Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures/Ghost Corps
By Dean Robbins
7. Belfast: Belfast, starring Caitrona Balfe and Jamie Dornan, is an semi-autobiographical film about director Kenneth Branagh’s childhood in 1960s Northern Ireland. There is a demographic that will love this movie. If you love Van Morrison, who did the soundtrack, and easily get emotionally invested in a film, Belfast will likely work. However, Belfast will rank for me as one of the worst theatrical experiences of the year. On the positive side, the cast is solid, with Caitrona Balfe and child actor Jude Hill as the standouts of the bunch. As for everything else, it is dire. The black-and-white cinematography is inconsistent— sometimes lifeless, sometimes overwrought, and sometimes genuinely striking. The story is horrendous, with uninteresting characters, a one-note and shallow depiction of the Troubles, and a lack of strong narrative thrust. The story stops and starts, picking up and dropping storylines manically. Some critics have praised the film for being from a child’s perspective. However, while this intention feels poignant at points, it also misses many opportunities to underscore this theme. An example of this is a romance subplot that should have been integral which is instead almost completely ignored. There are thousands of movies like Belfast (2018’s Oscar-winning Roma is especially similar), and Branagh does little to set this one apart from the rest. Even smaller technical aspects like set design and sound design are bungled. I spent the entire 97-minute runtime praying for it to end so my misery could be over. To make matters worse, the film, when it briefly touches on the subject, is atheistic in a Reddit sort of way. Belfast is now playing in theaters.
6. Candy Coated Christmas: Food Network is going for the throat of Hallmark Channel with their first ever scripted film, Candy Coated Christmas. This romantic comedy, starring Molly McCook and Aaron O’Connell, is perfect for those who fall into the Venn diagram of Pioneer Woman fans and masochists. To the former point, the Pioneer Woman herself Ree Drummond has a supporting role. This has been the central selling point for the film. Drummond plays a bakery owner who is a sort of baked good Bagger Vance for the characters; however, acting is not her strong point. As for the rest of the film, it is about what one could expect from a Hallmark-type Christmas movie. The film’s setting is the Christmas-obsessed town of Peppermint Hollow and the festive cheer of the place is infectious. People who like this sort of movie will like Candy Coated Christmas. It is now streaming on Discovery+.
5. Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City: Resident Evil returns to cinemas with a new reboot that attempts to adapt the first two games in the franchise. Claire Redfield (Kaya Scodelario), a familiar figure to fans of the original video games and the first film franchise, grew up in the sleepy, creepy town of Raccoon City with her brother Chris (Robbie Amell). Prompted by reports that the pharmaceutical company Umbrella Corporation, the last remaining industry in the town, is leaving, Claire decides to return. For fans of the video game franchise, Welcome to Raccoon City is an accurate representation in ways both good and bad. The atmosphere is incredible with spooky locations like a police station overrun by zombies, an abandoned mansion, and a sinister experimentation lab. Mark Koreven’s memorable score also contributes to this. On the other hand, the dialogue is horrendous—so horrendous that one wonders if it is deliberately mimicking the bad voice acting of the first game. Unfortunately, that may be a little too charitable. For non-fans, the film is unnecessary. It is now playing in theaters.
4. Passing: Actress Rebecca Hall makes her directorial debut with Passing, an adaptation of the 1929 novel of the same name by Nella Larsen about the sometimes blurry boundaries of race. Tessa Thompson’s Irene lives a satisfying domestic life with her husband (Andre Holland) and kids until she meets childhood friend Clare (Ruth Negga). Clare, a black woman, is “passing” as white and married to a racist white man (Alexander Skarsgard). Irene and Clare soon find their lives tied together as they struggle with questions of race and identity. Much of the drama in Passing is buried deep beneath the lines of dialogue and faces of its characters. Everyone longs for something, something they can never explicitly articulate. A film as subtle and delicate as Passing relies on actors up to the challenge and the cast here fortunately is. Passing is perhaps a little too covert and small-scale to rank among 2021’s best films. However, it is an impressive debut for Hall in the director’s chair and the set of performances from its cast stand out. Passing is now streaming on Netflix.
3. House of Gucci: Ridley Scott’s second directorial effort this year after The Last Duel is the tragicomic farce House of Gucci. Lady Gaga plays Patrizia Reggiani, a middle-class woman who finds herself marrying into the famous Gucci fashion dynasty. She quickly becomes a tumultuous force in the dysfunctional family, played by Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Jeremy Irons, and Al Pacino. This is a performance movie and the whole cast puts on their best. Leto, in particular, completely transforms himself into something borderline unrecognizable. The dialogue is often hilarious and the drama is soapy, in a good way. House of Gucci is now playing in theaters.
2. Ghostbusters: Afterlife: Sony Pictures is back with a second stab at reanimating the Ghostbusters franchise and it finally worked this go-around. Carrie Coon, Finn Wolfhard, and McKenna Grace play an economically downtrodden family who move to a recently passed relative’s home in the dusty rural town of Summerville. Wolfhard and Grace quickly begin to discover that Summerville may be hiding something supernatural. In an almost complete reversal of Paul Feig’s 2016 reboot of the franchise, Afterlife goes for something more melodramatic, nostalgic, and grounded (or as grounded as a Ghostbusters movie can be). The original films’ director Ivan Reitman’s son Jason Reitman takes the helm here. Jason, best known for indie comedies like Juno, brings a human dimension to the proceedings. Afterlife layers on the emotions thick, in a way slightly manipulative but still effective. The cast is fantastic from the family to supporting actors like Paul Rudd and Bokeem Woodbine. The ghost action is also well-executed, with a vehicular chase scene standing out as the film’s high point. Afterlife can be enjoyed by newcomers and franchise fanatics, but rookies may find themselves less convinced by the melodramatic fan service. As a fan, I was completely hooked. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is now playing in theaters.
1. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain: Would you guess that a biopic about a late 19th-century British artist of cats would be one of the year’s most poetic depictions of the human condition? It is true. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Wain, a manic renaissance man who falls madly in love with the eccentric Emily Richardson (Claire Foy). After a tragedy, Wain finds himself obsessed with creating increasingly surreal paintings and drawings of cats. The first act of the film is truly joyous, one of the best cinematic thrills of the year. It is quirky and stylistic in a way similar to films like The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019). Near the midpoint, the film becomes something more grounded and even more beautiful. Despite being based on a painter with a very particular style, it is really a broader tale about the beauty of the world, its “electricity.” Added to this is an astounding and stacked cast, including cameos by Taika Waititi (director of Thor: Ragnarok) and Nick Cave. To say much more would ruin the experience! The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.