The Shape of Water

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The Shape of Water

Every frame of The Shape of Water seems to live and breathe with a magic that’s only possible on screen. Whether it’s the heavily saturated and precisely chosen color scheme, or the gritty, grimy feel of every location, the movie is full to bursting with visual inventiveness. It’s also very full of ideas. This is a fable about our not so distant past, and it also has something to tell us about our present.

Set in early 1960s Baltimore, Water takes place almost exclusively in two locations. One is a top-secret government laboratory, the other is the apartment of our hero, the mute Elisa Esposito. Elisa is a janitor working the night shift at the lab. The Cold Warrior scientists and military personnel working there have a new project. It’s a creature the U.S. military discovered in a river in South America. They refer to this creature, which looks like a hybrid of amphibian and human, as “the asset.”

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I, Tonya

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I, Tonya

Movies like Lady Bird and The Florida Project introduced us to people either living close to poverty or people who can’t escape it. Both pictures did it without being exploitative. They brought their subjects to life in a thoughtful, humanist way.

The economic underclass is a major preoccupation of I, Tonya, as well. Like The Florida Project, I, Tonya’s subject, who just happens to be a real-life person, is proud and unapologetic. I, Tonya is a punk rock look at poverty, among other things. It’s also, improbably, one of the most hilarious movies of 2017. Its humor is biting and sarcastic. It isn’t afraid to call its audience out as hypocrites for watching the story of Tonya Harding with a sick voyeuristic glee.

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Pitch Perfect 3

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Pitch Perfect 3

If the marketing material for Pitch Perfect 3 – the tag line is “Last Call, Pitches” – is to be believed, this is the swan song for a series that’s generated a sizable cult following. In this latest outing, the saga of the Barden Bellas ends not with a bang, but not exactly with a whimper. I have to damn Pitch Perfect 3 with a heaping helping of faint praise. It’s just okay. The movie is, thankfully, nothing like the complete disaster that Pitch Perfect 2 was, yet it never captures the elements that made the original so charming and so memorable.

This time around, the members of our favorite competitive collegiate a-cappella singing group are finding that post-college life, a.k.a. the real world, isn’t everything they had hoped it would be.

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Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

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Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Rarely have the first 15 minutes of a movie given me more conflicting emotions than those at the start of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. My reservation during the opening crawl gave way to the thrill of a taut, explosive opening action sequence. The source of my initial unease stemmed from a sense of déjà vu.

The exposition contained in the iconic floating paragraphs for writer/director Rian Johnson’s first Star Wars adventure is a little too similar to that of Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The fascistic First Order, under the control of evil Supreme Leader Snoke, is ruthless in its pursuit of the Resistance, lead by General Leia Organa. The First Order is attempting to crush this rebellion so it can solidify its power and rule the galaxy unchallenged.

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Top Ten Films of 2017

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Top Ten Films of 2017

The year 2017 has been full of ups and downs. Mostly downs. If you read my reviews with any regularity, you might see my political views peeking through in my analysis of movies from time to time. I don't apologize for it, but I also never sit down to write a review with the express purpose of unleashing a political screed. My political leanings and beliefs inform so much of the rest of my existence that they are bound to bleed over into my film criticism. The three most blatant examples of this in the last year are in my reviews for Battle of the Sexes, The Post, and The Florida Project. The plot of Sexes lent itself to being interpreted as a thinly veiled metaphor for the 2016 presidential election. The Post (which I think has a better-than-average shot at winning the Best Picture Oscar this year) just is about our current political situation, in a certain way. Steven Spielberg has said as much when talking about why he made it. I'll get to The Florida Project in my top ten list (spoiler!).

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NTFCA Announces Best of 2017

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NTFCA Announces Best of 2017

The North Texas Film Critics Association (NTFCA), of which I am a member, voted this month to honor the best films of 2017. As an organization, the NTFCA is proud to call attention to outstanding achievements in the craft of filmmaking. I consider movies to be not only entertainment, but in the best examples, they are also art. They teach us about the human condition. Here are the winners for each category in which we voted:

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Lady Bird

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Lady Bird

The second scene of Lady Bird makes it apparent how special this movie is. Marion McPherson and her daughter Catherine, or “Lady Bird,” the name she has chosen for herself, are driving home to Sacramento after a trip visiting prospective colleges in California. Their conversation turns from melancholic reflection over the audiobook they just finished – The Grapes of Wrath – to fighting about Lady Bird’s desire to go far away for college, New York maybe. The scene only lasts about three minutes. It ends when Lady Bird can’t take for one more second her mother’s hurtful words about how her grades aren’t good enough to get her into a local state school, let alone an expensive one on the East coast. In a fit of rage, Lady Bird removes her seat belt, throws open the door, and flings herself out of the car as it barrels down the highway. It’s a brilliant, if hyperbolic, microcosm of the coming-of-age story.

The rest of the picture explores Lady Bird’s coming-of-age with an infinite amount of warmth, grace, bittersweet humor, and charm.

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FFC's 2018 Classic Movie Challenge

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FFC's 2018 Classic Movie Challenge

I've always thought of myself as being well-rounded when it comes to what movies I've seen. I want to be known as someone who can speak intelligently about all types of movies, be they blockbusters or art-house, films from any and every country, or movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood and earlier.

There's nothing like cold, hard data to shatter the lies we tell ourselves.

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The Post

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The Post

When future filmmakers craft the pop culture version of history about our current political age – and what a sad, sickening history it will be – they’ll no doubt have an almost bottomless pit of stories to tell. Stories about people who worked tirelessly to uncover corruption, collusion, and incompetence at the highest levels of government. Let Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s screenplay for The Post be a guide to telling those stories. It stands in the company of movies like All the President’s Men and Spotlight.

This is Hannah’s first attempt at feature screenwriting, and she wrote it solo in early 2016. Singer, who won a best original screenplay Oscar with Tom McCarthy for 2015’s Spotlight, was brought on board to do a rewrite just before filming began. Their movie is about the vital role a free and open press has in a democracy.

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Molly's Game

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Molly's Game

The best movies about poker are often about more than the game itself. A great example is Rounders. That movie isn’t so much about turning a losing hand into a winner through the power of bluffing as it is loyalty and the limits of friendship. So, too, is screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s work rarely just about what can be covered in a plot synopsis. The 30-year veteran of stage, TV, and film writing crafted two of the best biopics of this decade with 2010’s The Social Network and 2015’s Steve Jobs. Those films are character studies that seek answers to questions concerning true genius and the uglier traits of driven and brilliant men.

Critics and audiences have often lamented Sorkin’s less deft skill at writing female characters. The women he writes are sometimes two dimensional; they serve to add overwrought hysterics or a love interest to the story. With Molly’s Game, Sorkin has challenged himself to confront this weakness. His protagonist, Molly Bloom, is as driven as the subjects in The Social Network or Steve Jobs. Her story is also as complex, fascinating, and as rewarding of a character study as anything Sorkin has ever written.

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The Disaster Artist

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The Disaster Artist

James Franco did it. He found the role he was born to play. It’s not a role that just fell into his lap, either. Franco crafted the opportunity for himself. He optioned the rights for a book through his buddy Seth Rogan’s production company, Point Grey, and then signed on to direct himself as the lead. That’s rather poetic, considering the history behind his role of a lifetime.

Franco is playing real-life director/writer/producer/star Tommy Wiseau in the story of what is arguably the worst movie ever made, the ironically celebrated cult hit The Room. One of that movie’s stars, Greg Sestero, wrote a tell-all book, The Disaster Artist, about his experiences making The Room with his friend Wiseau. Franco read the book and became fascinated with the director. Here was a man who refused to let any obstacle get in the way of his dream. He’s a mercurial figure with a mysterious eastern European accent – whenever he’s asked where he’s from, he’ll only say New Orleans – and an even more mysterious bottomless pit of money. While it might not seem it, upon reflection, Franco and Wiseau have more in common than you might think.

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Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

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Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

The critical consensus to the newest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s whodunit is that it’s style over substance. That seems a little odd, considering the source material for Murder on the Orient Express is one of the most well regarded murder mysteries of all time, by arguably the greatest mystery writer of all time. There is, to be sure, plenty of style. The film’s director, Kenneth Branagh – who also portrays the story’s world-famous detective, Hercule Poirot – went out of his way to stage a lavish production. The movie, which takes place on the eponymous first-class passenger train, revels in its aristocratic decadence.

At the same time, the substance of Orient Express – Poirot’s sifting of clues to find a killer among the passengers – is engaging, especially for someone unfamiliar with the story, as I was.

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Loving Vincent

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Loving Vincent

What’s more important to know about Vincent van Gogh ­– the man art historians consider the father of modern painting – how he lived, or the circumstances of his death? That’s the question the visually stunning new film Loving Vincent tries to answer. If that’s all you’re thinking about after seeing the film, though, you’ve missed the point. That’s why it’s forgivable that the movie’s story is the weakest thing about it. The way the story is told, though, is unforgettable. Every frame of Loving Vincent was oil-painted by hand. It took a team of 125 painters two years to complete. The movie is a beautiful exception to the rule “form follows function.”

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The Killing of a Sacred Deer

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The Killing of a Sacred Deer

It would be reductive of me to call Yorgos Lanthimos the new Stanley Kubrick. The Greek director responsible for the provocative films Dogtooth, Alps, and my initiation into his twisted imagination, The Lobster, is nothing if not a unique talent. Still, there are certain undeniable Kubrickian flourishes in his new film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Chief among them are a penchant for inserting nihilistic black comedy in otherwise bleak subject matter, and his facility with patient, beautiful camera movement and framing. Sacred Deer is one of the most challenging, most disturbing films I’ve seen this year.

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The Florida Project

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The Florida Project

Sean Baker’s new film, The Florida Project, is a video essay on empathy. It’s a moving, funny, and heartbreaking depiction of the poverty many Americans struggle with while living in the richest country on earth. It shows the resilience of children to make the best of any situation. It also feels incredibly authentic.

The movie shows us one summer in the lives of guests at The Magic Castle extended-stay hotel. In particular, we see the world through the eyes of Moonee, a precocious 6-year-old girl, and her friends. Moonee and her unemployed mom, Halley, are unfailingly referred to as guests by hotel management because calling them what they really are, residents, would give them legal rights the hotel’s owners can’t afford, and the Florida government won’t allow.

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Blade Runner 2049

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Blade Runner 2049

When the original Blade Runner was released in the summer of 1982, it did respectable business at the box office. It wasn’t a smash like Star Wars, but it wasn’t a complete disaster, either. Mostly, it left a lot of people (critics and general moviegoers alike) scratching their heads. This slow paced, philosophical movie was sold as an action/adventure. The production design was meticulous, with dazzling special effects that still look great 35 years later. As critics began praising the movie after repeated viewings, Blade Runner also found a sizable cult following through home video release (a relatively new phenomenon itself at the time).

Director Denis Villeneuve, a filmmaker who has listed Blade Runner as a major influence on his own work, is imagining this intoxicating world anew in the sequel, Blade Runner 2049. The question is, since its predecessor’s vision is now the rule rather than the exception, will it have the same impact as the original?

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The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

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The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

When it comes to movies about rich, eccentric, dysfunctional (and white, you can’t forget white) families, one director comes instantly to mind: Wes Anderson. He’s exceptional at exploring broken family dynamics in pictures like Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Anderson’s sometime collaborator, Noah Baumbach, has plumbed the same depths of familial dysfunction, most notably in The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding. The two have worked together in some capacity on Anderson’s Life Aquatic, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Baumbach’s Squid.

Baumbach has returned to this familiar subject matter for his new film, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), but to a decidedly mixed effect. The movie feels too reminiscent of Anderson’s masterful Tenenbaums, but with none of the emotional connection to the characters, and only a hint of that movie’s wistfulness.

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Battle of the Sexes

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Battle of the Sexes

It’s hard to miss the parallels between the tennis match at the center of Battle of the Sexes and our most recent presidential election. The similarities go much deeper than the one event, in fact. Sexes acts as a depressing reminder that despite the progresses we’ve made in the last 40+ years in regard to gender equality and LGBTQ rights, the old cliché remains as true as ever: the more things change, the more they stay the same. This realization is made all the more bittersweet because it’s wrapped up in a crowd-pleasing confection of a movie. The directing team, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, gave us the feel-good Little Miss Sunshine as their feature debut, after all.

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Theater Collecting: The Brattle Theater, Cambridge, MA

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Theater Collecting: The Brattle Theater, Cambridge, MA

I don't do an excessive amount of traveling (time, money, blah, blah, blah), but when I do, I like to see a movie in a unique or interesting theater in the city I'm visiting. I'm not talking about one of the soulless multiplexes like AMC or Cinemark. I can get that experience anywhere, and I try to avoid that even when I'm home.  I just got back from an amazing trip to Boston and Maine, and I have collected another theater.

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mother!

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mother!

If you want to find the most polarizing film of 2017, look no further than Darren Aronofsky’s baroque experiment in psychological horror, mother! (which after this point, I’ll refer to simply as Mother). This is a movie that’s impact I suspect will diminish on a second viewing. Unlocking the secret at Mother’s core, which will probably come at a slightly different point for just about everyone seeing it, robs it of some of its power. Aronofsky has made pure allegory here, using an extreme dream-logic aesthetic that is nothing if not simultaneously hypnotic and terrifying.

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