I couldn’t fully appreciate Elvis Presley’s music until I got a little older and developed the ability to compartmentalize two things: 1. Elvis was a generational talent with one of the silkiest voices in pop history, and 2. Elvis got famous by appropriating sounds from Black gospel and blues artists. So, when settling in to watch Baz Luhrmann’s much-hyped Elvis biopic, I was hoping for a fresh, nuanced perspective on this controversial, still-captivating icon. Here’s what I learned instead:
1. Colonel Tom Parker was Rumpelstiltskin
Ever fallen under the comforting spell of a great Tom Hanks performance, where his natural charisma, disarming humor and palpable vulnerability make you feel like you’re getting to know a real person? This is not one of those performances. For reasons I can’t fathom, Hanks portrays Elvis’s manager Col. Tom Parker with the mustache-twirling hamminess of a straight-to-video Disney villain, always lurking in the shadows and tittering demonically, gazing at Elvis (who he calls “my wiggling boy”) like Rumpelstiltskin stalking a first-born child. Even less defensible is the totally invented accent Hanks deploys, a cryptkeeper-meets-Goldmember cackle that gets really old, really fast.
2.Elvis Presley was Forrest Gump
Perhaps in part because he spends so much time showing Tom Parker peeking out from underneath the bleachers like a Southern-fried Pennywise, Baz Luhrmann tells Elvis’s story like a kid bullshitting a book report, cramming in only the most famous events of his life even though this movie runs well over two hours. So instead of seeing Elvis as an autonomous human being, we watch him get blown around the decades like a Gump-ian feather (do we need to see him reacting to every famous 1960s assassination?). As a result, the person who shaped 20th century culture as much as anyone ends up blurring into the background.
3. I killed Elvis
“I’ll tell you what killed him,” Col. Tom hisses at the camera toward the end of the film. “It was love. Love for all of you.” My reward for sitting through this coke-addled insult of a jukebox musical? Being accused of murder.
It’s unfair to expect a biopic to be both educational and entertaining. But Elvis is so disinterested in its subject that it doesn’t even bother to have a point of view about him. Luhrmann bends over backwards to avoid tackling Elvis’s complicated relationships with race, drugs, food, and his mother – not to mention his courting of a 14-year-old Priscilla when he was 24 – always whipping ahead to the next montage before we can start to ask questions. For this director’s purposes, Elvis Presley is a good-looking excuse for brighter lights, quicker cuts, and rhinestonier rhinestones. If anything, I left the theater feeling like I knew less.
Well well well, here we are again loyal readers (aka my wife – hi honey!). This Sunday is the 94th annual Academy Awards, where producers have decided to pre-tape the awards for Editing, Original Score, Production Design, Sound, Makeup and Hairstyling, Documentary Short, Live Action Short, and Animated Short. So it’s gonna be a tight 20 minutes – one monologue joke, Best Picture and the montage of everyone who croaked last year.
Seriously though, did the producers think the only thing keeping Gen Z from watching their 94-year-old program is their hatred of Documentary Shorts? This is the kind of thinking that results in Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble rapping about cereal. It’s a fragmented world, people. Stop trying to appeal to everyone and pay attention to weirdos like me, who enjoy the initial high of Best Supporting Actress being followed by an hour of speeches from people we’ve never heard of.
Oh who am I kidding? I’ll always watch this trainwreck. If only to use it as an excuse to share “My Best Pictures” with you all, every single year. (Thanks again for reading, angel.)
In the not-so-grand tradition of prank comedy, from Candid Camera to Punk’d to Nathan for You, the joke has typically been 100% on the victim – our prankster and their audience get to feel superior as some unwitting dope steps right into their trap. Bad Trip, the prank show/road movie experiment starring the gleefully chaotic comedian Eric André, successfully subverts this tradition. Given the thinnest of plotlines to get us from set piece to set piece, director Kitao Sakurai leans on the goofball charisma of his actors, making us feel invested in the preposterous misadventures of Chris (André), his best friend Bud (Lil Rel Howery) and Bud’s teardrop-tattooed jailbird sister Trina (Tiffany Haddish), even when they’re projectile vomiting or sticking their hands in blenders or ripping doors off police cars. Your mileage on gross-out humor may vary – one scene in a zoo crossed the line for me. But the beauty of Bad Trip is that even when these pranksters go too far, it’s with the goal of making themselves look stupid, and revealing the sweetness, bravery and charm of everyday people in the process.
Escape Room: Tournament of Champions
As a fan of puzzles, locked-room murder mysteries, and movies that utterly commit to a ridiculous premise, the second installment in the Escape Room franchise was readymade to be my favorite action movie of 2021. Returning director Adam Robitel builds on the lore he established in the first film, where we learned that a shadowy cabal was constructing elaborate escape room challenges with the intent of murdering each player. Not wasting too much time on exposition, Tournament of Champions immediately throws our hero Zoey (Taylor Russell, whose palpable expressions of fear make it harder for us to laugh at the premise) into another over-the-top obstacle course of death. The frying-pan-into-the-fire nature of the gimmick works even better this time, because the rooms are more imaginative – the bank lobby and seaside cabana sticking out most vividly in my mind. And the inevitable twist is both surprising and smart, tying the first two films together while fleshing out the universe in the process. Put this on in a locked room and I’ll be just fine.
The Green Knight
I watched The Green Knight in the most unforgiving way – on a red-eye flight with those complimentary headphones that never stay in my ears. I still felt transported. Because director David Lowery’s patient, dream-like adaptation of the 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is unlike any quest narrative I’ve ever seen. Sure, you’ve got your dashing heir to the throne (a fantastically expressive Dev Patel), on an epic journey to confront a magical creature. But it’s the creature – a Treebeard-looking, forest-dwelling enigma who calls himself The Green Knight – who represents nobility and honor. Patel’s Gawain, on the other hand, is foolhardy, gullible, and aimless – a man spoiled by privilege, lost in the wilderness yet not intelligent enough to respect it. As a visual spectacle alone, The Green Knight is its own form of poetry. But as an allegory for how so-called heroes can be unchivalrous to our planet, it packs more punch than a 747.
Ever since Robert Louis Stevenson dropped Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886, we’ve had more than our share of split personality thrillers. At first, Malignant feels like it could be just another decent addition to the genre, a sufficiently creepy story about a woman who keeps having visions of a shadowy killer murdering people from her past. Problem is, they’re not just visions. The more we learn about what’s really happening to Madison (Annabelle Wallis), the more unhinged, hysterical, and visually striking this big-budget B-movie becomes. In his first feature since helming the blockbuster Aquaman, 21st century horror auteur James Wan clearly relished the opportunity to go for broke with Akela Cooper’s script – a critical action sequence in a police station where our villain gets revealed is a skillfully directed, batshit insane moment for the ages. And Wan must have had some fun, because he’s already thinking about a sequel. Really! It’s not all in my head, I swear!
I’m not qualified to comment on whether or not director Rebecca Hall’s debut accurately portrays the intersectional dynamics of race, gender and sexuality in 1920s Harlem. So I’ll say this: Passing is a movie that lingers in your mind, in the same way it lingers on screen. This quiet, subtle character study depicts the accidental reunion of two Black women who were once childhood friends. Ruth Negga plays Clare, who has been “passing” as a white woman for years, marrying a blond banker (Alexander Skarsgard) who says the N word like it’s an article. Tessa Thompson plays Irene, who has achieved the American dream on the surface but gives pretty big hints that she’s also hiding something. Hall, adapting the 1929 Nella Larson novel, makes the smart decision of just letting these actors shine, utilizing recurring jazz piano licks, pitch-perfect period details (love that collapsible shot glass), and shimmering black and white to make their world feel real. Meanwhile, Negga and Thompson imbue every line with fascinating subtext, saying the things they can never say through glances, hushed compliments, and outstretched hands.
We think we know how this story is supposed to go. Nicolas Cage plays Robin Feld, a reserved, unkempt man living in the woods of Oregon. Some meth addicts beat Robin up and steal his prized truffle pig, who was his meal ticket and beloved companion. Hurt, angry, and absolutely certain he can rescue his porcine pal, Robin follows the scent to downtown Portland. This is where Pig zigs when it’s supposed to zag. Turns out Robin is not out for bloody revenge a la John Wick. And Cage never hams it up, playing Robin as a haunted, calming presence – even during a bare-knuckle boxing match in an underground tunnel. It’s a tremendous performance, an actor inhabiting a character who knows for a fact that his happiest days are behind him. A moving meditation on grief, sense memory, and the blessing of a fulfilling job, Pig leverages our expectations for revenge fantasies and Cage vehicles against us, slowly revealing Robin’s nature like a surprisingly robust four-course meal.
The Power of the Dog
There’s a moment in Jane Campion’s instant-classic cowboy picture The Power of the Dog that surprises our usually stoic and sarcastic main character Phil Burbank. When he asks Peter, his brother’s stepson, if he sees the same shape in the Montana mountains that Phil always has, Peter responds with the correct answer. Phil, played with sneering superiority by Benedict Cumberbatch, simply can’t believe it: “What the hell? You just saw that now?” Luckily for us, Campion doesn’t treat her audience like Phil treats Peter. She places an inordinate amount of faith in us to understand what we’re seeing, right up to an iconic final sequence that gives us just enough information to weave all the harrowing pieces together. In adapting Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, Campion scraps the internal monologues, challenging us to get to know characters who either don’t speak the truth or barely speak at all. And by contrasting a heartbreakingly romantic straight courtship with Phil’s embittered torch-carrying for the long-dead love of his life – a man called Bronco Henry – she makes all-too-relevant points about the damage we do when we shame human beings simply for who they love.
Summer of Soul
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s documentary Summer of Soul is a long-overdue introduction to a star-studded 1969 music festival (no, not that one). The Harlem Cultural Festival, held in what is now Marcus Garvey Park, had better performances than that future-Republican’s convention over at Yasgur’s farm, and also said more about the state of our country. Yet footage of this “Black Woodstock” sat in a basement for a half-century, a cultural casualty of systemic racism. Questlove does all he can to reverse this wrong, including contextual social commentary with clear analogues to problems we still face. Crowd reactions to the recent moon landing, for example, foresee a wealth gap problem that is still getting worse: “The cash they wasted getting to the moon could have been used to feed the poor Black people in Harlem and all over.” Mostly though, the music is the message – Steve Wonder playing drums like a possessed octopus; Mavis Staples being passed the mic by her hero Mahalia Jackson; Nina Simone debuting “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” singing it like the syllables are loaves and fishes. It’s the epitome of what a concert documentary can do, showing how these incredible performances impacted the lives of the people playing and watching. Now, finally, we can join them.
Honorable Mentions: The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It; Cruella; Dune; Julia; King Richard; Lamb; Plan B; The Tragedy of Macbeth
Like most people, I tried more new things in 2020 than I would’ve in a normal year. I didn’t learn to make sourdough or play a new instrument or anything constructive like that, but my wife and I did successfully create a valid alternative to the movie theater-going experience – an absolute must for people with Cinemagic loyalty cards faded from constant swiping. We invested in a projector and a great big screen, and screened our favorites in the backyard all summer long.
Looking back on the year in movies, I’m struck by the achievements of new directors, who ignored their expected career narrative and made fully realized cinematic statements right out the gate. When the 93rd Academy Awards kicks off on Sunday, it will be celebrating several instances of people trying something new – almost half of the Best Picture nominees came from first-time filmmakers.
My list of 2020’s Best Pictures has an even higher batting average – seven of the 10 movies below are debut features. Perhaps this is just a coincidence. But then again, as the world shifts into formations we would’ve found unthinkable two years ago, maybe there’s some science behind it. As humanity wrestles with grave new threats, we need new voices to give us hope for a future that, for all its challenges, won’t be lacking in stories that inspire us.
Here are my 10 favorite movies from the year we all tried something new.
First-time director Romola Garai helms this patiently gruesome horror-morality tale, where a troubled former soldier named Tomaz (Alec Secareanu) almost dies in a fire, only to be rescued by a kindly nun (Imelda Staunton, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye) who offers him an opportunity to get back on his feet – he can move into a place rent-free, as long as he helps a woman named Magda (Carla Juri) keep house while she cares for her sickly mother. Of course, this opportunity is too good to be true, but not in the way you might expect. Garai takes her time jumping between ominous flashbacks of Tomaz’s military past and prolonged shots of the stained, moldy structure he now calls home, begging the viewer to wonder what must be lingering in his memory and crawling behind those walls. All of this pent-up anxiety explodes in a scene that had me raising my hands to protect my face, my lizard brain temporarily forgetting that I was safe at home. This would be a feat on its own. But Garai has more monsters to unveil. And not all of them look scary at first.
This anti-colonialist gonzo Western pits the mysteriously disenfranchised residents of the titular Brazilian village – its water supply has been cut off, and it’s vanishing from GPS maps – against an enemy who would seem cartoonishly barbaric, if it wasn’t for all the clear parallels to white nationalists and the politicians who enable them. Directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles do an exquisite job of setting the stage, patiently introducing us to the colorful characters of Bacurau, who convene at the funeral of a town matriarch. While there is clearly something off about village life, we do get a look at what it might be like if allowed to proceed organically, its night air alive with music after another productive, sunny day. Once Udo Keir appears on screen, sporting that casually sadistic look he’s perfected over the decades, the body count rises and the action crescendoes to one final, immensely satisfying showdown. For fans of spaghetti Westerns, John Carpenter synth sounds, antiracist movements, and that battered old concept of justice.
In 50+ years of acting on screen, Anthony Hopkins has tackled his share of psychologically complicated roles, including a charming psychopath, an emotionally stunted butler, and a corrupt U.S. president. But none of these performances delved into the inner workings of the human mind as effectively as his work in The Father. The 83-year-old pours his entire self into the role of a proud, frustrated man who shares his name, depicting his struggle with dementia with fearless vulnerability. And he’s paired with a director who is equally bold. Florian Zeller adapts his stage play to the screen with great respect for the afflicted, so much so that the narrative isn’t built from the outside looking in. We see the world through Anthony’s eyes, and are as confused as he is when the story stops traveling down a linear path. Editor Yorgos Lamprinos builds sequences like unsolvable puzzle boxes, looping back to revisit scenes from different perspectives, utterly disorienting us. In the midst of it all, Zeller is able to convey the toll it takes on Anthony’s daughter and caretaker Anne, simply by casting Olivia Colman, who doesn’t need any dialogue to show us that she is on the brink of clinical exhaustion. Where typical Oscar-bait would be content with documenting all of this misery with a sense of remove, The Father asks for empathy. As we walk in the shoes of a former engineer who obsesses over watches as he loses track of time, a sad story evolves into a heartbreaking achievement of shared humanity.
I recently saw my first John Wayne movie, the gorgeously shot 1948 cattle-drive drama Red River. While it had some important things to say about masculine friendships, they were more of the “I’m not gonna say I love you even on my death bed” variety. Which left me wishing I was watching First Cow instead. Kelly Reichardt’s gold rush period piece charts the friendship of two characters who would have been Red River extras at best – Cookie, a soft-spoken Oregonian chef who gets bullied by fur trappers, and King-Lu, a quick-witted Chinese immigrant on the run after allegedly killing a Russian man. When Cookie stumbles across a naked and starving Lu in the woods, he clothes, feeds and hides him. It’s the opening salvo in a sweet, realistic depiction of male friendship, played with tenderness and verve by John Magaro and Orion Lee. The pair go into business together, selling Cookie’s mouthwatering “oily cakes” in town with promising results. Thing is, those cakes require milk, and the only source is a cow that was imported by the town’s richest man (Toby Jones, believably weird flexing). The scenes where Cookie milks the cow in the dead of night, whispering his gratitude to the animal as Lu sits up in a tree looking out for them both, are stunning tableaus of love and support.
The Forty-Year-Old Version
Radha Blank’s debut film is such a profound, hilarious achievement, it might make you wonder how on earth she hadn’t gotten the green light to make one before now. For the answer, all you have to do is watch. The writer, director and star plays a lightly fictionalized version of herself in The Forty-Year-Old Version, a slumping NYC playwright who pays her bills by teaching theatre to disinterested teens. She never stopped writing plays, but they’ve all been rejected by Broadway producers who are more interested in Harriet Tubman musicals and an “all-male Steel Magnolias.” Blank deftly pairs this push-pull between art and commerce with the warring priorities in her character’s psyche as she approaches middle age. She avoids calls from her brother so she doesn’t have to come to terms with their mother’s death. She fights with her manager/best friend, who is asking her to compromise. And she invents a new persona, the rapper RahdaMUS Prime, who finds a producer on Instagram and spends hours in his booth, spitting unfiltered rhymes about her reality. Shot in glorious black and white and edited in the rhythms of real life, The Forty-Year-Old Version is an engrossing character study, a biting satire of cultural appropriators, and an open-hearted ode to struggling artists everywhere.
Judas and the Black Messiah
In 2007, a movie called The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford received a pair of Oscar nominations, thanks to its luminous cinematography and understated performances. But in reality, Jesse James was the coward – a violent white supremacist who kept fighting for the Confederacy long after its defeat. In 2020, we got another period piece about betrayal, with a title that pits its two leads against one another. Except this time around, the historical figures are Black, and it’s the bravery that the history books have omitted. Judas and the Black Messiah depicts the rise of Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois Black Panther party in the late 1960s. Daniel Kaluuya plays the 21-year-old Hampton with the intensity of a comet, streaking down the streets of Chicago to summon people to his cause, aware he will be extinguished and all the more committed because of it. His Judas is FBI informant William O’Neal, who is bullied into divulging more than his conscience can handle. He’s played by Lakeith Stanfield, who makes us feel ulcers of guilt with his facial expressions alone. Director Shaka King and editor Kristan Sprague set a tone that is the anti-Jesse James, stuffing scenes with rapidly delivered soliloquies and infectious, kinetic motion. Making us believe that when an idea catches fire, no number of men with guns can truly kill it.
Promising Young Woman
Imagine a story where a male character gets his girlfriend drunk, brags “I could violate her 10 different ways if I wanted to,” and then hands her unconscious body over to his buddy with these skin-crawling instructions: “Have fun.” Sounds like a Law & Order: SVU villain who will surely get his comeuppance, right? Nope. This is a scene from Sixteen Candles, the 1984 John Hughes teen comedy that an entire generation saw as an ideal representation of romantic love. It is scenes like this that inspired the British actor Emerald Fennell to start writing what would become her directorial debut. Promising Young Woman wrests narrative control from men like Hughes, investigating the cascading traumas rapists inflict on their victims and the people who love them. Her hero is Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a woman seeking revenge for the rape and eventual death of her best friend Nina, feigning drunkenness in clubs as a way to shock and shame the men who inevitably try to take advantage of her – a steely-eyed nocturnal crusader doing more to protect women than Batman ever has. And the rapists aren’t the only villains to be exposed. Several characters, including so-called love interest Ryan (Bo Burnham), speak of Nina’s assault like it was an unpreventable, unprosecutable act of God, when her rapist is a guy named Al who is still out there, guiltlessly living his life. Both a deft genre experiment that absolutely skewers romantic comedy tropes and an unblinkingly brutal condemnation of rape culture, Promising Young Woman cuts any apologist off at the knees before they even have a chance to mewl, “not all men.”
To be raised Catholic is to learn to be suspicious of your own body. Lust and gluttony are deadly sins, and to atone for them you must pray to the mutilated man hanging on your wall. While Saint Maud isn’t the first film to explore the unhealthy nature of this divine celebration of violence – the prayer closet in Carrie featured a statue of a wild-eyed St. Sebastian, arrows sprouting out of him like eyes from rotten potatoes – it’s the first I’ve seen that never enters the supernatural realm, positioning the church’s demented morals as the worst kind of poison for its delusional, mentally ill protagonist. Maud is a mild-mannered-at-first hospice nurse sent to care for a once-famous dancer dying of cancer. Played by Morfydd Clark with the nervous energy of a wallflower about to step on the dance floor, Maud is clearly unstable from the start. Yet unlike Carrie White, Maud isn’t bullied or shamed. Her patient takes pity on her, indulging her flights of spiritual fancy. An old nursing colleague appears and offers kindness, even though she’s aware of some awful, shadowy thing from Maud’s past. Director Rose Glass depicts Maud’s mental breakdown with methodical inevitability, filling the screen with stunning, apocalyptic visuals that act as portals into her madness. She’s who Carrie would have been, if she believed every lie her mother told her.
Vampires vs. the Bronx
As a fantasy novel dork, I’m a sucker for stories that pit groups of kids against seemingly unstoppable forces of evil – because their ability to wholeheartedly believe in myths and legends ends up being the key to their triumph. And while Vampires vs. the Bronx is rooted in this tradition (Attack the Block, Stranger Things and The Monster Squad are clear forebears), director/writer Oz Rodriguez adds a layer of social commentary that gives these horror-comedy tropes a new lease on life. This is the story of Miguel Martinez (Jaden Michael), a boy whose passion for preserving his Bronx neighborhood has earned him the nickname “The Mayor.” As the shadowy Murnau Properties starts buying up buildings and turning them into hipster magnets, the stage is set for the showdown promised in the title. While the gentrification allegory isn’t subtle, Rodriguez’s experience as a director for Saturday Night Live gives the film a brisk, banter-heavy energy that makes sure we’re never being talked down to. He fills his streets with wise-cracking characters sitting on stoops and streaming live updates on their phones, successfully portraying the Bronx as a vibrant, diverse community being drained of its lifeblood by the pale, privileged classes. Kids have battled vampires on screen before, but the stakes have never been this real.
The Vast of Night
If you’re a director angling for a bigger budget these days, a word of advice – don’t let your producer see The Vast of Night. This exquisitely haunting sci-fi period piece features the kind of ambitious single-shot sequences, undulating cinematography and pitch-perfect period detail that can convert a viewer from a skeptic to someone who searches the night skies for odd clusters of light. And first-time filmmaker Andrew Patterson made it for just $700,000 (or .00196% of the budget of Avengers: Endgame). The story unfurls across a single evening in 1950s Cayuga, New Mexico. Fay (Sierra McCormick) and Everett (Jake Horowitz) are friends and fellow audiophiles who we meet killing time at a high school basketball game before their respective shifts start – Fay is a phone operator and Everett is a radio DJ. When Fay hears an odd noise interrupt Everett’s broadcast, and then overtake one of her phone lines, our heroes are in the thick of a mystery as American as Area 51. Patterson and cinematographer M. I. Littin-Menz make the most of their decision to shoot in black and white, thickening the shadows until it feels like anything could creep out of the murk. Yet The Vast of Night is not a horror movie. This is hopeful, character-driven, studio-nerd sci-fi – a loving homage to audio technology. If it can carry our voices through wires, and beautiful music through invisible airwaves, who’s to say what other miracles could be there waiting for us, just a twist of the dial away?
Honorable mentions: The Assistant; Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar; Becoming; Bill & Ted Face the Music; Borat Subsequent Moviefilm;Da 5 Bloods; The Empty Man; Happiest Season; His House; The Invisible Man; Mangrove; Minari; The Nest; Never Rarely Sometimes Always; Nomadland; Run
Before 2019, it was a sketchy proposition for a Very Important Filmmaker to Grapple with Their Own Mortality on screen. Because there are few people on earth as egomaniacal as a famous director having a midlife crisis. How can we expect them to resist the urge to wallow in their own pretentiousness? This is the urge that drove Stanley Kubrick to make Eyes Wide Shut, one last exercise in justifying his own perversions before his soul could be judged. The Tree of Life made us weigh the minutiae of Terence Malick’s childhood against the literal creation of the universe (I’m sorry that your dad was an asshole, but come on, dude).
But last year was different. It featured plenty of high-profile filmmakers tapping into that ol’ existential wrestling match, and at least three of them held their own egos in check, telling stories brimming with genuine, relatable pathos – along with all the tenderness and pain and humor and philosophical profundity that implies. Two of these, Martin Scorsese and Pedro Almodóvar, even racked up Oscar nominations. The third, David Milch, is a TV guy who used the unlikely return of his finest show to say something incredibly meaningful about endings.
So as we near the end of yet another Oscar season, praying to God that it doesn’t embarrass us too much (please Lord, don’t encourage the makers of Joker any further) and that the good art gets rewarded (Parasite, Antonio Banderas, Florence Pugh, The Lighthouse’s cinematographer), let’s focus on an unlikely, lovely fact – these 2019 films about old age and disease and death left me feeling especially alive, each in their own way. Now, without further ado, are My Best Pictures:
Deadwood: The Movie
Thirteen years after HBO unceremoniously cancelled his signature show – the curse-jar-shattering Shakespearean Western Deadwood – showrunner David Milch was finally granted the opportunity to give us all a sense of closure, in the form of one made-for-TV movie. And he did it in the midst of unimaginable personal turmoil, having been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a year earlier. Somehow, his script for Deadwood: The Movie packs a season’s worth of story into 120 minutes, without sacrificing the show’s penchant for loose banter and heavy soliloquy. A plot involving the return of the slathering wolf George Hearst, who discovers how he was hoodwinked a decade ago by our ragtag murderin’ pals, provides plenty of dramatic tension. But more importantly, it creates pockets of space for director Daniel Minahan to recreate the familiar, mud-smeared thrum of a town living on a knife’s edge. While giving almost every surviving cast member their own lovely curtain call. When Ian McShane delivers his final words as the abusive monster/loyal friend Al Swearengen, we get one last shot of profane, blasphemous poetry. And then it’s closing time, for good.
Just like a great drama has to offer more than just drama, a great concert film has to give us more than just music. And Homecoming, Beyoncé’s tour de force documentary about her instantly iconic 2018 Coachella performances, is one of the greatest accomplishments of the genre. Because this supremely motivated superstar approached the task of directing with as much tireless effort and conceptual flair as she applied to the stage show itself. As the first black woman to headline White Privilege Woodstock, Beyoncé embraced a theme of education, employing the marching bands and color schemes and resilient legacies of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, amplifying how rare it is to see unfiltered depictions of black culture on stages this large in America. Via a riveting series of cinema verité-style behind-the-scenes interludes, we get a real sense of how much work goes into a choreographed production of this size, of how easy it could be for its star to forget about cultural impact and just focus on the Herculean task of recovering from her pregnancy and hitting those umpteen-thousand cues. But her whole point of showing these rehearsals, of giving a voice to her dancers and drummers and designers, is to show us how hard her community works. So when we inevitably see this impossibly talented person singing about being crazy in love, while being surrounded by her artistic, cultural, and biological families, that love feels all-encompassing enough to shelter us all.
Like most mob movies, The Irishman is sprinkled with moments from the lives of practicing Roman Catholics – well-attended baptisms; ornate weddings; wrenched expressions of guilt; naked pleas for forgiveness. But the theology behind Martin Scorsese’s 26th feature is, if anything, more Buddhist. By following the corpse-strewn path of real-life hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro, speaking volumes with every wince) in minute detail, the director asks his audience to meditate on the long-term damage of each heinous act. To consider the metric ton of bad karma slowly being amassed. And to consider, silently and unblinkingly, the wretchedness it causes. Sheeran’s hits aren’t captured with elegant tracking shots – they’re abrupt and impersonal, a decidedly inhumane transaction. Obituaries of random characters pop up from time to time, blunting any swagger they might have in that moment with the fact of their grisly demise. What little romanticization there is comes from Steven Zaillian’s crackling script, which makes these criminals much funnier than they likely were. Coming from the likes of De Niro and Pesci and Keitel, this dialogue, along with the walking-and-talking Chekov’s gun that is Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, spittin’ mad), kept me rapt past hour three. Just in time for Scorsese to show us what comes of all that greed and political maneuvering and emotionally barren tough-guy bullshit. It sure as hell isn’t nirvana.
When my wife and I moved in together, it was into a studio apartment that would’ve been cramped for one person. The “bedroom” was a ladder to a wooden pallet installed a foot below the living room ceiling. The shower was like a leaky coffin. There were rats, and those rats had fleas. In case I ever forget how lucky I am to have found someone who could live in such a shitholewith me without killing me, I will watch The Lighthouse and let the waves of gratitude pour over me. Robert Eggers’s ominous, patient, quite-funny masterpiece of psychological horror shows us what happens when two incompatible people get thrown into close quarters with no chance of escape. When Ephraim (a briskly mustachioed Robert Pattinson) lands on an isolated New England island to work as an assistant to the head lighthouse keeper (Willem Dafoe, a bug-eyed, farting Lear with a beard like a cartoon lion), they pass the time by getting plastered, telling stories, and generally trying their hardest to manage how annoyed they are. When it becomes clear that their scheduled transport off the island is not arriving anytime soon, things get a whole lot weirder. The actors both do some incredible work depicting how need can so easily turn to resentment, which slowly pickles into rage. Often, it’s unclear if they are going to kiss or kill one another. By the end, they’ve broken all kinds of leases, including the one so cruelly granted to them by God.
Pain & Glory
I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a more moving encapsulation of the relationship between pain and religion than this line from Pain & Glory, Pedro Almodóvar’s nostalgic, bittersweet, overwhelming visual feast of an autobiography: “The nights that coincide several pains, those nights I believe in God, and I pray to him,” shares Almodóvar stand-in Salvador Mallo (played with electrifying vulnerability by Antonio Banderas). “The days when I only suffer a type of pain – I’m an atheist.” The film follows Mallo around Spain as he reconnects with old colleagues and lovers, his nostalgia receptors sparked by a local revival of one of his earliest feature films. Reminiscing all the while about his complicated relationship with his mother – the person he worshipped as a child, whose stubborn homophobia caused him great pain as an adult – Mallo feels finished, a husk of what he once was, assaulted from all sides by headaches and back pain and choking fits. Even at his lowest, Almodóvar can’t help but make every shot feel like a painting that would change your life if you stumbled across it in a gallery window – everything from Mallo’s kitchen cabinets to the color palette of his nightly pills feels injected with the luminescence of an endangered sea creature. By the end, our hero is writing again. He doesn’t know if this new work is going to be a comedy or a drama. He only knows that it’s alive.
Usually, when something is deemed to be “too on the nose,” that’s a diss. A criticism of a pedantic piece of art that doesn’t trust its audience to get the point. But when I say that Bong Joon-ho’s dark comedy Parasite is on the nose, it’s a compliment. I’m not sure what the income inequality problem is like in Bong’s native Korea, but America was in desperate need of a whip-smart story about the ever-growing chasm between the rich and the poor, full of metaphors that hit us over the goddamn head. Parasite follows a poor family of four who lives in a basement apartment – huddled together watching drunks piss in an alley like it’s an FDR fireside chat. When they get a once-in-a-lifetime chance to infiltrate the gorgeously outfitted confines of a wealthy household, their hopes are sparked, and their fates are sealed. The instant-classic scene of the son and daughter (Choi Woo-shik and Park So-dam, witheringly sarcastic) practicing their fake art teacher backstory establishes the first half of the film as a class caper that hits that age-old snobs-vs-slobs pleasure center. But the family didn’t really have an exit strategy, and unfair class systems are constructed to destroy those who try to climb too high. So as Parasite transitions into the horror movie it was pretending not to be, and our smiles curdle into grimaces, we realize that we’re witnessing a brutally efficient takedown of the American dream. One that’s so on the nose, we have to breathe through our mouths.
“It’s us.” Of all the indelible one-liners in the history of horror, this might be the most economical. Because when you take away all the clever flourishes and dynamic performances from Jordan Peele’s second feature, what’s left is a multi-layered metaphor anchored in a stark, preternatural fear – that, unlike what so many well-meaning parents and teachers have told us, we’re not special. Us pits the Wilson family, led by matriarch/superhero Adelaide (Lupita Nyang’o, Best Actress), against their own bloodthirsty doppelgangers, clad in red jumpsuits and wielding beautiful vintage scissors. As Adelaide discovers the origins of this mysterious legion of doubles, and does the math to connect them with a certain House of Mirrors-related childhood trauma, Peele’s ultimate points also emerge, fully formed. We might not be able to see the strings, but the haves and have-nots of our society are inexorably connected. When a smirking California doofus “earns” enough money to buy a hideous modern home with a boat out front, there is an equal and opposite impact on the guy who works at the factory that processes marine supplies. That doofus may think they live in different worlds. But no. It’s us.
Honorable Mentions: Annabelle Comes Home; Escape Room; Glass; The Great Hack; Happy Death Day 2U; I Lost My Body; The Intruder; Jojo Rabbit; The Last Black Man in San Francisco; Little Monsters; Little Women; The Nightingale; Ready or Not
There are a few movie genres that I will obsessively support, despite their poor batting averages. #1 on the list is horror – I watch at least one terrible haunted house/slasher/zombie/demonic doll picture per week, as part of a perpetual quest for that transcendently good scare. So why not put that wasted time to good use? Why not warn you, loyal reader, to not go down into that dark, musty basement … and watch The Prodigy?
Chump Scare #1: Ma (2019)
A promising premise – a middle-aged black woman (Octavia Spencer, too good for this shit) opens up her basement so a bunch of privileged white teens can get their drink on – is ruined by the warped priorities of its filmmakers. Writer/director Tate Taylor rushes through every disturbing revelation about “Ma,” despite the fact that a) her motivation is the engine of the whole story; b) every other character here is Saltine-bland; and c) the struggles of a woman of color do not exactly lend themselves to the 30 Rock smash-cut treatment. Taylor spends significantly more time outlining the mother-daughter dynamic between Boring Teen #1 (Diana Silvers, sleepwalking) and her single mom (hey, it’s Juliette Lewis!). It would be offensive if it wasn’t so bafflingly stupid. This is where I mention that Taylor directed The Help, and admit it’s my fault for expecting more.
Chump Scare #2: The Prodigy (2019)
Where to start with The Prodigy? How about the description from the Netflix DVD slipcase: “In her much-anticipated foray into the horror-thriller genre, Taylor Schilling stars…” Like you, I’ve been on pins and needles for years, waiting for the perfectly okay actor Taylor Schilling to leave prison dramedy behind and FINALLY make a goddamn horror movie. And, dear reader, our thoughts and prayers have paid off. Schilling stars in The Prodigy – a done-to-death possessed-kid story full of borrowed ideas from classics like The Omen and The Babadook, and crappier forebears like Audrey Rose. The more her son starts to act like the Hungarian serial killer who has taken up residence in his body (He asks for paprika at dinner! Spooooooky!), the more Schilling … doesn’t change. Maybe I missed a scene that showed her character popping opioids, but she is inexplicably chill for what felt like an interminable 92 minutes. I’d rather listen to Prodigy than see this one again.
Chump Scare #3: Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (2018)
As someone who grew up watching the charmingly cheap, straight-to-VHS Puppet Master movies, as marathoned on TNT’s Monstervision, I was initially excited at the prospect of a self-aware reboot. Something that retained the campy flair of the originals and added some winking, fan-service humor. But even though it has the dependably hilarious Thomas Lennon in its lead role, The Littlest Reich doesn’t offer much in the way of either. Lennon’s mopey comic book store employee is there as a stand-in for the aging nerds of the film’s target audience, so he gets a half-baked, sure-to-be-murdered love interest and whisks her off to a Comic-Con-style event for collectors of dolls designed by a Nazi puppeteer. These Nazi demon puppets then start killing minorities, because they’re Nazis. This feels wrong for obvious reasons. But even more so in the context of this universe. The puppeteer from the original films, André Toulon, was an enemy of the Third Reich who infused his puppets with the souls of friends who died in the struggle. Which made it feel pretty good to root for those bloodthirsty marionettes back in the day. I have no clue what made these filmmakers think we’d want to cheer on some Nazis this time instead. There are most definitely not good puppets on both sides.
Here we are again, dear reader. Another Oscars is upon us. And you know what that means – I’m gonna nominate my own best pictures. Even though I’m a music critic. And even though I own the expanded editions of the Hobbit trilogy on Blu-Ray (there are two really good movies hidden in there!). Why? Because these eight films got to me in 2018, and I would like to share those feelings. What, you’re against SHARING now?
The envelope, please…
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Coen Brothers had been off their game this decade, mythologizing subjects that had already been beaten to death on film – e.g. white guys with guitars; the golden age of Hollywood. So the first time somebody is literally beaten to death in their existential Western anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, it’s like welcoming home a nihilistic, hilarious old friend. 22 years after Fargo, these brothers are still unbelievably good at wringing poignancy from the casual depravity of human beings. Staring into the void like a grizzled old prospector, searching for gold.
Within the boundaries of a small narrative window – the last three days of an Oakland man’s probation – Carlos López Estrada’s debut feature tackles issues of racism, police brutality, gentrification, corporate branding, gun control, and cultural appropriation. And it does so with a mixture of humor and high theater that underlines how little things have changed since the 1989 release of one of its clear inspirations, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Daveed Diggs plays the mild-mannered Collin, a black man who works for a moving company with his white, hot-headed friend Miles (Rafael Casal). Their interplay, written by Diggs and Casal themselves, undulates between tension and release, hard-won bonds and deep-seated divisions. In other words, it’s American.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
In the most prominent antihero narratives of this century, we were given permission to cheer on the acts of violent men, thanks to contrived character devices – they need therapy; they have a disease; they only hurt bad people. Marielle Heller’s film Can You Ever Forgive Me? lets us root for a rule-breaker too, but this time it’s a real person, with nuanced motives, who isn’t hurting anyone but themselves. Melissa McCarthy gives a brilliantly layered performance as Lee Israel, the down-on-her-luck biographer who got busted for selling forged letters from literary greats in the early 1990s. As Heller shows how much the cards were stacked against a middle-aged lesbian writing about what interested her, McCarthy lets us feel the depth of Lee’s frustration, as much through humor as anything – her wit is so sharp, it hurts.
With The Endless, filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead prove it’s possible to make a low-budget, high-concept sci-fi original that’s way better than a SyFy Original. And they do so by turning their limitations into assets. Because it was cheaper, they cast themselves as the leads – two brothers who decide to go back and visit the bizarre sky-worshipping cult where they were raised. They’re convincing as people trapped in an impossible situation, probably because they really felt that way. They successfully build a compelling, creepy atmosphere, using little more than intimations and clues –getting more scares from a scene with a rope than 1,000 CGI zombies. And the unexpectedly moving moral they lay on us, about the value of communicating with the ones you love? Priceless.
Films about British monarchs are always Oscar favorites. But Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest makes The King’s Speech look like a box of stale crisps. It’s 1708, and Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, who should win everything) is in ill health, relying more and more on her friend, political advisor and lover, Sarah the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz, not fucking around). When Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone, convincingly conniving) arrives at court looking for work, the film becomes a no-holds-barred power struggle between the three women. Full of blood and dirt and shit-talk and hilarious parodies of cotillion dances, The Favourite almost feels like a spoof of prestige palace intrigue dramas. But the acting is too damn good for that. When we see the ache in Colman’s eyes as she explains why she owns 17 rabbits, we see human need. And the understanding that there will always be people lining up outside her chambers, waiting for their chance to exploit it.
When I reviewed The Shining as part of my ongoing series about Stephen King, I was struck by something the novel did better than the movie – explore how horrifying the idea of heredity can be. In 2018, first-time director Ari Aster came along and picked up those threads that Stanley Kubrick ignored. Hereditary is an intense, visionary horror story about a family with inescapable darkness in its DNA. Anchored by a riveting performance from Toni Collette, who plays a mother torn apart by grief and haunted by ancestral evil, Aster is free to absolutely drench his movie in dread. Small things like candy bars, doormats and clucking noises become unforgettably corrupted. Even scenes that happen in broad daylight are not reprieves. And why would they be, when the call is coming from inside your genes?
As a fan of Clive Barker, Ash Williams, and the most committed actor on the planet – Nicolas Cage – I probably would have enjoyed Mandy even if it was directed by some hack. But filmmaker Panos Cosmatos has made a psychedelic horror revenge spectacle, alive with mesmerizing, satanic-Lisa-Frank energy. In just one early scene where Red (Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) are lying in bed, talking about their favorite planets, Cosmatos wholeheartedly establishes their deep, quiet love. So when disaster strikes at the hands of a druggy, demon-summoning cult, the stakes are real. The ensuing long take of Cage crying in his underwear is probably what Mandy is most famous for – but it’s not a moment to rubberneck at weird ol’ Nic. It’s genuinely heartbreaking. As Red sets out for revenge on humans and hellspawn alike, we get a full hour of the best kind of B-movie thrills, elevated by A+ artistry.
Support the Girls
Support the Girls may be officially categorized as a workplace comedy, but make no mistake – this is a superhero movie. Over the course of one workday as the manager of Double Whammies, a locally owned “breastaurant” mired in a thicket of Texas highways, we follow the unflinchingly optimistic Lisa Conroy (Regina Hall, nominated for Best Actress in an alternate dimension more just than our own), as she deals with one shitty situation after another – an attempted robbery, a cable outage, a racist boss, an alienated husband, a staff under constant threat of harassment. Writer/director Andrew Bujalski establishes a heartbreaking pattern: Lisa puts love out into the world, then the world throws it back in her face with onion-ring-slurping indifference. Each time, Hall’s smile slips just a little bit more. Until eventually, it’s Lisa’s turn to be supported. In the final scene, women that Lisa loved and protected help her process her outrage. Standing side by side, on a roof, as forces for good.
Honorable Mentions: Apostle, Black Panther, Breaking In, Chappaquiddick, Crazy Rich Asians, Eighth Grade, Ghost Stories, Halloween, Minding the Gap, Mom and Dad, Proud Mary, A Quiet Place,Shirkers, Sorry to Bother You, Suspiria, Unsane
As a part of my yearly compulsion to watch as many Oscar-nominated movies as possible, my Januaries and Februaries are jam-packed with biopics, melodramas, and movies about how magical movies are. As part of this year’s neurotic box-checking, I held my breath and pressed play on A Star Is Born, a straightforward story about a woman getting famous and dealing with a jealous-ass dude. If it sounds familiar, that’s probably because this version is the third reboot of the 1937 original. Why did director and star Bradley Cooper feel compelled to revisit this well-tread ground? Because Oscar voters adore well-tread ground. (And because he’s into Eddie Vedder cosplay.) Here’s what else this perfectly mediocre prestige picture has taught me:
1. Women can’t succeed until a man tells them they look pretty.
Our movie begins with Bradley Cooper’s booze-soaked rock star character, Jackson Maine (ugh), telling his driver to drop him off at the nearest bar, which happens to be a drag club. The drag queens give some precious stage time to their friend Ally (Gaga), who does a spirited sendup of “La Vie En Rose” that showcases her obvious talent. Maine invites Ally out for a drink after. And over the course of their rambling first date, she reveals that she’s never believed in herself because of insecurities about her looks. She’s resigned to a life working as a caterer with her Gay Best Friend™ and living with her dad. But then, Maine tells her she’s pretty. A few months later, she’s a star.
2. Male mumbling = Oscar gold
It seems weird at first when we hear Maine speak – Cooper gives him a deep, mushmouthed drawl, whether he’s drunk or sober. But Oscar voters love men who can’t enunciate! Jeff Bridges won Best Actor for playing a muttering country singer in the forgettable Crazy Heart. Billy Bob Thornton (deservedly) won Best Adapted Screenplay for his iconic caption-needer Sling Blade. Matthew McConaughey’s entire existence is one long mumble, and he won Best Actor for the pretty damn offensive Dallas Buyers Club. If Cooper wins this year, expect even more serious actors to start delivering lines like a sleepy hobo.
3. “If you don’t dig deep into your soul, you won’t have legs.”
I don’t know if I can claim to have learned this, because I have no idea what it means.
4. Southern rock is “real music.”
One of the most fantastical parts of this sweeping Hollywood romance is that a passable Southern rock performer would be not only a massive, universally recognized star, but a star-maker to boot, in 2018. I can suspend disbelief on this – he’s got great hair, and Blake Shelton does exist. But I can’t abide the movie’s weird obsession with romanticizing Maine’s musty genre. When Ally starts making pop music, it’s portrayed as a betrayal of Jackson’s gritty artistic ethos. As if music with guitars is somehow more meaningful. As if the actor playing Ally isn’t living proof that dance music inspires millions. Jackson Maine is an old crank muttering “disco sucks,” and the movie doesn’t have the decency to mock him for it.
5. Plot holes? Paper-thin characters? La-la-la I can’t hear you!!!
Way too much of A Star Is Born’s running time is devoted to Jackson & Ally performing. And that’s by design – much like fellow Best Picture nominee Bohemian Rhapsody, this glut of concert/studio/rehearsal footage works to distract us from the underdeveloped main characters. Jackson & Ally’s relationship is pretty much a tire fire from the beginning, her love being no match for his alcoholism, unresolved anger toward his father, and out-of-control jealousy. But we only get an occasional glance at this dynamic, in between extended music videos of the film’s sturdy-enough original songs. So when the movie (82-year-old spoilers ahead) takes a dark final turn, it feels completely unearned. Not that I’m complaining – I needed those musical distractions to get me through. In fact, let’s insert Lady Gaga and Freddie Mercury performances into every misguided modern drama! Just imagine if Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri spent less time trying to get us to empathize with a racist cop, and cut to a vintage performance of “Somebody to Love” instead.
Hello, Oscar junkies! We’re only two days away from that global TV event that’s just like the Super Bowl, except you watch what’s in between the commercials instead! Usually this is the place where I bemoan the bland/whitewashed/Hollywood-worshipping nature of the odds-on favorite. But I have some reasons to be hopeful this year, and goddammit I’m gonna make the most of it.
Reason #1: Upsets are a thing now
For two years running, the expected winner has lost. Spotlight beat out The Revenant in 2016, and last year, Moonlight upset La La Land.
Reason #2: Celebrating diversity in Hollywood is kinda sorta starting to become a thing now
It would be ignorant to expect Academy voters to be seriously swayed by the #TimesUp, #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements. One Moonlight nod does not erase 89 years of American Beautys. But notions of equal representation in film have never been so prominent. An optimist could assume that in this revolutionary new context, one might think twice about voting for Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, the movie version of every think piece that told us we need to empathize with blue-collar Trump voters.
Reason #3: Reasons to have Oscar optimism don’t come along every day.
I’m still smarting from Crash beating Brokeback Mountain over here. So let me have my moment and predict a win for Get Out, the most relevant, intensely entertaining movie I saw in 2017. I really think it will happen! What the hell is wrong with me?
While I’m surfing this newfound wave of Oscars optimism (a.k.a. “riding the golden man”), why not talk about the movies that I’d nominate for Best Picture? Here’s the list, in alphabetical order:
Call Me By Your Name
Call Me By Your Name looks like how falling in love feels. Luca Guadagino’s sumptuous coming-of-age story wrenches every drop of chlorophyll out of its Italian countryside setting. As our main character Elio finds strength, encouragement, and exhilarating joy in his budding relationship with his father’s assistant Oliver, Guadagino fills our eyes with lush vegetation, fresh water and bountiful fruit. Their happiness is palpable, and Elio’s father notices. And what he eventually tells his son is a lesson in how all such love should be treated – as a precious resource, given all the freedom in the world to grow.
A Dark Song
This slow-burn Irish horror film is like its protagonist Sophia – determined, patient, and in search of something extraordinary. Writer/director Liam Gavin spends a majority of his first feature letting us wonder about the schlubby occultist hired by Sophia to summon her guardian angel, using a real-life ritual called the Abramelin Operation. Is it all for real? Or is he just some creep? When we finally get our answer, so does Sophia, who rises like a phoenix from her grief, surrounded by a level of visual splendor that must’ve taken a lot of willpower to save for the end.
Every horror fan has found themselves urging a character to leave the dark basement/ancient burial ground/abandoned mental hospital they’re bravely wandering around in. In Jordan Peele’s prescient “social thriller” Get Out, that dangerous, haunted place is America. It’s the story of Chris, a black man meeting his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time. What happens on this family’s finely manicured home turf is a terrifying, crystal clear allegory for our country’s twisted obsession with the cultural and physical appropriation of an entire race. In this idyllic little hamlet, there are most definitely not very good people on both sides.
Happy Death Day
“What if Groundhog Day was a slasher movie?” sounds like one lazy-ass pitch. But that perfectly describes Happy Death Day, which turned out to bea clever rumination on the weight of social pressure on young people. As our main character Tree finds herself in a time loop that always ends in murder, she gains more self-confidence with each repeated day. She’s more true to herself in public; she takes time to process her grief; she investigates, and successfully unmasks, her murderer. Refreshingly unpredictable, empathetic and self-aware, this is something I’d happily experience again. And again.
John Wick: Chapter 2
Gone are the days of Commando, where the relationship between John Matrix and his daughter is established by the end of the opening credits, leaving as much time as possible for quippy, campy carnage. But the second installment of the John Wick series contains some echoes of that 1980sno-nonsense muscle. Keanu Reeves returns as the titular grieving husband and dog lover, and it only takes a few minutes for him to be on the run from hundreds of highly trained, heavily armed vigilantes. It’s one extended action sequence after another, blocked with the style and precision of ballet – bodies undulating through space, armories akimbo.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Director Yorgos Lanthimos makes this list for the second year running, with this deeply disturbing tale of a troubled teen leveraging a doctor’s warped priorities to wreak havoc on his family. Lanthimos’s characters all talk in stilted, disinterested monotones, resulting in a funhouse mirror abstraction of suburban life that shifts from awkwardly hilarious to intensely chilling as the film unfolds. Barry Keoghan gives an unforgettable performance as the vengeful, blackmailing, child-poisoning Martin. Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman relish their chance to play Martin’s socially stunted victims. By the end, the story gets as dark as anything I saw in 2017, without ever striking a tone that wasn’t completely its own.
The main character of Paul Thomas Anderson’s intoxicating eighth feature is Reynolds Woodcock, the head of a couture fashion house in 1950s London. Or at least, that’s how most people see him. Until he meets a waitress in a country pub named Alma, who sees him entirely. There’s a reason why a central crisis in Phantom Thread involves a wedding dress. It’s a story about marriage, and the very specific kinds of human synergy that make the the most successful ones work. Anderson gives Alma and Reynolds a push-pull narrative that reaches a level of intensity others could see as grounds for divorce. But for this particular husband and wife, there couldn’t be anything more nourishing.
La La Land, a movie about a loveless couple that argues about jazz, garnered 14 Oscar nominations this year, tied for the most ever. Which isn’t all that surprising, because Damien Chazelle’s meta-retro-musical checks many of the boxes of recent overrated Oscar winners: It’s an homage to a classic genre like The Artist. Like Birdman, its lead male character finds solace in a more “legitimate” art form. Like Argo, it celebrates people who turn to Hollywood during a crisis. But La La Land falls even flatter than those flawed examples, not to mentionthe last movie to rack up 14 nominations, Titanic. BecauseChazelle doesn’t spend any creative energy establishing a rapport between his romantic leads. He doesn’t give us one semblance of a reason why they’re falling in love. Instead, we’re just supposed to be swept away by scenes of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone literally floating in space. These aren’t people. They’re just stars.
“But Sweensryche, what if it was up to you? What would you nominate for Best Picture instead of La La Land?” asked nobody. Well, nobody, here’s your answer. I’m truly flattered by your interest!
Ava Duvernay’s documentary about the mass incarceration of African-Americans is remarkable not only for the institutionalized racism and lobbyist corruption it unveils, but the way it untangles it all into a crisp and linear narrative that people of all ages can understand.
Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie
It is downright amazing, sweetie darling, what Jennifer Saunders has pulled off – the idealfilm version of her fashion-industry-slapstick BBC series Absolutely Fabulous, which debuted in 1992. Eddie and Patsy are on the lam for potentially drowning Kate Moss, and they’re as selfish and preposterous and there for each other as ever before.
This quiet, considerate biopic of Sarasota TV journalist Christine Chubbuck – who committed suicide during a live broadcast in 1974 – succeeds by valuing human interest over violence. Rebecca Hall portrays Chubbuck as a driven professional in a field that prefers sensationalism and men with “fatherly presences.” It’s an incredibly nuanced performance, where determination is as visible as depression.
This stunning debut from director Anna Rose Holmer tells the story of Toni, a girl who joins a dance troupe right before it’s hit with an outbreak of mysterious seizures. What begins as a chilling tale of adolescent dread becomes an uplifting allegory about the experience of growing up female. By the end, Holmer is tapping into the spiritual plane.
A delightfully dark and absurdist send-up of algorithm-based matchmaking, The Lobster imagines a hotel for singles in which they have 45 days to find a suitable mate or be transformed into an animal of their choice. Eventually the focus shifts from the hotel to a group of rebels in the woods, where true love blossoms – stubbornly, organically, and unforgettably.
In Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, we see three different stages in the life of Chiron, a boy trying to retain his sense of self while growing up gay in the Miami projects with an emotionally abusive mother. He finds tenderness in this minefield, and love that burns across decades.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
The Lonely Island’s take on the millennial pop star documentary was an underrated addition to the spoof comedy genre. Popstar uses the rise and kitchen-appliance-related-fall of Connor Friel (aka Connor4Real) to extract some grade-A silliness from the bones of the pop industrial complex.
This South Korean tale of demonic possession is a 156-minute downward spiral. Kwak Do-wan gives an unbelievable performance as the bumbling policeman Jong-goo, who we meet as a B-movie goofball and say goodbye to as a pale husk. Director Na Hong-jin stuffs this story with shamans and reanimated corpses, devil caves and mysterious cabins. But he never loses sight of what it’s all about – a family under siege.
This is a movie about witches set in 17th century New England. But this ain’t Salem, and the only trials involve what our main character Thomasin has to deal with. Her useless father got the family kicked out of town over a Biblical argument. Her mother blames her for everything. Her siblings keep getting killed by an entity in the woods. By the end, she has a choice to make. And continuing life as a woman during the height of American Puritanism is easily the scarier option.
So here we are, a week before we get to watch the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences give a bunch of awards to Alejandro’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Camping Trip.Per the usual, it’s gonna be a long, depressingly whitewashed event, drunk on its own twisted definition of “prestige picture.” Movie about a man beating insurmountable odds so he can exact revenge? Prestige Picture. Movie about a woman beating insurmountable odds so she can exact revenge? Genre Picture. Look, I’ll be thrilled if I’m wrong, and Mad Max: Fury Road wins Best Picture. But ever since February 2006, when I assumed Brokeback Mountain was a lock – especially with insulting dreck like Crash as its competition –I’ve learned to expect the worst.
But enough negativity. It’s the Oscars. I’m going to watch the shit out of them. And I’m going to picture what the Best Picture field would look like if it was up to me, just like every year:
Best of Enemies
At a time when “watching the news” means a screen full of red-assed pundits yelling themselves hoarse, directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville take us back to the beginning of it all – the televised 1968 debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley. Their film is as compulsively watchable as those ideological showdowns were, framing them as the moment when TV editorializing went from “Point/Counterpoint” to “Point/Shut Up I’m Still Talking.”
The Hateful Eight
When the script for his eighth film leaked, I can see why Quentin Tarantino initially freaked out and announced he would never shoot it. Because while it has the look and feel and language of a period Western, at its heart, it’s an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, set in a cabin in a snowstorm. No-spoiler rules most definitely apply. So I’ll only say that The Hateful Eight is classic Tarantino – three hours of some of his best, most crackling dialogue, along with expertly deployed flashbacks and perspective shifts that hearken all the way back to Pulp Fiction.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Director George Miller’s fourth installment of his Mad Max series continues the trajectory of its namesake – a post-apocalyptic loner forever scarred by the murder of his family. But Max (a quiet and weary Tom Hardy) is not the protagonist here. Fury Road is the story of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, never better), a steely-eyed, one-armed soldier running on dual engines of outrage and hope. She rescues the sex slaves of the tyrant Immortan Joe, hiding them in her armored rig. What follows is an exhilarating, non-stop chase sequence and overwhelmingly satisfying revenge tale. By the end, a semi full of traumatized people are driving full speed at their oppressors. And we learn that power is one thing. And strength is another.
After watching Best of Enemies, and ruminating on how cable news became the Limp Bizkit to Gore Vidal’s Rage Against the Machine, Spotlight might just be comfort food you need. This engrossing procedural drama projects a deep love for newspaper journalism, while still keeping one eye on realism. Director Tom McCarthy – who so convincingly played a reporter with spotty ethics on The Wire – depicts the true story of how the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team uncovered a conspiracy involving the Catholic Church and the rampant pedophilia in its ranks. McCarthy does for journalists what the best episodes of Law & Order did for cops. They work hard. They expose lies. They achieve some level of justice. Then we shut off the tube, and sleep better.
Don’t worry, survivors of Austin Powers In Goldmember. Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy’s third movie together isn’t a spy spoof. It’s a legitimately great spy movie – action-packed, intricately plotted, and very, very funny. McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a CIA agent stuck as the personal assistant of special agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). Then disaster strikes, Cooper gets promoted, and the film ingeniously flips the script on your typical McCarthy comedy. We learn quickly that Cooper is more than just a lovable goof. She’s a brilliant agent, a highly trained fighter and marksman – far better than Fine or Rick Ford (Jason Statham, mocking himself with aplomb). Yet the CIA keeps giving her dowdy and sexless secret identities, a sly metaphor for Hollywood’s expectations of McCarthy. Her frustrated reactions to these moments are what make them funny. She’s acknowledging what she’s up against, before proceeding to gleefully kick its ass.
Shot on iPhones and starring untrained actors, Tangerine is a refreshingly unpolished snapshot of friendship, following two transgender prostitutes as they navigate the streets, buses and donut shops of Los Angeles. Its plot is thin: When Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is released from prison, she finds out from her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) that her boyfriend has been cheating. Sin-Dee goes out looking for him. By keeping the story this simple, director Sean S. Baker can let the scenes play out in an Altman-esque way, with conversations starting, stopping, and overlapping in a way that believably mimics real life. It’s spiked with a joyful energy, but the darker moments feel just as organic. Like the final scene in a laundromat, which has the power of 1,000 “Lean On Mes.”
When Marnie Was There
The final film to be produced before Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement and Studio Ghibli’s ensuing hiatus (god it hurts to write that), When Marnie Was There makes masterful use of the “magical summer in the country” trope to tell the story of a child who worries that no one loves her unconditionally. When Anna discovers that her foster parents receive government payments for raising her, she becomes depressed. After a serious asthma attack, she is sent to stay with relatives in a gorgeous country home. Across the water, Anna discovers an abandoned mansion that turns out to be not so abandoned after all. Written and directed with tenderness and wonder by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret Life of Arriety), When Marnie Was There shimmers with natural light, and sparkles with the thrill of discovery. “You are more loved than you realize,” it says to us. What an absolutely perfect way to say goodbye.