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.
Writer-director Quentin Tarantino has regularly repeated his desire to carefully craft a 10-film filmography. In what would be his penultimate film (counting the two-part Kill Bill saga a single movie, as Tarantino does), his latest effort, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, combines the director’s best qualities and most frustrating attributes to deliver a polarizing experience that has remained on my mind since I left the theater.
Fans of Ari Aster’s instant-classic horror movie Hereditary will recognize a similar framework in the writer-director’s sophomoric film, Midsommar. Although Midsommar has more in common with the thriller and mystery genres, Aster’s imprint is as clear as a sunny Scandinavian day. What Midsommar lacks in scares, it makes up in genuine laughs, captivating lore, and haunting imagery.
Screenwriter and director Paul Schrader is best known for writing Taxi Driver and co-writing Raging Bull. With First Reformed, a movie written and directed by Schrader, the filmmaker can step out of Martin Scorsese’s long shadow and add an accomplishment all his own to the list of his most prominent credits.