Auteur-driven films enthralled us this month thanks to some wonderful releases from storied legends like Martin Scorcese, Pedro Almodóvar and Takashi Miike; alongside arthouse newcomers such as Robert Eggers, Alejandro Landes and Céline Sciamma. Not to be outdone, there’s also a plethora of fantastic mid-budget crowd-pleasers from James Mangold and Rian Johnson. But if you’re looking for fun in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy – new shows like His Dark Materials and The Mandalorian or returning favourites My Hero Academia and Rick and Morty should be up your alley.
Pain and Glory
Revered auteur Pedro Almodóvar returns with his best and most personal film in years. Pain and Glory finds Antonio Banderas excelling as Salvador Mallo, a fictionalized version of the aging Spanish director. As we follow a series of reencounters experienced by Mallo, the film offers a grounded, melancholic rumination on aging and artistic intent – steeped in Almodóvar’s own history. Pain and Glory’s sublimely bittersweet story of memory, creation, and lost youth circles around the idea of art as self-creation – layering the film as an elegiac cinematic memoir.
Directed by Robert Eggers (The Witch), The Lighthouse is a claustrophobic, disgusting and delirious descent into madness. This bonkers sailor’s yarn about two lighthouse keepers on a remote New England island in the 1890s is a stunning showcase for Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe – whose tour de force interplay crescendos into a visceral battle of wills. Part pitch black comedy, part psychological horror and part Promethean tragedy – this cold and clammy chamber drama is a texturally rich, visually striking, and brazen piece of cinematic artisanship.
Screened at: Singapore International Film Festival
Rian Johnson’s deviously clever Knives Out is such a tremendously fun and dazzlingly tricky whodunnit. The film follows debonair Detective Benoit Blanc as he investigates the death a renowned crime novelist. To get the truth, must weaves through a web of red herrings and self-serving lies spun by the deceased’s duplicitous family and staff. Sharpened by a crackling script, gut-busting comedy, and a brilliant all-star cast – this is one murder mystery that Agatha Christie herself would applaud. Ingenious and immensely stylish, Knives Out is cinematic magic.
The Irishman is a reflective and enthralling gangster epic that makes full use of its daunting runtime to fully explore all the themes Martin Scorcese has toyed with in his previous films within the crime genre. Led by phenomenal performances from Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, this (revisionist) historical mob drama isn’t just another sweeping tale of mafiosos – it’s also a mournful depiction of masculinity and growing old. Although brimming with Scorcese’s kinetic style, The Irishman’s poignance emanates from it’s meditation on morality and mortality.
Far from a stuffy costume period piece, this vivid period is a stirring and slow-burning romance lensed though Céline Sciamma’s radiantly sensual female gaze. Set in In 1770, this lesbian love story follows the young daughter of a French countess, who develops a mutual attraction to the female artist commissioned to paint her wedding portrait. This supremely elegant and visually ravishing drama brims with incandescent passion and thwarted desire. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a powerful and graceful treatise on art, female agency and queer romance in the 18th century.
Screened at: Singapore International Film Festival
This engrossing automotive drama follows visionary American car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and fearless British-born driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) who defied the odds to build a revolutionary race car for Ford Motor Company – and take on the dominating race cars of Enzo Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France in 1966. Ford v Ferrari is an exhilarating re-telling of a tremendous underdog true story that detours into compelling themes of friendship, fatherhood, American ingenuity and the evils of corporate marketing. A genuine crowd-pleaser.
Directed by Alejandro Landes, Monos is a hypnotic survivalist saga set on a remote mountain in Latin America following a group of young militia rebels. Playing like Apocalypse Now with child soldiers, this muddy and lyrical journey into the heart of darkness explores guerrilla warfare, human nature and adolescent alienation. Monos immerses us into the bruising anarchy and pointless violence of this harsh existence with very little dialogue, choosing to examine its themes through powerful imagery and an evocative score from Micah Levi (Under The Skin).
Directed by Mike Flanagan (The Haunting of Hill House, Gerald’s Game), Doctor Sleep is a sequel to both Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick’s radically different versions of The Shining. And while it honours both iterations in smart ways, this film avoids rethreading its source material by using familiar characters and settings (the Overlook Hotel is faithfully recreated) to explore new ideas with novel approaches. More of a dark fantasy than horror, this contemplative follow-up shines best when balancing poignant themes of trauma against spine-tingling chills.
While not quite as showstopping as the original, Frozen 2 is still wonderful in its own right. This visually dazzling sequel fearlessly transforms its protagonists in surprising ways by rejecting fairytale Disney princess tropes for something grander and more complex. The narrative is almost exclusively focused on the characters and their personal development (expressed once again through soaring musical numbers), done without the threat of some villainous foe. Frozen 2 digs into tension between the traditional and the contemporary to deliver a mature follow-up.
Disney Plus’ first live-action series is a gun-slinging exploration of the seedier, grittier and morally questionable side of Star Wars’ outlaw frontier, set after the fall of the Empire. Owing a lot to dusty Westerns like Man WIth No Name, The Mandalorian follows the adventures of an unnamed bounty hunter as he traverses the galaxy’s criminal fringes. Directed by visionaries like Jon Favreau, Dave Filoni and Taika Waititi; and starring Pedro Pascal, Giancarlo Esposito and Werner Herzog (among others) – this gorgeous series is a brisk and action-packed watch.
For those disappointed by the atrocious film adaptation, we’re glad to say that this ambitious series finally gets Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass right. His Dark Materials is a lavish production that perfectly captures the strangeness and childlike wonder of the books, alongside it’s complex character dynamis and lofty themes about power and faith. Buoyed by gorgeous imagery, spectacular sequences, a dynamite cast (Dafne Keen, Ruth Wilson, James McAvoy, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and more) this is an intelligent and imaginative fantasy epic for all-ages.
The long two year wait is over for Rick and Morty fans, because season four is here! And it’s still the most insane, hilarious and inventive show in this or any other universe. Within minutes, this series continues to blast through enough sci-fi concepts (going from a galactic adventure, to an alternate reality of fascist squids, to riff on Akira) that could fuel whole seasons more standard shows. But even with those time-bending, multiversal, space-faring hijinks – Rick and Morty’s greatest strength remains it’s refusal to rely on old tricks, and it’s insistence on subverting itself.
Olivia Colman and Helena Bonham Carter lead a majestic new ensemble for season three that proves every bit the equal of Claire Foy and Vanessa Kirby’s cast from the first two seasons. Now set between 1964 and 1977, this season finds the monarchy struggling with change – represented by counterculture, the Apollo 11 moon landing, the death of Churchill, and more. By juxtaposing the sovereigns’ turbulent inner lives with huge socio-political upheaval, The Crown‘s austere portraiture of power continues to be a compelling look into Queen Elizabeth II’s reign.
Japan’s most popular modern day shonen anime returns for a highly anticipated fourth season, which finds the show covering some of the manga’s most compelling material. While Midoriya’s journey to become the new superhero “symbol of peace” remains prevalent, this season will shift its focus towards UA’s “Big Three” – Mirio Togata, Tamaki Amajiki, and Nejire Hado – who will guide the students in choosing their pro hero internships. Meanwhile, a terrifying new villain named Overhaul emerges, wrecking havoc just as society adjusts to a world without All Might.
Based on Philip K. Dick’s seminal novel, this TV adaptation posits an alternate history where the Axis (Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany) won World War II, and conquered the United States. Now in its fourth and final season, the show has gone far beyond the book in it’s melding of political intrigue and science fiction. This riveting conclusion doesn’t just concern the resistance protagonists (the Black Communist Rebellion is introduced) and the inner lives of its fascist antagonists, the discovery the multiverse has enticed the Reich to set its sights on other worlds.
Part stand-up showcase and part documentary, Jenny Slate’s (Parks and Recreation, Big Mouth) newest special is unabashedly silly, overwhelmingly joyous and hilariously revealing. Alongside vulnerable confessionals, the irreverent comedian also successfully mines topics like porn, masturbation, divorce and loneliness for huge laughs in this loose and endearingly unpolished hourlong. By intercutting home video and interviews with family members throughout the hour, Stage Fright doesn’t just tell jokes, it lets the audience in on the inside context as well.
This anthology series, based around the Stephen King multiverse, delves deeper into the horror novelist’s prolific catalogue for a riveting second season. This time, Castle Rock mashes up a Misery prequel with Salem’s Lot (alongside ties to The Sun Dog, The Shawshank Redemption, It, The Body, and more) to deliver a propulsive tale of warring families, Somali immigrants and reanimated corpses. Most notably, Lizzy Caplan’s take on a young Annie Wilkes is captivating – drawing upon elements from Kathy Bates’ famed performance, while making the role her own.
This delightfully anachronistic coming-of-age comedy is set in the 1850s, and follows the young adult life of poet Emily Dickinson (played with morbid wit by Hailee Steinfeld). While it might seem like a period piece, it’s stylistic flourishes are bizarrely millennial – featuring everything from modern slang to a pre-Civil War Amherst house party getting turnt to trap music. This wacky cross between literary history and adolescent fantasy is joyous, bonkers and metatextual. The details may be tonally askew – but archetypes and social issues explored are timeless.
Created for television by Jason Richman and based on Greg Rucka’s comic book limited series of the same name, Stumptown is a modern-day hardboiled detective drama that follows Dex Parios (an amazing performance by Cobie Smulders), a former Marine investigator with a gambling problem, a drinking problem, and a monster-sized case of undiagnosed PTSD when she stumbles her way into a gig as Portland’s new favorite private investigator. Blending great humour with awesome action with noir grit – this is easily the best detective series of the year.