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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Titane

Neon
There is much to admire about Titane, the Cannes Film Festival Palm d’Or Prizewinner from director Julia Ducournau. It is haunting, captivating, unique, and beautifully shot and acted. But it is also exceedingly disturbing, the kind of film that can only be appreciated by those who are ultra-committed to their cinephile status. Much like Ducournau’s first film, Raw, Titane is a twisted look at obsession, violent and flesh-filled, plumbing the depths of humanity’s darkest recesses. Don’t be fooled by the sexy poster, this film is as far from sexy as you can get.

The somewhat misleading publicity materials are not the only ways Titane fools its audience. Ducournou, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jacques Akchoti, puts literally four movies into one. The film begins as a glimpse into a dysfunctional family, then morphs into a serial killing spree, then turns into a heartbreaking examination of grief, all the while, in the background, sustaining a horror movie/sci-fi plot element that raises the stakes for everything else. Tonal whiplash is the least of our worries as we are taken through this mad journey via Alexia, a sociopathic woman who barely speaks, played by Agathe Rousselle (in her feature film debut). We are taken through Alexia’s story, first as a child who needs to have a metal plate inserted in her skull after a car crash, then as a sullen adult, still living at home, who is distant from her parents and paying the bills by modeling at car shows (and dancing seductively on those cars, but more on that later). When we soon realize that Alexia is a serial killer, and one who likes to commit her murders up close and very personal, our sympathies for her wear thin, and they disappear completely when, in an effort to hide from the police, she disguises herself to look like the 17-year-old version of a child who had disappeared ten years earlier. What she didn’t expect was to have the lost child’s father, played brilliantly by Vincent Lindon, show up and fully accept her as his lost son, Adrien, and take her home with him.

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25 Years Later: ‘Bound’ Still the Queen of Queer Cinema

As the world awaits the return of the groundbreaking Matrix film franchise in December, it’s worth taking a moment to celebrate the 25th anniversary this month of the release of Bound, the iconic debut film from The Wachowskis. While this low-budget, classic Hollywood-inspired neo-noir thriller may not seem to have much in common with the blockbuster science fiction masterpiece that was to come for the sibling directors, the artistry, themes, style and visionary genius all contained in this small gem of a film—easily one of the best films to come out of the last decade of the twentieth century—signaled that The Wachowskis were artists of immense talent and vision. Although the scale of their artistic ambition may not be easily seen in Bound, it can arguably be still considered the Wachowski’s most complete, most emotional and most personal work of their careers. And, for all it means to the world of cinema, Bound signifies even more as a representation of what art can mean in a much larger sense.

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