1. Juliette Binoche- Let the Sunshine In- The key to Juliette Binoche’s performance as Isabelle in Let the Sunshine In is in the way she and director Claire Denis show us the character searching; searching for love among a group of less than stellar contenders, searching for meaning in the space between those affairs, searching for the right emotion in any given moment. Several sometimes wash over Binoche’s face within the span of just seconds. That her performance seems so natural amid such a rapidly shifting emotional landscape is a testament to her brilliance.
2. Helena Howard- Madeline’s Madeline- Easily the year’s great breakout performance, Helena Howard is front and center in Josephine Decker’s swirling fever dream of a movie. Howard and Decker thrust viewers into the head of Madeline, a teenager battling mental illness who is also part of an experimental theater troupe. Howard’s rapid shifts in mood within scenes is astonishing, and much of the movie’s energy is built around the risk of her throwing any given moment into chaos.
Support the Girls — Director Andrew Bujalski finds the perfect encapsulation of his vision of modern American capitalism in Double Whammies, the Hooters knockoff sports bar where much of his latest film, Support the Girls, takes place. The restaurant operates on bizarrely specific codes built on the unspoken transaction between its jean shorts and tight t-shirt wearing female wait staff and its horny (mostly) male clientele. Bujalski and his ensemble are astute observers of workplace behavior, notably the glimpses of personality that bleed through the faces the characters try to wear at work. Professionalism at Double Whammies means a constant smile, and a tiptoe up to a sexual boundary with customers that becomes awkward and uncomfortable very quickly.
That’s where Lisa (Regina Hall) comes in. Lisa is a compassionate, intuitive general manager, tasked with passing down the vision of the restaurant owner to the staff while also mediating conflicts between them and the sometimes insulting, sometimes worse customers. One of the many pleasures of Support the Girls is in how Bujalski and Hall show the toll patrolling that managerial tightrope takes on Lisa. Much of the movie is focused on a single day, following her on a series of menial tasks that she nevertheless executes with great purpose. Her job is a lonely one; she has to be friendly but not too friendly, stern but not too stern with her staff and customers. The exhaustion seems to be catching up to her, as evidenced by the way it washes over Hall’s face before she snaps out of it and onto the next task. Double Whammies doesn’t deserve someone like Lisa; in fact Bujalski suggests the restaurant and its customers don’t deserve many of its employees, either. Support the Girls finds its humor and quite a bit of emotional resonance in the matter-of-fact exploration of the everyday disconnect between how the employees interact with each other, and how they are trained to interact with customers. Grade: B+
Unfriended: Dark Web Directed by: Stephen Susco Written by: Stephen Susco Starring: Colin Woodell, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Betty Gabriel and Andrew Lees
Note: Unfriended: Dark Web has two possible endings. This is a review of ‘Ending B,’ with limited spoilers.
I consider Leo Gabriadze’s Unfriended one of the defining horror films of this decade, a ruthless slasher that unfolds entirely on the laptop screen of its protagonist, a high school-aged woman named Blair. What could so easily have been a gimmick opens up an expansive realm of digital storytelling tools, focusing on character development and psychology through what Blair types, deletes and rewrites, watches on YouTube and searches for on the internet. This is further deepened by what she reveals in real time in a video chat with five other friends (one of whom is her boyfriend) and what she says in one-on-one typed conversations with others.
While all of this is going on, a mysterious newcomer pops into their chat with just a default blue Skype silhouette instead of a video stream. The group’s attempts to kick this person out and figure out what they want yields to a series of sinister and even deadly games that weaponizes each teen’s most guarded secrets against them and lays bare their most embarrassing mistakes in an effort to make them turn on each other. The movie taps into a true horror of the digital age: the endless documentation and permanence of nearly every facet of a person’s life.
Avengers: Infinity War — My distaste for the third Avengers film is due in part to my overall fatigue with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.Since 2008’s Iron Man, the MCU has become an ubiquitous presence at the movies. Over the last decade, we’ve seen at least one, and often more, of these movies almost every year. They built toward 2012’s The Avengers, uniting the core characters of the previous movies (if you’re not familiar with them at this point, congratulations) for a city-destroying epic. Then they continued building (and destroying), with individual installments culminating in another Avengers film in 2015.
These movies are often exhausting in their mediocrity; generically constructed, often interchangeable battle sequences are peppered throughout blandly sinister attempts to destroy the world. The best movies in the MCU (Ant-Man, Black Panther, the second installments of Captain America and Guardians of the Galaxy) are often the ones that have narratives that hone in on building a specific cinematic world rather than a universe. Directorial personality doesn’t hurt, either.
Best Picture: Call Me by Your Name, Darkest Hour, Dunkirk, Get Out, Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, The Post, The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Will Win: The Best Picture race appears to be wide open this year, though two of the frontrunners, The Shape of Water and Three Billboards, are wildly uneven, undeserving messes. I can easily see Get Out or Lady Bird swooping in and winning, but I believe The Shape of Water will do well in several other categories so I’m giving it the edge here.
Should Win: My pick would be Phantom Thread, though it’s inclusion here was a surprise as it is. Of the movies that have an actual shot at winning, I’d pick Lady Bird.
Left out: A pretty solid line up this year, though I would have left out The Shape of Water, Three Billboards, Darkest Hour and Dunkirk and nominated A Quiet Passion, Good Time, The Meyerowitz Stories and Nocturama.
1. A Quiet Passion- In A Quiet Passion, writer/director Terence Davies and actress Cynthia Nixon see their subject, the American poet Emily Dickinson, with disarming clarity. Fragmentally structured through her life in 19th century Massachusetts, Davies and Nixon create an expansive emotional landscape within Dickinson’s increasingly shrinking, reclusive world. Happiness is nearly always out of her reach, conveyed by Nixon’s endlessly crumpling face. Still, A Quiet Passion does not wallow in Dickinson’s despair, Davies grapples with her thoughts and feelings that build and bleed into each other moment to moment. The first half of A Quiet Passion is often blisteringly funny, and Dickinson’s quick wit becomes a through line that Davies uses to trace her withdrawal from the world. The second half of the film portrays Dickinson reaching a point where she refuses to meet face to face with anyone other than family members, standing from a doorway atop the stairs, shouting down witticisms and rebuttals from a sad distance. A Quiet Passion may at times be unrelentingly bleak, but it is also deeply empathetic and moving. Davies shows that remarkable artistry can bloom from such dark, oppressive conditions, even if it wasn’t rightly admired during its creator’s life.-Matt
2. Call Me by Your Name–Call Me by Your Name is a film about young love made from a mature distance. Luca Guadagnino’s intoxicating drama, set at a villa in 1980s Italy, chronicles a summer affair between 17-year-old Elio and Oliver, a chiseled, imposingly tall American in his 20s who is working as a summer graduate assistant of for Elio’s academic father. The director and his invaluable lead actors (Timothée Chalamet as Elio and Armie Hammer as Oliver), portray the uncertainty the two young men feel both physically and verbally. Guadagnino aims his camera at them head-on, often foregrounding one as he talks, reads research or plays the piano while the other watches in the distance. There are also key point-of-view shots, watching one of them from a distance before cutting to the other person watching, transfixed but uncertain why. Their eventual affair is the result of an evolving, undefined intimacy. Call Me by Your Name gets so much right about attraction, about a short-term affair that will be frozen in time and replayed for the rest of its characters’ lives.-M
1. Cynthia Nixon- A Quiet Passion-“I’m nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody too?” Emily Dickinson speaks these lines from one of her poems not in voiceover, as is often the case in A Quiet Passion, but to a newborn baby the first time she holds him. Staring directly into the infant’s eyes, Cynthia Nixon’s delivery is a gentle whisper that, like many other moments in Terence Davies’ extraordinary film, caught me off guard. Her performance creates an expansive emotional landscape within Dickinson’s small, increasingly reclusive world. Traditional happiness is nearly always out of reach for the poet, something that Nixon displays on her endlessly crumpling face. It’s an unforgettable blend of quick wit and despair, a performance that is more important to the overall success of a film than any other this year.
2. Timothée Chalamet- Call Me by Your Name- One of the most powerful images in a movie this year was an extended shot of Timothée Chalamet staring into a fire at the end of Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name. In this scene, his character Elio is replaying his unforgettable summer with Oliver, a graduate assistant who stayed with his family as a sort of understudy with his academic father. The expansive range of emotions that Chalamet displays here are astounding, as is the rest of his performance. He imbues the 17-year-old with a lanky restlessness that comes out when he plays the piano, or stalks the edges of the many different social gatherings at his parents’ luscious Italian home. Chalamet’s physicality, his cautiousness mixed with abrupt bursts of confidence, gives Call Me by Your Name a crucial sense of spontaneity.
Call Me by Your Name Directed by: Luca Guadagnino Written by: James Ivory (screenplay), André Aciman (novel) Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar
Not everyone gets a young summer romance. Sometimes you look back a month, a year, a decade later and realize that you had one, and it was perfect, or as perfect as it could have been. When it’s over you might wonder why you wasted so much time fumbling around, doing an awkward dance around what you wanted to say or do. That dance is part of the beauty of it, though. If you’d been more practiced, more put together and guarded, it might not have happened at all.
It happens for Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a 17-year-old boy living with his parents at a sun-drenched villa “somewhere in Northern Italy” in 1983. It’s the kind of place where people come and go as they please; his parents always have different guests for dinner. Elio spends his days transcribing music, reading and flirting with girls. He’s a mass of contradictions, as teenagers tend to be; polite but sometimes condescending, hesitant with bursts of confidence. Chalamet imbues him with a lanky restlessness. It comes out when he plays the piano, or stalks the edges of the many different social gatherings.
Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi Directed by: Rian Johnson Written by: Rian Johnson (screenplay), George Lucas (characters) Starring: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Mark Hamill and John Boyega
Rian Johnson takes giant, often messy leaps in The Last Jedi, the eighth episode of Star Wars and the second in the (first) post-Disney trilogy. His take feels much more sporadic than the cautious nostalgia trip J.J. Abrams rendered in 2015’s The Force Awakens.It has higher highs and lower lows, hopping from its disparate plot lines with an often jarring inconsistency. While it has some of the series’ strongest set pieces, its clumsy narrative rhythm doesn’t allow it to breathe. As a result, its moments of visual splendor are sometimes lessened or cut short by sloppy pacing.
(No major spoilers, but the basic plot set-up is discussed ahead)
Blade Runner 2049 — It would have been interesting to see what Ridley Scott did with Blade Runner 2049. He has had mixed results with expanding the mythology of the Alien films, though having them stacked up against his near-perfect original almost seems unfair. The way he has deepened the mythology, though, by focusing on the android characters, would make his updated take on the world of Blade Runner fascinating. Comparisons between Blade Runner 2049 and the original don’t hurt the quality of either movie, though that could be because I don’t hold the 1982 film in as high regard as some of Scott’s others.
The Blade Runner universe, which focuses on the “retiring” (killing) of human-made androids called replicants, is also a good fit for Denis Villeneuve. His 35-year-later sequel focuses on Los Angeles Police Officer K (Ryan Gosling), who is tasked with hunting down older model replicants, the ones who can disobey their programming and grow to have independent thoughts. His initial retirement of a replicant who has been hiding out on a farm for 20 years leads him down a rabbit hole that challenges his perceptions of what he does and blows open much of the debate that fueled the original movie. How human are the replicants? And how much do humans ignore that to get rid of the ones labeled as rogue?