2017’s Top Films

There are two kinds of people in the world.

There are some people who, rather than merely “entertaining” themselves, watch the most important, the most beautiful, the most challenging, and the most thought-provoking films released each year; and there are some people who don’t.

The list below was created to assist the former.

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No Release Date – Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry (2016), directed by Laura Dunn & Jef Sewell

From John Murdock at First Things:
“[Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry] opens with a blur of urban lights and longings: the faster freeway, the taller building, the machines that become the objects of our affections. Over this, the film’s subject, in his distinctive timbre, laments the pursuit of “the objective.” These opening three minutes culminate in the blaze of car lights circling, approaching a bridge to who-knows-where. Then the screen goes dark and, after a pause, gives way to the slow rhythmic sound of feet on autumn leaves. A dog trots ahead, down the wooded trail. We are looking through Wendell Berry’s eyes, at the land he calls home—perhaps during one of the Sabbath walks that produced the poem we have just heard. With this juxtaposition of frenzy and forest, filmmaker Laura Dunn seems to be asking, ‘Isn’t this better?’

Dunn’s film is not your run-of-the-mill biopic, and how could it be? Berry, though very much alive, agreed to participate in the project, but with the complicating condition that he would not appear on camera. The viewer sees recent interviews of his wife Tanya and daughter Mary, but the man himself is present only as a voice and in images from the past. With their differing views of progress, both fans and critics of this farmer/writer, who has done his varied work with draught horses and a 1956 Royal typewriter, will likely see his elusiveness as fitting.

[Look & See] centers on Berry’s debates in the 1970s with Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Nixon and Ford. Butz had rural roots that rivaled Berry’s, but he came to see a decline from 45% of the population working the land at his birth to some 4% at the time of their encounters—what Berry labeled The Unsettling of America—as a positive development. ‘Butz’s law,’ which he formulated, was ‘adapt or die,’ and its measure of success was ‘P-R-O-F-I-T.’

Berry is seen by many as a prophet of a different sort. Archival footage shows him—then with a full head of dark hair—acknowledging that he and Butz would likely never agree, because ‘he’s arguing from quantities and I’m arguing from values.’ For Berry, the calculus must acknowledge such incalculables as ‘the Hebrew-Christian values’ of neighborliness and kindness. He concludes, ‘I don’t think you can love those old values and love what has come to be American agriculture at the same time.’ It is a message that has permeated the more than forty books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry that have issued from his literary perch overlooking the Kentucky River.”

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January 13th – The Son of Joseph (2016), directed by Eugène Green

From Guy Lodge at Variety:
“No one behaves quite like a human being in Eugene Green’s Le Fils de Joseph, yet a soulful sense of humanity emerges from their heightened declamations anyway. Though it’s still steeped in its maker’s very particular formalities of language and performance, this honey-drizzled, farcically funny fable of an unhappy teenager seeking a father — first the one he has, then the one he deserves — could prove to be Green’s most commercially accessible work, even among arthouse auds not necessarily attuned to its millefeuille layering of theological symbolism. (Its mirthful contemporary remix of the Nativity story, however, surely can’t escape anyone’s notice.) Green makes films for anyone willing to enter his peculiar universe of expressive purity and (mostly) suspended cynicism, to which Joseph reps one of his most beguiling invitations.

This is Green’s first team-up with producers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, whose increasingly catholic arthouse portfolio also includes this year’s Berlin competish title Hedi. ‘Catholic’ may indeed be an operative word in this newly forged collaboration: The faith’s very structured principles of morality inform Green’s artifice-driven vision as playfully as they do, to rather more sober effect, the Belgian brothers’ contrastingly social-realist studies in human kindness and weakness. Le Fils de Joseph — a title that translates as Son of Joseph, about which we can draw our own Christian conclusions — has little time for sermonizing in its religious observations. Indeed, when Raphael O’Byrne’s camera does eventually enter a church, it’s merely to appreciate the finery — and the madrigal music, courtesy of famed ensemble Le Poeme Harmonique, whose reinterpretations of 16th- and 17th-century compositions by Mazzocchi, de’ Cavalieri and Otradovic lend the film on otherworldly lilt from the opening credits onwards …

It’s far from an easy script to play, but Green’s ensemble successfully comes at it from a variety of positions, ranging from Ezenfis’ raw, uninflected sincerity to Amalric’s ever-enjoyable air of tumble-dried loucheness. Between them lies the bright-eyed theatrical clarity of Regnier and Rongione, both previously versed Green collaborators and both entirely wonderful here as the film’s anchors of vulnerable goodness, Marie and Joseph. Their performances spring most vividly to life via Green’s most eccentric distinguishing technique: his exactingly centered, conversationally alternated close-ups, in which the actors — artificially and exquisitely lit on tactile Kodak film by O’Byrne — deliver their lines as if staring through the camera, to a soul-connected listener behind the lens. It remains a divisive trademark that nonetheless provides the film with many of its most moving moments: Even Nenette the donkey, an improbable star of the pic’s fifth act, nails her straight-to-camera gaze.”

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January 20th – The Red Turtle (2016), directed by Michael Dudok de Wit

From Kent Turner at Film Forward:
The Red Turtle’s Dutch director, Michael Dudok de Wit, has an additional end credit, for storyboarding his European/Japanese coproduction produced under the banner of the celebrated Studio Ghibli. Not to start an argument, but this may be the most gorgeously drawn film of the last 10 years (though I felt the same way about The Tale of the Princess Kaguya), with its clean lines and shifting color palettes: gray stones set against a pale blue sea, a verdant bamboo forest of multiple shades of greens, and the black-and-white, pen-and-inklike nighttime sequences.

This subdued circular tale of man intertwined with nature first centers on a lone man who has washed up on a deserted island, uninhabited except for crabs and other aquatic creatures, after surviving a tempest that sunk his ship. From bamboo stalks, the Robinson Crusoe stand-in constructs a raft and sets out to sea toward the coastline far in the horizon. Each attempt is thwarted, though, by something swimming below the rickety raft that bashes into it, smashing it to smithereens.

During the third attempt, he sees the culprit wading to the surface, a red-shelled turtle. Even its skin has a vermillion tinge. After the man swims back to land, the turtle follows him onto the beach and, out of his frustration, he clubs the animal and turns it over onto its back and leaves it to die. Instead, though, its shell cracks open to reveal that the reptile has transformed into a beautiful, henna-haired woman. When it rains, she comes to life: she’s Venus in a tortoise shell.

The Red Turtle goes back to film’s roots, relying mostly on visual storytelling, jettisoning dialogue while set to a score that combines the orchestral swoons of John Barry and the best of James Horner. It’s a work of beauty; the underwater swimming sequences have the fluidity of ballet, and it is continuously eye-catching, with a simple story line that should easily cross borders. Don’t be surprised if it winds up nominated for the best animated film Oscar, up against a few Hollywood blockbusters.”

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January 27th – The Salesman (2016), directed by Asghar Farhadi

From Nick Davis at Film Comment:
“Asghar Farhadi’s movies lure viewers into competing sympathies with intractably opposed positions. Whenever our biases tilt toward one character, new twists force us to recalibrate them. The Salesman reprises this knack for moral quandary, using a meta-theatrical premise to interrogate what it means to identify with someone, or to project roles upon them.

Emad (Shahab Hosseini, who won Best Actor at Cannes) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti, tremendous) are starring in a production of Death of a Salesman while settling into a new apartment. One night while Emad is out, Rana is assaulted by an intruder she accidentally allows inside. She either cannot recall or cannot admit key details of what transpired. Enraged by his wife’s suffering but unable to inhabit her perspective, Emad takes a page from Hugh Jackman’s script in Prisoners, tracking specific culprits while liberally distributing blame.

In a rich irony, the likeliest suspect mirrors Willy Loman in many respects. Can Emad respect the humanity in the kind of incoherent man, dishonorable yet pitiable, he labors to convey onstage? How do specters of imagined women inform men’s conflicts with each other—and will the needs and viewpoints of actual women survive those escalating rivalries? Bruising but elegant, conceptually intricate within a street-realist style, The Salesman asks through its final shots: when we stare at each other, do we see each other, or only ourselves?”

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February 24th – My Life as a Zucchini (2016), directed by Claude Barras

From Leonard Maltin:
“I can’t remember the last time I fell in love with a movie the way I did with My Life as a Zucchini. I’d heard it was charming and different from most American animated features, which is true, but I wasn’t prepared to be so moved. I was also charmed by the whimsical look of the picture, which features clay-like stop-motion figures and sets that might have been designed by a highly creative child. Director Claude Barras has artfully fused form and content to create a disarming and wholly original work.

The film introduces us to a group of troubled children whose broken lives have led them to an orphanage where they must learn to get along together. Our 9-year-old hero has to deal with the guilt he feels over his mother’s death, but the screenplay (unlike the book, I’m told) doesn’t delve too deeply into the kids’ distressing backstories—just enough to tell us how fragile they are. Younger viewers may not understand everything that is hinted at; adults will need no explanation.

In a clichéd scenario there would be villains galore: mean-spirited supervisors and uncaring adults. Instead, these fortunate youngsters are treated with kindness and understanding. They are grateful for every moment of happiness they can find. Their lives are not without conflict and the “new kid” has to put up with a bully…but even he turns out to be a layered, three-dimensional character.

My Life as a Zucchini shows us the true meaning of kindness and empathy. It is a tonic in the harsh world we all inhabit. Bravo to director Barras, esteemed screenwriter Céline Sciamma (who adapted Gilles Paris’s book) and contributing writers Germano Zullo and Morgan Navarro, who share that credit with the director.

Full disclosure: I saw the original French-language version of the film …”

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March 17th – Beauty and the Beast (2017), directed by Bill Condon

From Alex Abad-Santos at Vox:
“In the 1991 version’s spin on the classic French fairy tale, an enchantress curses a boy prince and transforms him into a hideous animal, and his servants into household objects. They’re forced to wait in the castle for someone to break the curse by falling in love with the Beast despite his hideous visage, governed by a magical rose on a 10-year timer. If no love is found before the last petal falls, then the prince remains a beast forever.

Chbosky and Spiliotopoulos tweak this story by having the enchantress place a curse not only on the Beast/Prince (Dan Stevens) and his household but also the adjacent town, whose people forget how the prince and his family gouged them with taxes and threw lavish parties. The curse also works differently here: As each petal from the magical rose falls, the Beast, along with the servants who were turned into furniture and household objects, become less and less human, until they lose their souls.

The twist shifts this Beauty and the Beast into darker territory, making the castle’s hospitality one born of desperation rather than enthusiasm. It also adds a sense of deeper consequence, as these characters are faced with death instead of simply being cute versions of themselves for eternity … Instead of going cute with characters like Lumiere and Cogsworth, Condon envisions them as slightly grotesque. Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) isn’t all eyelids and smile as he was in the animation, but rather gnarled and impish; Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) is dilapidated …

The film’s embrace of weirdness also makes it easier to appreciate when Beauty and the Beast decides to swing for the fences and give us sumptuous, gorgeous visuals like that hallowed ballroom. It’s a swooping stunner of a scene that somehow bests the original.

But the film is careful not to give viewers too many of those moments — a logical choice, since it’s hard to consistently match the magic of the original. Still, there are enough moments that will make you appreciate what Condon, Watson, Evans, Stevens, and Gad have brought into this retelling — all the stuff that wasn’t there before.”

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March 31st – The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017), directed by Niki Caro

From Jacob Soll at New Republic:
“The story of Polish zookeepers saving Jews is based on the lives of the noted zoologist and Polish resistance fighter Jan Żabiński and his wife Antonina, keepers of the zoo during the German Occupation, holocaust and Polish resistance. Zabińska kept a diary during the war, describing how they saved and cared for more than 300 Jews from Warsaw’s ghetto, using their empty zoo and its system of cellars, tunnels and cages as a hiding place under the noses of the Nazis—an account that Ackerman popularized in her 2007 book. Israel honored the Żabińskis for their courage as Righteous Ones at Yad Vashem in 1965.

But this is not a Schindleresque tale of hiding grateful Jews and counting them, even if that is inevitably part of the story. Caro casts Chastain as a beautiful elven queen ruling over an enchanted forest. Both frail and fine, her character is also staggeringly (and convincingly) powerful and nearly preternaturally gentle. At first, the setting—real as it was—might seem absurd, as camels, elephants and eagles make the Warsaw zoo seem more like Narnia than Nazi-occupied Poland. But very quickly, this magical world darkens as the Żabińskis’ Jewish friends begin to come to them for help and hiding as the Nazis drive them into the horror of the Warsaw ghetto.

Perhaps it is because the genre of the holocaust film has become tired, or because we live in a world so bathed in violent images, that our society is no longer inspired to vigilance by the dangers of our own resurgent and popular neo-fascism. But Caro snaps us out of the world we know, by announcing the arrival of the Nazi horror with the killing of the zoo’s most beautiful animals. If many have become inured to human violence in movies, violence towards animals is less familiar. Instead of seeing Jews murdered in the ghetto, we get Nazis shooting camels and elephants.

And when she has our attention, Caro then re-focuses our gaze to her husband Jan witnessing the rape of a young girl, Ursula, by two Nazi soldiers in the ghetto. This scene, which is hard to bear, is not about mass killing, but about sexual violence. Rape and the assault of children are horrors seen in war and genocide at all levels—but it is a topic most avoided by films about the holocaust. Even in the context of mass killing, it is simply too horrible to witness. And yet Caro shows us that we must reckon with this reality and she makes it part of her larger narrative. As the soldiers prey on Ursula, Lutz Heck (who has now been promoted to ‘Hitler’s personal zoologist’) has returned now as Żabińska’s predator. The gentle zookeeper’s wife is harassed and even attacked by Heck as he also murders her animals. The dream world of the zoo becomes a nightmare.

There is something uncomfortably timely about this unlikely story. Although we are horrified by these brutal acts in a movie, Americans are still willing to turn a blind eye to violence against women or cruelty to animals, as we saw in the last election. When Donald Trump was accused of sexual harassment, or when he tried to physically intimidate Hillary Clinton during the debates, his image was not harmed but actually boosted by the display of masculine aggression. Others more familiar with Trump family lore will remember the nauseating hunting photos of his sons standing proudly over their dead quarry of leopards and water buffalo. Although it was shot before Trump ever seemed a realistic candidate, The Zookeeper’s Wife depicts the menace of machismo not just in public but also in private life. Domestic violence, Caro shows, is not only the prelude to horror, but also its crescendo.”

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April 14th – The Lost City of Z (2016), directed by James Gray

From Emily Wheeler at Film Inquiry:
“The producers who nabbed The Lost City of Z were almost certainly hoping to rival legendary exploration movies of the past, and they got a filmmaker capable of greatness in writer/director James Gray. The atmosphere and style of his last two films, The Immigrant and Two Lovers, were widely praised, and pairing him with a story to match his cinematic scope was an inspired choice. Gray doesn’t falter under the weight of expectation, delivering a film that takes from its predecessors without devolving into replication.

One might expect that Fawcett, who defies conventional thinking in search of an advanced civilization, would most closely resemble Klaus Kinski’s Aguirre, but Gray doesn’t make the story into a myopic descent into obsession. His version of Fawcett (let’s throw out any pretension of fact) goes on a longer, more malleable journey. If anyone had the strongest influence on Z, it was likely David Lean, whose protagonists in Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai see their perspective and priorities change as adventures stack up.

The Lost City of Z is, in many ways, an old-fashioned film. Its pacing is deliberate and it makes no great effort to modernize its characters (with the exception of one scene that feels entirely out of place). The audience is expected to be enthralled by the dilemmas of the time and to find relatability within that world. It’s a kind of trust that’s rarely extended anymore, and in a way, it makes The Lost City of Z feel more otherworldly than futuristic space adventures.

And that’s where the film hits its best notes, as a meditative look at life that provides the audience enough distance to get a clear perspective. Gray, in the end, doesn’t shoot for the swashbuckling adventures of Lean or the mythical flavors of Herzog and more recently Ciro Guerra, but carves out his own take on lost, reaching men.”

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April 14th – A Quiet Passion (2016), directed by Terence Davies

From Stephanie Merry at The Washington Post:
“In A Quiet Passion, the period-drama veteran Terence Davies (Sunset Song, The House of Mirth) turns his attention to poet Emily Dickinson. The prolific writer may not have had the most cinematic existence — she spent most of her days holed up inside her childhood home — but that doesn’t lessen of the impact of this tribute to Dickinson’s genius, which is by turns funny, tragic and thrilling.

The writer-director wisely uses the poet’s life to explore the stifling societal norms of the day: all the puritanical piety and rigid decorum that made Dickinson feel so painfully out of place …

The movie is punctuated by Dickinson’s own writing, read in voice-over by Nixon. At times, she also recites it in character, looking at her brother’s new baby, for example, and saying, ‘I’m nobody! Who are you?’

The drama is marked by a stilted formality, but it works, especially in the context of a story about how suffocating customs can be for a woman who plans to avoid marriage and stay with her immediate family, where she feels safe.

Davies is a master of the slow build, lyrically evoking the dreaminess and gravity of his subject and her verse. In one scene, he employs fantasy to show Emily imagining a man ascending the stairs to greet her, but he also uses images of carnage that look like they could have been pulled from documentarian Ken Burns’s The Civil War. These contradictions carry over into Nixon’s outstanding portrayal. The actress always conveys a disarming sense of vulnerability, even when she’s at her most obstinate.

It’s strange, although not necessarily surprising, that it took so long for a movie about Emily Dickinson to get made. It’s not easy to do justice to such a beloved, enigmatic artist, but A Quiet Passion was well worth the wait.”

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April 21st – Born in China (2016), directed by Chuan Lu

From Justin Lowe at The Hollywood Reporter:
“As the standard-bearers for China’s impressive roster of wildlife species, panda bears have often been characterized in human terms, particularly in the context of the government’s decades-long ‘panda diplomacy’ efforts, as Chinese wildlife authorities have loaned out animals to zoos and research centers worldwide. This captive breeding program has been necessitated by ongoing poaching and the gradual destruction of the bear’s bamboo-forest mountain habitat.

Although large sections of the region are now protected, population numbers are only gradually increasing due to the species’ low birth rate, so the film’s focus on a female panda’s preoccupation with raising her young cub appears particularly appropriate. Dubbed Ya Ya by the filmmakers, the first-time mother spends much of her time attempting to curtail her cub Mei Mei’s wanderings, particularly her natural inclination to climb the larger trees interspersed between the bamboo groves. The cub’s efforts to seek both nurturing and independence provide much of the tension throughout the segment as the juvenile bear tries to break free of her mother’s doting care …

Director Lu Chuan, whose 2004 eco-thriller Kekexili: Mountain Patrol was a fact-based account of a Tibetan anti-poaching unit tasked with protecting the chiru, adopts a more sedate approach for Disney’s documentary. The film deliberately skirts any mention of the human-induced threats imperiling nearly all of the animals depicted and instead proffers a lighthearted approach that’s tinged with occasional drama, although nothing alarming enough to frighten away family audiences.

The script, credited to Lu, David Fowler and renowned nature filmmakers Brian Leith and Phil Chapman (the BBC’s Wild China series), emphasizes an accessible tone dominated by humor and wonder while imparting the basic natural history background on each species. In sometimes jarring contrast, John Krasinski’s frequently jokey narration may charm the under-10 set, but it grows increasingly grating on adult ears as the film progresses.

If all of the overemoting can be ignored, Born in China delivers gorgeous visuals in its close-up perspective on some of the world’s rarest wildlife species, as well as the imposing habitats they call home. Supported by Lu, Leith, Chapman and Disney producer Roy Conli (Tangled), four top wildlife cinematographers capture moments of awe-inspiring intimacy and thrilling confrontation that reinforce just how tenuous survival in marginal habitats can prove to be.”

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April 28th – LA 92 (2017), directed by Daniel Lindsay & T.J. Martin

From Rebecca Pahle at Film Journal International:
“This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots, six days of protests, looting and arson that broke out in the City of Angels following the acquittal of Rodney King’s four cop assailants in a highly publicized—and controversial—trial. Those six days have become more relevant than ever over the last few years, when an increase in cellphone videos of abuses perpetrated by police against the African-American citizens they’re supposed to protect helped kicked off the Black Lives Matter movement …

If the first third or so of LA 92 doesn’t give much by way of new material to people who saw OJ: Made in America—or, you know, people who know that era of history—the final hour more than makes up for it. Lindsay and Martin eschew talking heads and voiceover, opting for raw archival footage peppered with the odd title card. The result is less a dry history lesson than a visceral moviegoing experience. Footage of a black man tearily confronting rioters with ‘It’s not right what you y’all doing! It’s not right!’ or a Korean woman standing arms outstretched as she attempts to bar looters from her store aren’t particularly enlightening as far as sheer facts are concerned, but damn if they’re not powerful moments.

It’s very much show, not tell. LA 92 might not grab you by the hand and lead you to the conclusion that the L.A. riots are but one part of a very long history of black oppression by law enforcement in the United States, but through masterful footage selection and editing, the story is told all the same. The modern relevance is clear in footage of Maxine Waters—then a relatively new Congresswoman, now an elder stateswoman and high-profile critic of President Trump—speaking out against the King verdict and helping panicked constituents get their mail during the riots. It’s present in the footage that bookends LA 92, which is not of the 1992 L.A. riots but of the Watts riots that occurred nearly 30 years prior. The message is clear: The story wasn’t over then, and it’s not over now.”

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May 26th – The Women’s Balcony (2016), directed by Emil Ben-Shimon

From Sheila O’Malley at RogerEbert.com:
“The small Jewish community in The Women’s Balcony is a tight-knit one. When they talk, they don’t say ‘I,’ they say ‘We.’ They are not just a community, they are a ‘congregation,’ with all that that implies to the faithful. A huge box office hit in Israel, the film was written by Shlomit Nehama, and directed by Emil Ben-Shimon. The Women’s Balcony is an eccentric portrait of an already devout community suddenly under pressure from a super Orthodox rabbi to observe their faith in a more rigid way. While the mood is that of a gentle and affectionate comedy, the film makes some extremely sharp points about fanaticism, sexism masked as holiness, and tolerance among the faithful …

Those of us watching can see that the Rabbi David is a virus who has entered the healthy ‘body politic.’ These people need to create some antibodies to fight him off, fast! But, of course, the characters in the midst of it can’t perceive the threat, not at first. Only Ettie can see what has really happened, saying bluntly to the Rabbi (who clocks her almost immediately as his #1 Nemesis), ‘Is that what a rabbi is supposed to do? Enter a community of good people and fill them with fear?’ …

The script is not afraid to make its points, to really go after its true target. It’s also quite insightful about how magnetic leaders like Rabbi David can co-opt the personalities/value systems of their listeners, can stir up problems in communities that are operating just fine, head-coverings or no. These characters are used to seeing rabbis as authority figures. So when the wolf in sheep’s clothing enters their flock, they don’t have the defense mechanisms to fight him off, or even recognize him for what he is. The men, especially, are useless in the face of such male authority.

This is Emil Ben-Shimon’s first feature, and a confident debut it is. He comes from a television background, and has said that this script reminded him of the women around him when he grew up. That feeling of familiarity he has with this world, these people, breathes through every pore of The Women’s Balcony. Ben-Shimon recognizes what is precious (and also, at times, irritating) in a community like this one. The fanatics of this earth are not live-and-let-live people. The rabbi David sees the collapsed balcony as a judgment, mainly because the women are not submissive silent figures in the background. His misogyny is palpable, but—like many gifted religious leaders—cloaks it as admiration: ‘Women are so much more superior to men, aren’t they?’

A couple of years ago I reviewed a Christian film called Faith of Our Fathers, and bemoaned the fact that so many films about faith are poorly done, listing a bunch of films at the end of the review that deal with faith in a complex way, while never belittling those who have faith. Most recently, Martin Scorsese’s magnificent Silence is a mighty grappling with Catholic faith, surging with the sometimes tormented faith of its maker. The Women’s Balcony takes on some extremely hot topics, and in doing so makes the point powerfully that true faith does not depend on a head-scarf. True faith is alive, coursing through human relationships, made manifest in how we treat one another. The Women’s Balcony has its cake and eats it too. It is funny and profound.”

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June 2nd – Wonder Woman (2017), directed by Patty Jenkins

From Jeffrey Overstreet at Looking Closer:
Wonder Woman is not just exciting to watch — it Wonder-fully undermines DC Comics’ endorsement of vigilante justice and glorified bloodshed. While it remains to be seen whether the character will maintain the courage of her convictions in the inevitable sequels, she currently towers over every active big-screen Avenger or Justice Leaguer, holding the moral high ground with her refusal to kill, her prioritization of compassion, her exhibition of the dignity and strength of women, and her ultimate aim to end war.

Such admirable aspirations might make her seem like an automatic nemesis for director Zack Snyder, whose hedonistic movies have, to date, reveled in cynicism (Watchmen), gratuitous violence (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice), and the objectification of women (Sucker Punch, 300). But there he is, listed as producer and as partially responsible for the story …

Gadot is radiant in ways that require me to get out the step ladder, climb up, and reach for a name from the very top shelf for comparison: Audrey Hepburn. She’s much more than just a pretty face — she’s sensational in her capacity to persuasively express endearing naïveté, mischievous intentions, and righteous anger within a few moments of movie. She’s funny and unpredictable, she moves with the grace of a dancer, and she can make comic book dialogue sing. (Now, let’s see if the American film industry can avoid squandering a talent of this caliber on frivolous productions.) The period-piece nature of this narrative gives the movie all kinds of ways to fight back against the typical Snyder-style objectification of women. Gadot could easily have been exploited as the Justice League’s own Kardashian, but this scantily clad Amazonian remains surprisingly modest throughout, her elegant period-piece costumes just as important as that classic spangled swimsuit …

What’s more — as if he’s campaigning for serious discussion among fans of the Inklings, Wonder Woman‘s screenwriter Allan Heinberg asks if there might not be some spark within human beings that sprang from the fire of something greater: an echo of divinity, an image of their Creator. Sure, the established mythology insists that the god in question is Zeus. But I’m intrigued by a DC movie that asks us if our origins in the mind and heart of the Maker might not inspire the possibility of grace. (And, as my wife Anne pointed out, the way Zeus is described in this story sounds a lot more like our Old Testament deity than the manipulative monster of Greek mythology.)

For the way it gives girls a superhero of their own, for its forceful endorsement of innocence and American idealism, for its best-of-genre accomplishments, and its assault on superhero cynicism and sexism, Wonder Woman might even earn itself a spot on shortlists of the year’s best.”

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June 9th – Megan Leavey (2017), directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite

From Sheila O’Malley at RogerEbert.com:
“Last year, four military dogs received medals for valor in the inaugural American Humane K-9 Medal of Courage Awards, with American Humane President Robin Ganzert saying at the ceremony on Capitol Hill, ‘We feel it is time to recognize and honor the extraordinary feats and acts of devotion these heroic animals perform every day.’ Military dogs are valued for their noses, their ability to sniff out IEDs, weapons caches, other buried explosives, as well as their loyalty and high intelligence. There’s a YouTube clip showing a soldier reuniting with his military dog, and as the soldier approaches the dog’s cage, the dog starts howling with joy and excitement. She can smell him coming. Once the cage door opens, the dog—a scrappy black Labrador—circles endlessly around her former handler, not even stopping for pats or kisses. If the bond between human and dog is already intense, dogs being what they are, then the bond between a military dog handler and his or her canine partner is even more so. Megan Leavey, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite,  tells the story of the profound bond between a Marine corporal and her war dog Rex.

Based on a true story, Megan Leavey  is that rare breed: a war movie that actually shows something new about war, a sub-culture within a familiar sub-culture, the world of the military’s K-9 units. For that alone, it should be applauded. Everyone should know how incredible these dogs are. But beyond its fascinating informational aspects, Megan Leavey is a powerfully emotional film that somehow—unbelievably, considering the subject matter—avoids sentimentality altogether.

Kate Mara is Megan Leavey, seen at the outset of the film as an aimless young woman living in upstate New York, sleeping all day, fighting with her mother (Edie Falco), doing nothing with her life. One day, after seeing two Marines in their parade-ground finest walk into a recruiting center, she joins up. And before she can even catch her breath, she’s in boot camp. The opening sequence of Megan Leavey, setting up Megan’s life ‘before’ is no longer than five minutes. Boot camp passes in a raging montage showing recruits climbing walls, doing pushups, being screamed at, etc. (The real-life Megan Leavey is one of those screaming drill sergeants.) The ‘setup’ is not belabored. We get it in two or three shots. Cowperthwaite is an efficient director, and the script (by Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo, Tim Lovestedt)  is also a model of efficiency. In an industry where movies, in general, are too long, where every ‘t’ is crossed to make sure we ‘get it,’ such productivity is almost a miracle. We do get to know Megan over the course of the film, but we get to know her through her relationship with the dog she is assigned once she joins the Marine Corps’ K-9 unit, a ferocious and difficult to handle German Shepherd named Rex. It is only in that relationship that Megan, like the Velveteen Rabbit, starts to ‘become real’ …”

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June 16th – Maudie (2016), directed by Aisling Walsh

From Jeffrey Overstreet at Looking Closer:
“I propose that you won’t find a more striking image of true love on the big screen this year than the picture of Everett Lewis wheelbarrowing Maud — his small, arthritic housemaid — along a rugged road.

It’s a story that we wouldn’t believe if it were presented as fiction. Truth, as we know, is stranger — and Maudie, a tender and observant film written by Sherry White and directed by Aisling Walsh, is based on the unlikely rise to fame of Maud Lewis, a world-famous Christmas-card painter from Nova Scotia. Like Maud herself, the movie comes to life within daunting constraints. Like a towering array of sunflowers rooted in a plastic flowerpot, it transcends its basic mold — the familiar beats of a standard biopic — to offer vivid rewards.

I may not know enough about art to recognize the genius in Maud Lewis’s folk-art scenes of flowers, birds, cats, and farm life. But in view of the strange circumstances from which her art emerged, I marvel at her story: how she endured the body-bending curse rheumatoid arthritis, the crimes and cruelty of a faithless family, the belligerence of the fishmonger named Everett who would hire and eventually marry her, and the way her poverty failed to protect her from the harshness of the elements …

But the film’s imagery, filmed by Guy Godfree, is exquisite throughout, finding unvarnished beauty in particularity and avoiding the museum-exhibit glow that could easily have romanticized the scene of Everett’s ramshackle cabin. Meditative music by Cowboy Junkies’ Michael Timmins (with a song by Lisa Hannigan) weaves warmth through the cold, hard details of the Lewises’ life in a weatherbeaten cabin.

I’m a sucker for films about artistic awakenings, and the movie that this most reminds me of was my favorite film of 2009: Seraphine. But it also reminds me a great deal of Jeff Nichols’s 2016 movie called Loving, with its focus on complicated intimate moments between seemingly simple people, its consistent preference for quiet moments over big dramatic flourishes, for dust and grit over shiny surfaces, for suggestion over statement, for the nuances of great actors in top form.”

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June 30th – In Pursuit of Silence (2015), directed by Patrick Shen

From Scott Tobias at NPR:
“As much a visual treat as an aural one, the film divides its time between using the tools of cinema to isolate and enhance the beauty of sounds and silence and exploring different schools of thought on the subject. Shen follows Greg Hindy, a young hiker who decided to trek from Nashua, New Hampshire to Los Angeles, California without speaking a word, looking to confirm his intuition that his vow of silence would open him up to other inputs. He visits Okutama Forest in Japan, where an environmental research has established therapeutic retreats under the conviction that quiet can help relieve stress and prevent disease. He interviews a student and teacher at a New York public school where noise from the passing train disrupts 15% of instruction, debilitating the learning process.

In Pursuit of Silence aims for a comprehensive study of its subject, from the impact of sound pollution to the cacophony of urban centers and technology to the scientific and religious belief that silence brings us closer to our natural, primal, selves. To some extent, the film is fundamentally at odds with itself: There’s no easy way to reconcile the push-and-pull between conventional documentary interviews where experts share their thoughts and the wordless rapture of sequences where Shen illustrates the point through sound and image. Shen wants to be informative and demonstrative, and he struggles to have it both ways.

Not surprisingly, the film works best as pure cinema. It’s one thing to talk about noise and solitude, but much more powerful for Shen to cut from the ‘soul-crushing din’ of cable-news arguments to the tea ceremony in Kyoto, where no voices compete against each other for attention. In another sequence, Shen isolates various sounds — rain on a rooftop, a child crying, radio static, a marching band, the ambience of Sixth Avenue — into a kind of sensory test, calling on us to assess their specific value. Fitting for a documentary about the value of quiet, In Pursuit of Silence is better when it shows than tells.”

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July 7th – City of Ghosts (2017), directed by Matthew Heineman

From Peter Debruge at Variety:
“When strong, personality-driven documentaries premiere at film festivals, you can count on one of the most pressing concerns in audience Q&As being the need to know what has happened to the subjects since filming wrapped. In the case of City of Ghosts, the question carries higher stakes than almost ever before, while also communicating how effectively Cartel Land director Matthew Heineman humanizes the key players in self-made ISIS-resistance movement Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). These courageous citizen journalists risk their lives every day to combat ISIS’ insidious propaganda and misinformation campaigns — which makes it all the more remarkable that Heineman is able to provide such intimate access to RBSS’ operations, now in exile abroad.

While world powers debate how to fight ISIS, a small group of Syrian rebels calling themselves RBSS — and who have rather ironically been labeled ‘terrorists’ by the Muslim extremists who have taken control of their hometown — have waged a nonviolent campaign for peace, recognizing information as the most effective weapon in their own struggle. Initially, armed with video cameras, they documented the arrival of and swift takeover by ISIS forces in Raqqa, filming demonstrations in the city’s Freedom Square that led to grisly public executions …

Neither ISIS nor Assad offers a suitable government for the country, and yet, were it not for the way that ISIS’ proactive attacks on so-called infidels abroad have touched France, Germany, and America, it’s doubtful that the West would be paying RBSS’ message much mind. As the film’s subjects warn, ‘When one group falls, another will rise up in its place’ — which, of course, has been the cruel lesson of American intervention in the Middle East over the past decades, as each new regime seems more pernicious than the last.

The solution in City of Ghosts is to concentrate on the people who comprise RBSS: There’s editor-in-chief Naji Jerf, who is murdered during the course of the film — just one of several casualties struck close to the group’s core. Footage taken from a checkpoint stop accompanies news of group member Moutaz’s arrest and execution. At one point, cameraman Hamoud and his brother Hassan receive news that ISIS is taking out its vengeance on members of their family not directly involved in RBSS.

The group continues at great personal risk, and yet, as Heineman’s original footage reveals, there’s more to their refugee status in Europe than cocktail parties and awards. In Berlin, they take a stand against a group of anti-immigration neo-Nazis, trying to reason with German nationalists seemingly incapable of distinguishing between the terrorists who drove a truck through a crowded Christmas market and the brave crusaders doing their part to fight ISIS from afar. What City of Ghosts does best is to humanize those who’ve suffered most from the conflict in Syria, educating us through both outrage and compassion.”

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July 7th – A Ghost Story (2017), directed by David Lowery

From Nick Olson at Image Journal:
“Midway through A Ghost Story … C’s ghost observes a party. A man named ‘The Prognosticator’ in the credits delivers a nihilistic soliloquy to the other partiers. He opines about how human beings strive to leave a legacy in various ways so as to preserve meaning and significance; yet, he reminds them, don’t forget that eventually the universe will collapse on itself and nothing will matter. In a film with so few words, the little speech stands out.

I think Lowery resists making this the film’s thesis; yet, the Prognosticator’s sentiment is the fear that besets A Ghost Story. There is a suggestion that The Prognosticator may be taking his materialism a little too seriously when C’s ghost flickers the lights at the suggestion that what we see is all there is. However, the closest thing to a jump-scare is when we cut from this scene to the house suddenly demolished by a bulldozer. The parallel seems unmistakable in its suggestiveness about the end of the cosmos.

A Ghost Story is invested in a certain sort of mystery. It seems vigilant against providing easy answers or interpretations. The mysteries here seem defined by an overriding sense of bewilderment.

I’m not sure that many specifics can be ascribed to this film’s point of view. I’m not talking about a set of abstractions that can be self-assuredly pasted to human experience with little regard for what’s there. I’m talking about a manner of perception seeking some consonance with what’s there, an embrace that is also a way forward. This film’s sense of searching is the furthest thing from indifferent, but it does often feel inevitably haphazard. It suffers the palpable loneliness of being lost …

The film begins with an epigraph from Woolf’s ‘A Haunted House.’ Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. We are all haunted by what we seek. In Woolf’s story, a ghostly couple haunts the home of a living couple. The ghosts seek some treasure. We discover by the end of the story that the treasure sought—that which we look long and deeply for—is the lovers’ hidden joy.

This film doesn’t look too long into what that hidden joy might entail, let alone how the experience of that joy in this life often has the quality of collapsing time so that the immanent frame becomes porous. Instead, the best we can hope for here is the satisfactory release of being able to let go.

Mortality is sure to haunt us. In the end, the remaining question—one that I’m not sure A Ghost Story explores enough—is whether our mortal end gives way to a future that is hinted at in every waking moment. We’ll continue searching, and sooner or later, we’ll see.”

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July 14th – Chasing Coral (2017), directed by Jeff Orlowski

From Kenji Fujishima at Slant Magazine:
“As a piece of environmental activism, Chasing Coral is bluntly effective. The scientists featured in Jeff Orlowski’s documentary articulate the case for why we need to worry about the impending extinction of coral in ways that make the science accessible to laypeople—arguments that especially resonate in a time when there’s still debate about whether climate change is real or not. But Chasing Coral is far from a dry scientific exegesis along the lines of An Inconvenient Truth. Instead, it’s populated with magnetic figures—especially Zackery Rago, a self-described ‘coral nerd’ with long, surfer-blond hair—who help bring an emotional urgency to the film, imbuing it with dramatic life-or-death stakes by sheer force of the collective belief in their mission.

What makes Chasing Coral play as more than just another activist doc is its focus on the power of images as a way to inspire change. It’s appropriate that our entry point into the world of coral is Richard Vevers, a former ad exec from London who left his job after 10 years in order to pursue his passion for the ocean. That devotion led him to create The Ocean Agency, a nonprofit committed to, among other things, finding ways to photograph underwater life in order to make it more visible to the public. Visibility becomes one of Vevers’s driving causes, especially once he stumbles upon the problem of coral bleaching, a periodic phenomenon that indicates mass coral death, and which threatens to wipe out the species as a whole during our lifetime. In some of his on-camera interviews, he frames the issue in terms of ‘optics,’ discussing the problems of capturing definitive photographic evidence of this phenomenon in order to make the problem feel real to the masses …

Chasing Coral could thus be seen as a feature-length metaphor for the filmmaking process, with Vevers, Rago, and other specialists in the field of corals, reefs, and climate change standing in as a collective analogue for obsessive artists willing to go to any lengths to get exactly the image they want. The oceanic footage that these men and women capture, though, is worth the immense effort and patience. Indeed, the images that Vevers is able to take of living corals and other underwater life is truly awe-inspiring in its visual vibrancy, giving full credence to the sense of wide-eyed wonder he exudes whenever he talks about the ocean and the life contained therein.

Contrast that, though, with the footage of dead corals we see, with all the life and color sucked out of them, only bits of algae hanging from their polyps. One may well find oneself becoming just as emotional as many of the marine biologists at the 2016 International Coral Reef Symposium visibly are when, at Chasing Coral’s climax, Rago unveils the before-and-after coral footage he and others have worked so tirelessly to capture. Bearing witness to this footage is akin to seeing the death of an entire ecosystem right before your eyes. Even the most ardent of climate-change deniers may well be unable to deny the visceral impact of seeing the fatal, devastating result of a mere two-degree rise in oceanic temperature on these life-giving invertebrates.”

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July 21st – Dunkirk (2017), directed by Christopher Nolan

From Steven D. Greydanus at National Catholic Register:
Dunkirk plays in a way not only as Nolan’s best film, but as a kind of an antithesis — even an antidote — to all the others. The notion of Dunkirk spirit arose largely because of the celebrated role of amateur sailors risking their lives by serving alongside military forces in a makeshift flotilla of small ships — merchant marine vessels, fishing boats, pleasure craft and more — who sailed between England and Dunkirk to help pull off a seemingly miraculous evacuation of more than 330,000 stranded troops before the Nazis closed in for the kill.

This spirit is embodied in the film above all in the character played by Mark Rylance, a middle-aged civilian named Dawson with a wooden motor yacht called the Moonstone who sets out for Dunkirk with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a young friend named George (Barry Keoghan).

Rylance plays Dawson with a low-key, matter-of-fact sense of duty and civic virtue that feels like the film’s most authentic period detail, embodying unlost ‘Lost Generation’ steadiness into a second world war. He’s a man who finds poetry in the sound of a Spitfire engine and prose in turning the bow of a pleasure ship toward ground zero of what’s left of the battle for France. Urged to return home by a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) plucked from the stern of a torpedoed ship, Dawson says simply, ‘There won’t be any home if we allow a slaughter across the channel.’

But Dawson is only a small part of a portrait of a larger operation in the most widespread and complicated war in history. The scale of the drama, the breadth of the canvas, both restrains Nolan and frees him.

Like his characters, who are barely characters at all, in the sense that who they are is much less important than what they do, Nolan’s talents are in the service of something greater than himself. While he tells the story very much his way, for almost the first time it’s not his own story that he tells.”

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August 4th – Columbus (2017), directed by Kogonada

From Brett McCracken:
“When I knew him, Kogonada talked a lot about Postman and cited Technopoly often. He worried about the ways technology might be making us dumber and number; numb to the beauty which is everywhere around us if only we have eyes to see and interest (or attention-spans?) to look.

This techno-skepticism is on display in Columbus. Richardson’s character proudly flaunts her antiquated flip phone, which she calls a “dumb phone” because it has no Internet access. She prefers spending time at libraries and trying to remember facts rather than resorting to Google. Happier and more alive to the beauty of her hometown (refreshingly unburdened by the wanderlust and status envy stoked by the ‘connected’ life), she provides a compelling model for what joyful resistance might look like in a technopolized world.

Indeed, at a time when more and more are noting the disturbing psychological and de-humanizing effects of technology, Columbus offers a glimpse into a world we can have if we want it: a world of serendipitous discovery rather than utilitarian Google search; quiet contentment rather than clattering consumerism; sensory encounter rather than disembodied distraction; a world where the physical nouns (people, places and things) in front of us are more compelling and comforting to us than the digital abstractions we might find on the other side of a hyperlink.

Cinema is often framed as escapism, and indeed it has that quality. We watch movies to visit far away places and times, and to understand the experiences of others. But cinema at its best, and certainly Columbus fits that bill, doesn’t stop at escapism; it helps us return well to reality, with new eyes to see and love the world beyond the screen.”

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August 4th – Detroit (2017), directed by Kathryn Bigelow

From Travis Johnson at FilmInk:
“There’s no getting around it: Detroit, the latest offering from director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) is a tough watch. The entire middle third of the film, some 40 minutes, is an extended sequence of interrogation and torture, book-ended by murder. Under the leadership of a cold-eyed uniformed cop, Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), a group of Detroit Police, Michigan State Police, and National Guardsmen try to get a group of civilians – black men and two young, white women – to hand over a gun and the man that was using it.

There is no gun. The authorities don’t believe them. Or they don’t care. Or they need there to be a gun, to shield themselves from recriminations. It doesn’t matter. Caught in the frame of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s jittery, roving cameras, there’s nowhere to hide. It’s an incredibly tense scene, more horrible than horror, and it really happened.

Detroit is based on the Algiers Motel Incident that took place in 1967 during Detroit’s 12th Street Riot, when angry African Americans took to the streets in response to a police raid on an illegal after hours club. The street violence and paramilitary response will be familiar to anyone who saw footage of the LA riots after the Rodney King verdict – indeed, seeing handwritten signs in the windows of businesses proclaiming them to be black-owned is a jarring sight – and the causes and tensions are remarkably similar: economic disenfranchisement, ghettoisation, a smouldering sense of injustice, white cops, black civilians.

Bigelow and Boal force us to look at these parallels, refusing to consign Detroit to the rather safe and separate category of historical fiction, even though it is set almost precisely 50 years ago. The militarised police presence, the fires in the streets, the barred windows and fearful faces we’re confronted with again and again – swap out the fashions and the music and very little has changed. Intriguingly and perhaps depressingly, a look at Bigelow’s 1995 sci-fi film Strange Days, which boasts similar imagery, gives you the sense that she doesn’t think it’s going to change any time soon, either …

It’s worth reflecting on one of the key early scenes in Bigelow and Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty, where Jason Clarke’s interrogator puts the hard word on a terrorist suspect while Jessica Chastain’s CIA analyst looks on. That film was accused of endorsing torture; Detroit puts you in the shoes of the tortured, and it doesn’t let you out.

Worse, it offers little in the way of catharsis, which will frustrate some viewers. Justice is not done, and the film offers no pat moments of false triumph to salve us as we exit the theatre. We’re left in a state of anger, confusion, and moral outrage – and that’s as it should be, because this stuff is still happening, and we know it. Detroit is a simply extraordinary and uncompromising film, and if it’s almost unbearably punishing as a result, that’s because it needs to be to drive its point home. Absolutely unmissable.”

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August 11th – In This Corner of the World (2016), directed by Sunao Katabuchi

From Tina Hassannia at the National Post:
In This Corner of the World shows us a Second World War that is neither about the winning side — it’s set in a small village near Hiroshima — nor one that relies on extreme contrast to show us the binary between peace and war. Like its forebear, the Studio Ghibli animated film Grave of the Fireflies, In This Corner of the World is more subtle and quietly beautiful, it presents an underrepresented perspective of an overrepresented slice of history …

The colour palette here is muted: earthy browns and greens help relax the viewer so that they can come to understand the scatterbrained, dreamy thought process of the protagonist, a young wife named Suzu (Rena Nounen). After marrying Shusaku (Yoshimasa Hosoya), Suzu relocates to her in-laws’ residence, where she is gently mocked by her new family for her spaciness. But Suzu is also conscientious, a resplendent visual artist and a hard worker.

Suzu’s soft-spoken, creative energy slowly but assuredly defines the look and feel of the film. It excels at blurring the line between reality and her unique way of looking at the world. Her poetic descriptions of waves in the lake resembling white rabbits become actualized on the screen as she visualizes and then paints them in watercolour, offer an inspiring point of view, one that champions the nurturing value of surrounding nature.”

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August 25th – The Unknown Girl (2016), directed by Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne

From Jeffrey Overstreet at Looking Closer:
“On rare occasions, though, we catch a glimpse of a better way to tell stories of heroes. On rare occasions, artists put their imaginations to work to reveal this truth: The greater show of strength is the display of restraint, the choice not strike back, the choice to slowly build instead of swiftly destroy.

Once in a while, a filmmaker shows us how to do to this. And I’ve just seen a vivid demonstration that, yes, it can be done. It couldn’t come at a more important time.

For those who have asked when I’m going to get around to reviewing Marvel’s Logan or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, I submit this tired reply: I don’t think I will. I’m tired of the whole addicting spectacle, the poisonous lie that good violence deserves cheers when bad violence strikes …

And with that, I recommend to you, with wholehearted enthusiasm, a compelling hero of conscience and care: Doctor Jenny Davin, played by Adèle Haenel, in the Dardenne brothers’ latest film — The Unknown Girl.

Doctor Jenny Davin is one of those rare characters who proves that a protagonist can be conscientious, humble, empathetic, quiet… and compelling. And by describing her in public, I feel like I’m probably doing my part to bury this movie. Seriously, am I making you want to see the movie by saying these things?

Jenny is the sort of doctor who makes house calls to the poor and the disabled around troubled neighborhoods in Liege, Belgium. Yes, the Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are inviting us back to the scene where they have imagined so many masterful stories. (For my money, they’re the most consistently impressive filmmakers working in the world today).

Jenny is principled, hard-working, and she holds those around her to high standards. And therein lies a subtle character flaw, the one that will set the story into fast and anxious motion. Right away we can see that what she preaches to her intern — ‘Don’t let emotions get in the way’ — is not necessarily the best law to live by. Part of what’s so interesting about the point upon which this story turns is that it’s so incidental: In the interest of demonstrating how to work in a principled fashion, she fails to perceive a need within her coworker; and, more importantly, she keeps the door closed against a stranger in urgent need.”

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September 15th – Rebel in the Rye (2017), directed by Danny Strong

From G. Allen Johnson at the San Francisco Chronicle:
Rebel in the Rye attempts to understand a man who didn’t want to be understood, made by a writer-director who is clearly a fan. This can have its drawbacks — it’s hard to attain some level of objectivity when you are an advocate. But it also means we have the warmest possible portrait of a chilly personality, author J.D. Salinger, an uncompromising writer who became burdened by his 1951 debut novel, Catcher in the Rye, now an American classic.

Writer-director Danny Strong focuses on a roughly 15-year period in Salinger’s life, from his late teenage years in late 1930s New York, where he is raised by a father (Victor Garber) who has no confidence that Jerry (as he is called) will make it as a writer, and a mother (Hope Davis) who very much does (Salinger dedicated Catcher in the Rye to his mother), to the beginnings of a decades-long isolation in rural New Hampshire …

Strong’s script, a simplification of Kenneth Slawenski’s biography J.D. Salinger: A Life, doesn’t quite give us an understanding of Salinger’s character. But the film and Hoult’s performance deepens after Salinger’s service in World War II.

Salinger was a soldier who was part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. His unit just misses the point where the heaviest fighting was — though he does see heavy action as his unit battles its way across France, retaking the country from the Nazis, and is later present at the liberation of the concentration camps — so he has a sort of survivor’s guilt that haunts him for much of the rest of his life. While apparent budget limitations hinder the film during the war scenes, it’s what happens when Salinger returns home after the war that the movie hits a higher gear.”

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September 17th – The Vietnam War (2017), directed by Ken Burns

From Mackubin Thomas Owens at Providence:
“It is noteworthy that the US veterans in the series mostly express a negative view of the war, even if they began as supporters. In choosing the veterans they interviewed, Burns and Novick fall back on a common practice of American journalism after Vietnam, which seems to maintain that the only veteran worth listening to is the one who has come to his senses and finally opposes the war. Thus, in the years after Vietnam, John Kerry and other veterans who had turned against the war were media darlings, while those who supported the war were portrayed as somehow inauthentic.

But this is bad history. A 1980 Harris poll of Vietnam veterans revealed that 91 percent were proud of their wartime service; 74 percent enjoyed their time in the service; and, contrary to the notion that the war was inherently unwinnable, 89 percent agreed with the statement that ‘our troops were asked to fight in a war which our political leaders in Washington would not let them win.’ One would think the producers could have found at least a few veterans who supported the war …

The worst case of selective veteran testimony is also, consequently, perhaps the low point of the documentary. Merrill McPeak, an Air Force pilot during the war, praises the plucky North Vietnamese and states point blank that America was on the wrong side of the fight. This represents but one example of the documentary’s continual assertion of a moral equivalence between the US/South Vietnam and the Vietnamese Communists. This equivalency is specious. To a candid observer, I would think the relative morality of the respective sides—represented in the US case by what we fought to prevent—could easily be reckoned by the final outcome of the conflict.

The core goal of the Vietnamese communists was to unify Vietnam under a communist government. The goal of the United States was, simply, to prevent this; to avert the fall of the Saigon government to a communist insurgency. In the aftermath of the communist victory in 1975, two million Vietnamese fled their country—mostly by boat—with thousands losing their lives in the process. Inside Vietnam, a million of the south’s best young leaders were sent to re-education camps; more than 50,000 were executed or perished while imprisoned, and others remained imprisoned for as long as 18 years. When it came to everyday concerns such as education, employment, and housing, the communists established a system that punished those who had supported the Saigon government and the United States. Such reprisals extended to their families as well …

One final complaint. It is significant that Burns and Novick ignore the changes that occurred after 1968. Too many historians who mention the period after Tet 1968 emphasize the diplomatic attempts to extricate the US from the conflict, treating the military effort as nothing more than a holding action. But as William Colby observed in a review of Robert McNamara’s disgraceful memoir, In Retrospect, by limiting serious consideration of the military situation in Vietnam to the period before mid-1968, historians leave Americans with a record ‘similar to what we would know if histories of World War II stopped before Stalingrad, Operation Torch in North Africa and Guadalcanal in the Pacific.’

To truly understand the Vietnam War, it is absolutely imperative to come fully to grips with the years after 1968. As Bob Sorley wrote in his book, A Better War, a new team was then in place. Shortly after the Tet offensive, Gen. Creighton Abrams succeeded Gen. William Westmoreland as commander, US Military Assistance Command–Vietnam (USMACV). He joined Ellsworth Bunker, who had assumed the post of US ambassador to the Saigon government the previous spring. Mr. William Colby, a career CIA officer, soon arrived to coordinate the pacification.

Far from constituting a mere holding action, the approach followed by this new team constituted a positive strategy for ensuring the survival of South Vietnam. Ambassador Bunker, Gen. Abrams, and Mr. Colby ‘brought different values to their tasks, operated from a different understanding of the nature of the war, and applied different measures of merit and different tactics … as they raced to render the South Vietnamese capable of defending themselves before the last American forces were withdrawn … [in] the process they came very close to achieving the goal of a viable nation and a lasting peace.’

The defenders of the conventional wisdom reply that Mr. Sorley’s argument is refuted by the reality that South Vietnam did in fact fall to the North Vietnamese communists. The documentary repeats the claim that the South Vietnamese lacked the leadership, skill, character, and endurance of their adversaries. Mr. Sorley acknowledges the shortcomings of the South Vietnamese and agrees that the US would have had to provide continued air, naval, and intelligence support. But, he contends, the real cause of US defeat was that the Nixon administration and Congress threw away the successes achieved by US and South Vietnamese arms.

The proof lay in the 1972 Easter Offensive. This was the biggest offensive push of the war, greater in magnitude than either the 1968 Tet offensive or the final assault of 1975. The US provided massive air and naval support. While there were inevitable failures on the part of some ARVN units, all in all, the South Vietnamese fought well. Indeed, having blunted the communist thrust, they recaptured territory that had been lost to Hanoi. Finally, so effective was the eleven-day ‘Christmas bombing’ campaign (LINEBACKER II) later that year that the British counterinsurgency expert, Sir Robert Thompson exclaimed, ‘you had won the war. It was over.’

Of course, three years later, despite the heroic performance of some ARVN units, South Vietnam collapsed against a much weaker, cobbled-together NVA offensive, mainly because of an act that still shames the United States to this day: the congressional decision to cut off military and economic assistance to South Vietnam. Subsequently, President Nixon resigned over Watergate and his successor, constrained by congressional action, defaulted on promises to respond with force to North Vietnamese violations of the peace terms.

So what are we left with? When it comes to assessing the lessons of Vietnam, Burns and Novick again come up short. At the end of the program, one of the interviewees, a lieutenant who fought in Vietnam in 1965, serves up what is presumably the documentary’s final judgment: ‘We have learned a lesson . . . that we just can’t impose our will on others.’ This is false. It the very business of war to impose one’s will upon the enemy. History has shown time and again that this is, in fact, entirely possible. Indeed, if the purpose of war is, ultimately, to achieve a better, more just peace, then the imposition of one’s will against the enemy is not just possible, but morally appropriate. There is no other reason to resort to war at all.”

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September 22nd – Victoria & Abdul (2017), directed by Stephen Frears

From Nathan Osborne at Film Inquiry:
“There’s nothing quite like an overly-sentimental, unashamedly twee film to warm your heart as the nights draw in and the temperature begins to drop; Stephen Frears is more than willing to comply and supplies exact that with the release of his latest feature-length, Victoria & Abdul, which documents an Indian muslim’s friendship with the Queen of England that only came to light a century after the fact.

In the 19th century, Abdul Karim became Queen Victoria’s closest confidante during the final fifteen years of her life, after he was brought to England to present her with a ceremonial coin during her Golden Jubilee celebrations. Known for being highly-strung, Abdul became one of few people to truly grow close to her and they became good friends; said friendship, however, was a major cause for concern to the royal household, earning the disapproval of her family and staff members, with the growing racial and social tension threatening to break down their unique bond.

If you find yourself questioning why you had not heard the true-life story before this film’s release, nobody had: it was not until Abdul’s memoirs were discovered over a century after the Queen’s passing that the full story was finally revealed. Their friendship had been completely scrubbed and erased from all royal documents by her family just moments after her death, in order to hide the interracial friendship that the household deemed embarrassing and defamatory; in fact, in her last years, staff and family attempted a revolt to have her certified insane and removed from the throne by force due to the shame they saw the (platonic) relationship bringing to the household. The tragic story has now been adapted into this partly-fictionalised (by the film’s own admission) version of events …

A lot of the film’s success is attributed to the beautiful performances animating our titular pairing. Judi Dench reprises her role from 1997’s Mrs Brown to play the female monarch; very much a national treasure herself, Dench is a perfect fit for the long-reigning monarch she so magically transforms into, texturing the performance with the acidic bite and brutal honesty the ruler was known for. You can see the weariness in her eyes as she approaches the end and how they become re-invigorated in Abdul’s presence.

Ali Fazal plays the servant-come-friend, loving named ‘Munshi’ by Victoria, very effectively. As a mother figure to him, Abdul’s excitement and unwavering commitment to Victoria is evident, as he dedicates his life to serving, teaching and befriending her – despite the hostility of the royal household’s staff towards him. It is captured very skilfully by Fazal (in only his second English-language feature) and he balances the humour with the emotion efficiently.

It is when they are together though that Dench and Fazal are at their best. Charming and affecting, their relationship is wholesome and genuine, delving into this real-life friendship in the sweetest way possible. Frears quickly understands that the film is strongest when they are sharing scenes and one example – when he is teaching her his home language – is beautiful and touching and funny at the same time. Everything about the success of this film hinged on the two of them delivering a believable dynamic and they do so with ease.”

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September 22nd – Stronger (2017), directed by David Gordon Green

From David Sims at The Atlantic:
“When we meet Bauman, he’s a lovable, hard-drinking Bostonian working at the deli counter at Costco and trying (vainly) to win back Hurley’s heart after a recent breakup. After hearing that she’s running in the Boston Marathon, Bauman plants himself near the finish line to cheer her on and is wounded in the subsequent terrorist attack. Green keeps the horror of the incident at arm’s length at first (we see the explosion, in the distance, from Hurley’s perspective), though he fills in details later as Bauman begins to remember more about that terrible day.

Crucially, Green and the Stronger screenwriter John Pollono emphasize Bauman’s perspective, and are committed to closing the distance between his distressing situation and the audience. One beautifully shot scene set not long after the bombing illustrates Green’s approach: The director follows the first changing of Bauman’s leg dressings, where the doctors and nurses comfortingly advise him that some amputees choose to watch the procedure and others do not, and that there’s no wrong decision.

Green trains the camera behind Bauman’s head, keeping everything else out of focus as the nurses guide him through the expected pain and shock of the procedure. Hurley, meanwhile, comes in and out of the frame, first unsure of how to offer support, then withdrawing, then slowly returning to Bauman’s side. The moment is perfectly choreographed while feeling entirely natural; it involves routine medical details the viewer might not think to consider, all the while invoking the fraught dynamics of Bauman and Hurley’s relationship and how they’ve changed after the attack. I later learned Green had hired Bauman’s real-life doctors and nurses for the scene to lend it authenticity—and it shows.

That verisimilitude persists throughout the film, even after Bauman leaves the hospital and starts the slow business of returning to a somewhat normal existence. He lives with his mother (a lively Miranda Richardson) in a cramped walkup apartment, and shares her penchant for drinking. He has to contend with his celebrity as he quickly becomes a living symbol of the “Boston Strong” spirit and is regularly accosted by strangers about his bravery. ‘Am I a hero for standing there and getting my legs blown off?’ he asks one admirer. Gyllenhaal makes sure even these bleak statements have a tinge of dark humor, as Bauman tries to keep up appearances.

Most important of all is Bauman’s relationship with Hurley, and Stronger’s exploration of how their bond is initially motivated by her deep guilt over his presence at the marathon but eventually becomes something more tender. Green isn’t afraid to acknowledge the difficulties of a romantic relationship in which one partner serves as a caregiver. He’s also wise to avoid the common pitfalls of similar movies, where the supportive wife or partner doesn’t get much of a chance to be a real character. Maslany’s work in Stronger is just as heartfelt and textured as Gyllenhaal’s, and she’s given space to flesh out Hurley’s own trauma, and flaws, after the bombing.”

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September 29th – Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House (2017), directed by Peter Landesman

From Owen Gleiberman at Variety:
“Of course, you could argue that government leaks from the highest levels, a corrupt president, internecine battles between rival factions of the Washington power establishment, and the national hunger for a cathartic whistleblower — even if we have no idea who he is — could scarcely be more relevant than it is today. And you’d be right. Yet Mark Felt, despite bits of bureaucratic cloak-and-dagger intrigue and a commanding lead performance by Liam Neeson, is a film that pings off relevance more than it feels charged with it. Forty years ago, the bar in this genre was set high — All the President’s Men remains one of the greatest of all American films — and by that standard Mark Felt comes closer to being a quasi-interesting footnote. Despite some potent onscreen moments, expect a modest box-office performance and, with the exception of Neeson, little to no buzz on the awards circuit.

If anything, the most topical aspect of Mark Felt isn’t even the cataclysm of Watergate — it’s the fact that the movie is really about the ultimate high-stakes game of office politics. Early on, Neeson’s Mark Felt is summoned to a meeting with a few of the president’s men, notably the attorney general and the White House counsel John Dean (Michael D. Hall). It’s 1972, and when Felt enters the room, he towers over all of them — not just in height, but in aura. Neeson, in an immaculate suit, with a head of steel-wool hair, a noble profile, and a voice of clipped mellifluous purpose, is like a graying eagle: dignified and exacting, but unmistakably a bird of prey.

Felt has worked closely with the director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, for 30 years, and he explains how Hoover’s fabled system of ‘private files’ work. The FBI gathers up pieces of information — gossip, embarrassing tidbits on romantic affairs, straight and gay — about the people who work in Washington. And Hoover lets them know that their secrets are safe with him; in other words, he’s got the goods to blackmail half the town. Since Hoover’s obsession with secrecy and (illegal) surveillance is the most famously deplorable side of his legacy, we wonder how Felt, who knows where the bodies are buried but still comes on like a wholesome if cutthroat Scout leader, could align himself so closely with these glorified Mob tactics. Here’s how: The way he sees it, Hoover, in his despotic way, is committing a necessary evil, using the very sleaziness of his operation to maintain the FBI’s independence.

As the political karma would have it, Hoover dies on May 2, 1972, and scarcely a month later, on June 17, the Watergate break-in happens. It will take a long time (more than a year) before the media, secretly bolstered by Felt, and the rest of the nation begins to put together what the break-in means: how high up in the government it leads, and what it’s really about. But within a few days, when Felt learns that the burglars were all former CIA and FBI operatives and that more than one of them was connected to the Committee to Re-Elect the President, he — unlike the journalists — can put two and two together. He grasps that Watergate is the tip of the iceberg, and he knows just what the iceberg is: the low crimes and dirty tricks that the Nixon White House has been running for several years. He wants the FBI to do what it has always done — investigate — and, of course, he wants to be promoted to take over his old boss J. Edgar Hoover’s job. But he will get neither wish …

Through it all, Neeson cuts a riveting figure of stoic torment and silvery will. He plays Felt, ‘the G-man’s G-man,’ as an intensely conservative firebrand who has seen it all, and will accept a mountain of government sins as necessary realpolitik, but who regards the tyranny of the Nixon White House as something new: a threat to the Republic, because it upends the national balance of power. You could say that the movie is a good pedestal for Neeson (it is), but you could also say that he towers over the rest of it (he does). The last part of Mark Felt feels as if it lost crucial scenes, with everything from Nixon’s resignation to the resolution of Felt’s daughter crisis crashing in out of nowhere.

How relevant does Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House look? A year ago, the answer might have been, ‘Not that much.’ But the looming scandals of Donald Trump have created the most urgent context for it imaginable. In the new culture of journalistic leakers, where even those who are, or were, most loyal to the president — like Steve Bannon — are described as secret sources for the mainstream media they claim to revile, it’s impossible to watch Mark Felt without speculating on who might become (or already be) the Deep Throat of the Trump administration. Yet if the current scandals heighten the movie, they also diminish it. Forty-five years after Watergate, it’s still playing catch-up.”

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October 6th – The Florida Project (2017), directed by Sean Baker

From Alissa Wilkinson at Vox:
“The Florida Project unfolds at first like a series of sketches about the characters who live in the motel, held together by the hysterical antics of Moonee and her pack as well as long-suffering hotel manager Bobby (a splendid, warm Willem Dafoe), who tries to put up with it all while keeping some kind of order. But as the film goes on, a narrative starts to form, one that chronicles with heartbreaking detail the sorts of dilemmas that poor parents and their children face in America, and the broken systems that try to add structure to impossible situations.

This kind of social realist, vérité-style filmmaking has been part of cinema almost from its beginning, reaching peaks in Italian neorealism (1948’s Bicycle Thieves) and the French New Wave (1959’s The 400 Blows). It’s been on the rise in the United States for about decade, with films like Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop (2007) and Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008) employing a natural and semi-observational style that focuses on characters and situations rather than heavy-handed plots to tell their stories about America’s downtrodden poor. Because they don’t signal their intentions right away, the critiques in films like these tend to sneak up on the audience and sock them from behind, making them especially emotionally powerful.

The Florida Project works in this vein as well. But there’s an especially American flavor to what Baker is doing. He melds truly devastating stories that have no clear solution or moral lesson for their characters with humor, warmth, and depictions of excess that expose how darkly funny the American appetite for excess really is.

Tangerine was all about flamboyance and drag; in The Florida Project, the excess surrounding Disney World offers a similar spectacle, all lightness and entertainment to let people look away from grimmer realities. But The Florida Project won’t let us look away. Nor, given its brilliance, would we want to. Instead, we laugh, we watch silently, and we’re challenged to stop simplifying people’s lives so we can offer easy theoretical answers.”

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October 6th – Blade Runner 2049 (2017), directed by Denis Villeneuve

From Peter Debruge at Variety:
“The world as we know it has nearly caught up to the one Ridley Scott imagined when he directed the 2019-set Blade Runner, and yet, for all the influence the dystopian cult favorite has had on other sci-fi movies, Scott’s vision of Los Angeles still looks as mind-blowingly futuristic now as it did in 1982. That may well explain why its sequel, the Denis Villeneuve-directed Blade Runner 2049, doesn’t feel the need to reinvent the world in which it takes place, but instead is free to delve deep into the existential concerns suggested by the earlier film, as screenwriters Hampton Fancher (who also co-wrote the original) and Michael Green raise evocative questions about human-android relations and the nuances that will one day be used to tell them apart.

Sure as it is to delight Blade Runner fans, this stunningly elegant follow-up doesn’t depend on having seen the original — and like 2010’s Tron: Legacy, may actually play better to those who aren’t wedded to the franchise’s muddled off-screen mythology. As it happens, in both tone and style, the new film owes more to slow-cinema maestro Andrei Tarkovsky than it does to Scott’s revolutionary cyberpunk sensibility. In fact, at 2 hours and 44 minutes, Blade Runner 2049 clocks in at three minutes longer than the austere Russian auteur’s Stalker. But Villeneuve earns every second of that running time, delivering a visually breathtaking, long-fuse action movie whose unconventional thrills could be described as many things — from tantalizing to tedious — but never ‘artificially intelligent.’

Whereas it took five different versions for Ridley Scott to satisfyingly answer the question raised by Philip K. Dick’s speculative-fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (four of which suggest the director himself didn’t quite recognize what was most fascinating about his own film), Villeneuve gets it right on his first attempt, operating from the premise that when androids dream, their innermost desire is to be human. Following that thread to its natural conclusion, Villeneuve has crafted a slick, 21st-century Pinocchio story, in which a replicant yearns to be a real boy — although that’s just one facet of the film’s many dimensions. Make no mistake: Whereas the original Blade Runner was (eventually) embraced for its unrealized potential, its sequel ranks as one of the great science-fiction films of all time.”

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October 13th – Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017), directed by Simon Curtis

From Kenneth R. Morefield at Christianity Today:
“Because it deals with the origins of a beloved childhood literary work, Goodbye Christopher Robin will most likely draw some comparisons to the Oscar-nominated Finding Neverland. A better comparison might be the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy. Both that film and Goodbye ask the audience whether we love our artists, tortured souls and all, or only the art they leave for us. Both films also depict moments of grace and healing that allow us to continue to cherish the art of our own childhood even as we grieve the circumstances that we may not have been aware helped forge it.

Goodbye Christopher Robin was released in the United Kingdom before the United States, and in his negative review for The Sunday Times, Tom Shone says the film ‘might has well have been written by Eeyore.’ That’s perhaps more of a compliment than he intended. Long before Pixar’s Inside Out reminded us that Joy can’t function without Sadness, Milne’s melancholy but resilient donkey was just about the only avatar that sad kids had. In one famous literary exchange, Pooh asks Eeyore what is the matter, and the donkey replies: ‘Nothing, Pooh Bear, nothing. We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.’ What is it, Pooh asks, that not all of us can do? ‘Gaiety. Song-and-dance. Here we go round the mulberry bush.’

Let us thank God for those who are scarred by trauma and who struggle with depression, whether they be talking donkeys, shell-shocked soldiers, burnt-out caregivers, or lonely children. Sadness, films like Goodbye remind us, can be an appropriate response of a tender heart made for joy but confronted with a fallen and broken world. That sadness can give root to the weeds of bitterness and despair; it can also, however, be transformed through love and imagination into a source of comfort and joy for all those who are able and willing to receive it as such.”

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October 13th – Breathe (2017), directed by Andy Serkis

From Bruce Demara at the Toronto Star:
“Throughout the course of the film, Robin and Diana refuse to accept the limitations that the disease has imposed upon them. The first step, getting out of hospital and into their own home, is an unprecedented and herculean challenge embodied in the skepticism of dour Dr. Entwistle (Jonathan Hyde). At home, the Cavendish family enlists the help of family and friends, including eccentric inventor Teddy Hall (a wonderful performance by Downton Abbey star Hugh Bonneville), who equips a wheelchair with a respirator that allows Robin to go outside — heck, maybe even to travel abroad.

Of course, the film wouldn’t work half as well or be as nearly as affecting if not for a host of really great performances, starting with Andrew Garfield as Robin. Garfield’s performance is like an act of will, so steady, persuasive, even charming, that one can’t help but feel buoyed by his good-natured determination. Likewise, Claire Foy takes on Diana with similar grace and ferocity. Together, they are entirely believable as a tag team duo who simply won’t surrender in the face of any obstacle.

Both the screenplay by William Nicholson and lovely camerawork of cinematographer Robert Richardson notably enhance the film. And there are moments that chill, such as a scene in a German clinic where polio patients lie imprisoned in iron-lung chambers in a large antiseptic room, and another when Robin nearly dies due to a power outage. In the end, what shines through is an important message about the indomitability of the human spirit.”

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October 13th – Marshall (2017), directed by Reginald Hudlin

From Leonard Maltin:
“Chadwick Boseman has made a specialty of playing real-life figures: Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and now Thurgood Marshall, the first black man appointed to the United States Supreme Court. Marshall focuses on an important case in his work for the NAACP—one of the building blocks in his ascendant career—and it should come as no surprise that the actor does a first-rate job.

The screenplay, by father-and-son lawyers Jacob and Michael Koskoff, takes us back to 1941. Marshall is sent to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where an innocent man (Sterling K. Brown) has been accused of raping a wealthy white woman (Kate Hudson). In order to mount a defense he must convince a local Jewish lawyer, Sam Friedman (nicely played by Josh Gad), to be his mouthpiece in the courtroom. Friedman is reluctant because the case may leave a permanent stain on his reputation and potentially expose his family to retaliation. He and Marshall eventually forge a partnership, working opposite a well-established attorney (Dan Stevens) and against an unsympathetic judge (James Cromwell).

As a history lesson, Marshall is beyond reproach. Director Reginald Hudlin does his best to avoid obvious choices and follows the Koskoffs’ lead by injecting moments of humor into the picture. The interplay between the ultra-confident Marshall and the nervous Friedman gives this story a welcome, human touch.”

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October 20th – Wonderstruck (2017), directed by Todd Haynes

From Alissa Wilkinson at Vox:
“Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck is filmmaking par excellence and a great film for children to boot. Moving and innovatively told, it may even be too smart for some adults. Kids will get it just fine, though.

The film is based on Brian Selznick’s critically praised novel of the same name, about two deaf 12-year-olds living 50 years apart, in 1927 and 1977. Selznick both wrote the novel and drew its eerie black-and-white illustrations, giving the book an immersive quality that lets the reader sink deep into the story, and that is well-realized in Haynes’s adaptation. (Selznick is also responsible for the Caldecott-winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a similarly lush, immersive book that Martin Scorsese turned into the acclaimed 2011 film Hugo.)

Haynes’s previous films, like Carol and Far From Heaven, while certainly for adults, are deeply emotional and luminous — which makes him a surprisingly perfect fit for this material. Haynes is never afraid of plunging to the bottom of wells of emotions, and he does it so confidently that it never comes across saccharine or sentimental. He doesn’t make chilly, detached films.

Wonderstruck feels like a magical fairytale, though nothing about it is supernatural. Told partly in color and partly in black and white, the film contains long stretches that are virtually silent, with musical accompaniment (composed by Carter Burwell) that sometimes adds atmosphere, and sometimes punctuates what’s happening on screen, similar to how musical accompaniment worked during the silent-movie era.

The story is simple: Ben (Oakes Fegley) and Rose (Millicent Simmonds, who is actually deaf), having lost their mothers in different ways, set off to find the pieces they intuitively know their lives are missing. Even though their stories are set 50 years apart, their respective journeys lead them to the same place: the Museum of Natural History in New York, where they encounter collections of curiosities that contain unexpected revelations.”

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October 27th – The Square (2017), directed by Ruben Östlund

From Alissa Wilkinson at Vox:
The Square is loaded with ideas — maybe too loaded. It’s a little hard to know at times whether the film is sincerely trying to explore those ideas or make fun of the idea of trying, or maybe both. Every scene can be picked apart for what it says, or seems to want to say, about how humans relate to one another through speech, through art, through nonverbal communication, through tacitly agreed-upon social cues, through trust (or its lack). Civil society is but a thin veneer over a more animal reality, The Square seems to say, backing it up with an excruciating scene in which a performance artist (Terry Notary) breaks down the barriers between man and animal in a room full of black-tied cosmopolitans. The social contract is about a strong as a bit of thread.

That critique is extra barbed in the context of the sophisticated contemporary art world, with its finely tuned hierarchies and purposely walled-off institutions. The perverseness of a field that practically defines the idea of ‘elite’ yet also often tries to protest that it’s for everyone is the main locus of Östlund’s jabs, though he’s not really suggesting we ought to burn it all down. The Square, after all, premiered at Cannes — a festival literally closed to the public — and won the poshest of posh film prizes. It’s more of an inside ballgame, high art making cracks about high art and the people who make it and watch it, including everyone watching this movie.

But The Square doesn’t get so high on its own heady supply that it forgets to be funny. It is very funny, though often through a dark lens. When Anne confronts Christian about their night together, it’s in a gallery containing some kind of installation that appears to be a giant pile of chairs, which keeps rattling loudly and interrupting their conversation at a regular interval, and it’s exactly the dose of comedy that keeps the scene light. One moment, in which a chef hollers for a stampede of museum donors at a dinner to stop moving so he can meekly tell them the buffet’s offerings, is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a movie.

Ideas rule the day, though; every scene in The Square has an implicit idea about power dynamics and social norms, even the funny ones. (The odd effect is that The Square feels overstuffed, but it’s almost impossible to imagine what you’d take out — not, perhaps on purpose, unlike some big crowded art museums.) A scene in which a visiting artist (Dominic West) giving a talk is interrupted repeatedly by a man in the audience with Tourette’s syndrome, and the whole room struggles to figure out how exactly they’re supposed to react, plays as both satire and comedy — and we’re obviously meant to be laughing at the audience, not the man with Tourette’s. But we’re in the audience too. They’re not the only uncomfortable ones.”

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October 27th – Novitiate (2017), directed by Margaret Betts

From Kyle Smith at National Review:
“In an age of nonstop distraction, Novitiate has a mesmeric appeal. Despite the tightly circumscribed nature of life in the monastery by the harsh Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo) who tells the postulants (first stage of training) and novitiates (second stage) to consider her orders to be the word of God, we can sense what binds Cathleen to the vocation: the silence, the solitude, the solemnity. All of these things are even rarer as we watch the film today, which makes it that much more gripping. The Reverend Mother hasn’t left the monastery grounds in 40 years, and it’s impossible not to marvel at that level of dedication.

Cathleen’s poise is jolted by the arrival of a novitiate, Sister Emanuel (Rebecca Dayan) who transfers from another, less strict, order. ‘I thought it would be easier,’ she says, and the statement sounds bizarre. Easier? Here? Where the Reverend Mother is known to hand out ‘the discipline’ — a knotted rope — and order some charges to flog themselves with it? Later, though, Emanuel explains: Sometimes having more restrictions — fewer choices — can be ‘easier.’ The film, written and directed by Margaret Betts, links this attitude directly to the departure of tens of thousands of nuns after Vatican II. The Church’s decision to modernize may have inadvertently cost it dearly. For Cathleen and the others, there is an intense need for a very different and more rigorous lifestyle than obtains outside the walls of the cloister. Breaking down barriers in hopes of allowing more people in turned out to have the unintended consequence of ushering those within to leave. Theologian Sandra Schneiders has noted that ‘religious life could no longer be understood as an elite vocation to a ‘life of perfection’ that made its members superior to other Christians.’

You could hardly expect a film about nuns made in 2017 to be as positive a portrayal as The Nun’s Story, Fred Zinnemann’s 1959 film that starred a radiant Audrey Hepburn, but Novitiate mostly avoids the usual cheap shots that tend to characterize films about Catholic matters. The Reverend Mother, while a mostly nasty figure, isn’t just the cartoon villain you’d expect and is genuinely anguished by Vatican II’s edicts. To her, the pre-Vatican II Church is perfection itself. Her conversations with God reveal all the pain of someone whose foundations have been ripped out from beneath her. Leo has a tendency to lay it on thick (and was richly rewarded for it in, for instance, The Fighter, which won her an Oscar), but with momentary exceptions her depiction is controlled rather than overwrought. Despite her occasional histrionics, Novitiate is mostly an open-minded consideration of the devotion that makes some women choose a life of limits, as well as a useful illustration of why inherently conservative institutions are wise to be skeptical about change.”

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November 3rd – Lady Bird (2017), directed by Greta Gerwig

From Sheila O’Malley at Film Comment:
“Unlike many other coming-of-age tales, Greta Gerwig’s focus is not just on sexuality and romance. The central relationship in the film is the volatile one between Lady Bird and her mother. In the opening scene, the two of them listen to The Grapes of Wrath on tape in the car, weeping openly. Then an argument erupts, ended by Lady Bird throwing herself out of the moving car in order to get the last word. Metcalf and Ronan create a completely believable mother-daughter dynamic, where bickering over clothes-shopping morphs into monstrously personal arguments at the drop of a hat.

At 23 years old, Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird captures the knock-kneed pimply awkwardness of adolescence, the awful season right before blossoming. There are brief moments when she flares out into a startling beauty, a beauty of which Lady Bird is wholly unaware, and not at all in charge of. As she struts across the stage during her audition for the play, belting out a Sondheim song as though she’s Angela Lansbury, wearing flaming red lipstick, there’s a sudden glimpse of the woman she might become. But in the meantime, it’s all flailing arms, haphazard expressiveness, reaching for a persona that might fit.

As made clear by the film’s sharply poignant final sequence, Gerwig understands that one of the most important parts of growing up is learning to think about people other than yourself. After reading Lady Bird’s college application essay, the principal (Lois Smith) observes that her love of Sacramento came across loud and clear. Lady Bird responds that she wasn’t trying to express love: all she did was ‘pay attention.’ This is Gerwig’s gift as a writer and as a director. She knows that love and paying attention are essentially the same thing.”

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November 3rd – Thor: Ragnarok (2017), directed by Taika Waititi

From Alex Abad-Santos at Vox:
“Loss equals lessons in Thor-land, a theme so pronounced that it tends to drown out Thor’s status as a lightning bolt–hurling demigod who wields a magic twirling hammer in a world full of frost giants, rainbow bridges, and world-destroying robots. His movies have never suggested that anyone — the characters, the audience, the cast — should be having a particularly good time.

But the third film in the series, Thor: Ragnarok, completely changes that, flexing its self-awareness as the movie and its star laugh both at themselves and with their audience. It’s the first Thor movie that will make you want to see more Thor movies, because it’s the first Thor movie with an idea of what makes its titular hero worth rooting for.

Both of Marvel’s past Avengers films have scratched at the idea of Thor — their resident blond super deity — being the team lunk. Thor may be worthy of wielding the mythical Mjøllnir, they seemed to suggest, but he’s often as dumb as a box of his own hair …

There’s a keen realization of Thor’s ego in Ragnarok, as the film explores what happens to a man who’s been told he’s a god since the day he was born, and the alienation he can feel as a result. When someone is spoon-fed the myth of his own greatness daily, it’s only a matter of time before he starts believing it above all else. And somehow that’s even more tragic than Thor’s realization that everything he’s been told about himself may have been a lie.

By digging into these weightier character issues without skimping on the comic relief, Waititi’s topsy-turvy ride into Thor’s homeworld of Asgard and the discontents it holds yields the best Thor movie in the series so far, and arguably the funniest Marvel movie in the studio’s cinematic universe too (at least until the next Guardians of the Galaxy comes out). Ragnarok gives Hemsworth the chance to showcase his gifts as a physical comedian, making Thor feel more natural and human than he’s been in the past …”

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November 10th – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), directed by Martin McDonagh

From Alissa Wilkinson at Vox:
“Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) walks into the office of the local billboard company, and the babyfaced man in charge, Red (Caleb Landry Jones), is reading A Good Man Is Hard to Find, the story collection by mid-century Southern writer Flannery O’Connor. Mildred is there to rent space on three billboards on an isolated back road on the end of Ebbing, Missouri, a tiny town with a welcome sign that proclaims it to be ‘worth stopping for.’ Her intention: To shame the town’s police chief in 20-foot-high letters.

Unless I missed it, O’Connor doesn’t appear again in Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. But the book’s conspicuous placement in this scene is no accident: It works on several levels as a handy interpretive key. For one, ‘a good man is hard to find’ could have been the film’s working title. For another, O’Connor’s story is about a family that encounters a violent murderer, which is at least thematically related to the movie.

And in a broader, more compelling sense, Three Billboards feels like it could have sprung from O’Connor’s imagination. One of her most famous aphorisms — ‘the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it’ — is more or less the motto by which Mildred has chosen, or been driven, to live …

Like most playwrights, McDonagh excels at writing pithy and poignant lines that instantly round out his characters, often loaded with witticisms and profanities that sometimes verge on poetry. At other times, though, they feel like barbs and jabs; Ebbing, Missouri, is the kind of town where people sneer at ‘political correctness’ and still feel comfortable throwing around the term ‘midget’ to refer to a character played by Peter Dinklage. But it’s not backward. Mildred is perfectly comfortable dressing down a priest for his complicity in covering up child sex abuse in the church, or excoriating those who’d rather turn a blind eye to the sexism, racism, and general terribleness of the world around them.

And yet Ebbing feels insular, with its own wrongs that nobody quite knows how to right. It’s a place that feels like the world is passing by, and that is precisely what Mildred refuses to take sitting down …

Every performance in this movie acknowledges that while tragedy is what prompted the film’s events, its contours, characters, and conversations are pure, inky black comedy. Absurdity makes for good humor, and the screwed-up world in which these characters live is nothing if not absurd. Mildred isn’t going to take it sitting down, but by the end even she’s come around to the realization that sometimes there’s nothing to be done. The fixes for tragedies that we come up with as humans are woefully inadequate, to the point you can’t help but sit back and laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, and then try to muddle along somehow.

That sense of the world gives Three Billboards a distinctly O’Connorian cast. O’Connor came to her conclusions about the world’s absurdity — and about the possibility for what she called ‘moments of grace’ to break through in spite of human failing — by being a faithful practicing Catholic. For his part, McDonagh has talked about how his upbringing as an Irish Catholic shaped his view of the world, and his plays and films, especially his 2007 movie In Bruges, are suffused with a sensibility that’s just a couple ticks off O’Connor’s. (That’s also true in the work of his brother John Michael McDonagh, writer and director of Calvary.)”

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November 17th – Mudbound (2017), directed by Dee Rees

From Candice Frederick at Hello Beautiful:
“Set along an indistinct American South after World War II, the movie tells the story of a black family and a white family, whose disparate vantage points illuminate a racist society that has affected them both in deeply profound ways. They’re given equal agency and layers, and are written with the same level of compassion that seeps through each of the performances. So much so that the question is no longer about who is oppressed and who is the oppressor. It presents a more complex narrative that explores the effects of war across racial lines—through these two families whose steadfast hope is destroyed once they’re shown how little their world has changed when their loved ones return from battle and are unable to navigate the harsh realities they once could.

The story opens with the McAllan family, Laura (Carey Mulligan) and Henry (Jason Clarke), a young couple who have recently arrived from Memphis with dreams of more land and a better life for his growing family. But as soon as they get there, with his spiteful father Pappy (Jonathan Banks) in tow, both husband and wife learn that they haven’t moved any further away from struggle. They have to get the house out of the clutches of the swindler they bought it from; their once promising land is actually infertile; and Laura is stuck in a house with a dutiful yet loveless man and his oppressive father. They can only anticipate that the return of Henry’s brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), and the conclusion of the war, will help them realize a new reality for themselves.

Just miles down the road is the Jackson family, headed by Florence and Hap (Mary J. Blige and Rob Morgan). They’re sharecroppers on the McAllan land who become the white family’s natural default for any extra support they need—for the land or otherwise. Florence takes care of the little McAllan kids when they get whopping cough. Hap has to help out with labor on the land. And their young boys are often beckoned for additional sets of hands. But they have their own aspirations to consider, keeping a happy home in the midst of racial hierarchal, buying their own property, and paving the way for their children to have a freer life than they have. Inversely from the McAllans, their struggle is dictated by everything and everyone around them, and their home is filled with joy and the security of love. So when their oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) goes off to fight in the war, they are comforted by the hope they’ve instilled in his heart, and that he’ll come back to a more possible future for himself.

The core of the film is what happens when both men return home to a society that has remained remarkably stagnant, and try to navigate the overwhelming desire to be the face of change in a world that wants anything but. Rees, along with the heartbreaking performances of Hedlund and Mitchell, delivers a searing portrayal of post-traumatic stress in a society that failed (and still fails) to acknowledge. The sleepless nights, the alarming recognition that despite the lives they saw wasted on the battlefield—their own just merely escaping—they are still an N-word and a white drifter; a man who can’t even walk through the front door of an establishment without putting his life at risk and the other who tries to drink the memories of war out of his mind every day. Rarely in the black community do we see images of mental health, and even more rarely do we see it in male characters, who are more often portrayed like Hap—who’d rather walk around on a broken leg than have his wife take his place out in the field. It’s the film’s audacity to portray black male vulnerability especially in a historical context that admonished it which makes Mudbound that much more impactful. That and how director/co-writer Rees refuses to back down on present either family’s narrative as a deficit to the other—despite how easy it would have been to do so.

Compelling, heartbreaking, and bold, Mudbound is an absolute must-see.”

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November 17th – The Breadwinner (2017), directed by Nora Twomey

From Jeffrey Overstreet at Looking Closer:
“This movie invites us to see our Middle Eastern neighbors with our imaginations, and that experience can spark meaningful questions. It can reveal the ignorance at work in anti-Muslim propaganda. It might even cultivate understanding and empathy, and — perhaps (I’m dreaming big here) — inspire American viewers to question the wisdom of responding to Islamic extremism by bombing cities. It’s hard to shake the fact that one of the film’s most unnervingly realistic images depicts Northern Alliance warplanes screaming through the skies like dragons readying to incinerate Kabul. Nobody resembling Gal Gadot in body armor ever marches into Kabul to save the oppressed from America’s war on the ‘axis of evil.’

In bringing this story to the big screen, Cartoon Saloon sets a bar for courage, conscience, and conviction that rivals anything produced by Pixar, Laika, or Studio Ghibli. The filmmakers don’t prioritize bedazzlement (although they’re clearly capable of it) — there are no 3D or IMAX versions of this movie. And they don’t give in to the temptation to go for a crowdpleasing, feel-good conclusion. Twomey and company prefer to tell the truth — truth that can burn down walls of ignorance and help disrupt those ongoing cycles of violence and hatred within which we perpetuate the sufferings of so many children of God.

So, could we call this movie about Muslims persecuting Muslims…  a Christmas movie?

I think so. You won’t hear Jesus’ name spoken, but you will sense his call for us to love our neighbors who ‘beneath life’s crushing load’ (as the Christmas carol goes) are ‘bending low.’ Like the Nativity story, here’s another story of a young woman disrespected and hunted, desiring safety for her family, blessed by small acts of mercy, and hunted by predatory male authority figures. Like the Nativity story, this movie calls us to make room for vulnerable refugees and bring hope to neighbors who suffer under tyranny. And, like the Nativity story, The Breadwinner does not conclude neatly with a happily-ever-after, but rather with an affirmation of hope in the midst of ongoing chaos, bloodshed, and trouble.

Remember: Christmas doesn’t exist to comfort the comfortable, but to offer hope to the desperate, and to move the rest of us to follow God’s example in closing the distance between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ The Breadwinner is a movie that gives us an extraordinary occasion to care by paying attention. And, as we hear a kindly nun say in the movie Lady Bird, ‘Love is attention.’

This is the world that breaks God’s heart, that he so loved. The Breadwinner isn’t the Christmas story, but it is a story that reminds us why the world needs Christmas.”

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November 22nd – The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017), directed by Bharat Nalluri

 

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November 24th – Darkest Hour (2017), directed by Joe Wright

From Sasha Stone at The Wrap:
“Joe Wright’s stunning Darkest Hour is no ordinary biopic of Sir Winston Churchill. It is a vigorously directed, tightly paced war thriller with nothing less at stake than saving the world from Adolf Hitler.

Anchored by an exacting, measured but sweetly responsive lead performance by Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour … is the best of many great cinematic portraits of Churchill. There is no other way to watch Oldman than in near disbelief that anyone could bring Churchill back to life this convincingly. It will be difficult for any other actor to top Oldman this year.

The story will be familiar to some, especially to those who know World War II well or have read any Churchill biographies. The film opens with King George asking Churchill to take over the role of Prime Minister, since Neville Chamberlain is woefully ineffectual against Hitler, whose army is sweeping through Europe with alarming speed … A master of biting wit and blunt wisdom, Churchill is disliked by many in government for those very reasons. To some it seems he has all of the grace and elegance of a bulldog. He smokes, drinks, shouts – he is simply too much for many of the staid members of Parliament.

It’s surprising to see how many in the British government fought Churchill, or tried to moderate him, somehow thinking that Hitler was a man who could be dealt with reasonably. Our fascination and enduring admiration for Churchill is due mostly to his being the only prominent leader to draw an inflexible line against fascism. This film is about that line and its effectiveness …

This film is about a specific moment in time when events teetered on a precipice. The Allied path to victory was far from assured, so a large part of the strategy was to inspire a frightened and shaken nation to acquire the psychological temperament of winners. That was one Churchill’s most significant gifts, and was perhaps his most powerful tactic to combat Hitler. He needed to reach over the government and speak directly to the people.

He was resourceful, improvisational and absolutely unafraid of taking on the greatest menace the modern world has ever known. The world could use another Churchill right about now.

Joe Wright’s ambition here is remarkable. He hasn’t directed anything this vibrantly alive since Pride & Prejudice. The dynamism pulsing through Darkest Hour is surprising, since we might imagine a movie about Churchill’s speech-writing and strategizing to be slow and plodding. But in Wright’s hands it is anything but.”

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November 24th – Murder on the Orient Express (2017), directed by Kenneth Branagh

From Katie Walsh at the Tribune News Service:
“Agatha Christie’s 1934 mystery novel Murder on the Orient Express was memorably adapted to film in 1974, with Albert Finney playing the fastidious Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Now, Sir Kenneth Branagh slips into Poirot’s signature, splendid mustache in a star-studded, big-budget remake, which he also directs.

The way he tears into the performance, with an elegant vigor, it seems as though Branagh has been waiting his whole life to age into the role of Poirot, clearly relishing the blend of quirky meticulousness — one could call it obsessive-compulsiveness — and cheeky humor.

He runs away with the picture, both as star and director, with lavish production design and an intoxicating and dazzling display of cinematic style.

The murder mystery set aboard a train from Istanbul to Calais is the kind of old-fashioned romp we don’t often see anymore, executed with a thoroughly modern sense of verve and rhythm. An opening prologue set in Jerusalem concerning a missing religious relic shows us Poirot’s unique methods, laying out the spritely, agile pace and warm humor that pervades Poirot’s presence. Despite his dealings with dastardly doings, Poirot maintains a sense of dignity and cheer. He’s truly funny — this is a man who wears an elaborate sleeping mask on his mustache and giggles incessantly at Dickens — but takes crime very seriously …

The beginning is a rollicking ride that will likely leave audiences craving more Christie, and here’s hoping we do see Branagh return as Poirot — his rendition is too fun to be cut short.”

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November 24th – Coco (2017), directed by Adrian Molina & Lee Unkrich

From Drew Taylor at The Playlist:
“When it comes to Pixar Animation Studios, it’s not just enough for them to come up with charming, low-impact confections like this summer’s Cars 3; animation aficionados and casual viewers demand to be transported. And it’s true, the best Pixar films are the ones that whisk you away – to a romanticized Paris where food is the ultimate currency (Ratatouille) or onboard a planetary spaceship inhabited by personable robots (Wall-E) or inside the human mind (Inside Out). Thankfully, Coco, Pixar’s latest original work and one of their very best, truly does transport you. The results are magical and feel somewhat rebellious given the current political climate, which makes the film feel even more special …

One of the biggest surprises contained within Coco, and one that it’s okay to freely discuss, is how historically and culturally specific this movie is. There are whole swaths of dialogue in Spanish, sometimes without subtitles. Cultural and historical figures from Latin culture appear or are brought up; esoteric folkloric talismans become magical spirit guides (and major characters). It never feels, while you’re watching the film, like anything was watered down or simplified to appeal to a mass audience. Instead, it boldly revels in its very Mexican-ness.

And that’s part of what makes it so thrilling.

This is a movie that, while it was in production many years ago, feels like a bold opposition to what is going on politically and culturally right now. A foolhardy President who wants to build a wall between Mexico and the United States and who tweets out his appreciation for Hispanic culture by eating a taco salad is leading us. And it’s into this environment that Pixar, known for their peerless track record, unleashes a glorious celebration of all things Mexico, bolstered by the unstoppable might of the Walt Disney Company. Yes, it’s a big, populist piece of entertainment, beautifully told and sensationally rendered, but in the current political climate it feels like something more subversive and powerful.

Of course, the other thing that makes Coco such a kick to watch is how it looks. The artists and craftspeople at Pixar have always reveled in building these new worlds and it’s no different here. The Land of the Dead is a vast megalopolis; a colorful urban sprawl populated by skeletons that are decorated like sugar cookies and wear wigs to approximate their old selves. This isn’t some creepy underworld, but a vibrant, ramshackle world where alebrijes (brightly colored spirit animals) fly and race around and skeletal celebrities play giant concerts on the morning after Dia de Muertos. This being Pixar, there’s a story to everything you see, from the way that the houses are built into giant towers, starting with Mayan temples at the bottom and concluding with modern steel skyscrapers at the top, to the way that Miguel, after being trapped in the Land of the Dead, starts to disappear like Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future

If director Lee Unkrich and co-director Adrian Molina understand one thing, it’s that as amazing as the visuals can be, it doesn’t matter if you don’t feel anything. And, true to form, they come through in a big way. This is Pixar at its most nakedly emotional – not sentimental or saccharine – but heartfelt in a way that feels profoundly personal and also universal. They have dramatized an internal struggle faced by most families, blow it up to insane proportions, and then scaled it back to resonate in the most impactful way possible. In the past Pixar has found ways of making toys and fish and garbage robots bring tears to your eyes. Now they’ve done it with skeletons.”

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December 8th –I, Tonya (2017), directed by Craig Gillespie

From Jason Guerrasio at Business Insider:
“The dark, twisted, and hilarious look at the rise and fall of US Olympic figure-skater Tonya Harding had its world premiere at the fest on Friday, and with no distribution in place, the movie has buyers scrambling to nab it. Margot Robbie plays the disgraced skater in a performance that is the best of her career to this point.

Though Harding’s claim to fame should be as the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition, what she’s really known for is being the center of one of the biggest scandals in US sports history when her rival, US figure-skater Nancy Kerrigan, was attacked leading up to the 1994 Winter Olympics. Later on, it was discovered that Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, hired someone to assault Kerrigan …

There’s a lot to laugh about and get nostalgic over in I, Tonya, but at its core it’s a story about a woman who has been mentally and physically abused by everyone who has ever been in her life. By 15, Harding moves from the slaps and shoves of her mother to go live with Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and things don’t get better. He beats her constantly, which doesn’t stop Harding from marrying the guy.

Through all of this, Harding rises through the ranks of US figure-skating, and because of her ability to land the triple axel, becomes an elite skater. Which is even more remarkable in a sport like figure skating — where privilege and a wholesome image is a necessity — Harding did it all dirt poor and never making nice with anyone …

Robbie (who is also a producer on the movie) captures the rough Harding persona and delivers a performance which is at times heart-achingly real and at others masterfully comedic. From her hair to her loud outfits, Robbie is everything that made you love Harding if you lived through the time when she was one of the most recognizable people on the planet …

The movie has top notch make-up and costume design as it goes through the decades of Harding’s life and jumps forward to present day with the characters giving interviews looking back on the events. This style gives the movie one of its most memorable moments, when present day Harding looks into the camera and describes the pain she feels being the punching bag of the media and public. They being her latest abuser. And how this movie, and we the audience enjoying her messed up life, are now her current abuser.”

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December 8th –The Shape of Water (2017), directed by Guillermo del Toro

From Alissa Wilkinson at Vox:
“It can’t be an accident that The Story of Ruth is invoked in The Shape of Water, a film about the kind of love in which we both abandon ourselves and discover our true selves in the same moment. And del Toro imbues that idea with an additional insight: To love another, we have to learn to see the ways they’re different from us as well as the ways we’re profoundly the same …

The Shape of Water is a fairy tale for adults (and has the R rating to prove it), and there’s a good reason it’s for adults. Young children aren’t born with prejudice; they have to learn it, and they learn from watching their elders treating those who are different like they are less-than. What The Shape of Water has to teach, however subtly, is much needed in a prejudiced world. It paints borders rooted deep in the American soul — between countries, races, abilities, and desires — with compassion and gentleness.

The movie takes its name from Plato’s idea that in its purest form, water takes the shape of an icosahedron, a 20-sided polyhedron, evoking the idea that beauty, and humanity, has many faces. Like most fairy tales — which often involve glorious and beautiful beings who take on disguises to teach craven people a lesson — The Shape of Water is devoted to reminding us that everyone is beautiful, and that it’s those we cravenly consider maimed and strange and frightening who will inherit the earth.

Del Toro always renders his films’ social critiques in fantastical and imaginative images, and The Shape of Water is among his best, with a creature that’s both fully reptilian and strangely human, a black-and-white dream dance sequence, and underwater imagery that verges on the balletic. The color palette leans heavily on greens, ranging from muddy to emerald — I suspect partly because green is the color of the sea and partly because it’s the combination of two primary colors, yellow and blue. (In a terrific visual joke, Strickland buys a Cadillac that is teal, the ‘color of the future,’ and gets angry when people call it green.)

And those images and colors are brought to life with a perfect cast. As a seething, disintegrating force of pure ego, Shannon is the definition of scenery-chewing. Jenkins gives one of the most empathy-stirring performances I’ve seen in a long time. And you could be forgiven for forgetting that Hawkins barely utters a word throughout the whole film: Her eyes and face and gestures do the work of thousands of lines of dialogue.

Fairy tales have happy endings; in The Shape of Water, it’s a bit more bittersweet, a fantasy that strikes a note of hope, and suggests that real love means crossing the divides we erect between us and those different from us. ‘Where you go, I will go,’ Ruth tells Naomi. It is a difficult and beautiful dream — and del Toro makes it feel like just a bit less of a fantasy.”

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December 15th – Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), directed by Rian Johnson

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December 25th – Phantom Thread (2017), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

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December 29th – All the Money in the World (2017), directed by Ridley Scott

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No Release Date – A Gentle Creature (2017), directed by Sergei Loznitsa

From Justin Chang at the Los Angeles Times:
“The highs may not have been stratospheric this year, but there have been highs nonetheless. One of them, for me, is the Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa’s A Gentle Creature (Krotkoya), which is unequivocally one of the toughest, darkest and longest movies playing in competition. (Here I must correct an earlier post in which I misidentified The Square and 120 Beats Per Minute as the longest films in competition; at 143 minutes, A Gentle Creature belongs in their company.)

Inspired by (though not adapted from) the Dostoevsky short story of the same title, A Gentle Creature follows a stoic Russian woman (played with riveting impassivity by Vasilina Makovtseva) trying to get a care package to her convict husband after it is inexplicably returned to her. Rebuffed at her local post office, she decides to travel to the prison and deliver the parcel herself — a journey that will lead her through her a Kafka-esque bureaucratic nightmare and into the very heart of Putin’s Russia, a place where violent absurdity and everyday inhumanity reign.

Loznitsa, making his third appearance in the Cannes competition (after My Joy and In the Fog), uses richly textured visuals and sustained long shots to usher us alongside this ‘gentle creature’ down the rabbit-hole. That allusion comes from the story itself, whose surreal climax plays like something out of Alice in Wonderland, at least until — well, I’ll leave that horror for you to discover. A Gentle Creature is about as strange, perplexing and foreign an experience as any I’ve had at the Festival de Cannes, and the reasons that will limit its commercial viability are the very reasons that you should seek it out, if and when it arrives in your local art-house theater.”

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No Release Date – You Were Never Really Here (2017), directed by Lynne Ramsay

From Jonathan Romney at Sight and Sound:
“Whatever else you can say about You Were Never Really Here, it’s not the Lynne Ramsay film you might have been expecting. Exactly what one should expect from her is a moot point – her films to date have been very varied, stylistically and in theme, but they’ve always had a poetic sensibility, a contemplative delicacy beneath the often harsh realist surfaces. You Were Never Really Here is different, an exceptionally violent thriller that chooses to tell its hardboiled, even sordid story in predominantly visual terms, cutting dialogue to the bare minimum, so that it almost feels like a graphic novel for the screen. Given the fact that it was presented at Cannes without credits, and that the final film is expected to be at least a fine-tuned version, I’m hesitant to pronounce definitively on a film that’s sometimes perplexing, that in some ways seems both overstated and unresolved, but that, whichever way you cut it, is intensely cinematic, confrontational and intrepid.

Based on Jonathan Ames’s novel, the New York-set film centres on a lead performance by Joaquin Phoenix, heavily and scraggly bearded as loner Joe, a part for which he’s transformed his body – bulked up, shambling, carrying the weight of the world in every muscle. Its intense, telegraphically-edited opening sequence establishes Joe as a troubled man with a grim personal back story and a grimmer present occupation …

Without doubt, You Were Never Really Here is a bold piece of storytelling, with a dream-like feel that evokes its hellish, predominantly nocturnal world very compellingly. Phoenix gives one of his most troubling performances, lending his character derangement and a somewhat Depardieu-like physicality, and Jonny Greenwood’s score, alternating electronics and strings, is integral to the oppressive mood. Shot by Thomas Townend and edited by Joe Bini, the film reaches an apogee of telegraphic precision in the brutal climax.”

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