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.
Starring: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie
The San Fernando valley in the 1970s is the setting of Paul Thomas Anderson’s breakout hit, Boogie Nights. For his latest original creation, he returns to the time and setting to tell a coming-of-age tale that transcends the genre’s familiar trappings. Anderson is at his best when exploring the inner workings of his protagonists – usually grown men – as they’re thrust into situations that upend their rigidly-focused lives. And while he’s dipped his toes into the romantic comedy genre in 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, that film was ultimately about a neurotically isolated man as he accepts a new possibility for himself. Licorice Pizza concerns itself with the feeling of young love, and about discovering the difficulties of figuring out the rest of your life when you’re still so young.
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Rob Morgan, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Ron Perlman, Timothée Chalamet
Don’t Look Up is billed as director Adam McKay’s return to straight-up comedy after the Oscar-bait offerings of The Big Short and Vice. While it’s true that the film has more lighthearted bits of comedy than his most recent films, it continues the downward trajectory of his career as a maker of satire aimed at the easiest of targets. There’s plenty of satire to be mined from the end of the world – in this case an impending asteroid – but Don’t Look Up limps around for 145 minutes trotting out the same lazy observations without having anything new or interesting to say.
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist
Steven Spielberg has conquered nearly every genre throughout his illustrious career: from horror to comedy, from kid-friendly adventures to sci-fi, from Oscar bait dramas to summer blockbusters. Yet somehow he’s never tackled a Broadway musical. His adaptation of West Side Story is finally seeing theaters after being delayed in 2020, and the wait has paid off. Of all the musicals coming to theaters and streaming this year, Speilberg’s latest was one of the most anticipated. But why would the celebrated director choose to remake one of the most celebrated musicals of all time, one that won 10 of the 11 Academy Awards it was nominated for, including Best Picture, in 1961? Spielberg has stated his desire to adapt one of Broadway’s musicals and that the West Side Story soundtrack was a staple in his home when growing up. Ever the source of the nostalgia of his childhood, the film feels like a natural choice for him under that lens (the end credits even reveal that the film is dedicated to his father, who died in 2020)
Flee is a familiar film about refugees that excels because of its unique details. The documentary from director Jonas Poher Rasmussen tells one man’s story of his attempts to find a better life in a more hospitable country. Plenty of documentaries have tackled the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East, both from a historical perspective and a modern one. But the film takes a micro approach by focusing on one specific family, and it’s all the better for it.
Starring: Halle Berry, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Adan Canto, Danny Boyd Jr., Sheila Atim, Adriane Lenox
Bruised is a film that’s filled with so many sports clichés that it may as well be called “The Invincible Hoosiers Rocky Miracle.” Some familiarity is to be expected within such a well-worn genre, but the film barely brings enough to the table to justify its existence. That’s not to say that the film is a total slog; Halle Berry’s directorial debut is pretty to look at and includes some likeable performances. But you’ve seen this film before, in one form or another, and that is what ultimately holds back its potential.
Starring: Stephanie Beatriz, Maria Cecilia Botero, John Leguizamo
The biggest issue that Disney has with Encanto is that the film is a Disney production. With the bar already set so high from the prolific animation studio, it’s becoming harder and harder for a new film to rise above what has come before. That’s not to say that Encanto is a bad film by any means; rather, it can’t help but be compared to Disney’s other recent entries. The film has all the makings of a great animated classic – and it may even be Disney’s best of this year – but when looking at the Mouse House’s total output, it’s hard not to be reminded of other, more unique visions.
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Judith Light, Vanessa Hudgens
In 2021 there will be a total of 9 musicals adapted from Broadway for the big screen. The world will also be subjected to 4 projects involving Lin-Manuel Miranda in one way or another in the same year (not to mention the hangover of Hamilton‘s premiere on Disney+ late in 2020). Those two worlds collide with Miranda as director in tick, tick…BOOM!. Say what you will about Miranda’s hegemony with his musical stylings, but he manages to distinguish himself with visual and dramatic flair in his debut film.
Who are the Eternals? And why did Marvel recruit Chloe Zhao, director of the film that won 3 Oscars earlier this year – including Best Picture – to direct a film about them? Fans of Zhao’s work know her penchant for methodically finding the humanity in stories that have often been told before. And those sensibilities stand at a stark contrast to the bulk of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s modus operandi. We love Tony Stark and Captain America because of their charisma and their duty to serve, but what would happen if they ever questioned that duty? This is the question that lies at the heart of Zhao’s Eternals, and while this may stir an interesting debate, the answers likely will turn off mainstream MCU fans.