House of Gucci

MGM
Whenever there is an opportunity to fictionalize a true story, especially one that’s already sensational, there is an inherent danger of going over the top—subtlety is hard to achieve if the subject matter itself is already larger than life. In the case of House of Gucci, the new Ridley Scott film which stars Lady Gaga and Adam Driver, being larger than life is just the beginning. The rest is just delicious gravy.

The film begins in Italy in the early 70’s, and Gaga plays Patrizia Reggiani, an ambitious young woman who falls in love with Maurizio Gucci (Driver), the heir to the Gucci fashion empire. But when Patrizia meets and marries Maurizio, he is merely a modest law student, with no interest in being part of the family business. However, when Maurizio’s uncle Aldo (Al Pacino) pleads with Maurizio to join him in New York to run the company because his own son, Paolo (Jared Leto) is incompetent, he acquiesces. But when internal family politics begin to threaten Maurizio’s rising position within the company, Patrizia’s true colors and ambitions are revealed, as she manipulates everyone, including Maurizio, in order to maintain her position within the family and control over the business. When Maurizio finally sees her for the power-hungry social climber that she is, it sets off a deadly chain reaction that threatens not only the survival of the family, but the future of the family business.

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tick, tick…BOOM!

Netflix
What happens when the voices of the last two generations of musical theatre converge in one film? In the case of tick, tick…BOOM!, the new Netflix film that has director Lin-Manuel Miranda bringing Jonathan Larson’s story to the big screen, the result is pure magic.

Miranda, the Emmy, Grammy and Tony-winning genius behind Hamilton, chose this screenplay, by Steven Levenson, to make his feature directorial debut, and it’s no wonder, because it finally brings to life Larson’s story, the same-level genius behind RENT, the musical that defined an era, launching Broadway into the modern stratosphere, the same rare air that Miranda now breathes. In many ways, Larson paved the way for Miranda, expanding the definition of what a musical could be, breaking down barriers and injecting a youthful realism to an art form that was in dire need of new blood. And new blood is exactly what Larson was, the definition of a starving artist, slinging hash in a diner, living in a low-rent walk-up, watching all his friends move on to real jobs, wives and families, while he continued to slave away, creating his musical masterpiece. The ironic part about all of it, however, is that the musical that Larson spent more than eight years of his life writing, the one that sits at the center of this film, is not RENT, nor is it his other famous musical, this film’s titular rock monologue. As it is with most artists, the great work from Larson came after his first piece, but all the lessons he learned from his failure are what paved the way for his future successes. In that way, tick, tick…BOOM! is not only the story of Larson, and all of his anguish and fortitude, but it is an examination of the creative process, of art itself, which truly comes from the most unexpected places.

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Belfast

Focus Features
CAPSULE REVIEW

Three years ago, writer/director Alfonso Cuaron gave us Roma, a semi-autobiographical film about his childhood in his native Mexico City. It was gorgeously shot in black-and-white, and told a story of a turbulent world as seen through the eyes of a young boy. It is impossible to not think of Roma when you first look at Belfast, a new film written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, which is also semi-auto-biographical, shot in black-and-white, and told through the eyes of a young boy.

Obviously, Roma and Belfast are completely different films, but the comparison may help break down if Belfast is right for you or not. Both films are extremely personal, artistic and clearly borne of a sentimentality that will either speak to you or won’t. But, it must be said that, despite some clearly common denominators, Belfast is a far different film from Roma, mainly in the fact that it will be much more accessible to American audiences. It is set in Belfast, Ireland in the late ‘60s, during the early days of The Troubles, when Belfast was at the center of the bitter and violent battle between Irish nationalists and those loyal to Great Britain. The main character is a young boy named Buddy, played by newcomer Jude Hill, who lives in Belfast with his parents, played by Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan, brother, played by Lewis McAskie, and grandparents, played by Judi Dench and Cieran Hinds. The family tries to go about their normal lives, but the political upheavals that surround their quiet street eventually seep in. Buddy’s parents are forced to make some tough decisions about whether to stay in their home and fight, or leave for the safety of their family.

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The Harder They Fall

Netflix
CAPSULE REVIEW

The Harder They Fall is the Western we never knew we needed. Writer/director Jeymes Samuel’s debut feature is an eminently re-watchable, funny, entertaining and scathingly violent old-fashioned Western with a very modern style. Samuel borrows unabashedly from many others, including Tarantino and Leone, but the total package is uniquely stitched together with a bravado that is all at once awe-inspiring and terribly risky. But he pulls it off, giving us a slick, confident and full of swagger story chock full of characters that are not only great fun to spend time with, but are all kinds of badass.

It helps that the cast is beyond insane: Regina King, Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, LaKeith Stanfield and Delroy Lindo—no wonder Samuel was so confident. Every single actor is at his or her finest here, Beetz and King particularly finding their characters with ease and delivering with gusto. Every character is based on a real person, and The Harder They Fall revels in its own history, paying homage to the oft-forgotten black pioneers and cowboys who played a large part in settling the West—along with the criminals who helped define it.

While The Harder They Fall is not a social commentary (race is never a spoken issue), Samuel does poke fun more than once at the white/black status quo. There is a Spike Lee-style irreverence that imbues The Harder They Fall with an underlying purpose, but it never once diminishes the quality of the storytelling, acting or phenomenal production design, all of which are exceptional. If you like Westerns, especially ones with humor, personality and style, The Harder They Fall is unmissable. Do not sleep on this film, it is one of the best of the year and available on Netflix now.

Spencer

Neon
As humans, we are inherently drawn to tragedy. From the ancient Greeks to the evening news, the one thing that always lures us in is a story of another human enduring unfathomable pain, a result of circumstances or events that are too horrific to ponder. Perhaps the only thing that could compete with our love for a tragic story is our love for one with a happy ending, especially if it comes wrapped in a fairy tale or fantasy. Our ordinary, average lives long to live vicariously in these extremes, either the most dire or the most wonderful, so that the lack of catharsis in our everyday lives can be satiated by their drama. And the best dramas to watch are the ones that could either never happen to us (i.e. the fairy tale) or we would never WANT to happen to us (tragedy). And when that rare example in real life comes along that somehow encompasses both fairy tale and tragedy, it becomes undeniably compelling—even better than Hollywood could have itself scripted.

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Finch

Apple TV+
Leave it to Tom Hanks to make a family-friendly film about the apocalypse. America’s Dad has taken audiences to some challenging places before, but his latest film, set on an Earth that has been decimated by a solar flare, makes Cast Away look like child’s play. Finch, directed by Miguel Sapochnik and written by Craig Luck and Ivor Powell, takes place in the (not too distant?) future, where a solar flare has made all organic life on Earth impossible, due to the destruction of the ozone layer. Without the ozone layer, all life bakes in the 150+ degree heat, and any exposure to direct sunlight literally melts the skin. Hanks plays Finch, a scientist who happened to be in his subterranean office when the flare hit, so he survived, and has figured out a way of existing since. He goes out during the day, in a protective suit, to scavenge for any remaining food he can find, and, at night, he toils away in his lab, building a robot, which will not only serve as a companion to him, but will act as a protector to the dog that Finch found and now looks after. When Finch sees there is a storm coming that they may not survive, he packs up his dog and his robot and they head out in an RV across the treacherous, barren landscape, in hopes of somehow finding a more hospitable place.

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Mass

Bleecker Street
Sometimes, a film comes along that doesn’t need any fanfare, CGI, costumes or beautiful cinematography to work. While film is most certainly a visual medium, it is sometimes essential to be reminded of what lies at the core of every film, and is the one thing—sometimes the only thing–that is necessary in order for any film to work: storytelling. And true storytelling is held wholly in words and performance. And you will find no greater example this year of those two elements than Mass, the staggering debut film from writer/director Fran Kranz.

Normally, I complain about movies that feel like plays. If I wanted theatre, I’d go to the theatre. But, for some reason, the experience that Mass offers is so deep, so poignant, and so brutally honest, that it feels right for the screen. It is a simple premise, with no bells and whistles. Mass is four people sitting around a table, having a conversation. But it’s what that conversation is about and where that conversation goes that is astounding, heartbreaking, agonizing and vitally important.

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No Time to Die

MGM/UA
It is truly the end of an era. For those of us who grew up with Roger Moore as our James Bond, Daniel Craig’s version of the world’s most famous spy was earth-shaking. He was cold, tough and muscular, quite the opposite of the charming, effete and suave Bond we had become used to. Craig breathed new life into a franchise that needed a boost and reinvigorated the character of James Bond. Not all of the Daniel Craig Bond films were winners, but, notably in Casino Royale (2006) and Skyfall (2012), he gave us two of the best films in the character’s 59-year history. And now Craig is making his fifth and final appearance as the British Secret Service Agent 007 in No Time To Die, the 25th official installment in the Bond series. The film makes for a fitting end to Craig’s time as the character, although it does leave a little more to be desired as entry into the James Bond film canon.

While there most definitely are all the elements you want in a Bond film, No Time to Die still feels like the least Bond-ian movie ever. Since James Bond is retired and there is a new 007 employed by Her Majesty’s Secret Service, director Cary Joji Fukunaga took the opportunity to portray a different kind of James Bond, one who is less action-oriented and is more pensive and reflective. He is settled down with his love, Dr. Madeleine Swan, who we met in the last Bond film, Spectre (2015), and living a seemingly peaceful life. But his demons are never far away, and, as he is enticed back into action by his CIA friend Felix, played by the always wonderful Jeffrey Wright, Bond is sucked back into the intrigue and action that he longed to leave behind.

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The Last Duel

20th Century Studios
Who doesn’t love Ridley Scott. The 83-year-old legendary director has more than a few certified masterpieces to his name, including Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), Thelma & Louise (1991), and his sole Best Picture winner, Gladiator (2000). He’s still going strong, with The Martian from 2015 a critical and commercial success, and House of Gucci, due later this year, starring Adam Driver and Lady Gaga, getting massive pre-Oscar buzz. It’s a good thing because, if Scott is lucky, House of Gucci will be big enough to drown out any memory of his other film this year, The Last Duel, which is so painfully bad, it makes Scott’s previously worst film, The Counselor (2013), seem almost palatable by comparison. [Editor’s note: Nevermind, nothing can ever be as bad as The Counselor.]

To be fair, the failure of The Last Duel is not all Scott’s fault. There is so much about it that sits largely in Scott’s wheelhouse and he expectedly delivers. It is a big action period piece, set in France in the fourteenth-century, featuring huge battle scenes, with hundreds of extras (and horses) rolling around in the mud, attacking each other with giant swords, blood and testosterone gushing everywhere. It’s got excellent production value, from incredible period costumes (again, for a cast of hundreds) to an insanely detailed production design, and a prop budget that must have broken the bank. There are big stars, too, including Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Ben Affleck and Jodie Comer. And it’s based on the true story of famous French knight Jean de Carrouges (played by Damon), a brave warrior who famously challenged a former friend, Jacques Le Gris (played by Driver) to a duel to the death after de Carrouges’s wife Marguerite (played by Comer), accuses Le Gris of raping her. The 1386 duel became famous for being the last judicial duel allowed by the French king. It’s all very dramatic, and very cinematic.

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The Many Saints of Newark

Warner Bros
By the time the groundbreaking HBO series The Sopranos aired its final episode on June 10, 2007, the medium had been transformed. During its six years on the air, The Sopranos changed everything about the way we watch and think about television and it marked the unofficial start of the era now known as Prestige TV, where television is thought of as highly as film, and the width and breadth of its content is as varied as the audience who watches it. And what would we have been without this whole new universe of television content last year, during a pandemic that forced us all into our homes, desperate for stories and escape. In more than a few ways, we have The Sopranos to thank for the caliber of shows that saved our lives in 2020.

The Sopranos broke the mold in so many ways, eschewing previously-standard ways of thinking and approaching television series. Because it was on cable and HBO desperately needed it, creator and showrunner David Chase could make the show he wanted to make, and that meant breaking all the rules. No more adhering to the rules of broadcast television, no more being slaves to the September to May season, the strict one-hour format, the 24-episode season. The first season of The Sopranos aired in January and the final episode in April, just thirteen episodes. The gap between seasons 4 and 5 was a year and a half, the gap between 5 and 6 nearly two years. (So we can thank David Chase for this long wait for the new season of Better Call Saul!) It was a new world, where the showrunners called the shots, had total artistic control, and ended it when they wanted to. Remember when Lost, one of the best shows on television, kept going and going and became laughable because it just didn’t know how or when to end? That’s because, on network television, on which Lost had the misfortune to be, if you have a good thing, you keep it going, as long as its successful, damn the story. When Chase announced he was ending The Sopranos because it was time, even though it was at the height of its success, it ended.

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