We’re covering the last two weeks since I had a brief break last week. It’s a really strong moment for new series by women covering several different platforms – but with a trio premiering on Showtime. Let’s get straight in since there’s a lot. New shows come from France, the UK, and the U.S., while new movies come from France, Germany, and the U.S.
Shining Girls (Apple TV+) showrunner Silka Luisa
Elisabeth Moss stars as a woman who’s shifted between realities since an attack years before. She learns about a murder that’s linked to that assault, and partners with a reporter to investigate it.
Showrunner Silka Luisa also wrote and produced on “Strange Angel”.
The First Lady (Showtime) directed by Susanne Bier
Viola Davis stars as Michelle Obama, Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford, and Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt in a series that leaps between time frames to reveal the influence of three former First Ladies. The series also stars Dakota Fanning, O-T Fagbenle, Aaron Eckhart, Kiefer Sutherland, Ellen Burstyn, Jackie Earle Haley, and Kate Mulgrew, just to name a few.
Director Susanne Bier won an Oscar for Best International Film (at the time Best Foreign Language Film) in 2011, for the Danish “Haevnen”.
The Man Who Fell to Earth (Showtime) co-showrunner Jenny Lumet
Based on the 1963 novel, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” follows an alien with a mission to become human and seek out someone who can save his species. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Naomie Harris, Bill Nighy, and Kate Mulgrew star. Ejiofor stars as the alien Faraday, but the series may also serve as something of a sequel to the 1976 film starring David Bowie: Nighy plays the alien that Bowie once did.
Jenny Lumet showruns with Alex Kurtzman. Lumet has written and produced on “Star Trek: Discovery”, “Star Trek: Picard”, and “Clarice”.
A student grudgingly joins her high school track team. It’s not all bad, though. She’s had a crush on one of her teammates for a long time…though training draws her closer to another.
The cast here is remarkably strong, with “Girl Meets World” and “Snowpiercer” actress Rowan Blanchard, Auli’i Cravalho (the voice of Moana), and Isabella Ferreira, who stole scenes as the lead’s cynical younger sister in “Love, Victor”.
“Crush” director Sammi Cohen is a longtime College Humor director and editor.
An Amish man goes to Berlin to discover his roots and face a choice about what kind of life he wants to lead moving forward. Can’t find a translated trailer on this one, but the film itself has a subtitled option.
The German comedy is directed by Mira Thiel, whose career has bridged fiction series and documentaries.
A couple detox from all things digital in a remote town, but things quickly devolve into chaos.
This is the first film Debra Neil-Fisher directs, but you’ve almost surely seen her work before. A sought-after comedy editor, she edited the first two “Austin Powers” movies, all three “The Hangover” films, the 2020 “Sonic the Hedgehog”, and “Coming 2 America”.
We’ve hit an era of shows about con artists. It’s absolutely representative of our current understanding of our world, and I wonder at the wisdom of further celebritizing real-life con artists by casting celebrities in their shoes.
Hulu has “The Dropout” about Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes. Netflix has “Inventing Anna” about swindler Anna Sorokin. NBC has made a comedy out of murderer Pam Hupp in “The Thing About Pam”. Apple TV’s “WeCrashed” follows Adam and Rebekah Neumann behind WeWork (and casts Jared Leto, so let’s please avoid it). Peacock turns con artistry and animal abuse into comedy with “Joe vs. Carole”, a fictional take on the duo at the center of “Tiger King”. “Pam & Tommy”deals with the marketing exploitation of con artistry while becoming a marketing exploitation itself for doing so without Pamela Anderson’s permission or involvement.
(CW: suicide) This week, it’s “The Girl from Plainville”, which centers on Michelle Carter. Her celebrity arises from attempting to justify repeatedly pressuring her boyfriend Conrad Roy to kill himself.
There’s a value to examining con artistry and the celebritizing of the con artist, but that examination is often obsessed with delivering it in star turns (Amanda Seyfried, Julia Garner, Renee Zellweger, Leto and Anne Hathaway, Seth Rogen and Nick Offerman, Elle Fanning). It also has to create a complex enough emotional connection for us to want to continue watching these shows for eight or 10 episodes. Thus, Seyfried evokes empathy for Holmes she doesn’t deserve, Garner’s Sorokin is half-posed as a Robin Hood figure, and Zellwegger turns a murderer into a comedic bit.
Not all of these series are showrun or directed by women, but I think it’s worth discussing in this space because of the difference in how women and male con artists are emotionally portrayed. Certainly, these roles have centered on men for decades, but they also tended not to be particularly empathetic. If anything, they admired the male con artist’s power, but they didn’t necessarily humanize him. The shift toward centering more on women has highlighted a double-standard in our storytelling about villainous protagonists – that we present a woman con artist with empathy and humanization, and present a male con artist with admiration at power and wealth.
Neither is a responsible portrayal. While there’s a discussion that women have better access to mass media con artistry than they’ve had in the past, and there’s an understanding that they may even have more of a right to steal what hasn’t been paid them over the years, the con artistry presented in these stories is unquestionably harmful. That shift toward humanization and empathy is also centered overwhelmingly on white characters. Often they use privilege and take advantage of other women, people of color, the disabled, people with mental health disorders, and those living with medical debt. If the empathy and humanization of these characters isn’t intersectional, then I don’t know that this increased empathy for con artists is a result of anything more than propagating gender stereotypes as a storytelling shortcut. This propagates the argument that suggests women villains have to be played too flawed to be powerful, while male villains must be made too powerful to be undercut by empathy.
Again, this is talking about our general movement of con artist shows. Not all these shows follow the same ethos. Some are more damning of their subject matter than others. Some are (far, far) less interested in the reality of what happened than others. There’s a flood of them this year, though, and I think there’s a crucial conversation that has to be had about the differing presentations of empathy vs. power when it comes to presenting women vs. male con artists. If we’re basing portrayals on harmful and inaccurate gender stereotypes, then I’m not sure we’re taking real people and delivering meaningful portrayals, let alone following through on the responsibility that comes with discussing con artists in an age of con artistry.
As always, the hope is this week’s premiere finds a way to upend this trend.
The Girl from Plainville (Hulu) co-showrunner Liz Hannah entirely directed by women
Elle Fanning and Chloe Sevigny star in an adaption of real-life events. Fanning plays Michelle Carter, who encouraged her boyfriend Conrad Roy to kill himself repeatedly through texts. She was subsequently tried for involuntary manslaughter.
Liz Hannah showruns with Patrick Macmanus. She’s written and produced on “Mindhunter” and produced on “The Dropout”.
Directors include Lisa Cholodenko (“High Art”, “Laurel Canyon”), Zetna Fuentes (“The Great”, “Jane the Virgin”), Pippa Bianco, and Hannah herself.
You can watch “The Girl from Plainville” on Hulu. The first three episodes are available immediately. New episodes arrive on Tuesdays.
Julia (HBO Max) mostly directed by women
Sarah Lancashire stars as Julia Child in a series that also reunites David Hyde Pierce (as husband Paul Child) and Bebe Neuwirth (as Child’s editor Avis DeVoto). The show follows Child’s development of a new form of TV: the cooking show.
Jenee LaMarque, Melanie Mayrom, and Erica Dutton direct a combined 5 of the 8 episodes.
You can watch “Julia” on HBO Max. Three episodes are available immediately. New episodes arrive every Thursday.
Zero Fucks Given (MUBI) co-directed by Julie Lecoustre
A backstage window into how crew for a low-cost airline act in their off-hours, “Zero Fucks Given” follows a flight attendant who loses her job. The film is told in a combination of English, French, and Romanian.
Julie Lecoustre directs with Emmanuel Marre. This is her first feature as writer or director.
The Oscars tend to latch on to specific films and focus all attention on them. There are 17 categories a feature film can be nominated in (since it can’t be nominated for both adapted and original screenplay). Of course, certain categories can see two nominations, such as two supporting actors for the same film. There are 18 possible if you’re an animated film, but at that point several of the other categories are realistically shut off to you.
This year, “The Power of the Dog” has 12 nominations, “Dune” has 10. They’re both extremely good films, but I’m not so sure that both excel past so many other films this year in the vast majority of categories. The record for nominations is held in a tie by “All About Eve”, “Titanic”, and “La La Land”. “All About Eve” saw nominations in 14 of the 16 categories for which it qualified. “Titanic and “La La Land” saw nominations in 14 of 17 categories. That tendency to boil the industry down to only a few films is counterproductive – not because of the quality of the films, which are very good, but because it necessarily overlooks technical, writing, and acting achievements in smaller films, genre films, and sometimes otherwise average films.
A movie that’s good-but-not-great might have superb editing that deserves a nomination. An intentionally cheesy horror film could deserve a nod for its jaw-dropping production design. A black-and-white film might deserve a costume nom, and there might be a whole host of brilliant smaller films that simply got overlooked (this entire paragraph is foreshadowing).
More than any other awards show, the Oscars are built as an advertisement. The Academy harnesses the preferences of its membership to create zeitgeist around a limited number of films. If dozens of films each have a few nominations apiece, the ad doesn’t work because audiences aren’t really pushed in a specific direction. There’s too much choice for the advertisement to direct you. If a very few films have a mountain of nominations, then those movies become must-see.
I’d argue that this is counter-productive because it sells to a limited section of your audience. Horror and science-fiction films that break new technological ground get ignored; independent films and non-English language movies compete for a limited range of nominations; and many of the bravest directors taking the most chances are overlooked. While the recognition for Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” this year, Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” last year, and the films of Asian and Hispanic directors the last several years is long overdue, this limited focus in nominations is a big part of the narrowing that barred entry for including these perspectives in the first place.
There are ways to celebrate the entire industry without losing focus – especially when you’ve got three hours to do it – but hammering a few films into mind over and over again is a more risk-averse strategy. Again, these films deserve it; they’re just not the only ones that do. I’d suggest the repetition and lack of focus on the accomplishments of the industry at large is a big part of the reason the Oscars keep losing viewers. Audiences have the entire world of filmmaking at their fingertips now; their nominations still don’t consistently reflect that.
I don’t mean to treat this in a cynical way. You can still like watching an ad. Hell, I’m writing this whole article about one. I’ve enjoyed the Oscars a number of times, though I think it took a wrong turn when it shifted away from Hugh Jackman, Neil Patrick Harris, and song-and-dance numbers and instead pursued James Franco and – at least an improvement from him – no host at all.
And while I’m excited for Regina Hall and Wanda Sykes hosting, I’m also wary of host Amy Schumer given her history of racist jokes. That includes some that are basically Trump lines about Latines. Yes, she apologized in 2016. It must’ve been difficult to write that single Tweet before she went straight back to making even more racist jokes, including the racist cluster of clusterfucks that is “Snatched”. And…actually, you know what, I just wrote nearly the same intro about Ellen Rapoport last week. Maybe let’s find comedians who don’t build their careers off of posing Latines as inhuman, untrustworthy animals. You have no idea how tiring it is and, if you do, wouldn’t it be nice to write and talk about what we love without having to feel that hatred sucking away our soul when we come to these parts of it?
Let’s circle back. The Oscars offer a well-recognized lens through which to look at which nominations struck and what movies and accomplishments were overlooked in the past year:
Best Costume Design
Nominated: Cruella, Cyrano, Dune, Nightmare Alley, West Side Story
Forgotten: Marci Rodgers, Passing
A black-and-white film can have trouble standing out in this category, but the costume design in “Passing” is astounding. What’s most remarkable are the places where it isn’t flashy, where we see the clothes people dressed in on a daily basis. Our central characters are socialites to a degree, but they’re not ridiculously wealthy. What they wear is nice, but unlike so many period films, it looks like the clothing that characters from that period would actually wear more than one time.
There was a focus on avoiding flapper fashion tropes, which didn’t define that era yet is routinely recognized for doing so on film. As Costume Designer Marci Rodgers says, the film’s characters were “more likely to adhere to respectability politics than to flout sartorial strictures of that era”. After all, part of passing as white is fitting in without calling too much attention to yourself.
In other words, the costume choices make the period film feel lived-in instead of simply giving us idealized examples that look nicest being worn once for the camera. That alone should put Marci Rodgers’s work in “Passing” ahead of certain other films that prioritize cinematic showiness over period accuracy and practicality. You may’ve seen Rodgers’s work before in Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” and Steven Soderbergh’s “High Flying Bird”.
Best Make-up and Hairstyling
Nominated: Coming 2 America, Cruella, Dune, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, House of Gucci
Forgotten: Eldo Ray Estes (makeup head), Cliona Furey (hair designer), Mike Hill (special makeup effects designer), Nightmare Alley
The exclusion of “Nightmare Alley” from this category is astounding, especially when you consider that the film tracks across several years and shifts characters through different social classes and styles. To my mind, only two of the nominations approach the sheer amount of work that “Nightmare Alley” accomplishes, representing a carnival in the 30s, high society in the 40s, shifting characters in and out of hairstyling, wigs, wigs on top of wigs. I’d even say the hallmark accomplishment of the film – making Bradley Cooper unrecognizable in two wildly opposite directions – stands alongside the best individual make-up jobs of the year.
Best Production Design
Nominated: Dune, Nightmare Alley, The Power of the Dog, The Tragedy of Macbeth, West Side Story
Forgotten: Desma Murphy, Malignant
The Academy has a habit of overlooking stellar technical achievements in films that aren’t otherwise great. “Malignant” is more complex because it’s actively created to be ambitiously, consciously…I don’t want to use the word “bad”, but it has a serious investment in schlock horror and why we connect to it. “Malignant” succeeds so wildly at evoking shocking slasher films because it’s so knowledgeable and precise about their history. I didn’t imagine “Malignant” had a chance to be nominated for anything, but it does some remarkable things with its production design, and how that design is purpose-built for so many other elements of the film – such as its cinematography, special effects, and choreography.
For its production design, “Malignant” draws from 60s/70s giallo and pop art, the wide gamut of 80s horror, more specific sci-fi like “Blade Runner”, and especially 90s gothic action movies like “The Crow”. It also pulls from much more recent horror films, although this is harder to separate from director James Wan’s own style considering he’s created so much of this newer aesthetic himself.
“Malignant” introduces a surprising amount that’s fresh in horror filmmaking from a technical standpoint. The production design is outstanding, even if the rest of the film’s ambitions lie in giving us a grisly creature feature that doesn’t really care how good or bad it is, so long as it keeps your attention.
Best Visual Effects
Nominated: Dune, Free Guy, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, No Time to Die, Spider-Man: No Way Home
Forgotten: The Suicide Squad (clip contains major spoilers)
I’ve long hated this category because it prizes the greatest amount and fidelity of visual effects. It tends to lean away from how those effects are actually used in an artistic sense. I’m not sure we’ve seen an action movie that so effectively translates comic book sensibilities through visual effects, and that’s saying something considering how competitive and well-funded the genre is right now.
It’s tough to see “The Suicide Squad” snubbed here when it introduced a more playful and character-focused use of visual effects than superhero movies think we deserve. If I name my 10 favorite moments of visual effects this year, at least four come from “The Suicide Squad”. From Harley Quinn’s Disneyfied vision of violence and Polka-Dot Man’s lo-fi powers and high-strung anxieties, to King Shark’s entire existence and the cartoonish horror and beauty of the film’s dementedly heartfelt climax, no other movie’s visual effects this year actually served the characters inside of the film better than in “The Suicide Squad”.
Nominated: Belfast, Dune, No Time to Die, The Power of the Dog, West Side Story
The ticking of a watch as it passes by the camera. The strike of high heeled shoes on marble. The lively bustle of a carnival. The empty white noise of a city. The strange sound absorption of snow, a sensation rarely captured so well in a film. I loved the sound design of “Nightmare Alley”. It has a number of nominations, so it’s not exactly lacking, but I would have loved a nomination here.
Best Original Score
Nominated: Don’t Look Up, Dune, Encanto, Parallel Mothers, The Power of the Dog
Forgotten: Natalie Holt, Fever Dream
Natalie Holt garnered a lot of attention this past year for composing the music for “Loki” (and years before that for hurling eggs at Simon Cowell). Her work in Claudia Llosa’s “Fever Dream” is a pulsing thing centered on breathing strings and a sense of profound isolation. Magical realism on film is extremely reliant on its music because it’s the element that can most immediately mirror a character’s emotional state. The score connects the inner experience of being in that moment to a form that’s defined by a far more abstract and disordered sense of time and place.
Holt’s score is yearning and lonely. It reflects the finality and fatalism of this particular kind of magical realist storytelling. It’s consequential and dramatic without ever feeling overbearing. It’s quiet and lurking, but sympathetic at the same time, just like the threat of tragedy that’s understood too late even though it begins and concludes “Fever Dream”.
Nominated: Dune, Nightmare Alley, The Power of the Dog, The Tragedy of Macbeth, West Side Story
Forgotten: Oscar Faura, Fever Dream
As a piece of magical realism, “Fever Dream” needs to blend the suggestive and abstract to the everyday. Landscapes themselves become animist, and homes that interrupt the farmland create a progressive layering of what’s perceived as safe giving way to field and copse and finally wood.
There’s a consistent use of backlighting, natural evening light, and shallow focus that is generally avoided in film but here highlights the woman at the center of its story as unable to see the full picture even as the audience recognizes it. That’s a central tenet of magical realism: that the audience already knows the what, but we need to learn the why and how. To find ways that evoke this through cinematography is remarkable, and this is all before taking into account the film’s shades of horror and beautifully filmed hallucinatory elements.
I’d also strongly push “Titane” and “Passing” here because I can do so and quickly move on to the next category without explaining how I’d still get it down to five nominations:
Best Film Editing
Nominated: Don’t Look Up, Dune, King Richard, The Power of the Dog, tick, tick…BOOM!
Forgotten: Fred Raskin, Christian Wagner, The Suicide Squad
This shouldn’t come out of left field if you’ve seen the film. Every bit of personality, comedy, and emotional resonance in “The Suicide Squad” is underlined by its extraordinary editing. What’s most impressive is the sheer range on display here: action movie, comedy montage, noir, drama. There’s a full rotation of different editing rhythms that James Gunn’s film cycles through for its various characters and their different emotional states.
It fuses title screens into the environment, flashbacks within literal windows, and a host of stunning tricks that you’d expect to see in something far more experimental than this genre usually gives us. I’d place this as one of the most difficult jobs for an editor out of all the superhero movies we’ve seen, but it doesn’t just hit that mark – it excels beyond it on every front.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Nominated: Coda, Drive My Car, Dune, The Lost Daughter, The Power of the Dog
Forgotten: Rebecca Hall, Passing
Hall’s adaptation of Nella Larsen’s novel brilliantly discusses the co-optation of culture and identity. I’ve seen a lot of reads on the film that talk about how it rejects a Black woman who’s long passed as white and is trying to return to being Black, but I think this risks overlooking a central conversation in the film.
Clare isn’t someone returning to being Black, she’s someone who’s still passing as white, returning to a Black community as a white tourist in the fashion protagonist Irene and novelist Hugh discuss mid-film. This redefines “Passing” into a far more complex consideration of privilege, co-optation, and whether someone can embrace who they are while still hating it. It’s one of the most wrenching discussions of race I’ve seen in narrative filmmaking.
Best Original Screenplay
Nominated: Belfast, Don’t Look Up, Licorice Pizza, King Richard, The Worst Person in the World
Forgotten: Emma Seligman, Shiva Baby
Emma Seligman’s debut film lands an audacious number of risks. It tells the story of Danielle, a college student who bumps into her sugar daddy at a Jewish funeral service. She navigates her parents’ expectations, a passive-aggressive ex, and a number of realizations about the lies her sugar daddy’s told her. As it touches on feminism, sexual empowerment, Millennial and Gen Z angst, and generational lies, “Shiva Baby” becomes an unflinchingly tense navigation of both personal and cultural truths that still aren’t wholly deciphered.
The screenplay is equal parts funny and horrifying, and manages to make us laugh even as things grow more uncomfortable. At times, I even found myself comparing the quickfire theatrical pacing and claustrophobic use of a single location in “Shiva Baby” to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Best Supporting Actress
Nominated: Jessie Buckley (The Lost Daughter), Ariana Debose (West Side Story), Judi Dench (Belfast), Kirsten Dunst (The Power of the Dog), Aunjanue Ellis (King Richard)
Forgotten: Ruth Negga, Passing (CW: clip contains racism, use of the N-word)
This is one of the biggest oversights of the year. One of the most complex roles in recent years asks Negga to portray a Black woman passing for white. Through a friend, she returns to the Black community – but not as someone re-embracing or relearning who she is or the violence she’s done to her identity.
Instead, she returns as white, entering this sphere as a tourist, assuming centrality in a community she still rejects from her own identity. She does this in a way that’s outwardly kind, soft-spoken, and often plaintive, but also reads as manipulative, in full use of the white privilege she’s learned. Rarely has someone portrayed the insidiousness of cultural co-optation so completely.
Best Supporting Actor
Nominated: Ciaran Hinds (Belfast), Troy Kotsur (Coda), Jesse Plemons (The Power of the Dog), JK Simmons (Being the Ricardos), Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Power of the Dog)
Forgotten: Willem Dafoe, Nightmare Alley
The Oscars have a way of overlooking some of the best genre performances. Unless someone’s playing the Joker, the most precise and chilling performances in genre work go without a nomination. Dafoe’s carnival boss Clem Hoatley sticks in your brain as a hideously abusive, yet nonetheless chummy man. He’d love talking to you and showing you the ropes, but he’d just as soon stab you in the back if it served his purposes. What communicates for all his toothy, slithering presentation is just how banal and workaday he makes abuse, how he can discuss it like any other work procedure over drinks and a meal. As housed within horror fantasy as Clem Hoatley is, we’ve all met many managers and supervisors who are just like him.
Nominated: Javier Bardem (Being the Ricardos), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog), Andrew Garfield (tick, tick…BOOM!), Will Smith (King Richard), Denzel Washington (The Tragedy of Macbeth)
Forgotten: Nicolas Cage, Pig
Nicolas Cage movies are often B-grade flights of nonsense, but you can’t dismiss all of them. That risks overlooking some of the most interesting independent work of the last several years. None stand out as strongly as “Pig”, a quiet and understated testament to gentleness housed within the framework of what would be a revenge film with any other script.
Cage plays Rob, a man whose truffle pig is stolen. Truffles go for thousands apiece, and he seeks the pig out amid Portland’s cutthroat restaurant scene. Cage delivers the performance of his career. Rob is an aggressively guarded misanthrope, shut off because he remembers every bit of empathy throughout his life. A towering, bearded, bloodied hermit, he navigates confrontation through a gentle understanding of others. Rarely have characters so overwhelmed by their empathy and desperate to shut it off been portrayed with such human nuance.
Nominated: Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Faye), Olivia Colman (The Lost Daughter), Penelope Cruz (Parallel Mothers), Nicole Kidman (Being the Ricardos), Kristen Stewart (Spencer)
Agathe Rousselle in “Titane” stands out as one of the most chilling and soul-emptying performances of a psychopath in cinema. As Alexia, she goes through every emotion there is as if performing a shell of expectations for others. She spends most of the film hiding in a guise that begins to accept elements of her psychopathy – under that of a man among other men. The male privilege that accepts and prizes aggression is one she can find a comfort in, and the ability to create such a cold character who still evokes our empathy – not because she’s changed but because her environment has – is a performance that challenges our understanding of the norms we use to demarcate gender and its privileges.
Many times, the best performance in a year is something you’ve seen done before in an exceptional, unparalleled way. This year, it’s something exceptional and unparalleled that I’ve just never seen done before.
(I want to be specific – hers is not a performance of a trans character. She is hiding out, disguising herself as a young man because it prevents police from finding her. She remains a woman throughout, even if she hides this from others. This allows writer-director Julia Ducournau to investigate the masculine tendencies that are discouraged among women, and the feminine aspects in men that we’re trained to psychologically self-mutilate out of ourselves).
Nominated: Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza), Kenneth Branagh (Belfast), Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog), Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Drive My Car), Steven Spielberg (West Side Story)
Forgotten: Julia Ducournau, TitaneandRebecca Hall, Passing
Rebecca Hall’s “Passing” and Julia Ducournau’s “Titane” both leap toward the front of my list of the best films of the past decade. “Passing” requires a precise realization of its smallest moments and gestures, whereas “Titane” is a visually evocative tour-de-force. Both feature an exquisite pairing of actors directed with purpose: Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga in “Passing” and Agathe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon in “Titane”.
Both directors fit stories into worlds both recognizable and related to our own, yet at the same time stylistically removed so that story can bite deep when the time comes. Both films had me thinking for days, falling asleep in a fog of their implications and waking up with a deep desire to tackle them anew. Both offer questions and challenges to my perceptions that I’m not sure I have the answers to, and that’s exciting art that I know I’ll return to again and again.
Ask me whether Hall or Ducournau did a better job and the answer will change day by day, depending on which one I’m thinking about. They’re my 1-2 for best film of the year, and neither saw a single Oscar nomination.
Nominated: Belfast, Coda, Don’t Look Up, Drive My Car, Dune, King Richard, Licorice Pizza, Nightmare Alley, The Power of the Dog, West Side Story
So why choose “Passing” over “Titane”? There’s a precise answer, and it’s that the screenplay for “Passing” elevates it above “Titane” in how it speaks to me. Even if both are precise creations, “Passing” cuts into me where “Titane” extrudes something from me. Nine times out of 10, I’d choose what’s more evocative, but I’m not sure I’ve met a film that cuts so deep as “Passing”.
The Black and Hispanic experiences for those who aren’t both can be very different, but both face some similarities in the systemic constructs that ask us to internalize racism against ourselves. That separates us from our communities, and even makes us reject them or repeat to them the very same racism practiced on us. I spent much of my childhood learning from my environment to hate the Hispanic half of who I am, and much of my adulthood learning to accept it. That requires coping with the trauma that was inflicted on me and that I was taught to inflict on myself.
At the same time, as Rebecca Hall says in the clip above, I have to reckon with the aspects of privilege I have embodied or used. What benefits have I enjoyed that others who can’t pass haven’t? What aspects of that system have I propagated?
Oh, but that’s all subjective? How else would we watch film? Saying the best film of the year is any film says that it speaks to us in some subjective way. Few films have bothered with concepts of passing and internalized racism, despite racism against oneself being one of the most widely repeated messages in the history of American media. There needs to be more that speaks to this section of the audience, and frankly, there needs to be more that speaks like “Titane” as well. The reason it’s right next to “Passing” is because it speaks to vicious and hateful reinforcements of binary gender constructs. I think we all could’ve used a bit less of that growing up, too.
Frankly, the difference between what I’d call the best and second-best film of the year, or even fifth-best film of the year isn’t really that much. They’re all worth seeing. The nominated films are all worth seeing. I just don’t want to let the moment pass without highlighting so much else of what made last year special in film.
I have a lot to say about the first series and its creator’s history. It’s important for me to share as much as I can find, but when something intersects with racism, that’s also important to highlight. A big part of the way I write this feature is to highlight the names of women behind these shows and movies, but when one of these names has a history with a racist project, I find myself not always knowing what to do. I also find myself nervous about the specific kind of racism. If I talk about someone being racist toward Black or Asian people, I’m not Black or Asian. I don’t feel doubtful for saying something’s racist because there’s no internal monologue telling me I shouldn’t. There are Black or Asian voices I can point to; I can follow their lead.
When a creator has been racist toward Mexican people in their work, that is something I’ve endured. It is something that has targeted me. It’s a pain I know and have inhabited. Discussing it opens up vulnerability and trauma I’ve experienced. Because I’ve so often been told by the people applying that racism that I’m overreacting or that it doesn’t exist, even bringing it up makes me terrified that no one will take it seriously. I can’t follow someone else’s lead because it’s my lead. My work as a Latino writer isn’t just in reckoning with it, it’s in proving to others that it exists, proving to others that my voice is legitimate to talk about its existence. I have to prove to all that vulnerability and trauma stacked up in me that I’m able to do it even as that ingrained self-doubt tells me in countless ways I can’t possibly do it right. I’m supposed to be one of those voices. If I don’t speak, I know I’m repeating the marginalization that expects me as a Latino to be too exhausted and afraid to do so. If I do speak, I have to wade through all that marginalization I’ve internalized to just get to the first word.
It’s like this with all marginalizations; this moment it’s just my turn. But whoever’s ‘turn’ it is, realize they’re terrified to be taking it. It’s unfair that the work of proving it – whether for Black, Asian, Latine, indigenous, women, disabled, LGBTQ+ writers, the list goes on – that the burden of all that work is on the shoulders of whoever is facing the bigotry aimed at them in that moment. It is an unfair critical structure that our culture assumes as its default. To speak is needed, and the burden of that is it demands repeating the internal experience of violence. To not speak may avoid that direct pressure point, but asks the quieted to live inside and legitimize their marginalization. Men need to understand that for women. White people need to understand that for people of color. Enabled people need to understand that for disabled people. Cis het people need to understand that for LGBTQ+ people.
The purpose of this feature is to highlight work by women and to help make the women doing that work better known. I don’t always know how to call something out when the history of that person’s work itself platforms racism, misogyny, ableism, or other forms of bigotry. I’ve cut things before because they’re blatantly, explicitly hateful. I won’t platform bigotry, but there’s a lot that rides the line, or that comes from someone who featured bigotry in one project…but perhaps not this one.
I’m sure there are some things I don’t see – especially with not being able to watch everything that’s featured here. I specifically want to make this article series as informational as possible because that helps me mitigate potential forms of implicit bias I may not recognize I hold. When a creator has made racist work before, I hope readers realize bringing it up is about the racism, and that does have a place being discussed when that work is featured for another reason. I hope to see the creator I’m about to highlight surpass that racism, to isolate it to a prior point in her career, but without seeing some kind of reckoning with that prior work, the only other option is to talk about the nature of it and the impact it has.
Minx (HBO Max) showrunner Ellen Rapoport
“Minx” follows Joyce as she creates the first erotic magazine for women in the U.S. “Minx” takes its inspiration from a number of similar magazines that started publishing in the 70s. Ophelia Lovibond and Jake Johnson star.
Ellen Rapoport previously wrote and produced on “Three Moons Over Milford”. She got her start as a writer on “The Jamie Kennedy Experiment”.
I’m trying to figure out the right way to say this because the moment I looked at Rapoport’s project history my heart sank. She wrote a film called “Desperados” which was incredibly racist toward Mexicans in an era when that racism is even more dangerous than usual. When a creator has done that before, I can’t feature something from them without noting it.
Like I said, I strive to keep this feature informational, but that is information to me because that kind of racism is dangerous in general and it’s specifically dangerous to me and my family. What makes us safer is other people realizing that is information as well, and not some kneejerk or emotional interpretation. When someone is racist, the fact that they are racist and have done something racist is information we need other people to understand instead of dismiss. The kind of things Rapoport wrote in “Desperados” are the kind of things that make people feel legitimized in dehumanizing or threatening Latine people. I wrestled with whether I should even feature this project or not, but there’s nothing that immediately points to “Minx” sharing that racism. That doesn’t make me feel immediately safer because “Desperados” didn’t look racist from its press releases and trailer either.
This isn’t a case of me harping on something minor; “Desperados” was repetitively racist and dehumanizing. To share another project from the same creator without talking about that would be to participate in my own dehumanization and marginalization. I’m hoping it was isolated to that one project because I’m genuinely interested in “Minx”, but I know from experience that hope is not often sustained.
You can watch “Minx” on HBO Max. Two new episodes arrive every Thursday, for a total of 10.
Standing Up (Netflix) showrunner Fanny Herrero
In this French comedy, four young Parisians juggle stressful lives and jobs while trying to make it as stand up comedians.
Showrunner Fanny Herrero also created French comedy “Call My Agent!”.
Anna Torv plays a news anchor who takes a reporter under her wing and trains him. They develop a bond as they cover the whirlwind of news the mid-80s brought. The series is set behind-the-scenes at an Australian broadcast news program.
Emma Freeman has directed on “Stateless” and “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”, among other Australian series.
You can watch “The Newsreader” on Roku. All six episodes are available immediately.
Cracow Monsters (Netflix) showrunner Kasia Adamik
In this Polish fantasy series, a medical student is pulled into a circle of investigators who hunt monsters and gods from Slavic mythology.
Kasia Adamik’s shows regularly contend at the Polish Film Awards, with “Wataha” winning two of its three best series nominations, and “1983” being nominated. For “Pokot”, she was also nominated for Best Film and Best Director alongside her mother and co-director, the great Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland.
You can watch “Cracow Monsters” on Netflix. All eight episodes are available immediately.
The Paradise (Acorn TV) directed by Marja Pyykko
In this Finnish-Spanish mystery series, a Finnish family is found murdered in Spain’s Costa del Sol. They send an investigator to bridge the Finnish community and Spanish investigators there. The series is told in Finnish, Spanish, and English.
Director Marja Pyykko is a fairly prolific director of Finnish TV.
You can watch “The Paradise” on Acorn TV. All eight episodes are available immediately.
Welcome to Flatch (Fox) showrunner Jenny Bicks
A U.S. remake of BBC mockumentary series “This Country”, “Welcome to Flatch” sees a documentary crew film the young adults of a small town.
Showrunner Jenny Bicks was a producer on “Sex and the City”, and wrote and produced on “The Big C” and “Men in Trees”.
You can watch “Welcome to Flatch” on Fox. New episodes arrive every Friday.
Lust (HBO Max) directed by Emma Lemhagen
No English trailer available, but in this Swedish series, Anette takes part in a government study about the sex lives of women in their 40s. This evokes her and her friends to reflect on how the study’s questions play into their lives.
Emma Lemhagen directs. She’s helmed films in Sweden since the 90s.
You can watch “Lust” on HBO Max. All episodes are available now.
Love After Love (MUBI) directed by Ann Hui
In the 1940s, a girl is sent from Shanghai to Hong Kong so she can continue her education. Instead, she starts working for her aunt to seduce the rich and powerful.
Ann Hui is a legendary Hong Kong director who’s won Best Director at the Golden Horse Awards three times and at the Hong Kong Film Awards six times.
This is the third time Hui has directed an adaptation of Eileen Chang’s writing. Chang was a feminist writer of the 1940s who fled the Communist regime. Another adaptation of her work that might be familiar to Western audiences is Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution”.
A state trooper partners with a rescued shelter dog in an attempt to get into the K-9 Search and Rescue unit.
Director Katt Shea started out as an actress in the 80s, but was soon directing films for legendary B-movie maker Roger Corman. Her big break came in 1992 with the infamous “Poison Ivy”. After 18 years away (since 2001), she returned with “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” and seems to be focusing on the family genre. (In a weird twist, this also stars Scott Wolf, an actor on Melinda Hsu Taylor’s very different “Nancy Drew” series, which I highly recommend. I look forward to winning a pub quiz with this trivia several years from now.)
It has been a very overwhelming week to be human, but I hope everyone is keeping on. It can be an easy time to feel helpless, but please remember that whatever in the world upsets you, you’re a phone call away from chewing out an elected official. We convince ourselves that these small actions have no weight, but the amount of response can be surprising. Public reaction saved the Affordable Care Act and created constant road blocks to the Trump administration, yet the consensus seems to be that there’s no way we can influence Congress now that we finally have some power in it.
Your voice looms even larger when dealing with state and local officials, so whatever is happening in the world that you don’t like, one of the best ways to diminish the feeling of being overwhelmed by it is to contribute to overwhelming it. It takes community, so if you get someone to call with you, you just doubled the public pressure you’re applying. We know it works when we’re able to sustain this, we’ve seen it work in dire circumstances; we just convince ourselves it doesn’t.
The invasion of Ukraine can feel like barbell that broke the camel’s back, but please remember that so many of these issues are tied together. Russia’s invasion is based on a history of genocide against Ukrainians, on a dehumanization and marginalization that so many communities in the world have suffered. While we must recognize the history that’s unique to each of these injustices, we also have to remember that these fights tie together, that these injustices empower the same few people, that pressure created in your fight or a fight you ally to also creates pressure other fights can take advantage of, that when one marginalized group gets footing, they have the opportunity to create footing for other marginalized groups. So push, please, don’t relent in whatever your fights are, and remember to learn about and fight for whoever needs help in this moment.
All American: Homecoming (The CW) showrunner Nkechi Okoro
The CW spinoff of “All American” follows a tennis player and baseball player as they try to make it in their college teams.
Nkechi Okoro also showruns “All American”, about high school players. She’s also written and produced on “Bones”.
You can watch “All American: Homecoming” on The CW. New episodes arrive Mondays.
Titane (Hulu) directed by Julia Ducournau
Ten years after being separated, a father and son are re-united after a series of unexplained crimes. That’s what the one-line plot description reads. Or we follow a serial killer. Or a woman with a titanium plate in her head falls in love with cars. I’ve kept myself as in the dark as I know how on this French film, because it looks potentially brilliant and unexpected.
Julia Ducournau is an expert in pushing the boundaries of body horror with substance. She’s been compared to David Cronenberg and David Lynch, and her films were once described as “gothic horror heroinism”.
You can watch “Titane” on Hulu, or see where to rent it.
How it Ends (Hulu, Paramount+, Epix) co-directed by Zoe Lister-Jones
Zoe Lister-Jones stars as Liza, who spends her last day on Earth with a figment of her younger self. See, an asteroid’s coming and everyone has their own idea how they’d like to spend their last hours. The film stars a ridiculous comedic cast that includes Olivia Wilde, Nick Kroll, Bradley Whitford, Tawny Newsome, Whitney Cummings, Fred Armisen, and Glenn Howerton, among many others.
You may know co-director, co-writer, and star Zoe Lister-Jones from her roles on “Life in Pieces” or “New Girl”. This is her third film as director after “Band Aid” and “The Craft: Legacy”.
Hellbender (AMC+, Shudder) co-directed by Zelda Adams, Toby Poser
A teenager discouraged from investigating the outside world discovers her family has a history in witchcraft.
The Adams family is a low-budget horror filmmaking crew. They’ve shifted who does what over the years, but here John Adams and Toby Poser direct with their daughter Zelda Adams, while daughter Lulu Adams stars alongside them in a family-centered coming-of-age story.
Directed as a Zoom call, “Family Squares” highlights a virtual reunion between a mother and her family.
Director and co-writer Stephanie Laing directed most of the episodes on two of last year’s most interesting series, “Physical” and my #2 series of 2021 “Made for Love”. She’s also produced and directed on “Dollface”.
Robert, a Catholic opera singer, and a Jewish violinist named Rachel fall in love in the late 1930s. The German invasion of Poland tears them apart, and he vows to track her down.
Martha Coolidge was an extremely productive director of TV miniseries and movies in the 1990s, including “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” (Shonda Rhimes’s first produced screenplay) and “Crazy in Love”.
It’s funny when weeks take on themes. The week after Valentine’s Day is apparently the time for TV shows about affairs and breakups. Everyone all right out there? I’ve got to look at past years and see if this is a regular occurrence, or just a coincidence this week.
It’s also a time for horror movies, and this is something I know is pretty common to February. Composed of mid-budget and low-budget films, horror likes to lurk where event movies don’t. Superhero and action films are waiting for those prime summer dates, so they aren’t sucking up all the audience right now. That provides an opportunity for films that lack the marketing budget to compete – and these days, that typically means horror, which has found a lot of success in these off-peak months.
I’ll also point out that a new Celine Sciamma film drops this week. It doesn’t fall into either of those categories, but as the filmmaker behind “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, “Girlhood”, and “Tomboy”, Sciamma has a strong argument as the best director working today.
Netflix has a number of short films debuting by both women and men this week. This includes Ashley Eakin’s directorial project “Forgive Us Our Trespasses”, a 13 minute short about a disabled boy who must escape Germany’s Aktion T4 program during Nazi rule. The program of forced euthanasia resulted in the murder of 300,000 disabled people in Austria, Germany, occupied Poland, and parts of what is now the Czech Republic, often with the aid of regional Catholic and Protestant authorities.
Marielle Woods directs Netflix short “Heart Shot”, a 19 minute film about two teenagers in love, but facing an unspoken danger. Woods has worked on stunts for “John Wick: Chapter 2”, “Baby Driver”, “Bright”, and stunt coordinated on “Westworld”.
New projects this week come from Australia, Brazil, France, Japan, Sweden, the U.K., and the U.S.
Aftertaste (Acorn TV) showrunner Julie De Fina
Easton West is a celebrity chef with anger issues who burns all his bridges and has to retreat to his hometown in Adelaide, Australia. There, he takes on starting a new, more humble restaurant with an unexpected partner.
Julie De Fina created the show with Matthew Bate and showruns and writes on it.
You can watch “Aftertaste” on Acorn TV. All six episodes are available immediately.
Lov3 (Amazon) half directed by Mariana Youssef
In this Brazilian series, three siblings navigate dating by pursuing unconventional relationships in the wake of their parents’ separation. There’s no English trailer available, but the series itself does have English options.
Mariana Youssef directs three of the six episodes. It’s her first time directing on a series; she’s previously worked on documentaries and short films. “Lov3” was co-created by Rita Moraes.
You can watch “Lov3” on Amazon. All six episodes are available immediately.
Fishbowl Wives (Netflix) half directed by Namiki Michiko
Sakura Hiraga lives a glamorous life of luxury that hides her husband’s abusive behavior from others. Unable to leave, she makes a connection with another man that reminds her of the dreams she’s given up. She’s just one of six women who pursue affairs in the Japanese series “Fishbowl Wives”.
Namiki Michiko directs at least four of the eight episodes. She’s directed a number of Japanese films and series, including the modernized 2019 adaptation of “Les Miserables”.
You can watch “Fishbowl Wives” on Netflix. All eight episodes are available immediately.
Petite Maman (MUBI) directed by Celine Sciamma
Nelly is a girl who’s lost her grandmother. She goes on a trip to help her parents clean out her grandmother’s home. Exploring the forest there, she meets another girl building a treehouse. The French film is told from a child’s perspective.
Writer-director Celine Sciamma is the first name that comes to mind when you ask me about the best director working today. She directed “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and my #3 pick for best films of the 2010s, “Girlhood”.
Sienna Guillory plays Holly, a widowed mother who tries to cope with her daughter Betsey declaring her body now belongs to a higher power. Betsey refuses to eat, but doesn’t suffer or lose weight, and Holly is forced to contend with who or what this higher power may be.
Ruth Paxton started as a production designer and art director, and has written and directed several shorts that interpret painting and dance. This is her feature-length debut.
After undergoing a trauma and a stay in a psychiatric ward, Molly moves into a new apartment. Yet she keeps hearing knocking. She can’t sleep or live a normal life, and no one else hears it or believes her. “Knocking” is adapted by Emma Brostrom from the novel by Johan Theorin.
Frida Kempff is a Swedish director who’s primarily helmed documentaries before this. “Knocking” is her first narrative feature.
Horror Noire (AMC+) co-directed by Zandashe Brown, Robin Givens
This anthology film presents six horror stories from Black directors and screenwriters. Tony Todd, Peter Stormare, and Lesley-Ann Brandt star.
Zandashe Brown is a relatively new director. Robin Givens is known for her acting career, which has ranged from “Head of the Class” to “Riverdale”. This is her third feature as director, and she’s helmed some episodes on “Riverdale”.
You can watch “Horror Noire” on AMC+.
The Space Between (Hulu, Paramount+) directed by Rachel Winter
Kelsey Grammar plays an eccentric rock musician who’s losing track of reality. He has to contend with the people his label sends to force him out of his contract, but may be on the verge of rediscovering his music.
Rachel Winter has produced on films like “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Krystal”. This is her first feature as director.