maybe the best indie horror debut I’ve seen in a long time. Beth de Araujo is going to be a force to reckon with.
Where to Watch: PVOD
See How They Run
I saw The Mousetrap in London in 2011, and Tilda Swinton was there and took a group photo with the people I went with. That was fun.
A decent third act kind of bails this one out because it was looking dire there for a minute. This film is like a Wes Anderson movie taking a nap on a park bench – it’s clearly trying to pull off his aesthetic and quirk. It even got Adrian Brody and Saoirse Ronan in the game. It just struggles to do anything with the parts and pieces. It just goes through the motions without a lot of fanfare for a movie with this dedicated of production design and this strong a cast.
Making Sam Rockwell boring for stretches should be a crime. You can’t do that. Like cmon.
Again, the ending is fun enough to justify the 90 minutes, but Knives Out, this ain’t. It’s not even the Branagh/Christie movies. Too tepid for too long, even if it tries to make some decisions late to spice it up enough to matter.
Where to Watch: PVOD, HBO Max
The Good Nurse
I think Eddie Redmayne winning the Oscar for the wrong movie and hiding himself in those Fantastic Beasts movies has kind of thrown people off the scent of his acting talents.
This is the best thing I’ve seen him do in years. Tobias Lindholm made the genius decision not to cast Jared Leto in this part, with Redmayne able to pull out the very challenging mystery this monster nurse is. It’s a role that can go so many ways wrong, but I think he grounds it just enough to make the little quirks and disarming moments haunt you that much more.
Everything else here is solid enough; Jessica Chastain gives the emotionally exhaustive performance we’ve come to expect. The script can get a little Law and Order-y, but it’s quite good when it’s showing its teeth about the systemic failures that kept Redmayne’s nurse going for so long.
Where to Watch: Netflix
Wendell and Wild
Henry Selick should make more movies. It’s a damn shame John Lasseter jobbed him out of the one he was doing at Disney in the 2010s.
This is exactly what it needs to be, friendly enough for everybody but dark enough to stand out. You can feels Selick’s knack for pacing really driving what could’ve been a distractingly busy plot, and Jordan Peele’s influence gives this the kind of modern zest that really marinates well in Selick’s old-school macabre aura. It’s a shame this got buried on Netflix because it’s a real gem. For being about the Netherworlds, it’s very warm and inviting.
Where to Watch: Netflix
Really damn good. I didn’t know much about Will Vinton, but his life absolutely deserved a doc treatment. His is a bittersweet tale of the artist’s American Dream, one where he got his whole life to do exactly what he wanted to do on the biggest stage possible with dollops of resources, but also one where his ambition never quite matched his creative success. You can’t feel “bad” for a guy like this who basically pioneered an entire art form and ran an entire studio, but you lament that he never quite caught his great white whale. He never became Walt Disney, but I’m guessing he eventually figured out that nobody wants that smoke in the end.
This doc does a splendid job of really making the case for why Vinton’s life was just as eye-opening as his output. It avoids hero worship to really find the honest truth of what this guy was able to do, and in that, you get all the admiration you need.
Also, holy hell, I had no idea *this* is how Laika came to be. Travis Knight is undoubtedly a strong filmmaker, but there are some calm conversations to be had as to how exactly he got Laika to where it is.
Where to Watch: PVOD
Jon Hamm clearly is having a field day with this, and I’m sure he and Greg Mottola could crank out 10 more of these for nickels and dimes. I kind of wish this got a streaming home where it’d get a lot of eyeballs because it’s just such a breezy exercise that would probably get stronger with more reps. The ending is quite nifty, even if the film can meander a bit too much at times. Kind of why you want a sequel – I’d love to see them get another stab at it and add more personality. As it is, it’s still worth your time.
Where to Watch: PVOD
God Forbid: The Sex Scandal That Brought Down a Dynasty
While the “let’s really hammer in this bizarre pool reflection background over some of our footage” effect gets old, this really usurps the scandalous nature of its being to provide a damning testament to why the Falwells are full of it.
It’s like Wall Street meets The Eyes of Tammy Faye, and there is no way the filmmaker would’ve been able to pull this off if the main victim of the whole situation wasn’t willing to go deep on just how dark this whole thing is and how badly he got nicked in the process. Kudos to him.
I’m sure the eventual narrative movie will eclipse this, but for being a cheap streaming doc, this takes the cake over most of the stuff that Hulu has done in its documentary output. This is hugely entertaining, but it’s got a very concrete thesis about how dangerous it is when men of the cloth abuse their power for political and personal gain. Kind of surprised how well this went.
Where to Watch: Hulu
I’m not entirely sure the folks behind this understand how a newsroom works outside of what they’ve seen in the movies and on maybe an MSNBC panel. This is compulsively watchable, if obvious in its themes and nutty with its plotting. I’m a sucker for “power of the press!” movies, so let it be known that this one doesn’t do it the right way. That’s including Brian Cox as an ornery political journalism icon, and it pains me that this film wastes that. That’s a bummer, man.
If it weren’t for the script and streaming drama direction, this cast would’ve been a strong fit for the material. I’m now mad John Cena as a bland third-party candidate wasn’t used in a more biting satire. He is such a great pick for a part like this, but he’s kind of wasted. Whole movie is kind of a shrug, even if you still turn the pages to see what happens.
Where to Watch: Peacock
There is absolutely no way a major studio lets a career stop-motion guy like Selick come in and let him make a movie like this now. Not even a streamer. This is the relic of relics.
It’s a lot of fun, even though it’s so damn weird at times I’m glad I didn’t see this as a kid so it wouldn’t give me uncontrollable nightmares. Brendan Fraser gives a delightful performance in the kind of role only he could really pull off. I liked the way Selick weaved in all of the old animated influences of his youth, especially the weird stuff. This is probably his weakest film, but it’s still a hoot and a serious creative flex.
I respect Östlund’s willingness to throw so much into such an obscure story, about our relationship with art, an artist’s self-importance in a struggling world, about class and privilege, about the meaninglessness of art-as-charity, about the debate on freedom of expression versus harmful speech, about the cruel irony of trying to figure out how to navigate all of the above while managing your own, flawed, inescapable humanity.
The film’s execution only occasionally reaches its ideological grasp, but Östlund’s such a talented filmmaker that he can cover up the lack of follow-through in his script. That’s tough to do! The film’s ending feels like it’s missing the comet collision it builds up to, opting for something more solemn and intimate. For a movie with a scene so abrasive and transfixing as Terry Notary’s aping art installation dinner, and so delightfully aloof on stance as its final press conference, the film can’t quite pair it all fully with the human through-line that holds it together. I mean, it all technically works as a story, but the ideas don’t always strike as hard when you realize we’ve got to wrap up the character study for our grander narrative to make any sense. It helps that Claes Bang is so great and fits Östlund’s style so well. Ditto Elisabeth Moss, even though I think you could cut her entire role out of the movie and give it less wheel-spinning to do. Not her fault!
It’s a tough film to really get your arms around, but I won’t sit here and tell you it isn’t good. It is. Östlund’s just too smart, talented and capable to let an imperfect move like this not still be pretty magnetic and thought-provoking. It’s fascinating and maybe a bit too thematically lofty for its execution. So appreciate the attempt to even try something like this, though. Definitely seek it out, even if all the pieces don’t quite come together. Hoping Triangle of Sadness captures the relevance of its material with more focus.
Where to Watch: Hulu, PVOD