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Drama

Blaze

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Blaze

I have to wonder if Blaze, Ethan Hawke’s luminous music biopic about little-known country music singer/songwriter Blaze Foley, would have been as transfixing if Hawke hadn’t focused so much on romanticizing poverty. This is Hawke’s third feature film directorial effort. Telling the Outlaw Country musician’s story became a passion project for the Texas-born actor. Foley’s story is one of crushing deprivation, self-sabotage, and ends in the singer’s tragic death at the young age of 39 (don’t worry, that’s not much of a spoiler; we learn about Foley’s death in the first ten minutes of the picture).

Our society exalts the idea of the starving/suffering artist, and Hawke taps into that with Blaze. Foley was a man who was seemingly incapable of doing anything but making music, regardless of whether he could make a living at it. He was also good at bestowing back-country philosophy on those around him, earning him the nickname Duct Tape Messiah. I think we all know how little money there is in being contemplative about life and our place in the universe.

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The Miseducation of Cameron Post

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The Miseducation of Cameron Post

If there is such a thing as finding the perfect balance between comedy and drama when it comes to portraying as serious a subject as gay reparative therapy, director Desiree Akhavan has done it with The Miseducation of Cameron Post. She and her co-screenwriter, Cecilia Frugiuele, with the help of the cast and crew, have crafted a picture that feels rich and authentic. The film doesn’t shy away from the uglier side of what goes on at “pray away the gay” camps. These controversial (to put it charitably) religious-based “conversion therapy” programs have damaged countless lives. States like California have taken steps in recent months to ban the practice, so far to mixed results.

What Akhavan has done with Cameron Post is to mine the smallest moments of levity from the resilience of the kids whose parents or guardians force them into these camps. The movie is wholly concerned with exploring the complicated inner turmoil that comes with having characteristics that some people in society demonize. On that front, the movie is a resounding success.

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BlacKkKlansman

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BlacKkKlansman

It’s a well-worn cliché that bad times make for good art. We’re at the front end of some undeniably rotten times, with a commander-in-chief who traffics in white supremacist language and policies, and a large segment of the population who feel more comfortable expressing bigotry because of him. Hate and ignorance are ascendant. It’s the coldest of comfort, but the first great piece of art in response to these bad times (at least as far as movies go) is here. It’s called BlacKkKlansman. It’s incendiary, powerful, hilarious, chilling. Master filmmaker Spike Lee called upon every skill he has as an artist to make this movie pulse in defiance of our current political and existential crisis. He also included his trademark sense of humor and his unique visual style and inventiveness. No other director could have made this movie. BlacKkKlansman is, and could only be, a Spike Lee joint.

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Blindspotting

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Blindspotting

The themes and social commentary of Blindspotting are both timely and important, but the movie’s overall effect is one of slightness. That slightness is mostly a function of the way co-screenwriters and stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal chose to mix comedy and drama in their examination of gentrification, race relations, and toxic friendships. The result is uneven and too episodic, with comedic interludes that don’t quite fit alongside harrowing depictions of everything from lethal police misconduct to a young child getting his hands on a loaded gun. These moments, though, and many more like them, are incredibly powerful, and Diggs and Casal’s screenplay handle them with care and a great deal of emotional intelligence.

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Eighth Grade

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Eighth Grade

The bright, shining star at the center of Eighth Grade is Elsie Fisher as Kayla. She is a revelation. We all wear different masks in our daily lives depending on with whom we’re interacting, and Fisher shows Kayla changing these masks with expert skill. We see confident Kayla, shy Kayla, anxiety-attack Kayla, exuberant Kayla. Fisher is in almost every shot of the picture, and she carries that weight like an acting veteran, not a 15-year-old newcomer.

Eighth Grade is a perfect example of Roger Ebert’s theory of movies as empathy machines. It’s a way to experience the world – even if for just 90 minutes – through someone else’s eyes. Kayla Day encourages us to extend the best parts of our nature to everyone around us. That’s the first step in making the world a better place.

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Sense8: Amor Vincit Omnia

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Sense8: Amor Vincit Omnia

The title says it all. The grand finale for the Netflix original series Sense8 is called Amor Vincit Omnia, the famous Latin phrase that translates to Love Conquers All. If you know anything about the series, you know how well that phrase describes the show as a whole. It’s a fitting title for the last adventure in a series about extraordinary human connection, empathy, and above all, love.

For the purposes of this review, I’m treating Amor Vincit Omnia as a standalone movie, instead of an episode of television, because that’s really what it is. The series, while critically acclaimed, didn’t garner enough viewers for Netflix. The scope of the show required a larger-than-usual budget for the streaming service. The huge costs and small audience caused Netflix to cancel Sense8 after two seasons, consisting of 23 episodes.

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First Reformed

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First Reformed

First Reformed might as well have been titled Can God Forgive Us? The question is asked by many people and in many ways throughout the film. Ethan Hawke’s character, Reverend Ernst Toller, literally spells out the question on the welcome sign in front of his church as his descent into doubt and madness nears its lowest point. You might think those of us who don’t believe in the existence of any gods, Christian or otherwise, would consider it a pointless question and regard First Reformed as a fruitless filmmaking exercise. While the question might be futile, since there is no verifiable evidence for the existence of a god, First Reformed is a compelling, vital, and spellbinding work of art.

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Love, Simon

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Love, Simon

Simon Spier has “one huge-ass secret.” The high school student with a loving family and great friends is gay, but he’s terrified to let anyone know it. He fears that his family and friends won’t be able to accept this aspect of his identity. Getting through high school is hard enough, and Simon sees every day just how close-minded people can be. He sees some of his fellow students taunt Ethan, an openly gay classmate. Love, Simon deals with the struggles of its titular character with empathy and humor. The movie is essentially a coming out romantic comedy. It’s a heartwarming antidote to cynicism and pessimism, two qualities in which the world is currently inundated.

What feels so fresh about Love, Simon is that it operates like so many other high school first love movies, only from a perspective that mainstream Hollywood has until now never embraced. Other critics have compared it to the teen-angst filled work of John Hughes. Besides his huge secret, Simon is your ordinary, everyday teenager. He tells us early in the film in voice-over that he hangs out with his friends, watches bad 90s movies, and drinks way too much iced coffee. He also does things like help his clueless dad fix a terrible homemade anniversary video.

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You Were Never Really Here

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You Were Never Really Here

Early in You Were Never Really Here, Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Joe, takes a violent blow to the back of the head. Movie convention has programmed us to expect one single hit like this to knock a character out cold. You Were Never Really Here is no conventional movie. Joe stumbles for a second, then he turns and gives it right back to his assailant. Joe punches the man in the face and he goes down but is also not out. It’s a quick and brutal exchange that sets the tone for the next 90 minutes. Director Lynne Ramsay’s new film is a rescue/action movie like Taken, by way of the avant-garde experimentalism of Maya Deren. It’s by turns vicious, stomach-churning, elliptical, ethereal, and staggeringly beautiful. It’s a movie that will haunt me for a long time.

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The Leisure Seeker

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The Leisure Seeker

The opening minutes of The Leisure Seeker promise a more substantive experience than the comedy/drama ultimately delivers. As the camera winds its way around a peaceful New England town, the idyll is broken when a campaign pickup truck enters the scene. Garish, oversized flags mounted in the bed – one on each side­­ – billow in the wind. They are advertising their candidate: TRUMP FOR AMERICA! Director Paolo Virzì then puts a title card up on the screen, setting his story on a specific day in September of 2016, just a few months before the election. Will The Leisure Seeker be some sort of political statement about how presidential politics affect everyday Americans, I wondered? Will the Trump/Clinton campaign merely exist at the edges of the story, never quite taking center stage, but adding poignant commentary to the main action? That second one is closer to the mark, sans the poignancy. Our characters only interact once with the election (I’ll get to that later), and the movie wastes every other reference to it.

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A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica)

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A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica)

Director Sebastián Lelio pays special attention to his titular character’s breathing during several sequences in his exquisite film A Fantastic Woman. Each time his protagonist, Marina, is under stress, either psychological or physical, Lelio drains everything out of the soundtrack and focuses on her slow, deliberate breaths. In the film, Marina does this to steady herself; it’s a way to regain her composure and sense of safety in traumatic situations. If you’re watching the film, it’s a way for Lelio to remind you that Marina is a human being. We all breathe, after all, and the film reminds us that we are all deserving of a basic level of respect and dignity. As obvious as that sentiment seems, Marina is confronted many times throughout A Fantastic Woman with people who aren’t willing to extend her that respect and dignity.

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the kind of movie that gets an Oscar Best Picture nomination because the people in charge think it’s gritty, meaningful filmmaking full of important social commentary. In actuality, it’s a movie that uses relevant social topics – namely police brutality and inaction – in a cynical ploy for cheap exploitation and shock value. This is a nihilistic movie that delights in trying to offend. There is a painful tone-deafness in how Three Billboards attempts to mix comedy and pathos. The plot machinations, especially late in the film, become so creaky that several key points are unbelievable, even laughable.

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Darkest Hour

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Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour is the movie that most fits the bill in 2017 for the title of Important Film; it’s tailor made for awards season, in particular for that most coveted prize, Oscar Best Picture nominee. It satisfies many of the requirements that we often think of when we think about an Important Film. Is the movie about a major historical event or a biopic of an important historical figure? Check. Does the movie feature a powerhouse performance by an actor who undergoes a complete physical transformation for the role? Check. Is the movie a crowd-pleaser, ending on a rousing note that sends the viewer out on an emotional high? Check. Darkest Hour is, to its detriment, a box-checker of a movie.  It’s so focused on these elements that it never does much else to set itself apart.

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Phantom Thread

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Phantom Thread

Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson’s early work was defined by a search for surrogate family, specifically relationships having to do with father figures. In Hard Eight, gambling expert Sydney takes the down-on-his-luck John under his wing, teaching him how to win at the casinos. John becomes his protégé and symbolic son. In Boogie Nights, porn star Dirk Diggler finds a father in his director, Jack Horner. That movie is more broadly about a collection of misfits in the 1970s porn scene coming together as a kind of dysfunctional family. The movie Magnolia is rife with broken family dynamics.

In the background of these movies about substitute family is the theme of power dynamics. As Anderson’s career has progressed, the two themes have slowly traded places in importance. This transition culminated in Anderson’s exquisite The Master. The lost Freddie Quell finds a kind of father figure in the charismatic Lancaster Dodd, but that’s secondary to the power and control the cult leader exerts over his new disciple. The entire movie is a battle of wills between the two men.

In Phantom Thread, the writer-director’s new film, the battle of wills this time is between a man and a woman. They are lovers as well as muse and artist.

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Call Me by Your Name

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Call Me by Your Name

Is there anything better than being in love when you’re seventeen? Is there anything worse than being in love when you’re seventeen? The dizzying emotional highs and lows entwined with the answers to those questions are only part of the boundless beauty contained in Call Me by Your Name. As it unspooled before me, one word in particular kept returning to me again and again. I only want to share the word with you if I can first strip out any negative connotation it has. Everything about Call Me by Your Name – its lush cinematography, its meticulous pacing, its devastating performances – is languid. Not in the sense that it’s weak or frail or feeble, which are the negative synonyms associated with the word. No, this film is relaxed, unhurried, and leisurely in building the love story that by the end is emotionally pulverizing. But this isn’t just a love story. It’s also a coming-of-age story as well as a sexual awaking story.

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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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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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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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