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.
Backed by a cast of relative unknowns, director Ken Loach delivers a story true to those living on the margins. The filmmaker’s latest work is set in Newcastle, a city in Northeast England, but without the accents and references to soccer, it could just as easily be set in New Haven, a city in the American Northeast. Loach and writer Paul Laverty empathize with members of the shrinking middle class who are casualties of globalization and negligent labor laws.
Two children experience the inscrutable while trapped in a remote cabin with their stepmother-to-be. The Lodge doesn’t bend genre conventions or invent a wholly original horror premise, but the twisty, austere, and perturbing psychological horror movie is the genre’s finest release since Midsommar. The latest from Parasite distributor Neon is also a memorable American introduction for Austrian directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala.
Director Josephine Decker’s (Madeline’s Madeline) Shirley Jackson biopic was one of the standout films at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Set just before the author’s premature death in 1965, Shirley is the backdrop for a larger conversation about the author’s underappreciated work, her tragic life, and the mid-century role of women in the household.
Black troops accounted for 32% of the American military force in Vietnam, but only 11% of the country’s population at the time. Spike Lee has dedicated his career to identifying socio-political issues, venerating and participating in film history, and restoring Black history. In Da 5 Bloods, Lee sets his sights on the Black soldier’s rightful place in the war film genre. Generations of Hollywood whitewashing and historical erasure have minimized Black military history. Lee’s uneven, affecting film, which debuted on Netflix in June, engages Donald Trump and war’s long-term impact on its participants.
Halfway through 2015’s My Hindu Friend, the last film by Brazilian writer-director Héctor Babenco, its main character surmises, “Don't you think it's supremely insignificant in the history of humanity that you ran eight seconds faster than you did 20 years ago? We're never going to have another Fellini film, think of that. That's what matters.” Babenco (Kiss of the Spider Woman and Pixote) can’t match 8½, but his precipitously edited, wistful final film gives way to sporadic beauty.
Emma. is the fourth film adaptation of Emma, author Jane Austen’s final published work before her death. Emma. follows Aisha, a 2010 Bollywood adaptation, Emma, a 1996 period piece starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Alan Cumming, and 1995’s Clueless, an Alicia Silverstone-led classic set in modern-day California. Austen’s beloved coming-of-age romance was perfected in Clueless, its first adaptation, but like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, the novel is rife for an update every decade. Director Autumn de Wilde’s rendition allows Austen’s precise satire to speak for itself.
Onward, an ode to the nerdy teenager, is the latest grown-up kids movie from co-writer and director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) and Pixar. The animation giant recently celebrated the nuclear family in Coco, Incredibles 2, and Inside Out. In Onward, the central Lightfoot family is as uniquely shaped as the centaurs that inhabit their fantastical world. By journey’s end, it’s clear that unconventional isn’t lesser. Grab a d20, your favorite cheese-dusted salty snack, and a box of tissues.
Gentle, even brushstrokes grace every frame of writer-director Céline Sciamma’s balletic Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The film’s late 18th-century setting shrouds Portrait’s central couple in secrecy. Secluded sea caves and daily walks replace traditional courtship for its passionate lovers. Sciamma’s love story is set at a comfortable simmer without ever boiling over.
Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey is the latest release in a series of amusing but empty comic book adaptations from the DC Extended Universe. The film, formerly known as Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), relies on the charisma of its title character to make good on its promise of light-hearted, homicidal fun. There’s only so much star Margot Robbie can do.