A Quiet Passion (2017) ***
Cynthia Nixon beguiles as Emily Dickinson in Terence Davies’ portrait of the poet, whose steadfast self-assurance utterly scandalized the upper crust of 19th century Massachusetts.
A Quiet Place (2018) *****
Writer/director/star John Krasinski (The Office) weaves a taut web of terrror in this sci-fi drama about a family being stalked by viscious alien creatures drawn by the sound of their voices. Krasinski and Emily Blunt are heroic as the parents; as their children deaf actress Millicent Simmonds (so wonderful in Wonderstruck) and Noah Jupe are heartbreakingly brave.
Race (2016) ****
Stephan James stars as Jesse Owens, the runner who humiliated Hitler at the 1936 Olympics (FULL REVIEW)
RBG (2018) ****
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, The U.S. Supreme Court's second woman justice and a quietly dynamic champion of liberal causes, gets the rock star treatment in this engrossing documentary from Julie Cohen and Betsy West. Fiercely ambitious, the young Ginsburg finds herself fighting for women's rights in the workplace and at home, riding a crest of her own making all the way to the Supreme Court. Right-leaning folks who think they'll take pass on this film should follow the lead of Ginsburg's closest friend, the eminently conservative Justice Scalia, and open their hearts to one of the most inspiring public lives of the past 50 years.
Ready Player One (2018) ****
Steven Spielberg throws up the usual landmarks in his screen translation of a beloved young adult novel — in which a teenager (Tye Sheridan) competes to win a half-trillion dollars in a virtual reality universe. There are brave, fatherless kids; fanciful-yet-perilous settings, and a soaring musical score that tells you how to feel. The film truly comes alive when it escapes the video game realm entirely and dumps us inside a perfect re-creation of the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. (FULL REVIEW)
Red Joan (2019) ****
Those who head for Red Joan looking for a star turn by Judi Dench can be forgiven for feeling they’re victims of a bait and switch: Dame Judi serves mostly as a framing device for a political drama in which her character’s younger self is played by Sophie Cookson (Kingsman). The pair share the role of a British civil servant who in the opening moments is arrested by the government at age 87, whisked off to an interrogation room, and accused of passing nuclear bomb secrets to the Soviets in the 1950s. It’s a true story — although for some reason the character’s real name has been changed from Melita Norwood to Joan Stanley. Dench’s Joan is wonderfully befuddled at the outset — or is she? Through flashbacks, director Trevor Nunn carefully lays out the story of how — and why — Joan betrayed her country while convincing herself she was serving it.
Remember (2016) **** Christopher Plummer evokes panic and determination as a man with dementia trying to find a Nazi war criminal before it's too late (FULL REVIEW)
Riddick (2013) ***
Director David Twohy (The Fugitive) has helmed all three Riddick movies, starring Vin Diesel as the gravel-voiced interplanetary convict/adventurer. Here we go again with Riddick, well into middle age, still kicking butt like a muscle-bound, bald-pated pro.
The Right Stuff (1983) ***
By the time Tom Wolfe's epic tale of NASA's Project Mercury hit the screen, we were already beginning to suspect the heroic era of space exploration was over. Thirty-five years later, when America lacks even a rocket to take us to the International Space Station, it's a feeling that's hard to shake. So by all means, do revisit this soaring epic and soak in the reflected glory of Sam Shepard as Chuck Yaeger, Scott Glenn as Alan Shepard, and Ed Harris as John Glenn (and delight in the word games you can play with all those interchangeable names).
Rocketman (2019) *****
Taron Egerton (Kingsman: The Secret Service) is transcendent as Elton John in this lush musical biography. The early 1970s trappings are gritty, and the film earns its R rating with healthy portions of drugs and sex. But director Dexter Fletcher (who anonymously directed much of Bohemian Rhapsody) has a surprisingly (and refreshingly) old-fashioned take on the musical genre. His film echoes All That Jazz, West Side Story, and even Oliver! The cast is uniformly perfect, especially Jamie Bell as Elton's lyricist — and unrequited love — Bernie Taupin, Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh as Elton's good-for-nothing parents, and angelic Matthew Illesley as young Elton.
Roma (2018) *****
As if to make amends for the Oscar-winning cinematic excesses of Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón follows it with this positively poetic, unapologetically nostalgic stripped-down masterpiece. Drawing from his childhood in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, Cuarón explores the social hierarchy of 1970s Mexico, contrasting the lives of upper middle-class Mexicans and the domestic workers who served them. Don't be turned off by the political undertones: With his non-professional cast and monochome vision, Cuarón has created a spellbinding work of art reminiscent of Rossellini's street-smart post World War II masterpiece Rome: Open City.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017) ****
Oscar-nominated Denzel Washington adds an indelible new character to his portfolio: that of a socially awkward civil rights lawyer who, after years of beating his head against the wall of institutionalized racism, slowly allows himself to be co-opted by the trappings of success. Meanwhile his law firm boss (Colin Farrell), inspired by Roman's initial idealism, finds himself following the opposite route. What results is an actors' fugue of sorts, as the two characters' points of view weave amongst each other to create a rich tapestry of social commentary. Directed by Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler), whose knack for capturing the seedy side of LA is unsurpassed.
Romeo and Juliet (2013) ***
Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes adapts Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers, and Italian director Carlo Carlei borrows heavily from Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 version. The question is: Why bother?
Room (2015) ****
Brie Larson stars in this claustrophobic thriller about a kidnapped mom and her young son (FULL REVIEW)
Rules Don't Apply (2016) ****
Warren Beatty is funny and heartbreaking as Howard Hughes (FULL REVIEW)
Rush (2013) ***
Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl are great fun as James Hunt and Niki Lauda, rival kings of Formula 1 racing in the 1970s. Ron Howard, who cut his directing teeth with Grand Theft Auto in 1977, seems right at home depicting the brutal beauty of high-octane racing.
Salinger (2013) ****
Almost everyone has to read The Catcher in the Rye in high school, and in 1965 all those kids buying all those books enabled its author, J.D. Salinger, to retire to his New Hampshire home and hide from view for the rest of his life. This documentary studies the enigma of Salinger – and the obsession of those who insisted on following him into his solitude.
*** Samson (2018)
Co-directors Bruce Macdonald and Gabriel Sabloff have a supremely appealing leading man in 6-foot-2 Taylor James, who is at once imposing and boyish. He also kicks butt convincingly, wielding a mean donkey jawbone against 1,000 Philistines. But as in too many faith-based movies, the villains make the best company. Samson something of a scold who spends his time glowering, brawling with bad guys, and praying (although only in moments when he needs God to strengthen him, like an Old Testament Popeye looking for his can of spinach). (FULL REVIEW)
Savannah (2013) ***
This big-hearted drama traces the story of a duck hunter (Jim Caviezel) in Savannah, Ga., and his lifelong friendship with a freed slave (Chiwetel Ejiofor). The terrific supporting cast includes Sam Shepard, Hal Holbrook and The West Wing‘s Bradley Whitford, but the real star is the lavishly photographed Savannah marsh wilderness, sprawling and lovely as the story itself.
Saving Mr. Banks (2013) ****
Tom Hanks is Walt Disney; Emma Thompson is Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers in this true story about the making of that classic film (FULL REVIEW)
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) ****
Director/star Ben Stiller celebrates the mystery of imagination, the wonder of real-life, and the point at which they intersect in this spectacular comedy adventure loosely based on the classic James Thurber short story. Kristin Wiig plays the adorable object of Mitty’s affection, Shirley MacLaine cameos as the hero’s loving mom, and Sean Penn pops up in a brief but pivotal role as a globetrotting photographer.
The Sense of an Ending (2017) ****
Jim Broadbent is riveting as a man haunted by some unfinished business with a long-ago girlfriend (Charlotte Rampling)
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) ****
The world was still mourning the loss of The Beatles (and hoping for that reunion that never came) when rock impresario Robert Stigwood mounted this hodgepodge of Beatles songs draped over a dumb plot about the titular band (The Bee Gees) joining a charismatic singer named Billy Shears (Peter Frampton) to defeat greedy evildoers who want to corrupt the music business (!). The Beatles' own superproducer George Martin did the arrangements, and truth be told the Brothers Gibb are fine vocal stand-ins for the Lads from Liverpool. The movie was worth just two stars when made; now it's an invaluable time capsule of 1970s pop featuring the likes of Aerosmith; Alice Cooper; Earth, Wind & Fire; Billy Preston, and, as Dr. Maxwell Hammer, a wild-and-crazy Steve Martin. George Burns, then enjoying a late-life renaissance, appears as the narrator, and the closing credits boast the greatest collection of music royalty cameos this side of "We Are The World," including Heart, Jose Feliciano, Leif Garrett, Etta James, Curtis Mayfield, Peter Noone, Robert Palmer, Bonnie Raitt, Helen Reddy, Johny Rivers, Monti Rock III, Del Shannon and dozens more.
Shaft (2019) ****
In a season of sequels, here's one that gets the concept right. We get three Shafts for the price of one. There's Young John Shaft (Jessie T. Usher), the nonviolent son of detective John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson), the hard-hitting son of the legendary John Shaft Sr. (Richard Roundtree — the guy who way back in 1971 first appeared as "the cat that won't cop out when there's danger all about"). The plot is boilerplate chase-down-the-bad-guys action, but along the way Shaft takes the time to explore matters of family, values, and just how much the world has changed since Richard Nixon was President.
Shakes the Clown (1991) ***
It's nearly a cinch you haven't seen Bobcat Golthwait's pitch-dark comedy about a substance abusing children's party clown, and admittedly it seems at times more of a fever dream than an actual movie. But it has a memorably twisted view of show biz culture, plus cameos by the likes of Adam Sandler, Kathy Griffin, Florence Henderson, LaWanda Page and, as a freaky mime teacher, Robin Williams, working under the pseudonym Marty Fromage. Plus, every film critic who's ever lived has envied the spot-on assessment by Boston Globe reviewer Betsy Sherman: "The Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies."
The Shape of Water (2017) *****
Guillermo del Toro's fairy tale for grownups is part Beauty and the Beast, part E.T., and part Creature From the Black Lagoon. And it's one of the most gloriously assured films of this or any year. Sally Hawkins is a mute cleaning woman at a U.S. government compound who stumbles upon a tall, dark, and fishy creature in a squalid holding tank. She brings him food, and ends up giving him her heart. Be forewarned there's some carnal splashing involved, but only a monster would deny this beauty her beast. FULL REVIEW
Shazam! (2019) ***
The special effects are more convincing, but the basic formula for series-launching superhero movies has not changed one bit since Richard Donner's Superman in 1978: The superhero has a painful (often convoluted) origin; then comes to grips with those super powers; then meets up with an eccentric supervillain; then engages in an extended, destructive battle; then braces for the sequel. In this case the hero has an especially charming trait: He's a 14-year-old boy who, simply by announcing the word Shazam, becomes a fully-grown super man who flies, deflects bullets, etc. Zachary Levy (TV's Chuck) brings goofy adolescent charm to the grownup Shazam; if only the writers of these things could come up with a story structure that's not 40 years old. (FULL REVIEW)
Sid And Nancy (1986) ****
Gary Oldman brings uncanny energy to this factually dubious account of the doomed romance of Sex Pistols frontman Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb). The pair's descent into drug-induced self-destruction is as hard to watch now as it was 31 years ago, but this new Criterion Collection release reminds us of the sure hand of co-writer/director Alex Cox — whose comfort with the fringes of reality are elsewhere evident in films like Repo Man and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Silence (2016) ****
Martin Scorsese draws upon his lifetime body of work in this heartfelt story of Jesuit missionaries in Japan (FULL REVIEW)
The Sisters Brothers (2018) ****
John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix bicker and bluster, punch each other out and love each other to bits as a pair of 1850s Old West hit men in this surprisingly engaging buddy movie. The brothers Sisters are notorious throughout Oregon and California, providing lead-loaded muscle for a notorious strongman known only as The Commodore (Rutger Hauer, in one of the shortest big-name movie cameos ever). Currently they’re in pursuit of a mild-mannered inventor (Riz Ahmed), who has developed a chemical system for detecting gold in rocky streams. The Commodore wants the invention for himself and the inventor dead. The brothers think the genius is being held for them in a hotel room by an associate (Jake Gyllenhaal), but of course there are complications afoot. The film’s trail dust-choked atmosphere is palpable, and the characters’ sophisticated self-awareness recalls the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, or Gene Hackman’s reflective villain in Unforgiven. But mostly we come to love the brothers — just as they love each other despite themselves.
Sobibor (2018) ****
For as long as movies have been made, Russian directors have never flinched at depicting the horrors of war and the insidious nature of inhumanity. Director Konstantin Khabenskiv’s true story of the only successful mass escape from a Nazi concentration camp does have its triumphant moments, but not before it subjects us to one of the most harrowing depictions of cruelty ever put on screen. One of Russia’s most popular actors (Night Watch), Khabenskiv also stars in the film, playing Alexander Pechersky, a Russian Jew who finds himself imprisoned in the Polish camp Sobibor, where a quarter-million people were gassed to death. Having previously participated in a failed camp escape in Minsk, he is the natural leader for this attempt — which must come before the expected extermination of everyone still alive there. One could argue that Khabenskiv sustains the brutality for too long, particularly in one horrifying scene in which the prisoners are used as “horses” in a macabre chariot race. But Khabenskiv isn’t interested in sparing our sensitivities. If the story of the Holocaust is to be remembered, it must be told in all its grisly detail.
Solo (2018) ***
They’re cranking out Star Wars movies like Model T’s these days, and this genesis story for the series’ beloved character Han Solo comes off the assembly line with a full compliment of bells and whistles. We meet young Han (a pleasingly smug Alden Ehrenreich) as a juvenile delinquent, stealing cars (of the flying kind) and wooing a cute girl (Emila Clark). Circumstances split them up — but not forever, of course. Han tries to carve out a life as a gangster, a career choice that will, alas, never serve him well given his innate goodness. Director Ron Howard floods the screen with echoes of previous Star Wars episodes — and, oddly enough, Stanley Kubrick’s World War I epic Paths of Glory.
Sorry to Bother You (2018) *****
Nothing will prepare you for the off-the-wall — yet utterly engaging — brilliance of first-time director Boots Riley's dystopian comic masterpiece. Lakeith Stanfield plays a sad sack telemarketing guy who finds himself elevated to "Super Seller" — but what he's selling is no set of kitchen knives. The endlessly appealing cast ushers you willingly through the yarn's hairpin plot turns in a film that somehow blends the best elements of Office Space, Get Out, Being John Malkovich...and even Pinocchio. (FULL REVIEW)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) ****
Tom Holland is nerdily perfect as the new big-screen Spidey, but the most fun this time around is courtesy of onetime Batman Michael Keaton as his nemesis, The Vulture (which can't help but remind us all of Keaton's Oscar-nominated turn as Birdman)
Spotlight (2015) *****
The Oscar-winning story of the Boston Globe team who broke the pedophile priest scandal (FULL REVIEW)
Stan & Ollie (2018) ****
The greatest comedians are the ones who are funny in ways no one has been funny before, and that was certainly true of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, who took the vaudevillian formula of fat-guy-skinny-guy and elevated it to a realm of ethereal bliss. Stan & Ollie finds the boys past their prime, unable to find movie work and reduced to re-creating their classic bits in decrepit British music halls. But while they’ve lost their adoring public, they still have each other, and despite occasional blow-ups and breakups they cling to that bond like castaways on a floating plank. British national treasure Steve Coogan was probably born to play Laurel, and he is a delight from the first frame, ingeniously incorporating many of the comic’s trademark gestures and expressions into the man’s everyday demeanor. A tougher sell, as the rotund Ollie, is John C. Reilly, performing from under a quivering mass of makeup. It’s the toughest kind of screen acting — mastered only occasionally by the likes of Boris Karloff and Charlize Theron — but Reilly, whose lilting voice and gentle nature get him halfway there, succeeds handsomely.
The Star (2017) **
This animated re-telling of the Christmas Story — told through the eyes of the animals that witnessed it — betrays its promise of gentle Holiday entertainment by devolving quite quickly into a raucous slapstick adventure. Ice Age meets The Nativity, and the result is somewhere this side of Heaven.
A Star is Born (2018) ****
This fourth version of the classic one-star-on-the-rise, one-star-on-the-skids Hollywood potboiler is clearly modeled after the 1976 Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson remake. But while Streisand could never quite convince us she was ever a struggling young nobody, Lady Gaga nails the early scenes: Nervous, insecure, in awe of the superstar in her midst. As the film’s costar, Bradley Cooper plays a growling, laid-back country-rock singer, haunted by ghosts; As the film’s director (his first time behind the camera), Cooper plugs his vision into a 10,000-watt dynamo, especially in the frenetic concert sequences which, while as a practical matter mask the fact that he’s probably not really playing those wild riffs, add to the dizzying rush of showbiz that’s about to envelop the leading lady.
As much as he brings to the film, Cooper can’t avoid the fact that this story is a Hollywood chestnut that worships at the altar of fame and glamor. The more success the youthful Gaga achieves, with her orange hair and grinding dance routines and arena-size extravaganzas, the more we long for that first hour, when as a struggling young club singer she is filmed relishing the echo of her own voice in an alleyway, or serenading her famous new friend in a grocery store parking lot. On that score, neither character finds a truly happy ending.
Stay Hungry (1975) ***
So, do you remember when Arnold Schwarzenegger actually won an acting award? Rewind to '75, when in his first sustained screen role — and undubbed for the first time — the future Terminator played a body builder/bluegrass fiddler in this muscular comedy/drama from Five Easy Pieces director Bob Rafelson. Jeff Bridges and Sally Field are the main attractions here, but Ah-nold walked off with a Golden Globe for "Best Acting Debut in a Motion Picture." Yeah, this is around the time Pia Zadora also won a Best Actress Globe.
Stella's Last Weekend (2018) ***
This well-intentioned film about two brothers in love with the same girl is a family drama in every way: The brothers are played by real-life bros Nat and Alex Wolff and their mother is played by the stars' actual mom, Polly Draper, who also writes and directs the film. But wait, there's more: Draper's Jazz musician hubby Michael Wolff wrote the score and there are other Drapers peppered in amongst the production team. Even Draper's family dog has a pivotal role. This is germaine only because writer/director Draper seems to have the germ of a good film here, as well as an appealing cast. But she could have used an unbiased set of eyes to tell her when to end certain scenes, when to dial back the cloying sentiment, and how to make her characters talk like real people. You don't mind spending an hour and forty minutes with these people, but you also feel like they deserve better.
Still Mine (2012) ****
James Cromwell (Babe, L.A. Confidential, The Artist) gives the performance of a lifetime as an 87-year-old man who builds a small house for his ailing wife (a radiant Genevieve Bujold) with his own two hands. That is, until local bureaucrats start butting in.
Stockholm (2018) ****
Ethan Hawke is a hoot as a transplanted Texan who holds up a Stockholm, Sweden bank — and in the process wins the heart of one his hostages, sweetly played by Noomi Rapace (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo). It’s based on a true story — a 1973 heist-and-hostage event that gave a name to the syndrome in which captives become attached to their captors. The mostly Swedish cast is wonderful, and Canadian actor Christopher Heyerdahl shines as a veteran police chief who, in Sweden’s idyllic little world, has never had to deal with a bank robbery of any kind.
Suburbicon (2017) **
Good News: Director George Clooney got Matt Damon, Julianne Moore and Oscar Isaac to star in his movie about murder and mayhem in a 1959 'burb. Bad News: He failed to reckon with a scattershot script (co-written by Clooney and the Coen Brothers) that piles social consciousness on top of a whacked-out plot. (FULL REVIEW)
Sully (2016) ****
Tom Hanks and director Clint Eastwood triumph in this no-frills telling of the "Miracle on the Hudson" (FULL REVIEW)
The Summit (2012) ****
One one day in 2008, 11 adventurers died on the slopes of K2. Using the team’s own videos and new footage, director Nick Ryan takes us along on one harrowing hike.
Tab Hunter Confidential (2015) ***
The 1950s matinee idol narrates his own story of life under the Hollywood studio system.
This Beautiful Fantastic (2017) ***
In this charming tale of a grumpy widower (Tom Wilkinson) helping his hopeless neighbor (Jessica Brown Findlay) revive her disastrous back yard does for gardening what Sideways did for Pinot Noir.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MIssouri (2017) *****
Frances McDormand gives an exposed-nerve performance as an angry, grieving mom. She plays Mildred, a mother who, frustrated with the local cops' inability to solve her daughter's brutal murder, posts her displeasure on three giant billboards on the main road into town. Woody Harrelson, having the best year of his career, is a sympathetic foil as the police chief who tries to reason with Mildred. And perhaps best of all is the glorious Sam Rockwell as a trigger-tempered, yet somehow lovable deputy. Writer/director Martin McDonagh has already made two small masterpieces (In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths). This is his most satisfying film to date.
Tito And The Birds (2018) ****
From Brazilian animators Gabriel Bitar and Andre Catoto comes one of the most magical films of any year, the story of a young boy in a desperate search for the cure to an epidemic. The disease in question is a bizarre affliction that strikes anyone who is seized by fear: They turn into helpless rocks. To make matters worse, fear is running rampant through Tito's country due to the angry rants of the nation's leader, who seems unaware of the trouble he's causing. Yes, it's a cautionary tale, but the animation and characters are so engaging the lessons become secondary to the film's utter charm.
Tommy's Honor (2017) ****
You don't have to be a golf enthusiast to love this true story of a brash young Scottish golfer named Tommy Morris (Jack Lowden) and his greenskeeper father Tom (Peter Mullan), who virtually created the modern game of golf in the mid-1800s. Sam Neill is a devil-eyed delight as the aristocrat desperate to keep both men in their place.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) ****
In this adaptation of John le Carre´s novel, a haunted George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is called back from forced retirement to sniff out a mole at M16.
Tolkien (2019) ***
A strong central performance from Nicholas Hoult (About a Boy) can't breathe life into this by-the-numbers telling of the formative years of J.R.R. Tolkien, whose traumatic experience during World War I gave rise to the fantastic realms he created in his Lord of the Rings books. Superfans of the Middle Earth novels may delight in meeting the real-life figures on which Tolkien based his characters, and the author's romance with Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) is sweet, but for better or for worse, a trip to the movies these days demands something more than a Masterpiece Theatre gloss .
Touch Me Not (2018) **
Romanian filmmaker Adina Pintile is primarily a documentarian, but for this exploration of human sexuality she blurs the lines beyond perception: Laura Benson plays a woman named Laura who finds the touch of any man unbearable, and her movie director friend Adina, played by the director, follows her through a rite of passage that finds Laura observing an intimacy workshop at which a dozen or so people, most of them with some sort of profound disability, explore each other’s bodies. She also consults a transsexual counselor and a sex therapist and visits an S&M den. All the actors “perform” under their real names, leaving the audience to imagine what’s real and what is not. Confusion aside, or maybe because of it, the film won the Golden Bear grand prize at the Berlin Film Festival
Transit (2019) ****
In an outlandish experiment that gets just about everything right, German writer/director Christian Petzold sets this pulse-pounding World War II drama in present-day Marseilles, France. The city is being flooded with refugees trying to escape advancing German fascists, hoping against hope to catch one of the last ships leaving for the Americas.Into this maelstrom, having jumped a freight train from Paris, comes a fugitive named Georg (Franz Rogowski), carrying the passport and transit papers of a Parisian writer, a stranger to him, who committed suicide. He also has papers for the writer’s wife Marie (Paula Beer), who left her husband and fled to Marseilles to be with a world-famous humanitarian physician (Godehard Giese). You don’t have to be a cinephile to hear the echoes of Casblanca here, but Petzold has created an intriguing and deeply involving variation on the theme. In an era when Europe is being riven by mass immigration, he boldly casts Europeans themselves as the refugees, desperately seeking safety beyond their native shores.
A Trip To The Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune) (1902) *****
Most early filmmakers were inventors and technicians — Georges Melies was an artist of the first rank. Seizing on the fanciful possibilities of the medium, he created a series of fantastic, dream-like films unmatched for their sheer originality. He didn't consider A Trip to the Moon to be his masterpiece, but it is the one that continues to capture the imagination of 21st Century movie lovers.
Trumbo (2015) ****
Bryan Cranston is compelling as Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriter jailed and blacklisted during the Red Scare of the 1940s. The film resists demonizing Hollywood commie-hunters in favor of showing how polarizing government policies forced good people to make devastating choices. t (FULL REVIEW)
The Truth About Killer Robots (2019) ***
This documentary exploring the implications of increasing autonomy in manufacturing, information, and service industries means to alarm us. But it slips into “The Automobile killed the buggy whip industry” category — and the “humanoid” robots we are asked to resent seem barely a generation beyond Walt Disney’s audio animatronic Abe Lincoln.
Tulip Fever (2017) ***
If you think the markets are volatile these days, imagine 17th Century Amsterdam where, for reasons economists study to this day, the sale of a single tulip bulb could set you up for life. Against this backdrop a wealthy and rather cold-hearted businessman (Christoph Waltz) commissions a handsome young artist (Dane DeHaan) to paint his beautiful young wife (Alicia Vikander). Well,you know how that goes — soon the two youngsters are planning to run off together with money they hope to earn in the crazed tulip bulb market. Judi Dench pops up as a worldly nun. Tom Stoppard wrote the script from Deborah Moggach's best-selling novel.
Tully (2018) ****
Charlize Theron compels as a late-30's mom, overwhelmed by life, who finds solace in the person of a night nanny played by Mackenzie Davis. But because this film is written by Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult), you know this ain't no Mary Poppins.
Unbroken: Path to Redemption (2018) ***
Angelina Jolie, who directed 2014's Unbroken, is not at the helm of this sequel, nor is the script written by the Coen Brothers. But the life story of World War II hero Louis Zamperini is compelling in anyone's hands, and as a human drama evoking faith and forgiveness the film still has transcendent moments, often punching well above its weight as a faith-based film. (FULL REVIEW)
A United Kingdom (2017) ****
Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo star in a true story of taboo love (FULL REVIEW)
The Upside (2019) ****
Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart make a delightful odd couple in this based-on-fact buddy picture. Cranston stars as a bitterly depressed Manhattan businessman who’s been paralyzed in an accident. Verging on suicidal, he hires a decidedly unqualified ex-con (Hart) as his caregiver, half-hoping the guy will accidentally kill him. Of course they get off to a rough start, but also of course they become the best of friends, learning from each other that life brings rewards no matter how the odds are stacked against you. Nicole Kidman flits in and out as the long-suffering, Harvard-educated executive assistant who clearly has a thing for her oblivious boss. Yes, the critics will howl that this is just another in a long line of Hollywood "Magic Negro" films, in which a benign Black character rescues a socially superior White person from himself while allowing the audience to wallow in self-deceptive pseudo-tolerance. To that I say pshaw. And balderdash. The Upside is about friendship, finding it in unexpected places, and surrendering to its irreplaceable charms.
Us (2019) ****
Writer/director Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out was unlike any other horror movie we’d ever seen — but his new film is in some ways similar to just about every other horror movie we’ve ever seen. And that's not a bad thing. In Us, you’ll find echoes of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Night of the Living Dead, The Shining, Jaws — and, yes, even Get Out. Still, Peele is such a skilled storyteller—and his cast is so appealing—that it’s impossible not to be pulled into this creepy tale of a family grappling with the appearance of another family that looks a lot like them — in zombiefied sort of way. As he did in Get Out, Peele again touches on the state of American society— this time he’s warning about the ticking time bomb of America’s growing permanent underclass. But mostly he’s here to scare the dickens out of us. And that he does.
V.I Warshawski (1991) ****
This hardboiled yarn about a tough-as-nails Chicago private eye who uses her wits as well as her womanly charms should have re-ignited the career of Kathleen Turner. Alas, it did not, but the film stands as one of her most memorable performances.
Vice (2018) *****
By the time Christian Bale finally released his grip on me at the end of this breathless, irreverent biography of former Vice-President Dick Cheney, I understood how audiences must have felt after seeing George C. Scott star in Patton: This was not just a performance; this was a landmark moment in movie history. Bale doesn't just disappear into the role of the growling, scowling VP; he embodies an entire era of American culture. Hijacking the Presidency of George W. Bush (brilliantly inhabited by Sam Rockwell, who was born for the part), Bale's Cheney follows an internal compass whose magnetic north is his own ambition, tempered somewhat by his devotion to his wife (a brilliant Amuy Adams) and daughters. Writer/director Adam McKay (The Big Short) brings his usual bag of narrative tricks to bear, but he can't overshadow Bale's monumental performance. Opposite any other leading man, Steve Carell would have stolen the show as Cheney's smiling, savvy mentor, Donald Rumsfeld.
Viceroy's House (2017) ***
There's historic sweep and intimate human drama in Indian director Gurinder Chada's telling of the 1947 handover of India from the British Empire. Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey) stars as Lord Mountbatten, the man in charge of the transfer, and he brings a regal sort of humanity to the role. In Chada's telling, Montbatten and his wife (Gillian Anderson) are deeply disturbed by the looming conflict between Muslim and Hindu, and appalled by the slapdash way in which a partition of the nation is being applied ("You Broke It, You Own It" didn't start with Iraq). The upstairs geopolitical story is layered over a Romeo-and-Juliet downstairs romance between Mountbatten's Hindu butler (Manish Dayal) and a palace translator (Huma Qureshi), a drama that illuminates the social conflict that would savage life on the subcontinent for decades to come. As in virtually all movies made in India, the churning streets and explosions of color cannot help but make the country itself the film's central character.
Victoria & Abdul (2017) ****
In her last years, Queen Victoria (Judy Dench) befriended a low-level emissary from India (Ali Fazal) — much to the horror of the Royal court, especially her son and future king Bertie (Eddie Izzard). This telling of that story offers absolutely everything lovers of the Masterpiece Theatre genre will expect: lush settings, cross-cultural conflicts, benevolent members of the Upper Crust and plucky up-and-comers. Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena, Florence Foster Jenkins) knows his audience and delivers the goods.
Vox Lux (2018) ***
Natalie Portman's strong performance as a drug-addled rock star suffered from being released at the same time 2018's A Star is Born came out, but much of its failure is self-inflicted. Director Brady Corbet (Funny Games) immediately creates empathy for the character in a harrowing opening sequence, then squanders the good will by turning her into an insufferable prima donna whose songs aren't all that good.
Voyeur (2017) ****
Meet Gerald Foos, a friendly guy with an easy laugh — and a motel owner who for decades hovered above each room, peering from his "observation platform," watching his guests in their most private moments. In this spellbinding documentary, writer Gay Talese visits Foos just prior to publication of his book about him. Turns out Talese didn't know quite everything about America's most notorious Peeping Tom.
Wait For Your Laugh (2018) ****
The late comic Rose Marie was a show biz powerhouse — and this documentary about her 90-plus years in show biz goes a long way to capturing her megawatt personality. The likes of Tim Conway, Carl Reiner and Dick Van Dyke all step up to the camera to sing her praises, but it's Rose Marie herself — in vintage clips and interviews shortly before her recent death — who powers
the film from beginning to end.
Wakefield (2017) ****
Bryan Cranston is masterful as a successful lawyer who, on a whim, decides to hide out in his family's garage...and stays there for a year. It's a movie for everyone who's ever wondered, "What would they do without me?" (FULL REVIEW)
War For the Planet of the Apes (2017) ****
The film series, created by Rod Serling in 1968, comes full-circle: The third episode of this 21st Century reboot brings us up to the point where the apes take over and begin the monkey-centric society Charlton Heston and his fellow astronauts discover in the original. It's a fully realized mythology fleshed out (so to speak) through fine computer-aided performances by Andy Serkis and Steve Zahn. Woody Harrelson is fun as a borderline psycho human military commander.
The Way, Way Back (2013) ****
It’s a coming-of-age comedy starring Liam James as a confused 14-year-old kid, but he’s surrounded by one of the great grownup casts of the year: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, and Sam Rockwell.
We Are What We Are (2013) ****
Director Jim Mickle’s gothic tale of a family steeped in secret cannibalism begins in a dark, drenching downpour and never lightens up; not one bit. Go for the one bright spot, a neighbor played by the rarely seen Kelly McGillis, who brings a measure of pleasant humanity to the family’s otherwise impenetrable darkness.
We Have Always Lived In The Castle (2019) ***
Moody and mysterious, director Stacie Passon’s lovingly crafted thriller about two traumatized sisters and their wheelchair-bound uncle living in the wake of a torturous murder has moments of chilling beauty. Based on a novel by Shirley Jackson (The Lottery, The Haunting of Hill House), the film has a decidedly Victorian feel as the main characters move among the delicately furnished rooms of their gabled mansion. The girls’ parents were killed via arsenic, a murder that was initially pinned on the older daughter (luminous Alexandra Daddario), but which could just as easily have been committed by the younger (nerve-wracking Taissa Farmiga). No matter the culprit, the family has been shunned by the nearby townsfolk, who were already predisposed to hate the family because of their wealth. The movie seems to be saying something about class warfare and society’s blind fear of the Other, but mostly it’s a showcase for Passon, her cinematographer Piers McGrail, her two lead actresses — and especially Crispin Glover as the uncle, desperately trying to make sense of the murders before he slips permanently into dementia.
What Haunts Us (2018) ****
When director Paige Goldberg Tolmach learned that six of the 49 boys who graduated from her high school class have committed suicide over the past 35 years, she became determined to find out why. Her devastating and infuriating documentary, fueled by the filmmaker's personal anguish, gets to the awful truth that involves (inevitably, it seems), pedophilia and the willfull ignorance of those in charge.
Where Hands Touch (2018) ***
It’s not hard to imagine a serious film about the plight of black people in Hitler’s Germany, but writer/director Amma Asante (Belle) has instead settled for a typical Third Reich-set potboiler about the teenage daughter of an Aryan woman and an African soldier (Hunger Games’Amandla Stenberg) who falls in love with, natch, a gangly young brownshirt (Captain Fantastic’s George MacKay). Both stars are immediately appealing, and besides wishing their characters had an easier time of it, we also long to see them in a movie that doesn’t so blatantly slip into the conventions of young adult fiction.
White Boy Rick (2018) ***
Matthew McConaughey stars as the father of Ricky Wersche Jr. a kid who in the 1980s was enlisted by Detroit drug enforcement cops to become an undercover informant. As played by teen newcomer Richie Merritt, Ricky is a sullen little punk looking for trouble — and aided by the fact that his dad, a licensed firearms dealer, doesn’t seem to mind his son selling AK-47s on the street for fun and profit. Director Yann Demange doesn’t ask us to sympathize with the kid until he gets sentenced to life in prison, and by then it’s too late.
Whose Streets? (2017) ****
Raw as the emotions it illuminates, this documentary about the aftermath of Ferguson never once considers exploring the motivations of police and court officials whose actions sparked days of violence. Nor does it attempt to frame Ferguson's riots within a larger cultural malaise. A direct descendant of Latin America's subversive Third Cinema of the 1960s, this guerrilla project is a portrait of visceral anguish; a community's cinematic scream.
Widows (2018) ***
Heist movies generally work best if you have good reason to root for the crooks, and that usually involves infusing them with charm and humor (The Sting and Ocean’s 11and its progeny come to mind). For Widows, a big-budget, big-name caper flick, director Steve McQueen approaches the feather-light material with much the same sort of gravity he lavished upon 12 Years a Slave. Viola Davis stars as a Chicago socialite whose hubby (Liam Neeson) has been supporting their lavish lifestyle for decades through scores of high-profile burglaries. When one goes horribly wrong with lethal consequences, she and the widows of the heist team’s other members find the plans for the guys’ next heist — and decide to pull it off themselves. Wouldn’t that be fun directed by James Cameron and starring, say, Whoopi Goldberg and Melissa McCarthy? Sorry; instead we get a needlessly complex, subtext-heavy slog that manages to waste even Michelle Rodriguez, Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall — plus leaves us with the uneasy moral that mean old racists deserve to be shot to death in their pajamas.
The Wife (2018) ****
Fans of great screen acting can’t ask for more than Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce as a long-married literary couple whose lifetime of shared secrets catches up with them. Based on Meg Wolitzer’s novel, the film explores how even mutually agreed-upon marital ground rules can mess up life’s later chapters. Close' performance is one of those rare gems that pay dividends for watching them a second time. Annie Stark, Close's daughter, plays the younger version of her mom’s character.
Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971) ****
Author Roald Dahl hated this version of his children’s book (even though he wrote the screenplay), but there is much to love in Gene Wilder’s quirky, subliminally threatening portrayal of the world’s most reclusive candy mogul.
Wilson (2017) ****
As the desperately lonely, nakedly neurotic, delusionally condescending title character in this comedy based on Daniel Clowes graphic novel, Woody Harrelson pulls off the ultimate actor's trick: He annoys us to no end, leaving us breathlessly desperate for more (FULL REVIEW)
The Wind (2018) ***
Is it a supernatural thriller or a psychological drama? Director Emma Tammi and writer Teresa Sutherland try to have it both ways in this stark film, set on a remote Western homestead in the late 1800s. Frontier wife Lizzie (Caitlin Gerard) is convinced a dark, demonic presence is lurking on the prairie just outside the flimsy wooden cabin she shares with her husband Isaac Ashley Zuckerman. And the strange goings-on at the homestead of their nearest neighbors (Julia Goldani Telles and Dylan McTee) make her even more certain Something is Out There. Tammi creates a truly menacing atmosphere that seems positively claustrophobic despite the setting’s endless horizons. But the story punts when the true nature of the terror should come into focus.
Wind River (2017) ****
Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water) has fashioned a new genre: The Modern Western. Instead of rustling cattle, the bad guys get high and commit grotesque crimes until a determined lawman tracks them down. Here it's Jeremy Renner, usually a tracker of animal predators, on the trail of the human predator who killed a local girl.
Winnie Mandela (2011) ***
Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson plays the wife of Nelson Mandela (Terence Howard) in a biopic that traces the entire arc of her life – from a village child to social worker to sometimes brutal anti-apartheid activist. Hudson is impressive and Howard is handsomely stoic, but the real beauty here is South Africa itself, lushly photographed by Mario Janelle.
The Wizard of Oz (1939) *****
To truly appreciate the greatest fantasy film ever made, you must see it on the big screen. The wonders unveiled by that 20-foot-high image are endless: Judy Garland's real tears as she sobs over that awful crystal ball; Billy Burke's pink fairy gown glittering with a thousand sparkling sequens; showbiz vets Bert Lahr, Frank Morgan and Ray Bolger throwing knowing glances at each other, as if they're starring in their own slightly subversive version of the film.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) ****
Teaming for the fifth time with Leonardo DiCaprio, director Martin Scorsese lets loose a cannonade of sex, drugs, and no-holds-barred avarice in telling the mostly true story of a New York stockbroker who made an outrageous fortune by swindling investors in the 1980s and ’90s. Like his central character, Scorsese once again proves that nothing succeeds like excess.
Woman Walks Ahead (2018) ***
A paint-by-numbers script labors mightily to sink this sprawling story of a New York portrait artist (Jessica Chastain) who braves the perils of the Wild West to paint Chief Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes) — but thanks to earnest performances by a splendid cast and some truly spectacular photography, the film becomes, if not a must-see, at least a wonder to behold.
Wonder (2017) ****
Bring the family — and a family-size box of tissues — to this endearing story of a young boy born with a deformed face (Jacob Tremblay) whose parents decide to send him to school rather than home school him. Tremblay is wonderful, as are Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson as his wise and loving parents.
Wonder Wheel (2017) ***
Woody Allen vividly recreates 1950s Coney Island in this domestic drama about a carousel operator (Jim Belushi), his dissatisfied wife (Kate Winslet) and his wayward daughter (Juno Temple).
Wonder Woman (2017) ****
Director Patty Jenkins' vision of the ultimate female superhero is an enthralling tale of timeless empowerment. Mixing Greek mythology with World War I history, the film packs surprises with its punches.
Wonderstruck (2017) ****
Heart-tugger extraordinaire Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Carol) directs this touching, ambitious tale of a 1920s deaf girl (Millient Simonds) and a 1970s runaway boy (Oakes Fegley) whose stories and lives intermingle in far-fetched, yet somehow inevitable, Although the narrative similarities of the two kids are evident from the start, Haynes does a masterful job of veiling their ultimate connection until the precise right moment—and by then we're helplessly in his thrall.
Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018) ****
Director Morgan Neville, who won an Oscar for his documentary 50 Feet From Stardom, says he was a little worried when he embarked on making a film about children’s television legend Fred Rodgers. His greatest fear: That Rodgers, who died in 2003 after a lifetime of showing children the virtue of kindness, would turn out to have been something less than what he appeared to be. He didn’t need to worry: Won’t You Be My Neighbor confirms that Fred Rodgers was, in fact, virtuous in ways that transcended his kid-friendly TV character. In an culture that worships anti-heroes both on screen and in real life, Won’t You Be My Neighbor celebrates the fact that it is, indeed, possible to be both nice…and interesting.
Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation (2019) ****
If it’s a performance film about Woodstock you’re looking for, may I refer you to Michael Wadleigh’s Oscar-winning 1970 documentary. Barak Goodman’s new film is something quite different, aiming to get to the heart of that August 1969 weekend when Max Yasgur’s dairy farm became Ground Zero for the Boomers’ self-identification as the Love ‘em All, Do Your Own Thing Generation. Drawing from hours of home movies, vintage photos and interviews with folks who were there — whether standing on that rain-swept stage or cheering from Woodstock’s muddy trenches — this is a compelling portrait of what it was like to be there, and what it all meant.
A Wrinkle In Time (2018) **
Once you get past the 60-foot-tall Oprah Winfrey, you'll still be flummoxed by this over-produced and impenetrable sci-fi fantasy based on a beloved young adult novel. The tale of a young girl (Storm Reid) trying to rescue her dad (Chris Pine) from the clutches of a disembodied evil called The It fancies itself a profound meditation on universal truths, but in the end settles for a mundane "Love Conquers All" trope. Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling and that supersized Oprah appear as her very annoying spirit guides. (FULL REVIEW)
Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) ****
Henry Fonda brings boyish charm to the role of the future 14th President in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln. The film came in the middle of the astonishing two-year span in which Fonda starred in Jesse James, Drums Along the Mohawk the Grapes of Wrath And The Lady Eve. His Abe Lincoln sometimes gets lost in the shuffle, but lanky, drawling, soft-spoken Fonda remains one of the most affecting Honest Abes ever.
Yellow Submarine (1968) ****
Animation buffs weren't expecting much when The Beatles' tuneful feature Yellow Submarine opened 50 years ago. It was coming from the same studio that produced a decidedly pedestrian Saturday morning 'toon based on the Fab Four, and The Beatles themselves had virtually nothing to do with it, other than contributing some songs they had lying around. Besides, everyone knew Disney was the only studio capable of crafting an animated feature (director George Dunning had 11 months to make Submarine, Disney lavished four years of care on each of theirs). So imagine the surprise when Yellow Submarine pulled into port bristling with ingenuity, aglow with psychedelic colors, snapping with knowing humor. (Even The Beatles were impressed: The Lads , who'd refused to provide voices for the movie, hastily agreed to film a live-action epilogue, which is actually a lot of fun).
Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) ****
Henry Fonda brings boyish charm to the role of the future 14th President in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln. The film came in the middle of the astonishing two-year span in which Fonda starred in Jesse James, Drums Along the Mohawk the Grapes of Wrath And The Lady Eve. His Abe Lincoln sometimes gets lost in the shuffle, but lanky, drawling, soft-spoken Fonda remains one of the most affecting Honest Abes ever.
The Zookeeper's Wife (2017) ****
Jessica Chastain stars with Johan Heldenberg — whose heroic character is shortchanged by the title — as the real-life couple who hid fugitive Jews from the Nazis in their zoo compound in Warsaw, Poland. As the couple make selfless choices that place them in increasing peril, director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) constantly ratchets up the suspense (FULL REVIEW)
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