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.)

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Oscar predix 2017

While 2016 was a very good year for movies, it's yielded a somewhat dull Oscars season - which is to say, the main debate has been about whether LA LA LAND will sweep and whether its dominance would be a travesty or toast-worthy. But if you look a little closer, there are, as always, some very tight races and others that seem completely up for grabs. And hanging over them all is the question of whether recent political undercurrents will push outcomes that hang by a thread in one direction or another. One thing's for sure: even if the results remain unaffected by our larger national politics, we can expect the ceremony itself to be more politically charged than usual. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, here are my predictions for the major categories:


Will win: La La Land

Should win: Moonlight

Dark horse: I really don't see La La Land not winning; the rest seem to have about equal chances of an upset (i.e., extremely low) - except for Fences, which has zero chance.


Will win: Damien Chazelle, La La Land

Should win: Either Chazelle or Barry Jenkins for Moonlight. Moonlight is the better film of the two (although I loved both), but there's something about Chazelle's passion for his project and the difficulty of pulling off a modern-day musical that can't be denied.

Dark horse: Again, this is Chazelle's to lose. Even in the highly unlikely event that La La Land loses the big prize, I still think he gets this one.


Will win: Emma Stone, La La Land

Should win: It's a strong group, but none of them. This should have been Annette Bening's. Despite not even being nominated, her performance in 20th Century Women was one for the ages.

Dark horse: Again, I don't really see one, though Isabelle Huppert (Elle) is the closest thing to a threat.


Will win: Our first real toss-up! At post time, I'm gonna go with Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea over Denzel Washington for Fences. But this one could go either way.

Should win: Denzel. It's a big, theatrical performance, but that's also the essence of the character. Which is not to say Casey Affleck wouldn't be a worthy winner; he fully captures the pain of someone who's been completely emotionally gutted yet still nurses a core of intense pain and guilt that he can never dislodge.

Dark horse: Ryan Gosling, if La La Land really sweeps. But I'm not feelin' it. It's either going to be Casey or Denzel.


Will win: Viola Davis, Fences

Should win: Viola Davis, if you look past the fact that this is really more of a lead performance, not supporting. Although here is my best attempt at playing devil's advocate on that point.

Dark horse: None - this one's a lock


Will win: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Should win: Ali - a tremendous presence, despite being in only a third of the film.

Dark horse: Dev Patel, who's excellent in Lion (although, again, his is more of a lead performance; or at least a co-lead with Sunny Pawar, who plays his character as a little boy)


Will win: Manchester by the Sea

Should win: The Lobster

Dark horse: La La Land, if it sweeps


Will win: Moonlight

Should win: Moonlight

Dark horse: Arrival, which for the most part very deftly adapts a seemingly unfilmable story.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Top Ten Movies of 2016

One of the few silver linings to an otherwise utterly wretched 2016 was the remarkable quality and variety of its movies. Even as we cringed at a presidential race that deteriorated from circus to nightmare, witnessed countries around the world succumbing to their basest us-vs-them instincts, watched helplessly as fascist regimes tightened their chokeholds on power, and mourned a seemingly endless parade of deaths of humankind's best and brightest, there was nearly always solace and temporary escape to be found at the movies. But as I reflect on the movies that made the strongest impression on me, I’m struck by how divided they are between movies brimming with the warmth and joy of human connection and movies that were unsparingly harsh in their view of humanity. (Tellingly, my #1 movie managed to be both.) Perhaps this whiplash says something about the state of my own mind and my extremely conflicted feelings about my fellow humans. But it in no way detracts from my love for these films.


Young black boy grows up introverted, gay, poor, and bullied, with few friends and a crack-addicted single mom – sounds like a recipe for misery, doesn’t it? But while there’s certainly great pain in “Moonlight,” there’s also great beauty and tenderness that acts as a much-needed salve for the pain. As much as it’s about loneliness and alienation, it’s more fundamentally about the universal hunger for love and affection, for the feeling that one belongs, that one's seen by and matters to someone else. Director Barry Jenkins manages to combine the structural formality of a three-act play with a cinematic richness and an emotional intimacy that resonates on both big screens and small.


Everything you’ve heard about it is true. An extraordinary labor of love by wunderkund writer-director Damien Chazelle, it’s a brilliantly-hued paean to Los Angeles, to old-school jazz (what else would you expect from the guy behind “Whiplash”?), and to the grand tradition of movie-musicals, from “Singin’ in the Rain” to Jacques Demy. So if you have affection for any of these things—or for Emma Stone and/or Ryan Gosling, who are both at their most beguiling here—you’ll enjoy the movie as much as I did. Yes, it arguably borrows more than it creates; no, the love story isn’t particularly original; and no, it doesn’t have quite the depth of “Moonlight” or some of the other films on this list. But damned if it isn’t the one that feels most like a treat. By turns exuberant and wistful, with a core of delicate melancholy beneath its candy-colored surface, it lingers like a ghostly chord or a bittersweet memory of a love long past.


Mike Mills’ answer to “All About My Mother” is less a coming-of-age tale than a snapshot of a specific place and moment (SoCal in the 1970s) and the most formative, mostly female figures in an adolescent boy’s life at that moment. It’s boosted by terrific acting across the board by Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup, and newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann, but the crown jewel is Annette Bening’s marvelous, beautifully layered performance as the complex, memorable, yet ultimately elusive woman at their center. Loose and largely plotless in structure, warm without being sentimental, and funny without trying to be witty, this is a movie that may not hit you right out of the gate but stays with you long after seeing it.


There’s a reason the most unexpected sleeper hit of last summer is still generating buzz months later, at the height of Oscar season. A brisk, sharp drama about two Texas brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster, both excellent) who for highly specific reasons engage in a highly strategic, even surgical series of bank robberies, it’s also an engaging character study of both the brothers and the two marshals who doggedly pursue them (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, also excellent), a critical commentary on the socio-economic circumstances that created them, and an understated yet evocative portrait of a broader society in silent decline. As such, the film feels simultaneously like a throwback and a product of the current moment – timely and timeless. It also benefits from a tight, well-paced script that expertly balances tension and humor. There’s not an ounce of fat in the narrative, not a line that feels extraneous or a beat that feels out of place. Rarely does a Hollywood movie deliver so effectively on the old adage “less is more.”


This is a movie that’s guaranteed to make you squirm. (Though it’s almost cuddly compared to director Yorgos Lanthimos’ even weirder and more unnerving “Dogtooth.”) With its bleakly antiseptic yet surreal vision of a society in which every human must, upon losing a mate, find a new one within a short prescribed stay at a “resort” full of fellow newly single guests or be turned into an animal—or else hide in the wilderness with a band of outcasts for whom love is verboten—it’s hard to tell if the film is satire, allegory, science fiction, all or none of the above. Not that it matters. What does matter is the absurdist mirror it holds up to our own society’s rituals and mores governing love, partnership, and lack thereof, and the revelation that they aren’t any less arbitrary than those of the bizarre alternate reality on the screen before us. Assisted by the wonderfully deadpan affect of a stellar cast that includes Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Léa Seydoux, Olivia Colman, Ben Whishaw, and John C. Reilly, the film’s detachment is sometimes horrifying, sometimes hilarious, sometimes both, but never less than brilliant.


If “The Lobster” is guaranteed to make you squirm, here’s a delightful little pick-me-up that’s guaranteed to make you smile. While “La La Land” has been getting all the buzz for making musical movies hip again, John Carney (“Once,” “Begin Again”) has already been doing that for years now in his own low-key but just as charming way. “Sing Street,” Carney’s best yet, is at once a poignant nod to his less-than-idyllic youth in ’80s Dublin and a buoyant love letter to the music of that era. Here, that music provides the hook – in all senses – for an adolescent boy to court the girl of his dreams, and it’s both a hoot and a joy to watch the boy and his self-starter band cycle through seemingly every musical trend of that period. Sure, the band is way too talented and polished to be entirely believable, but that’s an easy flaw to forgive when the results are so pleasing.


I went into this film expecting to hate it, and came out of it a little stunned and unsure what I thought of it…except that I knew I didn’t hate it. Now, with reflection, I think it’s the boldest, most gripping movie I saw last year. It's controversial for a reason; I’d be hesitant to recommend it to anyone who’s been a victim of sexual assault, and I have qualms about how its subversive take on the subject might be (mis)interpreted by some viewers. But for everyone else, there’s a bottomless mine of fascinating material beneath the smooth-as-silk direction of Paul Verhoeven, who's no stranger to controversy and knows how to make it an asset rather than a liability. French screen legend Isabelle Huppert takes no prisoners as Michelle, the coolly stylish, quietly ball-busting female executive whom nothing seems to faze – not even the brutal rape that sets off the narrative and is replayed several times throughout the film. Those scenes are not for the faint of heart, but neither do they feel gratuitous or exploitative. What’s almost more disturbing is Michelle’s reaction: without giving too much away, let's just say she throws the usual script for a rape victim completely out the window. And although she eventually gets her revenge, you may not like how she gets there or what it reveals about her character. But you can’t deny the provocative power of her journey.


There’s good acting, there’s great acting, and there’s acting that sends chills up your spine. If you want to know what that last one feels like, go see “Fences” immediately. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis reprise their Tony-winning roles from August Wilson’s classic play about a black garbageman in 1950s Pittsburgh who’s never quite able to shake off a lifetime of resentment over his unfulfilled dreams. While Denzel completely and convincingly inhabits the central role of Troy Maxson, a man at once larger than life and shrunken by disappointment, Viola steals the show as Troy’s wife Rose, who goes from quietly supporting to towering over him, and it’s a sight to behold. A small supporting cast rounds out this master class in acting—Stephen Henderson is a particular standout as Troy’s friend Bono, but they’re all superb. Denzel, who also directs, remains rigorously faithful to Wilson’s text; from the extended monologues to the circumscribed physical settings, you never forget you’re watching a play. But in a way, that’s a strength rather than a weakness; with a script and performances this powerful, you don’t need any stylistic distractions.


Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s greatest strength has always been his ability to probe compassionately into the messy, complicated mix of feelings underpinning the ties that bind, and to translate that insight into dialogue that sounds like actual human conversation. That ability’s on full display here in this literally and figuratively wintry New England tale of a man (Casey Affleck) who’s just barely going through the motions of living after suffering an unspeakable tragedy, only to return to the scene of that tragedy when he’s unexpectedly appointed guardian of his nephew (Lucas Hedges). The film’s anchored by strong, lived-in performances and graced by comic notes that offset the deep underlying sadness of the story and underscore the quiet absurdity of the characters’ everyday, mundane lives. (If Lonergan, who’s also a playwright, has a dramatic forefather, it’s gotta be Chekhov.) The movie’s not perfect: though not nearly as baggy as “Margaret,” it feels like it could be tightened up a bit, as Casey Affleck’s protagonist goes through perhaps one self-destructive cycle too many without the benefit of a true catharsis. That’s par for the course for Lonergan, though; he doesn’t really do tidy emotional closures, no doubt because life so seldom provides them.


An admittedly odd pairing that exemplifies the “warm/cold” divide of the movies I rated most highly in 2016. On the one hand, you’ve got Richard Linklater’s relaxed, indulgent, typically Linklater-ish sketch of a group of male college freshmen jocks just beginning to learn to navigate their new world: sure, they’re a bunch of idiots, constantly horny and constantly trying to prank and one-up each other, yet there’s something at once funny and innocent about their ritualistic male bonding-through-rivalry that makes them endlessly watchable - even if you wonder about the darker side of their id that Linklater always seems so loath to show. At the opposite extreme, tonally and thematically, you have a gorgeous yet severe psychological close-up of one of the most famous women in the world at her lowest point, seeking to assert control over her husband’s legacy and her own image in the immediate aftermath of his assassination. Director Pablo Larrain brings an outsider’s eye to the mythos of Camelot and its carefully constructed nature; perhaps for that reason, despite the lush cinematography, “Jackie” feels deliberately distant, its mood at once elegiacally hushed and rife with undercurrents of tension that seem to throb in time to the chilly, unsettling score. What gives the film its animating force is Natalie Portman, who despite looking nothing like Jackie commits admirably to the role, conveying both the fragility of her patrician veneer and the fierce, desperate resolve just underneath.

Honorable Mentions:
Arrival, The Fits, Paterson, The Handmaiden, American Honey, Aquarius

...and really many others could've made this list, but I had to stop somewhere.

Caveat: I have not seen SILENCE, THE SALESMAN, KRISHA, HACKSAW RIDGE or (shamefully) *any* documentaries from 2016.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Summer 2016 movie roundup / Fall 2016 movie preview

Another summer come and gone, and if you didn’t see a single movie in theaters during that time, you didn’t miss much. Hollywood turned in a lackluster showing this season, both creatively and financially, yet still—heavy sigh—made enough money off its most underwhelming superhero properties to ensure plenty more of the same. I love a good superhero flick as much as the next person, but I’m sure I’m far from the only moviegoer who would really like to see studios develop ideas for their summer lineup that don’t depend on raiding back issues of Marvel and DC Comics.

Caveat: I didn’t see any kids’ movies, which by all accounts were some of the summer’s best offerings, even though I wanted & still want to see “Kubo and the Two Strings,” “The Little Prince,” and the “Pete’s Dragon” remake.

Best movie I saw this summer: HELL OR HIGH WATER, by a country mile. This little Western-that-could, about a pair of bank-robbing brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) and the Texas marshals (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) who pursue them, may be modest in ambition and not particularly original in concept, but it’s so well executed you hardly notice. From the pacing to the directing to the acting to the seamless modulation between humor and suspense, there’s not a single element that feels superfluous or out of place; this movie is tight as a drum.

Worst movie I saw this summer: SUICIDE SQUAD. The nicest thing I can say about it is it wasn’t as terrible as I expected it to be. Which doesn’t mean it was any good. Sadly, based on its boffo box office, we have almost certainly not seen the last of this franchise.

Best performance in a summer movie: Viggo Mortensen in CAPTAIN FANTASTIC. Movie was gently engaging even if it too often went for the most obvious beats, but it was Viggo’s lovely, subtly shaded turn as the would-be-raiser of young philosopher-kings that held the whole thing together. Deserves Oscar consideration, though probably won't get it.

And now, for the season we’ve all really been waiting for!

I’ve already kicked off the fall by seeing THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS, Derek Cianfrance’s adaptation of the bestselling novel by M.L. Stedman, starring Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, and Rachel Weisz – aka three of the most gorgeous people to grace the big screen today. Visually, the film matches their beauty, and is something of a throwback – a weepie that seems to be going for a sweeping English Patient cinematic vibe but doesn’t quite get there. Nonetheless, it’s a well-made film that’s clearly aimed at a grown-up audience (rather refreshing after a summer dominated by juvenilia), and features a luminous pair of performances from Fassbender and Vikander, who became a real-life couple while making the movie.

With that one behind me, here are the ten other films I’m most anticipating this fall, in order of release date:

Guess we’re about due for another Disney-produced “based on a true story” sports tale of an underdog who against all odds becomes a champ. In this case, however, the sport is chess, the underdog is a young girl from Uganda whose mother and teacher are played by the very gifted Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo, respectively, and the movie’s director is Mira Nair (“Salaam Bombay,” “Mississippi Masala,” “Monsoon Wedding,” “The Namesake”). Any one of those factors would have piqued my interest; the combination has my full attention.

To be honest, I didn’t love the book (I much preferred Gone Girl) and am skeptical about the casting of Emily Blunt, who’s fantastic but to my mind far too attractive and strong a presence to play the dumpy, self-hating protagonist. Still, I admit I’m curious to see if she can pull it off.

As an Asian American, am I irritated at the casting of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One? Yes. But as a movie lover, I can’t ever be truly mad about casting Tilda Swinton in anything. And even as I bemoan the current glut of superhero movies, I admit I find the character of Doctor Strange more interesting than most of his Marvel brethren, especially when he’s played by Benedict Cumberbatch and facing off against Mads Mikkelsen, who makes all movies better. (Also, I generally tend to be much more receptive to new movie superheroes than returning ones.)

ARRIVAL (Nov. 11)
I’m not all that excited by the trailer, but I am intrigued by everything else about this movie’s pedigree: the sci-fi story, Amy Adams as lead, and a director (Denis Villeneuve, of “Sicario,” “Prisoners,” and “Incendies” fame) who really knows how to ratchet up the suspense.

Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me,” “Margaret”) directs another movie about familial bonds, the kind that may strain and fray but somehow never completely break, and sometimes knit closer together. I am so there. Plus any movie with both Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler (albeit in small roles) already has two things going for it. The real star, though, appears to be Casey Affleck’s lead performance.

Haute couture royalty Tom Ford (“A Single Man”) returns to directing with what looks like a riveting and polished thriller-within-a-thriller about a writer (Jake Gyllenhaal) who may or may not be threatening his ex (Amy Adams) by writing a murder mystery that seems to be about them. Also, if you’re one of those unfortunate people who can’t tell Amy Adams and Isla Fisher apart, then this is the movie for you.

ALLIED (Nov. 23)
WWII film starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard as an exquisitely dressed couple who might be spying for opposite sides in the war? Also starring Lizzy Caplan and Matthew Goode? Yes, please. This movie looks to give The Light Between Oceans a run for its money for Prettiest Cast Who Can Also Actually Act.

LA LA LAND (Dec. 2)
This recently replaced “Manchester by the Sea” as my #1 most anticipated film of the year. How could it not? It’s an original musical romance by Damien Chazelle, the writer-director of “Whiplash,” one of my favorite movies of 2014, is set in Los Angeles (city of my heart), stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, and if the early teaser trailers and reviews from the Venice Film Festival are to be believed, looks and feels like a dream—the kind of dream you don’t want to wake up from. I only wish I didn’t have to wait till December to see it.

ROGUE ONE (Dec. 16)
At this point, I think I prefer the idea of a sub-narrative that takes place within the known Star Wars universe to movies that purport to expand the universe but really just recycle old canon narratives. (Sorry, “Force Awakens” fans.) Also, I like Felicity Jones. And see previous note re: Mads Mikkelsen.

I didn’t love Mike Mills’ “Beginners” as much as most people, but I did appreciate that it came from the heart and appealed directly to that core in all of us that’s just looking to connect with someone. And it’s hard to imagine him going wrong with a female-centric film that stars Annette Bening and Elle Fanning. (It’s true Greta Gerwig usually rubs me the wrong way, but I will try to give her the benefit of the doubt.)


Saturday, February 27, 2016

Oscars predix 2016

The Oscars race has been surprisingly quiet this year - I say surprisingly because it's one of those rare years where there isn't a clear favorite for best picture. In fact, there aren't just two but *three* bona fide contenders that could reasonably take home the top prize, which, if not unprecedented, is certainly pretty damn rare. That should make for an exciting match-up, no?

Thing is, though, that three-way race hasn't really changed much since the nominations were announced. There hasn't been backlash against any of the three front-runners, nor has any one of them gained significant momentum over the other two. We're pretty much back where we were in January, when it seemed like THE REVENANT was the one to beat, with THE BIG SHORT still holding a legit chance of an upset, and early leader SPOTLIGHT fading but still not out of the running. Meanwhile, the acting races have basically been locked up for the past month, except perhaps for supporting actress. Still, as always, we live in hopes that the Academy will surprise us.

Assuming they don't, here are my predictions for the major awards:


Nominees: The Revenant, The Big Short, Spotlight, Mad Max: Fury Road, Brooklyn, Room, Bridge of Spies, The Martian

Will win: The Revenant

Should win: Spotlight

Dark horse: The Big Short


Nominees: Alejandro González Iñarritu, The Revenant; George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road; Adam McKay, The Big Short; Tom McCarthy, Spotlight; Lenny Abrahamson, Room

Will win: Iñarritu, The Revenant

Should win: McCarthy, Spotlight

Dark horse: Miller, Mad Max


Nominees: Leonardo di Caprio, The Revenant; Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs; Matt Damon, The Martian; Bryan Cranston, Trumbo; Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Will win: Leo. Duh.

Should win: Fassbender, who totally sold Jobs despite looking nothing like the man

Dark horse: None. I will eat raw bison liver if Leo doesn't get this.


Nominees: Brie Larson, Room; Cate Blanchett, Carol; Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn; Jennifer Lawrence, Joy; Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years

Will win: Brie Larson

Should win: I love Brie and she's fantastic in Room, but I gotta give this to Charlotte Rampling for 45 Years. She did more with her eyes than most actors do with their entire bodies. Too bad she had to ruin her chances by making tonedeaf comments on the "#Oscarssowhite" controversy. (And mind you, I have my own issues with #Oscarssowhite, but *I'm* not up for an Oscar!)

Dark horse: None. I just don't see any of the others getting past Brie, not even the great Cate.


Nominees: Sylvester Stallone, Creed; Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies; Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight; Christian Bale, The Big Short; Tom Hardy, The Revenant

Will win: Stallone

Should win: Stallone

Dark horse: Almost any of the other nominees have a shot - but I really think Stallone has this one in the bag.


Nominees: Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl; Rooney Mara, Carol; Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs; Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight; Rachel McAdams, Spotlight

Will win: Vikander - Oscar loves a fresh new face for supporting actress, and 2015 was a breakout year for her.

Should win: Winslet

Dark horse: Winslet

N.B: This category was tarnished by not one but two of the nominees (Vikander and Mara) being put up for supporting actress, even though they're clearly co-LEADS of their respective movies, because the studios backing them thought they'd have a better shot at getting nominated in supporting (and in the case of Carol, probably didn't want Mara and Blanchett drawing votes from each other). They proved right. They shouldn't have! Don't get me wrong, both Vikander and Mara were great; but their nominations only pushed out true supporting performances that would have been worthy, e.g., Elizabeth Banks in Love and Mercy; Sarah Paulson in Carol.


Nominees: Spotlight, Inside Out, Ex Machina, Bridge of Spies, Straight Outta Compton

Will win: Spotlight

Should win: Spotlight

Dark horse: Inside Out


Nominees: The Big Short, Room, Brooklyn, Carol, The Martian

Will win: The Big Short

Should win: Room

Dark horse: Maybe Room, but again, I am 99.9% confident that The Big Short has this.

And that's it for me! Tune in tomorrow night to ABC to see whether a man fighting off bears and snowy wilderness trumps investigative journalists and Margot Robbie in a bathtub. My money's on the bear, but despite that, I'm rooting for the journalists. They had a far more interesting story to tell.