5. Tenet (ON DEMAND)
Christopher Nolan’s latest science fiction opus is a dense, multi-layered piece of pop entertainment that illuminates on the nature of man’s inability to stop impending disaster as often as it exhilarates with expertly choreographed action sequences. It’s more than a puzzle box or a perfectly-shot action film, it’s a detailed and consistently entertaining excuse to ask questions about humanity’s relationship with doom, with the end of the world, with our own self-destruction. These are pertinent, important questions in our current hellscape, where day to day we grapple with the notion that civil society is more fragile than we thought, that surreal events such as deadly viruses that can cripple an entire planet are in no way merely the stuff of cinema or scary nightmares. With a propulsive, near-techno score by Ludwig Goransson and IMAX lensing by Hoyte Van Hoytema, Tenet is an experiential film visually and sonically. Besides Nolan himself, the stars of Tenet are Robert Pattinson and Kenneth Branagh, the former utterly charming and inhabiting the film’s unsung beating heart and the latter fully committed to a villainous role for the first time in ages. Tenet is about stopping a future that’s already happened, that is inevitable. It’s also about holding onto hope when misguided or evil men have lost all of theirs and chosen to go down with the ship, to flip the table in a last gasp for salvation. It’s a film about men who can only save the world with the knowledge of hindsight. “What’s happened happened, which is an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world. It’s not an excuse to do nothing.”
4. Pieces of a Woman (NETFLIX)
An astonishing portrait of grief and a harrowing close-up of the joy and agony of child birth, Pieces of a Woman is no misery porn nor Oscar bait, it’s one of the best films of the year. Vanessa Kirby, already well-lauded for her star-making performance, truly lives up to the hype as one half of a Boston couple expecting their little girl any minute for a hopefully stress-free home birth. As her other half, pariah though he is, Shia Labeouf continues to prove what raw talent he possesses, and how unfortunate these downward spirals continue to be for his career and for film and art in our near future. Detailing what happens to these two following a tragedy on the day of her labor, Mundruczo begins by staging a stunning one-take chronicle of that day. From early moments of escalating contractions to the final push and its devastating result, we see it all, warts and all, and it’s a nail-biting, tear-jerking experience up there with the most lively moments of any action film. Pieces could’ve easily lost steam after such an opening, but its roots grow deeper as we learn more about this couple, their family, their relationship, and how they choose to respond to such a tragedy befalling them. As Kirby’s domineering mother, Ellen Burstyn comes out of semi-retirement to smack us across the face and remind us how powerful a performer she can be when given the material of a lifetime at age eighty-eight. And as director, Kornel has signaled to the rest of Hollywood that he’s a force to be reckoned with, whether he’s filming rebellious dogs or distraught human beings.
3. Bad Education (HBO MAX)
Filmmaker Cory Finley is fast becoming an auteur. That much is clear, and more, when watching his second directorial effort Bad Education. Alongside his wickedly funny debut feature Thoroughbreds, this is a great film about bad behavior born out of insecurity, sociopathy, boredom, and greed in the northeastern United States. Finley is putting upper-middle class hucksters under the microscope, examining the entitlement and self-enrichment that has brought this country and our democracy to the brink of destruction, albeit a microcosm of it. Hugh Jackman gives the best performance of his career as Frank Tassone, a Long Island area school district superintendent who in the early aughts, along with district manager Pamela Gluckin (Allison Janney) and others, embezzled millions of dollars from school funds to support the lavish lifestyles they thought they deserved. A monologue about race cars is the stuff of Oscar clip history, and one inspired scene in a nightclub where Frank loosens up and finally, fully embraces his true self in public ensures we never forget the insecurities nor the inhibitions that drive him. Bad Education is not limited in scope, nor is it a film of slight importance. It’s a film for our current Fraud-ed Age.
2. Soul (DISNEY PLUS)
Another Pixar masterpiece from Pete Docter, the gentle soul and consummate artist behind previous gems Up and Inside Out. The phrase “life-affirming” is thrown around flippantly sometimes. Here’s a film that aspires to such lofty heights and reaches them, exploring such philosophical, religious, and existential quandaries as life, death, life after death, and most surprisingly life before death, all in the guise of a Disney animated cartoon. Following what happens to black middle school jazz teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) after he bites the dust and finds himself in a spirit realm, Soul is what happens when you allow true visionaries to utilize their talents in the pursuit of the most rarest of marriages: art and entertainment in harmony. So much of Hollywood is dialed for one or the other, and seldom both. Pixar routinely attempts such alliances, and with Docter’s latest, they have created something that will stand the test of time and pop culture. Foxx and comedian Tina Fey, as an unborn soul reluctant to go to Earth, are an unexpected match made in heaven (sorry, couldn’t resist). Joe needs help returning to life so that he can pounce on the opportunity of a lifetime, and Fey’s 22 needs help finding her purpose. Per the genre, they both have lessons to learn, albeit incredibly complex and emotionally thorny lessons that have encouraged idiots to proclaim “this isn’t for kids.” Give the little ones a little more credit, for we’ve all been there, and not all of us sat dumbfounded when our childhood classics went deep. From lyrical dialogue to lucid animation, to an incredibly rousing electronic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Soul is an animated film for the ages that celebrates love, music, spirituality, and life itself.
1. Mank (NETFLIX)
David Fincher is a filmmaker who at once thumbs his nose at the establishment, at the corporate overlords whose penny-pinching meddles in his artistic mindscape, and also works with them. He’s a cynic by way of the adage “every cynic is a disappointed idealist.” He’s a progressive who speaks to us subliminally, not outwardly, and Mank is both the greatest distillation of that philosophy and the most polemical Fincher has ever been on the dangers of capitalism, fascism, propaganda, and the levers of power across America. As the titular Mank, staff writer for MGM and court jester for the Willie Hearst roundtable of friends and sycophants, Gary Oldman gives one of the best performances of his career. He inhabits the writer’s rabid wit, surly style, and sly charm with a gift for gab, surprising warmth, and a clear recognition of the man’s more-than-fortunate lot in life. Fincher has surrounded this man with his patented atypical yet perfect ensemble, from Charles Dance as a calm, malevolent Hearst to Arliss Howard as smarmy Louis B. Mayer. A walk-and-talk monologue peels back the shiny veneer of old Hollywood to expose something craven and unsavory about American businessmen and their attempts to manipulate the world around them. No matter the beautiful, classical black and white photography or the fake cigarette burns, Mank is not an ode to anything, except perhaps Citizen Kane or Fincher’s own late father who orchestrated such a wonderful script. Nor is it longing for the way things were like so many Hollywood movies about Hollywood, though it is longing for what could be or could’ve been. Mank is about a man realizing his worth, realizing the mark he can leave on a movie that, in a perfect world, has the power to change the way people view those more powerful than themselves. It’s about a man attempting with his last career breath to change a system from within, much like the venerable filmmaker himself. This is a grand middle finger to corporate meddling, to American propaganda, and it’s the best movie of the year.
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