Blinded by the Light

Directed by British Indian filmmaker Gurinder Chadha best known for 2003’s Bend It Like Beckham, Blinded by the Light is a feel-good comedy drama that revolves around a story of a young British Pakistani living in an economically depressed town in England with his conservative Muslim family and is inspired by a real-life individual with similar circumstances. The protagonist feels very isolated from the rest of the English community that often bullies him for his ethnicity and has no creative or social outlet for his insecurities and desire to break away from his strict family life. After a chance encounter with a fellow British Pakistani at his school, Javed Khan, played by Viveik Kalra, the music of Bruce Springsteen whose lyrics closely resemble what he is feeling in his own life and feels inspired to spread the music of Bruce Springsteen whose popularity peaked several years prior. Set in the 1980s as a economic downturn greatly affects Great Britain, the film encapsulates the feeling of anxiety across the United Kingdom, especially with immigrants and the rise of the Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The movie is full of funny moments in which Javed’s sheer enthusiasm for Springsteen takes over parts of his life. The filmmaker also makes the creative and effective decision to superimpose the real lyrics of Bruce Springsteen as Javed is listening to the music on his Walkman. But, the movie is primarily a wonderfully uplifting story of a young man who is finally confident in his love for writing poetry and is able to find a British girlfriend, all because of an American musician who makes a connection with his own unique life living in an immigrant family. Overall, I found it to be a touching movie that shows the power of music and art to truly inspire people to do their best in life and is able to relay this message of hope while still being entertaining and creative.

Yesterday

Directed by Danny Boyle who won the Academy Award for Best Director for 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, Yesterday is a very clever and endearing romantic comedy that is remarkable for its extremely creative story in which the protagonist is the only person in the world who has heard of The Beatles after a freak accident. We first meet Jack Malik, played by the talented British actor Himesh Patel best known for his role on the BBC television show EastEnders, struggling to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a successful singer-songwriter but is always encouraged by his childhood friend and manager Ellie, played by Lily James best known for her role on Downton Abbey. While riding a bicycle in his small seaside English town one night, he is involved in a freak accident after a mysterious worldwide power outage and soon discovers after playing a Beatles song to his friends that no one in the world has ever heard of The Beatles, it is as if they never existed. He decides to record as many of The Beatles songs that he can remember and pass them off as his own works, which eventually makes him a major musical star after he catches the attention of singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, played by himself. Over the course of the movie, Jack embarks on a whirlwind and quite entertaining journey to worldwide fame, all set to the greatest hits of The Beatles sung in a different way by the actor himself. However, his recording and tour schedule strictly dictated by his new Los Angeles recording agent Debra, played by Kate McKinnon, pushes him away from his beloved friend and secret love Ellie. Besides the wonderfully nostalgic soundtrack, the film has several moments of humor, including the overall premise of the plot and additional parts of our daily lives that also magically disappeared, as well as the buffoonery yet sweet nature of his roadie and sometimes assistant Rocky, played by the very funny British actor Joel Fry. After his experiences with the glamorous lifestyle of the famous, Jack gradually comes back down to earth, and the film becomes more of a romance after he realizes that he missed out on his chance for true love with Ellie and dedicates the rest of the movie to trying to win her back. Overall, I found it to be a light-hearted and joyful cinematic experience that has truly one of the more innovative and unique storylines and is perfectly set to everyone’s favorite Beatles songs.

Rocketman

Directed by Dexter Fletcher who was the director who finished the 2018 Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman is a truly extraordinary cinematic experience that perfectly encapsulates the fantastical career of Elton John by presenting the movie as a musical fantasy that definitely breaks the mold of the traditional biopic. Punctuated by well-choreographed dance sequences set to Elton John’s music, the film is a series of rapid-fire flashbacks told from the personal perspective of Elton John, played by the terrific Taron Egerton best known for his role in The Kingsmen action comedy movie franchise, while he is receiving treatment at a rehab facility. The story retraces his early life living in a dysfunctional family led by his dismissive mother Sheila, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, but his musical talents are encouraged by his kind-hearted grandmother who supports his decision at such a young age to enroll in the prestigious Royal Academy of Music. Eventually, he decides to change his name to Elton John and take on a flamboyant stage persona, which coincides with his meteoric rise to global musical fame. His amazing ability to place music to lyrics is greatly enhanced when he begins a writing partnership with a songwriter named Bernie Taupin, played by Jamie Bell. As is the case with a majority of musical geniuses, he quickly spirals out of control with the heavy influence of alcohol, drugs, and sex and also under the unhealthy pressure of his music manager and one-time lover John Reid, played by Richard Madden. The filmmaker makes the brilliant decision to convey the excesses and low points of Elton John’s personal life through the use of his own music with lyrics that somehow perfectly fit within the context of each and every scene. Overall, I found it to be a fabulously entertaining cinematic journey that takes a refreshing twist on the traditional musical biopic by incorporating Elton John’s unique personality and sound; it is undoubtedly one of the most creative films of the year and runs laps around last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

Pavarotti

Directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Ron Howard best known for 1995’s Apollo 13 and 2001’s A Beautiful Mind, Pavarotti is a love letter of a documentary to the legendary and larger-than-life opera singer and tenor Luciano Pavarotti, and the film does an extraordinary job of capturing the truly remarkable life story of one of the greatest voices whose persona captivated the world. It follows in the traditional mold of a documentary by telling his story through photographs, archival footage, actual concert performances, and contemporary interviews with his family and colleagues. The true magic of the deeply fascinating documentary is the subject who we first meet as a young man from a working-class family living in Modena, Italy with the improbable dream of becoming a world-class opera singer. The audience does get a glimpse of his sometimes complicated personal life, especially as it relates to his love for beautiful women, who always adored his daughters even at his most difficult points in his life. We get to witness the rise of Pavarotti as he starts his career performing in a small Italian opera company and eventually become a major recording artist who did the unthinkable for opera stars by primarily giving concerts with a selection of songs from famous operas. The largely unseen personal archival footage shows a big-hearted giant of a man who exuded natural charisma and generosity while always enjoying the good things in life, including fine wine and Italian food. His desire to help those in need throughout the world began in earnest after he teamed up with fellow famous tenors Plácido Domingo and José Carreras, establishing what would be known as The Three Tenors. The documentary gives particularly interesting insight into the relationship between the equally charismatic Three Tenors by interviewing both Domingo and Carreras who beautifully reflect on the legacy of their dear friend Pavarotti. Overall, I found it to be one of the more engrossing documentaries that I have seen in recent memory, and I would definitely recommend it to anybody who enjoys music even if you are not a fan of opera, or really anybody who enjoys a good documentary about a remarkable person such as Luciano Pavarotti.

Cold War

Directed by Oscar-winning Polish filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski best known for 2013’s critically acclaimed Ida, Cold War is a breathtaking romance drama that is truly remarkable for its beautiful black-and-white cinematography and outstanding lead actors who give brilliant performances as star-crossed lovers. Based on the lives of the director’s own parents, the relatively short film with mostly Polish dialogue follows the heated and complex romantic relationship between two Polish citizens, the musician and composer Wiktor, played by the terrific Tomasz Kot, and the beautiful singer Zula, played by the seductive Joanna Kulig. We first meet them in the years following World War II in the ruins of communist Poland when they are part of a traveling folk music group that later espouses the virtues of communism throughout Eastern Europe and Russia. After their romance begins behind the Iron Curtain, we follow them as individuals who get separated and reunited several times across several European countries over the course of four decades concluding in the late 1960s. Wiktor eventually escapes Poland and lives for a while in Paris as a struggling musician working in nightclubs but never really feels happy after Zula decides to remain back home in Poland. With brilliantly subtle directorial vision, the audience is able to feel the passionate and emotionally powerful romantic interactions between the two as they are reunited several times throughout the course of the plot. Furthermore, the filmmaker makes the perfect decision to make the film black-and-white with the older boxy proportions to vividly express the difficulties of those living in the rather bleak and the confining communist countries during the Cold War. At the same time, the movie depicts a truly beautiful love story with a contemporary jazz soundtrack for the times and astounding cinematography that helps bring to life both the dark and light of both sides of the Iron Curtain. Overall, I found it to be one of the most beautiful romantic movies in recent memory as a result of the first-rate acting performances and contemplative directing and cinematography, and it is thereby highly deserving of the Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, and Best Cinematography.

Vox Lux

Directed by American actor and filmmaker Brady Corbet whose 2015 feature film debut The Childhood of a Leader received acclaim at the Venice Film Festival, Vox Lux is a rather unusual movie that I would best describe as an experimental film festival indie movie and is remarkable primarily as a result of the terrific acting performance given by Oscar winner Natalie Portman. Somewhat like a theatrical play, the film is divided into several acts tied together through the narration given by Willem Dafoe, and it follows the rapid rise in fame of the fictitious pop superstar Celeste. We first meet the young Celeste, played by Raffey Cassidy, in the year 1999 as a fourteen-year-old survivor of a school mass shooting who decides to perform a song with her older sister Eleanor, played by Stacy Martin, at a memorial service for the victims. Her beautiful song captures the nation’s heart and almost immediately the two sisters work with an aggressive talent manager played by Oscar-nominated actor Jude Law. The film flashes forward to a point where Celeste begins to become a musical sensation and travels to Stockholm with her sister to work with a famous pop songwriter. After witnessing the erosion of her innocence by attending wild parties with much older men, the major act of the movie takes place in the year 2017 when the now thirtysomething adult Celeste, played by Natalie Portman in a very dedicated role, is trying to stage a comeback tour after a publicity nightmare that took place several years prior and almost destroyed her career. Clearly her success has had a personal toll on her relationship with her previously inseparable sister and has caused her to become a foul-mouthed alcoholic. She even has a teenage daughter named Albertine, also played by Raffey Cassidy, who Celeste is in no state to take care of her and thereby her sister Eleanor has become her guardian. Taking place over the course of an afternoon and evening, the film finally reaches its climax when Celeste performs on stage at a large venue in her native Staten Island. With original songs written by pop musician Sia, Natalie Portman bursts off the screen as a very believable popstar complete with extravagant makeup and costumes while performing a highly choreographed stereotypical pop music performance. Even when she is not on stage using her actual singing voice, Portman is truly mesmerizing by giving a powerful performance as a brash and immature celebrity who never really grew up as a result of the enveloping music world with its highly demanding managers, publicists, and studio executives. Overall, I thought it was perhaps too eccentric of a movie to appeal to most audiences, but it serves as a showcase for the masterful acting of the extremely talented Natalie Portman.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Directed by Bryan Singer who is best known for 1995’s Usual Suspects and several X-Men comic book film adaptations beginning in 2000, Bohemian Rhapsody is an entertaining biopic about the hugely successful pop rock band Queen with particular focus on the eccentric and talented lead singer Freddie Mercury who is brilliantly played by the lead actor Rami Malek. We first meet the Indian-British Parsi Farrokh Bulsara, the real birth name of Freddie Mercury played by the mesmerizing Malek who is best known for his Emmy Award-winning performance on the TV series Mr. Robot, working a dead end job at London’s Heathrow Airport, and he happens upon his favorite local band Smile in 1970 who are looking for a new lead singer. The film then follows the meteoric rise of the band after it changes its name to Queen and explores the flamboyant Freddie Mercury’s relationship with the other band members, including the lead guitarist Brian May who is played by Gwilym Lee, the drummer Roger Taylor who is played by Ben Hardy, and the bass guitarist John Deacon who is played by Joseph Mazzello. Following the stereotypical formula of a movie about musicians, the story chronicles the often contentious issues surrounding the different personalities of the band members and the desire for the lead singer Freddie Mercury to control the band and eventually embark on a solo career. It also explores the behind-the-scenes business decisions that ultimately allows Queen to become an international sensation: the one-time manager John Reid, played by Aidan Gillen who is best known for his role on the HBO TV series Game of Thrones, and their lawyer and eventual manager Jim Beach, played by critically acclaimed British actor Tom Hollander, fight with the studio EMI about what music should be released on the radio. In a fun twist, the executive Ray Foster who does not think that the hit song Bohemian Rhapsody should be played on the radio is played by Mike Myers, who himself supported the idea of using the song in the 1992 comedy Wayne’s World despite the studio’s hesitation. Since it mostly follows Freddie Mercury and his complicated personal life, the script reveals his unusual relationship with his girlfriend Mary Austin, played by Lucy Boynton, who suspects that Freddie Mercury may in fact be gay. Eventually, he does fully embrace his lifestyle and begins a sexual relationship with his personal manager Paul Prenter while, at the same time, his outfits become increasingly outrageous and gender fluid. The movie does suffer at times from a lack of a cohesive narrative direction, punctuated by well-choreographed concert scenes in which the band’s greatest hits are played by the energetic Freddie Mercury. The whole film feels like it leads up to the best part of the film when the reunited band members come together to play a truly extraordinary concert at the internationally broadcast benefit concert series Live Aid in 1985 in front of a live audience of over 70,000 at Wembley Stadium in London and a television audience of over 1 billion. During this exhilarating final sequence, Malek transforms himself into the role of Freddie Mercury and sings and dances eerily similar to the real Freddie Mercury at the summit of his career. Overall, I found it to be a fascinating look into the origins of the world famous rock band Queen who helped to define music throughout the 1970s and 80s, and whose main asset was the outstanding performance given by the extremely talented actor Rami Malek.