Justin Chang

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.

Chang is the author of FilmCraft: Editing, a book of interviews with seventeen top film editors. He serves as chair of the National Society of Film Critics and secretary of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

Blue Bayou moved me a lot more than I expected or maybe even wanted it to. Scene by scene, this story of a Korean American adoptee facing deportation is frequently heavy-handed and overwrought. There were moments when I was certain I loathed it — only for it to reel me back in. By the end, I found myself wiping away furious tears, a little angry perhaps at the filmmakers for their sledgehammer tactics, but much angrier at the injustice of what they show us: an immigration system that can tear families apart.

The signature Paul Schrader image is of a lonely middle-aged man nursing a glass of booze and writing in his diary, pouring out all his dark thoughts and guilty secrets. In the 1992 film Light Sleeper, it was a drug dealer having a midlife crisis.

The best moments in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings are the ones where you almost — almost — forget you're watching a Marvel movie. Some of the hallmarks are still there: the deft comic banter, the high-flying action, the passing references to other characters and events in the Marvel universe.

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The average musical biopic — and most of them are pretty average — follows a predictable arc: the troubled childhood marked by flashes of genius; the record deals and hit album montages; the marriages torn apart by affairs, addiction and the ravages of fame. Even when these clichés are drawn from real life, it's disappointing to see great artists reduced to formulas.

2021 is shaping up to be a significant year for movie musicals: We've already seen In the Heights, and several more stage-to-screen adaptations are headed our way, including Dear Evan Hansen; Tick, Tick ... Boom!; and Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story.

As powerful a grip as King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table still exert on our imaginations, there haven't been enough great or even good movies made about them. There have been some, of course — I'm fond of the lush Wagnerian grandeur of John Boorman's Excalibur and will always love Monty Python and the Holy Grail — but they're more the exception than the rule.

The 60-year-old South Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo is one of the most tirelessly productive filmmakers working today. He's made more than two dozen films over the past couple of decades, sometimes churning out one or even two a year. The consistency and quality of his work have earned him a significant following at film festivals and among arthouse audiences, who've come to love his wry and melancholy movies: slender, low-budget dramedies that are often focused on the fractious dynamics between women and men.

Having been fortunate enough to attend the Cannes Film Festival every year since 2006, skipping this year's event wasn't easy. Cannes is the most important event of its kind: a thrilling, maddening 10-day marathon of red-carpet glamor and behind-the-scenes deal-making as well as a showcase for some of the best new movies from all over the world.

Eight years ago, Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement from feature filmmaking. Happily for us, it turned out to be short-lived.

By curious coincidence, two of the lovelier movies I've seen so far this summer — the family-friendly animated fable Luca and the German art-house fairy tale Undine — tell stories about mythic sea creatures making contact with the human world.

In the Heights couldn't be more perfectly timed. For one thing, summer movies don't get much more summery than this one, which takes place during a record-breaking New York heat wave. For another, this vibrant screen adaptation of the Lin-Manuel Miranda stage musical captures something we've largely gone without over the past year: a joyous sense of togetherness.

In the sensational 2018 thriller A Quiet Place, humanity has been ravaged by hideous alien predators with extraordinary powers of hearing. The story follows the Abbotts, a family of survivors who must stay quiet at all times, unable to talk or sneeze or step on a creaky floorboard or they'll likely be dead.

It was a killer word-of-mouth hook: Here was a movie you had to watch in a theater in your own state of silence, with no slurping or popcorn crunching allowed.

Chalk it up to our eternal fascination with human evil or to a movie industry that's short on original ideas, but it seems like almost every classic villain nowadays is guaranteed their own feature-length backstory.

Just about every era gets the great end-of-a-marriage movie it deserves, sometimes even more than one. The '70s gave us Scenes From a Marriage and Kramer vs. Kramer; the past decade brought us the Iranian masterpiece A Separation and, more recently, the justly acclaimed Marriage Story.

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Before I saw The Disciple, I knew nothing about Hindustani, or northern Indian, classical music. By the end of the movie, I knew a little bit more, though I'd still be hard-pressed to follow the different intonations that singers bring to their performances, or to explain how a raga works. (That's the musical framework that allows performers to improvise.) Fortunately, no expertise is needed to appreciate The Disciple, which is both a welcome introduction to a kind of music we rarely hear onscreen and a richly layered story of a young man's artistic struggle.

About Endlessness is a fitting title for a movie about the futility of the human condition, but happily, the movie itself is anything but a slog. For one thing, it's only 76 minutes long. And in every one of those minutes, it strikes an exquisite balance between deadpan humor and acute despair, offset by the faintest glimmer of hope.

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There have been many fine films over the past several years about characters struggling with the onset of Alzheimer's disease and dementia, like Away From Her, Still Alice and the recent Colin Firth/Stanley Tucci drama

When a violent ethnic conflict broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, the writer-director Jasmila Zbanic was a teenager in Sarajevo, where she would spend the next three years living under siege.

The instability and violence of that era would indelibly shape Zbanic's later work as a filmmaker: In movies like Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams and For Those Who Can Tell No Tales, she explored the aftermath of the war and the deep scars it left in her country's psyche.

Raya and the Last Dragon is a lovely, moving surprise. Its big selling point is that it's the first Disney animated film to feature Southeast Asian characters, but like so many movies that break ground in terms of representation, it tells a story that's actually woven from reassuringly familiar parts. I didn't mind that in the slightest.

Chloé Zhao's amazing new movie, Nomadland, begins with an elegy for Empire, Nev., one of those old-fashioned company towns that thrived during America's post-World War II manufacturing boom. But in 2011, in the wake of a devastating global recession, the local gypsum mine shut down and Empire became a ghost town, displacing hundreds of residents in the process.

There have been many strong documentaries over the years about the history of the Black Panther Party, but Judas and the Black Messiah is the first major Hollywood drama I've seen that puts the organization and its activism front and center.

While it remains to be seen what this year's COVID-19-impacted Academy Awards ceremony will look like, my guess is that there will be an Oscar winner for best international feature, the category that until recently was known as best foreign-language film. I haven't come close to seeing the 93 films that have been accepted — a record for the Academy — but I'm happy to recommend two of them, both dramatic thrillers that demonstrate the power and persistence of love.

It's been awhile since I've seen a new studio picture like The Little Things — a big, meaty, slickly made crime drama featuring a trio of Academy Award winners. That's partly because of COVID-19, which caused theaters to close 10 months ago and led the studios to postpone some of their biggest titles. But even if there wasn't a pandemic and The Little Things had been widely released in theaters as planned, it might still have played like a relic from an earlier moviemaking decade.

The year 2008 saw the publication of Aravind Adiga's novel The White Tiger and the release of the film Slumdog Millionaire, two stories about young men escaping poverty and defying the odds against the backdrop of a rapidly globalizing India.

If you didn't know what they were about, you'd be forgiven for confusing the striking new movies Promising Young Woman and Pieces of a Woman. They do have similarities that go beyond their titles: Each is an intense but uneven film about the lingering effects of trauma and tragedy. And each one centers on an American woman played by an English actor doing her strongest work in some time.

It was a year when most of us stayed away from movie theaters, but it wasn't a year without movies. While the major studios largely set their sights on 2021 (and a few released their big titles on streaming services), it was an unsurprisingly terrific year for independent narrative films, feature-length documentaries and pictures of all types and genres from overseas. Here are the 10 that meant the most to me, arranged, per my annual tradition, as a series of themed pairings:

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