.Catching Up: A few January snapshots from last year’s movie bonanza

2021 shaped up to be a very strong year for movies—partially due to the lag in releasing schedules and the pent-up demand after the 2020 pandemic lockdown. So many noteworthy new films flooded into theaters and streaming platforms this past month that we decided to round up a few end-of-year titles for a closer, if abbreviated, look. Here they are. Pass the popcorn.

Don’t Look Up – Headline-driven filmmaker Adam McKay (Vice, The Big Short) beats the doomsday gong in a satirical disaster pic that works much like an actual catastrophe: events happen in suspenseful slow motion until everything suddenly goes boom. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence play a pair of humble Michigan State University astronomers who happen onto the biggest news story in the history of the world: a comet the size of the Matterhorn is hurtling toward Earth, on a course to completely destroy our planet. Naturally, no one takes them seriously. Not the President (Meryl Streep); not TV talk shows, with inane hosts played by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry; nobody except ordinary, scared people who hear the news on the street. A bit heavy-handed, but McKay skewers the vanities of 21st-century America with maximum impact. Now on Netflix.

France – Globe-trotting TV reporter France de Meurs (Léa Seydoux) is probably the most famous person in France, but she’s unhappy. Kidding around with her assistant (Blanche Gardin) at a press conference with President Emmanuel Macron—playing himself in cameo—doesn’t cheer her up very much, nor do her husband and young son, nor on-the-job adventures in dangerous places, nor Swiss Alps vacations. Only France’s traffic collision with a motorbike rider seems to awaken her from her moral slumber. Writer-director Bruno Dumont’s (Slack Bay) skeptical, rapid-fire portrait of its times takes itself a bit too seriously. No sense of humor, other than the easiest and most obvious kind. But it’s still worth a look for Seydoux’s characterization. In theaters.

Parallel Mothers – Pedro Almodóvar’s 43rd directorial effort continues his current winning streak with the tale of an emotionally complicated madrileña (Penelope Cruz, in fine form) whose life spins further out of whack when she learns that her newborn baby was switched with another infant at the hospital. Cruz and Milena Smit, as the two mothers, turn in realistically distressed performances. But the slightly awkward transition from the women’s baby mix-up to the subplot—involving exhumation of the bodies of people murdered by fascists during the Spanish Civil War, 80 years earlier—suggests that this might have been better conceived as two separate films. The finale, a procession of mourners honoring the fallen, is majestically solemn and righteous. In theaters.

Prayers for the Stolen – In a Mexican mountain village, a young girl named Ana—portrayed as a teenager by non-actor Marya Membreño—lives her life disguised as a boy, in an effort to prevent sexual assault by either the area’s drug cartels or the federales who hunt the gangsters. It’s a hard life, and director Tatiana Huezo, adapting the novel by Jennifer Clement, takes full advantage of the brutal ironies of Ana’s situation. Proof positive of the idea that all politics are personal. On Netflix.

Day of Rage – The most important film on this list is a 40-minute documentary, produced by The New York Times Visual Investigations team, that lays out the whys and wherefores of the January 6, 2021 U.S. Capitol Building insurrection in no uncertain terms. Using a combination of news footage and forensically analyzed on-the-scene videos of the violent assault on the Capitol, plus the hate-filled speeches that led up to it, directors David Botti and Malachy Browne present a spectacle that never loses its shock value. Potentially worse is the “campaign to whitewash history” orchestrated by the former President and his toadies in an attempt to explain away an act of treason. Day of Rage is reportedly short-listed for an Academy Award nomination. On YouTube.

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