Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Top Ten Movies of 2019

Er…better late than never, right?

I realize we’re almost two months into 2020. We’re even past the Oscars – the unofficial “end” of the film year – albeit the Oscars were significantly earlier than usual this year. This list has been delayed mainly because I really wanted to catch up with some movies from 2019 that I either missed or didn’t have an opportunity to see in theaters last year. While I’ll probably never completely catch up, and per usual have seen nowhere near enough foreign films or documentaries to make this even close to a comprehensive tally, here are the ten films from 2019 that most moved and/or delighted me (along with links to reviews or other pieces I've written about them).

Yes, it really is that good. It begins as a broad social satire about a poor Korean family conning their way into the household of a rich one, only to morph into something darker, stranger, and quite frankly brilliant. Bong Joon-Ho returns to his favorite themes and tropes, as well as his fondness for head-spinning genre and tonal shifts, but weaves them into something unprecedentedly taut, entertaining, and ultimately – surprisingly – poignant. In its razor-sharp treatment of class inequities, it’s a reminder that some of the best films about that subject in recent years have been coming not out of the West but from East Asia.

Pedro Almodóvar brings his signature warmth to this semi-autobiographical tale of an aging filmmaker (beautifully played by Antonio Banderas) who makes unexpected discoveries while revisiting bittersweet memories of his youth. Lovely and understated, it’s the kind of film that’s only grown and burrowed deeper into my consciousness in the months since I first saw it. It also features what has to be the most perfect ending shot of 2019.

3. 1917
It will go down in history as the Oscars best picture frontrunner that everyone had resigned themselves to accepting as the inevitable winner, only to be shoved aside in a stunning upset by the zeitgeisty juggernaut that was Parasite. And yet Sam Mendes’ gripping WWI film about a pair of young British soldiers dispatched on a hail Mary mission to deliver urgent orders across enemy lines deserves to be remembered for more than its also-ran status, or even for Roger Deakins’ spectacular cinematography, which manages the incredible feat of looking like one long, continuous, real-time shot tracking the soldiers as they move through the trenches and fields. With its spare, economic, stripped-down narrative and the veddy British restraint of its principal actors, it somehow gains a greater resonance than a more amplified emotional display would have achieved.

I admit I went into this one with both my back and my dukes up (figuratively speaking), partly because I haven’t really been a huge fan of Noah Baumbach’s previous work, partly because I’d heard the script was based on his own divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh and figured it would inevitably stack the deck in favor of the man in the central divorcing couple. That preconception, however, was quickly overturned by the actual film, which is at once painfully raw, unexpectedly hilarious, and admirably even-handed. Sure, the viewer may feel bad for the seemingly blindsided, loving husband and father played by Adam Driver, but as the movie goes on it develops the perspective and very real grievances of his wife (Scarlett Johansson) with considerable nuance and compassion, balances out the sympathy quota (much more so than Kramer v. Kramer, one of its obvious spiritual forbears), and ends on an exquisitely tender, bittersweet note. Driver, ScarJo, and Laura Dern (as the wife’s take-no-prisoners lawyer) all turn in powerhouse performances, with Alan Alda playing a gentler but equally memorable counterpoint to the principals’ gloves-off brawling. This isn’t an easy film to watch, but once you start, you can’t look away.

Quentin Tarantino is a director I can’t help loving despite myself. For years now, he’s vexed me as the perpetual adolescent who’s never outgrown his youthful fixations (cinematic and otherwise), even as his success has basically given him a blank check to indulge himself in meandering, borderline-onanistic filmmaking exercises with no apparent purpose other than to pay homage to said fixations. And yet…something about these exercises nearly always draws me in; he has the singular power to claim my attention and hold it firmly in his grip up to and through the inevitable climax of orgiastic violence. So it is with this languorous, lazily enjoyable paean to 1960s Hollywood, which also has the added benefit of looking beautiful and bathing its beautiful principal players in that nostalgic golden light. The sadism of the ending may bother some viewers, and yet, once again, there’s something gleefully cathartic about the way QT willfully rewrites a tragic chapter of history.

I seem to be the only one who really liked Ed Norton’s (literally) decades-in-the-making labor of love, notwithstanding its frigid reception both on the festival circuit and in wide release last fall. Norton does something quite daring in transplanting the plot of Jonathan Lethem’s 1990s detective novel into the 1950s and adding a fictionalized version of NY city planner Robert Moses (Alec Baldwin), and to my mind, at least, he pulled it off. The film undeniably borrows heavily from other, greater predecessors, playing like a New Yorker’s homage to Chinatown and L.A. Confidential - yet it’s grounded in a quietly affecting lead performance by Norton as the protagonist who battles a Tourette’s like disorder while searching for answers to his mentor’s murder, and themes of racism, gentrification, and the corrupting effect of power that are still all too timely today.

Based on the true story of an Austrian farmer conscripted during WWII who steadfastly refused to swear loyalty to Hitler and suffered the consequences, Terrence Malick’s latest raises knotty moral questions that have no easy answers but plenty of contemporary resonance. Sure, it could have been about 20-30 minutes shorter and a smidge less aestheticized, but Malick’s flourishes don’t detract or distract from the film’s quiet power. His best work since Tree of Life.

If anyone could breathe new life into this much adapted classic, it would be Greta Gerwig, who tackles the challenge with a bold yet faithful take on Louisa May Alcott’s tale of four very different sisters in post-Civil War New England. While the constant time-shifting of Gerwig’s screenplay between “then” and “now” can sometimes be a little disorienting, it’s more than offset by the gorgeous cinematography and strong acting, especially from Saoirse Ronan as Jo and Florence Pugh as Amy, who in her hands actually becomes a compelling character for once. (That said...the 1994 Little Women with Winona Ryder still remains my favorite.)

When was the last time a film so culturally, peculiarly specific managed to feel so universal? You don’t have to understand the reasons underpinning Lulu Wang’s funny-sad true story of her family’s elaborate ruse to keep her grandmother from knowing she had terminal cancer; hell, you don’t even have to be Asian or an immigrant to understand or empathize with the complicated family dynamics that pull at the main character (Awkwafina, showing she has serious dramatic as well as comic chops), though it certainly helps. The beauty of The Farewell lies in its understanding of all people who have at some point had to leave home or family and had to reassess that decision.

A welcome feminist riposte to all them bad-boy Wall Street flicks, from, well, Wall Street to Wolf of Wall Street, Lorene Scafaria’s adaptation of a New Yorker article about a cadre of female strippers who schemed to fleece the fleecers is by turns entertaining, infuriating, and sobering, but never anything less than engrossing. This is due in large measure to the terrific performance of Jennifer Lopez as the coolly self-possessed den mother and mastermind behind the scheme. She may play a stripper, but she’s just as magnetic with her clothes on, and will leave you wanting more.

Honorable Mentions:
Ad Astra
The Irishman
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Ash is Purest White
Knives Out
Captain Marvel
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Ford v. Ferrari
The Mustang
The Two Popes

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Oscar predix 2020

Wow, have I really not posted to this blog since last summer? Apologies, the back half of 2019 ended up being busy for me and when I did have time to write about movies, it was usually for Nathaniel Rogers' excellent blog The Film Experience. You can find my articles here.

But the Oscars are the one time of year I will never miss here, for better or for worse, even though I've missed more of the nominees this year than I usually do. (Having the Oscars so much earlier than usual doesn't help.) Based on what I have seen, I have mixed feelings about these nominations...on the one hand, it is true that the best pic/director lineup tilted very MALE (not just in who was nominated, but the subject matter of their movies) and the acting nods very WHITE, but on the other, it's been amazing to see the South Korean film Parasite ride its zeitgeist to a heap of major nods, including for both Picture and Director. One can't overstate what a huge deal this is for the Academy, which has never nominated a Korean film even for best foreign film, let alone best picture, despite the fact that South Korea has been producing some of the most interesting and critically acclaimed cinema in the world for a while now. Well, Korea's finally not only arrived, it's smashed through, Kool-Aid man style. It may be a one-off, but it's still a remarkable accomplishment.

Anyway, without further ado, here are my predictions for the major awardage this year.

Best Picture

Will win: 1917

Should win: PARASITE

Dark horse: PARASITE. ONCE UPON A TIME...IN HOLLYWOOD is still in the mix, but PARASITE has all the possible-upset buzz right now.

Best Director

Will win: Sam Mendes (1917)

Should win: Bong Joon-Ho, but I wouldn't begrudge Mendes

Dark horse: I don't see anyone but Mendes winning, but I suppose both Bong and Tarantino have long shots.

Best Actress

Will win: Renee Zellweger for JUDY

Should win: Haven't seen JUDY, so will not opine

Dark horse: ScarJo for MARRIAGE STORY

Best Actor

Will win: Joaquin Phoenix for JOKER

Should win: Haven't seen JOKER, so will not opine

Dark horse: Adam Driver for MARRIAGE STORY...but I'm 99% positive Joaquin has this one in the bag, especially since he's never won.

Best Supporting Actress

Will win: Laura Dern for MARRIAGE STORY

Should win: Haven't seen RICHARD JEWELL...but I utterly adored Dern, so...

Dark horse: People are saying ScarJo again (for JOJO RABBIT), but I say bollocks. Maybe I'm biased because I didn't think she was that good in that movie. (Her nomination for MARRIAGE STORY, on the other hand, was well deserved.)

Best Supporting Actor

Will win: Brad Pitt for ONCE UPON A TIME...

Should win: Pitt was great, but gotta give props to Joe Pesci for an uncharacteristically understated (and terrifically effective) performance in THE IRISHMAN. Also Pitt's character was really more of a co-lead.

Dark horse: None. This is Pitt's to lose.

Best Original Screenplay

Will win: Toss-up between PARASITE and ONCE UPON A TIME... but I think, especially if PARASITE doesn't win best pic, this (along with foreign film) will be its consolation prize.

Should win: PARASITE

Dark horse: It's weird to call Tarantino a dark horse in this category, but if it isn't PARASITE, it'll be his.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Will win: JOJO RABBIT (sigh...I just did not care much for that movie)

Should win: LITTLE WOMEN

Dark horse: LITTLE WOMEN

Monday, May 27, 2019

Summer 2019 movie preview

Is it just me, or did this spring seem especially starved for good movies? Apart from Marvel’s one-two blockbuster punch of CAPTAIN MARVEL and AVENGERS: ENDGAME – both of which I enjoyed, the former surprisingly more than the latter – there just hasn't been much in theaters to stir any real excitement among movie lovers, give or take a JOHN WICK 3 (fun, but sates quickly). While we usually see the first crop of promising summer arrivals by mid-May, we seem to be getting off to a slow start this year. But never fear, there are plenty of buzzy releases just around the corner. And though it’s a fool’s game predicting which ones will take off, I hereby decree this (1) the Summer of the Asian American (aka post-Crazy Rich Asians Bonanza Summer) and (2) the Summer of Emma Thompson, who has at least two potential hits that seem calculated to play to her particular brand of awesomeness. Here’s hoping I prove correct on both counts.

In order of release date, here are the ten movies I’m most looking forward to this summer:

BOOKSMART (in theaters)
Olivia Wilde makes her directorial debut in what’s being billed as “the female Superbad” but sounds more like a continuation of Lady Bird’s lovely ode to teen girl friendship – and not just because it stars Beanie Feldstein. She and Kaitlyn Dever (Short Term 12, Detroit, The Front Runner, Beautiful Boy) play best friends who are about to graduate high school and, after four straight years of all-work-no-play, decide to make up for all the fun they missed in one epic night. The results, by all accounts, are equal parts hilarious and heartwarming.

ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE (May 31 on Netflix)
Although I have deeply conflicted feelings about Netflix, given their ultimate goal to render movie theaters obsolete, I can’t say no to a rom-com that stars Randall Park (“Fresh Off the Boat,” The Interview) and stand-up comedian Ali Wong, and that refers to one of my go-to karaoke songs. Park and Wong play a pair of childhood friends who randomly run into each other decades later and strike sparks despite finding they’re in completely different life situations. Bonus: Keanu Reeves apparently has an offbeat cameo.

In recent years the Bay area has maintained a summer tradition of high-quality, thought-provoking films about the modern African American experience, from Fruitvale Station to last year’s Blindspotting and Sorry to Bother You and now this labor of love by first-time director Joe Talbot, who also co-stars with his longtime friend Jimmie Fails. Based on Fails’ real-life story, the movie focuses on his quest to preserve the San Francisco family home built by his grandfather in the face of the city’s all-too-well known epidemic of gentrification on steroids. Timely and poignant? Audiences certainly thought so at Sundance, where it won raves and several awards earlier this year.

Mindy Kaling continues her march to conquer Hollywood in this comedy about a pathbreaking female talk show host (Emma Thompson) who hires her first female writer (Kaling, who also wrote the screenplay) in an attempt to gin up falling ratings. Their relationship starts off on a decidedly frosty note, as the new hire’s lack of experience runs up against her boss’s acerbic personality and longstanding reputation as a woman who hates other women. No doubt the ice eventually thaws; the fun is seeing how, and what happens when the two join forces to prove the naysayers wrong.

Ron Howard directs this documentary about the legendary tenor who brought opera to the masses. As someone who grew up to the sound of his golden voice pouring through my parents’ speakers and still regards him as the preeminent tenor of my time, I am pretty much the target audience for this movie. But even if you’re not, you should consider seeing it, if only to understand what an outsized impact the Pav had on making opera as popular and accessible as it’s ever likely to get—and to revel in that voice. Simply put, there will never be another like it.

I watched Men in Black 3 in large part because the great Emma Thompson was in it, and found it unexpectedly enjoyable. Now we have Dame Emma returning for the “international” installment, along with a fresh pair of leads played by Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, who demonstrated their chemistry in Thor: Ragnorak. Count these as reasons enough for me to see it.

2018's most delightful breakout star, the inimitable Awkafina, leads this dramedy about a young Chinese-American woman who travels to China after her grandmother is diagnosed with terminal cancer. The twist is that the entire family is hiding the truth from the grandmother and demanding that the granddaughter play along, much to the latter's discomfort. The film was well received at Sundance, and promises to resonate not just with other Asian Americans but anyone who’s confronted cultural or generational conflicts within one’s own family.

A cannily cast Jesse Eisenberg plays an overly meek, mild-mannered accountant who joins a karate class after getting brutally beaten up by a biker gang. Under the influence of his mucho-macho instructor (Alessandro Nivola), he discovers a whole untapped reservoir of hyperaggression within himself as he immerses himself in his new world. What follows is part study, part send-up of toxic masculinity that’s already evoked comparisons to Fight Club. In other words, probably an all too apt touchstone for our times.

Quentin Tarantino’s latest stars Leonardo di Caprio as a past-his-prime actor and Brad Pitt as his stunt double, in and around the time of the infamous Tate murders (with Margot Robbie playing Sharon Tate). The latter, however, doesn’t seem to be Tarantino’s primary focus, so much as an excuse for him to compose his own personal love letter to late 1960s Hollywood. Judging from the film’s reception at Cannes, it’s a fun watch that largely succeeds on those terms.

This adaptation of a bestselling novel about a brilliant architect turned stay-at-home mom who suddenly, mysteriously disappears, told from the viewpoint of her teenage daughter, interests me less for its premise (I haven’t read the book) than for the people involved in its making. A film directed by Richard Linklater, with Cate Blanchett in the title role? Color me intrigued, if not 100% sold.


Sunday, February 24, 2019

Oscars predix 2019 - basically, I have NFC

It's been, to say the least, a very weird Oscars season. Between the Academy's maddening obsession with making the Oscars more "relevant" - leading to uniformly terrible ideas for the show that they've invariably had to walk back - to the controversies swirling around several of the nominees, many Oscars lovers I know are either perpetually scratching their heads or wringing their hands. Me, I veer between annoyed at the Academy's tinkering with the telecast (if you really want to make it shorter, guys, just cut all the stupid skits and filler, and no, that does NOT include any actual awards!) and oddly fascinated by the schizophrenic nature of the best picture roster. Because you couldn't get a more perfect picture of the current fault lines that run through Hollywood than that lineup: old vs. new, "artsy" vs. commercial, "woke" vs. conservative. Which forces will triumph tonight? Damned if I know, which is why I haven't felt this uncertain about my predictions in years. But here are my picks for the major categories, for whatever they're worth:

Best Picture

Will win: Smart money is on either GREEN BOOK or ROMA, but especially with the complicated math of Oscars ranked voting, this really could be anyone's game. At this time I'll go with what appears to be the (hesitant) consensus for GREEN BOOK.

Should win: ROMA, but I'd be less unhappy than most if GREEN BOOK takes it. Despite its flaws, the backlash over its racial politics, and the increasingly ugly revelations about its conception and creators, at its core it's a sweet and engaging movie that works very well if you don't take it as a prescription for How to Fix Racism. That said, I almost think it would be better for Green Book if it *doesn't* win.

Dark horse: Again, literally any of these films could win. Any of them. Well, probably not VICE, although I might be biased since it was the only nominee I actively disliked.

Best Director

Will win: The Academy loves Alfonso Cuarón almost as much as it loves his fellow amigo Alejandro Iñárritu, and he's gotten a boatload of awards this season for ROMA - so he's probably got this locked up.

Should win: Cuarón (who wrote, directed, and shot ROMA) would be a worthy winner, but I secretly wish the Academy would give it to Spike Lee. He's overdue, and BLACKKKLANSMAN was excellent.

Dark horse: Spike Lee

Best Actress

Will win: Glenn Close. Not only is strong in THE WIFE, she, too, is overdue (7 nominations, no wins), and has been pitch-perfect on the awards circuit. See, e.g., her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes.

Should win: Close

Dark horse: Olivia Colman for THE FAVOURITE

Best Actor

Will win: Probably Rami Malek for BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, though there will no doubt be great wailing and gnashing of teeth if that happens.

Should win: I still haven't seen At Eternity's Gate, and I loves me some Willem Dafoe, so I will abstain on this question.

Dark horse: Christian Bale for his transformation into Sith Lord Cheney

Best Supporting Actress


Should win: Emma Stone in THE FAVOURITE, though she's really a co-lead (as is Rachel Weisz, who's also very good in a quieter performance - but Stone is just so much fun)

Dark horse: Rachel Weisz, though never rule out Amy Adams (who's been nominated a ridic number of times but still hasn't won - hopefully it won't be for VICE)

Best Supporting Actor

Will win: Mahershala Ali, who's remained untouched by the controversies surrounding GREEN BOOK

Should win: Richard E. Grant, who's truly sublime in CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?

Dark horse: With a meatier role, I'd say Sam Elliott (who's quite good in A STAR IS BORN), but I really think Ali has this one in the bag.

Best Original Screenplay

Will win: Another tough one - as tough as best picture. If GREEN BOOK wins this, it's probably winning best picture. But I will pick THE FAVOURITE since this is the one major category where the Academy does sometimes go with the edgier choice. Plus, the controversies over GREEN BOOK will probably hurt it even more in this category than in the best picture category.

Should win: For sharpness and originality, THE FAVOURITE. For enjoyability - well, don't shoot me, but I did prefer GREEN BOOK. Turning in my critic's card now.

Dark horse: Excluding GREEN BOOK, which is really almost a co-front runner, I wouldn't count out ROMA. As with GREEN BOOK, if it wins this award, it's probably winning the whole shebang.

Best Adapted Screenplay


Should win: I haven't read any of the original source material for any of the nominees, but CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? did an amazing job bringing to life the prickly character/author behind the very odd, initially off-putting story that somehow ends up being surprisingly touching and funny.

Dark horse: Not really one I can think of, unless there are more people than I think there are in the Academy who share my feelings about CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?

Monday, February 04, 2019

Top Ten Movies of 2018

2018 was one of those years where I liked a lot of movies but didn’t love many of them, which made it exceptionally challenging to compile a “best” list. Just to give you an idea of how challenging, my original list of movies I was considering for the top 10 included nearly 30 titles. So if you're wondering why a particular film didn't make the final cut, it’s probably not because I didn’t like it but because there were others I enjoyed just as much or more.

My usual caveat: I didn’t see nearly enough foreign films (only three total), documentaries (only two), or animated films (only one).


Alfonso Cuarón’s love letter to his childhood – and in particular to the nanny who helped raise him – and it shows. Each exquisitely composed frame is primed to evoke a powerful emotional reaction, as we shift from discomfort at the awkward status of the protagonist, a live-in maid who both is and isn’t part of the family, to awe at the grace with which she transcends this position. First-time actress Yalitza Aparicio is a revelation in the lead role, and Cuarón completely immerses the viewer in the sights, sounds, and cultural, political, and class tensions of 1970s Mexico City. This is his best film, in large part because it’s also his most personal.


In a year filled with movies that tapped into the zeitgeist of this country’s complicated fucked-up racial politics, this one remains the most original, most moving and most consistently surprising. It also maintains the most successful balance between hope and anger even as it diagnoses the toxicity that infects the white man’s attitude towards and treatment of the black man. Daveed Diggs (aka Lafayette/Jefferson from the original cast of Hamilton) is riveting as the main character who’s forced to make this discovery, even as it threatens to destroy one of his oldest friendships.


We tend to expect certain things from movies about space exploration: gripping suspense, a cathartic emotional payoff, and a healthy side of rousing patriotism. First Man largely bucks these expectations, which might be why it underperformed both at the box office and in critics’ awards. Although it has plenty of tense sequences, overall it’s surprisingly quiet, a little somber and emotionally distant (rather like its subject, played by a well-cast Ryan Gosling), and more than a little ambivalent about whether the Apollo program exacted too great a price from its participants. It’s also a stunningly beautiful film that manages to evoke the full measure of visceral fear and awe undergirding NASA’s early missions. Director Damien Chazelle captures with amazing precision and intensity just how precarious these ventures were, the technology held together almost literally by duct tape, scissors, and a wing and a prayer. Time will tell, but I’m hopeful the film will one day be ranked right up there with The Right Stuff (which was also a commercial flop in its day, and with which First Man shares much of its DNA) and the more crowd-pleasing Apollo 13.


Spike Lee has a remarkable gift for modulating his anger about the African American condition with incisive humor, and that gift is amply on display here, as the Klansmen are shown to be as repulsive in their goals as they are comically inept at executing them. However, the parts of BlacKkKlansman that have stayed the most vividly with me have been the dead-serious ones: in particular, a cross-cutting sequence between a harrowing description of a lynching by civil rights activist Jerome Turner and a KKK induction ceremony, and the coda, which – well, best seen rather than spoiled. They stand as a reminder that Lee remains not only one of our most compelling filmmakers but also one of our most important.


Alex Garland (director of Ex Machina, screenwriter for Sunshine and Never Let Me Go, and author of The Beach) does not compromise, and for that we should be thankful. His gonzo adaptation of an unwieldy sci-fi novel about a team of women scientists sent to explore a mysterious otherworldly phenomenon known as the “Shimmer” goes balls to the wall in its profound weirdness and stubborn resistance to easy explanation. The result is what may well be the most fascinating movie of 2018, and certainly the most memorable visual effects. You may find yourself scratching your head afterwards and wondering “wtf did I just watch?” But you’ll find yourself thinking about it, too, long after the fact.


For too long I resisted seeing this movie because I had the impression it was a highly depressing story about a highly unpleasant person who committed forgeries out of sheer desperation. Well, it is that, but it’s also an acerbically funny and surprisingly poignant character study that not only makes you empathize with said unpleasant person (Melissa McCarthy, playing emphatically and effectively against type), who represents the prickly and mean introvert lurking in each of us, but also has you rooting for her unlikely alliance with an aging wastrel/former party boy (Richard E. Grant) she corrals into her schemes. Both McCarthy and Grant are as good as you’ve heard, and their grudging friendship is portrayed with a delicacy and tenderness that never descends into sentimentality.


So raw and intimate, so unsparing in its close-up of adolescent angst, it almost hurts to watch…and yet you can’t look away. As the protagonist, Elsie Fisher delivers a downright miraculous performance that doesn’t feel like a performance, while writer/director Bo Burnham captures with both great perspicacity and great compassion not just the cultural peculiarities of being a member of “Gen Z” but the fleeting joys, gnawing insecurities, and constant mortifications that just about anyone of any generation can remember from that period of their youth. Fittingly for a movie that prominently features a time capsule, it’s both timely and timeless.


Disclaimers first: I’m aware Green Book has suffered significant backlash based on (1) the perception that it’s a retrograde “Driving Miss Daisy in reverse” parable about a black person saving/redeeming a white person (2) the politics and/or past racist statements of its screenwriter(s), and (3) the allegedly inaccurate depiction of pianist Don Shirley (the main black character) as deeply lonely, estranged from his family, and isolated from his own race; his family disputes every aspect of this portrayal, and also claims that his friendship with his driver was greatly exaggerated. While troubling, none of these criticisms fundamentally alter my assessment of the film as a warm, funny, well acted and highly enjoyable road trip / odd couple movie, loosely based on a true story about two very different men who against all odds learn to enjoy each other’s company, and boosted by the easy natural chemistry between Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. Yes, it’s also a story about a clueless white racist who learns the error of his ways by witnessing how horribly racism impacts his new black friend – but that’s only a problem if you believe the message is that racism can be “solved” through these kinds of individual wake-up calls or white people and black people talking to one another. That's not what I take away from the movie, nor do I believe it's the necessary reading.


“Free soloing,” for those who don’t know, is the art (or suicidally insane pursuit, depending on your point of view) of rock-climbing without ropes or harnesses, and Alex Honnold, the subject of this National Geographic documentary, is its king. Focusing on his quest to scale El Capitan, a 3000-foot rock formation in Yosemite National Park, and shot to maximize its vertiginous thrills, the film’s guaranteed to whiten the viewer’s knuckles even if you already know how Honnold’s efforts turned out. But it’s just as intriguing as a portrait of the kind of temperament necessary to attempt such a feat and adopt the lifestyle it demands. Werner Herzog couldn’t have done better with this material.


Barry Jenkins’ lyrical adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel just may be the most visually ravishing film of the year, though it has stiff competition from Roma and the Polish gem Cold War. But if those films showed just how sumptuous and seductive black & white cinematography can be, If Beale Street hits us with the full power of color as both an emotional and artistic vehicle, channeling a lot of Douglas Kirk and a little Wong Kar-Wai. Jenkins’ take can sometimes feel a bit too dreamlike and aestheticized to achieve the full immediacy or sense of intimacy he’s going for, let alone outrage at the injustice of his protagonists’ predicament, but he more than makes up for it with the rapturous beauty of his images.

Honorable Mentions / the next 10: The Rider; Tully; Burning; Cold War; Widows; The Favourite; The Hate U Give; Isle of Dogs; Disobedience; and First Reformed

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Summer movie roundup / Fall 2018 movie preview

It’s too early to tell, but 2018 may be one of the rare years in which the summer ends up being a stronger season for the movies than the fall. Back at the beginning of this summer, I could name many more movies I was looking forward to than I can now in the fall lineup – and amazingly, most of those summer movies either met or exceeded my expectations. It’s part of a larger trend I’ve noticed in the last few years of a higher proportion of original, high-quality (and yes, Oscar-worthy, though still not often Oscar-rewarded) films being released over the summer to counterbalance the budget-busting blockbusters. I very much hope this continues – though not at the cost of a weaker fall slate.

In any event, here's what I would recognize if I were giving out prizes for the summer of 2018. Please note that I have not yet seen First Reformed, The Wife, The Little Stranger, We the Animals, or the little documentaries that could, RBG and Won't You Be My Neighbor. Those omissions in themselves are a testament to what a great summer it's been for movie lovers.

BEST FILM: Blindspotting
Of the two critically acclaimed Oakland-based films that slayed at Sundance this year and were released in theaters this summer (the other was “Sorry to Bother You”), I preferred this one. A sharp, funny, and deeply affecting tale of a pair of lifelong best friends – one white, one black – forced to confront the impact of a gentrifying city on their relationship, it distills many of the racial and cultural tensions roiling American society today more sensitively, if less provocatively, than the splashier and flashier STBY. Daveed Diggs (OG Lafayette/Jefferson from Broadway’s Hamilton) is sensational as the black friend, and he's well matched by real-life friend and co-writer Rafael Casal as the well-meaning but bad-news buddy he can’t seem to quit.

SLEEPER AWARD (That’s “sleeper” as in “unexpected hit,” not sleep-inducing): Tie between Puzzle and Hearts Beat Loud
Both of these two quiet, lovely character studies center on middle-aged folks (played by Kelly Macdonald and Nick Offerman, respectively) who suddenly get a chance to see their previously undiscovered talents recognized by a wider audience. Both protagonists find themselves having to deal with the effects of their newfound success on their relationships with their loved ones. And to their credit, both films depict these shifting personal dynamics with remarkable delicacy, making the ostensible external plot arc – i.e., will they win fame & fortune? – feel beside the point.

BEST OVERALL CINEMATIC EXPERIENCE: The 50th anniversary “unrestored” 70mm tour of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, courtesy of self-appointed champion of analog film Christopher Nolan. What was interesting and thought-provoking on video becomes utterly mesmerizing and immersive on the big screen with big sound.

Based on the crazy true story of a black Colorado cop in the ’70s who, with the help of a white Jewish colleague, helped infiltrate the local KKK, Spike Lee’s latest joint manages to entertain, educate, and rouse at the same time. Part caper film, part comedy of (racist) buffoons, part period piece, but mostly a hard look at the racial politics of that time and how (not) far we’ve come since then, the film really hammers home the parallels with the present day. As a result it's a bit too on the nose at times, but remains undeniably powerful.

A landmark for Asian American cinema, the film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s bestseller also happens to be a whole lot of breezy fun. Even better, it reveals a surprisingly nuanced cultural subtext beneath its glossy rom-com and wealth-porn trappings. Better still, it streamlines and improves on the book, giving Michelle Yeoh and Awkafina so much richer material to work with in their characters that they both almost steal the show. Almost, but not quite – Constance Wu is a delight as the eminently relatable heroine in a world that's decidedly foreign to most of us. RUNNER-UP: Ocean's Eight

Millennial comedian-turned-filmmaker Bo Burnham delivers a wonderfully observed depiction of adolescence from the perspective of Generation Instagram that also made me profoundly thankful (1) I’m not an 8th grader and (2) do not have a kid in 8th grade. The film’s secret weapon is Elsie Fisher, who’s phenomenal and absolutely, one-hundred-percent convincing as the main character – I kept alternating between wanting to cringe, hug her, and shake her, which feels about right for a girl that age.

Yes, underrated. Sure, it’s Star Wars “lite” and not everything about it works – but it’s still a highly enjoyable jaunt, free of the need to sustain the epic pretensions of the main-line narrative. More of this, please, if we must have more Star Wars movies.

GUILTIEST PLEASURE: Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again
I cannot in good conscience claim that this was a sequel we needed or anything other than a terrible movie qua movie, with entire sequences that reminded me of the random karaoke video footage you see in Korean noraebang. And yet: the combo of catchy ABBA tunes, gorgeous Grecian island scenery, and attractive stars clearly having a blast singing and dancing their hearts out in said glorified karaoke video proves inexplicably and irresistibly infectious. It also converted me into a full-on fan of Lily James, who may look nothing like a young Meryl Streep but whose million- dollar smile, girlish charm, and sweet pipes basically carry the movie.


And now, here are the movies I’m most looking forward to this fall:

Young singer-songwriter meets and falls in love with big star who helps launch her to fame, even as his own career bottoms out thanks to booze abuse and other self-destructive impulses. Sure, this movie’s been made before – three times, in fact – and Judy Garland in particular leaves big shoes to fill. But don’t tell me you’re not curious to see how Lady Gaga does in her major film debut? Early word is she’s terrific, as is director and co-star Bradley Cooper.

FIRST MAN (Oct. 12)
Wunderkund director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash) turns his talents to the story of Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) and that “one small step for man, one huge leap for mankind” of nearly half a century ago. In interviews Chazelle’s emphasized how much he wanted to evoke just how perilous, almost foolhardy a venture man and mankind were undertaking with Apollo 11, and what a BFD it was and still is. As such, the film looks to be in the vein of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, which can only be a good thing.

A black teenage girl (Amandla Stenberg, best known as Rue from The Hunger Games) spends most of her life code-switching between her urban mostly-black neighborhood and her heavily white prep school – until she witnesses a cop shoot and kill one of her black male friends, galvanizing her to speak truth to power. Adapted from the well-received YA novel by Angie Thomas and directed by George Tillman Jr. (Barber Shop, Soul Food), it’s obviously all too timely subject matter-wise, but promises an emotional resonance that goes beyond the current moment.

BURNING (Oct. 26)
Lee Chang-Dong wowed Cannes this year with his new film, loosely based on a short story by Haruki Murakami. What starts out as a psychological drama about a working-class Korean man who gets entangled with a former female classmate and a much richer peer (Steven Yeun of “The Walking Dead”) morphs into a twisty mind-fuck of a mystery with a reportedly shocking ending.

Nothing about this movie suggests it’s going to deviate from the usual tropes for famous musician/band biopics. But Queen’s music sells itself, and I’m curious to see if Rami Malek (“Mr. Robot”) can pull off portraying a figure as sui generis as Freddie Mercury.

Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird) stars as a gay youth who’s pressed by his fundamentalist parents (Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman) into a gay conversion program. Adapted from the memoir by Garrard Conley, the film’s a good bet for some powerhouse performances and potential Oscar attention. Director Joel Edgerton (who also stars as the head of the program) may not be as well known as his co-stars, but he continues to prove himself one to watch, both as an actor (Loving, Midnight Special, The Great Gatsby, Warrior) and as a director (The Gift).

WIDOWS (Nov. 16)
It’s a simple enough concept, but with intriguing possibilities: after four men die trying to rob a bank, their widows join forces to finish the job. While the movie appears to be derived from a 1980s British crime series with the same name and premise, count on writer-director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Shame, Hunger), co-screenwriter Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), and an exemplary cast led by the great Viola Davis to turn it into something more complex than a simple heist film.

Say what you like about Yorgos Lanthimos (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Lobster, Dogtooth), he’s got a distinct style – his own special sauce of deadpan absurdist satire – and an unmatched talent for revealing the arbitrary nature of human social norms. His new film looks lighter and more accessible than the horror-tinged Killing of a Sacred Deer (which I could neither convince anyone to see nor bring myself to see alone), focusing on the rivalry between two 18th century English noblewomen (Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone) for the favor of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Don’t be fooled by the quasi-historical subject matter, though; it’s still Lanthimos, which pretty much guarantees he’ll find a way to make you squirm.

Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) directs an adaptation of a James Baldwin novel? Yes, please, even if the novel (which I haven’t read) – about a young black couple who are torn apart after the man is falsely accused of rape – is almost certainly a downer. It may not be pretty, but you can bet it’ll be beautiful.

It’s not a remake, it’s a sequel! And in my book, Emily Blunt is “practically perfect” casting as the unflappable magical nanny. Add in Lin-Manuel Miranda as Bert 2.0 (ok, Bert protégé, or something like that), Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw as grown-up Jane and Michael Banks, and Meryl Streep as Mary’s eccentric cousin, and you’ve got a promising recipe for a pleasant return trip to Cherry Tree Lane – even if there seems small chance of topping the original, which remains my favorite Disney movie of all time. If nothing else, this seems like a good holiday outing for the family.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Summer 2018 Movie Preview

It’s summer! Well, close enough, for movie purposes. And this year it’s coming in with a smirk and a swagger, courtesy of the one-two popcorn-packed punch of “Deadpool” and “Solo.” The rest of the season looks like a fairly typical mix of action and comedy franchise flicks, kid-friendly fare, and a smattering of intriguing indie counterprogramming. Like most movie lovers, I’m looking forward to sampling a bit of each. Here, in order of release date, are ten movies that are on my radar this summer:

Ever since the Star Wars juggernaut got re-launched, I’ve been more interested in the spin-offs than the main-line narrative of the franchise; it’s no coincidence that “Rogue One” remains my favorite of the new SW movies so far. “Solo” may be a bit more weighed down by expectations, as well as rumors of a troubled production that saw the departure of the original directors over “creative differences” with Lucasfilm. Still, you could do worse than Ron Howard as the pinch-hitter, and the movie looks fun, even if I think Ansol Elgort (“Baby Driver”) would have been better casting for Solo than Alden Ehrenreich (delightful though he was in “Hail, Caesar”).

Based on the stranger-than-fiction true story of a failed rare-book theft at a quiet university library, this is in many ways the anti-Ocean’s 11 (or 8). It’s what happens when bored, privileged college students see too many heist movies and think “We can do that.” Speaking of which…

OCEAN’S 8 (June 8)
Cool heist film + awesome female cast of charismatic and talented actresses and promising up-and-comers? Um, yes, please. (Since unlike the “American Animals” protagonists, I’m not planning on trying to imitate these hijinks any time soon.)

Color me skeptical that any movie needs a sequel almost 15 years after the original. Still, when that original was one of Pixar’s best, and when you’ve got Brad Bird returning as the writer and director (and voice of the peerless Edna Mode), how can I say no?

Andrew Garfield stars as a young Angeleno who gets entangled in a byzantine search for an attractive neighbor (Riley Keough) after she goes mysteriously missing. Sounds like a mash-up of David Lynch and Thomas Pynchon, which sounds pretty great to me. Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell (“It Follows”).

One of the buzziest films at Sundance this year, rapper Boots Riley’s debut feature starts with a simple satirical premise – young black man (Lakeith Stanfield) finds success as a telemarketer once he adopts a “white voice” (David Cross) – but takes it to a totally gonzo place. There’s disagreement on whether the movie sticks the landing or goes off the rails, but either way it’ll get you talking. The chatter reminds me a bit of the reaction to Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled,” which for me, at least, can only be a good thing.

No, I’m not an ABBA superfan. No, the first one was not a good movie, and no, I have no reason to think the second will be any better. And yet, I feel weirdly drawn to see it. Maybe it’s the picture-postcard allure of those Greek islands, maybe it’s Cher, maybe it’s that Lily James, despite looking nothing like young Meryl Streep, is growing on me. Whatever it is, I’m there.

Another Sundance fave, this one focuses on a friendship between two men in Oakland – one white, one black – that becomes strained when the latter witnesses a cop’s shooting of an unarmed black man. So far so good. The clincher? DAVEED DIGGS. That is all.

This must be the summer for satirical movies about racism featuring black people who try to talk white people’s language. Spike Lee’s latest joint wowed Cannes with its blistering – and blisteringly funny – tale of a black undercover police detective (John David Washington – Denzel’s son) who teams up with a white Jewish colleague (Adam Driver) to infiltrate a local KKK chapter. The humor’s clearly laced with deep anger, but that’s par for the course for Spike Lee, and the source of his power as a filmmaker.

Has it really been 25 years since “The Joy Luck Club” became a hit movie? And has there really been no major studio feature film with an all Asian-American cast since then? Well, if nothing else, CRA – based on the bestselling novel by Kevin Kwan – is overdue in that department. But it also promises to be glossy fun, and who can resist the combined charm of Constance Wu (“Fresh Off the Boat”) and Michelle Yeoh throwing glorious shade as a crazy rich Asian matriarch?