Thursday, January 30, 2020

A scene from Ladj Ly's Les Misérables.

The specter of imperialism hangs over two new French films like a shadow, an inexorable piece of the nation's past from which it cannot extricate itself. Ladj Ly's Oscar-nominated Les Misérables (2019) and Bertrand Bonello's Zombi Child (2020) take very different paths to arrive at similar conclusions, and yet they make for a fascinating double feature if for no other reason than to study how the differences in their perspectives lead them to different places, even if their ultimate thematic content isn't all that dissimilar. 

Inspired by the 2005 French riots, Les Misérables explores the tensions between police and the often majority black neighborhoods they are tasked with patrolling. The film centers around Brigadier Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), a rookie cop who joins the force and is shown the ropes by his two new partners, Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga). Ruiz quickly learns that this is not going to be just another day at the office, however, as hot-headed Chris treats the people of the neighborhood as his subjects, abusing his authority and stoking the flames of interracial tension between local gangs at every turn. When a young boy steals a lion club from a local circus, those tensions threaten to boil over, leading to a violent confrontation between the boy and the police that throws gasoline on the smoldering embers of resentment.

The film wears its inspirations on its sleeve; the most frequently cited are Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine, but Antoine Fuqua's Training Day is in there as well. It's a slow-burn that deftly combines its varying factions that make up the melting pot of France - the black teenagers, the Muslims, the Romanians, and pits them against a police force that doesn't seem to understand or care about their unique needs and cultural differences. Yet the neighborhood is also deeply representative of French colonialism, policed by an uncaring and brutal force that doesn't seem interested in anything other than power over those it deems lesser.

A scene from Zombi Child.

Similarly, Zombi Child takes place in a France that seems wholly ignorant of the world it has colonized, vacuuming up small pieces of other cultures and discarding the rest. Here, a group of schoolgirls welcomes a Haitian classmate into their clique, only to discover that her family has a background in voodoo. As she regales them with stories of her grandfather, who was turned into a zombi by his family in order to work the fields as an unquestioning slave, the girls become fascinated with the world of voodoo, leading them to meddle in places where they do not belong.

Meddling in places where one does not belong is essentially the cornerstone of both of these films. On the one hand, Zombi Child is a hushed and haunted ghost story that combines Haitian lore with French colonial sensibilities. Bonello, a white filmmaker, isn't necessarily trying to colonize the Haitian voodoo imagery as he is use it to explore the way that the French have seemingly bulldozed over the cultures of the places they've colonized, and how their lack of understanding of those cultures puts them on a path of mutual destruction. Ly, a black filmmaker, takes a similar view in the more conventionally structured Les Misérables. Both films center their white characters, and yet strangely Zombi Child feels like the most pointed brutal critique of imperialism. It's easily Bonello's most subdued film, dialing back the style in favor of something more unsettling and atmospheric. This is a far cry from the portrait of young anarchists in his last film, Nocturama, with its neon lighting and 80s-infused soundtrack. There's something hushed and eerie about Zombi Child that explores the sinister underpinnings of imperialist conquest without othering Haitian culture.

Les Misérables, on the other hand (which was famously submitted for Oscar consideration over Celine Sciamma's superior Portrait of a Lady on Fire), attempts to show us that even the most well-intentioned white people can face consequences if their actions continue to prop up institutional racism. No one is innocent here, and while its trappings may seem more familiar (although Bonello certainly takes some of his cues from Val Lewton's 1943 horror classic, I Walked with a Zombie) there is something agreeably rough-hewn about its structure and haunting about its denouement. Ultimately I'm inclined to call Zombi Child the stronger of the two films, if for no other reason than for its unique take on a tired genre, but it's hard to deny the the effectiveness through which both convey their ideas. One, a more straightforward drama, the other as a horror film where the scares are much more internalized, both creating horrific portraits of the ravages of colonialism and the continued proliferation of racist institutions that refuse to acknowledge their own culpability in a failed system. Taken together they are unmissable portraits of a modern France grappling with its own identity, with Ly acting as a Malian immigrant critiquing French colonialism as one of its victims and Bonello acting as a Frenchman crafting a bold work of self-examination. Two different filmmakers, two different perspectives, two bracing works of political activism through cinema. Yet only one truly transcends its medium and works its way under the skin - Zombi Child manages to work as both an otherworldly romance and a ferocious critique of cultural colonialism that lingers with the understated power Bonello's more indelible works.

LES MISÉRABLES - ★★½ (out of four)

ZOMBI CHILD - ★★★ (out of four)

LES MISÉRABLES | Directed by Ladj Ly | Stars Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djibril Zonga, Steve Tientcheu, Jeanne Balibar | Rated R for language throughout, some disturbing/violent content, and sexual references | In French w/English subtitles

ZOMBI CHILD | Directed by Bertrand Bonello | Stars Louise Labèque, Wislanda Louimat, Katiana Milfort, Mackenson Bijou, Adilé David | Not Rated | In French w/English subtitles

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

While the Best Animated Short Oscar nominees are often some of the best films of the night, the Best Live Action Short nominees are historically a mixed bag, often built around contrivances necessitated by their brief runtimes, but plagued by a sense of self-seriousness as they try to convey BIG THEMES as quickly as possible. This year's crop is no different, and with one major exception are almost uniformly depressing in the most unearned, excruciating way. Here's a look at this year's nominated films.


Meryam Joobeur | Tunisia

A modern twist on the parable of the Prodigal Son, Meryam Joobeur's Brotherhood tells the story of a Tunisian family whose idealistic oldest son returns with a young new wife after joining ISIS and moving to Syria. The father is none too impressed with his son's political ideas, and constantly berates and challenges him and his new wife, eventually deciding to turn him into the Tunisian police to report him as a terrorist. But when the truth about his son's time in Syria comes to light, as well as  the true nature of his marriage to such a young girl, it may be too late to stop the events that have been set in motion. Brotherhood is beautifully shot and often quiet compelling, but it wastes much of that goodwill on a ridiculous climax that has no real motivation other than to give it the kind of downer ending that this category loves because they seem "important." There are some interesting ideas at play here about what makes a "terrorist" and what motivates young Muslim men to join the caliphate, but it hinges on a contrivance that is difficult to overlook, building its drama on withholding a piece of information that it makes no sense to keep hidden other than as a dramatic plot device.


Yves Piat | Tunisia

Yves Piat's Nefta Football Club is the only one of the Best Live Action Short Oscar nominees that tells a fully formed, well-rounded story. And while it may be structured around the kind of wild coincidence that seems to define the drama in this category, it zigs just when you expect it to zag, delivering something that is fresh, funny, and unlike every other nominee in this category, not soul-crushingly depressing. The film centers around two Tunisian boys who wander across the Algerian border and discover a donkey loaded down with several kilos of cocaine. Normally this is where the original owners of the donkey would come looking for the kids, but Nefta Football Club has something else entirely on its mind, leading to a wonderfully unexpected conclusion that sends the whole affair out on a high note. It's a delightfully idiosyncratic charmer, featuring an Adele-loving donkey and kids who think they've discovered a treasure trove of laundry detergent. It's the most unique and wholly realized film of the bunch.


Marshall Curry | USA

It always seems like there's at least one Best Live Action Short nominee like Marshall Curry's The Neighbors' Window - the schmaltzy American entry this is the most accessible, yet also somehow built around most aggressively contrived situation. In this case it's a couple of thirtysomething parents who become enamored with the attractive young couple whose apartment window is situated across from theirs. Constantly naked and constantly having sex or throwing wild parties, the neighbors quickly become a source of obsession for the couple, whose humdrum domesticity seems increasingly banal in contrast. But as they spend their time longing for the life they once had when they were younger, represented by the free-spirited young couple across the way, a tragic twist soon reminds them of just how good their life really is, and that while they long for someone else's life, someone else may be longing for theirs. The final twist is the kind of ridiculous emotional right hook that this category seems to love, but it just totally falls flat, coming across as a poorly written attempt to deliver a lesson to the audience, but the attempt is ultimately ham-fisted and lands with a thud. It's the weakest film in an admittedly subpar crop of nominees, which means it's likely the frontrunner to win.


Bryan Buckley | USA

Based on the tragic 2017 fire at the Virgen de La Asuncion Safe Home in Guatemala, in which 41 young women lost their lives after escaping from an orphanage in an attempt to reach America, Bryan Buckley's Saria starts off promisingly but quickly devolves into the kind of self-important "issue movie of the week" territory that are often so prevalent in this category. It also feels like a much longer filmed that's been cut down and crammed into a 23 minute running time, with large leaps in time where it feels like we're missing key information and character development. The tragic ending appears out of nowhere in a way that's clearly designed to shock but all it really does is feel like a dramatic cheat meant to manipulate the audience with a real life tragedy. Quite frankly, this story deserves a feature film, and while its clearly trying to draw attention to the dangers faced by migrants coming to America, it feels dramatically dishonest, as if its Cliffs Notes version of the story needs more time to really establish itself and its characters.


Delphine Girard | Belgium

A woman frantically calls emergency services to report that she has been kidnapped, but must speak in code as if she is speaking to her sister in order to convey information to the operator on the other side of the line. There's a bit of a Hitchcockian vibe to Delphine Girard's A Sister in the way that it at first withholds information from the audience, and then from key characters in the film, creating suspense out of keeping that information from its antagonist. Yet Girard doesn't quite stick the landing, never really using that inherent suspense to build or release the tension in a satisfying way. It's a strong concept with solid execution, but when the denouement finally comes, it doesn't feel like the catharsis experienced by the emergency operator, leaving the plot resolved but the audience unsatisfied.

The Oscar Shorts open January 31 in select theaters nationwide.

One thing I love about the short film categories at the Oscars is that they’re consistently the most diverse and international group of nominees, and the animated category is almost always the most adventurous and least traditional. It’s a shame more people aren’t able to see them, but thanks to Shorts TV, the films are now showcased yearly in theaters nationwide. This year’s crop of nominees is almost uniformly strong, each offering some of the most unique filmmaking you’re likely to see amongst this year’s crop of Academy Award nominees.


Daria Kascheeva | Czechia

Perhaps the most opaque and inscrutable of this year's Oscar nominees for Best Animated Short, Daria Kashcheeva's Dcera (Daughter) is a mostly abstract tale of a father and daughter sifting through past trauma. Completely wordless, Dcera tells its story in a completely visual way, evoking old wounds through dream-like metaphor. Yet as lovely as its unique animation style is, it's incredibly difficult to settle into over the course of its 15 minutes. It's the longest of the five nominees and yet somehow feels the most incomplete. There are certainly interesting ideas here, and Kashcheeva has an impressive visual eye, but it consistently holds the audience at arm’s length, fully committing to its psychological metaphors in ways that seem more academic than emotionally grounded.


Matthew A. Cherry | USA

A father struggles to give his young daughter the hair style she craves in Matthew A. Cherry's Hair Love, a deeply moving celebration of black hair that bucks societal beauty standards and urges young black girls to embrace the unique abilities of their hair. This thing packs a powerful emotional wallop, but it also addresses issues of "good hair" that have long been important to the black communities in ways that are universally understandable, as if it's a message for every black girl who's ever suffered the indignity of a white person asking "can I touch your hair?" or felt the need to conform to society's default beauty standard of straight hair. “Hair Love” is a small-scale wonder and the strongest of the five films.


Rosanna Sullivan | USA

A stray cat befriends an abused junkyard dog in this charming short film from Pixar's new animation project. Displays a keen understanding of animal behavior and features so many charming character details that it's hard not to get swept up in its simple tale of animal friendship. What's so wonderful about Kitbull is that it never feels cloying or saccharine, it earns its tears through honest depiction of animal behavior, wordlessly creating something that's charming and deeply felt that earns every tear honestly. Look for it on Disney+ soon.


Bruno Collet | France

Bruno Collet's Mémorable evokes the fading memories of an old man on the cusp of dementia. Told through lovingly crafted claymation, the film follows the mental degradation of a once vibrant artist as he faces a world he no longer recognizes and the strain it puts on his strong but increasingly frustrated wife. Objects fade, distort, and often disappear before his eyes, suggesting the unsettling lack of recognition of once familiar objects and the slow disintegration of his memories dissolving into nothingness. It's heavy stuff but strikingly rendered, and the final scene, in which the man asks his wife to dance, thinking she is a woman he has never met, is a moment of truly heartbreaking beauty.


Siqi Song | China

A young boy imagines a life with a sister who never was in Siqi Song's heart-wrenching look at the personal toll taken on families by China's One Child policy. The stop-motion felt animation is consistently lovely, and while its midway reveal isn't quite able to pack the punch it feels like it should in its brief eight-minute running time, there's something haunted and filled with regret that's hard to shake, as it imagines a world that might have been had the policy not been in place. It's a small-scale elegy for the love and memories lost under the policy that feels at once raw and beautifully crafted.

The Oscar Shorts open Friday, Jan. 31, in select theaters nationwide.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina in a scene from Beanpole, courtesy Kino Lorber.

It isn't often that you see a film from a director so young that is so assured in style and personality that the filmmaker's unique voice and presence seems to have manifested on screen fully formed and wholly confident in its own power. That's not to say that Kantemir Balagov's Beanpole is a masterpiece to rival all-time greats films directed by twenty-eight year olds like Citizen Kane, but Balagov directs with such a clear voice that it's astonishing that this wasn't directed by a filmmaker with years of experience under their belt.

Early films are often bold and brash artistic statements of a young talent with something to prove. Beanpole, on the other hand, is something quite different altogether. Set in Leningrad in the days after WWII, the film centers around two women struggling to survive in the bombed out city. Surrounded by rampant starvation and homelessness, both women struggle to adjust to civilian life after returning from the front. Iya (Viktoriya Miroshnichenko, in an astonishing debut performance), nicknamed Beanpole because of her tall, skinny frame, suffers from a traumatic brain injury that leaves her prone to fits of freezing up and trembling. She has a young son named Pashka (Timofey Glazkov) who has adjusted well to life in the military hospital where his mother now works as a nurse. Her friend, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) is also seeking a job at the hospital, but she carries with her a dark secret. And when a tragedy rocks their insular little world, it sets the two on a path of self-discovery and self-destruction that could change their friendship forever.

To delve much deeper into the twists and turns of Beanpole would ruin the painful beauty of its discoveries, but Balagov handles its tricky emotional territory with an unblinking eye. This is a world where tragedy has become so commonplace that the film depicts often horrific acts with something of a shrug. War has made death an accepted inevitability, and it was women who bore the brunt of the grief. The nurses tend to shell shocked soldiers, performing assisted suicides for those who can no longer bear the pain. But they also have to contend with the pain of their own existence in a world that has moved on from the war that they are still fighting in their own mind, stained by trauma that the rest of the world can't understand.

Beanpole is ultimately about the things people are willing to do to survive in extreme circumstances, but the way in which it focuses on the inner world of its characters is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. By making this a rather insular character study rather than a historical portrait of life in a post-war Soviet Union, Balagov is able to examine the personal toll of not just war, but on the stagnation of a besieged city for whom austerity and death becomes a way of life. This also allows the film to interrogate the unique toll the war took on women - both those left behind and those who joined the armed forces either as soldiers or as comfort women, only to be discarded when the war ended and now irreparably damaged both emotionally and as a member of society.

Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Timofey Glazkov in a scene from Beanpole, courtesy Kino Lorber.

And yet the film's insular focus also makes its characters somewhat opaque, the emotional waters often obfuscating because of the characters' somewhat unknowable nature. Beanpole herself remains something of an enigma, a passive character to Masha's more aggressive presence. While that passivity is very much part of who she is and why she's in the situation she's in, she makes for a somewhat impenetrable central character on which to hang much of the story's emotional weight.

Stylistically, the film much stronger, and it is here where Balagov's voice shines the strongest. Its color palate is reminiscent of Amélie, featuring drab interiors that come alive with vibrant reds and greens. But this is no fairy tale romance. Balagov creates a somber yet enchanting vision of a shattered dream world populated by ghosts, its characters shadows of the people they once were before the war. It's an intoxicating and often heartrending evocation of wartime's human toll, and under Balagov's strikingly confident direction it creates a world of complicated emotions and unspeakable trauma. And yet that trauma often remains too broad to have a truly lasting impact. There are moments here that will no doubt leave an impression, in large part due to the Miroshnichenko's striking depiction of Christ-like suffering in the post-War Soviet Union. She and Balagov are no doubt major artists to watch, their unique voices speaking loud and clear even when the film itself misses an opportunity to take a deeper dive into its characters' haunted world.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

BEANPOLE | Directed by Kantemir Balagov | Stars Viktoriya Miroshnichenko, Vasilisa Perelygina, Konstantin Balakirev, Kseniya Kutepova | Not Rated | In Russian w/English subtitles | Opens Jan. 29 in select cities.

Monday, January 20, 2020

There have been several attempts to bring Hugh Lofting's series of novels about Dr. Dolittle, the veterinarian who can speak to animals, to the big screen over the years. The first, starring Rex Harrison in the title role, was released in 1967 and considered a massive critical and popular failure, despite somehow garnering nine Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture (a haul often blamed on 20th Century Fox's aggressive campaigning that year). Plagued by behind-the-scenes drama and a troubled production, the film lost the studio millions and all but ended Harrison's career as a leading man.

It wasn't until 1998 that Fox tried again, this time with Eddie Murphy as Dr. Dolittle in a film that was a modest box office success and spawned a 2001 sequel, along with a raft of direct-to-DVD spinoffs that did not star Murphy. Flash forward to 2020 and we have another big budget Hollywood adaptation of Loftin's novels in Dolittle, a movie that was by all accounts very expensive, and just like its 1967 predecessor, plagued by behind-the-scenes in-fighting and crippled by extensive reshoots. Directed by Stephen Gaghan (Syriana), Dolittle finds the eponymous doctor (Robert Downey, Jr.) mourning the death of his beloved wife in a secluded nature preserve, where a sensitive young lad named Stubbins (Harry Collett) stumbles upon him to ask his help reviving an injured squirrel. At the same time, Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) a young envoy of Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) arrives to summon Dolittle to London to help save the ailing queen, whose patronage keeps Dolittle's preserve open.

Dolittle reluctantly agrees, only to discover that the Queen has in fact been poisoned, and that in order to save her he must embark on a dangerous quest to find the antidote on a mythical island hidden somewhere in the Atlantic. Accompanied by a motley crew of animal friends and his newfound animal compatriots, Dolittle will not only try to save the queen of England, but confront is own past and heal old wounds on which he had long since given up.

There was clearly a lot of money poured into the production, with lavish set design and elaborate period costumes, not to mention an all-star voice cast that includes the likes of Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, and Marion Cotillard, but it never really adds up to much. Despite the large budget, or perhaps because of it, Dolittle consistently lacks imagination, never taking any chances or exploring any new territory that other movies haven't covered before. Everything about it feels bland and conservative, a made-by-committee Hollywood product that's about as generic and flavorless as movies get.

Reports of behind-the-scenes unrest aside, the film underwent extensive reshoots in April of last year under the direction of Jonathan Liebesman (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), reportedly because Universal was dissatisfied with Gaghan's more serious take on the material and wanted a more comedic tone. And while some of the animal antics are mildly amusing and will no doubt delight its target audience of young children, the whole affair seems completely devoid or magic and wit, focus-grouped into oblivion as if it were directed by a computer based on algorithms rather than anything resembling human feeling. Downey Jr., usually a reliable comic presence, seems completely lost, his performance hampered by a bizarre Scottish accent that leaves the film bereft of personality. We've seen dozens of films like this before, and there's really nothing particularly special about Dolittle to set it apart from the pack. Even Danny Elfman's score sounds like someone doing a Danny Elfman impersonation.

It's not a monumental disaster, but rarely do you see so much money and so much talent go into making something so resoundingly banal, completely stripped of the charm or wonder that its source material demands. It's inoffensive in the way such studio-produced epics often are, but it begs the question of how so many talented people could collaborate on a completely anonymous, cookie-cutter film that does so little.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

DOLITTLE | Directed by Stephen Gaghan | Stars Robert Downey, Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Jessie Buckley, Jim Broadbent, Harry Collett, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Marion Cotillard | Rated PG for some action, rude humor and brief language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Makoto Shinkai's 2016 film, Your Name, remains one of the great achievements in animation of the new century. A deliriously imaginative and deeply moving romance about two young people who fall in love across the gulf of time and space, Your Name managed to push the boundaries of the animated form and achieve a rare kind of humanity, using its science fiction premise to create a work of singular beauty and emotional resonance.

Having created something of a cult hit with Your Name, there has been quite a bit of anticipation for his follow-up, Weathering With You. Opening as a Fathom Event in theaters nationwide this week from GKIDS, Weathering With You follows a very similar template as Your Name  Clearly not wanting to stray from a formula that works, Shinkai plays the hits with another lovely animated love story about a high school runaway named Hodaka who moves to Tokyo and takes a job as a writer at a tabloid that "investigates" supernatural phenomena. It is there where he learns the myth of the "sunshine girl," young women who can control the weather and stop the rain. It is while he is working on this story (while evading the authorities who seek to return him to his family) that he meets Hina, a mysterious young girl who seemingly has the power to stop the rain.

Fascinated by her unusual abilities, the two of them start a business together where people can hire Hina to offer a brief respite from the unrelenting rainstorms plaguing Tokyo. They bring sunshine to parties, weddings, and people's homes. But there's another part of the myth of the sunshine girl - that use of her power will inevitably lead to her destruction, and the two star-crossed lovers soon find themselves on the run from the authorities, determined to stay together against all odds as the cold reality of the world around them begins to close in.

There's an undercurrent of environmentalism that runs through the film that is often a through-line in Japanese animation. But while uncontrollable weather patterns and severe shifts in climate provide a backdrop for Weathering With You, Shinkai is less concerned with the politics of climate change and more with matters of the heart. Much as he did in Your Name, Shinkai creates a world where matters of the heart supersede all else, where reality dissolves into an isolated world that belongs only to the central lovers, and outside forces exist only to keep them apart. This heart over head approach has an often intoxicating effect, often overwhelming the viewer in a deluge of emotions that clears away rational thought - it's as if he's evoking the very idea of love on screen, enveloping us in a bright ray of sunshine surrounded by a gray and rainy world. Even though the world is drowning around us, nothing else seems to matter but the connection between these two people.

It's a wonderful feeling, an enchanting expression of the all-encompassing passion of young love - unfortunately for Weathering With You it stands in the shadow of Your Name at nearly every turn. Perhaps it will have a different effect on an audience unfamiliar with Shinkai's previous work, but it hews so closely to its predecessor's emotional beats that it never quite achieves the same overpowering sense of emotion that made Your Name such a profoundly affecting experience. Perhaps its unfair to judge it against Shinkai's last film, but it's hard not to compare the two when Weathering With You seems like more of the same, but with diminished returns. On it's own, it's a lovely and often quite beguiling love story about impossible love in a time of great environmental upheaval, characterized by dazzling animation and a rapturous score by Japanese band, Radwimps, providing a rapturous showcase that's quite frankly better that most contemporary American animation even if it's squarely in Shinkai's comfort zone. But fans of Your Name may find themselves in quite familiar territory that, no matter how beautifully crafted, never quite lives up to the film that came before.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

WEATHERING WITH YOU | Directed by Makoto Shinkai | Voices of Kotaro Daigo, Nana Mori, Shun Oguri, Tsubasa Honda, Sakura Kiryu | Rated PG-13 for suggestive material, some violence and language | In Japanese w/English subtitles | Opens Wednesday, Jan. 15 for special fan screenings, and everywhere on Jan. 17 from GKIDS via Fathom Events

Monday, January 13, 2020

Tiffany Haddish is an actress whose unique comedic talent has for some reason stumped nearly every filmmaker she's worked with thus far. She's a force of nature, a wild dervish whose anarchic sense of humor devours nearly everything in its path, and yet for some reason filmmakers keep saddling her with substandard scripts that constrain and confine her in a box rather than letting her shine. 

Such is the case yet again with her latest film, Like a Boss, a film that casts her as makeup entrepreneur Mia, who along with her childhood best friend, Mel (Rose Byrne), runs a small makeup business called Mia & Mel. Mia is the creative mind, while Mel handles the books - but the business isn't doing well, drowning in major startup debt despite selling some moderately successful products. Some of these ideas reach the desk of Claire Luna (Salma Hayek), world-famous executive of Oviedo makeup, who offers to invest in their company - but there's a catch. If either Mia or Mel leaves the company for any reason, Claire assumes 51% of the company's stock, essentially taking over the business and making it her own. She immediately sets about driving Mia and Mel apart, and the two have to overcome their differences in order to save their business and put Claire in her place.

Miguel Arteta is a talented director, with films like The Good Girl, Chuck and Buck, and Beatriz at Dinner under his belt. But Like a Boss reeks of a director-for-hire job, completely devoid of any passion or personality. The by-the-numbers script does its cast no favors, saddling Haddish with lame one-liners and completely wasting reliable supporting players like Billy Porter and Jennifer Coolidge. Very few of the jokes really land, and its message of girl boss empowerment feels watered down in an awkward celebration of late-stage capitalism in which the pair attach themselves to yet another major corporation in order to find their definition of success. That idea that you have to sell out for millions in order to be truly successful ultimately runs counter to its protagonist's idea that beauty comes from within, and that makeup should enhance one's natural features rather than cover them up. But to go much deeper down that rabbit hole is already giving too much credit to a film that obviously has very little on its mind.

It's not just not funny, it's anti-funny, a film that seems to suck the humor from every moment like a comedy black hole. It forces Salma Hayek to strut around in a ridiculous caricature while coasting on tired jokes about her accent, while Haddish and Byrne are given little to do other than bicker in increasingly outlandish situations that seem like desperate attempts to mine laughter from an already depleted source. There's just nothing interesting going on here; no laughs, a talented star held prisoner by an abysmal script, and an awkward sense of pacing that makes its seemingly brief 83 minute running time nearly interminable to sit through.

GRADE - ★ (out of four)

LIKE A BOSS | Directed by Miguel Arteta | Stars Tiffany Haddish, Rose Byrne, Salma Hayek, Billy Porter, Jennifer Coolidge | Rated R for language, crude sexual material, and drug use | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Friday, January 10, 2020

The unjustly accused man is not exactly a new subject in movies - from popular prison dramas like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile to documentaries like The Thin Blue Line to TV series like Ava DuVernay's recent Netflix show, When They See Us, there is something inherently compelling about the idea of someone who has been wrongfully accused of a crime fighting for justice. 

Yet that drama takes on a new meaning when the story is true. And although Destin Daniel Cretton's Just Mercy covers some very familiar territory, there's a sense of righteous anger rumbling beneath the surface that is hard to shake. Based on the book by Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), the film chronicles Stevenson's work with the Equal Justice Initiative on behalf of prisoners on death row. It is during one of his visits to a prison in Alabama that he meets Walter McMilllan (Jamie Foxx), a black inmate who was accused of murdering a white woman based on faulty testimony and sentenced to death. McMillian had long since given up hope of ever finding justice, but Stevenson becomes determined to get him a new trial and prove his innocence. But deep-seated institutional racism and a justice system that refuses to admit any fault in itself stands defiantly in his way.

Cretton, who first burst onto the scene with 2013's charmingly dysfunctional Short Term 12, directs the film as a fairly standard "issue drama," breaking no new ground or attempting to make the familiar material more inherently cinematic like, for instance, Barry Jenkins' exploration of similar territory in If Beale Street Could Talk. And yet I can't remember the last time I saw a film treat the death penalty with the kind of gravity it deserves. There's a scene about midway through Just Mercy in which one of McMillan's fellow inmates is executed by electric chair, and rather than treat it as some sort of dramatic device, Cretton focuses on the prisoner's experience; the dread, the pain, the regret, the fear are all painfully palpable. It's a harrowing scene, but not because Cretton is milking it, but because he's putting the victim of a state-sanctioned murder front and center.

For me, that's the defining characteristic of Just Mercy - the way in which it centers the victims at the heart of its narrative and makes their experiences and their humanity a cornerstone of the narrative. This isn't just Stevenson's story, it's McMillan's story, and Cretton's framing of the narrative elevates the film above its muckraking roots. It may not be subtle, it's certainly preaching to the cheap seats, but I'll be damned if this thing doesn't rattle the rafters. Here, in the land that gave birth to Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" (a fact the local authorities love to brag about with seemingly no sense of irony or self-awareness), a black man stands accused of a murder he did not commit by a system designed to uphold whiteness and punish blackness at all costs. And while having its heart in the right place doesn't necessarily make a film good, it's hard not to get swept up in the human drama of it all.

Buoyed by strong turns by Jordan and Foxx, Just Mercy treats stock characters like human beings, centers the victim’s story, and refuses to ignore the collateral damage of wrongful convictions. It may be unremarkable in construction and execution, its building blocks well worn and familiar, but there's something deeply humane about the way Cretton frames this story, so that by the time we reach its foregone conclusion the catharsis feels earned and justified. It's enough to make us forget, if only for a moment, that we've seen all this before, but rarely with such empathy and trembling thirst for justice.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

JUST MERCY | Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton | Stars Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, O'Shea Jackson, Jr. | Rated PG-13 for thematic content including some racial epithets | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Thursday, January 09, 2020

What to make of the last decade in film? How does one distill an entire decade of cinema when it's freshly in the grave? While the 2000s ended on an upswing, with the "yes we can" optimism of the Obama era just beginning. The 2010s, on the other hand, began with the rise of the tea party, and a steady rising drum beat of white nationalism and fascism that ended with unchecked climate change, Brexit, Donald Trump, and the rise of right wing populism around the world.

Filmmakers have been dealing with this in real time, of course. Although I think it may take some time for us to really assess the true essence of the 2010s. Looking back, the films that moved me most were the ones that looked beyond, searching for something greater than ourselves - whether that be God, love, art, or the unknowable, intangible sense of the mystery of existence. Feelings will likely shift over time as we put more space between us and this rocky, unpredictable decade, but from my perspective looking back barely a week into a new decade, these are the films from the past 10 years that had the greatest impact on me.

1. THE TREE OF LIFE (2011)

Terrence Malick | USA

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is the kind of film that defies all description in words, in much the same way that it transcends cinematic form and language. Malick has never been a formalist, especially in his post-Thin Red Line period that followed his 20-year self-imposed hiatus. YetThe Tree of Life is perhaps the purest reflection of Malick's style, an experimental evocation of the filmmaker's id that seems to be the culmination of his ideas both past and future, a perfect focal-point vortex of his career as an artist. Indeed, The Tree of Life not only seemed to presage the films he would make in the years after its release, it also seems to be the film that each of those look back to for inspiration, extrapolating on its themes and concepts.

Much of it unfolds like shards of memory, resurrected through firing synapses and random impressions - a life, indeed the whole of eternity, flashing before our eyes. The Tree of Life is the kind of film that has the power to make you look at the world with new eyes, almost akin to a 3-hour conversation with God. It is a film of monumental beauty and quiet, intense power; at once cosmic and intimate, massive in scale and deeply personal in scope. That this singular achievement is a masterpiece in both forms, theatrical and extended, is a testament to Malick's genius. The stunning cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (who, shockingly, has won three Oscars, but none for the five films he has shot for Malick) seems to throw the language of film form out the window, constantly in flux, never landing on a single solitary image. It captures moments of profound beauty almost by accident, as if in passing. It's somehow fitting, that a film about the fleeting and sometimes messy nature of life refuses to frame it in ways that can be contained in a box. Every image seems to burst forth from the frame, continuing beyond it into infinity, much like the film itself.

The Tree of Life ends with an actual "amen," as a Berlioz requiem closes out the film's Heavenly coda that marks the closest a film has come to a religious experience since Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. Indeed, it is like a prayer on film, a hushed, whispered conversation with an unseen deity, marveling at the untold mysteries of the universe with open eyes and a full heart. So few films deserve immediate induction into the cinematic canon, but so few films ever reach such lofty heights. It's a modern masterpiece, a work of almost miraculous power, that demands to be experienced, reflected on, and felt in deep in the soul where few films ever reach.


Béla Tarr | Hungary

A horse. A father. A daughter. Cooked potatoes. An almost supernatural gale. All these elements combine to create the quietly shattering final film from Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr. Tarr has directed some of the most fascinating and indelible films of the last 20 years (Satantango, The Werckmeister Harmonies), so his announcement that he would be retiring from filmmaking after making The Turin Horse is a great loss to world cinema. But what a way to go out. Tarr took the legendary tale of Friedrich Nietzsche descending into a 10 year silence before his death after rescuing a horse from an abusive cab driver, and imagines a life for the horse after that fateful day. The resulting film, about a father and a daughter whose ramshackle homestead is beseiged by an apocalyptic windstorm, is one of the most strikingly rendered films about the end of the world ever made. Shot in beautiful black and white, The Turin Horse examines two people trapped by their own existence in a world gone mad. Sparse and austere, Tarr entrances us with minimal dialogue and long, uninterrupted takes (accentuated by Mihaly Vig’s droning score), creating a haunting existential meditation on mortality. One final masterpiece from one of the world’s finest filmmakers.

3. CAROL (2015)

Todd Haynes | USA

It's hard to do justice to the exquisite longing that courses through the veins of Todd Haynes' Carol  Haynes makes films that must be felt on a gut level, the kinds of films that causes chills that start in your very core and radiate out to the tips of your fingers. As he did in Far From Heaven, Haynes takes the staid structures of the 1950s "women's pictures" and explores the unspoken emotional truths coursing beneath the surface. While Haynes isn't recreating the work of Douglas Sirk here, that same DNA runs deep in Carol  as he explores the forbidden Eisenhower-era romance between an upper middle class housewife and a younger shop clerk.

At the film's center are two luminous performances by two consummate actresses. Blanchett and Mara are both absolute perfection, channeling the deep, repressed emotion of two women whose true feelings can't be adequately expressed in the language of the time. They make us feel every moment in a way that feels strangely personal. The same could be said of the entire film. It's a beautiful work, but more than that, it's a deeply powerful one. Haynes so expertly subverts the formulas in which he dabbles, using them to his advantage to tell a story that runs beneath the surfaces he creates. You don't just watch his films, you feel them on a completely different level. He says so much in the longing glances, the subtle gestures, each contained within an impeccably composed frame. Carol is a sublime love story, one that brims with the fiery passion of first love bulging at the seams of its societal prison. It is a major work by a major filmmaker, working at a level of narrative grace and elegance that is almost unmatched in contemporary cinema.


Orson Welles | USA

A film seemingly from beyond the grave, Orson Welles' The Other Side of the Wind began production 40 years ago, and became the legendary filmmaker's final obsession, a project decades in the making that was never completed before his death. Finally assembled by Peter Bogdanovich, Welles' final film can finally be recognized as the masterpiece that it is. Here, a man who started his career making avant-garde silent shorts and radio dramas creates one of the most brazenly modern films of his career, a work of experimental cinema that takes stock of the industry as Welles saw it - from the New Hollywood Cinema of Scorsese, De Palma, and Coppola, to the European art house cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni (mercilessly lampooned in Hannaford's film-within-a-film). This is cinema as voyeurism, for both the filmmaker and the audience. Is cinema a means to an end or simply an end? A journey or a destination? A penetrative act or a reflective act? Here, Welles dismantles the male gaze, the camera as a phallus, positioning cinema as an act of rape that destroys that which it seeks to exalt. It is a daring, reckless, uncompromising film that has risen like a phoenix from the ashes to take its place in the pantheon of great things - the final film of an American master who, 33 years after his death, has shown the world that he is just as vital and brilliant as ever.


James Gray | USA

The years since the release of James Gray’s The Immigrant have seen the global rise of fascism, the election of Donald Trump, and an increasingly anti-immigrant sentiment at home and abroad. If the film was timely in 2014, it seems downright clairvoyant now, its use of “past as prologue” presaging the crumbling myth of the American dream in an era of both national disillusionment and re-awakening. Gray’s tale of the exploitation of an immigrant woman (Marion Cotillard) at the hands of two men, one a magician, the other a vaudevillian, combines the scope of Visconti with the sensitivity of Fellini, incisively exploring cracks in the American ideal to reveal emptiness beneath. Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner’s pied pipers are neither angel nor devil, but they represent a kind of siren song of opportunity that leads those seeking opportunity to crash upon the rocks. Connected to the core of the immigrant experience once symbolized by Ellis Island, The Immigrant unfolds like a great novel, a quietly observant tale that is both uniquely American and universally relevant, interrogating capitalism’s alluring veneer of freedom that ultimately builds its own success on the backs of society’s most vulnerable.

6. LOURDES (2010)

Jessica Hausner | France

At once a critique and an affirmation of the mysteries of faith, Jessica Hausner's Lourdes centers around a non-religious paraplegic who accompanies a group of the faithful on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, a holy site to Catholics known for its healing waters. When she is suddenly healed while the mother superior is struck with terminal cancer, the pilgrims are confronted with a strong crisis of faith. Was it a miracle or something easily explained by science? If it is a miracle, why the nonbeliever, and not the faithful nun or one of the more faithful pilgrims? Hausner never answers these questions, allowing the audience to draw its own conclusions, ending on one of the most haunting notes of uncertainty the cinema has seen in years. Lourdes exists in an ethereal place between faith and doubt, casting a withering eye upon those who peddle faith as a commodity while embracing the tantalizing mysteries of age-old religion, modern science and human nature itself. There is intelligence in its construction, a probing sort of wisdom intent on exploring the deep-seeded human desire to see the divine, to make the intangible somehow tangible or to make apologies and explanations for that which cannot be seen or proven. The brilliance of Lourdes stems from its enigmatic nature, its ability to be spiritual without being religious, to question without being cynical, to embrace both faith and doubt without judgment -- and that is a miracle in itself.

7. THE IRISHMAN (2019)

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.

8. LEVIATHAN (2013)

Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel | France

Every now and then a film comes along that changes our perception of cinema itself; that expands the definition of what a film can be. A film that pushes boundaries, that makes its own rules, that rewrites the cinematic language in such daring and thrilling ways as to completely redefine what it means to be a film.

Such is the case with Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor's extraordinary documentary, Leviathan. However, to call it a documentary is almost a misnomer. In fact there's really no label for it that quite fits, because no other film quite compares to it. It's an incredible work of nonfiction filmmaking, to be sure. But it also casts aside traditional form and structure in favor of something entirely its own. You'll find no interviews, talking heads, or even dialogue here, just the story of the New England fishing industry as captured through a series of unforgettable imagery on cameras manned by the filmmakers, by the fishermen, and even attached to tethers and tossed overboard.

Leviathan is a bracing aesthetic achievement, bar none, brilliant in both construction and execution. There is something deeply primal about what Paravel and Castaing-Taylor have achieved here, the kind of film one walks away from realizing they have witnessed something truly special. It is a wholly original sensory experience, a once in a lifetime documentary that transcends the medium and revolutionizes the form. It may be a tough sell for those expecting something more traditional, but what great work of art isn't? Come prepared to surrender to one of the most singular and astonishing films in years, because there has never been anything quite like this before.


Apichatpong Weerasethakul | Thailand

There is a singular quality to Weerasethakul's work that cannot be mistaken. He is a man with a vision, a true auteur, each film bearing his indelible stamp, a kind of hushed beauty that seems transfixed in time, at once everywhere and nowhere, seemingly woven into the tapestry of life itself. The could exist at any time in any place, and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is no exception, which perhaps more so than any of his previous work, exists squarely in a metaphysical world of spirits, reincarnation, and fantastical creatures that coexist with humanity in a strange kind of harmony.

Weerasethakul incorporates a kind of magical realism in his filmmaking. Metaphysical manifestations of past lives appear like fragments of a dream, making us accept the impossible and perhaps even the ridiculous (monkey ghosts, amorous catfish) as something of great and powerful beauty. Uncle Boonmee's history is at once ancient, contemporary, and timeless. Like his best work, it exists outside of time and place and inside a world of dreamscapes both alien and familiar. Boonmee's head is full of stories of lives past, shards of memories collected into a foggy picture of time long gone, perhaps they are real, perhaps they are not. But upon his death, it all disappears, and his family is left almost detached from their own lives. Or is it the audience who is asked to step back and evaluate, transporting us away into a spiritual world all our own? Uncle Boonmee asks far more questions than it answers.


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 of the decade.


Joshua Oppenheimer | UK

First-time filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer turned his cameras over to former members of Indonesian death squads, now members of the country’s ruling class, and asks them to reenact their deeds in any way they see fit. The result is a shocking, disturbing and ultimately fascinating film about a horrific piece of Indonesia’s history through the eyes of gleefully unrepentant mass murderers paying tribute to themselves. It begins as a sobering look at what motivates and corrupts the human spirit to the point they could commit such atrocities, but when the murderers put themselves in their victims’ shoes during the reenactments, it becomes something even more profound: a look at a group of cold-blooded killers coming to grips with the gravity of their sins. Watching that dawning realization of extreme guilt makes for an extraordinarily moving and cathartic experience., and its power has only grown as the global rise of fascism becomes ever more dangerous.

12. POETRY (2011)

Lee Chang-Dong | South Korea

Legendary Korean actress Yun Jeong-hie gives one of the great performances of the decade, as Mija, an elderly woman who copes with the discovery that her grandson has committed a heinous crime by joining a poetry class. A lyrical, vibrant and deeply moving film, Poetry is a powerhouse, a masterful evocation of a free spirit torn down by the fog of age and tragedy whose search for poetic inspiration leads to an unlikely and heartbreaking source. It is a completely profound cinematic experience from a director working at the top of his game with an actress at the height of her powers. It is kind of a perfect storm of talent, adding up to a consummate work of art.


Michelangelo Frammartino | Italy

Like the great silent directors, Frammartino conveys the story through images of often profound beauty. An early shot of dust floating in a ray of light in the church the shepherd visits for medicine foreshadows a later stage in his soul's earthly odyssey, and suggests the fate of others like him from time long past. There is not a wasted shot to be seen here, each is pregnant with possibility and teeming with an inner life; mostly consisting of long, seemingly effortless takes. Despite its wordlessness, or perhaps because of it, Le Quattro Volte enraptures its audience, holding us in its grasp with bated breath, enthralled in each delectable moment and spellbound by its haunting stillness. It is as if Frammartino has stumbled upon a deeply profound truth, something filmmakers so rarely hit upon. His film seems to embody life itself, a feat made even more impressive by its brief running time.

This is powerful and confident filmmaking, a kind of cinematic poem that stares deep into the human soul and emerges with a quietly moving and deeply meaningful experience. I so rarely use the word 'masterpiece' in reviews for fear of unearned hyperbole, but that is exactly what Le Quattro Volte is - a masterpiece. It's a brilliant work of art, a staggeringly masterful and evocative film whose power transcends mere words and enters the realm of the spiritual. No matter one's religious beliefs, there is something of the divine to be found Le Quattro Volte, a whispered hint of the soul's immortality that lingers like a wisp of smoke on a mountain. This is what great cinema is all about.

14. 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

Steve McQueen | USA

The best narrative film of the 2013, Steve McQueen’s stark, clear-eyed portrayal of American slavery is one of the rare times the Academy Awards got it right. From the stunning performances by its tremendously talented cast (led by a jaw-dropping turn by Chiwetel Ejiofor), to the hauntingly observant direction by McQueen that finds beauty even in the ugliest of events, 12 Years a Slave is a raw, unblinking look at one of the darkest chapters of American history that is destined to go down in history as a modern classic.


Don Hertzfeldt | USA

In an age where computer technology has all but taken over the American animation industry and hand-drawn animation is seen as antiquated relic of the past, it's interesting that the most profoundly beautiful animated film of the decade is comprised mostly of hand-drawn stick figures. The crude simplicity of Don Hertzfeldt's It’s Such a Beautiful Day is the root of its singular brilliance. Chronicling the day-to-day existence of a man trying to overcome crippling anxiety, the film is something of a hallucinatory masterpiece, filled to the brim with droll observations about the world around him that create something both readily identifiable and deeply human. Even at its most surreal, it captures something powerfully real about the seemingly mundane worries that make up a moment, delving into its protagonist's broken psyche with a profound insight and sense of empathy. It takes Malick-ian narration and adds a soundtrack of classical music that elevates the deceptively simple animation to a kind of cosmic poetry, as if Hertzfeldt has somehow uncovered the secrets of the universe in his primitive sketches; the sparse, abstract style revealing the abject and mysterious beauty of human existence itself. It's such a beautiful day indeed.


Paul Thomas Anderson | USA

Phantom Thread is a film of incredible sensual pleasures, sexy without being sexual, and kinky without being campy. Its deep dive into sadism and masochism as both sexual outlets and psychological states is nothing short of remarkable, treating them not as strange objects of sexual exoticism but as the inherent power negotiations and exchanges of love itself. Anderson is a master, and Phantom Thread is one of his most enrapturing achievements, an enthralling and deeply pleasurable treatise on sexual politics that is both richly thematic and beautifully realized. It’s a feast for both the mind and the senses, and that is one of the rarest cinematic pleasures indeed.

17. MARGARET (2011)

Kenneth Lonergan | USA

Also known as the film that no one saw, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret” was shot in 2005, and long shelved amongst legal trouble and studio apathy. Finally given a token release this year by Fox Searchlight, the film was then the subject of an online campaign to get the film screened for critics for awards consideration after it was ignored in Fox’s year-end awards push. It’s a shame that the film has been so criminally under-seen, because it’s a staggering work. Anna Paquin gives the performance of a lifetime as a teenage girl whose involvement in a tragic accident wracks her with grief, threatening to engulf everyone around her. A brilliantly written and deeply felt emotional depth charge of a film.

18. A SEPARATION (2011)

Asghar Farhadi | Iran

In this time of heightened tensions with Iran, a film like A Separation becomes even more essential. A tense and powerful Iranian drama about a family dealing with divorce, who run into even more trouble when the father hires a caretaker for his elderly father, only to be accused of killing her unborn child after he forcibly ejects her from his home upon finding that she has mistreated him. “A Separation” is a universal tale of a family being torn apart that can resonate in any culture. You’ll find no political grandstanding or religious zealotry here, just people trying to live out their lives as best they can under extraordinary circumstances. Gripping and devastating, the film examines ideals of justice in a world colored in shades of gray. Powerful performances across the board and a knockout script deliver an intense and thought provoking film.


Abbas Kiarostami | France

A deeply felt and intelligent exploration of individual perceptions, both in art and in human relationships, Certified Copy is one of the decade's most bewitching and delicious mysteries. Lovely, smartly written and thoroughly beguiling, this tale of two strangers who may or may not already be married, lives out an entire relationship in a single afternoon. Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, working outside of his home country for the first time, entrances his audience with a keen natural storytelling ability. But there is little actual story here, just an impeccably acted character study that gets under the skin and stays there.

20. HOLY MOTORS (2012)

Leos Carax | France

A glorious ode to all things cinema, Leos Carax’s deliriously unhinged trip down the rabbit hole is one of the year’s most wholly original films. Following a mysterious agent (brilliantly played by Denis Lavant) as he travels from job to job, taking on new personalities at each one, from an old beggar woman, to a sex-crazed hobo, to a caring father, to an assassin, Holy Motors seems to channel the work of David Lynch, Baz Luhrmann, and Vincent Minnelli, while paying homage to Jean Rollin, Georges Franju, and Godzilla. Surrounded by the decadent decay of a crumbling Paris, Holy Motors is as much an elegy for the cinema as it is a love letter. It seems to embody everything cinema is, was, and will be. It’s an invigorating jolt of pure creative energy, and one wild ride.

Honorable Mentions:

  • TOY STORY 3 (Lee Unkrich, USA)
  • THE WITCH (Robert Eggers, USA)
  • SPRING BREAKERS (Harmony Korine, USA)
  • MOONLIGHT (Barry Jenkins, USA)
  • THE RIDER (Chloe Zhao, USA)
  • THE REVENANT (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, USA)
  • 24 FRAMES (Abbas Kiarostami, France)
  • BLACK MOTHER (Khalik Allah, USA)
  • TAXI (Jafar Panahi, Iran)
  • HUGO (Martin Scorsese, USA)
  • AMOUR (Michel Haneke, Austria)
  • DRIVE (Nicholas Winding Refn, USA)
  • LA LA LAND (Damien Chazelle, USA)
  • NOCTURAMA (Bertrand Bonello, France)
  • UNDER THE SKIN (Jonathan Glazer, UK)
  • THE FAREWELL (Lulu Wang, USA)
  • HEART OF A DOG (Laurie Anderson, USA)
  • THE WIND RISES (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan)
  • GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE (Jean-Luc Godard, France)
  • HER (Spike Jonze, USA)
  • ZAMA (Lucretia Martel, Argentina)
  • THE MASTER (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA)
  • BEFORE MIDNIGHT (Richard Linklater, USA)
  • WINTER SLEEP (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
  • ON THE BEACH AT NIGHT ALONE (Hong Sangsoo, South Korea)
  • WHITE MATERIAL (Claire Denis)

Monday, January 06, 2020

George MacKay in Universal Pictures' "1917."

There have been surprisingly few major Hollywood films centering around World War I. Sure, Wonder Woman was partially set during the First World War, and Peter Jackson's documentary They Shall Not Grow Old was a sleeper hit last year, but just try to think of a great WWI movie made in the last few decades and you're likely to be left with few options . Meanwhile, there have been countless films about World War II, which has captured Hollywood's imagination since before the war was even over.

World War II has always seemed more accessible - perhaps because of its saturation of our popular culture, its relative recentness, and the fact that many of us knew World War II veterans, they were our parents and grandparents, their stories feeling somehow more immediate. By the same token, World War I seems more removed from our own modern times, somehow alien and ancient - only seen in silent black and white footage and still photographs, a more muddled conflict with less defined boundaries between good and evil and an even more vague objective. Sam Mendes' 1917 seeks to change all that; and while it may not shed any light on the complicated geopolitical issues that brought on the war that was once described as "the war to end all wars," it seeks to bring the human elements of the conflict to life in ways most audiences have never seen before.

Set near the end of the conflict on Europe's Western Front, 1917 tells the story of two young British soldiers, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), who are sent on a near-impossible mission to cross No Man's Land on foot and warn battalion of soldiers not to make their planned attack a band of seemingly retreating German because they're walking into a trap. If they fail, thousands of men will be slaughtered, including Blake's own brother.

It's a harrowing race against time, and Mendes shoots the film as if it were one long take unfolding in real time, the camera following Schofield and Blake on their journey through the abandoned trenches and hellish war-torn landscapes of France. The effect gives the audience the feeling of being an unseen third participant in the action, and the results are often breathtaking in their scope and raw visceral power. Roger Deakins' cinematography is extraordinary, and when paired with Lee Smith's nearly invisible editing and the stellar work of the visual effects and sound teams (not to mention Thomas Newman's tremendous score), 1917 becomes a towering technical achievement and a work of impressive directorial skill.

On the other hand, its technical aspects are so uniformly remarkable that one almost becomes so caught up in the nail-biting high-wire act on display that it's easy to miss the more human elements of the story it sought to illuminate in the first place. The young leads are both strong, but by the time 1917 reaches its grand emotional climax, it feels a bit detached. Perhaps it's because the preceding experience is so draining, but it definitely rings a bit hollow when all is said and done, a video game with arresting graphics but no real heart to latch on to. It's such a towering visual and aural experience that it's difficult to pay attention to anything else, the one-shot gimmick is so much the focus that it's easy to find yourself paying more attention to the cinematography and losing sight of the larger story at play. In that regard, it becomes a movie that serves its cinematography rather than the cinematography serving the story.

It's a thrilling experience, no doubt, one that deserves to be experienced on the biggest screen with the best sound system possible. It's not a film that was meant to be watched in the comfort of your living room, and if any film from 2019 deserves that distinction it's this one. But don't be surprised if you find yourself talking more about its technical elements than its human ones after leaving the theater, because for all its visual wizardry it never quite reaches the same emotional heights, an unfortunate side-effect of its stylistic conceit that ultimately holds it back from rising to the ranks of one of the great war films.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

1917 | Directed by Sam Mendes |  Stars George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch | Rated R for violence, some disturbing images, and language | Now playing in select cities. Opens everywhere Friday, Jan. 10.