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Shirkers

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Shirkers

If you want an intriguing mystery buried inside a documentary that pontificates on the act of moviemaking itself, look no further than Shirkers. One of the things I prized most about my number one film of 2018 – the documentary Free Solo – was how layered that film is. Shirkers is the same. Director Sandi Tan’s film never stops blossoming from beginning to end. It continually digs deeper into questions of creativity, friendship, obsession, and betrayal.

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They'll Love Me When I'm Dead

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They'll Love Me When I'm Dead

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is as fascinating as it is frustrating. This is the second documentary from director Morgan Neville, whose other 2018 film, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, was one of the best documentaries of the year.

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Free Solo

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Free Solo

I’m not a big fan of poker (and as a rule, I dislike gambling in general), but every once in a while, I’ll play penny ante games with friends. The very few occasions when I’ve been involved in impromptu games “just for fun,” because none of us happened to have the cash on hand to give real value to the chips we were using, I lost interest almost immediately. Without the consequences of winning or losing real money, it’s not any fun. You’re just throwing around chips without any thought behind it.

Alex Honnold, arguably the greatest rock climber of all time, seems to hold the same view about his vocation and obsession, but the stakes in this game are his life. Honnold is most famous for his free-solo climbs. These are climbs made with no safety equipment. No ropes. No harness. There are only two possible outcomes to each of Honnold’s stunning free-solo ascents: perfection or death.

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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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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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The Hero

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The Hero

If you’ve been waiting for actor Sam Elliott to deliver a perfectly calibrated swan song performance, his work in The Hero is it. Women of a certain age (my mother being one of them), who remember Elliott from his heyday in the late 80s and early 90s in made-for-TV movies like The Quick and the Dead, and theatrical releases like Roadhouse and Tombstone can’t resist him. Hell, it might be all women for all I know. It’s that voice. And that mustache. Now that I think about it, maybe I can’t resist him, either.

Director Brett Haley wrote the part – and basically the whole movie – for Elliott. The actor doesn’t let his director friend down. His portrayal of aging Western star Lee Hayden, an actor whose glory days are behind him, is tranquil, but also beautifully mournful. Elliott is, without a doubt, extraordinary in The Hero.

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It's Not the Optimistic Musical We Deserve, but It's the One We Need: La La Land

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It's Not the Optimistic Musical We Deserve, but It's the One We Need: La La Land

It’s been a rough year. We lost Bowie. We lost Prince. We may have lost American democracy as we know it. The jury is still out on that one, 2016. Director Damien Chazelle couldn’t get here soon enough with the follow up to his breakout film Whiplash. It’s called La La Land, and it’s everything we need right now. It’s infectiously upbeat, idealistic, heartwarming, and joyous. Basically, it’s everything the world seems to be lacking right now.  In addition to being uniquely cinematic, La La Land is the breath givingnew life to the big Hollywood musical, a genre that’s best days have been gone for 50 years. What the 2011 surprise hit The Artist did for silent films, La La Land promises to do for musicals. Both films allow Hollywood to indulge in its favorite pastime, looking back to its golden days and reminding itself of its former glory. You’ll notice The Artist didn’t lead to a boom in production of new silent films. Neither is La La Land likely to lead to a major revival of musicals. The most magical thing that both movies do is remind us that the old cliché “They don’t make ‘em like they used to,” isn’t exactly true. Sometimes they do, and it’s a rare and special enough occasion, so when it happens, we should count ourselves exceptionally lucky to witness it.

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Rules Don't Apply

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Rules Don't Apply

It’s hard to overstate how big of a disaster Warren Beatty’s film Rules Don’t Apply is. The man who ruled Hollywood for over two decades has delivered the first movie he wrote, directed, and starred in since 1998’s Bulworth, and it’s a complete mess. Beatty became an instant sex symbol in 1961’s Splendor in the Grass, and he won the Best Director Oscar for Reds, his 1981 ode to John Reed, one of only two Americans ever granted burial at the Kremlin in Moscow. Almost none of Beatty’s earlier successful filmmaking skills are visible in his latest project.

Like Reds, Beatty’s focus for Rules Don’t Apply is also a real-life figure, mercurial billionaire Howard Hughes. The legendary stories about Hughes, a man who inherited his father’s oil drill bit company and used his fortune to focus on his twin passions of aviation and filmmaking, are practically the makings of a fantastic movie all on their own. If you need proof, Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator is a remarkable example. Not only was Hughes an eccentric and mysterious figure of great renown from the 1920s through the 1960s, he was also plagued with mental health issues, most notably a serious case of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Beatty’s movie, by contrast, suffers from bipolar disorder. 

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The Ballad of a Lonely Dachshund: Wiener-Dog

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The Ballad of a Lonely Dachshund: Wiener-Dog

Director Todd Solondz has a really sick sense of humor. In 2014, he must have laughed heartily when The Hollywood Reporter described his next film as “several stories featuring people who find their life inspired or changed by one particular dachshund, who seems to be spreading comfort and joy.” The article doesn’t make clear whether or not Solondz was the one who supplied that synopsis, but I like to imagine a ghoulish grin spreading across his face when he read it. There’s very little comfort to be had in Wiener-Dog, the quasi-sequel to Solondz’s breakout debut film Welcome to the Dollhouse, and almost no joy at all. There are plenty of laughs, though, in the quiet, sardonic chuckle variety.

Solondz is noted for exploring the blackest of comedy through his suburbanite characters, and Wiener-Dog is no exception. The Hollywood Reporter was right in one aspect – the picture consists of four separate vignettes, all linked by a stoic, little lady dachshund who is known by her various temporary owners as Wiener-Dog, Doody, and Cancer. If there is a theme shaping up for the year 2016 in filmmaking, it seems to be cruelty to animals, particularly dogs. The depiction of the wry and stomach-churning fate of little Wiener-Dog/Doody/Cancer makes the dog abuse in The Lobster seem easy to take by comparison. The penultimate scene of Wiener-Dog is a gob-smacking end to a movie that’s one-quarter brilliant, one-quarter inspired, and one-half just above what you might find at a student film festival.

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Hail, Caesar!: I come to praise the Coens, not to bury them

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Hail, Caesar!: I come to praise the Coens, not to bury them

Hail, Caesar is the Coen brothers’ first pure farcical comedy since 2008’s Burn After Reading, and it’s their best work in the style since 1998’s The Big Lebowski. You don’t need a detailed understanding of, or obsession with, Hollywood history (especially the late ‘40s and early ‘50s) to fully enjoy the movie, but it certainly helps. Hail, Caesar is a bit inside baseball, to borrow sports terminology, for those who don’t claim to be cinephiles. The references range from Busby Berkeley choreography to the singing and dancing cowboy movie star to a central plot point revolving around the Hollywood anti-communist blacklist, all staples of Hollywood at the time. Even movie extras are lampooned, described by one character as being untrustworthy. There are enough laughs, however, to ensure almost anyone can enjoy the picture. Not to mention the performances of the expertly cast ensemble, and the propulsive energy of the madcap story.

Set in 1951, Hail, Caesar details two days in the life of Capital Pictures head of production and “fixer” Eddie Mannix. Whether it’s figuring out a plan to hide the out-of-wedlock pregnancy of America’s sweetheart, or forcing the effete director of high-society melodramas to accept a Roy Rogers type as his new leading man, it’s all in a day’s work for Mannix. Josh Brolin was born for the role of studio honcho Mannix. His taciturn demeanor, yet emotive face, turn the character into a living, breathing relic from another age. The Coens use Eddie as a way to explore the hard-driven 1950s business man – imagine if Mad Men’s Don Draper had decided to go into the movie business instead of advertising – while putting their own indelible comedic spin on him. Mannix loves his job, but realizes it forces him to neglect his wife and kids. Actress Alison Pill turns up in one brief scene as Connie, Eddie’s wife, and in less than three minutes she manages to convey a lifetime of quiet desperation. If all that seems a little heavy for a fast-paced farce, don’t fret. Eddie (and the movie) is caught up in hijinks hilarious enough to fill two slapstick comedies.

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