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Stand By Me follows four young friends as they journey around their small town searching for a rumored dead body. On the surface, it moves like an adventure story. The boys narrowly avoid guard dogs and leeches, speeding trains and tough teen gangs. But along the way, they also learn much about each other, in particular about the stark reality of their home lives and the growing depths of their inner struggles, so that beneath all the small-time thrill is a beating coming-of-age story. 

Based on a novella by horror master Stephen King, Stand By Me is terrifying in its ability to evoke the unique thorniness of passing through the gates of adulthood, but also warm and comforting in its reminder of the universality of this feeling.

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In Motherwell, you either “get locked up or knocked up,” or so says Gemma, a teenager on the cusp of adulthood growing up in an old Scottish steel town. Gemma runs among a tight-knit group of friends, at the center of which is ordinary mischief, routine, and roughhousing. And beneath that lies a certain kind of everyday violence. 

As Gemma enters young motherhood, she reckons with how to reconcile her own aggressions with the protective tenderness she feels toward her newborn. Beautifully and thoughtfully directed by Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin, Scheme Birds never feels invasive. Rather, their documentary lets Gemma speak for herself—and in doing so, illuminates not just her life, but the complicated lives that intersect hers, too. 

There are only two main characters in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande: Nancy, a retired teacher who was recently widowed, and Leo, an adept sex worker with a mysterious past. They're almost always in one place and work on a single goal: pleasure. But despite the seeming monotony, the movie is crackling with wit and sensuality every step of the way. It doesn't waste any time getting to the heart of the matter. Nancy and Leo go back and forth about their past, with Nancy divulging much about the stigma of aging and Leo about the stigma of sex work. They also dive into the shame attached to pleasure, ultimately revealing more than just their naked bodies to each other and to the audience.

Director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) reunites with Mads Mikkelsen to tell the story of four teachers going through a mid-life crisis. They’re not sad, exactly—they have homes and jobs and are good friends with each other—but they’re not happy either. Unlike the ebullient youth they teach, they seem to have lost their lust for life, and it’s silently eating away at them, rendering them glassy-eyed and mechanic in their everyday lives. 

Enter an experiment: what if, as one scholar suggests, humans were meant to fulfill a certain alcohol concentration in order to live as fully and present as possible? The teachers use themselves as the subjects and the tide slowly starts to turn to mixed effects. Are they actually getting better or worse?

With an always-satisfying performance by Mikkelsen and an instant classic of an ender, it’s no surprise Another Round took home the award for Best Foreign Film in the 2020 Academy Awards.

A young bisexual woman attends a shiva, caught between her parents and their expectations, her ex, and her sugar daddy. Rachel Sennott’s Danielle is yet to find her path in life and everyone is determined to remind her of that. Taking place almost entirely in real-time, the film’s sharp wit is contrasted with constant anxiety, complemented by Ariel Marx’s horror-like score, full of discordant pizzicato that sounds like every last bit of sanity snapping. 

It’s a sex-positive take on 20-something life, treating bisexuality as wholly unremarkable and passing no judgment on Danielle’s sugar daddy income. Its specificities about Jewish customs and traditions are non-exclusionary, while its social claustrophobia is achingly universal. It’s comforting in the way it portrays the social horrors we all face, the feeling that everyone but you has life figured out, and that – ultimately – those who matter will pull through, eventually. One of 2021’s best.

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