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Drama

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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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 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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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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Good Time

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Good Time

Good Time is as much about its setting, New York City, as it is its characters or plot. As someone who’s never been, I still have a relationship with it, albeit one forged through the images and aesthetics of the movies. In my mind, it’s a city that is constantly in motion. As a child, I took the slogan “The City That Never Sleeps” quite literally. Good Time brings that (perhaps fictional) place, and its frenetic characters, to crackling life. It’s evokes films from a bygone era of Big Apple movie making. Images from titles as disparate as Taxi Driver, After Hours, Tootsie, and even My Dinner with Andre swirled in my head as the gritty expanse of Good Time’s version of New York opened up before me.

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Brigsby Bear

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Brigsby Bear

There are sounds that many (though definitely not all) people in my generation aren’t only familiar with, but that bring back a sudden and intoxicating rush of nostalgia. People of a certain age who are also movie/tv show junkies – like myself – get wistful when they hear them. They are the sounds of a VHS tape being pushed into a VCR; the little clicks and electronic hums as the machine seats and prepares the tape for play; that odd wavery quality of the picture and sound when the tracking goes wonky.

The movie Brigsby Bear, and the makers behind it, tap into that nostalgia in an incredibly potent way. This is a movie that feels like it was made for me. Dave McCary, the director, and Kyle Mooney, the star and co-writer, are both five years younger than I am. They were probably just as obsessed as I was with taping things on cable, watching copious amounts of movies on VHS, and using two VCRs to edit together homemade movies.

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