The Humans (2021) Written & Directed by Stephen Karam
You wouldn’t be in the wrong to walk away from The Humans feeling a bit confused about how you were supposed to feel watching this filmed stage play. The work’s creator, Stephen Karam, has imbued his movie with such a foreboding and menacing tone. This is followed by numerous jumpscares that cut through the monotonous and passive-aggressive dialogue of the characters. The story’s setting even brushes up against the premise in an interesting way: A crumbling New York apartment complex where a family meets to have Thanksgiving dinner. The audience is constantly unsettled by noises coming from neighboring apartments or figures briefly glimpsed through blurry, rain-stained windows. This is a Thanksgiving ghost story for the 21st century.
The Card Counter (2021) Written & Directed by Paul Schrader
Paul Schrader’s filmmaking career has been a strange series of peaks and valleys, with movies like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull as standouts. Since then, he’s made an eclectic filmography but with one constant in almost every picture: a tight focus on an intense male protagonist. I come from the camp that doesn’t see Schrader’s focus on this subject as an endorsement. In many instances, they are self-examinations and critiques, and in others, they seek to present a type of person society tries to look away from out of discomfort. Travis Bickle, for instance, isn’t meant to be a person we admire, but we are certainly expected to find some empathy for him. Schrader seems sincerely interested in the plight of war veterans and looking at crucial issues of our time. The Card Counter brings those two elements together.
Scenes from a Marriage (Criterion Channel) Written & Directed by Ingmar Bergman
While I am very much aware of Ingmar Bergman, I sadly admit he is a blind spot in my personal cinema education. The only other work I’ve watched is the theatrical version of Fanny and Alexander, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. With HBO releasing a modern remake of Scenes From a Marriage, I thought it would be an excellent time to watch the original and expand my knowledge of the Swedish director’s filmography. The only thing I really knew going into the six-episode mini-series was that it had such a profound effect on Europeans that it caused a spike in the divorce rate due to its frank portrayal of marriage and the difficulties associated with the union.
Squid Game Season 1 (Netflix) Written & Directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk
I was skeptical when I first heard about the viral Netflix hit Squid Game. Anytime a show is that popular and popping up in so many corners of the internet, I can’t help but think it’s some shallow meme-ish nonsense. However, the fact that it was a Korean series caught my interest. Over the last twenty years, I’ve enjoyed almost every film I’ve seen from that country. Their filmmakers have a fantastic eye and are telling stories that are relevant beyond their own culture. So when I heard Squid Game was addressing issues of economic class, I was sold that I needed to see it, spurred on by the hilarious right-wing media tripping over their feet to argue it wasn’t a critique of capitalism (even though that is what the creator said) and that it was “really about communism.”
Thumbsucker (2005) Written & Directed by Mike Mills
Mike Mills has been a director that has intrigued me since my college days. I don’t know how to describe his particular aesthetic, and it has undoubtedly changed from his first feature to the present. With his newest film, C’mon C’mon, being released this weekend, I thought I should revisit that debut film and see how it holds up sixteen years later. I have enjoyed all of his output (Beginners, 21st Century Women) and think those earlier music videos and short films haven’t aged with the times very well. Mills certainly isn’t offensive, but he is very twee in how he tells his stories.
Rose Plays Julie (2021) Written & Directed by Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy
In recent years, I’ve stumbled across mentions of the American discomfort with long silences. I don’t think I’ve ever been affected by this psychological fear, but who knows. I have noticed people who can’t bear a space where nothing is being said or done. However, from what I have seen of cinema from other regions, they are much more comfortable with contemplative silence. They are not averse to letting an audience sit for a moment, taking in all the little sensory details of the space and what has happened. This is core to the way Rose Plays Julie’s story. It deals with such a sensitive & uncomfortable topic that the filmmakers know we need to sit and think.
The Killing of Two Lovers (2020) Written & Directed by Robert Machoian
From the title, you likely have some expectations. This is going to be a film with violence centered around a relationship of some kind. And you would sort of be correct, but The Killing of Two Lovers is a much more complicated film than that. It’s a story told from a very particular perspective with a purpose. I came across a review from the British Film Institute publication Sight & Sound about this movie that completely shocked me. They read the picture as an obscured defense of the central character, and that baffled me. After watching the movie, Ariana and I had a totally different read than many others, immediately discussing how the ending left us feeling very unsettled.
Let There Be Light (2017) Written by Dan Gordon and Sam Sorbo Directed by Kevin Sorbo
When I was a youth, I fondly remember an hour block of syndicated television on Saturday featuring the adventures of Hercules & Xena. Little did I know over twenty years later, Kevin Sorbo, the man playing Hercules, would be revealed to be such a sanctimonious douchebag, grifting on the current fasci-corporate brand of American Christianity. It shouldn’t surprise me as the “top stars” of the American conservatism movement are washed-up actors (Scott Baio, Dean Cain, anyone?). I guess there’s some resentment about not succeeding in the business, but this isn’t some conspiracy theory about Sorbo’s religious belief; he’s not a good actor, so a cheesy show like Hercules was a terminal point for him. Sam Sorbo, his wife, was a recurring character on the show and is also a mediocre performer. I guess that makes them perfect performers for the Jesus film circuit.
John and the Hole (2021) Written by Nicolás Giacobone Directed by Pascual Sisto
There’s been a trend in independent cinema for the last decade and a half to focus on cold neutral aesthetics. For some films, that can work given a well-written script with strongly developed characters. While these movies often lure me in with moody slick trailers, I find myself utterly bored while watching them. This isn’t to say there’s something wrong with slow, atmospheric films, but you need to be a very skilled filmmaker to make this particular aesthetic pop. John and the Hole failed to do that and was a true slog to watch.