The Most Anticipated Films of 2021

Barry Jenkins’s The Underground Railroad

Some of the most promising stories of the new year will be told as multipart narratives. Before television commandeered the form in the mid-twentieth century, serials were a staple in movie theaters, drawing audiences eager to keep up with the adventures of Flash Gordon or the Lone Ranger. In the silent era, while Americans were tracking The Perils of Pauline or The Exploits of Elaine, the French were flocking to complex stories of the criminal underworld orchestrated by Louis Feuillade in Fantômas (1913–14), Les vampires (1915–16), and Judex (1916).

In 1996, Olivier Assayas cast Maggie Cheung as herself in an alternate universe in which a director played by Jean-Pierre Léaud has her take on the role made famous by Musidora in his remake of Les vampires. Now Assayas is working on his own remake, turning Irma Vep into a series starring Alicia Vikander, “a comedy,” he says, “that will try and catch the zeitgeist the same way the original Irma Vep did, in a very different world, a very different era, that right now feels light years away.”

Three years ago, Wong Kar Wai was speaking excitedly to reporters in France about his first foray into the long-form narrative, an epic series for Amazon about Chinese Americans in San Francisco from around 1905 through to the early 1970s. The format, he said, allows filmmakers “a bigger canvas to tell their stories.” He understood that “people are worried about whether this TV series or this kind of storytelling will become a competition to cinema. I don’t think so. They are just the different children of Lumière.”

Tong Wars, though, was abandoned before it went into production, and Wong turned instead to Blossoms Shanghai. Based on Jin Yucheng’s 2013 novel Blossoms, the winner of several prestigious literary awards in China, the series will star Hu Ge (The Wild Goose Lake) as a go-getter making millions during the economic boom of the early 1990s. Wong, who hasn’t directed a film since The Grandmaster in 2013, will direct the pilot—and he may be planning a new feature as well, a sequel to Chungking Express (1994).

Paul Verhoeven already has a feature waiting in the wings. The release of Benedetta, based on historian Judith C. Brown’s 1986 book, Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, has been delayed by the pandemic, but Verhoeven is already moving on. He’s currently preparing to shoot an eight-part adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 novel Bel-Ami, the story of a corrupt journalist’s rise to power.

This past year has brought news of two more eagerly awaited literary adaptations. Sofia Coppola is working on a series for Apple based on Edith Wharton’s 1913 tragicomedy The Custom of the Country, the story of Undine Spragg, a young woman from the Midwest who arrives in New York with plans to marry her way up the rungs of the city’s social ladder. In September, Barry Jenkins wrapped a 116-day shoot on The Underground Railroad, a limited series for Amazon based on Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel, winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

Set in the antebellum South, Whitehead’s story centers on Cora, a slave on a Georgia plantation played by Thuso Mbedu, a bright young star of South African television. With another slave, Caesar (Aaron Pierre), Cora flees the plantation to discover that the Underground Railroad, the network of hidden routes and safe houses overseen by abolitionists, is an actual subterranean railway complete with engineers, conductors, tracks, and tunnels.

Michael Mann was in Japan working on Tokyo Vice, a series for HBO, when the coronavirus outbreak shut down production. In November, Mann, who is producing and directing the pilot, was able to get back to work. Based on Jake Adelstein’s 2009 memoir, Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, the series stars Ansel Elgort alongside Ken Watanabe as a Tokyo police detective and Rinko Kikuchi as a journalist.

In 2013, Xavier Dolan adapted Michel Marc Bouchard’s play Tom at the Farm, and now he’s working on a five-episode series based on Bouchard’s The Night Logan Woke Up, in which the lives of three friends and their families are torn apart by a violent incident in their past. Fortunately, 2021 will also bring the laughs. Julie Delpy promises that some episodes of On the Verge, a portrait of a group of women who have had children relatively late in their lives, will have “a lot of comedy, even slapstick comedy,” while “other episodes are more emotional.”

Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie have written and will star alongside Emma Stone in The Curse, a half-hour comedy series about a newly married couple struggling to make their HGTV show work. And Boots Riley’s comedic series I’m a Virgo will star Jharrel Jerome as a thirteen-foot-tall man. Jerome won an Emmy for playing Korey Wise in Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, and in October, we took a look at Isabel Wilkerson’s new book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, which DuVernay is currently turning into a fiction feature for Netflix.

Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance

If the vaccine takes and all goes as planned, 2021 should be front-loaded with strong features that were supposed have premiered in 2020: Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch with its all-star cast; Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir: Part II; Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Colombia-set Memoria with Tilda Swinton; Andrew Dominik’s Joyce Carol Oates adaptation, Blonde, with Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe; Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth with Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand; Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island with Mia Wasikowska, Tim Roth, and Vicky Krieps; Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho with Anya Taylor-Joy; and two films starring Léa Seydoux, Ildikó Enyedi’s The Story of My Wife and Bruno Dumont’s On a Half Clear Morning.

We were also supposed to have been treated to a couple of musicals. Ron and Russell Mael, the brothers best known as Sparks, have written and scored Annette, which will be Leos Carax’s first feature in English. Adam Driver stars as a stand-up comedian married to a world-famous soprano (Marion Cotillard); their daughter, Annette, is born with a unique gift. The teaming of Carax and Sparks promises a tonal contrast to Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, a fresh adaptation of the original 1957 Broadway musical written by Tony Kushner.

Spike Lee has had a pretty amazing 2020, all things considered, and in this year’s Movie Club at Slate, Odie Henderson suggests that “every Spike Lee Joint is a musical under the skin.” In November, Lee announced that he’ll be “directing a dancin’, all singin’ musical” based on David Kushner’s “All Rise,” the story of the invention of Viagra that appeared in Esquire in 2018. And if our luck truly does return and take hold, we may even see a musical from Greta Gerwig as well. “One thing I feel that the world is really missing right now is tap dancing,” she told Variety at the end of 2019.

French Features

The pandemic scuppered Claire Denis’s plans to direct Robert Pattinson and Margaret Qualley in an adaptation of Denis Johnson’s 1986 novel, The Stars at Noon, so she’s turned right around and set up Radioscopie with Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon. Denis plans to shoot Radioscopie primarily at La Maison de la Radio, the Radio France headquarters in Paris, which she sees “as a fairly magical place. In radio, there are silences, breathing, hesitation, too . . . In radio, we hear people think.”

Deception, an adaptation of Philip Roth’s 1990 novel that Arnaud Desplechin secretly shot in September, has been on Desplechin’s desk since at least 2007. The story centers on an American writer and a married Englishwoman holed up in London, making a global pandemic the perfect time to go ahead and film it. “I went through that old script from A to Z,” says Desplechin. “As we wrote, it was as if a carpet were rolling out before us: our two heroes were trapped in the writer’s study, in the same way that we were confined by lockdown, and we found solutions for every problem we faced.” The cast will feature Léa Seydoux, Denis Podalydès, and Emmanuelle Devos.

Not much is known yet about Petite maman, the follow-up to 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire that Céline Sciamma has been shooting in Paris. Two eight-year-olds are the stars of Sciamma’s fifth feature, which sees her reuniting with cinematographer Claire Mathon. Earwig, an adaptation of artist and poet Brian Catling’s novel about a middle-aged man looking after a ten-year-old girl, will be Lucile Hadžihalilović’s first feature in English. And the most recent news we’ve heard about Titane, Julia Ducournau’s first feature since Raw (2016), is that it’s still in postproduction, well over a year since it was picked up by Neon. The story centers on the mysterious reappearance of a child who has been missing for ten years.

More Europeans

Pedro Almodóvar made his recent short, The Human Voice, in part to quench his long-held desire to adapt Jean Cocteau’s play and in part as an experiment. Could he shoot during a pandemic? Could he direct in English? Yes and yes. So he’s completed a first draft of a feature based on Lucia Berlin’s short story collection A Manual for Cleaning Women and has been working on two short films, Strange Way of Life, a western, and an as-yet-untitled dystopian story about the end of cinema. It’s unlikely that we will see any of those projects realized in 2021, but we can look forward to Parallel Mothers, featuring Penélope Cruz in the story of two women who give birth on the same day. Shooting is scheduled to begin in March.

With his cast and crew taking all the necessary precautions, Swedish director Ruben Östlund has managed to wrap Triangle of Sadness, his first feature since The Square won the Palme d’Or in 2017. In the new comedy, a celebrity couple joins an international gaggle of super-wealthy vacationers on a Mediterranean cruise. The yacht, piloted by a dedicated Marxist (Woody Harrelson), sinks, leaving the passengers marooned on an island where a cleaning lady begins to realize that she’s the only one among them of any practical use. Östlund notes that “the billionaires start to talk like dedicated socialists: ‘It’s important that we share equally.’”

The Brits

Terence Davies has wrapped Benediction, starring Jack Lowden as the First World War poet and soldier Siegfried Sassoon and Peter Capaldi as the older Sassoon, who struggled with what he perceived to be a conflict between his homosexuality and his religious faith. “In the end,” says Davies, “he is a human being trying to navigate a difficult life, which is what we all do, but art can be the greatest consolation for us all.”

Lynne Ramsay has cowritten (with I Am Not Okay With This creator Christy Hall) and will direct an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, the 1999 novel about a girl who gets lost in the woods and begins to imagine that her idol, baseball player Tom Gordon, has appeared at her side. George A. Romero was originally attached to the project, and now, one of his former wives, Christine Romero, is working on Ramsay’s production as a producer.

Ridley Scott will have The Last Duel, a fourteenth-century adventure with Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Ben Affleck, and Jodie Comer, out in October. Scott’s Gucci, the story of the fashion dynasty starring Driver, Lady Gaga, Jared Leto, Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, and Jack Huston, may be completed in time for a 2021 release as well.

From Across the Pacific

Having made his first film outside of Japan with The Truth in 2019, Hirokazu Kore-eda now heads to Korea to work with Song Kang Ho (Parasite) and Bae Doona (The Host) on Baby, Box, Broker, another story, like Shoplifters (2018), about ad hoc families. This one begins with a box where anyone can anonymously drop off an unwanted baby. Park Chan-wook, in the meantime, has been working with Tang Wei (Lust, Caution) and Park Hye-il (Memories of Murder) on Decision to Leave, in which a detective investigating a murder begins to suspect the victim’s widow—even as he finds himself falling for her.

September should see the release of George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing, in which Tilda Swinton plays a lonely and bitter woman who comes across an ancient bottle in Istanbul and releases a Djinn, who of course, grants her three wishes. She can’t think of a single thing to wish for until his stories rekindle a desire within her to be loved.

Jane Campion is adapting Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel The Power of the Dog, the story of two brothers, wealthy Montana ranchers in the 1920s, who fall out over a woman. The cast features Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Jesse Plemons. Campion’s fellow New Zealander, Peter Jackson, has recently given us a six-minute preview of the documentary he’s been working on, The Beatles: Get Back.

The Americas

Martin Scorsese originally planned to start shooting Killers of the Flower Moon with Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro in the fateful month of March 2020, but of course, now it’s looking more like March 2021. Eric Roth has written the screenplay based on David Grann’s 2017 book about a series of murders of Osage Native Americans in Oklahoma in the early 1920s. There’s still a tentative feel about this production, but we can be confident that we’ll be seeing two new documentaries from Scorsese this year. An Afternoon with SCTV, which captures a reunion of the renowned troupe of comedians, is in postproduction, and Netflix has just released a trailer for Pretend It’s a City, in which Fran Lebowitz, the subject of Scorsese’s Public Speaking (2010), wryly muses on New York and its people.

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