“I want to be great, or nothing.” This defining line from Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel Little Women has become a catchphrase of American literary feminism, repeated out of context, embroidered onto pillows, and championed nearly to the point of losing all meaning.
The sentiment, first delivered by Alcott’s Amy March in regards to her skills at a painter, rings particularly hollow when you consider its place in the countless film, television, and stage adaptations of Little Women that have come since its first publication. These retellings, like so many adaptations of classic novels, have rarely striven for that artistic greatness Amy speaks of—they’ve by and large been pale, sentimental imitations of what a great story looks like, designed to print cash and appease the period piece crowd, i.e. women. Aside from Gillian Armstrong’s hit 1994 film, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Little Women as vital as the original.
That is, until Greta Gerwig came along. The writer-director behind Lady Bird and Frances Ha has been emphasizing the value in quotidian stories about young women throughout her short filmmaking career, and her talents and interests have found a perfect home in Little Women. Lively, ambitious, and deftly directed, Gerwig’s adaptation takes both its subjects and audience seriously, building its own kind of greatness that extends far beyond the power of the original text. It doesn’t attempt to overwrite Alcott’s story with modern feminism, but rather highlight how the joys and struggles of her characters have persisted across time. Filled out by an exhilarating ensemble cast, Gerwig’s Little Women is the best we’ve ever seen this story—and it’s one of the best films of the year.
As Janet Jackson would say, Hustlers is a story about control. Jackson’s voice literally carries that message over the film’s first scene—her 1986 empowerment hit “Control” bumps through the elite Manhattan strip club where Constance Wu’s Destiny is trying to learn the ropes and take back her life. This pairing of song to scene is brass and unsubtle, but why shouldn’t it be? Hustlers knows it’s brass and unsubtle, and it knows exactly how to blend these elements, otherwise limiting in the wrong hands, into a dangerous concoction too delicious to resist.
This cocktail of fun and energy and star power might trick you into thinking Lorene Scafaria’s latest film isn’t worth taking seriously, but you’d be dead wrong. Hustlers is big and uproarious, yes, but it’s also a for-fucking-real crime story with enough style, intrigue, and pinpoint emotional accuracy to compete with the films of Soderbergh and his ilk that have thus defined the ensemble heist genre. Thanks to the unique vision of women in control on both sides of the camera, Hustlers is a triumph—and one of the best films of the year.
About halfway through the second spin of the merry-go-round camera that opens Waves, you start to get dizzy enough to look away. Some classic Tame Impala reverb bounces through the background, the blues and whites of the Florida sky glow unnaturally bright, and Euphoria sweetheart Alexa Demie hangs out her boyfriend’s car window, flashing a smile. It’s a 2019 film about teenagers, baby—if you didn’t know, now you know.
Waves writer-director Trey Edward Shultz isn’t afraid to dive headfirst into this bold style, accusations of parody and sameness be damned, and his commitment pays off. With Euphoria and Thunder Road cinematographer Drew Daniels by his side, Shultz delivers over two hours of consistently stunning visual narrative, each sequence challenging and creative, yet perfectly balanced and self-assured. These visuals mesh seamlessly with an electric score by Nine Inch Nails duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, as well as an overloaded soundtrack of thumping Kanye and Frank Ocean tracks. It all leads you to believe Waves could be a great movie.
Pending the inevitable collapse of global society and destruction of all recorded music as a result of oil wars and climate disaster, people will always love The Beatles. On the metaphorical Titanic that is this planet, the orchestra will play “Let It Be” as we sink. The end of the world as we know it is truly the only viable threat to the band’s legacy. But boy, does Yesterday give doomsday a run for its money.
A threateningly saccharine ransom letter of a movie, Yesterday takes the Fab Four hostage and asks us to imagine a world in which they never existed, except in the mind of one struggling musician. This premise is as silly and navel-gazing as a dorm room thought experiment, but silliness and experimentation alone never stopped anyone from making a good movie. In the hands of Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis, however, these elements have combined in their very worst forms, yielding a final product that is both odd and formulaic, sickly sweet and mean-spirited, drenched in pop culture yet utterly tasteless. By completely separating the music of The Beatles from the charisma, energy, and politics of the band itself, Yesterday fails to replicate even a hint of the magic that makes them so beloved.
“You need to stop being such a pussy,” a prominent male TV writer tells Mindy Kaling’s hand-wringing newbie Molly Patel at a crucial moment in Late Night. “That was incredibly offensive,” Molly replies. “Well, it was also true,” he says.
This exchange got a big laugh from my preview audience, and although I didn’t find myself laughing along, I could see how every piece of the joke was carefully chosen to work: it points to the casual misogyny of the traditional writers’ room, prods at the easy-to-offend attitude of Molly and women like her, and settles on the idea that at the end of the day, they’re both probably a little bit “right.” Also, that “pussy” is a funny word.
Late Night is peppered with moments like this, moments where Molly tries to speak her mind, take up space, and go against the grain, but her male colleagues still get to land the punchline. They’re funny, and she’s pushy—probably because she was an amateur when hired, set up to fail. While I’d like to think this is entirely commentary on the existing dynamic in many writers’ rooms today (and certainly, this is the foremost “point” the movie tries to make—women don’t usually get a platform to be funny), I can’t shake the feeling that these jokes were written to please an audience that’s entirely comfortable with the status quo.
Comedies about American teenagers are not all created equal, but they are certainly created similar. Timeless classics such as Clueless and poorly-aging hits like Easy A all share the same basic ingredients—outcasts, jocks, house parties, sex jokes, and One Last Night (or Day, or Week) to turn the tables and fight the powers that be. Yes, I just described genre as a whole—welcome to Much Ado’s Intro to Film, please have your books ready by Monday.
But like its title suggests, Booksmart already knows this history, and it won’t let that knowledge go to waste. By carefully choosing which tropes to play with and which to forgo, first-time feature director Olivia Wilde has accomplished the impossible: making the high school comedy fresh again. Funny, modern, and uniquely kind, Booksmart is a party film that, while not entirely free of formula, marks a new generation of movies about kids figuring out who they are and who they want to be—with the help of some drugs and a good time. Along with its inventive direction, pitch-perfect performances from Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever cement Booksmart as the movie of the summer, and cement the leads as comedy stars in the making.
“You can change the scenery, but sooner or later you’ll get a whiff of perfume or somebody will say a certain phrase or maybe they’ll hum something, then you’re licked again,” muses piano player Al Roberts in Detour (1945), Edgar G. Ulmer’s singular film noir. He is sitting, isolated, in a New York City bar when Bing Crosby’s “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me” begins to play, launching him into a reverie about his estranged girlfriend Sue, who has up and left him for her California dream of becoming an actress.