English novelist, screenwriter, and filmmaker Alex Garland rose to prominence in 1996 with the release of his first novel, The Beach. After Danny Boyle filmed an adaptation of the book (released in 2000), Garland transitioned into screenwriting, with a proclivity for dystopian science fiction. His impressive filmography reads like an abbreviated list of the best sci-fi movies of the 21st century, including 28 Days Later (2002), Sunshine (2007), Never Let Me Go (2011) and Dredd (2012). In 2015, Garland made his directorial debut with the sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, for which his script was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award. Garland's second directorial effort, Annihilation, is another mind-bending masterstroke in the writer-director's ambitious oeuvre that will prove profound to some viewers, but polarizing to others.
Step into the mind of this musical genius for just a moment, and be inspired by his ingenuity and originality. Shut Up and Play the Piano is a documentary about the musician known as "Chilly Gonzales", who is actually a Canadian man named Jason Beck. Beck is a virtuoso, a one-of-a-kind musician and this film is a befittingly unique profile of him and his life. It's a massively creative, clever film about a massively creative, clever musician and will inspire anyone to stop caring about judgment and let your deeply honest creativity express itself. I loved this film so much. I didn't even know who Chilly Gonzales was before this, and now I'm a huge fan. I've already bought a few of his albums. The title is a reference to fans who often tell Chilly to just shut up and play the piano, and he does. Oh, does he ever play, and it's sumptuous. Discover this film.
There's another new film this year telling a thrilling story told entirely through computer screens. This one is titled Profile, and it's directed by Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch, Wanted, Ben-Hur), who also produced the other computer screen film Search (which first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and I wrote a glowing review of here). Profile tells a completely different story than Search - it's about a journalist from London who tries to connect with an ISIS recruiter online for a story about how ISIS recruiters use the internet to lure women. Surprise, surprise, she ends up getting in way too deep and essentially falls for the same tricks and traps that the other women did. It's a captivating thriller about technology, for sure, but it's still a bit gimmicky and a bit manipulative, and not as good as it really could be.
One of the darkest days in Norway's modern history is July 22nd, 2011. On this day, a lone-wolf, ring-wing extremist terrorist attacked government buildings in Oslo with bombs and then went to an island near the city and shot over 200 children and teens camping there, killing 68 of them. The film Utøya 22 July, also titled simply U: July 22, is a cinematic recreation of this day on the island and it's utterly harrowing. I sat through the film's first press screening in the morning at the Berlin Film Festival and it's so intense at times, I was literally sick to my stomach. It's an immersive, exhausting experience that follows one young woman in one 72-minute long-take shot as she scurries around the island, desperately trying to stay alive and find her sister. It stays focused entirely on her and puts viewers right there in the middle of it as it's happening.
One of the best documentaries I've seen playing at film festivals this year is titled Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., a subversive profile of the controversial, badass, outspoken musician/activist known as "M.I.A." In real life, her full name is Maya Arulpragasam, and she's originally from Sri Lanka, an island off the southern coast of India. At first glance, this seems like a film that is another music documentary about a pop star and her rise to fame and fortune and glory. But it's anything but that. It's actually a much more personal, intimate story of a young woman who wants to bring attention to and raise awareness about very dire problems in the world, and injustices, and do so using the power of the microphone. But what if no one took her seriously? That's what this film is really about. And it's an eye-opening, alarming, invigorating documentary to watch.
We take for granted how easy it is to travel between countries nowadays. But it wasn't always so easy. And it might not be so easy in the future. The latest film from German filmmaker Christian Petzold (Jerichow, Barbara, Phoenix) is a feature titled Transit, which is premiering at the Berlin Film Festival. The film feels similar to something Aki Kaurismäki would make, specifically his most recent film The Other Side of Hope, and even feels like it would play nice with Ai Weiwei's documentary Human Flow. Transit is about refugees and transit papers, and the lives of people who are just trying to find a way out, a way to somewhere else. They're just trying to move on. It's the kind of film you need to sit on and think about for days or weeks, and not instantly process, because there's so much more going on beyond just what's presented on the surface.
Meanwhile, back in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, director Ryan Coogler is schooling everyone on how it's supposed to be done. The Oakland-born filmmaker made waves, huge waves, right out of the gate with his feature debut, Fruitvale Station (2013), and then again with the Rocky spin-off, Creed (2015). There's a natural apprehension anytime an up-and-coming filmmaker steps in to take on a blockbuster project, but Black Panther, Coogler's first endeavor into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, defiantly puts any doubts to rest. The film successfully sets a new bar for not only comic book movies, but also action movies as a whole. Smart, stylish, and with a ton at work under the surface, Black Panther is an exhilarating addition to the MCU and one more indication that Coogler is a filmmaker worth taking note of.
Dogs rule! There's really nothing else like a Wes Anderson-directed stop-motion animated film. That is especially true for Isle of Dogs, the latest one-of-a-kind stop-motion animated creation from the mind of this master filmmaker. Isle of Dogs is a very Japanese film, set entirely in a retro-future Japan where dogs have been outlawed by cat-loving government villains. It's endlessly imaginative, unlike anything I've ever seen before, with incredible detail in every single frame. So much so, that it's almost hard to keep up with all of it - I want to pause and study each frame/set/scene before continuing. The film is amusing and funky, sometimes a bit clunky, with plenty of Anderson's typical quirky humor and wacky characters galore. It's so funky that some may not connect, but there's an undeniable charm that definitely won me over by the end.
Originally co-created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and published by Marvel Comics, Black Panther made his first appearance in 1966's Fantastic Four #52. The first superhero of African descent in mainstream American comics, Black Panther debuted years before early black superheroes such as the Falcon (1969), John Stewart's Green Lantern (1971), Luke Cage (1972), and Blade (1973). Crossing racial and cultural lines, Black Panther has continued to resonate with readers over the years, spawning multiple publications, and appearing in numerous video games and animated series. It wasn't until 2016, however, that the iconic hero made his big screen debut. Included in Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther (played by Chadwick Boseman) was introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe's massive fan base, setting the stage for this stand-alone feature film. Enter director Ryan Coogler's Black Panther, the eighteenth entry in Marvel's shared cinematic universe and, perhaps, the most absorbing and entertaining installment yet.
What a surprise. Netflix rattled the cages of Hollywood by suddenly premiering the new Cloverfield movie streaming online just hours after the first footage debuted during a TV spot in the middle of the Super Bowl. So here it is - The Cloverfield Paradox - Bad Robot's next new sci-fi story that has been repackaged as a Cloverfield sequel/prequel to continue this "franchise" following 10 Cloverfield Lane (from 2016). Oh, how I wish this film was much better than it is. Alas, it's quite a big let down, not nearly as good as it should be, a mostly messy, inconsistent, mildly entertaining high concept sci-fi film that doesn't amount to much. And clearly the Cloverfield aspect in it was stuffed in, it's so obvious, and it doesn't add anything to the overall story. The basic idea behind this is cool, but the execution is not, and the film suffers from a lack of finesse.
Ride on, ladies. One of the biggest surprises from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival is this vibrant drama Skate Kitchen, a feature film about a group of badass female skateboarders from the New York City area. Made by filmmaker Crystal Moselle (who already won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2015 for her documentary The Wolfpack) the film follows these carefree, wild teenage girls as they deal with all the pain-in-the-ass troubles the world throws at you at that time in your life - mainly: parties, injuries, boys, security guards, parents, and other skaters. I am not a fan of The Wolfpack, so I went into this a bit concerned, but was relieved to discover it's an enjoyable, energetic portrait of NYC kids skating around the city to survive.
There is one documentary from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival that has stuck with me and remained on my mind throughout the entire fest - Minding the Gap. I first saw this film at the very beginning of the festival just before it kicked off, and I've honestly been thinking about it ever since - even after seeing 38 other films. Minding the Gap is an incredibly compelling documentary made by filmmaker Bing Liu telling a personal story of his life and the lives of two of his close friends from the small town of Rockford, Illinois. This profile of "lost youth" follows them through the years as they grow up and enter adulthood, examining who they are and figuring out where they're headed, sometimes without any answers. Bing is the real deal, and he has made one of the most refreshingly original, engaging docs about growing up in today's America.