Hello, friends! I’ve been on a little hiatus due to a big move and a new job, but I’ve still been watching movies and I want to recommend a few to you. Today we’ll take a look at a few Oscar-hopefuls, movies which have begun to generate award buzz and you might be seeing on some best of the year lists. But do they make my list?
Last Night in Soho
2021 has been a big year for director Edgar Wright. In the summer, he released a documentary The Sparks Brothers, which got critical acclaim. This fall he released his newest fictional film, which is following up his biggest and most mainstream hit yet, 2017’s Baby Driver. Last Night in Soho is a thriller with homages to the Giallo Italian horror genre. It stars Thomasin McKenzie (incredible here, go see her work in Leave No Trace) as Elle, a young country girl who moves to London to study fashion and begins having dreams about Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), the woman who once lived in her room. The lives of the two women become entangled as the line between Elle’s visions and reality blur.
There’s so much to admire about this film. It has Edgar Wright’s characteristic energetic cinematography, a perfect soundtrack, and great performances from the whole cast. While he is a director who can come dangerously close to style over substance (see Wes Anderson), here he is still quite stylized, but it all serves the story. His directing draws attention to the story, not to himself.
And it is the story that impressed me most. I think Last Night in Soho could appropriately be compared to the likes of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby or Jordan Peele’s Get Out as sociological horror. Like both of those films, Last Night uses conventions of the horror genre to explore real-life societal horrors. Get Out examined racism by putting a Black protagonist in a horror situation, and the story of Rosemary’s Baby explores abusive relationships, rape, the loss of bodily autonomy during pregnancy. Here, Last Night explores how young women can get trapped into sex work, and the broader rape culture we live in, seen through the eyes of its two female protagonists. The movie is also remarkable in the way it captures the feeling of being a young woman from a small town who has just moved into a seedy big city, and the paranoia that can come from this heightened danger.
The ending is the only weak part of the film. I think to have a “gotcha!” ending, Wright sacrifices thematic consistency. I’ll speak broadly, as I don’t want to give anything away since I think it’s a movie best gone in without spoilers, but I think the ending undercuts both Sandie’s story and Elle. By trying to empower Sandie at the last minute, Elle’s agency is taken away and the tragedy of Sandie’s story is undercut. The film then ceases to be insightful about the way women are preyed on, and loses its critique of nostalgia, simply becoming a revenge story.
However, this ending doesn’t ruin the movie, and I still think it’s one of the best films of the year. I don’t think it will have a lot of award chances outside of costume design, original screenplay, and production design, but perhaps if it’s a weak year Wright might be able to snag a best director nod.
Last Night in Soho is now on premium video on demand
Passing, adapted from the novel of the same name by Nella Larsen, is a gorgeous, measured piece of filmmaking, and an impressive directing debut by Rebecca Hall. The story centers on two Black women in 1920s New York City: Irene (Tessa Thompson), a demure and discontent mother and wife, and Clare (Ruth Negga), a mysterious and wild woman who has made her way through the world passing as white and is married to a white man who doesn’t know she’s Black. As Irene watches Clare leverage her ability to be both white and Black, Irene wrestles with feelings of jealousy, hatred, and repressed desires.
I studied this novel extensively in college and loved it, so I was thrilled to see the way the film adapts the novel perfectly and teases out some of its subtexts. It is, most obviously, an insightful commentary on race and “whiteness.” It shows how race is a social creation– we assign meaning to each race and give it abundant shorthands to classify who does or does not belong to that group, regardless of actual heritage or skin color. But the novel is also about the burdens of motherhood, the limited options for women at the time, and class struggles, and it has enough implications to allow for a queer reading. The film doesn’t bring this queer subtext to the forefront or commit to it, but it allows it to be present and ambiguous, mostly through the work of the actors.
Speaking of the actors, Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are both excellent. Thompson gets to play a much more restrained character than she is often asked to play in her bigger films, and Negga is able to be both naively waifish and quietly sinister.
At a tight 90 minutes, there’s not a wasted moment in this film. If you’re ready to enjoy a meditative drama and perfect performances, please watch Passing. While the Academy has a fraught relationship with Netflix films, I would love to see it get nominations for directing, supporting for Negga, and cinematography.
Passing is now on Netflix
King Richard, which tells the story of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams’ rise through the coaching of their father Richard (Will Smith), hits all the beats of a classic, feel-good sports film. But there are enough twists and unique angles to make it stand apart.
First and foremost, this is a star vehicle for Will Smith. This is the perfect role for him, an amalgamation of all of his strengths as a star and a capstone on his career. The role requires his comedic chops, underrated dramatic skills, overflowing charisma, and ability to be unlikeable without ever actually being unlikeable. He’s going to get plenty of due awards praise, but this is also an excellent ensemble film, so don’t sleep on Aunjanue Ellis as mother Brandi Williams, who is excellent here, and both Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton (Venus and Serena, respectively). It’s a movie of powerhouse performances and everyone pulls his or her own weight.
Critic Grace Randolph points out in her review of the film that King Richard can be seen as an inverse to 2009’s The Blind Side, which won Sandra Bullock a best actress Oscar and was nominated for Best Picture. The Blind Side has been criticized for upholding a white savior narrative, where the white Tuohy family saves and uplifts Michael Oher. In King Richard, the Williams family is celebrated for uplifting themselves. This narrative (awarding King Richard can help atone for the ignorance of the Academy in awarding The Blind Side) could help its award chances, but it is also simply a major appeal of the film. The Williams family is shown as a tight-knit family that loves one another and fights for dignity despite challenges thrown at them. It’s rightly inspiring and sweet (even though the reality is more complicated). In addition, it’s nice to see a movie focusing on the relationship between fathers and daughters.
Because of the focus on fathers and daughters, while watching, I thought of the film Infinitely Polar Bear, based on director Maya Forbes’s own father Cam (played by Mark Ruffalo). Cam is much like Richard Williams- a charismatic, passionate, artistic man who wants to give his children the world but has a host of personal flaws and failings in the way. But throughout Infinitely Polar Bear there is the sense Forbes is holding back, and never quite telling the full truth about her father. Even in his worst moments, the movie seems to never fully acknowledge the pain his actions must have caused.
It is the same with King Richard. It is wonderful Venus and Serena, who executive produce here and were heavily involved with the filmmaking, clearly love and respect their dad and want to pay tribute to him. But their protection of him means that whenever the film is trying to be honest about the negative parts of Richard, it always pulls back from being too real. But this is a common issue in biopics, not at all original to King Richard. Perhaps it is unfair to judge a movie too harshly for what it doesn’t do, rather than what it does. And what it does do is give us a well-made, winning story about family, personal dignity, and triumph.
King Richard is in theaters and is streaming on HBO Max
A warning: Spencer is not a biography of Princess Diana. Do not expect, like I did, to come out with new knowledge and insight into Diana or her life or the royal family. Instead, Spencer is a surreal dark fairy tale, with fable logic, which imagines the Christmas before Diana and Charles’s divorce. Spencer is primarily interested in exploring the possible emotional life of the Princess, often using elements of psychological horror and dreamlike sequences to capture her depression and mounting frustration.
Here, Diana is a tortured gothic heroine, roaming mansions and the moors in her nightgown, talking to ghosts and envisioning and predicting her own demise, her moments in the real world detached and unsteady, her body and mind falling apart at the seams. You spend the movie entrenched in Diana’s perspective of feeling trapped, like a mouse in a labyrinth, searching for a way out. I felt this acutely throughout the movie, and then even more so when I left the film and spent thirty minutes wandering lost in a parking garage.
Kristen Stewart, as we have discovered in her post-Twilight days, is a talented actress in the right role, and this is the right role. Her portrayal of Princess Diana wouldn’t make sense if superimposed onto any other project about Diana, but here she carries the movie’s vision with her shuddered, nervous physicality, some of the best hand acting I’ve ever seen, and an undercurrent of fierce fortitude.
I don’t think you will remember Spencer for its plot or the whole of the movie, but a few specific images and sequences have lingered in my mind. If you go in with the correct expectations and enjoy moody dramas, then I think you’ll appreciate Spencer. Overall, I don’t see the film having many Oscar chances outside of a best actress nomination and costume design, but depending on its award campaign it could be a dark horse contender for best picture.
Spencer is in theaters and on premium video on demand
– Madeleine D.