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ALL LIGHT, EVERYWHERE
Theo Anthony’s gripping new documentary confronts the permeating presence in our lives of automated surveillance, and the false and dangerous premises it’s built on. In addition to offering rich historical material, the heady, densely packed film zeroes in on four contemporary fronts: a neuroscience focus group wearing hard-to-believe tracking devices; the country’s leading manufacturer of body cameras; a classroom where Baltimore police are being trained to use those cameras; and a company that specializes in aerial surveillance. The result is brilliant and chilling. — SHERI LINDEN
BRING YOUR OWN BRIGADE
Lucy Walker’s smart, fascinating doc delves into the Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise, California, in 2018 as well as the Woolsey Fire that ravaged Malibu around the same time, adroitly balancing views of survivors, first responders and observers while sifting in an accessible way through the complex science that causes such catastrophes. Thanks to an eyes-on-the-prize devotion to clarity, Walker guides the viewer through the morass of characters, detail, archive and original footage to present an exemplary piece of explanatory, polemical but not partisan documentary making. — LESLIE FELPERIN
Revolving around a hearing teen (Emilia Jones, wonderful) and the tensions that arise when her passion for singing pulls her away from her deaf parents and brother (Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant), this remake of a 2014 French film is a radiant, deeply satisfying heartwarmer. The movie — which sold to Apple for $25 million, a Sundance record, and picked up several of the fest’s top prizes — sticks close to the feel-good playbook, but writer-director Sian Heder flaunts a finely tuned sense of when to push, how much, and when to pull back. You may roll your eyes. More likely, you’ll be wiping them. — JON FROSCH
Tracing the 2019-20 academic year of Oakland High School’s senior class, Peter Nicks’ documentary is an inspiring portrait of resilience in unprecedented circumstances. Originally intended as a vérité examination of a struggling institution, the film takes a turn when COVID-19 hits, closing the school, sending the students into their rooms and reducing their interactions to text messages and social media. This may not be the film Nicks set out to make, but it has wide-reaching resonance and builds to a powerful climax. — DANIEL FIENBERG
Danish writer-director Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s boldly genre-defying film mixes hand-drawn animation with archival footage to trace the harrowing history and psychological scars of an Afghan man hiding from his past for two decades since being granted political asylum in Copenhagen as a child. Originally slated to premiere at Cannes 2020, it’s an unconventional queer love story as well as a powerful and poetic memoir of personal struggle that expands the definition of documentary. Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who recently signed on as executive producers, will voice the lead roles in a forthcoming English-language version. — DAVID ROONEY
I WAS A SIMPLE MAN
Christopher Makoto Yogi’s lyrical family drama features Constance Wu as the ghost of a woman who returns to comfort her Japanese Hawaiian husband (Steve Iwamoto) as he nears death. Shifting dreamily back and forth in time amid green sugar plantations and pristine beaches, it’s a delicately haunting, heartfelt and personal study of a solitary man’s rueful end-of-life introspection. Echoes of the work of Asian contemplative cinema maestros Tsai Ming-liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul can be felt throughout. — D.R.
IN THE SAME BREATH
The first half of Nanfu Wang’s riveting doc for HBO is an immersive recap of the chaos that gripped Wuhan at the start of the novel coronavirus outbreak. The second half turns its haunted gaze to the arrival of the virus on U.S. shores and the refusal to heed warning signs and contain the spread. Even when accessing the situation remotely via camera operators and citizen journalists on the ground, Wang deftly balances factoids with firsthand experiences to show the emotional cost for families and front-line workers alike. — D.R.
JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH
The 1969 killing of Illinois Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton is the focus of Shaka King’s historical thriller, which bristles with urgency more than half a century later. Led by sensational performances from Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield as William O’Neal, the FBI informant who infiltrated his inner circle, this is electrifying, boldly assured filmmaking with real heart. Opening Feb. 12 through Warners with a simultaneous monthlong window on HBO Max, it’s an impressive step up for King (Newlyweeds). — D.R.
Against-the-odds gambles and the hope for one last chance drive all horse-racing movies. But what sets this one apart is its focus on the working-class realities of the riders, grooms and trainers who travel the smaller circuits, far from the glamour of the Triple Crown. Writer-director Clint Bentley, the son of a jockey himself, has a feel for the milieu that informs every aspect of the intimate, winning drama, and Clifton Collins Jr. and Molly Parker deliver beautifully tempered turns as two long-timers eyeing potential breakthroughs in middle age. — S.L.
Robin Wright stars in her feature directorial debut, playing a woman stricken by unfathomable loss who turns away from what’s left of her life in the city and exiles herself to a mountaintop cabin, believing that she’s prepared for the wilderness. Posing stark questions with a simple, elemental force and deep wells of compassion, the unadorned drama — grounded by compellingly contained and profoundly affecting turns from Wright and co-star Demián Bichir — will get a Feb. 12 theatrical release from Focus Features. — S.L.
Debuting writer-director Fran Kranz draws powerful turns from Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd and Reed Birney as two sets of devastated parents who meet at a church to discuss the school shooting that resulted in their sons’ deaths six years earlier. It’s a chamber drama of searing intimacy — a harrowing watch, but a cathartic one — that trades the political for the personal in its reflections on gun violence and mental health in America today. — D.R.
Exquisite performances from Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga provide the pulsing, emotionally heightened center to Rebecca Hall’s assured move behind the camera, adapted with great sensitivity from the 1929 novel of the same name by Harlem Renaissance author Nella Larsen. A dreamily atmospheric evocation of 1920s New York, the film tells an intimate story of two women on either side of the “color line” while undertaking an intersectional exploration of identity in relation to race, gender, class and sexuality. — D.R.
PLAYING WITH SHARKS
Sally Aitken’s enthralling doc is a visually stunning tribute to Australian marine conservationist Valerie Taylor, whose fearless underwater photography, made famous in Jaws, expanded human understanding of the ocean’s apex predators. In addition to the disarming personality of her subject, Aitken’s invigorating dive into the deep is distinguished by the sheer beauty of its remastered archival material, which spans a half-century and transports us back to a time before coral reefs were ravaged by climate change. — D.R.
SUMMER OF SOUL
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s electrifying documentary delves into the Harlem Cultural Festival, which, over six weekends in the summer of 1969, showcased more than five dozen acts and drew 300,000 people, who were charged not a cent to see Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Sly and the Family Stone, to name just a few. Aside from the knockout footage, the doc (winner of this year’s grand jury prize) delivers a piercing portrait of a turning point in Black identity, as well as a collection of lovely reminiscences from those who were there. — S.L.
WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR
An online role-playing game sends a teen (Anna Cobb) on a journey of self-exploration in Jane Schoenbrun’s debut feature. There are unmistakable themes of gender dysphoria in the story — demonstrated by the protagonist using the game to experiment with her own presentation — and the filmmaker uses glowing light, melancholy music, deliberate pacing and purposeful positioning of the camera to illuminate the character’s loneliness. The result is a movie that feels both specific and universal in its portrait of a period in life when the mind is a fever of rage, sadness and confusing desires. — JOURDAIN SEARLES
A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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