Sunday, December 31, 2017

As the year comes to a close, I wanted to reflect on the performances that stuck with me the most this year. Year end lists often reflect on the films themselves, but these films wouldn't be what they are without the performances that truly sold them. Here are the ten that I found most compelling in 2017.

1 | Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name

That killer final shot is getting all the attention (and deservedly so), but what makes Chalamet's performance so remarkable is how natural and un-pretentious it is. He 
exudes a languid, un-self conscious sensuality that is at once confident and vulnerable. It's a magnetic performance; honest, playful, and lived-in, the crowning achievement of an incredible year for the young actor, who also appeared in Lady Bird and Hostiles.

2 | Lois Smith, Marjorie Prime

Playing a role she also originated on the stage, Lois Smith synthesizes a lifetime of pain and regret into her performance as a woman constantly living in the past, and then later as a holographic amalgamation of her old self. Truly stunning work. 

3 | Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project

As the harried, long-suffering manager of the seedy hotel at the film's center, Willem Dafoe has never been better or more authentic than he is here. An un-showy and ego-less performance whose power is in its understatement. 

4 | Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me By Your Name

Stuhlbarg's final monologue as a father accepting his gay son is the most heart-wrenching moment in any film this year, and he sells it with such gentle sincerity.

5 | Florence Pugh, Lady Macbeth

A fiery, star-making performance that transcends its otherwise cold, dispassionate film. Pugh is an actor to watch, and she is nothing short of magnetic in Lady Macbeth.

6 | Sally Hawkins, Maudie

She may be getting all the accolades for The Shape of Water, but my favorite Hawkins performance of 2017 came in Aisling Walsh's Maudie. As a disabled artist, Hawkins is a force of nature all her own.

7 | Jean-Pierre Léaud, The Death of Louis XIV

As the dying monarch at the film's heart, the legendary Jean-Pierre Leaud reminds us all why he was an icon in the first place, a great man painfully fading away surrounded by sycophants and yes-men.

8 | Kim Min-Hee, On the Beach at Night Alone

Kim Min-Hee exorcises her own demons along with Hong Sang-soo in a powerfully meta-cinematic performance as a disgraced woman who had a very public affair with a popular film director, challenging not only the audience, but Hong himself.

9 | Brooklynn Prince, The Florida Project

As authentic a performance as you're likely to find this year, six year old Brooklynn Prince lights up the screen with both mischief and pathos in Sean Baker's extraordinary drama. 

10 | Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird

As the title character's equally loving and overbearing mother, Laurie Metcalf might just be the most real character portrayed on screen this year.


Call Me By Your Name
The Florida Project
Lady Bird
The Post

Watching Barbet Schroeder's General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait in 2017 is a sobering experience. Here is an unfiltered portrait of a despot, given free reign to explain his methods and ideology, spouting self-aggrandizing nonsense and displaying a shocking lack of understanding of history and international politics. The film is a chilling look at the unchecked authoritarian ego, and all I could think about while watching it was how how much former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin sounded like Donald Trump.

“I’ve got a very good brain. Everyone knows that.” Amin boasts at one point, sounding like he reached into the future and started cribbing President Trump's Twitter page. But Schroeder had no idea Trump was coming back in 1974, he was simply observing the megalomania of a self-styled dictator who hated Jews, praised Hitler, and let no opportunity to brag about his own greatness go by un-seized. Schroeder contradicts Amin's bogus claims through voice-over occasionally, but for the most part he just lets the General speak. And speak he does, rambling on and on about his relationships with world leaders, boneheaded policy ideas, and ludicrous military strategies. He even musters the Ugandan army to reenact his strategy for taking over the Golan Heights.

He willfully cheats at sports, stages elaborate rallies for the camera, and styles himself as a man of the people rather than a real politician. And yet everything about him is a show. He may seem like a bumbling oaf who knows little about the subjects he pontificates about at length, but everything is coldly calculated to appeal to his base. He's blunt, gregarious, even charming, beloved by the people for saying whatever is on his mind. Here is a man appearing to stick it to the elites, the colonialists, and putting Uganda first, while actually doing none of those things. Sound familiar?

That's what makes General Idi Amin Dada such a chilling film. Newly released on Blu-Ray by the Criterion Collection this year, the film has taken on a disturbing new significance. Prior to this year, it was an unnerving look at authoritarian delusion, but now it almost hits too close to home. The film has now been validated by current events, it's power and prescience confirmed by America's own wannabe dictator. Amin was a brutal and dangerous leader, a murderous monster who nevertheless comes across as jovial and plain-spoken. Yet in his own words, we begin to see the true man beneath, hauntingly bursting forth when questioned by a prominent physician near the film's end.

When I first heard the film's title, I assumed "Dada" referred to the avant-garde nonsense movement of the early 1900s, and that the film was perhaps some sort of dadaist presentation of Amin's reign. Instead, it is actually part of Amin's name. Still, one can't help but think of the dadaists while listening to the freewheeling absurdity coming out of Amin's mouth. He even bears resemblance to Alfred Jarry's infamous dadaist oaf, Ubu Roi, a profane clown king that shocked audiences when it premiered and closed on the same day in 1896.

But Amin was no fool, which is what makes him so terrifying. General Idi Amin Dada remains a haunting portrait of authoritarian egocentricity that should serve as a cautionary tale to future generations. Unfortunately, I fear that future generations have already failed to heed its warning.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

GENERAL IDI AMIN DADA: A SELF PORTRAIT | Directed by Barbet Schroeder | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

The Greatest Showman is one of those films that wants very badly to please its audience; so much so that each musical number seems to be a new plea - "Do you like me yet? Are you entertained yet? How about NOW?" It's the kind of wannabe crowd-pleaser that tries so hard to be likable that it pulls out all the stops, cranking out showstopper after showstopper in an "everything but the kitchen sink" attempt to wow and delight.

This is no Moulin Rouge, however, and first-time director Michael Gracey doesn't quite have Baz Luhrman's sense of pop panache (or emotional honesty). One never escapes the feeling that what we're watching is a fake, a put-on, a flashy spectacle with no real substance, much like its eponymous showman.

The Greatest Showman depicts P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) as a benevolent huckster out to make a name for himself and a comfortable life for his family by giving audiences something they had never seen before, seeking out those that society deemed "abnormal" and celebrating them rather than sneering at them, offering them a chance at the spotlight they never had before. This is a patently ridiculous angle, of course. The real life Barnum was exploiting these people in a "freak show" for people to gawk and laugh at them, not venerate them. But the film paints him as a benevolent altruist who wanted to diversify show business.

It's a very 2017 take on a decidedly NOT 2017 man. Still, gaping historical dishonesty aside, The Greatest Showman is a generally likable, if overstuffed, piece of entertainment. Gracey has a striking visual flair, and Jackman is charming in the lead role, showing off his song and dance skills with great aplomb, while Zendaya's trapeze artist and Keala Settle's bearded lady provide additional highlights. It's hard not to appreciate a film that so un-ironically embraces an old fashioned song-and-dance aesthetic and does so without any sense of self-consciousness.

Make no mistake, however, numerous dance numbers aside, The Greatest Showman is a thoroughly modern affair, and its  insistence that bigger is better often feels more assaulting than endearing (La La Land it isn't). The problem is that there is no real emotional hook. Just as Jackman's Barnum strives to be taken seriously by society, so too does the film desperately try to be a "serious" film. It wants us to know that what Barnum did was IMPORTANT (TM), when what it needed was a little less glitz and glamour and a little more of the shameless, disreputable licentiousness that made the man unique (taking some cues from Burlesque might not have hurt). It's stuck in a strange in-between place, neither campy enough to be fun or good enough to be truly memorable. In the end, just like Barnum himself, it's all a fraud.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN | Directed by Michael Gracey | Stars Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Fredric Lehne, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Paul Sparks, Diahann Carroll, Keala Settle | Rated PG for thematic elements including a brawl | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Two cinematic legends light up the screen in Lindsay Anderson's 1987 film, The Whales of August, starring the incomparable Bette Davis and Lillian Gish, along with Vincent Price and Ann Sothern. This marked the first time that Davis and Gish shared the screen, although Price had appeared with Davis previously in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex in 1939.

Gish was 93 years old and Davis was 79 when they made the film, making Gish (whose career began in 1912) the oldest woman ever to have a leading role in a film. And she is marvelous. The draw, of course, is watching the two icons together, but the film is much more than just an excuse to stargaze. It's a beautiful, elegiac rumination on aging (or as Price put it, "having aged") that focuses on two sisters in the twilight of their lives who live on the coast of Maine (beautifully rendered by cinematographer Mike Fash on the excellent new Kino Blu-Ray). Libby (Davis) and Sarah (Gish) have long spent their days taking turns taking care of each other. Now that Libby is blind, the burden has mostly fallen on her older sister.

Libby is an eternal pessimist; Sarah, an indefatigable ray of hope. Together they live out their summers in their childhood home, playing host to their various neighbors; a Russian ex-pat turned fisherman (Price), Sarah's perky best friend, Tisha (Sothern), and an incorrigible old handyman (Harry Carey, Jr.). But as the summer winds down, and the coastal whales they so enjoy watching yet to make their appearance, Libby's defeatist determination that their lives are over and no longer worth living begins to weigh on Sarah, and she begins to consider what life without her sister might look like, moving forward rather than being stuck in the past.

Based on the play by David Barry, The Whales of August has no traditional plot to speak of. It ebbs and flows with the tides, observing its characters' lives and allowing them to exist fully in the world it creates. The result is something that feels altogether real rather than dramatized, Gish and Davis seemingly two real sisters navigating their own day-to-day reality. They reminded me of my own grandmother and her sister, Barry's ear for dialogue perfectly capturing the essence of the shorthand spoken between two sisters who have had decades to perfect their communication.

This would end up becoming the final film for both Gish and Sothern, while Davis would act in one more film before her death in 1989. That knowledge gives it an additional bittersweet power. Gish, her face still an angelic shadow of the young ingenue of the silent era; and Davis, her mouth drawn up from a stroke, steely eyes now faded but no less piercing, create an indelible portrait of reflecting on a life well lived. As Price's character observes, "one's time is always ones time, even until the end." In The Whales of August, Davis and Gish make the most of the time they are given, and in so doing turn the film into a reflection on their long and storied careers, which in Gish's case went almost all the way back to the beginning of cinema itself. It's a deeply powerful work, filled with life and hope, gently reminding us that there is always more life yet to be lived, more adventures yet to be had, and more love yet to be felt. It's a quiet, unassuming masterpiece that deserves to be cherished, and has been given new life through the stunning new Blu-Ray from Kino Studio Classics, marking the series' finest achievement yet.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

THE WHALES OF AUGUST | Directed by Lindsay Anderson | Stars Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, Vincent Price, Ann Sothern, Harry Carey, Jr., Margaret Ladd, Mary Steenburgen | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Studio Classics.

Friday, December 29, 2017

“The longer I look at things the less I know.”

These words, as spoken to Emily Prime by Emily 6 in Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow Episode Two, perfectly sum up the experience of watching the film. Hertzfeldt has established himself as one of the finest animators working today, and this sequel to his Oscar-nominated short, World of Tomorrow, subtitled The Burden of Other People's Thoughts, reminds us just how much about the world we don’t know.

At only 22 minutes long World of Tomorrow Episode Two manages to cram more philosophical musings and emotional truths into its runtime than most feature length films. Hertzfeldt is an incredible stylist, using animation both lush and simplistic, but each moment seems pregnant with more meaning that meets the eye. “The longer I look at things the less I know.” It's as if the more we examine World of Tomorrow's thematic depth, the more we realize how little we actually know. It's as if it's in tune with the vast, unknowable expanse of time, understanding humanity's small place in the infinite void. And yet, it seems to celebrate both our fragile mortality and the ephemeral nature of human thought, synthesizing it into something deeply beautiful and hauntingly profound.

For me, the most striking scene is the one where Emily Prime, having been sucked into the memories of a clone of her future self, recalls killing an insect, and the aching regret that followed. "For all of eternity, throughout the infinite universe, this had been its only chance of being alive." She muses. "This was all the insect was ever going to be. It was not its fault it was an insect, an incomplete creature without any backup copy. All of its experiences are gone forever. We can never know them. If there is a soul, it is equal in all living things. We all cling to the same brief, flickering windows in the infinite darkness." Wow. I defy anyone to find a more piercing take on human fragility than that.

Hertzfeldt takes the freewheeling, unscripted musings of a four year old and turns them into the stuff that cinematic dreams are made of, spinning them into cosmic musings about life, the universe, and everything. It is as if we are simultaneously in the mind of a child and the mind of an adult, older, wiser, but far less secure about our place in the universe. It is often reminiscent of Terrence Malick in its freestyle meditations (Hertzfeldt's 2012 feature, It's Such a Beautiful Day, is the best Malick film that Malick never made), but it also charts a unique course through the mysteries of time unlike anything we've ever really seen before.

There's just so much to unpack here, especially for a film that is only 22 minutes long, but what glorious minutes they are. It's a veritable rabbit hole of fascinating ideas and breathtaking beauty that is at once a feast for the eyes, the soul, and the mind. No other film this year was more thrilling to contemplate or more gratifying to witness. I’m glad I am alive at the same time as Don Hertzfeldt.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

WORLD OF TOMORROW EPISODE TWO: THE BURDEN OF OTHER PEOPLE'S THOUGHTS Directed by Don Hertzfeldt | Stars Julia Pott, Winona Mae | Not Rated Now available to rent on Vimeo.

It's always interesting going back and watching Woody Allen's older films, especially those from the pre-Annie Hall era of the early 1970s. They're so full of energy, so vibrant and filled with the unbridled verve of a young filmmaker for whom the world is his playground. It's hard to believe that the staid, overly-safe filmmaker behind Wonder Wheel, Magic in the Moonlight, and To Rome with Love is the same man who once helmed such adventurous and occasionally bonkers films as Bananas (1971), Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972), and Love and Death (1975).

Bananas is perhaps one of Allen's broadest comedies. While he would certainly mature as a filmmaker after Annie Hall and on into the 1980s, there's just something refreshingly unselfconscious about the almost anarchic zaniness present in his early work. He's not trying to emulate Bergman or Fellini, or pay homage to Chekhov, or recreate German Expressionism, or infuse his script with philosophical musings (although he does namedrop Kierkegaard), he's simply having fun. So while Bananas may not dig as deep as some of films would, it was his first major hit as a filmmaker, paving the way for the critical and popular acclaim he would later enjoy.

Allen himself stars as Fielding Mellish, one of the quintessential nebbishes for which he would come to be known, a product tester who falls in love with a young leftist dissident named Nancy (Louise Lasser). It turns out that he isn't a strong enough leader for her revolutionary sympathies, so she breaks up with him, leading to a series of mishaps and misunderstandings that put Mellish in charge of a fictional banana republic in Latin American that strongly resembles Cuba. As the new commandant, he travels to America to negotiate peace and win back her heart.

The film is, of course, steeped in leftist politics and ideals of the 1970s characterized by Fidel Castro and the remnants of the hippies era of American political activism (something Allen would later return to in his 2016 TV series, Crisis in Six Scenes). He pokes gentle fun at the revolutionary rhetoric of the young, while saving more pointed barbs for American military interventionism (the legendary Howard Cosell appears as an American TV announcer covering an gamely covering an assassination). It's amazing how so much of it still seems relevant today, with Cosell's announcer eerily presaging the idea of news as entertainment. While the comedy is often too broad and too rapid-fire to really stick (jokes fly by so quickly that they almost don't have time to land), Bananas is clearly the work of a filmmaker ready and willing to experiment. Allen would certainly make funnier and more experimental films in his day, but when it comes for sheer, unadulterated fun, he never seemed more youthful or more exuberant than he did here.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

BANANAS | Directed by Woody Allen | Stars Woody Allen, Louise Lasser, Carlos Montalbán, Nati Abascal, Jacobo Morales, Miguel Ángel Suárez, René Enríquez | Rated PG-13 for comic sexuality including some pin-up nudity, some drug use and crude language | Now available on limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time.

The Online Film Critics Society has announced our 2017 awards, with Jordan Peele's Get Out taking home awards for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. The Shape of Water, which initially received the most nominations, only won a single prize for Sally Hawkins as Best Actress, while Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri received awards for Best Supporting Actor (Sam Rockwell) and Best Ensemble. To view the full list of nominations, click here.

Best Picture 
Get Out 

Best Actor 
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour 

Best Actress
Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water 

Best Director 
Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk 

Original Screenplay 
Jordan Peele, Get Out 

Adapted Screenplay 
James Ivory, Call Me By Your Name 

Best Documentary 
Faces Places 

Best Foreign Language Film
BPM (Beats Per Minute)

Best Supporting Actor 
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 

Best Supporting Actress
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird

Best Animated Feature 

Best Editing 
Lee Smith, Dunkirk 

Best Cinematography 
Roger Deakins, Blade Runner 2049

Best Ensemble 
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 

Breakout Star of the Year 
Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Alexander Payne's Downsizing starts out with an interesting premise: scientists, working to solve the problem of human overpopulation and global warming, invent a method for shrinking people down to save resources. However, once it sets up its main idea, it seemingly has no idea what to do with it.

Enter Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), an occupational therapist whose life got in the way of his dreams, and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig). Weighing the financial options, they decide to undergo the downsizing procedure and move to Leisureland, where there $100,000 in assets translates to $12 million, making them set for life. But once Paul comes out of the procedure, he discovers that Audrey got cold feet and decided not to go through with it, leaving him stranded, five inches tall, in a whole new world.

Depressed and alone, Paul tries to adjust to his new life with the help of his hard partying neighbors, Dusan (Christoph Waltz) and Konrad (Udo Kier), but nothing seems to work. That is until he meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a downsized Vietnamese dissident who escaped persecution in her home country by hiding in a TV box that was shipped overseas. Now cleaning houses in Leisureland for a living, Ngoc shows Paul the unseen underbelly of poverty amongst the downsized, in the process giving him a new purpose and outlook on life.

If it all sounds a bit aimless, that's because it is. Payne has made some great films, from Election, to About Schmidt, to Sideways, to Nebraska, but he seems woefully out of his element here.  He just doesn't seem to know what to do with the story's sci-fi elements, taking a strong main idea ripe with possibility for an exploration of humanity's toll on the earth, and turns it into a muddled, unfocused mess that can't seem to decide what it wants to be or what it wants to say. It's all set-up and no payoff, getting lost along the way in subplots that ultimately lead nowhere.

The only real bright spot is Hong Chau, who is so good as Ngoc that it makes the film's treatment of her all the more egregious. Ngoc seems to exist merely to save Paul, and as a target of ridicule for her thick Vietnamese accent. Payne is punching down here, turning Ngoc into a excruciating Asian stereotype that Hong valiantly tries to subvert. She manages to find the humanity in a thinly written character that does her no favors, but that doesn't stop her from acting the hell out of it anyway. She is remarkable even when the film stumbles and falls. It's a shame given Payne's strong overall track record, but Downsizing just does not work, losing itself among political ambitions that are both painfully on the nose and woefully undercooked. It does nothing to deserve Hong's terrific performance, choosing instead to traffic in racial cliches for cheap laughs, easily making it Payne's weakest film as a director.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

DOWNSIZING | Difrected by Alexander Payne | Stars Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Hong Chau, Christoph Waltz, Udo Kier, Jason Sudeikis, James Van Der Beek | Rated R for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity and drug use | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

2017 was a strange year indeed. As the world seemingly changed around us, social and political norms seemingly being thrown out the window every day, the movies were both a welcome respite and an antidote to the political climate. As usual, many filmmakers stepped up to comment on current events, tackling reality through art in ways that were both topical and entertaining.

This year gave us an embarrassment of cinematic riches, so much so that I had trouble narrowing down my selections for the best of the year. Just because a film doesn't appear on this list doesn't mean that I don't love it. But that is the nature of year-end list making, so after much deliberation, here are the films that have stuck with me the most in 2017.

1 | CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (Luca Guadagnino, USA)

There was a moment in Call Me By Your Name when I realized my heart was full and I was deliriously in love with the rapturous magic of cinema. Luca Guadagnino’s magnificent film explores the mysteries, the ecstasies, and the heartbreak of first love through the eyes of a teenage boy (Timothée Chalamet, in one of the year’s most stunning performances) who falls in love with a grad student (Armie Hammer) working for his father, an American professor living in Italy.

Guadagnino has crafted a love story for the ages, a singularly breathtaking work of art that recalls the work of Bergman (Summer Interlude hangs heavy here), Bertolucci, and Visconti. I can't remember the last time I found a film so wholly enrapturing. It has a haunting timelessness to its story of first love, especially in the way it captures those fleeting moments of fiery, moon-eyed passion that come with it. As both an embodiment of the emotions of young love and an idealization of its innocence and beauty, it is a film that feels somehow recognizable and yet larger than life, as if some loves are too good and pure for this world. Call Me By Your Name is a masterpiece, a perfectly crafted romance that lingers and enchants, standing tall as one of the finest cinematic achievements in recent memory.


Named for Walt Disney's original designation for the Orlando theme park that would one day become Walt Disney World, The Florida Project follows the lives of a group of young children who live in a seedy hotel on the outskirts of the Disney parks called the Magic Castle. I can't remember the last time a film so indelibly captured the cycle of poverty and abuse that keeps so many in this country down.

With his shot-on-the-fly, cinéma vérité style, Baker treats each character with dignity, never condescending to them or the situations in which they find themselves. A clear-eyed portrait of abject poverty and the choices families must make in order to merely scrape by, Baker’s film is a heartbreaking and deeply moving portrait of those for whom the childlike wonder and happiness that Disney World represents is always in sight, but forever out of reach; a haunting reminder of the increasingly fading hope of the American dream in decline.


Bill Morrison is the ultimate "found footage" filmmaker, taking already existing footage and turning it into something completely new. Stitching together old silent films discovered beneath the permafrost in Dawson City, Canada, once the epicenter of the Klondike Gold Rush, Dawson City: Frozen Time is like peering through a window in the fog of time itself.

There's just something about these flickering images that is hard to shake; a magic that is almost indescribably beautiful, as if we are watching history come to life through film.Part historical document, part cinematic fever dream, Dawson City: Frozen Time is a film to be treasured, a living document of a bygone era whose influence continues to echo through history. It's a cinematic reverie that takes us on a mesmerizing and deeply moving journey through history, ultimately discovering a kind of immortality buried beneath the snow. Film was born of an explosive indeed; and here, to appropriate a quote by Woodrow Wilson, it's like history written by lightning.

4 | NOCTURAMA (Bertrand Bonello, France)

This stunning film about seven young radicals who execute a series of bombings in Paris, before holing up in a downtown department store, is one of the most devastating and haunting portraits of modern radicalism in recent memory. That the young terrorists choose to hide out in the ultimate symbol of hollow capitalistic success, a skyscraper shopping mall, is no coincidence. That they seem to revel in its excesses, seemingly oblivious to their own hypocrisy, is no coincidence either. While Bonello never clearly states why they pulled off such a massive terrorist attack, there are clues in their actions.

It's a rage against a machine seemingly has no time for them, and no desire to listen to what they have to say. Nocturama exists in a disquieting moral gray area. Angry young people with no outlet and a complete sense of disconnect from society seek to burn it all down with no regard for consequence or responsibility. The result is a chilling look at the cyclical nature of violence, and the failure of governments to listen to their people.

5 | FACES PLACES (Agnès Varda, JR, France)

Legendary filmmaker, Agnès Varda, and photographer, JR, head off on a journey through France in her latest film, Faces Places, documenting the people they meet and the places they explore by leaving behind giant photographs pasted to walls and buildings. Varda has always been fascinated by humanity, and never has that exuberant enthusiasm for human connection felt more vital than it does here. Faces Places is at once a joyous celebration of life and a poignant mediation on memory and mortality.

Varda, now 89 years old, doesn't see as well as she used to, and often finds herself reflecting on the end of her life. She takes photographs to remember everyone she meets, and collects this snippets of memory like one might collect coins or stamps. Varda trades in something more ephemeral, and buoyed by the energy of her young partner, JR, she explores the things that make us most humanIt is a wonderful film, full of verve and life, an essential work from a great artist in her twilight who refuses to go quietly into that good night. Her warmhearted curiosity remains as important and probing as ever, even as a would-be climactic showdown with legendary French iconoclast, Jean-Luc Godard, turns into one of the most heartbreaking moments in any film this year; and the result is one of the most personal and intimate works of her long and storied career.

6 | PERSONAL SHOPPER (Olivier Assayas, France/Germany)

Olivier Assayas deftly explores the way we communicate in Personal Shopper, taking something as un-cinematic as a text message and turning it into riveting cinema. One can't help but feel if cell phones had existed when Hitchcock was alive that he may have directed something like this. At once a haunting meditation on modern communication and a chilling supernatural thriller. Personal Shopper is an incredible achievement that opens up a window into a brave new world of communication and human connection.

"Are you there? Or is it just me?" As spoken by Kristen Stewart (in the performance of her career) to a empty room (or is it?), those words mark one of the most profound observations on modern communication ever put to film.

7 | 4 DAYS IN FRANCE (Jérôme Reybaud, France)

A man walks out on his boyfriend behind in Paris and heads off to the French countryside with only the gay hookup app, Grindr, for guidance in Jérôme Reybaud's captivating film, 4 Days in France. His anonymity fits in with his quest for anonymous sex. We really don't know who he is, and he remains an enigmatic figure until the very end. In that way, he's kind of an avatar for the audience, a silent guide through the small towns and hamlets of France that the screen rarely ever sees. His phone is at once a distraction and a lifeline, isolating and yet richly connecting.

Like Personal Shopper, 4 Days in France is a fascinating meditation on the interconnectivity of our lives, how social technology has the power to both increase and decrease the space between people. Life is a series of encounters, as we enter and exit from stories we're barely even aware of. 4 Days in France allows us to peek into those lives, if only for a moment, to tag along on a kind of spiritual journey that meditates on sex, love, friendship, and the mysterious vastness of life. It's the kind of film that has the power to change one's perception of the world, and we leave keenly aware of how our presence reverberates through the world around us. It manages to feel both strikingly modern and hauntingly timeless, a poignant, self-aware, and sometimes deeply funny exploration of the folly, the eccentricity, and the profound beauty of the human journey.

8 | DUNKIRK (Christopher Nolan, USA)

One of the most harrowing cinematic experiences in recent memory, Dunkirk is a no-holds-barred descent into the horrors of war; not so much in a graphic, realistic sense as in Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, but in a raw, visceral, even impressionistic sense. Few films have so indelibly captured the utter chaos and disorientation of war. Dunkirk is an experience like no other; a haunting, almost otherworldly gut-punch of a movie that simply demands to be experienced on the biggest screen possible. Accompanied by Hans Zimmer's brilliant score, which pulses with the rhythm of a ticking clock or a beating heart, Dunkirk becomes wholly immersive experience, a riveting, relentless, white-knuckle ride that never pauses to let the audience take a breath.

9 | ON THE BEACH AT NIGHT ALONE (Hong Sangsoo, South Korea)

Korean filmmaker Hong Sangsoo tackles his own affair with his lead actress, Kim Min-hee (which generated great tabloid buzz in their home country) in this stunning meta-cinematic reverie on desire and infidelity. Whether On the Beach at Night Alone is art imitating life or life imitating art is hard to say. That's part of what makes Hong's work so extraordinary. It's part confessional, part self-assessment, part fiction - and who's to say where one diverges from the other? It's a kind of cinematic fantasia through which Hong, and by extension, Kim, exorcise their own demons through their art.

To watch On the Beach at Night Alone is to bear witness to the souls of two artists being exposed for the world to see. It is both defiant and confessional, simultaneously seeking justification and absolution as a mea culpa and an apologia. Unlike Hong's 2000 film, Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, this is Hong stripped bare by himself, and the results are a singular and poignant act of self-examination and personal catharsis that takes private pain and turns it into an anguished public atonement.

10 | GOD'S OWN COUNTRY (Francis Lee, UK)

The lonely landscape of the English countryside provides the backdrop for God’s Own Country, the directorial debut of British actor, Francis Lee. It also becomes the catalyst for a budding relationship between two men; Johnny, an inarticulate farmer predisposed to anonymous, casual sex, and Gheorghe, a Romanian immigrant hired by Johnny's father facing prejudice and mistrust. Alone on the moors with their sheep, what begins as horseplay quickly turns sexual as carnal instincts take hold. Yet Gheorghe refuses to consent to Johnny's brand of quick and meaningless sex. Instead, he introduces him to intimacy, in the process teaching Johnny that there is more to love that just carnal pleasure.

Like a British answer to Brokeback Mountain, God's Own Country is a tale of two sheep-herders in love who can barely express their feelings in words. But like Ang Lee's 2005 masterpiece, it finds something deeply beautiful in the unspoken language shared between the two men. It is haunting, hushed, featuring a lovely score by A Winged Victory for the Sullen (AKA Dustin O'Halloran and Adam Wiltzie), and bathed in evocative and mysterious glow of the English farmlands. The performances by the two leads are both tinged with sadness and filled with a longing they can barely express in words, but can be seen in downturned eyes and furtive glances. It’s a lovely film, a heartfelt and moving exploration of the line between lust and love, where the sometimes erotic nature of masculine friendship spills over from one to the other.

11 | THE POST (Steven Spielberg, USA)

Leave it to Steven Spielberg to make a film about rampant corruption at the highest levels of American government that can still make you proud to be an American. The Post is a paean to good, old fashioned journalism, a celebration of the First Amendment and the free press that reminds us all about the things that really make America great. 

The Post quietly lauds good old fashioned American values. It's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for 2017, except this time, Mr. Smith is wearing a skirt and heels. It also gives us hope for a future, at a time when journalism is under constant attack, it reminds us of the power of the truth, and its calamitous affect on those in power who would attempt to keep it from the people. In that regard, The Post feels like the movie of the moment, taking a hard look at our own time through the lens of the past. It's one of Spielberg's most potent and pointed films in years.

12 | A QUIET PASSION (Terrence Davies, UK)

For his quietly stunning biopic of beloved poet, Emily Dickinson, Terrence Davies composes a world that seems drawn right from Dickinson's own mind. The film's staid veneer, borne out of societal expectations for women of the time, barely covering the simmering emotions beneath. 

It's as alienating as it is engrossing, a lovely and deeply felt evocation of an artist's innermost anguish. "My life closed twice before its close/It yet remains to see /If Immortality unveil /A third event to me." Dickinson's poem reflects her great yearning to be remembered, to be loved. Yet in her words, one can almost hear the same plea by Davies, here echoed through the work of an artist who never achieved her goals while she was alive. It is a heart-wrenching and deeply moving tribute to one artist by another who has walked a mile in her shoes, and the results are a wonder to behold.

13 | THE DEATH OF LOUIS XIV (Albert Serra, France)

In Albert Serra's The Death of Louis XIV, the face of Jean-Pierre Léaud, as France's longest reigning monarch, Louis XIV, lies shrouded in a great dome of hair, his regal features dimmed but no less striking when lost in the giant pompadour wig. He is a monarch in decline, a dim shadow of a man about to be lost in time, surrounded by groveling yes-men and sycophants whose bumbling attempts to affirm his every whim are in fact hastening his death rather than preventing it.

"We'll do better next time" the head physician says directly to the camera, almost as an apology; but will they? Or is this just how we react to the idea of power? The Death of Louis XIV strips away the mythic reverence for monarchs and shows us something else, a pitiable, helpless human being with no one to turn to when death finally comes to call. It's a heartbreaking film, made even more so when Louis implores his young heir to be a better king than he. It is a quietly powerful examination of power, wealth, and mortality that lingers and troubles, anchored by a truly magisterial performance by a lion in winter. It's a hushed and exhilarating stunner.

14 | GOOD TIME (Ben Safdie, Joshua Safdie, USA)

It's been a long time since we've seen a heist thriller as vibrant and full of life as Benny and Joshua Safdie's Good Time. It plays like a shot of adrenaline (or maybe something stronger) straight to the heart. But what makes this movie so special isn't its visceral energy or expertly crafted suspense; rather the fact that it is, at its core, a love story. Not a love story in the romantic sense, of course; no, Good Time is a story about how far we're willing to go for family, in this case, a brother.

The Safdies cleverly play with the audience's sympathies, much as they did in their bracing 2015 debut, Heaven Knows What, populating their film with flawed people in increasingly dire situations. It's a near perfect blend of colorful cinematography, frenetic editing, and pulsing score, creating a grungy, rave-like aesthetic that is like nothing else we've seen on screen this year. Pattinson commands the screen, giving perhaps the finest performance of his career as a man racing against the clock (and against his own human foibles) to save the only person he really, truly cares about. It's a rollicking, raucous thriller, masterfully composed by the Safdies in garish shades of neon and stark fluorescent light. Good Time is simply great filmmaking, an electrifying high-wire act without a net that hits hard, hits fast, and never lets up.

15 | COCO (Lee Unkrich, USA)

As with most Pixar films, a box of tissues is almost a requirement, but Coco might be one of their most heart-wrenching achievements, right up there with Up and Toy Story 3. By the time it reaches its quietly powerful denouement, even the most jaded of viewers will likely find themselves wiping away a tear. Such is the power and beauty of Pixar's craft, and their innate ability to understand the inner workings of the human heart. It's yet another crowning achievement from one of the finest names in animation, a soulful and timeless creation that strikes a universal chord. When all else fades away, family is all we have. Cherish them, and cherish Coco. Mainstream cinema is rarely this good, or this electrifying.

Honorable Mentions

LOVELESS (Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia)

LADY BIRD (Greta Gerwig, USA)

THE ORNITHOLOGIST (João Pedro Rodrigues, Portugal)

THE WORK (Jairus McLeary, Gethin Aldous, USA)

MARJORIE PRIME (Michael Almereyda, USA)

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

2017 was pretty weak year for animation over all, but that doesn't mean there weren't a few bright spots out there, especially if you stepped away from the mainstream multiplex (big studio animation was in especially bad shape this year). GKIDS was far and away the winner this year, making up half my list and almost adding a sixth with an honorable mention for Birdboy: The Forgotten Children. Here are the ten that I found most memorable.

1 | COCO (Lee Unkrich, USA)

Anyone who has ever seen a Pixar movie will likely see the twist coming a mile away, but Coco puts a fresh new spin on the studio's now familiar formula. It's a classic tale about pursuing your dreams and the importance of family, but rarely have we seen such stories told with such artful conviction. Coco is a wonder, a dazzling and deeply moving candy-colored fantasia fueled by the power of music. And what glorious music it is; Michael Giacchino's score, accompanied by memorable songs ("Remember Me" is a haunting stunner) has the power to make the toes tap and the heart soar.

By the time it reaches its quietly powerful denouement, even the most jaded of viewers will likely find themselves wiping away a tear. Such is the power and beauty of Pixar's craft, and their innate ability to understand the inner workings of the human heart. It's yet another crowning achievement from one of the finest names in animation, a soulful and timeless creation that strikes a universal chord. When all else fades away, family is all we have. Cherish them, and cherish Coco. Mainstream cinema is rarely this good, or this electrifying.

2 | IN THIS CORNER OF THE WORLD (Sunao Katabuchi, Japan)

In This Corner of the World is a beautifully realized family drama set against the backdrop of war. It is a sobering and at times wrenching look at Japanese life during the war, which is a perspective from which American audiences have been particularly far removed. Free of jingoism and nationalistic posturing, Katabuchi examines the human toll of war on those left at home, where politics matter little and the day to day drudgery of existence is foremost on the people's minds.

I couldn't help but be reminded of the works of Isao Takahata, especially Grave of the Fireflies, with its graceful humanity coupled with an unflinching depiction of the horrors of war. While perhaps not as harrowing as Takahata's 1988 classic, In This Corner of the World is nevertheless a deeply humane and tender work, a bit overlong perhaps but undeniably moving. It's matter-of-fact treatment of wartime tragedy is at once haunting and heartbreaking. Wars aren't just fought by soldiers, and here the sacrifices of the average citizen is the stuff of intimate and unforgettable drama.


In all my years of reviewing films, I don't think I've ever seen a film quite like Dash Shaw's extraordinary debut feature, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea. A dazzling, almost psychedelic animated phantasmagoria, Shaw's film takes a deep dive into the wild and crazy time that is high school, turning a natural disaster into a disarmingly astute metaphor for the chaos of the teenage years.

 Shaw's style, combining crude hand-drawn figures, and abstract colors and imagery, recalls the work of early animators like Émile Cohl (whose 1908 short, Fantasmagorie, was the first film to consist entirely of animation) by way of more contemporary surrealists like Stan Brakhage and Hollis Frampton. There are perhaps few more surreal periods in a person's life than the teenage years, and My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea captures all the turmoil, discord, and strange beauty of growing up with a wise and clever eye. It's a funny, sad, strange, and altogether wonderful film that will speak to anyone who ever felt lost on the stormy and at times disorienting seas of adolescence, where seemingly petty squabbles feel like the end of the world and status is the defining facet of identity.

4 | THE GIRL WITHOUT HANDS (Sébastien Laudenbach, France)

Based on a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, Sébastien Laudenbach's animated wonder, The Girl Without Hands, is a breathtaking morality play featuring some of the most beautifully unique animation ever put on screen.What stands out here is the gorgeous, impressionistic animation, that seems to fade in and out of the frame, popping with striking colors and coalescing and de-forming based on the character's emotional state. It's like a pencil and watercolor dream made of half-formed images and fragments of memories. In a year that has been so weak for animation, The Girl Without Hands stands out as a creative high point, an original and heartfelt fairy tale whose unique style perfectly serves its well worn story, making it feel vibrant and new. It's a film where style meets substance, where each frame is a work of art all its own, a shattering and ultimately hopeful tale of a greed and love that feels like something carved from our deepest subconscious. It's a remarkable achievement.

5 | NAPPING PRINCESS (Kenji Kamiyama, Japan)

Also known as Ancien and the Magic Tablet, Kenji Kamiyama's Napping Princess is a unique and often ingenious animated reverie that cleverly blurs the lines between fantasy and reality.

It's a thrilling ride, beautifully animated and often brilliantly conceived. These flashes of creative ingenuity are what keep it moving, providing an emotional anchor even when the narrative gets lost. Its blending of dreams and real life is, for the most part, sharply realized, and provides a grand canvas for dealing with real life issues (including a not-so-subtle critique of capitalistic greed), not to mention its knack for mixing real technology with fantastical sci-fi elements that crossover between worlds. There's a lot to unpack here, and even if it doesn't always hit every note perfectly, it's still a compelling and emotionally astute adventure with a heart of gold.

6 | THE BREADWINNER (Nora Twomey, Ireland)

Another animated winner from GKIDS and Cartoon Saloon, the Irish animation house that produced surprise Oscar nominees The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, Nora Twomey's The Breadwinner move away from Irish legends for a tale set in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Based on the novel by Deborah Ellis, The Breadwinner paints a wrenching portrait of the struggles of women just to be acknowledged as human beings. Twomey tells a story of universal humanity that bursts through the screen in vibrant swirls of color. It may tend to become unfocused in the middle stretch, but the ultimate emotional impact remains undimmed.

7 | THE BOSS BABY (Tom McGrath, USA)

Tom McGrath (Madagascar) takes an outlandish premise about a baby (voiced by Alec Baldwin) who comes from a heavenly baby company to earth in order to save his company from being replaced by puppies, and turns it into a surprisingly moving film about family and the unique bond between siblings. Most notably, The Boss Baby captures the spirit of childhood play and imagination in disarmingly indelible ways, as their fantasies blend into the real world around them, constantly informing how they interact with each other. It's a bit silly at times, but it's almost better than it has any right to be, with Baldwin giving an amusing performance as the titular baby. This is one that sneaks up on you.

8 | MARY AND THE WITCH'S FLOWER (Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Japan)

It is fitting that Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who helmed Studio Ghibli's final film, When Marnie Was There, should also direct the inaugural feature of Studio Ponoc, the Japanese animation house that rose out of Ghibli's ashes. Mary and the Witch's Flower is an adaptation of Mary Stewart's "The Little Broomstick," about a young girl who discovers a magical flower in the forest that transports her into a world of witches and magic.

The film plays like a kind of "Ghibli's greatest hits," borrowing elements from Spirited Away, Kiki's Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky, and even Princess Mononoke, resulting in a film that never really establishes a personality of its own. On the one hand, it displays a disappointing lack of creativity for Studio Ponoc's debut feature. On the other hand, it shows they're playing it safe the first time out of the gate, sticking to tried and true story elements that have already been proven to work. It's an engaging adventure that hinges on the importance of embracing one's differences, and how the things we believe set us apart are often our greatest strengths.


It may not quite have the same energetic verve of The LEGO Movie, but The LEGO Batman Movie still has a slyly satirical sense of humor that really makes these movies sing. As written by Seth Grahame-Smith (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), The LEGO Batman Movie is a gleefully silly spoof of 50 years worth of Batman, from the very first Batman movie starring Adam West, all the way to Batman vs. Superman. It even takes the time to poke fun at DC's ill-fated Suicide Squad. It's a nearly pitch-perfect blend of superhero satire and comic adventure, capturing the spirit of Batman in all his inherent absurdity, in the process becoming the best Batman movie since Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy.

10 | LOVING VINCENT (Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, UK)

It's unlikely that we will see a film this year as breathtakingly beautiful as Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman's Loving Vincent, the first fully oil-painted film ever made. Each frame is like a living work of art, hand-painted by a team of over 120 artists over the period of seven years. Visually, it's a masterpiece, a stunning evocation of the life and work of the legendary artist, Vincent Van Gogh. It feels as if we are stepping into one of Van Gogh's paintings, and the results are nothing short of stunning.

While it's doubtful that if this film weren't 100% hand-painted that anyone would be paying any attention to it at all. And yet, it's such a singular visual achievement that it almost must be seen to be believed. It's a film that's easy to recommend, because it's essentially a living work of art