Parallel Mothers (Pedro Almodóvar, 2021). Pedro Almodóvar is on solid footing with Parallel Mothers, a film that includes some of his regular preoccupations relating to family, feminism, and the complicated snarl of personal history. He also incorporates considerations of the heavy past troubles of his homeland with a subplot involving the Spanish Civil War, doing so with admirable deftness. Penélope Cruz plays a photographer who inadvertently becomes pregnant and meets another imminently expectant mother (Milena Smit) when she’s in the hospital preparing to give birth. The two briefly bond, and then strike up a closer relationship some time later, even as a secret looms like a ticking bomb under a table. Cruz usually does her best work with Almodóvar, and that’s absolutely the case here. She’s strong-willed and vulnerable at once, providing the proper emotional ballast as the film traces through delicate territory. Some of Almodóvar’s visual vibrancy is toned down, appropriately, but his ability to assemble exquisite compositions in the frame is in full force. Alberto Iglesias’s score was a thoroughly deserving Oscar nominee.
Drive My Car (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2021). Ryusuke Hamaguchi adapts the fiction of acclaimed Japanese writer Haruki Murakami to the screen, instilling a wealth of personal ambition into the film. Drive My Car centers on Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), an actor and director who makes his way in experimental theater. Close to three hours, the film covers a lot of ground, but is mostly concerned with his experiences, and emerging emotional openness, as he oversee a production of Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima, an arrangement that requires him to accept the unwanted assistance of a personal driver (Tōko Miura). Hamaguchi’s work is layered and cunning, skillfully exploring all manner of precarious interpersonal landscapes atop a patient appreciation of how art in made. The compositions in the frame are striking without being ostentatious in the slightest, and every member of the cast gives a resonant, affecting performance. At times, Drive My Car seems intent on unlocking the secrets of being a modern human, but that evaluation isn’t quite right. Instead, the film settles on the conclusion that there is satisfying beauty in the complex tumblers of life itself.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines (Michael Rianda, 2021). Michael Rianda, a writer and creative director for the widely admired animated series Gravity Falls, makes his feature directorial debut with this frenetic tale of a family of agreeable misfits who become the last hope for humanity when a vast army of enhanced-AI robots mount a takeover. The Mitchells vs. the Machines follows some familiar storytelling beats with a few small but welcome changes, maybe most notably a brief but distinct comfortable acknowledgement of same-sex romance that stands in direct contrast to recent cowardice in the same area on the part of the House That Mickey Built. In the end, though, the film’s overcaffeinated qualities combine with a high proportion of gags that simply don’t land to put a damper on any emotional resonance or thematic satisfaction. It’s a lot and too little at the same time.