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 anywhere enough foreign films (only three total), documentaries (only two), or animated films (only one).


This is 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?

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Oscar predix 2018

You've come a long way, Academy...but maybe not long enough. After nominating one of the most interesting and varied Oscar lineups in years, there's a better than even chance that its final choices will hew to traditional patterns. The Oscars, after all, are fundamentally an industry popularity contest with just a gloss of artistic high-mindedness that all too often succumbs to hive-mindedness. Still, many of the races this year are surprisingly tight and hard to predict. Nothing's likely to top last year's bizarre fakeout switcheroo from La La Land to Moonlight for sheer shock value, but there are unquestionably many worthy contenders to root for pulling the upset.

For now, here are my predictions for the Big Eight:


Will win: It's neck-and-neck between Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO and The Shape of Water. While the latter racked up more nominations, pessimistic me is betting on Three Billboards, a movie I thought had good qualities but has been seriously overpraised. Notwithstanding the inevitable backlash it's faced over its treatment of race, it still feels like more of a favorite, especially among the acting branch, than Shape of Water, which may suffer from voters weirded out by the idea of giving top prize to a romance between a woman and a fish man.

Should win: My personal favorite is Lady Bird, but I would be happy to see the gorgeous, heartfelt Shape of Water take it.

Dark horse: Pretty much all of the other nominees have an outside shot except, sadly, The Post (which I would also be happy to see win, and in another era would probably have been the frontrunner).


Will win: Guillermo del Toro, for so fully realizing his own fantastical vision in The Shape of Water

Should win: Del Toro

Dark horse: Christopher Nolan for Dunkirk


Will win: Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour

Should win: Among this group, Timothée Chalamet gave the most poignant performance, but I'm still mad the Academy didn't even nominate Jeremy Renner for his career-best turn in Wind River.

Dark horse: None - Oldman's got this locked up.


Will win: Frances McDormand, Three Billboards

Should win: Toss-up between Sally Hawkins for her lovely, mute turn in Shape of Water and Saoirse Ronan for wonderfully capturing both how maddening and how lovable a teenage girl can be. My heart is most with Ronan, though.

Dark horse: Sally Hawkins


Will win: Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards

Should win: Willem Dafoe, so wonderful in The Florida Project

Dark horse: Willem Dafoe


Will win: Allison Janney, I, Tonya

Should win: Lauren Metcalf, Lady Bird

Dark horse: Lauren Metcalf


Will win: Three Billboards may be the favorite, but my gut is saying Get Out will win this one

Should win: Get Out

Dark horse: Get Out


Will win: Call Me By Your Name

Should win: Call Me By Your Name

Dark horse: Mudbound

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Top Ten Movies of 2017

Like 2016, 2017 was a mostly terrible year that was also, however, a pretty great year for the movies. (I sincerely hope I don’t have to keep repeating some variation of that line in the years to come.) 2017 was a year of rage and resistance – both the capital-R and the lowercase kind – exemplified by the tsunami of #metoo; in a perfect-storm, zeitgeisty way, it also happened to be an exceptional year for women in movies, on both sides of the camera. We saw strong, well-drawn female characters brought to glorious life by actresses of all ages as well as female directors and writers who showed both that they could run with the big boys and that they could make “women’s stories” compelling to all genders. While many of my favorite films over the years have been centered on women, this may be the first time where my #1 film was also written and directed by a woman and found a wider audience that loved it as much as I did. Could we be on the cusp of a real sea-change in Hollywood? Here’s hoping.


Much about Greta Gerwig’s funny, poignant coming-of-age film is familiar cinematic territory, from the bright but restless high school girl (a luminous Saoirse Ronan) at its center to the milestones and rites of passage she undergoes, whether it’s her tentative forays into love, sex, or joining the popular kids, college applications, the school play, senior prom, or friction with her parents. But in Gerwig’s hands it all feels fresh, partly because she neither dwells on any one episode nor tries to impose an overarching message or moral-driven narrative. Rather, the effect is more like a collection of snapshots, each one representing a vivid memory of something that helped shape Lady Bird’s character. And at least one or more of them is bound to strike a recognizable chord with most viewers. For me, it was the relationship with her parents (beautifully played by Tracy Letts and Lauren Metcalf), especially her mom: “Lady Bird” nails the kind of mother-daughter dynamic where intimate confidences and heated arguments occur with equal frequency, where affection and criticism are inextricable from one another, and where “I love you” is never said but always understood. I laughed, I cried, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.


How can a movie be so offbeat and yet so old-fashioned at the same time? Apparently that’s what happens when Guillermo del Toro channels his childhood cinematic fantasies. Part dark Cold War thriller, part fabulist creature feature, part love letter to Hollywood's Golden Age, but above all a gorgeously filmed fairy-tale romance, “The Shape of Water” shouldn’t work as a whole – yet it utterly does, and is a pure delight to watch. (Well, apart from a few squicky body-horror moments where I had to look away; this is a del Toro joint, after all.) The linchpin holding it all together: a transcendent Sally Hawkins, in what may be the best mute performance since Holly Hunter in “The Piano.”


Yes, it looks like made-to-order Oscar bait (Spielberg! Streep! Hanks! Historical yet politically current subject matter!). Yes, the writing is often overly on the nose and preaches to the choir. Even so, “The Post” does a bang-up job of making what could have been a dull legal lesson about the Pentagon Papers both inspiring and entertaining. Contrary to those who dismiss it as by-the-numbers Spielberg, I think this is his best-directed film in years, deploying all his cinematic skills to infuse flair and suspense into the nuts and bolts of the journalistic process. And while it’s being promoted as a pro-free press, speak-truth-to-power film, its true focus and strength lies in the story of Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), the Washington Post’s first female publisher, who learns to find her voice in a male-dominated world in which she’s aided but also trapped by her own privileged social position. Streep is fantastic as Graham, as is Tom Hanks as legendary Post editor Ben Bradlee; their evolving dynamic alone is worth the price of admission.


For a film that received generally positive reviews on its initial release, “Detroit” seems to have been left by the cultural wayside. It shouldn’t have been: Kathryn Bigelow’s take on one of the flash points of the 1967 Detroit riots was easily the most powerful and harrowing film I saw last year. Unfortunately, it was pretty quickly derailed by poor box office and widespread blowback for presenting what others saw as an insensitive and/or inadequate, white-blinkered perspective of a thorny subject. I disagree strongly with the latter criticisms; while the film might not capture all facets of the structural and historical racism that made the Algiers Motel incident possible, for me, at least, it was an effective and all-too-timely reminder that the horrors it depicts – of unchecked police brutality, the racial inequities of the justice system, and society’s failure to hold both to account – are still very much with us today.


Like many of Olivier Assayas’ other films, “Personal Shopper” is tantalizingly elliptical and elusive, yet paradoxically stays with you - haunts you, as it were – long after you think you’ve finished puzzling it over. That’s only fitting for a tale of a medium (Kristen Stewart) who thinks she may be communicating with the spirit of her recently-deceased brother. What ensues is spooky, sometimes scary, even fleetingly violent, and ultimately answers very few of the questions you may have about what is going on here. The beauty of the film is how it gradually brings you to the realization – perhaps only after watching and having a chance to reflect – that the answers to those questions are beside the point. “Personal Shopper” is less a ghost story than a state of mind, a delicately etched Portrait of a Bereaved Young Woman, as well as a meditation on the interplay between the material and spiritual planes of existence.


Another film that came and went without anywhere near the attention it deserved, Maggie Betts’ astoundingly assured feature debut – about a young girl who decides to become a nun in the ’60s – really got me where I live. While it’s worth seeing regardless of your faith or lack thereof, it will probably appeal most deeply to those who (like me) have a complicated relationship with Catholicism. “Novitiate” plays a bit like a feminine answer to Scorsese’s “Silence,” offering a moving and remarkably nuanced portrayal of both what would draw a girl to such a rigid and closed-off life and why her commitment to it would give one pause. It’s also refreshing to see an excellent, virtually all-female cast, the standouts being Melissa Leo as a particularly autocratic Mother Superior, and Dianna Agron and Julianne Nicholson as more benign, if conflicted, mother-figures. My full review here.


Count me surprised this movie didn’t get more awards traction. The third installment in a loose trilogy of Westerns penned by Taylor Sheridan (the first two being “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water”) and the first one he directed, “Wind River” feels at once like a throwback and absolutely current. While its stoic masculine heroes and unforgiving landscapes may be old-school, it tackles a subject that few, if any, traditional Westerns have addressed: violence against Native American women and the lack of criminal and judicial resources to combat it. Sheridan does a great job upping both the suspense and the emotional stakes to elevate what could easily have been just a simple crime procedural; my only major complaint is that the film, while generally respectful of its female and Native American characters, still reduces them to supporting the white male Fish & Wildlife tracker who’s called in to help see justice done. It’s hard to sustain that complaint, however, when the white male savior is played by Jeremy Renner delivering his best performance in years. My full review here.


Fair warning: Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is something of a bait-and-switch. You may think you know where things are going as you watch a seemingly imperious, control-freaky fashion designer (Daniel Day-Lewis) make a seemingly pliant, naïve young woman (German actress Vicky Krieps) his muse and lover under the watchful eye of his all-knowing, all-seeing sister (Lesley Manville)…but trust me, you don’t. The film takes some dark and bizarre turns before reaching a resolution of sorts that feels more like a perverse momentary equilibrium. (Hint: it works best if you think of the whole thing as an exceptionally twisted romantic comedy.) It’s not for everyone, but I enjoyed the way it up-ended and then winked at my expectations. It’s also exquisitely filmed, scored, costumed, and of course acted: DDL and Manville, as always, bring their A game, while Krieps proves a real revelation.


No, Denis Villeneuve’s labor of love isn’t as good as the original – it lacks that mesmerizing, hypnotic quality, that dreamlike feeling of being halfway between asleep and awake, enhanced by the iconic Vangelis score, which made Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” so memorable. The script also borrows a bit too heavily from other movies about artificial intelligence (“Her,” “A.I.,” even “The Matrix,” to name just a few) to break any real new sci-fi narrative ground. But it’s still enthralling, because the world it builds is so visually breathtaking and immersive; this is damn near the most beautiful film of 2017, surpassed only by “The Shape of Water,” and just may net DP Roger Deakins an Oscar on his 14th try. It also resonates emotionally thanks to perfectly calibrated performances by Ryan Gosling as the almost-human who wants to be a real boy and Harrison Ford as the crusty relic who still carries a torch for a love long past.


Director Sean Baker may have made a name for himself by shooting an entire, legit, good-looking movie (“Tangerine”) on an iPhone, but his real secret weapon is his gift for capturing the lives of individuals at society’s margins with humor and compassion, and without striking a single false or condescending note. This time shooting on regular film, he focuses on a group of low-income families who live in a motel on the outskirts of Disney World—in particular, one very unfit young mother and her sassy, scrappy, pint-sized daughter who spends her days running hog-wild in what to her seems like a candy-colored paradise. Reality eventually catches up with this duo, but only after we’ve become intimately acquainted with – and attached to – the makeshift community of the so-called Magic Castle and its guardian, the kindly motel manager wonderfully underplayed by Willem Dafoe. The movie, like its main characters, may occasionally feel like it’s overstaying its welcome, but by the end it’ll leave you verklempt.

Honorable Mentions: Get Out, Call Me By Your Name, Columbus, The Beguiled, Lady Macbeth, Molly’s Game, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO, Wonder Woman, Gook, The Disaster Artist

Have not seen: All the Money in the World, A Quiet Passion, A Ghost Story, Lucky, The Killing of a Sacred Deer or any foreign films other than The Square, or any documentaries whatsoever – my recurring shame.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Summer movie roundup / Fall 2017 movie preview

At various points this summer I caught myself thinking it was a weak – or at least languid – movie season. And yet, as it drew to a close and I did the tally, I realized that it actually ended up being quite a good summer in terms of movie quality, if not movie box office. The latter only underscores that the Hollywood summer blockbuster formula is, if not on life support, in dire need of rethinking. While WONDER WOMAN was a delight and justly rewarded for it, none of the other studio tentpoles really achieved comparable success; even the ones that did respectable business seemed to fade quickly from the cultural zeitgeist.

However, looking past the would-be blockbusters, there were plenty of gems of the indie/arthouse variety, whether it was Kumail Nanjiani’s all-American, 21st-century version, rom com THE BIG SICK, Kathryn Bigelow’s searing and underappreciated racial drama DETROIT, Taylor Sheridan’s latest taut modern-day Western WIND RIVER, the subversive post-feminist one-two punch of Sofia Coppola’s THE BEGUILED and William Oldroyd’s LADY MACBETH, or the emergence of two very different strains of a burgeoning Korean American new wave in Kogonada’s “Museum Hours meets Lost in Translation” architectural romance COLUMBUS and the less polished but more viscerally affecting GOOK, Justin Chon’s “Do the Right Thing meets Clerks” callback to the 1992 L.A. riots. (On the other hand, the widely acclaimed DUNKIRK, for all its technical skill, left me cold, though it’s hard for me to put my finger on exactly why.)

Still, fall remains where it’s at for movie lovers, and this fall looks jam-packed with cinematic goodies for all tastes. And I mean packed—normally, I’m able to select a “top ten” most anticipated films without too much difficulty, but this year my original draft list ran closer to twenty. So I’ve compromised and narrowed it down to fifteen. ;) Accordingly, here are the ten fifteen movies I’m most looking forward to this fall, listed in order of release date:


Emma Stone as Billie Jean King. Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs. Not completely sold on that casting, but I love Emma Stone and generally like Carell. Plus I’m a tennis fan. Plus the movie’s directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine,” “Ruby Sparks”) and written by Simon Beaufoy (“The Full Monty,” “Closer,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” and the underrated “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”), which gives me confidence that the film will bring the right balance to the story’s comedic and serious elements.

BLADE RUNNER 2047 (Oct. 6)

It’s a fair question whether “Blade Runner,” which has single-handedly done more than any other movie to shape sci-fi cinema of the last quarter-century, really needed a sequel, and the most recent trailer suggests something more conventionally action-driven and less of the noir-ish mood piece-punctuated-with-bursts-of-violence that the original was. But it also looks visually spectacular (as it should, with the great Roger Deakins as DP) and appears to be in capable hands with director Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival,” “Sicario,” “Prisoners,” “Incendies”) and Ryan Gosling, whose signature blend of cool insouciance and bruised romanticism makes him a worthy heir to the mantle of Harrison Ford. (Speaking of whom, let’s hope Deckard comes to a better end than Han Solo, though I wouldn’t bet on it.) Robin Wright and Jared Leto co-star.


Did you see “Tangerine”? If not, do so stat; it was one of the funniest and most unexpectedly heartwarming movies to come out of 2015. Director Sean Baker’s follow-up spotlights a group of residents in a cheap Florida motel, including one brassy, sassy little girl and Willem Dafoe as the crusty-but-goodhearted motel manager. This one’s shot on regular film, not an iPhone, but appears to embrace the same vivid, compassionate (yet never condescending) attitude towards folks on the margins of society who still forge a genuine community amongst themselves.


Todd Haynes (“Carol,” “I’m Not There,” “Far From Heaven”) directs Brian Selznick’s adaptation of his own YA novel about two children in separate time periods (1927 and 1977) who both run away from home and, I assume, eventually meet somehow. The 1927 parts are silent and in black & white; the 1977 parts with color and sound. The film was warmly received at Cannes, even if it didn't win anything. My one reservation is that in outline it reminds me a little of “Hugo” (also based on a Selznick book), which I didn’t much care for even though I wanted to love it. Still, something about Haynes’ coolness and restraint may actually be a better fit than Scorsese for material that could otherwise be made overly precious or sentimental.


Love him or hate him, Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster,” “Dogtooth”) has a knack for making films that stick in your gut. They may be disturbing, unpleasant, even downright horrific at times – the more so for Lanthimos’ characteristically deadpan, absurdist presentation – but they’ll stay with you long after other films have faded. His latest is a psychological thriller about a seemingly idyllic household, headed by Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman, that’s threatened by a possibly (probably?) psychopathic teenager (Barry Keoghan, the kid in the vest in “Dunkirk”) whom Farrell’s character befriends. Expect it to be dark, utterly disquieting, and utterly memorable.

THE SQUARE (Oct. 27)

I didn’t like Ruben Östlund’s last film, the much-heralded “Force Majeure,” anywhere near as much as I wanted to. Still, I’m eager to see his latest send-up of privileged, seemingly enlightened liberal white folks (European variety) who discover just how thin their veneer of moral and artistic superiority is. This one centers on a contemporary art curator whose latest exhibition goes badly awry when his mobile phone is stolen, leading to a series of comic disasters. Winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes.


Could it be terrible? Oh sure. The trailers and Kenneth Branagh’s over-the-top mustache (yes, I know Hercule Poirot is supposed to have a ridiculous mustache) suggest that Branagh may be playing up the camp, à la “Clue,” with his take on the classic Agatha Christie whodunnit. But by the same token it could also be very fun, and, like its 1974 predecessor, features an impressively star-studded cast. In addition to Branagh, we’ve got Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Daisy Ridley, Olivia Colman, Hamilton star Leslie Odom, Jr., and the redoubtable Dame Judi Dench. That makes it must-see for curiosity value alone, unless the reviews are dreadful. (And maybe even then…)

MUDBOUND (Nov. 17)

Dee Rees ("Pariah") adapts Hillary Jordan's novel about two families in post-WWII Mississippi - one white (Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Garrett Hedlund and Jonathan Banks, aka Mike E from "Breaking Bad") and one black (Rob Morgan, Mary J. Blige, and Jason Mitchell, aka Eazy E from "Straight Outta Compton") - whose relationship is, shall we say, complex and fraught with racism. Tensions rise and climax in tragedy when Hedlund's and Mitchell's characters return from serving in the war and strike up an unlikely friendship. Netflix scooped up this one at Sundance, and is releasing it simultaneously on theaters and video - a trend I hope does NOT take, but I do hope this movie does if it's as good as billed.

MOLLY’S GAME (Nov. 22)

Aaron Sorkin makes his directorial debut with this drama based on the memoir of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), queen of a billionaire underground poker club. We’ll see if Sorkin has any directorial chops, but at the very least, we can expect some snappy dialogue and class-A acting. Idris Elba and Kevin Costner play Molly’s lawyer and father, respectively.


Joe Wright (“Pride and Prejudice,” “Atonement,” “Hanna,” “Anna Karenina”) returns to the WWII era, focusing on everyone’s favorite British war horse, Winston Churchill, played here by a heavily made-up Gary Oldman. Could this be Oldman’s chance for an Oscar? He’s only been nominated once before (for his fantastic turn in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) and has never won. Here’s hoping the incomparable Kristin Scott Thomas gets something interesting to do as Mrs. Churchill. Also look for Ben Mendelsohn as George VI.


Italian director Luca Guadagnino (“I Am Love,” “A Bigger Splash”) does lush, sensuous films about lush, sensuous lovers. James Ivory does – or did, at his peak, with Ismail Merchant as his producer – exquisitely delicate yet heartfelt romances about socially repressed people (“A Room With a View,” “Maurice,” “Howards End,” “The Remains of the Day”). Here, Guadagnino directs Ivory’s adaptation of André Aciman’s critically acclaimed 2007 novel about a love affair between an expat youth in Italy and his parents’ guest boarder, a charming and handsome graduate student (Armie Hammer). This seems like a promising match-up on all sides.


Self-explanatory, unless you’re living under a rock.

THE POST (Dec. 22)

Steven Spielberg directs this drama, co-written by one of the screenwriters of "Spotlight," about the Washington Post’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers. Meryl Streep plays publisher Katharine Graham. Tom Hanks plays editor Ben Bradlee. The cast also includes Bruce Greenwood, Tracy Letts, Michael Stuhlbarg, and a host of fantastic actors better known for their TV work: Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Matthew Rhys, Jesse Plemons, Bradley Whitford, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, and Zach Woods. Sign me up, please; I’m already drooling and trying to tamp down my expectations.


It’s a little ironic that Hugh Jackman became globally famous for playing the ultimate surly loner, Wolverine, considering that he’s at his best channeling his boundless natural charisma, extroverted charm, and performer’s flair. He may finally have found his ideal lead role in this movie-musical about the life of P.T. Barnum, founder of the recently-shuttered Barnum & Bailey. Features Michelle Williams as Barnum’s wife, Zac Efron as his protégé, and songs written by red-hot duo Justin Paul and Benj Pasek, who won an Oscar for their work in “La La Land” and a Tony for Dear Evan Hansen. Can Pasek-Paul make lightning strike again? Early buzz is…unfortunately not very good. But my hopes remain high.


No one seems to know much about this film other than that it’s about a high-society tailor (Daniel Day-Lewis) in 1950s London. But here’s all you need to know: Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis’s last collaboration was “There Will Be Blood.” SOLD, lock stock and fuckin’ barrel.

Ten more to look out for: Mother!; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO; Lady Bird; Justice League; The Current War; The Disaster Artist; Wonder Wheel; The Shape of Water; Downsizing; Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Summer 2017 movie preview

With Memorial Day come and gone, it’s time for the summer movie season to start ramping up in earnest, notwithstanding the odd “Guardians of the Galaxy” here or new “Alien” movie there. At first glance, this summer looks like more of the same old, same old: superhero flicks, franchise reboots, and franchise sequels nobody asked for. But look a little closer and there’s a lot to be excited about, including several films centered on strong female protagonists—at least five of which were also directed or co-directed by women. That shouldn’t be remarkable in this day and age, but it is. Here’s hoping that the films are also good - and almost more importantly, successful - so we can have more like them.

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

How has it taken this long to make a Wonder Woman movie? Fortunately, early buzz suggests it was worth the wait, with newcomer Gal Gadot fulfilling the promising spark she showed in the otherwise-deadly-dull “Batman vs. Superman” as the Amazonian princess turned savior of humanity. Patty Jenkins (“Monster”) directs, and Chris Pine co-stars as Diana’s guide to WWI-era Europe (and, I assume, her love interest).

Based on a true story of a female Marine who finds a comrade for life in a military working dog named Rex, this movie seems perfectly poised to tug hard on the heartstrings. But who can resist a loyal dog who literally saves lives on the battlefield? In any event, there’s good reason to hope the movie won’t overindulge in cheap sentiment with Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who also directed the documentary “Blackfish,” at the helm.

This fever-dream of a tale about a wounded Union soldier who’s taken in by a girls’ boarding school in the Deep South, only to wreak hormonal havoc (and eventual violence) among his caretakers, was already previously made into a movie over 45 years ago, starring Clint Eastwood in his prime. Nonetheless, something inspired Sofia Coppola to take her own crack at it, and her efforts have been rewarded with a best director prize at Cannes. The film stars Nicole Kidman as the school’s headmistress, Coppola regular Kirsten Dunst as a teacher, and Elle Fanning as one of the smitten pupils, with Colin Farrell taking the soldier’s role originally played by Eastwood.

From the trailers, the film looks less like a riff on the Scottish play and more like a cross between Madame Bovary and Wuthering Heights. Adapted from a Russian novel by Nikolai Leskov, it centers on a young, unhappily married woman in 19th century England who finds forbidden love and, through it, a terrifying kind of agency. It was well received at the Toronto International Film Festival and, despite its period-piece trappings, looks like a timely expression of modern feminist rage.

DUNKIRK (July 21)
Christopher Nolan tries his hand at WWII drama in depicting the Miracle of Dunkirk, in which hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers, hemmed in by the German army, against steep odds were safely evacuated from the French coast. Shot in IMAX and featuring a top-notch cast that includes Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy, this will probably be the major prestige release of the summer.

Charlize Theron as a (literally) kick-ass spy in post-Cold War Berlin? With action sequences directed by one of the stuntmen-turned-directors behind “John Wick”? Yes, please. Based on the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City, the movie received a rapturous response at SXSW earlier this year and by all accounts will be exactly the shot of pure cinematic adrenalin we need to wake us up from the midsummer doldrums.

DETROIT (Aug. 4)
Gotta hand it to Kathryn Bigelow: she does not shy away from fraught and sensitive historical subjects in her choice of movie material. Her follow-up to “Zero Dark Thirty” focuses on the 1967 Detroit riots—specifically, the Algiers Motel incident—and, if she stays true to form, will probably be grim, tense, and tautly paced but tonally restrained, and will likely eschew easy black-and-white moral politics (no pun intended). It will likely also be, despite or perhaps because of those qualities, must-see viewing.

Taylor Sheridan, acclaimed screenwriter of “Sicario” and last year’s “Hell or High Water,” makes his directorial debut with a crime thriller starring Jeremy Renner as a Fish & Wildlife Service agent who discovers the dead body of an American Indian girl and Elizabeth Olsen as the FBI agent who’s called in to investigate her murder. The film screened earlier this year at Sundance and in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes, where it won a director prize for Sheridan. It’s being distributed by the Weinstein Company, which could portend either very good or very bad things for its Oscar potential.

No, I haven’t read any of the books, so I’ve got no axe to grind or fears to be allayed. Even if the movie can’t possibly do justice to the sprawling Stephen King series, I’m willing to take my chances on a futuristic, science-fantasy/Western-noir mash-up starring Idris Elba as a post-apocalyptic Childe Roland and Matthew McConaughey as his relentless pursuer, the Man in Black. Directed by Nikolaj Arcel (“A Royal Affair”).

Young Russian ballet dancer falls in love and follows the object of her desire to France, where the pair join a modern dance company headed by Juliette Binoche. Adapted from a graphic novel of the same name, this premise might not sound particularly summer-movie-ish, but there's nothing like a bit of Juliette Binoche to act as a classy antidote to all the bang, boom, and popcorn grease. (Also, I admit I’m a total sucker for dance movies - the good, the bad, and the ugly.)