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Drama

If Beale Street Could Talk

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If Beale Street Could Talk

Barry Jenkins displayed a deep emotional intelligence and sensitivity with his breakout film Moonlight, which won a raft of awards after its release. In his new film, If Beale Street Could Talk, the director delivers another stunning drama about the black experience in America. It’s brimming with love, fear, heartache, and, ultimately, hope. Jenkins is a preeminent humanist filmmaker; he treats his characters with a great deal of empathy and dignity. He is also a singular film artist. If Beale Street Could Talk, like Moonlight, contains spectacularly gorgeous images. It is a triumph in American cinema.

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Cold War

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Cold War

Cold War is my first experience with the work of director Paweł Pawlikowski. I need to see Ida, his film about a woman set to take her vows as a nun in early 1960s Poland, but I haven’t had time to catch up with it yet. After watching Cold War, I’ll be sure to make the time. His new picture is a painfully mournful tale of two star-crossed lovers whose own personalities and the realities of the world around them conspire to make the match an ill-advised one. Still, their passion burns bright, even when they are separated from each other for years.

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Leave No Trace

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Leave No Trace

With Leave No Trace, her first narrative feature film since 2010’s Winter’s Bone, director Debra Granik continues to focus on characters on the fringes of society. Granik is a filmmaker whose work is steeped in social realism. Winter’s Bone chronicled crushing poverty and the devastating effects of methamphetamine use in the rural Ozarks. In Leave No Trace, the focus is a veteran struggling with PTSD who is also trying to care for and raise his teenage daughter. Granik and her writing partner, Anne Rosellini, adapted Peter Rock’s 2009 novel My Abandonment for their film. The picture is a meditation on familial love, mental illness, and even the personal sacrifices we all make to be members of society. Granik imbues the film with a great deal of empathy, and her film features two of the best performances of 2018; one from a newcomer who shows talent beyond her years, and the other from an experienced actor turning in the best, most nuanced work of his career.

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Widows

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Widows

It’s probably ridiculous for me to describe the Chicago-set crime thriller Widows as authentic. That’s not due to any fault with the movie. In fact, it’s nothing to do with the movie at all. It’s because I’ve lived almost 90% of my life in Texas. While I’ve done my fair share of traveling, I have not so much as set foot in the state of Illinois, let alone Chicago (a situation I’m anxious to rectify). Widows is as much about that city as it is anything else. It’s an incredibly authentic rendering of the Chicago of my imagination, which I’ve conjured through pop culture representations, journalism and non-fiction works, and basic cultural osmosis.

The movie weaves together fundamental Chicago touchstones into a dense and layered story: corrupt machine politics, a deadly criminal underworld, uneasy racial tensions. Meanwhile, the heist at the center of the movie is as taught and suspenseful as anything you’ll see on the screen this year.

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The Favourite

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The Favourite

Yorgos Lanthimos delivers everything you might expect visually from him in his first period piece. The Greek director’s meticulous attention to detail and exacting standards are brought to bear in The Favourite. It’s a sumptuous, visually arresting examination of power struggles in the early 18th century English royal court. Many of Lanthimos’ thematic preoccupations are present as well: the blackest of comedy that highlights the worst instincts and actions of which humans are capable; how his characters wield power over others; the mingling of the humorous and horrific to shock and disturb his audience.

While the nihilistic aesthetic Lanthimos employed in films like The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer remains essentially unchanged in The Favourite, the effect becomes numbing here (especially in the final act) where it doesn’t in the earlier films. This is another morality tale like The Lobster and Sacred Deer. In The Favourite, the ultimate moral is: be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it.

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Beautiful Boy

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Beautiful Boy

It appears that the opioid crisis has finally reached far enough beyond fly-over country for Hollywood to notice it and feature it as the social problem of the moment. Two awards season hopefuls showcase not just drug addiction, but the kind of drug addiction that has been making headlines for almost a decade now. Both Beautiful Boy and Ben is Back focus on men in their early 20s who are opioid addicts and how their parents struggle to help them break free of the addiction.

I have no opinion yet on Ben is Back, because I haven’t seen it as of this writing (although the screener is sitting on my desk in the “to watch” pile) but looking at the cast and a brief plot synopsis, I’m willing to venture a guess that it shares the same problem Beautiful Boy has. While the picture achieves what it sets out to do, Beautiful Boy is, if you’ll pardon the expression, the easy way of exploring the devastating opioid epidemic.

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Roma

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Roma

Director Alfonso Cuarón has synthesized the best elements of his career to date for his latest film Roma, a touching, ethereal masterpiece. The subject matter is semi-autobiographical, like elements from his breakout hit Y Tu Mamá También. Just like his visually stunning work in Children of Men and Gravity, Cuarón’s absolute mastery of the cinematic techniques of camera movement and framing are also on display in this film. What sets Roma apart, though, is its lyrical, contemplative mode of storytelling. Those elements are present even in Cuarón’s most anxiety-inducing picture, Gravity, but the director is exploring them more fully here. Roma is emotionally complex and mature; it’s a beautiful film, both visually and thematically.

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Bohemian Rhapsody

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Bohemian Rhapsody

A crucial part to the formula of a biopic about a popular entertainer is giving the audience plenty of moments of foreshadowing in which they can knowingly smile and nod their head to what’s coming. Freddie playing the first ten notes of Bohemian Rhapsody on a piano for his girlfriend early in the movie is a prime example of this. The girlfriend, Mary, tells Freddie she likes the music, and he responds, “I think it has potential.” Yes, Freddie, yes it does have potential, we are meant to think as we share a collective hushed chuckle. The picture is full to bursting with moments like this.

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First Man

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First Man

Director Damien Chazelle is obsessed with the pursuit of perfection. The protagonists of his films make great sacrifices to achieve their goals. In Whiplash, Andrew Neiman will forsake friends and family, spending his every free moment to become a better jazz drummer. In La La Land, Sebastian and Mia are willing to let their relationship crumble while they chase their respective dreams of becoming a successful musician and actor.  In First Man, Chazelle turns his perfection obsessed gaze to a real-life figure. Astronaut Neil Armstrong and the rest of the people involved in the Apollo space program had one goal: to set foot on the moon. Several people gave their lives in the effort to achieve this goal.

Screenwriter Josh Singer is also no stranger to projects featuring characters who are intensely focused on their work. Singer co-wrote both Spotlight and The Post, and he served several years as a writer on the television series The West Wing. Singer’s attention to technical detail and Chazelle’s emotionally stirring, at times lyrical, depiction of Armstrong work in tandem to produce a compelling picture. It is one, however, that never quite gives us a satisfying view into Armstrong’s inner turmoil.

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The Hate U Give

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The Hate U Give

Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Philando Castile. Tanisha Anderson. These are just a few of the black people whom police officers have killed in the last few years. The list goes on and on. The birth of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Say Their Names campaign has focused attention on myriad issues surrounding state oppression in the black community. One aspect of the black experience in particular received intensive media attention a few years ago: The Talk. That’s the lecture many black parents give their children about what to do during an encounter with the police. Keep your hands visible at all times. No sudden movements. Remain polite and respectful. The goal of strategies like these that black parents impart during The Talk is to make sure their children walk away from interactions with the police alive.

The Hate U Give, a powerful film about race, justice, and so much more, starts with The Talk. It sets a serious and sober tone that director George Tillman, Jr. masterfully sustains as he adds wonderful touches of humor and humanity to a story of righteous anger and, ultimately, hope.

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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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