A film about a woman’s search for an abortion could easily feel like a heavy-handed attempt at political relevance, but that is not what Happening is about. Rather, director Audrey Diwan’s sophomore directorial feature grounds its drama in its lead character’s dilemma. It’s no secret that reproductive rights have been a hot-button issue in America for decades, even after the passing of Roe v. Wade – ironically, I screened this film the night before the draft opinion was leaked that would essentially overturn the landmark case. That the film takes place in France in 1963 and still feels as prescient is no small feat.
Starring: Karen Gillan, Aaron Paul, Beulah Koale, Theo James
In just a handful of feature films as a writer and director, Riley Stearns has firmly established himself as a connoisseur of dark, deadpan humor. But he uses this style of comedy to effectively explore surprisingly complex themes. 2019’s The Art of Self-Defense used its humor as a way to explore toxic masculinity and the ways it permeates our culture. Dual scratches the surface of bigger ideas, but is less successful in its execution. Stearns is unquestionably a unique voice in the independent film landscape today though, which earns Dual a certain amount of brownie points.
Starring: Chris Pine, Thandiwe Newton, Laurence Fishburne, Jonathan Pryce
Officially speaking, we’re out of the first quarter of the year of our Lord 2022. But All the Old Knives may as well have been released in the first quarter, when studios traditionally dump all their projects in which they have zero faith to make any lasting impact. This effect is exacerbated when a movie premiere on streaming services, when they can be buried amongst the platform’s endless library, which makes it harder for any film that’s barely promoted beyond an obligatory banner ad to make any lasting impact. Not that the film does itself any favors though, as it’s the kind of lazy genre exercise that barely justifies its existence.
Starring: Ben Affleck, Ana de Armas, Tracy Letts, Lil Rel Howery, Finn Witrock, Rachel Blanchard
On the surface, Vic and Melinda live a carefree, exuberant lifestyle. He retired early after developing and selling microchip technology which is now used for drone warfare. His days mostly consist of riding his bike around town, tending to his snail collection, and spending time with their daughter. As for Melinda, we’ll get to that shortly. They live in an upper-class mansion and attend formal catered dinner parties with their friends, seemingly on a weekly basis. But look closer, and their life together is far from ideal. In fact, most of their friends openly acknowledge how troubling their public life has become, voicing their concerns to Vic whenever possible.
Take one part horror film, one part revenge thriller, a heavy dose of post-MeToo commentary, and a good helping of chemistry between two likable actors, and you have the perfect distillation of Fresh. First-time director Mimi Cave, working from a script by Lauryn Kahn, displays a nice confidence in the material, but lacks the discipline in a few key areas to make the film truly memorable. Nevertheless, Cave populates the film with Daisy Edgar-Jones and Sebastian Stan, two capable, charming actors as the leads, which goes a long way to making Fresh an enjoyable ride overall.
Starring: Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Justin H. Min, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, Haley Lu Richardson, Sarita Choudhury
Kogonada’s sophomore feature further establishes the writer and director as a unique voice amongst new filmmakers. His 2017 debut, Columbus, explored how beauty can be found amongst the mundane, and After Yang contains similarly profound ideas. Specifically, the film is about preserving the memories of those we love after they’re gone. What will we remember about them? And what will they remember of us?
Starring: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Bertie Carvel, Alex Hassell, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling, Brendan Gleeson, Kathryn Hunter
Denzel Washington is 66 years old (67 shortly after this film hits theaters on Christmas Day). Frances McDormand is 64. It’s rare when an actors’ age makes such a distinct difference in an interpretation of a film, but such is just one of the many unique choices that writer and director Joel Coen has made in his Shakespeare adaptation, The Tragedy of Macbeth.
Starring: Simon Rex, Bree Elrod, Suzanna Son, Brenda Deiss
It’s a shame that there’s already a 2021 film called The Worst Person In the World because it would be an apt title for Sean Baker’s newest film. Baker has become a master since 2015’s Tangerine, his breakout hit, at showcasing slices of American life that often go under-represented or unfairly depicted in film. In those films, Baker has shown a unique skill at showing the humanity of people just trying to scrape by in the unforgiving modern American landscape. Red Rocket takes that undercurrent of empathy inherent in his protagonists and rips it to shreds.