Desperate Housewives

Vlad Cioplea/Sundance Institute

The World to Come (2021)

Why are so many movies about lesbians historical dramas? For the same reason there are so few movies about writers: Modern lesbianism isn’t cinematic. Nowadays, if a woman is unhappily married, she can just get divorced; she won't starve to death. If someone wants to experiment with their sexuality, it’s no big deal. And if a woman is unsure whether or not she is attracted to the new neighbor lady, she can look up the language she needs to articulate it online. That kind of drama is almost entirely internal, and emotional, which on film is about as interesting as watching a critic write a review.

But back in the day real life had no such easy assists. In 1856, in upstate New York, farmwives were hemmed in by their daily round of chores and responsibilities. The loneliness and isolation is baked into the daily bread. For the marriage of Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and Dyer (Casey Affleck), there is the added complication of grief. As the opening sequence establishes, their only daughter recently died of diphtheria, and they are both staggering in circles of pain and misery, capable of daily survival but little more. But then the large farm down the lane is rented out to a new couple, Finney (Christopher Abbott) and Tallie (Vanessa Kirby). The women notice each other, and the men notice them noticing.

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People to the Power

Glen Wilson/Warner Brothers

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

“Judas and the Black Messiah” – which retells F.B.I. informant Bill O’Neal’s (LaKeith Stanfield) ascension within the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1968 leading up to the bureau’s assassination of chapter chairman, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the following year – often feels like a companion piece to Spike Lee’s 2018 “BlacKkKlansman.”

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The Pioneer Widow

Daniel Power/Focus Features

Land (2021)

In her directorial debut/Oscar showcase, “Land,” Robin Wright plays Edee, a woman grieving the losses of her husband and son. She leaves everything and civilization behind to rough it out in the Wyoming Rockies in a ramshackle wood cabin without electricity or plumbing. While Edee is in the outhouse, an ursine visitor stops by and ransacks the cabin and months’ worth of canned goods therein. She is in bad shape when Miguel (Demián Bichir) and Alawa (Sarah Dawn Pledge) find her after becoming alarmed by smoke no longer rising from her chimney in the dead of winter. Edee refuses to go to a hospital, so Miguel volunteers to care for her and eventually imparts some essential survival skills along with an ’80s hit song.

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Strictly Come Dancing

Parisa Taghizadeh/The BFI London Film Festival; right, The BFI London Film Festival

Lovers Rock/If It Were Love (2020)

The power of the body to express emotion is something we normally take a little for granted. In these upsetting lockdown days, it’s becoming ever more valuable. Groups of people dancing together? It’s so unthinkable at the moment as to be pornographic. “Lovers Rock,” one of Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” ensemble, is the fictional story of a house party in 1980s West London. “If It Were Love” is a documentary by Patric Chiha about a Swiss modern dance ensemble creating a piece, under the choreography of Gisele Vienne, about a 1990s rave. The two are not quite halves of the same coin, but they are interested more in music and movement than stereotypical plot, and as a film festival double bill they work extremely well together.

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Notting Uphill Battle

Des Willie/The BFI London Film Festival

Mangrove (2020)

“Mangrove” is a beautifully made film directed by an experienced auteur who has finally gotten the perfect marriage of his interests and material, and which also speaks directly to the zeitgeist. It is a deeply unusual experience for something so well made to also be so right for the current moment. But everything Steve McQueen has made has built to telling the true story of the Mangrove Nine, and my god, he does it justice.

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Hunting Like the Wolf

The BFI London Film Festival

Wolfwalkers (2020)

“Wolfwalkers” is “Avatar” for little girls: The colonized teach the colonizer how to appreciate the natural world so the colonizer can be the savior the colonized need. If that wasn’t bad enough, most of the smaller plot points are derivative from other animated movies – for example, the pet falcon is called Merlin, presumably as a shout-out to “The Sword in the Stone.” Even the wild red hair is a straight lift from “Brave.” But what isn’t forgivable is the movie’s sexism. While directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart were making this film, who cooked their dinners? This is an important question because the film expresses significant contempt for the daily chores of cleaning, washing and cooking young Robyn (voiced by Honor Kneafsey) must do instead of playing hunter in the woods. She doesn’t do those chores for her father Mr. Goodfellow (voiced by Sean Bean), but only when forced to by the Lord Protector (voiced by Simon McBurney). Robyn’s mother is absent, presumably dead, and the Goodfellows are part of the colonizing English force in the Kilkenny of 1650. But it’s an animated movie! There are cool-looking creatures in a gorgeous woodland to befriend!

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Soliciting Sexual Healing

Daniella Nowitz/Tribeca Film Festival

Asia (2020)

The Israeli entry to the Academy Awards, “Asia” often feels like a Lifetime movie gone wrong. It’s got all the trappings: dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship, irresponsible mother, rebellious daughter, disability and terminal illness. Russian nurse Asia (Alena Yiv) is too busy to attend to her sick teenage daughter, Vika (Shira Haas), but she manages to find time to lure her married doctor colleague to come out to the car for a quickie. Meanwhile, Asia deploys fellow nurse Gabi (Tamir Mula), a Palestinian who can’t get enough shifts at the hospital, to care for Vika.

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The Spy Who Bugged Me

Michael Gibson/STXfilms

My Spy (2020)

In “My Spy,” former wrestler-mixed martial artist Dave Bautista plays J. J., a nails-for-breakfast war veteran-turned-C.I.A. operative on assignment staking out newly widowed Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley) and her 9-year-old daughter, Sophie (Chloe Coleman), who have recently fled Paris and are struggling to adjust to their new life in Chicago. The clever Sophie is quickly on to J. J. and threatens to blow his cover if he doesn’t take her ice skating, participate in her special person’s day at school and train her to become a spy, all so that her new classmates will no longer ostracize her.

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He Sad, She Sad

Wilson Webb/Netflix

Marriage Story (2019)

For starters, the title is wrong. It’s a divorce story, specifically that of teen-sensation-actress-turned-arthouse-draw Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and self-made-theater-director Charlie (Adam Driver). The plot resembles so closely the outline of writer-director Noah Baumbach’s real-life marriage to his first wife that the gender of their actual child – onscreen, his name is Henry (Azhy Robertson) – hasn’t even been changed. As an audience, we are meant to be enthralled by this inside portrait of an artistic family’s disintegration. As people, watching this airing of some downright cruel dirty laundry, we really ought to look away.

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Much Ink Spilled


Skin (2019)

Guy Nattiv made a live-action short film called “Skin” that went on to win an Academy Award despite its reprehensible take on white supremacy and racial injustice. Then after pouting with his wife-producer Jamie Ray Newman at the press call backstage at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, Mr. Nattiv went on to make a feature, also titled “Skin,” which deals with the same subject matter. Fortunately, that is where most of the similarities end.

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