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Sunday, January 21, 2018

My Top 12 Films of 2017

These are the 12 films of 2017 that had the biggest impact on me and I thought were best. The first 6, in no particular order, are my favorites.

Lady Bird. I really enjoyed this film, maybe more than any other film in 2017. The mother-daughter relationship at the heart of the film just feels right, especially in the great scene in the thrift store. And then to have Tracy Letts, author of August Osage County and a great actor, as the father is a huge added bonus. Saiorse Ronan gives another sincere and fun performance, and Academy, please nominate Greta Gerwig as best director.

3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. My brother called it a love story between 2 crazy characters. It kind of ends that way in a quirky finish, but of course it’s so much more. Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell provide amazing supporting performances to the singular sensation that is Frances McDormand. It’s a hard film but a rewarding one.

The Post. Well, I worked there a few years after the date of this film and met some of those people, so this was pretty cool for me. The story was brought to Spielberg by a 30-something, independent woman screenwriter so that’s a nice story. As others have said, it keeps you on the edge of your seat even if you do know the ending.

Faces Places. I only wish that the incredible, 89-year-old Agnes Varda would have taken the trip to DC after her appearance with the film in New York this fall.  This is a beautiful film that follows Varda and her 30-something, amazing billboard-artist friend venturing to small towns in France to make a difference in people’s lives through art. The ending is sad, the film uplifting.

Last Flag Flying. I think this ‘Flag’ really flew under the radar. Vietnam Vets and former friends Laurence Fishburn, Steve Carrell and Brian Cranston form quite the entertaining trio as they head to Washington to help Carrell deal with the death of his son in Iraq. These are three of our most captivating actors and it shows. Nothing huge happens but their interplay with the army types is priceless and the ending satisfying. Cheers Richard Linklater.

Call Me By Your Name. The beautifully drawn characters do justice to their exquisite northern Italian setting. I agree with critics that it would be hard to see the key role in someone besides Timothee Chamalet – who I also liked in Lady Bird. I just felt moved by this story, and the father’s speech to his son at the end is spectacular.

The next 6.

Marshall. Like Last Flag Flying, not enough people saw this very well-done film. Chadwick Boseman is again the go-to to play a famous American, and his pairing with Josh Gad works wonders. Instead of the typical biopic, we get a slice of amazing life here where Thurgood Marshall must win a court battle without being allowed to speak in court.

Step. It helped that I saw this in the presence of all the stars, but what an inspiring story! It couldn’t have been scripted any better. A step team in Baltimore, girls with difficult and different family stories, persevere and conquer all. Very uplifting and well-done.

Columbus. Who would’ve thought that Columbus, Indiana, is a tourist destination? Apparently the director discovered the town—and its amazing, world-famous architecture—and built a movie script around it. The friendship that develops between the outsider and the hometown young woman has feelings beyond any romance. You walk out with a smile.

Mudbound. What a powerful film! Yes, you knew that bad things were coming, but still the performances, the circumstances, the filming all were excellent. Mary J. Blige does stand out as the mother but the two WWII soldiers were wonderful as well. This was another female director that should have been nominated.

Downsizing. Alexander Payne not only takes a crazy scenario – the Brigadoon-like idea of stepping into another world and never returning – but he specifically follows through with it showing the process agonizingly and humorously step by step. Once Chistoph Waltz shows up, laughs follow and a cool journey ensues.  

Summer 1993. Spain’s nomination for the 2018 Oscar, this is a beautiful film that shows life as a 6 year-old whose parents die in an accident and she goes to live with her aunt and uncle. They are very welcoming but still the transition is difficult, and the acting that they get from the kids is amazing. Like Call Me By Your Name, I will go live in their small-town European villa anytime. Just tell me when.

Others I really enjoyed:

The Square (a breakout performance by 50 year-old Claes Bang)
Paterson (the joke with the dog and the mailbox is priceless)
Jane (wow, what a life Jane Goodall has lived)
Bombshell: Hedy Lamarr (another wonderful film by a female director)
Dunkirk (visually spectacular)
The Big Sick (maybe if it came out later it would have made my top 12 – really liked it)

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Patty Cake$ Leads a Quartet of 4 Good Indie Films Into the Summer

"We had to jump through hoops to get Cathy Moriarty (second from left in picture)," Patty Cake$ director Geremy Jasper (center) told us after a screening recently here in Washington, D.C. "I met her in Mexico. in a trailer for a film she was in. She's probably 20 years younger than the Nana role she plays in our film. "It's nice to meet you," she said in that amazing [gravelly] voice! So at that point we had our three generations of women in place and I felt good. She was kind and maternal to the young cast."

Usually the summer is a quiet time for good films, but there have been a few surprises this summer and at least four--including Patty Cake$--have been by first-time directors.
  • Columbus, written and directed by Kogonada, introduces into a starring role an amazing Haley Lu Richardson, a suitably mellow John Cho and the town of Columbus, Ind. itself.
  • Wind River wasn't as surprising--given that writer/director Taylor Sheridan had written the underrated Sicario and the justifiably praised Hell or High Water--but his directing skills proved up to the task.
  • Director Amanda Lipitz of Step and her 3 young stars came to the Newseum in Washington to unveil the amazing documentary she put together up I-95 in Baltimore.

Jasper said that it took 28 days to shoot Patty Cake$. Danielle Macdonald (next to Jasper in photo), who accompanied Jasper to the Washington, D.C. premiere, said that she had to learn to rap. "When I read the script I thought [Geremy] was insane [for wanting me to do this]. But I related to the character." Once she accepted the part, Macdonald started "rapping in my closet, practicing all the time.  Geremy would send me a different song every week--JayZ, Biggie, Kendrick. With Biggie, I felt kind of cool. [Rapper and producer] Kirk Knight did a screening in New York for us."
Jasper said that this was a personal story for him. "I was 23 living in parents' basement and bartending in a local dive. Nobody cared. They also played a song on the radio that we sang but we didn't go anywhere.  We were suburban misfits." (When I told Jasper that I was also from New Jersey--he's from Hillsdale--and sometimes was a bit, um, low-key about it, he told me, "Don't ever be embarrassed about being from New Jersey!"
Speaking of which, Jasper said that Bruce Springsteen let them use his song--The Time That Never Was--to open the film. "We sent to his people and got the okay," said Jasper. I hope he sees the film. It's funny that Born to Run is the New Jersey anthem and it's about getting away."
Staying with the New Jersey theme, Columbus reminded me a little of Paterson the movie. Columbus the town has its amazing architecture and Paterson has its equally is-this-really-here? falls. Both films move slowly, have some inside jokes and dwell in the power of routines. Let's hope the rest of the year brings us some independent films as good as these.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

My Top 15 Films of 2016

This was a really good year for films. so without further ado…we'll go in reverse order:

15. Captain Fantastic – I enjoyed the originality and the performance of Viggo Mortensen and his kids. Good film.
14. Things to Come – This isn’t the greatest film, but it is a throwback to the introspective, fun-talky, pretty-peopled French films of the past. Isabelle Huppert can still wonderfully center a film, and I was a sucker for the subplot with her cat. Loved the scenes in the countryside.
13. Julieta – This was a rare film that when it ended you wanted to stay longer. The characters were fun to be around. When Pedro Almodovar tilts just a bit normal, his films excel – Talk to Her, Woman on the Verge, All About My Mother, etc. Good to see he’s still sharp at 68. Read the New Yorker profile if you can. (John Lahr also wrote a beautiful profile there of Viola Davis.)
12 - Paterson – Who knew that a simple week in the life of driver of a bus in Paterson, N.J., could be so entertaining? Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani (loved her in About Elly) make an optimistic young couple; her patterns give the film great shape. As others have said, the ongoing joke with the English bulldog and the mailbox has a cool payoff.  It was a fun ride.
11 - Hell or High Water – Chris Pine and Ben Foster make an ornery pair of brothers, and with Jeff Bridges chasing them (another Oscar nod?), it’s another fun ride, though in much different surroundings. Good to see that the western isn’t quite dead yet, and it can thrive in modern times.
10. Twentieth Century Women - Annette Bening leads a stellar cast in this coming-of-ageish, funky family dramedy. It's intelligent and believable. As long as Mike Mills doesn't run out of family members for his films, we're in good shape.  
9. Loving – This really surprised me. I didn’t think Jeff Nichols could pull his magic again with the story about Virginia’s law against marrying outside of your race. But he did. By not heightening the characters and the love of the lead couple, Nichols actually heightened the story. Who could deny two people in love like that? With great touches from the Mom and then the great Michael Shannon as a Life photographer.
8. Queen of Katwe – This film probably moved me more than any except for maybe Dheepan. I love chess and they didn’t shy away from showing some game details like that not-so-good movie about Bobby Fischer did last year. David Oyelowo can read the phone book and I’ll probably be okay with it. (Sorry to miss him in New York in Othello.) Lupita Nyong’o always adds luster but this time she was upstaged by newcomer Madina Nalwanga. Rent it.
7. Hidden Figures – Great story. Great actors. Nicely done. Where did director Ted Melfi come from? St. Vincent? He did a splendid job with this rich material. Kevin Costner provides the perfect foil to Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae (what a year for her!) and Taraji P. Henson. Hard to believe no one knew about these incredible women for so long, but thank goodness we do now. The end-of-film, real photos are becoming standard now (see previous two), but that doesn't negate the power.
6. Dheepan – Have to put a couple foreign films in the top 5. Winner of the Palme d'Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, Dheepan came out in 2015 but I think most Americans like myself caught it in 2016. I recall leaving my treasured Cinema Arts theatre just stunned by the power of this film. Acclaimed director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) helmed this gripping, tale of survival, showing how three strangers form a family like nothing we’ve seen before. Rent it.
5. Sing Street – Feels like it has been ages since I saw this, but I do recall now that I fell in love with this group of Irish music-inspired kids. The ending involving the cool but under-performing brother painted a perpetual smile. I read an interview with John Carney, the Once-infused writer/director, where he was asked if he was happy to be back working with unknowns after directing Keira Knightly in Begin Again. He probably should have said, "No comment," but it got him some headlines. He later apologized, but his work shows the difference.
4. Moonlight – Mahershala Ali (Oscar?) made me cry twice this year, in Moonlight’s exquisite first part and in Hidden Figures’ dining room proposal scene. (I’ll deny it if you tell anyone.) Moonlight was so original and heartbreaking and dispensing of clich├ęs. Probably lost a little momentum in the last part but I’ll still take the brilliant performances and vibrancy of the characters. Will be exciting to see what filmmaker Barry Jenkins does next.
3. Manchester by the Sea – I’ll still cling to Gone Baby Gone as my favorite Casey Affleck film, but this one is pretty good. Kenneth Lonergan doesn’t make many films so when he does we take notice. And yes, the scene between Affleck and Michelle Williams later in the film is one of the year’s finest. There is some humor but the pathos does carry the day. The sort-of-happy ending feels just right.
2. Fences – No music here, but language doesn’t sing anywhere else like it does in an August Wilson play—or in this case the screenplay for a moving film. And the fact that two unparalleled actors deliver those words makes it an amazing experience. Viola Davis (did you say Oscar?) waltzes off with this film, and Denzel Washington’s direction patiently lets the characters shine. With supporting players who populated Wilson’s theatrical casts, there’s not a wrong note in this film that makes you laugh at one moment and cry the next.
1. La La Land – They had me at the opening number in the gridlock– Another Day of Sun. The film sparkles with originality and joy, and comes at a time where we need a little song and dance in our lives. Okay, maybe just I do. Lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are hot now – they also wrote current Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen – and deservedly so. Their words propel the story with wit and flair to its not-all-happy, you-can’t-have-it-both-ways conclusion. There’s just so much energy and emotion, and writer/director Damien Chazelle is just 31! Wow.

Other films that I enjoyed: Hunt for the Wilderpeople, The Edge of Seventeen, The Beatles: The Touring Years, Sully, The Fits, Love and Friendship (underrated), A Bigger Splash (just for Ralph Fiennes), Aquarius (enjoyed the live interview with Sonia Braga at AFI), Our Little Sister, Maggie’s Plan (also underrated) , The Birth of a Nation.

Films I did not get to see yet that I would like to: Weiner, Embrace of the Serpent, Elle, American Honey (played for about a week at one cinema! come on DC!), Microbe and Gasoline, 13th, Toni Erdmann, The Handmaiden, Cameraperson, Neon Bull, I, Daniel Blake and Aferim.

Friday, January 1, 2016

My Top 12 Films of 2015

I've been looking back at everything from the year and will try to throw a couple indie and foreign flicks in with the mainstream ones. Didn't see everything but quite a lot. Let's go in reverse order.

12. Labyrinth of Lies
I think this is Germany's nominee for Best Foreign Film. It uncovers the first time - in the 50s - that Germany started to take responsibility for what happened in WWII. The lead lawyer is a composite of a few real crusaders, and he does an excellent job of giving heft to this tough subject/

11. Spotlight
The cast was stellar - in particular Mark Ruffalo and Liev Schreiber - and the subject was handled deftly and without excess pomp. It's a straightforward, well-done film, and the list of abuses compiled at the end will knock you for a loop. 

10. Clouds of Sils Maria
Everyone I've read has mentioned Kristen Stewart for Best Supporting Actress. Who knew? I really enjoyed this film set mostly in the glorious Alps. At times a meditative take on acting, at other times life, Juliette Binoche and Stewart make a formidable team.

9. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Maybe it was because the 2 young stars were in attendance, but I thought this played out originally and without the usual melodrama. The short films within the film were a wonderful conceit and it's worth seeing just for those.

8. Ex Machina
This film might get forgotten since it came out fairly early.  I've seen Oscar Isaac's name tossed out for Best Supporting Actor and it's well-deserved. This was the coming out party for Alicia Vikander who also shined in Testament of Youth. Again, original and thought-provoking.

7. Carol
This film featires standouit performances from Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett. I must admit it made more of an impact after I read about Patricia Highsmith, the famed mystery novelist whose book, The Price of Salt, was director Todd Haynes' taking-off point. Maybe goes on a tad long but it's beautifully done.

6. Love & Mercy
This showed the creative process of making music better than any film I can recall. Brian Wilson is a genius - and a strange guy.  The music is real so how did he come up with it?  We see it in recording sessions and in his mind. Elizabeth Banks rescues the movie's other parts along with the always reliable Paul Giamatti. 

5. Mustang
Beautiful scenery on the Turkish coast is the backdrop for a tough tale of 5 sisters being cruelly treated by their uncle. It was hard to imagine how this one could muster a happy ending but the director does, and you walk out feeling empowered, Great performnces that give each sister an identity. It's France's nominee for an Oscar.

4. The Martian
Who else besides Matt Damon could have played this role where he was by himself for half the film? I really liked 1) how they handled the science; and 2) the way it felt inclusive. Instead of shouting diversity it just tells its story with a representative cast that gives the material an added oomph. Ridley Scott is still the man.

3. Brooklyn
Beautifully made, Nick Hornby's script is one part rhapsodic, one part tender a nd one part humorous. Saoirse Ronan gives what should be an Oscar-nominated performance as the woman torn between two credible lovers. I like when films don't make the decision easy for the lead character (as opposed to the Hallmark Channel).

2. Creed
I put Fruitvale Station high up a couple years ago, and Michael B. Jordan has won me over again with the story of Apollo Creed's son. Sylvester Stallone reprises his Rocky role but in such a low-key, intelligent fashion that he wins you over all over again. Add Tessa Thompson - who I loved last year in Dear White People - and the always dependable Phylcia Rashad, and you have quite an ensemble. One of the few films to move me last year.

1. Bridge of Spies
I just thought that this was the best-made film of the year. Mark Rylance should win the Oscar for best supporting actor - amazing how he changes in every role. And like Matt Damon in Martian who else could have played this role than Tom Hanks? Directed by Spielberg and with a script by the Coen Brothers, this film has suspense, tense situations and a fitting conclusion. It's good, old-fashioned film-making,

12 other films I enjoyed: Seymour An Introduction (need to see more of the documentaries), Mistress America, About Elly, Star Wars, The Big Short, Chi-Raq, Grandma (girl opposite Lily Tomlin was excellent), Spectre, Second Mother, Non-Stop, Straight Outta Compton and Mississippi Grind.

Films I have not seen but would like to: Results, Slow West, Inside Out, Mad Max, End of the Tour, Diary of a Teenage Girl, Beast of No Nation, 45 Years

Sunday, April 26, 2015

DuVernay's candor and humor take DC crowd by storm

"I'm interested in compiling a body of work that says one thing: that black life matters." With that, Selma director Ava DuVernay held a most fascinating court yesterday with Lonnie Bunch III, founding director of the Smithsonian Museum of African American history. The event took place at the Museum of the American Indian as part of a symposium titled History Rebellion Reconciliation.

She was fascinating in her straightforwardness - "the writer that eventually got the credit for my [Selma] script" - humor - listening to her describe directing the scene in which Martin and Coretta confront his extra-marital affair - and kindness - she wanted to get all the questions in even though time was running over.

The debate over the history of Selma came up often. She talked about listening to Johnson tapes, and Dr. Bunch said that despite the high-profile attacks, most historians agree with how Selma painted Johnson's role. "The lens for which we survey these things should be up for grabs," DuVernay said. She did flinch when the first questioner - an African American man - asked her where the white civil rights heroes were in her film. She told Dr. Bunch to take that one.

She is about as unpretentious as they come. When a woman asked her what she is doing to foster more black women in the field, she said that besides having some support groups she can't do anything. It takes hard work, rewriting in the middle of the night and a general commitment. She also said that she will not defend herself as an artist again.

She spoke about going from a $20,000 budget for Middle of Nowhere to a $20 million budget for Selma. DuVernay laughed when telling about filming indies and the things that you can get around - like permits - to save money. But with Selma it all had to be by the book and thus $20 million can - and did - go very fast.

DuVernay said that after Selma she received every civil rights script in the world on her desk. "Here's the first black fireman in Pennsylvania..." It's not what she wants to do, although she has pitched a pilot show to CBS starring Phylicia Rashad and Anika Noni Rose. It's about a Department of Justice group that takes on civil rights fights. "Probably doesn't sound like something CBS will pick up," she said.

They showed long clips of her earlier films, I Will Follow, and a Venus Williams doc she did for ESPN. Middle of Nowhere is another great film people should see. In truth, they could have kept going with the clips and people would have been okay. They were riveting. (Selma's were not as riveting because they could only show chopped up footage instead of scenes.)

She finished - after a handsome questioner told her how "fine" she is - by saying that she wil go home to LA to finish writing a new series. It sounded like a serious story, but "I gotta throw in a love story and some hot men," she joked. :You know how that goes."

I think everyone in the auditorium would have followed - on Facebook and in reality - DuVernay anywhere after this wonderful session.

Monday, February 16, 2015

My Top Films of 2014

It's Oscars time! Here are my best films in descending order:

11. MEET THE PATELS/ LIVING IS EASY WITH EYES CLOSED. I'm going to put these 2 together because neither has received a release yet. Josh Levin at West End Cinema tells me he's trying to get Meet the Patels - it's a laugh-out-loud documentary about an Indian-American comedian turning to his parents after a breakup to find him the right girl. Living Is Easy... stars Almodovar's Javier Camara as a schoolteacher in 1966 Spain wanting desperately to meet John Lennon, who is filming How I Won the West 8 hours away. Really hope this gets a run locally.

10. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. Yeah, I'm artsy but nothing wrong with having fun. This was an old-fashioned, well-written, well-acted sci-fi romp starting with that first scene with Chris Pratt and his classic soundtrack. I'm sure the sequel is close by.

9. TWO DAYS ONE NIGHT. Where have all the foreign films gone? I don't know if there is one in theaters now. It seems they are all relegated to festivals and museums now. Anyway, we did catch this one at AFI's EU Showcase and it was mesmerizing. The Dardenne Brothers come up with a great set-up, and Marion Cotillard returns to her unglamorous roots to reel you in.

8. A GOOD LIE. It's interesting that Reese Witherspoon and Matthew McConaughey starred in the excellent film Mud together last year. Both have made unbelievable film choices in the last few years. Here Witherspoon doesn't show up until midway through - the first half shows the war in South Sudan - but she makes up for lost time with a gritty performance, complementing the great work by the unknown leads.

7. INTERSTELLAR. McConnaughey's turn. This film takes a while to get going, but when it does it draws you in with good, old-fashioned storytelling. Anne Hathaway also takes a star turn, and others like Michael Caine, Ellen Burstyn, William Devane and John Lithgow show up at various intervals. Good, original script.

6. FORCE MAJEURE - Hey, a foreign film that actually got a regular release. I left this film thinking about everything, gender, relationships, children, the French Alps. The director does a wonderful job setting up the situation, and when it happens it's almost like a flash. One of the best cinematic scenes of the year is the dinner scene here with the 2 couples. AFI is showing it Jan. 15 with the director present.

5. WILD. Here's Reese again. She doesn't really try to be likeable here, and yet...she is. We root for her and hold our breath as various men come her way, with varying motives. The scenery is spectacular, and the director Jean-Marc Vallee - who directed The Dallas Buyers Club starring guess who - shows a really skilled touch with a story that's basically a woman walking a trail. It's a neat experience to watch.

4. CITIZENFOUR. Should win the documentary Oscar. It takes a little bit to get going, but director Laura Poitras is just setting the stage. Who knew that Edward Snowden was such a fascinating character, whether talking about his secrets or fixing his hair? The access that Poitras gets  cannot be overstated - she's part of it but smartly stays behind the camera. By the end, I wanted more.

3. BEYOND THE LIGHTS. I loved it. Only award this riveting tale will probably get is worst marketing campaign. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker make an exciting, human couple and Danny Glover and Minnie Driver are two pros as respective parents. Writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood uses modern conveniences - like social media - to her advantage and then lets Mbatha-Raw take over. It's a fun movie.

2. SELMA. Wow! I walked out of the theater in awe of the restraint and skills that director Anna DuVernay shows with this mature and illuminating piece of work. Nothing is overdone and yet the emotional force of the movie is near-overwhelming. The actors are pitch-perfect and please stay for Common's song over the credits. In fact, I don't think anyone left before the credits had finished at the showing I went to. Awesome.

1. BOYHOOD. I was already in the tank for director Richard Linklater and Ethan Hawke and this only submerged me further. Just amazing that they found the right boy - at what, age 7? - to play the leading role. With every stage he went through I recalled my own passages. And my friend Cinthia said she recalled HER own, so it's not just a guy thing. The time goes quickly here, and I was sorry to see it end. Rosanna Arquette also deserves a nomination.

MY NEXT 10 or SO:  Ida, Pride, Jimi By My Side, A Summer's Tale (ah Rohmer!), Last Days in Vietnam, The Overnighters, The Skeleton Twins, The Trip to Italy (I love the 'Trip' films), Diplomacy, Dear White People, and Top Five, A Most Violent Year, Inherent Vice.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Marathon '33 and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson both take you on an original ride

There are many reasons we go to the theater, one of which is to see something like we've never seen before. There are two such examples taking place now in the Washington, D.C. area: Marathon '33 by the American Century Theater through Aug. 25 at the Gunston II in South Arlington; and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at the Studio Theatre through Aug. 26.
Marathon '33 puts you in the audience for one of those incredible dance marathons of the 1930s. It was written by child and adult star June Havoc - she was the sister of the famous Gypsy Rose Lee - who experienced these firsthand.  Julie Harris played the lead on Broadway in the 1960s.  It is not a great play but it is a showcase for many talented dancers, singers and musicians of American Century.  And they get the atmosphere right - or at least it feels like they do.  Newspaper clips from the 1930s posted outside the theater help put you in the right mood. Try to catch this.

Bloody Bloody was a hit off-Broadway and then tried to move to Broadway.  You can easily detect that a small venue works much better for this musical.  You need to feel the music and see the crazy looks on the characters' faces, and at Studio's second stage, this is accomplished.  Heath Calvert and Felicia Curry carry the show on their talented shoulders. I wouldn't say anything is great, but it's all good from the driving music to the Monty Python-esque American historical figures - you'll have to see for yourself - to the "interesting" history lessons we get. Again though, this is a show like no other and clocking in at an intermission-less 90 minutes, deserves to be seen.