Sunday, December 29, 2019

On paper, Dark Waters seems like another "muckraking later takes on a polluting corporation" film, something in the vein of A Civil Action or Erin Brockovich. But while the story is a familiar, director Todd Haynes has taken the time-tested formula and fashioned it into something uniquely beautiful.

From the opening scene we know we're in capable hands. Haynes reworks the iconic opening scene of Jaws, only this time there's no shark in the water - the unseen predator is the water itself, poisoned by toxic chemicals from the DuPont company. This theme recurs throughout Dark Waters - water is seemingly ever present, in polluted streams, in rivers, and in glasses of water on board room tables. Cinematographer Ed Lachman's camera lingers on water whenever it is present, a silent killer lurking at the periphery of the entire film, its presence keenly felt even when it isn't on screen.

This sense of unknowable, undetectable danger is the heart of Dark Waters, whether it's the poisoned water or the unchecked capitalism whose pursuit of profit at all cost caused the problem in the first place, the film is filled with phantom villains and shadowy figures whose avarice has affected the lives of untold millions. The greedy capitalists in question are the DuPont chemical company, whose "miracle product" Teflon turned out to not only be responsible for poisoning the waters of a small town near its plant, but for putting toxins in the blood of nearly every person in the United States for decades. The film centers around lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), whose firm had previously represented chemical companies in cases like this, who becomes increasingly aware of the vastness of this problem when he takes on what he thinks will be a small case of a local farmer (an excellent Bill Camp) whose cows died under mysterious circumstances. The deeper in he gets, the more he realizes that the problem has national ramifications, and he begins to understand the true damage he has helped to facilitate and cover up through his work for DuPont in the past.

It is indeed a dark story, a grim procedural that delves into a man's singular obsession with a case for which he feels partly responsible. In that way, it isn't that far removed from David Fincher's Zodiac, a film where the obsession almost becomes more important than the actual identity of the killer the characters are hunting. In the case of Dark Waters  Haynes seems to be in direct conversation with his 1995 film, Safe, in which a woman becomes paranoid that everything around her is trying to kill her. In Dark Waters that paranoia becomes terrifyingly justified - the silent killers really are in our own back yards, and the companies who put them there will do anything to avoid responsibility.

Haynes take this familiar tales and imbues it with a kind of artful sense of paranoia become manifest. Bilott's struggle is the heart of the film, but it's not just his determination to take down DuPont that fuels the film's drama, its his awakening as a man who was once a part of the problem now determined to help fix it. He's not just a righteous crusader, he's a man wracked with guilt for helping these corrupt capitalists poison the nation through lawsuits and assaults of misinformation. It's a David vs. Goliath tale on the surface, but underneath the dark waters it's a film about a man's conflict within himself - how do you fix a problem that you willingly ignored for decades? How do you make people wake up those who are blind to it just as you were? He understands exactly why he is opposed, and yet money always speaks louder than the truth.

It's that dichotomy that makes the film so fascinating. Haynes could have easily churned out a straightforward procedural like Spotlight and called it a day. Instead, he takes the material and turns it into something both beautiful and horrific, a real-world revisit of the themes that made Safe one of his finest works. There, social anxiety became manifest through real-life symptoms. In Dark Waters the silent killers really are waiting for us in our own homes, and those responsible are fully aware. Darkness has always lurked beneath the surface of polite society in Haynes' work, from Far from Heaven to Carol, here that darkness becomes quite literal. It's a film full of righteous anger, yes, but it's also a film whose painful resignation to the world's overwhelming darkness refuses to leave us with the false hope that this is a battle that has in any way been won. Haynes weaves a haunting sense of melancholy through every frame, infused with Marcelo Zarvos' aching score, leaving us with an unnerving sense of the damage wrought by capitalism and the unchecked pursuit of wealth that continues to wreck havoc on our world. It's an absolutely essential portrait of our time.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


DARK WATERS | Directed by Todd Haynes | Stars Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, Bill Pullman | Rated PG-13 for thematic content, some disturbing images, and strong language | Now playing in select cities.

Friday, December 27, 2019

2019 was a year of great change. It was also a great year for film. Not only is the world facing unprecedented political upheaval and social change, both positive and negative, it was also the year I became a father, and welcomed my first daughter into the world. It's enough to make anyone look at the world a little differently. Did that affect my choices for the best films of the year? It might be too soon to tell. But for the first time in a long time - almost everything that was supposed to be good actually was. The 2010s saved the best for last and went out on a high note, delivering late period masterworks from old-guard legends like Martin Scorsese, Jean-Luc Godard, and Pedro Almodòvar to bracing new works by exciting new talents like Kalik Allah, Lulu Wang, and Hu Bo. It's a year that will go down in the history books for many reasons - but the films represented here will certainly ensure that this truly was a year to remember.

1. THE IRISHMAN (Martin Scorsese, USA)

It took Martin Scorsese nearly 10 years to develop and make his epic mob drama, The Irishman, a sprawling portrait of the rise and eventual decline of mafia hitman, Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), and his friendship with two equally charismatic and powerful figures - mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and infamous union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

Scorsese shoots the film's murders with a dry sense of matter-of-factness, characters casually stroll into frame, gun down an unsuspecting victim, then calmly walk out of frame again, leaving the lifeless body to bleed out on the sidewalk. There's nothing glamorous about it, but neither is particularly repulsive - it's just business, nothing personal, and that's what makes it all so disturbing. What kind of effect does a life like that have on a man? That's the question that lies at the film's sorrowful heart. Frank Sheeran spent a lifetime painting houses (a mob term for caring out hits; in other words, decorating walls with blood), while Scorsese has spent a great deal of his career chronicling the lives of men like Frank. In that regard, The Irishman feels like the summation of a career, a late-period masterpiece that takes into account a life's work. It is perhaps one of Scorsese's most reflective films, a broad-ranging meditation on life, mortality, and betrayal through the eyes of an old man in twilight, all his friends gone in violent ends, facing the end alone. Are we to feel sorry for him? To pity him? Or perhaps mourn the existence of the violent patriarchal power structures he spent a lifetime upholding? What are we to make of such a man? In Scorsese's masterful hands it becomes an American tragedy writ-large, of great potential cut down by greed and corruption, and a road to hell paved by the best of intentions. Scorsese, De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino, four lions in winter, all deliver some of the finest work of their respective careers in a film that can only be described as a monument of American cinema.


2. BLACK MOTHER (Khalik Allah, USA)

It's a rare thing to be left speechless by a film. Even more so for someone who writes about film for a living; yet Black Mother is the kind of film that defies description, a work of such radical beauty that it nearly reshapes the entire cinematic experience in its own image. Part documentary, part travelogue, part poem, Black Mother is a deeply personal tribute to Jamaica (the ancestral home of Allah's mother) and to the black experience, specifically the black women who actually birthed a nation.

Allah examines the effects of religion on the tiny island nation, both as a symptom of colonialism and a reaction to it, as Christianity and Rastafarianism blend together into something beautiful and unique. Allah, a renowned photographer, captures snippets of island life and blends them together into something singularly breathtaking. There are films that move you, there are films that shake you, and then there's Black Mother - a transcendental meditation on life, love, and black identity that takes the mundane and makes it feel miraculous.


3. THE FAREWELL (Lulu Wang, USA)

While very specifically based on director Lulu Wang's affection for, and feelings of alienation from, her Chinese heritage, there's something very universal about the family dynamics on display in her deeply personal film, The Farewell.

Awkwafina stars as Chinese expatriate Billi, who returns to China from the United States upon learning that her Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. But in a uniquely Chinese tradition, the family refuses to tell her that she's dying, instead disguising the impromptu family reunion as a wedding. Billi's struggle with the ethics of this deception form the core of the film; torn between her Chinese heritage and her American upbringing, she often feels like a stranger in her home country, a nation her family fled seeking greater opportunity when she was only a child.

And yet, while the film's central conflict is based on a very specific sense of cultural malaise, what Wang has crafted here is something immediately recognizable, a portrait of unconditional love that transcends the idiosyncrasies of familial bonds. Wang imbues her tale with such a sense of dignity and grace, writing a love letter to her beloved grandmother that just may make you want to run home and hug your own.

4. THE IMAGE BOOK (Jean-Luc Godard, France)

Jean-Luc Godard's The Image Book is at once perfectly at home with his other late-period collage films such as Film Socialisme and Goodbye to Language, and yet completely unlike anything the 88-year-old Nouvelle Vague iconoclast has ever made. It's part of the filmmaker's quest to investigate and reinvent the cinematic language, a life-long passion for Godard at least since 1967's WEEKEND, in which he infamously declared the "end of cinema."

Through re-tooled images from cinema history (taken from such films as Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou, Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, and Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down) and an often shifting aspect ratio, Godard is quite literally making the audience look at these familiar images from alternate points of view. It's an effect created by the way Godard transfers films from VHS to his DV camcorder, as the camera attempts to adjust to the different aspect ratio, yet this digital "mistake" was purposefully left in.

The value of these images, in fact the very nature of their beauty (or lack thereof) lies in our own perception of them. Godard gives us the tools to decode them, but intentionally leaves us without a guidebook. Through the various lenses he places in front of them, be they digital imperfections, analog glitches, or simply the fog of time, The Image Book asks us to look at the world around us in ways we've never before considered. It's an endlessly fascinating and somehow wistful work, a career summation by a legendary iconoclast who continues to reinvent himself well into his ninth decade of life, now looking back at a life's work and asking "what was it all for?" The answer lies somewhere buried in the bleary fragments of images recorded from Godard's VHS player, a radical reinvention of cinematic language that will be studied and appreciated for decades to come.

5. AN ELEPHANT SITTING STILL (Hu Bo, China)

This is clearly a film that came from a very dark place, but that's what makes it so revelatory. Few other films have captured the essence of depression so indelibly. It's a work of incredible anger and anguish, but it's also a tremulous and delicate thing, epic in length but intimate in scope, a film that constantly turns its focus inward. Some may consider this insular, but Fan Chao's expressive camerawork turns the pain of the characters into outer expressions of sadness. It's as if the film was conjured from thin air, gorgeous, elemental, and tortured, Hu's consciousness made manifest and brought into being by sheer force of will. That final ray of light found in togetherness is what makes it all worth it - a note of hope that Hu never afforded himself. This light in the darkness in the form of an elephant trumpeting in the pitch black of the Mongolian desert is a moment so piercing that it almost seems like a cry from Hu himself - a warning, an admonition, or perhaps a word of comfort that it doesn't have to end the way it did for him. No matter how you interpret it, An Elephant Sitting Still stands as a monument to a tremendous unrealized talent taken from us too soon, who left behind an unforgettable meditation on what it means to cling to hope when the world around you seems utterly bleak.


6. AD ASTRA (James Gray, USA)

In the most simplistic terms, Ad Astra feels like a Terrence Malick film with space pirates, a probing, philosophical film filled with lyrical musings about the nature of life, set against the epic backdrop of a world whose greed for natural resources has spilled over into outer space, as nations vie for supremacy not only on Earth, but on the moon as well. It is an adventure film but mainly in the sense that it’s about the mystery of exploration, but Gray’s aim is always much deeper than that.

Gray paints on such a grand scale but the film never loses its intimate focus. That’s perhaps its greatest irony - Gray employs breathtaking cinematography and stunning special effects to tell a story that stands in stark contrast to its sweeping appointments. It is a deeply introspective film, the juxtaposition of its inner focus against a magnificent backdrop reinforced his central theme - even in the face of the loftiest of human achievement, nothing is more powerful or more important than human connection. What is the point of it all if we don't have love?

Its protagonist, like his father before him, is a man who put work above all, his singular drive to go higher, farther, and faster leading him to completely forsake his family. In the end it’s seemingly all for naught. What if we truly are alone in the universe? What if we spend our entire lives looking for something more, something greater than ourselves, and in the process miss, to paraphrase Dorothy Gale of Kansas, the beauty of what’s in our own back yard? Whether it’s over the rainbow or beyond the reaches of Neptune, Gray can’t help but remind us that nothing is so grand and mysterious and worth our time as love. Ad Astra is one of the best works of science fiction this century.


7. PAIN AND GLORY (Pedro Almodòvar, Spain)

Cinema history is littered with filmmakers who turned the camera on themselves - stories of tortured artists, great men burdened great talent. It would be easy to dismiss these films as mere vanity projects, tales of self-aggrandizement by mostly male filmmakers who see themselves as saddled with great genius that no one else could possibly understand. However, there's something much more humble and self-reflective in Pedro Almodóvar's Pain and Glory, an ostensible act of self-reflection that seems to flow directly from the filmmaker's heart rather than his own ego.

It is through his protagonist, an obvious avatar for Almodóvar himself, that the filmmaker subverts the trope of the struggling genius and the women who inspired him, putting a queer twist on what has become a kind of cinematic indulgence for straight filmmakers. Here we see a gay filmmaker baring his soul and exploring the roots of his own sexuality in ways once only afforded to straight artists, and the results are bracing and often deeply moving. This is not the same Almodóvar who made Matador and Law of Desifre - this is a film that finds the filmmaker in a much more reflective mode, more reminiscent of his work in Bad Education, a film with which Pain and Glory shares a similar thematic outlook. Yet by the time the film reaches its wrenching, revelatory conclusion, Almodóvar manages to re-contextualize everything we've just seen. It's one of the most stunning film endings of the year, and yet it's so quietly earth-shattering that its power is almost disarming. It's the kind of film that cements Almodóvar in the pantheon of great artists, and it does so without ego or pretense, an understated glory that finds devastating beauty in the wreckage of a lifetime of mistakes and missed opportunities as only the cinema could have given us.


8. LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (Bi Gan, China)

Much has been made about the one-shot prowess of Sam Mendes's 1917, and while that film is certainly a dazzling achievement, the year's most impressive single take shot is in Bi Gan's neon-soaked Neo-noir, Long Day's Journey into Night.

Like something out of a dream, Bi takes us on a journey through time and memory, plunging us into its protagonist's tortured search for a mysterious woman from his past. Before long we find ourselves deep into a mystery for which there may be no answer, at once an existential nightmare and an Antonioni-esque exploration of the human mind. Its final, hour-long single take tracking shot is not only a marvel of technical ingenuity, it's like an out-of-body experience that shatters the boundaries of what cinema can do.


9. A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD (Marielle Heller, USA)

Marielle Heller's A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a much darker, more complicated film than its marketing would suggest. While Tom Hanks' Mr. Rogers has been at the forefront of the film's marketing campaign, the film really isn't about Mr. Rogers at all; it's an emotionally thorny family drama about a cynical and wounded man coming to terms with his trauma and taking the first steps toward mending the rifts in his family.

This movie goes to some dark places, but it emerges hopeful. No other film this year has felt quite so cathartic. It’s not so much about Mr. Rogers as it is the idea we all have of him - and rather than deify him, it humanizes him, as a human being like all of us, but who found a way to deal with the hurt inside. There's some really emotionally complex, powerful stuff here, and Heller navigates it with great care, deftly speaking to the part of all of us where child that we were meets the adult that we are.

That final shot of Mr. Rogers alone in his studio banging on his piano are going to stick with me for a long time. They’re beautiful notes, but those few dissonant chords suggest a more complex emotional life than perhaps we saw. And yet nothing about him feels fake or inauthentic. Mr. Rogers was the man we saw on TV. He remains a symbol for all that is kind and good; but the film, like the man, invites us to grapple with and acknowledge the negative feelings inside. People hurt. They feel sadness, anger, regret. But to embrace those things, to meet them head on and wrestle with them rather than sweeping them under the rug - that’s a good feeling.

10. HOTEL BY THE RIVER (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)

Filled with longing and regret, Hotel by the River is the story of a group of quintessential Hong protagonists, separated by emotional distance they are unable to bridge despite their best efforts. It recalls the snowy wistfulness of The Day He Arrives (2012), centering around five lonely people who converge on the eponymous hotel to find their own definition of peace and healing.

On the surface, Hong's films often seem aimless and meandering. And while Hotel by the River  is perhaps his most accessible film in recent memory (and the first of two films released in 2019, including the enigmatic Grass), it still retains his trademark unassuming self-reflexivity, the characters seemingly trapped in a self-imposed purgatory for which they hold the keys to escape, yet never quite figure out how to use them. One always feels that Hong's films are an attempt by the filmmaker to exorcise his own demons, to explore his own feelings and shortcomings both as an artist and a human being. There is a poignant sense of regret that permeates the film that is both tangible and intoxicating, and one comes away with the feeling that we're all just snowflakes in a snowstorm, colliding with each other briefly as we're tossed in the wind, searching for somewhere to land. In Hong's haunted meditation, there is no pretense of having all the answers, and that's what makes it so special. He's out here trying to figure himself out just like everyone else. Like his very best films, Hotel by the River seems like a circuitous trifle on the surface, but within its modestly composed black and white frames lies a profoundly open-ended exploration of the very faults, foibles, dreams, and contradictions that makes us human.

11. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (Quentin Tarantino, USA)

Going into a Quentin Tarantino movie, one usually has a certain set of expectations: there will be copious amounts of violence, creative (and constant) use of curse words, extensive references to older films, and lately, a new spin on familiar history.

His latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, checks all those boxes, but for the first time since perhaps 1997's Jackie Brown, there's something much deeper and more melancholy at work here. Tracing the story of a former TV western star named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his faithful stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood transports us back to the summer of 1969 in the city of dreams, where anything was a possible but change was inevitable.

It's almost as if Tarantino is grappling with his own anxiety about pending irrelevance and ennui while honoring the great filmmakers of the past whose work has been so important to forming his own career. Tarantino famously proclaimed that he would retire after making 10 films, and for those keeping score at home, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is his ninth (if you count the two volumes of Kill Bill as one film). The result is perhaps the most beautiful, wistful, and touching thing he has ever directed. The unexpected gravitas and lugubrious self-reflection is something quite new for the filmmaker, displaying a sense of mournful contemplation in a sanguine tribute to the heroes of his childhood. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is easily Tarantino's most deeply felt film to date.  Beneath his instantly recognizable sense of dark humor, it's a pensive and haunted reverie of the fading shadows of old Hollywood, where dreams unfolded in larger than life images on a flickering screen, created by much smaller men and women who were more fragile and flawed than they ever let on.

12. THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO (Joe Talbot, USA)

There's an unshakable sense of sadness at the heart of Joe Talbot's freshman feature film, The Last Black Man in San Francisco. It centers around a young man named Jimmie who obsessively returns to the home his grandfather built upon moving to San Francisco after WWII, much to the chagrin of the current owners, who don't appreciate Jimmie's constant repairs and improvements. Jimmie's father lost the house due to financial mismanagement, but that hasn't stopped Jimmie from trying to take care of it when the new owners let it fall into disrepair. When the house finally comes up for sale, Jimmie is determined to reclaim his birthright and buy his childhood home, but the multimillion dollar price tag may prove prohibitive in the newly trendy neighborhood.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco touches on ideas of gentrification as Jimmie's former neighborhood suddenly becomes a hot commodity among affluent young white people, but Talbot digs deeper than that, exploring themes of home and identity, and how those two things are often inexorably linked. But in tying his identity to a location, Jimmie discovers some hard truths about where he's really from, and is forced to grapple with what that means for his future. Both Jimmie Fails (who co-wrote the screenplay based on his own life) and co-star Jonathan Majors are remarkable, but it's Fails' sensitive screenplay that is the star here. It's a work of quiet, unassuming beauty. A probing, deeply personal exploration of his own family history and his love for the place he calls home - San Francisco. It's at once a love letter and a warning. "You don't get to hate it unless you love it," he admonishes a young carpetbagger complaining about her newfound surroundings. And indeed, Fails' criticisms are nothing if not full of love for the city of his birth.

Talbot takes the mundane and makes it ecstatic, soaring on the wings of Emile Mosseri's haunting score, a mix of mournful oboes and wistful pianos that feels at once familiar and alien, like returning to a home you no longer recognize. It's a beautiful achievement, and one of the very best films of 2019.

13. CHINESE PORTRAIT (Wang Xiaoshuai, China)

Most films are primarily concerned with action and movement - how characters get from "Point A" to "Point B." Figures moving through space and time, in and out of frame, conducting the business of moving along the plot.

By contrast, Wang Xiaoshuai's documentary, Chinese Portrait, is a movie about waiting, focusing on the seemingly mundane moments between actions that most movies cut around. The film consists of a series of static tableaus set in textile mills, homes, mines, trains, and other everyday locations of Chinese life. By posing the subjects in a kind of cinematic still life, Wang creates a kind of non-reality reality, a snapshot in time that could almost be a still photograph if it weren't for the life continuing on around them. It almost feels like the mirror image of Abbas Kiarostami's 24 Frames, but instead of animating still images, it's freezing real life moments like an insect preserved in amber, a piece of seemingly arbitrary time captured and preserved forever.

One might expect a film comprised of mostly static tableaus to become tiresome or dull, but as the film progresses it becomes something at once wondrous and revelatory, a dynamic living document of modern China that invites viewers to take in the world around them, to become enveloped by its fluctuating scenarios. The effect is at once riveting and enchanting, a quietly electrifying avant-garde documentary that creates a clear-eyed portrait of our ever-changing world without ever uttering a word.


14. PARASITE (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)

Parasite begins as a seemingly light-hearted family comedy, Ki-taek's brood spending their time desperately searching for the one spot in the house with a wi-fi signal, and chasing off drunks who constantly piss in front of their window. Even their ingratiation with the Park family plays a bit like a farce. But Bong slowly turns the film into something else, a dark thriller built around an outlandish premise that finally comes to a head in a shocking eruption of violence, before switching gears yet again into a kind of reflective socially conscious tragedy. It's a film very much rooted in class consciousness and income inequality, an issue that continues to rise to the forefront not only of our own politics here in the United States, but in countries around the world. Bong masterfully blends these divergent genre elements into one wildly original whole, crafting an incisive indictment of income inequality and the wide gulf between the classes that is as bitterly funny as it is hauntingly wistful. It's a tale of two families living side by side who couldn't be further apart, with one family propping up and enabling obscene wealth they could never hope to accumulate in a thousand lifetimes. That's the real tragedy at the heart of Parasite  it may be about tensions between the haves and the have-nots, but it's a stark reminder that the have-nots need the haves just as much as the haves need the have-nots, and that such extreme inequality can only ever lead to simmering resentment that will inevitably boil over.

15. CLIMAX (Gaspar Nöe, France)

Climax is the perfect movie for the world in which we live. Common morality and human decency take a backseat to something much more brutal and primal, a world run by pure id. Yet this is no empty provocation, it’s an exploration of the darkest recesses of the human mind, a window into what we're capable of at our very cores. There's a kind of trance-like quality to the film, and once we're under Noé's spell, there's no turning back. It's at once a slow-burn unravelling and a turbulent, unhinged party that goes quickly off the rails. That Noé manages to balance those two aesthetics is remarkable in and of itself, but to also create something that is as moving as it is horrifying. Climax is often shockingly brutal, but it manages to make us feel the pain of its characters, and to sympathize with their plight. They never asked for this, and the results are often terrifying.

Much of the film is shot in long, unblinking takes, the camera movements replacing editing by being untethered to one specific plane. Noé's camera moves throughout the party like an unseen observer, roving the halls, and even moving up to the ceiling for a bird's eye view so that the audience is at once a dispassionate voyeur and an active participant. There's simply no other film like it in recent memory. It's thrilling, ghastly, tragic, and beautiful, a riotous and sensual visual and aural assault that simply must be seen to be believed.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

  • THE TWO POPES (Fernando Meirelles, Argentina)
  • MARRIAGE STORY (Noah Baumbach, USA)
  • A HIDDEN LIFE (Terrence Malick, USA)
  • UNCUT GEMS (Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie, USA)
  • DARK WATERS (Todd Haynes, USA)
  • FOR SAMA (Waad al-Kateab, Edward Watts, Syria)
  • THE WANDERING SOAP OPERA (Raúl Ruiz, Valeria Sarmiento, Chilé)
  • ASAKO I & II (Ryūsuke Hamaguchi, Japan)
  • THE WILD PEAR TREE (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
  • WAVES (Trey Edward Shults, USA)

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Tom Hooper's Cats is one of those cinematic disasters that will go down in the annals of history as one of the all-time great failures. Based on Andrew Lloyd Webber's Tony-winning 1981 musical, which was for a time the longest running Broadway play in history before it closed in 2000, Cats takes all the problems that plagued Webber's original musical and multiples them tenfold, leaning into the play's essential formlessness and emerging as a garish mishmash of musical styles and horrendously half-finished special effects.

Rarely does one see such a perfect storm of bad material and poor execution. While the original play featured actors dressed in leotards to represent their feline attributes, the film uses CGI to make the actors look like bizarre cat/human hybrids complete with furry bodies, human hands and feet, and whiskers. Yet these features are so inconsistently applied that there seems to be no rhyme or reason to any of it. It's come to light now, of course, that the film was released unfinished, and that a new print is being shipped to theaters with improved special effects this week. And while the hands and feet are distracting, and obviously blurred lines between hands and sleeves look like unrendered test runs for better visual effects, the sloppy animation is one of the least of its problems.

In fact the film's biggest issue is its source material. Filled with grating songs and a thin, nonsensical story, Cats was seemingly doomed before it ever arrived on screen. And yet Hooper, who won an Oscar in 2010 for The King's Speech, seems bound and determined to bury in completely. He fills the film with groan-worthy cat puns, and creates a mise-en-scene so busy that one hardly knows what to look at. Its flashy array of bold colors and swirling camerawork do little to mask the inherent absurdity of the whole affair, with adults prancing around with catlike movements when it suits them that they immediately drop when it doesn't. This is clearly the result of sloppy direction, and one has to wonder how much Hooper was paying attention given just how uneven and inconsistent the production is. The film looks like it was filmed and edited by a group of feral cats high on catnip, and while that may seem like a camp classic in the making, there's nothing fun or entertaining about any of it.

Hooper attempts to imbue the film with a greater sense of emotion than its Broadway counterpart by recording the songs live on set, inviting the actors to sniffle and cry their way through the film's most heartrending numbers (he did the same thing with Les Miserables in 2012). Rather than make the numbers more powerful, however, it actually destroys their tempo and slows the film's momentum to a grinding halt, neutering the film's admittedly terrific signature number, "Memory," doing the usually wonderful Jennifer Hudson no favors and giving her little real emotion to chew on like she had in her Oscar-winning performance in Dreamgirls.

The whole thing is just a mess, a borderline unwatchable mishmash of poorly conceived musical numbers and incoherent storytelling. Not even the talented cast, which includes the likes of Judi Dench, Ian McKellan, and Idris Elba can save the film from under the layers of computer animation. One wants to give everyone the benefit of the doubt here, but this truly feels like a movie with no direction, no leader, no vision - it's an unholy abomination complete with dancing cockroaches and singing mice that, rather than bringing dreams to life, plays out like a nightmarish vision from the pits of cinema hell.

GRADE - zero stars (out of four)


CATS | Directed by Tom Hooper | Stars Francesca Hayward, James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson | Rated PG for some rude and suggestive humor | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Monday, December 23, 2019


Reality is stranger than fiction, the old saying goes, and in 2019 that has never felt more true. With the world seemingly falling apart around us, documentaries feel more essential than ever, a kernel of truth in a world defined by fake news and "alternative facts." And what a year for documentaries it was - from avant-garde cinematic poems to raw portraits of the human cost of war to examinations of the state of labor in the United States and China to explorations of the unheralded contributions of cinema's female pioneers, 2019's crop of documentaries run the gamut of global topics and have produced some of the year's most indelible cinematic moments.

Here are the ten documentaries that stuck with me the most in 2019.



1. BLACK MOTHER (Kalik Allah, USA)

It's a rare thing to be left speechless by a film. Even more so for someone who writes about film for a living; yet Black Mother is the kind of film that defies description, a work of such radical beauty that it nearly reshapes the entire cinematic experience in its own image. Part documentary, part travelogue, part poem, Black Mother is a deeply personal tribute to Jamaica (the ancestral home of Allah's mother) and to the black experience, specifically the black women who actually birthed a nation.

Allah examines the effects of religion on the tiny island nation, both as a symptom of colonialism and a reaction to it, as Christianity and Rastafarianism blend together into something beautiful and unique. Allah, a renowned photographer, captures snippets of island life and blends them together into a singularly breathtaking. There are films that move you, there are films that shake you, and then there's Black Mother - a transcendental meditation on life, love, and black identity that takes the mundane and makes it feel miraculous.


2. CHINESE PORTRAIT (Wang Xiaoshuai, China)

Urban ruin and decay gives way to rebirth, life moves steadily forward even as progress leaves people behind. Chinese Portrait examines moments of humanity in a rapidly evolving nation, reflecting a remarkably diverse country both economically and religiously - Muslim prayers are even featured prominently despite rising anti-Muslim violence in the country. It's as much a portrait of the nation as it could be as a portrait of the country as it is, offering glimpses of its potential along with with its foibles.

One might expect a film comprised of mostly static tableaus to become tiresome or dull, but as the film progresses it becomes something at once wondrous and revelatory, a dynamic living document of modern China that invites viewers to take in the world around them, to become enveloped by its fluctuating scenarios. The effect is at once riveting and enchanting, a quietly electrifying avant-garde documentary that creates a clear-eyed portrait of our ever-changing world without ever uttering a word.


3. THE GOSPEL OF EUREKA (Micheal Palmieri, Daniel Mosher, USA)

Much like human sexuality, faith transcends boundaries, refutes hatred, and ultimately finds a place of belonging in the most unlikely of places. At a time when our country feels more divided than ever, films like The Gospel of Eureka feel all the more essential. Its sense of empathy feels almost defiantly out of step with the world at large, and yet it manages to touch on some deep and essential truths. It is a celebration of queerness, of faith, and of the deep and abiding ties that bind.

4. FOR SAMA (Waad al-Kateab, Edward Watts, Syria)

Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts's documentary For Sama is perhaps the most personal and essential account of the conflict in Syria yet made. From al-Kateab's on-the-ground vantage point, For Sama becomes a harrowing account of Bashir Assad's assault on the people of Aleppo, made ostensibly as a document of remembrance for her infant daughter, Sama.

While films like The White Helmets and Last Men in Aleppo, both Oscar winners, have given appropriately disturbing looks into the human elements of the conflict, none have felt quite so deeply empathetic as this one. The framing of a mother attempting to make something for her daughter so that she knows and understands the history of her people and those that love her creates something universally recognizable. The terror and the human toll of the conflict feel tangible and immediate - as al-Kateab documents the world crumbling around her while her husband tries to open hospitals safe from Assad's bombs, their fear and anxiety become palpable. It's not an easy watch, but it's impossible to look away from the massive scale of human atrocity on display that is preserved here not just for young Sama, but for a world that remains frustratingly indifferent.


5. VARDA BY AGNÈS (Agnès Varda, France)

ike a personal cinematheque retrospective hosted by Varda herself, Varda by Agnès takes us on a tour through her career as she meets with audiences of eager film students around the world, sharing stories, experiences, and amusing anecdotes about her process and craft. Just listening to Varda discuss her career would have been enough to make a fascinating viewing experience, but the legendary French filmmaker isn't content to simply sit in front of a camera and talk about herself. This isn't merely a "concert film" comprised of clips of Varda's public appearances. She returns to the scenes of several films, recreating various techniques and breaking the fourth wall with the kind of wistful fondness of a lion in winter reflecting on the days of old. It is fitting, then, that Varda by Agnès ended up being Varda's final film before her death earlier this year at the age of 90. The film is a sublimely autumnal reflection of a legendary career, but it never feels mournful or melancholy - instead, it is a celebration of the "dreams and reveries" of a life well-lived, an endlessly engaging ode to a titan of cinema proving she's still playful, still vibrant, and still filled with childlike wonder at the endless possibilities of the artform she held dear. Varda was consistently an artist ahead of her time, a filmmaker who refused to compromise her sense of self or her the inherent politics of her identity, who consistently sought to push the boundaries of cinema and better understand the world around her. And in this, her final film, she writes a bittersweet epitaph for herself, and the world now seems like an infinitely less interesting place without her.


6. ISLAND OF THE HUNGRY GHOSTS (Gabrielle Brady, Australia)

The foggy shores of Australia's Christmas Island becomes a crossroads for migrants both human and animal in Gabrielle Brady's haunted and moody documentary, Island of the Hungry Ghosts; chronicling not only the island's famous crab migration, but its lesser known high security encampment that houses thousands of refugees seeking asylum in Australia.

In an ironic juxtaposition, Brady explores the ubiquitous crabs' journey to the sea with the stagnation of the asylum-seekers trapped in what is essentially a glorified prison, treated as criminals for the simple act of seeking a better life. The animals are free to carry on with their ancient journey, lead by an instinct to procreate and seek a better life for their children, while the humans are punished for similar desires. While the film deals with Australian immigration practices in particular, one can't help but recognize the universal plight of the displaced currently facing immigrants in Donald Trump's America and across Europe. Island of the Hungry Ghosts feels like a quiet rebuke of right-wing populism and anti-immigrant sentiments, yet Brady avoids turning this into a simple political issue, eschewing rhetoric for the subjects' intrinsic humanity. Here, on an island made famous by migratory animals, Brady paints a poetic and at times chilling portrait of life in transit, of a struggle for survival as old as time now playing out in both the macro and the micro; an eternal flux on one tiny island in a time where humans are treated with less dignity than even the lowest of creatures.


7. APOLLO 11 (Todd Douglas Miller, USA)

As awe-inspiring as anything in First Man, Todd Douglas Miller's documentary, Apollo 11, uses breathtaking archival footage of NASA's moon landing mission to create a first-person, fly-on-the-wall document of one of the 20th century's most significant events.

You'll find no talking heads, no interviews, no voice-over narration here, Miller (acting as his own editor) crafts the film like a verité narrative, offering breathtaking never-before-seen perspectives of the rocket launch and moon landing that play as a monument to human achievement, grandly gazing upward toward the heavens as the stuff of science fiction becomes bracing reality. In 2019 space travel is often taken for granted, but Miller dazzlingly reminds us of the monumental achievement of the Apollo 11 mission, capturing, if only for a couple of hours, what it was really like to dream of the stars.


8. HONEYLAND (Ljubomir Stefanov, Tamara Kotevska, Macedonia)

Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska's quietly powerful enthographic documentary, Honeyland, is a film of singular and mesmerizing beauty.  I have often said that the very best documentaries take us inside a world with which we are unfamiliar and have never truly seen, and they do so without feeling like colonialist safaris designed for voyeuristic western audiences eager for a peek into the lives of others. Don't come to Honeyland expecting the usual poverty porn, this small-scale wonder is a deeply powerful (and deeply human) exploration of the world of nomadic beekeepers in rural Macedonia.

The film centers around Hatidzhe Muratova, the last remaining female beekeeper in Europe, as she struggles to find balance between caring for her elderly mother and keeping her traditions of beekeeping alive, a tradition that is threatened by the arrival of a family that does not respect the basic rules of the region's rich culture. Stefanov and Kotevska deftly probe the delicate balance between humans and nature, and the somewhat tenuous connection that allows both to thrive. But surrounded by a rapidly changing world, Hatidzhe is forced to make difficult choices. Facing obsolesce in a culture that has increasingly less time for the time-tested techniques she keeps alive, she alone seemingly stands between environmental harmony and ruin.

Its deceptively dispassionate, observant style allows the filmmakers to develop a sort of relationship between Hatidzhe and the viewer, but it also creates a fascinating dichotomy between fact and fiction - how could they have possibly captured all this without setting some of it up, and what does that line mean for the world it depicts? The results are as inchoate and mysterious as they are breathtaking in their intimacy, existing somewhere in the in-between places of the world seemingly untouched by time struggling against the siren song of modernity.


9. AMERICAN FACTORY (Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert, USA)

Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert's documentary, American Factory, is the first film to come out of Barack and Michelle Obama's new Netflix production company, Higher Ground Productions, and features the kind of quiet dignity one would expect from a film backed from our 44th president. It also has the good sense to look at a problem from multiple angles without offering any sort of solution to it, instead choosing to paint a sobering portrait of a post-2008 industrial landscape and the uncertainty facing workers across the globe.

The film centers around a Chinese glass company's attempt to open a factory in an abandoned GM plant in Ohio in 2015. Employing both Chinese and American workers, the idea is to foster unity between the two nations and to revitalize an American workforce decimated by the Great Recession, but cultural differences soon lead to tensions between the workers and the Chinese management, who seem to have no grasp of the workplace laws governing American factories. Whispers of unionizing soon bring tensions to a boiling point as the chairman threatens to shut the factory down if the workers form a union, leading the American leadership to do all they can to prevent it.

American Factory is a fascinating exploration of not only the clash between cultures, but of the increasing obsolescence of the worker in the face of mechanized labor (and therefore why they're more important than ever). Yet the thing that seemingly unites the cultures together is the universal attempts of management to find new and creative ways to exploit their workers, and why unions remain an essential cornerstone of labor. I wish the film had taken a more in-depth look at Fuyao's reasoning for squelching unions in America when they're clearly such an important part of their Chinese factories, but the film makes a very clear case for labor reform and unionization even without directly saying so, creating a complex examination of a globalized economy built on the backs of exploited laborers.



10. BE NATURAL: THE UNTOLD STORY OF ALICE GUY-BLACHÉ (Pamela B. Green, USA)


Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché investigates the incredible life and career of early silent filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché, throwing back the curtain on one of cinema's greatest and most overlooked pioneers. The film takes its name from the filmmaker's motto - "Be Natural," a reminder for actors that once prominently graced the walls of her studio, Solax, which ran in New York from 1910-1914. Was she forgotten simply because she was a woman? Were other film professionals at the turn of the 20th century intimidated by her prowess? Did film historians simply not take her seriously? Green incisively examines all the factors that lead to Guy-Blaché's seeming erasure for the history books. But the most indelible anecdotes come from archival footage of Guy-Blaché herself, fondly recounting her days as a filmmaker. This was not a woman who put it all behind her went quietly into that good night, this was a woman who was forgotten by history. 

Through lack of film preservation and the advent of sound, so many early silent films were lost, and along with them, the rich history that gave birth to them. But Be Natural seeks not only to resurrect that history, but to rectify a great injustice, placing Guy-Blaché in the pantheon of cinema pioneers where she belongs. There is a certain playfulness to her films that sets them apart from single shot actualitiés that were so common at the time. Her films had spirit and wit. She was one of the first to use hand-tinted color, and was an early proponent of Gaumont's Chronophone sync-sound system. To see this lion of cinema tell her story in her own words after nearly a century of silence is truly stunning stuff, and Green tells the story with equal parts awe and righteous indignation, framing it as a historical mystery she and her team must solve. It's a vital, deeply moving documentary that at long last acknowledges Guy-Blaché's invaluable gift to cinema, insuring that this long-forgotten pioneer will finally be given her due.

Friday, December 20, 2019

With the release of Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, Disney is bringing to a close the Skywalker saga that began with 1977's Star Wars over 40 years ago. This marks the conclusion of the third Star Wars trilogy, taking place decades after the end of 1983's Return of the Jedi  that began with J.J. Abrams' The Force Awakens (2015), a solidly entertaining film that nevertheless hewed perhaps a bit too closely to the series' established narrative tropes.

Then came Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi (2017), a film that boldly reinvented Star Wars mythology in new and exciting ways, and laid the groundwork for exploring uncharted territory within the Star Wars universe. But that film caused quite a bit of controversy in certain circles of Star Wars fandom, so for the trilogy's final film, The Rise of Skywalker, director J.J. Abrams returned to wrap the fans in a cozy blanket of familiarity, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink to remind nostalgic fans of the classic films they loved as children.

And therein lies the biggest problem with The Rise of Skywalker; it's a naked exercise in retrograde nostalgia that is perfectly content with playing the hits but fails to provide anything new or exciting. In The Last Jedi  Star Wars felt alive again in ways it had not since creator George Lucas sold the franchise to Disney. While the dialogue of his much-maligned prequel series left much to be desired, Lucas' ability to realize strange new worlds onscreen was nearly unparalleled, and his vision is sorely missing in Abrams' entries in the series. Lucas, of course, also ran afoul of his own fans with the prequels, but Lucas understood that giving fans exactly what they want doesn't exactly make for exciting filmmaking if all they want is what they've already seen.

The Star Wars films have always reflected each other, recalling events from previous films in what Lucas often referred to as "rhyming." But rather than rhyming with its predecessors, The Rise of Skywalker just blindly copies them, matching Return of the Jedi nearly beat-for-beat, with bigger space battles and more lightsaber duels. I don't go to films to see what I want to see - I go to be surprised, to see things I didn't know I wanted to see. I want filmmakers to expand beyond the limits of my imagination, but that's not what this film is here to do. It's here to hold your hand, to comfort you, to nudge you and say "hey remember that guy? Hey there's that planet you remember from that other movie you like!" while John Williams' grand score reprises familiar themes ad nauseam in all the expected ways. It lacks curiosity and ingenuity, never expanding beyond its own self-imposed boundaries. The new Disney+ series, The Mandalorian, has a broader scope and more fully realized mythology.


Abrams also undercuts one of The Last Jedi s most interesting ideas, that Jedi heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley) is actually the child of a couple of nobodies, washing away the "noble bloodline" idea of the Force and democratizing it as something whose potential lies in everyone. By revealing her parentage (a plot point I will not reveal here), Abrams demythologizes the mystery of the Force and makes the Star Wars galaxy feel frustratingly small. Every person of any talent has to be the child of somebody special in this universe, and that's a disappointing message to lie at the core of something that has inspired millions of children for generations.

All the elements of a great Star Wars movie are here; epic space battles, kooky new creatures, exotic planets, but there's almost too much going on. The film opens in high gear and never takes any time to breathe, lurching from set piece to set piece so quickly one feels as if they have whiplash by the end. Abrams is attempting to tie up so many loose ends and explain so many things from the previous films (while also making up a whole lot of new convoluted plot elements) that it becomes painfully clear that they’ve been making all this up as they go along with no overarching vision. The whole thing seems rushed and scattershot, never congealing into a satisfying film on its own. And while it attempts to bring a sense of finality, its complete lack of any real stakes leave one to wonder if this really is the end.

The theme of The Last Jedi was to let the past die. In The Rise of Skywalker the past gets resurrected and zombified to the point that we kind of feel like we're watching Star Wars, but it also feels like some sort of direct-to-video knock off with a really, really big budget. There are individual elements that work, a few nice cameos and some lovely character moments buried within the bombast, but it leaves one feeling overstimulated and exhausted by the end, filled with little more than empty calories. Gone is George Lucas' impressive sense of world-building and Rian Johnson's elegant and inventive storytelling, in its place is a Frankenstein's monster of older films that remind us of the glory days in all the wrong ways, because instead of feeling that warm and fuzzy glow of visiting old friends, we can't help but remember how much better the films that came before it really were. Perhaps they really should have just let the past die.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)


STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER | Directed by J.J. Abrams | Stars Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Naomi Ackie, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong'o, Keri Russell, Joonas Suotamo, Kelly Marie Tran, Ian McDiarmid, Billy Dee Williams, Harrison Ford | Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action | Now playing in theaters nationwide.


BURNING CANE (Phillip Michael Youmans, 2019)

Phillip Michael Youmans may only be 19 years old, but he displays a preternaturally assured command of the cinematic language in his debut film, Burning Cane. Centering around a black family in rural Louisiana struggling with alcoholism and child abuse, Burning Cane is an evocative and at times downright chilling look at the way grief and trauma can infect an entire community - in this case, a backwater Baptist church that is its backbone.

Youmans' occasionally unintuitive camera angles place the camera in unexpected places that seem to defy the conventions of the “well made film,” as if the camera is an unseen character, drunk and unsteady, even a bit hazy, catching glimpses of the drama unfolding around it. Perhaps it's his youth, but the way Youmans' refusal to adhere to filmmaking convention displays a confidence that is often breathtaking. It's on oppressive film, to be sure, filled with darkness both literal (much of the film is often backlit, rendering the characters as silhouettes) and figurative, and at 77 minutes it feels like a brief sketch of a much deeper film, but Youmans crams a lot of emotional weight into those 77 minutes, giving us a glimpse into the mind of a fiercely talented new artist.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Directed by Phillip Michael Youmans | Stars Wendell Pierce, Karen Kaia Livers, Dominique McClellan | Not Rated Now streaming on Netflix.


END OF THE CENTURY (Lucio Castro, 2019)

Two men meet for a hookup while on vacation in Barcelona only to slowly discover that they had already met years before in another life in Lucio Castro's lovely, understated romance, End of the Century. As their story unfolds and their memories of each other come into focus, Castro deftly begins to meld past and present into one narrative, unfolding like waves of memory slowly drifting back as faint recollections of a long forgotten dream.

By using the same actors to play both their older and younger iterations, with no attempt to alter their appearance in any major way, the line between past and present becomes inexorably blurred until everything at last congeals in the final act. It's a deftly executed hat trick, and although the idea of strangers randomly hooking up and forging a connection is nothing particularly new in queer cinema (Weekend, God's Own Country, Sauvage, and Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo are just a few recent examples), but Castro puts a lovely new domestic spin on in that recalls the mysterious romantic reverie of Abbas Kiarostamis Certified Copy.  At only 84 minutes long, it may be brief and feel somewhat slight, but its final emotional impact is a lasting one.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Directed by Lucio Castro | Stars Juan Barberini Ramón Pujol Mía Maestro | Not Rated | In Spanish w/English subtitles | Now playing in select theaters.




HAIL SATAN? (Penny Lane, 2019)

The fight over Ten Commandments statues on courthouse grounds was ground zero in a culture war that gave us Roy Moore long before Confederate memorials became the latest flashpoint. Penny Lane's sly documentary follows a group of Satanists from the Satanic Temple as they set out to prove a point about the separation of church and state by advocating for the installation of Baphomet statues to go alongside the Ten Commandments. Because if it's OK for one religion to be enshrined on public grounds, it's OK for all of them...right?

Hail Satan? hilariously dives into the Satanists' attempts to shake-up discourse and awaken people from the complacency, making enemies and riling up the electorate at every turn, most of whom seem blissfully unaware that none of these people actually believe in a literal Satan, but are atheists who look to the idea of Satan as a questioner of authority and an embracer of knowledge as a role model for their daily lives. While the film mostly portrays this particular Satanist group as a merry band of trolls who really don't care if the statue ever gets put up or not, it does raise some interesting questions in an engaging and lighthearted way, as they use the image of Christianity's main villain to illustrate the importance of the separation of church and state, a fact that gets lost on most of the protesters who oppose it. It's a funny, kooky film that nevertheless offers a consistently engaging look at the sad irony of Christians ceding the moral high ground to Satanists.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

HAIL SATAN? | Directed by Penny Lane | Rated R for graphic nudity and some language | Now available on DVD.




KNIVES OUT (Rian Johnson, 2019)

A whodunit set in a ridiculously lavish country manor, Rian Johnson's Knives Out takes the tried-and-true Agatha Christie structure and turns it on its head by revealing the identity of the killer in the film's first act. Or at least...it appears to. That's just one of the many pleasures of this mischievous and wildly entertaining film, as it keeps the audience guessing by playing with genre tropes, subverting them, and then amplifying them to skewer the machinations of a wealthy family desperate to hang on to their money and power at all costs after the death of their patriarch.

It's a bit disarming for a murder mystery to basically open with the killer reveal, and yet the way the film becomes about how the killer avoids being caught is what makes the film so thoroughly enjoyable, adding layers of mystery on a plot we only thought we had figured out. Johnson populates his film with a cast of inedible characters inhabited by the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Colette, and Christopher Plummer, but the movie's heart and soul is Ana de Armas as Marta Cabrera, a first generation immigrant who serves as our guide into this sordid world of amoral privilege and unearned wealth. Her character stands in stark contrast to the greedy excesses around her, run by a privileged white family that has no qualms destroying a family of immigrants to preserve their status.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

KNIVES OUT | Directed by Rian Johnson | Stars Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Christopher Plummer, M. Emmet Walsh | Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references, and drug material | Now playing in theaters everywhere.



THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO (Joe Talbot, 2019)

There's an unshakable sense of sadness at the heart of Joe Talbot's freshman feature film, The Last Black Man in San Francisco. It centers around a young man named Jimmie who obsessively returns to the home his grandfather built upon moving to San Francisco after WWII, much to the chagrin of the current owners, who don't appreciate Jimmie's constant repairs and improvements. Jimmie's father lost the house due to financial mismanagement, but that hasn't stopped Jimmie from trying to take care of it when the new owners let it fall into disrepair. When the house finally comes up for sale, Jimmie is determined to reclaim his birthright and buy his childhood home, but the multimillion dollar price tag may prove prohibitive in the newly trendy neighborhood.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco touches on ideas of gentrification as Jimmie's former neighborhood suddenly becomes a hot commodity among affluent young white people, but Talbot digs deeper than that, exploring themes of home and identity, and how those two things are often inexorably linked. But in tying his identity to a location, Jimmie discovers some hard truths about where he's really from, and is forced to grapple with what that means for his future. Both Jimmie Fails (who co-wrote the screenplay based on his own life) and co-star Jonathan Majors are remarkable, but it's Fails' sensitive screenplay that is the star here. It's a work of quiet, unassuming beauty. A probing, deeply personal exploration of his own family history and his love for the place he calls home - San Francisco. It's at once a love letter and a warning. "You don't get to hate it unless you love it," he admonishes a young carpetbagger complaining about her newfound surroundings. And indeed, Fails' criticisms are nothing if not full of love for the city of his birth.

Talbot takes the mundane and makes it ecstatic, soaring on the wings of Emile Mosseri's haunting score, a mix of mournful oboes and wistful pianos that feels at once familiar and alien, like returning to a home you no longer recognize. It's a beautiful achievement, and one of the very best films of 2019.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO | Directed by Joe Talbot | Stars Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Rob Morgan, Tichina Arnold, Mike Epps | Rated R for language, brief nudity, and drug use | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD.



THE LIGHTHOUSE (Robert Eggers, 2019)

I put Robert Eggers' feature debut, The Witch, at the very top of my 2016 Best of the Year list, and I stand by its singular, sinister brilliance, but I was much more mixed on his sophomore effort, The Lighthouse. Eggers employs some of the same surrealistic horror in his haunting tale of two 19th century lighthouse keepers slowly going mad during a month-long stint on an isolated island, but here they seem slightly more affected and less in tune with the larger picture of what he's trying to create.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson are great, and the evocative and chilling sound design anchored by the unnerving blare of a fog horn is some of the year's best, but ultimately the film left me cold. I'm not convinced that its surrealist affectations go beyond surface level posturing, despite its engaging screenplay and singular vernacular based on actual tales from lighthouse keepers. Eggers is clearly a talented filmmaker and a skilled visual stylist, but The Lighthouse's style-over-substance aesthetic seems to treat surrealism as just a simple horror technique rather than a psychological tool - and the result is eerie but feels somehow more shallow than The Witch.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

THE LIGHTHOUSE | Directed by Robert Eggers | Stars Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe | Rated R for sexual content, nudity, violence, disturbing images, and some language | Now playing in select cities.



MAKING WAVES: THE ART OF CINEMATIC SOUND (Midge Costin, 2019)

Midge Costin's Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound is like film nerd catnip, a veritable who's who of cinematic sound artists discussing their craft and process and trading war stories of their time in the industry. While it may not break any new ground or uncover any groundbreaking information, Making Waves puts sound designers, editors, and mixers in the spotlight and examines the evolution of sound from the silent era until now.

It saves much of its focus for the Walter Murch/Ben Burtt era in the late 1970s and their work with Coppola, Spielberg, and Lucas, but I appreciated that it doesn't just focus on big tentpoles with lots of action like Star Wars and Jurassic Park - it also takes a look at the importance of sound in smaller films like Ordinary People and A River Runs Through It. This isn't just about sound as a special effect, it's about using sound to enhance narrative, create atmosphere, even employing silence as an artistic choice. It provides an engaging overview of what sound designers do and how their contributions help shape the movies as we know them - and may just help general audiences finally understand the difference of the Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing at the Oscars ahead of the rumored combining of the categories.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

MAKING WAVES: THE ART OF CINEMATIC SOUND | Directed by Midge Costin | Not Rated | Now playing in select theaters.

MONOS (Alejandro Landes, 2019)

Alejandro Landes' modern update on "Lord of the Flies" takes us deep into the South American wilderness along with eight young soldiers who are tasked with guarding a hostage and a milk cow. What they're fighting for remains a mystery, as do the circumstances surrounding the armed conflict of which they're a part, but the unknown nature of the violence is what makes it so terrifying. Who is this woman they've captured? What is her importance in the conflict at large? MONOS never addresses any of those questions, instead plunging us into the heart of darkness in the midst of mindless violence.

The point is, of course, that none of it has any point. Landes channels the  fever-dream nightmare aesthetic of Werner Herzog, exploring the senselessness of war through never-ending, nameless conflict and the toll it takes on the children at its center. There's an austere beauty at work here, the primordial allure of the nature that surrounds them belying the ugliness of the conflict hidden within the trees, and Mica Levi's sparsely haunting score is some of her finest work. The film occasionally feels as if we've somehow become lost in a directionless narrative - but that's part of what makes the film so powerful. When violence is all people know, soon no one has any idea what they're actually fighting about.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


MONOS Directed by Alejandro Landes | Stars Moisés Arias Julianne Nicholson Sofia Buenaventura Karen Quintero Julian Giraldo | Rated R for violence, language, some sexual content, and drug use | In Spanish w/English subtitles | Now playing in select theaters.



THE REPORT (Scott Z. Burns, 2019)

Scott Z. Burns' The Report is a perfectly respectable but perfectly perfunctory look at the Senate investigation into the CIA's use of torture during the War on Terror. Its heart is certainly in the right place, as the CIA would have been content to keep a lid on all this, and in many cases still stand by these techniques despite proof that no new information was learned and no terror attacks were actually prevented by their "enhanced interrogation techniques." Unfortunately this thing is ultimately as dry as a run-of-the-mill Senate hearing, and nowhere is this more painfully felt than in its often painfully expository dialogue, which attempts to cram as much information as possible, with frequently awkward results.

Even the usually great Annette Bening seems unable to make her scenes interesting - her performance as Senator Dianne Feinstein is spot-on but so understated (much like the real Feinstein) that it renders her scenes borderline inert, and characters frequently explain complex issues to each other in the simplest of terms that they would already understand. It's a TV drama that provides a great service in telling this story for a wide audience, but it's as by-the-numbers as you can get, especially for a film about a former CIA agent losing his faith and standing up to the organization he once idolized.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

THE REPORT | Directed by Scott Z. Burns | Stars Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Ted Levine, Maura Tierney, Michael C. Hall, Tim Blake Nelson, Corey Stoll | Rated R for some scenes of inhumane treatment and torture, and language | Now streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime.