Petite Maman, Céline Sciamma’s fifth feature-length film, following 2019’s critically acclaimed Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is a time travel story that reminded me of one of my favorite movies from childhood: Back to the Future. Aesthetically, the two have very little in common—one is an art house movie with unknown child actors, the other a somewhat goofy studio feature starring Michael J. Fox—but at the narrative core of both films is a deep psychological wish that many children harbor: to know their parents when they were younger. In Back to the Future, a teenage Marty McFly accidentally travels back in time to meet his parents at the beginning of their high school romance. In Petite Maman, eight-year-old Nelly stumbles into a kind of woodland passageway through which she can visit her mother’s childhood and play with her mother as an eight-year-old girl. In this alternate reality, Nelly also interacts with her maternal grandmother who, in Nelly’s present-day timeline, has recently passed away.
A title card at the beginning of Iuli Gerbase’s debut feature, The Pink Cloud, informs viewers that its screenplay was written in 2017, and that it was filmed in 2019. What follows is a movie so in tune with the events and moods of 2020 that you would be forgiven for finding this level of prescience impossible to believe. The premise is simple: a toxic pink cloud formation suddenly appears in the sky. Its vapors are deadly, killing people after ten seconds. With only a few minutes of warning, an unnamed Brazilian city is locked down. People are ordered to go indoors immediately; if they are not at home, they are to go into the nearest building, whether it’s a bakery, a grocery store, or the apartment complex they happened to be passing by. Giovana and Yago, the couple at the center of the movie, are on the balcony of Giovana’s apartment when they hear the news, recovering after a late night of partying. We quickly learn that they don’t know each other well; they are waking up from a one-night stand that has been extended indefinitely.
Great athletes have to be obsessive to push themselves past their physical limits but they also must stay grounded and mindful of injury. Finding the balance between these two states is the tension that many athletes struggle with, especially early in their careers. Like Black Swan or Whiplash, The Novice is a portrait of a type-A striver whose competitive nature gets the better of her. As an emotional thriller, The Novice didn’t really work for me, but as a sports movie, it’s distinctive for the way it takes the shine off of winning. In her debut feature, Lauren Hadaway explores the dark side of athletic training, and the way it can easily tip over into self-laceration.
In Amalia Ulman’s debut feature, El Planeta, which she wrote and directed, Ulman and her real-life mother (Ale Ulman) play a mother and a daughter awaiting eviction. Ulman’s character, Leo (short for Leonor), has returned home after the death of her father, whose sporadic alimony payments barely supported her mother when he was alive. Leo is jobless and so is her mother, María. The two women spend most of the film in their narrow galley kitchen where the sunlight is abundant, and they aren’t tempted to waste money on electric lighting. Their refrigerator is empty, save for the tiny slips of paper María places in the freezer, each one bearing the handwritten name of an enemy. Atop the refrigerator are multiple glasses of water, which have something to do with María’s witchcraft—a practice that seems more like a distracting hobby than a coherent belief system. Leo sews bizarre yet fashionable clothing by hand, having sold her sewing machine for cash. They drink coffee, cook pasta, and, when they are really hungry, dress up in designer clothing and run up large bills in restaurants and stores, promising to pay later or claiming that Leo’s boyfriend is a local politician who will pick up the tab. They live in Gijón, a small city on Spain’s northern coast, a place hit hard by the global recession, with shuttered shops and empty tourist districts. It’s no wonder these two women are more at home in their delusions of grandeur.
The late-blooming actress Krisha Fairchild anchors Freeland, a wispy slice-of-life movie that never really gets going, despite its timely subject matter and Fairchild’s compelling lead performance. Set in Humboldt County, California, Freeland focuses on a marijuana farmer, Devi, whose business has been adversely affected by the legalization of pot in California. Her under-the-radar business is suddenly getting a lot of competition, and she hasn’t obtained a permit to sell her product legally, because of fees and bureaucratic red tape. At the beginning of the film, Devi has some hope that she’ll be able to keep afloat with out-of-state sales, but when one of her biggest clients bails, she realizes she’s going to be stuck with a lot of unsold product. She asks her small staff of three to work unpaid during the harvest period, promising a bigger payout later. They reluctantly agree and the tension between Devi and her increasingly disgruntled workers is what drives the story.
Cruella (2021) Director: Craig Gillespie Writers: Dana Fox and Tony McNamara
Well, I finally caught up with the unholy mess that is Cruella. Honestly, it was pretty enjoyable despite spanning about five different genres. It was kind of like The Queen’s Gambit meets The Devil Wears Prada meets Project Runway meets The Empire Strikes Back with a splash of Dickens and a little bit of heist thrown in for good measure. Is that how it was pitched? Or did Disney just realize they had this really cool-looking villain and wanted to make a movie around her? That’s a great idea, except that Cruella, in this movie, isn’t really a villain. If I understood it correctly, she never even killed any puppies. That’s the whole point of Cruella! I remember being terrified of her as a child, but also, enthralled. She was always one of my favorite villains–that slinky dress, that cigarette holder. Now that I think about it, Emma Stone’s Cruella doesn’t even smoke. What the hell?
Bergman Island is a movie for Bergman fans, and so I’ll lay my cards on the table: Fanny and Alexander is one of my all-time favorite movies, something I like to put on every year around the holidays. I also love Scenes from a Marriage, and recently watched the new gender-swapped HBO adaptation, starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. HBO’s version, directed by Hagai Levi, is a Very Serious Homage, an attempt to make something as wrenching and honest at the original. Mostly, it feels like a showcase for the two leads, and while I appreciated it, I didn’t necessarily look forward to watching it. Bergman Island is a much more enjoyable tribute, one that questions Bergman’s legacy and even pokes fun, but doesn’t denigrate it. Directed by Mia Hansen-Løve, it zooms in on a filmmaking couple, Chris and Tony, (Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth) who attend an artist’s retreat on Fårö, an island off the coast of Gotland, Sweden, where Bergman lived and which he often used as a filming location. It’s a movie about filmmaking, marriage, and the relationship that female artists have with the Great Men who have inspired them. I loved it for its playfulness, for its honest grappling with Bergman’s filmography, and for Vicky Krieps’s restless, mischievous portrayal of a female artist trying to break free of her male influences.
This movie has to be one of the most underrated of the year, but I’ll admit that I’m not the most impartial critic when it comes to stories about mothers dying of cancer. I lost my own mother to the disease twenty years ago, and I appreciate movies that look at the experience honestly. I felt that this movie did, which surprised me, because the reviews from film festivals described a film that was a weepie, overly sentimental mess. As a result, Our Friend was released in January, dumped in the theaters before anyone was really going back, and placed on streaming at a premium price. Now it’s streaming on Amazon Prime and I hope it will get a second chance on the platform. I started watching it on a whim, thinking I would turn it off after twenty minutes, but instead I found myself immersed in a beautifully acted and directed ensemble film about friendship, ambition, marriage, and dying.
I’ve been meaning to watch The Piano for almost thirty years. It came out in 1993, when I was fifteen, a shade too young to see it — by my parent’s estimation, at least. It was deemed too sexually explicit, which only made me more curious about it, especially since it didn’t look like a particularly sexy movie, with its poster featuring a lady in a bonnet and a piano on a beach. I became even more intrigued when Anna Paquin won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. I wondered how a little girl could give a big enough performance to win an Oscar. But I guess my curiosity wasn’t that strong, because I never tried to sneak to it in a second-run theater. I don’t remember it as something that teenagers were especially interested in, at the time. It was regarded as art-house movie for grown-ups, maybe a bit snoozy. Horrifyingly, I am now about the same age as my parents when they first saw it.
Zoe Lister-Jones is at the center of her third directorial effort, an apocalypse comedy about a woman trying to get to a party on the last day on Earth. The twist is that she’s accompanied by a younger version of herself, a spirit who is suddenly visible on this final day, when everyone has a heightened sense of reality. In a recent interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Lister-Jones explained that the plot was partly inspired by all the inner child work she’d been doing in therapy. That might sound cringeworthy and at best heavy-handed but this little indie is buoyant and goofy, and gently sends up L.A.’s wellness culture, COVID-deniers, and even the existential anxiety many of us are grappling with as the climate crisis becomes more obvious. Shot entirely outdoors in L.A. during the pandemic, How It Ends is also a record of life under lockdown, showing the eerie stillness of the streets and skies.