Your family’s Elf DVD is worn down to the label. You can recite The Santa Clause from memory. The same list of holiday specials run on repeat every winter season. Klaus (2019), an animated Santa Claus origin story from director Sergio Pablos, is a fresh-cut Douglas fir in your living room. Lighthearted, earnest, and brimming with more holiday cheer than a warm cup of hot chocolate, Klaus is a worthy addition to the Christmas movie rotation.
With reproductive rights under siege in the U.S. Supreme Court and legislative bodies across the country, writer-director Eliza Hittman’s intimate story about a Pennsylvania girl’s journey to terminate her pregnancy is urgent viewing. While Roe v. Wade hasn’t been overturned, small freedoms are sacrificed on an almost-daily basis to satisfy a boisterous minority. Never Rarely Sometimes Always—Hittman’s third feature—brilliantly explores the intended consequences of restricting a woman’s right to choose.
Peter Jackson and his army of cast and crew returned for a second trip to Middle-earth in 2002’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, based on author J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic of the same name. Centered around the breathtaking Battle of Helm’s Deep, a council of talking trees, and a band of hobbits on the perilous road to Mordor, the sequel surpasses the introductory Fellowship of the Ring. The Two Towers offers more swordplay, scares, and magic than its predecessor.
Artists can’t control the state of the world in which their art debuts; for film productions, circumstances are even dicier. Does the movie match or combat the prevailing societal mood? Will the economy support its release? Are the themes pertinent to a current issue? If the work isn’t discovered initially, will it stand the test of time for a future audience? The stars aligned to answer these questions for Palm Springs, a romantic comedy that dropped on Hulu in July 2020.
The widely celebrated 2001 epic kicked off writer-director Peter Jackson’s landmark journey to Middle-earth. The Lord of the Rings series would influence decades of fantasy filmmaking on both the silver screen and the small screen. Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe all owe part of their size, rich lore, and (the newly coined) worldbuilding to Jackson’s trilogy, which introduced audiences to a complex world. Before The Fellowship of the Ring, intricate, episodic universes were reserved for lengthy novels and monthly comic books.
In Miss Americana, documentarian Lana Wilson explores eating disorders, fame, and celebrity politics through subject Taylor Swift. Wilson, whose directorial credits include documentaries about Japanese suicide and late-term abortion, finds similar depth in the ensuing inspection of Swift’s character. Modern celebrity documentaries are overproduced to a fault, but Swift’s vulnerability allows Wilson the access needed to craft an early contender for the best documentary of the year.
A hectic opening 15 minutes set the pace for writer-director Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s literary classic. The seventh adaptation (!) of Little Women extracts its tone from its frenetic, distinctive, engrossing quadrivium of stars. Gerwig’s optimistic, feministic take on the 1868 novel uncovers an original film, even on the seventh try.
In 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, writer-director Noah Baumbach concentrated on Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline), the children of divorcing parents. Returning to the subject of divorce 14 years later, Baumbach turns his camera on the adults. Marriage Story, like some divorces, is the manifestation of the swelling rage and lingering affection between two people who once shared every intimacy.
The ink isn’t yet dry on the art that will frame the Great Recession. The few films that have been made around the defining event of the ‘00s each focus on a different subject; The Big Short shines a light on those who made out like bandits, The Wolf of Wall Street points the blame directly at its titular location, and Sorry to Bother You interrogates the human motivation behind greed. Hustlers, the newest addition to 2008 financial crisis’ wall of shame, is a street-level perspective of the working-class victims who could no longer afford to play it straight.
In his 2013 directorial debut, writer-director James Ward Byrkit (Rango) delivered a science-fiction classic on a $50,000 budget. As Coherence will teach you, stranger things can happen.