Films of 2020

BIL’S TOP TEN OF THE YEAR

 

  1. Sylvie’s Love
    BBBBB  (Eugene Ashe, USA)  An aspiring musician gets a day job at a record store and falls in love with the owner’s aspiring television producer daughter, but she is already engaged to the wealthy son of a doctor and he soon goes on a performance tour, leading to years of their paths crossing and their passion never abating.  Every shot is immersed in loveliness, Ashe allows the pleasure of women in party dresses and nights in classic Manhattan nightclubs to be as delicately captured as the palpable eroticism between the leads.  Trailer


  2. Quo Vadis, Aida
    BBBB.5  (Jasmila Zbanic, Bosnia And Herzegovina/Austria/Romania/Netherlands/Germany/Poland/France/Norway/Turkey)  Srebrenica falls to the Serbian army and crowds of people are taking refuge in a UN building, with a translator frantically imploring personnel to help her get her husband and son into the building and, possibly, evacuated before the worst occurs to them.  Zbanic saves her most pointed and devastating criticism for the United Nations and its apparent existence as a lip-service organization that means well but ultimately does more harm than good, exceptionally using art to express the importance of a story through one person’s experience.  Oscar Nomination:  Best International Feature Film.  TIFF:  Selection.  Venice:  In Competition.  Trailer


  3. Wife Of A Spy
    Supai no tsuma
    BBBB.5  (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan)  The wife of a silk merchant is warned that her husband’s love of American culture has placed him in danger of being thought a traitor in pre-World War II Japan, but when a traveling companion of his is found dead, she is torn between her feelings for her husband and her desire to not make waves.   Glossily photographed and delivered through exceptionally strong performances, this is a finely polished, wholly enveloping work that chips away at its characters’ plucky resolve in such small, swift movements that are hardly detectable, there are sequences of whimsical humour that distract us effectively enough to make sure that the heartbreaking conclusion arrives with perfect timing.  Venice: Best Director (Kiyoshi Kurosawa). Trailer


  4. Onward
    BBBB.5  (Dan Scanlon, USA)  In a world where the magic has long ago left the lives of magical creatures, two elf brothers receive a wizard’s stick left to them by their late father, which they use to bring him back for a day but which ends up only resurrecting half his body.  Rules and reasons are explained quickly and done away with as the adventure gets going with gusto in this delightful and surprisingly touching film, with Octavia Spencer contributing terrific voice work as a Manticore who has left her fire-breathing ways behind to manage a pub.  Oscar Nomination:   Best Animated Feature.  Trailer


  5. I Care A Lot
    BBBB.5  (J Blakeson, USA/United Kingdom)  An advocate for the care of senior citizens makes an impressive profit from liquidating the estates of the people she locks away in care homes, but her ruthlessly immoral determination meets its match when she declares a woman incompetent who turns out to be connected to the Russian mob.  It’s such juicy fun to anticipate the retribution that is coming towards this truly villainous character, possibly the most effective female anti-hero in recent cinematic history, but never assume that the last twist has been played, because when it comes to making sure she wins, you’ve never met anyone more determined to do so.  TIFF:   2020.  Trailer


  6. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
    BBBB  (Eliza Hittman, USA/United Kingdom)  A teenager in a small Pennsylvania town learns during a visit to her local underfunded, conservatively-minded medical clinic that she is ten weeks pregnant, and takes a trip to New York City to have an abortion, but youth and poverty make a number of seemingly banal details of the experience agonizing to accomplish.  Hittman plays the story out in a wholly natural and spontaneous manner, faltering only in two moments of unnecessary manipulation (a tracking shot over Autumn’s face after she first hears her baby’s heartbeat, and a later scene of her grabbing her friend’s hand while she makes out with a guy for cash have the kind of Female Solidary symbolism that feels student-film-level mawkish), but lead actress Sidney Flanigan’s performance when she is interviewed for intake at the clinic is the centre of the film, and is devastating.  Berlin:  Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize.  Trailer


  7. Nomadland
    BBBB  (Chloé Zhao, USA/Germany)  A domestically rootless widow lives out of her van and travels a circuit up and down the country throughout the year, along the way stopping at encampments for other van dwellers, among whom she finds friends and support.  The most revolutionary thing about Zhao’s gorgeous movie is that she presents a lifestyle that is usually coded in movies as poverty but equates it, even at its worst, with freedom and experience, surrounding it with natural beauty at its best and quiet resilience at its worst, a deeply satisfying work that fills you with a sense of peace.  Oscars: Best Picture; Best Actress (Frances McDormand); Best Director (Chloe Zhao);  Nominations: Best Cinematography; Best Film Editing; Best Adapted Screenplay. Venice: Golden Lion. TIFF:  2020. Trailer


  8. Minari
    BBBB  (Lee Isaac Chung, USA)  A young Korean-American family moves into a tiny mobile home on a large arable piece of land, the parents continuing their day job at a chicken plant while their children spend time with their charismatically unusual grandmother.  Anyone who has watched movies about outsiders trying to make their way in the American south will be bracing themselves for a series of crimes against humanity (or a plague of locusts, perhaps), but director Chung’s graceful, elegant film finds more humorous embarrassment in culture clashes than he does melodramatic conflict, concerned more with the emotional state of people who are suspended between worlds in their longing to make their dreams come true.  Oscar: Best Supporting Actress (Yuh-Jung Youn). Nominations: Best Picture; Best Actor (Steven Yeun); Best Director (Lee Isaac Chung); Best Original Screenplay; Best Original Score.  Trailer


  9. The Nest
    (Sean Durkin, United Kingdom/Canada)  A successful trader and a dedicated horse trainer are happily married and enjoying the Greed is Good eighties when a new job takes them to England, installing them in a house whose ominous nature contributes to her beginning to realize the series of lies that have been guiding her relationship.  Durkin made us wait nine years after his terrific debut Martha May Marcy Marlene but it was worth it, he has delivered a finely wrought, dramatically thrilling portrait of characters squirming in the chains placed on them by modern life, featuring Carrie Coon in an superb performance and a lush sense of moody atmosphere.  Trailer


  10. Zola
    (Janicza Bravo, USA)  A waitress serves a meal to a fast-talking exotic dancer with whom she becomes instant friends, taking her up on her offer to play a lucrative dancing gig in Tampa which quickly goes horribly wrong.  Based on tweets published by Detroit waitress Aziah “Zola” King which were turned into a Rolling Stone article before the story was optioned for film, this tale sounds like little more than another tired entry in the Florida Trash Gone Wild genre, films that audiences disingenuously deconstruct as cultural critique while indulging themselves in poor-shaming, but director Bravo takes the shocking narrative and provides a fascinating, endlessly enjoyable but, somehow, never exploitative ride down a rabbit hole that feels like it will never find its bottom.  Trailer

 

  • BEST ACTOR
    Anthony Hopkins, The Father
    Honour Roll: Kingsley Ben-Adir, One Night In Miami; Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; Colin Firth, Supernova; Steven Yeun, Minari
  • BEST ACTRESS
    Carrie Coon, The Nest
    Honour Roll: Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; Sidney Flanigan, Never Rarely Sometimes Always; Frances McDormand, Nomadland; Rosamund Pike, I Care A Lot
  • BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
    Clarke Peters, Da 5 Bloods
    Honour Roll: Arliss Howard, Mank; Frank Langella, The Trial Of The Chicago 7; Bill Murray, On the Rocks; Leslie Odom Jr., One Night In Miami
  • BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
    Yuh-jung Youn, Minari
    Honour Roll: Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy; Olivia Colman, The Father; Amanda Seyfried, Mank; Helena Zengel, News of the World
  • BEST DIRECTOR
    Jasmila Zbanic, Quo Vadis, Aida
    Honour Roll:  Eugene Ashe, Sylvie’s Love; Lee Isaac Chung, Minari; Eliza Hittman, Never Rarely Sometimes Always; Chloe Zhao, Nomadland

 

OSCAR NOMINEES

 

Another Round
Druk
BBBB  (Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark/Sweden/Netherlands)  An uninspired high school teacher reads a theory that humans have a natural alcohol deficiency that requires a certain level of intoxication to rectify, convincing his three fellow teacher friends to maintain a drunken state during school hours, which has a notable effect on their performance in the classroom.   Vinterberg’s films often revolve around a kind of game, setting up a situation and throwing his characters into it just to see how they behave, so no surprise that there’s little emphasis on deep introspection or emotional catharsis, but there isn’t any celebrating Boys Will Be Boys hooliganism either.   Oscar:  Best International Feature Film; Nomination:  Best Director (Thomas Vinterberg). TIFF:  2020.  Trailer

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
(Jason Woliner, United Kingdom/USA)  Borat is sent by the government of Kazakhstan to America to give Mike Pence the gift of their most beloved celebrity monkey, but when the animal dies en route he decides to make his daughter Tutar the vice-president’s gift instead.  Maria Bakalova is the one saving grace of this torturous exercise, every time you think Sacha Baron Cohen is setting her up to break character she goes a step further and keeps the balloon up in the air with seamless confidence, but very little of it is actually funny, and Cohen’s choice of targets is generally questionable:  sure, the bigots and Rudy Giuliani have it coming, but there are too many well-meaning store clerks who don’t want to be rude to a customer on camera and it feels like he’s punching down.  Oscar Nominations:  Best Supporting Actress (Maria Bakalova); Best Adapted Screenplay.  Trailer

Crip Camp
BBBB  (James Lebrecht, Nicole Newnham, USA)   From 1951 to 1977, a camp operated in upstate New York that catered to disabled children and provided a sense of community that led to the blossoming of activism in the seventies and the creation and passing of the American Disabilities Act (and the fight for it to be put into action).  This beautifully assembled collection of interviews and file footage is placed on a historical timeline to provide an educational experience full of fascinating facts, but at the heart of it is a tale of how very important it is, and what a difference it can make to history, to encourage all people to see themselves as worthy.  Oscar Nomination:  Best Documentary Feature. Trailer

Da 5 Bloods
BBB.5  (Spike Lee, USA)  Four Vietnam veterans reunite in Ho Chi Minh City nearly fifty years after they were part of a unit that lost its squad leader in a firefight, embarking on a trip into the jungle to find millions of dollars in gold bars hidden in a plane crash.  Violent, provocative and possessed of a plot worthy of the finest film adventures, Lee’s ambitions begin to fail him in the second half when we begin to understand that his characters are slim and unconvincing types, but there’s a sense of time and place to it that feels vital and exciting despite all of its flaws.  Oscar Nomination:   Best Original Score. Trailer

Emma
BBB  (Autumn De Wilde, United Kingdom)  Emma Woodhouse is the popular center of her village of Highbury and has dedicated herself to matchmaking, but makes grave errors with a charming orphan friend and an insufferable old maid, while at the same time ignoring her own romantic possibility right in front of her.  Told with a crafty and curious bent to its humour, emphasizing the power of exchanged words to topple entire societies, De Wilde’s coldly intelligent take on the novel feels rebelliously post-modern for the first half, but in the latter half parts ways with Austen’s expediency in contrasting genuine sentiment and cold wit, possibly because of Anya Taylor-Joy’s perfectly calculated though opaque performance.  Oscar Nominations:  Best Makeup and Hairstyling; Best Costume Design; Trailer

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
BB  (David Dobkin, USA)  Two Icelandic hopefuls whose talents are underappreciated by their peers are, thanks to a giant explosion that kills all their co-finalists, sent as Iceland’s entry to Eurovision, but once they arrive in Edinburgh find it difficult to stay head of impressive competition. Musicals being filmed by directors who clearly can’t stand musicals are hard to enjoy, a central number that involves the very welcome appearance of real Eurovision winners of the past should be far more exuberant than what we have here, with Dobkin rushing to get through songs to get back to Ferrell’s mind-numbing and, frankly, unimaginative comedic riffing.  Oscar Nomination:  Best Original Song (“Husavik”).  Trailer

The Father
BBBB  (Florian Zeller, United Kingdom/France)  An octogenarian lives in his beautiful apartment and struggles with a mind succumbing to illness as he receives visits from people who change personalities and appearances at various turns of the story.  The experience is incredibly moving thanks to Anthony Hopkins’ best performance since The Remains of the Day, with first-time director Zeller, adapting (and improving) his own play, keeping his focus on the humanity of each situation and not the daring shell game of his expert script.  Oscars: Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins); Best Adapted Screenplay; Nominations:   Best Picture; Best Supporting Actress (Olivia Colman); Best Film Editing; Best Production Design.  TIFF: 2020.  Trailer

Four Good Days
BBB (Rodrigo García, USA/Canada)   A heroin addict has already been told not to come home until she gets clean, but begs her mother to help her finally get the help she needs and enrols in an anti-addiction treatment that she can only qualify for if she stays free of drugs for four days before beginning.   Glenn Close, in one of the worst wigs of her entire career, is as committed and affecting as we have come to expect from her magnificent career, but in the interest of creating great drama, director Garcia, who has made a career of sensitive stories focusing on women, includes scenes that feel a bit precious to be believed (what teacher in their right mind would ask someone two days into their recovery to come and fall apart in front of a room of school kids).  Oscar Nomination:  Best Original Song (“Somehow You Do”).  Trailer

Greyhound
BB  (Aaron Schneider, USA/Canada/China)   An American naval commander is the captain of one of three ships escorting thirty-seven Allied vessels across the Atlantic Ocean towards Liverpool, a task that becomes a dangerous and dire challenge when the ships reach a gap in the Atlantic where there is no protective air cover from allied planes. The idea of so tight and lean a World War II movie (and only ninety minutes long) is fascinating, it’s literally pared down to this one experience from start to finish with very little embellishment, but other than a few tense moments at the climax, there’s no spark of dramatic excitement to really set it apart and the visual effects are never for a second convincing.  Oscar Nomination:  Best Sound.  Trailer

Hillbilly Elegy
BB (Ron Howard, USA)  A law student is succeeding academically at Yale and desperate to earn an internship that will help his struggling finances, but the night before a make-or-break interview with a tony law firm is informed that he needs to drive back to his hometown of Middletown, Ohio to put his opiate-addicted mother back into rehab, which inspires flashbacks to his painful youth.  This Lion meets The Prince of Tides with elements of Nurse Jackie has moments that are really powerful (and, naturally, Glenn Close is responsible for most of them, despite looking like a person of interest in a Lethal Weapon sequel), but Howard directs with his usual shallow skill, delivering a prestige Hallmark movie undercut by a predictable and cheesy framing device, and Gabriel Basso is forgettably bland in the lead.  Oscar Nominations:  Best Supporting Actress (Glenn Close); Best Makeup and Hairstyling. Trailer

The Life Ahead
La vita davanti a sé
BBB  (Edoardo Ponti, Italy) Remake of Moshé Mizrahi’s Oscar-winning 1977 film Madame Rosa, based on the novel by Romain Gary, about a retired sex worker who makes the odd buck taking care of the children of others in her profession, reluctantly adding a streetwise and jaded Senegalese orphan to her collection.  Sophia Loren’s son directs this film as little more than an excuse to show off the prowess that his mother still possesses on screen, and given that we are talking about one of the greatest and most powerful legends in cinema history, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this, but it’s a shame that her tough and energetic performance is at odds with a determination to avoid dramatic conflict.  Oscar Nomination:  Best Original Song (“Io Si (Seen)”).  Trailer

Love And Monsters
BBB  (Michael Matthews, Canada/USA)   People live underground to avoid the giant monsters that have taken over the earth, with one young man a mild-mannered cook for his little colony who decides to brave the dangers of the surface to find the woman of his dreams.  The film doesn’t overdo its blood lust, scattering a healthy number of action sequences throughout and avoiding any kind of messy, noisy ending, but it’s also never as scary or exciting as it is imaginative, and builds to an ending that doesn’t feel earned (particularly in its optimism).  Oscar Nomination:  Best Visual Effects.  Trailer

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
BBBB  (George C. Wolfe, USA)  At a recording studio in 1927, Ma Rainey, one of the first successful recording artists of the blues, is due to appear with her band to record what promises to be the next in a series of highly successful records that have made her a celebrated and wealthy artist, but a trumpet player’s desire for the spotlight threatens her dominance of the group, while his ideas for adapting her music to a livelier, more popular style puts him at odds with his more traditional fellow players.  The late Chadwick Boseman shows a previously unseen pizzazz delivering August Wilson’s rich, poetic dialogue in a work that is contemplative, searing and, in the best possible sense, wholly theatrical.   Oscars:  Best Makeup and Hairstyling; Best Costume Design; Nominations:  Best Actor (Chadwick Boseman); Best Actress (Viola Davis); Best Production Design.  Trailer

Mank
BBB  (David Fincher, USA)  Herman Mankiewicz has been asked to ghost-write a script for wunderkind Orson Welles’ directorial debut, a tale of a newspaper man turned powerful tycoon, and following an accident holes up in a remote desert shack with a nurse and secretary to scribble out a future classic while flashing back on the relationship with William Randolph Hearst that inspired much of the plot.  This story of money corrupting politics in American history is only filling in the details of a pretty familiar tale, and perhaps that means it doesn’t quite need all 131 of its minutes to tell it, but it possesses verve and a genuine good nature and, if you have an interest in this period of Hollywood or Citizen Kane in particular, you’ll find enough to appreciate here.  Oscars:  Best Cinematography; Best Production Design; Nominations: Best Picture; Best Actor (Gary Oldman); Best Supporting Actress (Amanda Seyfried); Best Director (David Fincher); Best Makeup and Hairstyling; Best Costume Design; Best Sound; Best Original Score.  Trailer

The Midnight Sky
BB  (George Clooney, USA)  Scientists at an Arctic research lab quickly evacuate after a global disaster, with one terminally ill scientist deciding to stay and contact a space ship that is on its way back from an exploratory voyage to Jupiter.  The premise is rich with possibility, both as sci-fi escapism and sober environmental lesson (Clooney sighs every time the planet falls further apart, because We Were Warned and now We Deserve This), but apart from some very polished effects and a gorgeous visual scheme the whole thing is so painfully dull and familiar.  Oscar Nomination:  Best Visual Effects.  Trailer

The Mole Agent
BBB.5  (Maite Alberdi, Chile/Netherlands/Spain/Germany/USA)  A man is hired to go undercover in a senior home to determine if a resident is being mistreated and report back to her concerned daughter, but is distracted by his own experiences getting to know his fellow residents, which then makes him grateful for the family who is taking care of him in real life.  Some of it is staged but most of it is not, and don’t try to find out which is which, just let the feeling of generosity and grace come over you as you experience this very collection of very human moments.  Oscar Nomination:  Best Documentary Feature. Trailer

Mulan
BB.5  (Niki Caro, USA/Canada/Hong Kong)  The rebellious and excitable daughter of two exasperated parents takes her father’s place in battle by dressing up as a boy and joining the emperor’s army to fight invading Rouran warriors, who are being aided by a powerful sorceress.  Another unnecessary live-action remake of an animated Disney classic, this one is missing the original’s delightful song score and drops the comic relief dragon character voiced by Eddie Murphy, done, appropriately, in the name of getting cultural details right, but Caro tiptoes so very carefully through each moment in an effort to not offend anyone that she makes a film that feels like two hours of people holding their breath, with little drama or tension to hold on to.  Oscar Nominations:  Best Visual Effects; Best Costume Design.  Trailer

My Octopus Teacher
BBB.5  (Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed, South Africa)  Filmmaker and photojournalist Craig Foster relieves the mental and physical weariness of his time in war zones by scuba diving, during which he befriends an octopus with whom he strikes up a connection that restores his sense of self.  Reed and Ehrlich are light on personal details and heavy on emotional manipulation in this beautiful but rootless documentary, pounding out a blaring musical score at every possible opportunity and, in doing so, sacrificing wonder in favour of quickly edited dazzle.  Oscar:  Best Documentary Feature. Trailer

News Of The World
BBBB  (Paul Greengrass, USA/China)  A Civil War veteran who makes his living traveling to American towns reading newspaper articles to the crowds who gather to hear him is taken for a detour when he finds a white girl who was taken by the Kiowa as a toddler and needs to be returned to her only living relatives. This captivating film reveals the dirty underbelly of every facet of the myth of the Wild West, the wide open spaces are a test of survival, the dusty towns are overrun with corruption and the pioneering homesteaders are miserably plundering the land for their own basic survival, depicted as an episodic series of adventures that build to a thrilling climax.  Oscar Nominations: Best Cinematography; Best Production Design; Best Sound; Best Original Score.  Trailer

The One And Only Ivan
BBB  (Thea Sharrock, USA)  A shopping mall circus stars a gorilla who shows remarkable prowess as an artist when he is gifted crayons by a little human friend, using them to recreate his memories of his past and inspiring dreams for his future.  This unremarkable but sweet family film based on a true story is imbued with elements of fantasy (like the fact that these animals all chat with each other) but doesn’t create anything clever out of all the pieces it plays with, though there’s a passing sense of poignant wisdom to its animal rights narrative that keeps it from being too cheesy.  Oscar Nomination:  Best Visual Effects.  Trailer

One Night In Miami
BBB.5  (Regina King, USA)  Cassius Clay has just made history in the ring and takes up residence at a motel where he has invited his three best friends, recording superstar Sam Cooke, activist leader Malcolm X and NFL football god (and soon to be movie star) Jim Brown, their discussions of principles leading to arguments about compromise, vacillating between mutual understanding and flat-out warfare.  King never allows the theatricality of either the piece or the dialogue to be a liability dramatically, coaxing powerful performances that find emotional reservoirs of anger, desperation and joy in the exchanging of these ideas.  Oscar Nominations:  Best Supporting Actor (Leslie Odom, Jr.); Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Original Song (“Speak Now”).  TIFF:  2020.  Trailer

Over The Moon
BBBB  (Glen Keane, China/USA)  A girl grieving the loss of her mother decides to prevent her father’s plans for remarriage by building a rocket to the moon, hoping that the goddess Chang-e will intervene on her behalf, but when she arrives at her lunar destination finds it a colourful place populated by unhappy creatures and an unreasonably demanding and sorrowful deity.  The story loses touch with its emotional element as it gets caught up in a series of convoluted quests and tokens and trinkets, but when it’s ready to get back to the heart of what it’s all about, a really touching tale that can help children dealing with loss, it hits its mark beautifully.  Oscar Nomination:   Best Animated Feature.  Trailer

Pieces of a Woman
BBB  (Kornel Mundruczo, Canada/Hungary/USA)  A woman’s experience with an at-home birth leads to the destruction of her marriage and a court case in which she is forced to reckon with her ability to move on.  Vanessa Kirby elicits your sympathy by constantly refusing to ask for it, even in the scenes that could easily turn into screaming awards bait, but what the filmmakers want to do with this story isn’t clear, the poorly gauged turns in the plot include unnecessary harshness to Shia LaBeouf’s character and a cheesy Sisterhood-affirmation speech at the end that only superficially touches the emotional depths of the subject at hand (while legally coming nowhere near addressing it).  Oscar Nomination:  Best Actress (Vanessa Kirby).  TIFF:  2020.  Venice:  Best Actress (Vanessa Kirby).  Trailer

Promising Young Woman
BBB.5  (Emerald Fennell, United Kingdom/USA)  A woman’s carefully designed plan to entrap the people involved in her friend’s death has her vengeful focus softened when she falls in love with a man from her past.  Revenge tales usually acknowledge that seeking retribution from others, and giving as good as you’ve gotten, means taking on a lot of moral darkness at a price, but Fennell wants a zero sum game in which her lead character gets to be in control of herself as an innocent victim without it ever getting too complicated, enjoying raising the taste of blood in our mouths before a big finish that turns its protagonist into a symbol instead of a person.  Oscar: Best Original Screenplay; Nominations: Best Picture; Best Actress (Carey Mulligan); Best Director (Emerald Fennell); Best Film Editing. Trailer

Soul
BBB  (Pete Docter, USA)  A middle-aging music teacher who has long forgotten his ambitions to be a professional musician dies before a gig that could make his youthful dreams come true, then navigates the bureaucracy of the afterlife and returns to Earth in the body of a cat. It’s bright and colourful and full of wonderful characters, but the machinery of the early scenes is awkward and overloaded with rules and exposition, and the concluding revelations are a bit too packaged to be truly touching.  Oscars: Best Animated Feature; Best Original Score; Nominations: Best Sound.  Trailer

Tenet
BBBB  (Christopher Nolan, United Kingdom/USA)  A CIA operative has his loyalty tested with the assignment of investigating the source of a new form of weaponry that seems to exist on its own inverted temporal plane, and is a threat to the safety of the whole world.   Nolan, the beloved auteur who dares to force mainstream audiences to think while indulging their desire for escapism, fashions the kind of James Bond adventure that would have resulted if Schopenhauer and John Donne were assigned to the screenplay (by a micromanaging studio executive, of course), a mindbender that, unlike his simplistic but flashy Inception, actually bends the mind and, unlike the purely theoretical and dramatically inert Interstellar, actually provides exciting action sequences between all the endless time travel jargon.  Oscar:  Best Visual Effects; Nomination:  Best Production Design.  Trailer

Time
BBBB  (Garrett Bradley, USA)  Fox Rich has raised her six children more or less on her own for decades, since her husband Robert Richardson went to prison on a sixty-year sentence for armed robbery, building up a successful business and motivating her children to their own bright futures.  The hundreds of hours of home movies that are woven into the filmmaker’s own footage of this family’s current life defies one’s stereotypical ideas of the life that convicts leave behind, though there are clearly more complicated feelings that Rich has about life, family, her husband and the justice system that she is not sharing with us.  Oscar Nomination:  Best Documentary Feature.  Trailer

The Trial Of The Chicago 7
BBB  (Aaron Sorkin, USA/United Kingdom/India)   After an anti-Vietnam protest at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago of 1968 turns violent, eight men are brought to trial for having allegedly incited the event.   Sorkin moves through this tale swiftly and cleanly, informing viewers that issues being discussed today in loud and controversial ways in all forms of media today are not new concepts, and that America’s being cut down the middle is an issue that has been plaguing the nation’s happiness for a very long time.   Oscar Nominations: Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor (Sacha Baron Cohen); Best Original Screenplay; Best Cinematography; Best Film Editing; Best Original Song (“Hear My Voice”).  Trailer

Wolfwalkers
BBBB  (Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart, Ireland/United Kingdom/Luxembourg/France)  A girl in English-occupied Kilkenny makes friends with a wolfwalker, human by day and lycan by night, vowing to help her find her mother’s wandering spirit and stop her fellow humans from killing the wolves in the forest.  Expertly animated with images that have the sense of old woodcuttings come to life, this has moments of great, breathtaking drama that will keep the kids (and more than a few adults) hanging on until the breathtaking finale.  Oscar Nomination:  Best Animated Feature.  TIFF:  2020.  Trailer

 

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL

 

DNA
ADN
BBB.5  (Maïwenn, France/Algeria)  A French family’s squabble over the details of planning their Algerian grandfather’s funeral service inspires his granddaughter to explore that aspect of her heritage, threatening to estrange herself from her glamorous but somewhat self-involved mother and good-natured partner when her interest veers into self-destructive obsession.  There is no political analysis about France’s dark history with Algeria running parallel to the personal stories that we learn, nor is it all about the the main character finding peace and closure, it’s a film is about an experience, a delicate and internal rumination on grief and identity.  Cannes:  Selection, “The Faithful”.    Trailer

Train To Busan Presents: Peninsula
Train To Busan 2
BBB  (Sang-ho Yeon, South Korea)  Korea is off limits to the rest of the world thanks to the breakout of a zombie virus that has turned the place into a post-apocalyptic dead zone, and four uninfected survivors get the opportunity to improve their lot when they are hired by some shady guys to go back across the quarantine border and retrieve a payload of cash that is hidden in a truck.  It has a clean, tight plot and committed performers but if you’re not already keyed into this genre you won’t be turned, the film is adequate but not inspiring and will work best for those who love a pure action movie whose narrative is mainly there to set up lengthy sequences of violence.   Cannes:  “The Faithful”.  Trailer

 

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL

 

Dear Comrades
Dorogie tovarishchi
BBBB  (Andrey Konchalovskiy, Russia)   A Soviet party executive on the council of the city of Novocherkassk has her values challenged when the town’s factory employees strike in protest of inflation, and her daughter goes missing amid the violent chaos.  Andrey Konchalovsky’s drama thrums with intelligence and excitement, judging his protagonist from a distance and allowing us to sympathize with her very human plight as she defies an entire nation’s political structure to find her kid, despite its going against a system she helped to build.  Venice:  Special Jury Prize.  Trailer

Sun Children
Khorshid
BBB  (Majid Majidi, Iran)   A tough street kid is pulled into the office of a local gangland boss and ordered to find the treasure buried underneath a tomb in one of the city’s graveyards, which will require him to enrol in the school situated above it.  Majidi once again shows his remarkable talent for telling bewitching stories about young people, the acting from the kids is extraordinarily good and their plight will capture your heart even when the film is at its least subtle in its messaging.  Venice: In Competition.  Trailer

Never Gonna Snow Again
Sniegu juz nigdy nie bedzie
BB.5  (Malgorzata Szumowska, Poland/Germany)  A Ukrainian masseur moves from one house to another in a newly built Warsaw neighbourhood of luxury homes, listening quietly to gossip and responding only occasionally to various slices of nouveau riche life, his almost magical abilities possibly the result of his having lived in Chernobyl during the nuclear accident that threatened to end the world.  Whatever relevance is symbolized by his presence in a neighbouring Iron Curtain country is lost on anyone not familiar with the setting’s political history, but even that is not nearly as frustrating as the painfully obvious allegories of the client characters that Szumowska can’t even try to hide her contempt for, who might as well be sociology term papers instead of people.  Venice:   In Competition.  Trailer

 

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

 

Beans
BBB  (Tracey Deer, Canada)   A thirteen year-old girl’s life on her residential Kahnawake reservation is upended in the summer of 1990 when what begins as a grassroots protest by indigenous residents, reacting to the Quebec government wanting to turn Mohawk land (which includes a cemetery) into a golf course, blows up into the Oka Crisis of that summer.   Deer does an effective job of putting on screen the long, ugly history of Canadian settler relations with indigenous citizens, giving it powerful poignancy by funnelling it through the perspective of a child who is pulled at all angles by the struggle to determine who she is as an individual, but the dialogue is, for the most part, poorly written and too much feels staged for it to be the wholly transcendent experience it deserves to be.  TIFF:  2020.  Trailer

Bruised
BBB.5 (Halle Berry, USA/United Kingdom)  A woman who was once a promising MMA fighter is cleaning houses when financial need brings her back into the ring and propels her towards a chance at the champion circle yet again.    The familiar tropes of a well-worn genre feel like traditions rather than cliches when they’re done with the level of straightforward honesty that star and debuting director Halle Berry brings to this latest in a long series of redemption tales centering around prizefighting.  TIFF: 2020.  Trailer

The Kid Detective
BBB  (Evan Morgan, Canada)  Once a pre-teen detective hero, Abe Applebaum’s winning streak ended when his friend and assistant Gracie went missing and was never found, but he has a chance at redemption when a young woman hires him to investigate her boyfriend’s death, which the police declared a suicide but she believes was murder.   A genre hybrid that takes classic film noir structure and gives it contemporary angst, this film’s tone suggests sly, witty comedy but it’s all played at a slow, moody tone that isn’t funny, emphasizing slow reactions and monotoned dialogue delivery, its clues and connections random and unconvincing.  TIFF:  2020.  Trailer

Night of the Kings
La Nuit Des Rois
BBBB (Philippe Lacôte, France/Ivory Coast/Canada/Senegal)    A member of a notorious Abidjan gang gets sent to MACA, the Ivory Coast’s infamous prison, appointed storyteller by the current prison ruler looking to elongate his tenure who, the boy knows, could kill him when his tale is complete. A prison film that avoids many of the cliches of the genre (no inter-departmental politics or exploitative rape scenes), Lacôte’s beautifully photographed drama also tells the story of a colonized land that was once a place of beauty and whose population now lives in ruin as a result of its political history.  TIFF:  2020.  Trailer

Shiva Baby
BBB.5  (Emma Seligman, USA/Canada)  A college senior is called to her aunt’s funeral and walks into a series of complications including her aggressive mother, impractical father, childhood best friend/ex-girlfriend and her current boyfriend, who she learns is married with a newborn baby and whose wife is funding the monetary gifts she takes from him.  Based on her short film of the same name, Seligman’s feature debut never shakes off its origins as a one-joke premise and the situations that her main character finds herself in have been obviously engineered for the sake of the audience’s pleasure, but even at its most contrived this is a sparkling gem of a comedy that benefits a great deal from Rachel Sennott’s perpetually baffled facial expressions.  TIFF: 2020 Trailer

Summer Of 85
Été 85
BBB  (Francois Ozon, France/Belgium)  Teenager Alex has moved with his parents to a seaside French town, his lazy days of sailing turning deadly when he is caught in a storm and capsizes before the handsome and wild David saves him, beginning a summer romance that ends in high drama.  Ozon can’t compose a shot without drenching you in the beauty of either the location, the boys or the bright but not overly exploited eighties colour scheme, but ever the sadist who hates sentimentality, he chooses not to have the main character learn anything after all that suffering, instead giving us a conclusion that plays like a cruel joke for an audience who, in hoping for a film that they could cherish, isn’t in the mood to laugh.  TIFF:  2020.  Trailer

 

THE REST, BY RATING

 

All In: The Fight for Democracy
(Lisa Cortes, Liz Garbus, USA)  Brian Kemp wins the 2018 gubernatorial race in Georgia by a small margin, and his opponent Stacey Abrams feels compelled to point out that his victory was accomplished by his disqualifying more than a million people from voter eligibility, something that she will no longer let stand.  Expert testimony is richly delivered by a host of knowledgeable talking heads, including professor and One Person, No Vote author Carol Anderson, The Nation journalist Ari Berman, Abrams’ campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo and, of course, Abrams herself.    Trailer

The Forty-Year-Old Version
(Radha Blank, USA)  A playwright who was once named one of the Top Thirty Under 30 is now approaching forty, supporting herself by teaching drama to a group of students who have no use for her wisdom. Radha Blank’s deliciously funny directorial debut has a lot of important things to say about race, class and opportunities in the art world, and says them all in a charmingly messy manner, sublimating themes into a feeling of spontaneity that combines painfully accurate observations (a theatre scene run by moneyed whites) with a few clunky caricatures (the old white lady audience members).  Trailer

The Half of It
(Alice Wu, USA)  An isolated young woman living in a small upstate New York town is asked by the school’s football jock to write a love letter on his behalf to the girl he’s moony over, which plunges her into denial of her own feelings for the young woman.  Wu shows a great deal of affection for her main characters and shares it with us, the relationships that develop between the leads are moving and poignant thanks to the fact that she is among the few filmmakers who makes movies about young people without actually hating them.  Trailer

The Invisible Man
(Leigh Whannell, Canada/Australia/USA  A woman gets away from her controlling, abusive boyfriend and later learns that he has killed himself, but when she begins to suspect that she is being stalked by an unseen pursuer, realizes that it might be connected to his scientific breakthroughs in optics technology.  An airtight script, stylish direction and gorgeous, intense cinematography create an ominous atmosphere that barely lets you breathe for two hours, looping in trending concerns about female safety in the wake of #metoo movement in both sincere and ironic ways: you might be the first person to share “I Believe Survivors” rhetoric generously on your Facebook wall, but are you sure that you would also believe a tale this ludicrous, logical as its explanation turns out to be?   Trailer

Isabella
(Matias Pineiro, Argentina/France)  An actress has been asked to audition for the lead role in an upcoming production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and flashes back to a year earlier, when the same play was originally going to be mounted, then flash forward to the results of her relationship with a friend and fellow actress.  Piñeiro touches on the deep emotional land mines that come with friendship in a deceptively light and breezy manner, the situations these characters are in are easy to deconstruct (auditioning for a role and waiting to see if they get it) but the aftermath of each is irreversible.  Trailer

Nocturne
(Zu Quirke, USA)  The more socially isolated, self-doubting half of a set of twin musicians can’t seem to acquire her sister’s star quality no matter how hard she tries and, when told to face the possibility of her own mediocrity on the piano, refuses to listen, believing that the notebook of a fellow student who recently committed suicide has supernatural powers that will help her get ahead of all who stand in her way.  We as viewers wonder if there really is interference from the spirit world or if our humourless heroine is manifesting these events by her own actions, and Quirke rides a fine line between obscure and mysterious in this mesmerizing and assured feature debut that cynically suggests that there is no cure for those who seek validation from others.  Trailer

Palm Springs
(Max Barbarkow, USA/Hong Kong)  A woman struggling to get through her sister’s wedding gets caught in a time loop and discovers that a fellow guest is in the same situation, the two of them experiencing the same day over and over again before falling in love and challenging themselves to break the comfort of their numbing routine.  The plot’s stretching for some kind of profound meaning sounds like it is doing so to justify its ripping off Groundhog Day, but it provides the right level of reflective moral consideration after having indulged itself in some genuinely funny and imaginative turns of plot that never go the way of overdoing the gimmick.  Trailer

Relic
(Natalie Erika James, Australia/USA)  A woman goes to her mother’s house when she learns that she has disappeared, then is disturbed when the older woman returns seemingly changed and, possibly, affected by a malevolent presence in the house.  Much like The Babadook personified grief as an invading phantom upon a family, James’s moody horror film treats the ravages of aging and dementia as a supernatural villain that is experienced by unsuspecting and unprepared innocents.  Trailer

Riders Of Justice
Retfærdighedens ryttere
(Anders Thomas Jensen, Denmark)  A train crash that kills a woman recalls her soldier husband home from Afghanistan to take care of his daughter, befriending other survivors who rope him into a revenge scheme against the culprits that they believe caused the accident.  Comedy, grisly violence and a twisting plot with more than a few healthy surprises are combined smoothly in this very entertaining ride that not only examines the morality of revenge but of revenge thrillers themselves.  Trailer

Supernova
(Harry Macqueen, United Kingdom)  A couple who have been happily together for decades have undertaken a caravan trip as an opportunity to prepare themselves for the end, as the one man’s diagnosis of dementia will soon separate them for good. The simplicity of this film is part of what makes it so unforgettably moving, it focuses on the strength of the bond that two magnificent actors create thanks to their own incredible skills in front of the camera, as well as the surprisingly good chemistry they generate, and for all its sadness is a deeply romantic film.  Trailer

 

BBB.5

 

Bad Boys For Life
(Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah, USA/Mexico)  The slick daredevil cop and his goofy partner have grown apart thanks to one still wanting to chase action and danger while the other decides that, with the birth of his grandson, he’s ready to settle down to a quieter life, but they’re back in thick of the action when they join an elite team of Miami cops to hunt down the man who has murdered a number of their associates.  Colourful, action-filled and genuinely funny, this one hits all of its points with robust confidence and chipper glee, wisely counting on its stars’ chemistry to keep it afloat and help us ignore the fact that the plot isn’t that interesting and the villain(s?) not that impressive (or consistent, the idea of Kate del Castillo having some kind of witchy powers is played at and never fully worked out properly).   Trailer

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
(Cathy Yan, USA)  Harley Quinn has been dumped by the Joker and finds that her credit in Gotham has plummeted, then crosses paths with a crimelord who is searching for a diamond that has the secrets of a wealthy mob family’s finances embedded deep within it.  The plot always feels like it’s going to break out into an unholy mess and never does, telling a noir-ish tale under the amoral carnivalesque circumstances that the Gotham universe tends to inspire, but other than Margot Robbie’s having a good time in the lead role, the film is hampered by a series of bland, uninteresting characters played by actors who deserve better.  Trailer

The Boys In The Band
(Joe Mantello, USA/Canada)  Cinematic update of the 1970 William Friedkin film (and 1968 Matt Crowley play) set on the night of a birthday being celebrated by a group of gay male friends, the witty barbs tossed around for fun turning to mockery and debasement when their host allows his insecurities to take over and initiate a game of tell-all roulette. With a cast of actors who, while all talented, look too modern, the cultural details are not as palpable as they were in the original film, in which the characters’ traumatic backgrounds were more convincing, but it’s a satisfying update of a very important classic.  Trailer

Cocoon
Kokon
(Leonie Krippendorff, Germany)  The younger of two teenaged sisters who are growing up with a mother who spends all her free time at a bar develops her sexual confidence while suffering an unbearably hot Berlin summer.  Krippendorff doesn’t have anything new to offer the genre of coming-of-age movies, but she trusts the wisdom of her very sympathetic protagonist, avoids all unnecessary melodrama and elicits fine performances for the entire cast of young actors.  Trailer

The Decline
Jusqu’au déclin
(Patrice Laliberté, Canada)  A man whose fear for his family’s emergency preparedness attends a wilderness retreat hosted by a survivalist expert meant to bolster skills in self-sufficiency, but when an honest accident takes out one of their party and the argument over dealing with it fractures the remaining campers, a true game of survival begins.  The action gets exciting and there’s some terrific, upsetting violence before we finally reach the bitter lesson that assuming the worst is the most reliable way to make it happen, though Laliberte practices a little too much frugality with the narrative and could have let the torturous agony gone on an extra ten minutes.  Trailer

Dick Johnson Is Dead
(Kirsten Johnson, USA)  Kirsten Johnson’s father is a retired successful clinical psychiatrist who has learned that he has dementia and she, unable to imagine a world without him, uses her resources to make a series of elaborate and increasingly curious little films of the various ways that he could possibly die before doing so in real life.  Kirsten’s effort to mitigate her grief sounds like a macabre way to deal with the inevitable, but it comes off as something mentally beneficial and humorous here, and it’s hard not to be touched by the generosity that father and daughter show the audience in undertaking this crafty project.  Trailer

Giving Voice
(James D. Stern, Fernando Villena, USA) Established in the name of the great American author who changed theatre forever with his groundbreaking plays, the August Wilson Monologue Contest provides opportunities for young people all over America, particularly from African-American homes and communities, to get a taste of the intoxicating pleasures of performing in theatre.  This heartfelt and moving film covers the 2019 competition, picking a handful of teenagers as personalities to follow, weaving in a solid biographical overview of Wilson’s life and work while Viola Davis and Denzel Washington discuss not only the writer’s importance in American culture but the profound effect he has had on their own very successful careers.  Trailer

I’m Your Woman
(Julia Hart, USA)  A woman’s small-time hood husband brings home a baby for them to raise and then disappears, and the next day a stranger orders her to hit the road and hide from his enemies, going to a series of hideouts before deciding to return to the city and clear things up for good.  The shadowy cinematography gives touches of a modern noir in this enjoyable character piece that is blessed by Rachel Brosnahan’s terrific performance, her incredulity at absolutely everything that happens to her is always compelling and helps draw us into the mysterious web of personalities that the screenplay weaves so spontaneously, compensating for a lack of depth with a series of terrific sequences.  Trailer

On The Rocks
(Sofia Coppola, USA)  A blocked writer is in a marriage that is starting to feel stale, telling her worldly art dealer father that she thinks her husband is having an affair with his gorgeous assistant, which prompts him to take her to a conference in Mexico to spy on him.  Light in tone and, as with all of Coppola’s films, brimming over with beautiful images, this elegant charmer has a wonderful relationship at its core, benefiting both from Rashida Jones’s exquisite charisma and Bill Murray’s affable humour:  you’re on her side for holding her dad accountable for the toxic masculinity that ruined her childhood, but you can’t help being won over by his easy charm, which includes a red hot convertible roadster that keeps a reserve of caviar in its own briefcase.  Trailer

A Quiet Place II
(John Krasinski, USA)   After a sequence that takes place before the events of the first film, we then flash forward to the final moments of the original and continue directly from there, in which a woman must continue to keep her children safe from blind but aurally gifted aliens out to devour the humans on the planet they are visiting.  This sequel to the megahit 2018 original matches the quality of its predecessor, the various sequences are more or less as clever and nervewracking as they were the first time around, but just because a sequel is good, does that mean we need it?   Trailer

Run
(Aneesh Chaganty, USA/Canada)  A bright, promising young woman who lives with a series of medical conditions is looking forward to college but, after noticing her overprotective mother’s cagey responses to her questions about medication, goes on a search to get to the bottom of what turns out to be a very dark truth about what has been going on without her knowledge.  This enjoyable, efficient and perfectly acted thriller isn’t the deepest of the films and shows inspired by a real-life case and never pretends to be, though it overdoes its twists by the end and would have had more chance at being a respectable drama if it was thematically concerned with the actual madness of motherhood (it’s ultimately just a story of crime and punishment).  Trailer

Tesla
(Michael Almereyda, USA)  Key moments in the life and work of the Serbian-born mechanical engineer who could bend electricity to his will are the foundation for this impressionistic biography, in which Tesla easily gives up intellectual ownership of his inventions to the more economically-minded greed of Thomas Edison while remaining obsessed with new discoveries.  Almereyda cheekily plays with a self-reflexive form of storytelling to emphasize the tendency of history to create popular narratives that suit the victors, further muddling the film’s serious tone by introducing modern-day technology, but seems unable to decide how to end things and opts for a weak conclusion involving star Ethan Hawke badly singing a Tears For Fears song.  Trailer

Uncle Frank
(Alan Ball, USA)  It’s the seventies and a student from South Carolina studying at New York University bonds with her professor uncle, then travels back home with him when they get bad news from the family, forcing him to revisit painful memories of his childhood and confront his family about the truth of his life as a gay man.  This southern-gothic indulgence is riddled with cliches, it’s not a film to admire so much as it is one to cherish and enjoy for the things about it that work so well, everyone on screen is giving so much grit and honesty to what they’re doing that it’s impossible not to be affected.  Trailer

 

BBB

 

Drunk Bus
(John Carlucci, Brandon Laganke, USA)    A graduate from Kent Institute of Technology can’t leave the Ohio college town because he’s still stuck on his girlfriend who broke up with him to go study in New York, caught in a purgatory of driving the campus bus late at night on a route that involves inebriated teenagers, familiar local characters, frat boys pelting his window with garbage and the occasional visit of friends.  Submerged in a nocturnal atmosphere that emphasizes a sense of both danger and boredom, this low-key comedy’s plot never feels predictable despite the fact that there are far too many broadly drawn college characters, the women in particular are one-note conceptions of female archetypes, and the supporting cast doesn’t match the standard of performance that Charlie Tahan, who outshines them all far too easily, delivers in the lead.  Trailer

Funny Face
(Tim Sutton, USA)    Zama lives with her aunt and uncle and it is not a happy arrangement, Saul lives with his grandparents who are stressed out that a slick real estate tycoon is forcing them out of their Coney Island neighbourhood, and an awkward encounter brings these two young people together that leads to a few days of adventures in the city.  The idea of greedy suits destroying the charm of New York City is not an original idea, but what makes the film special is its execution, with a stunning visual palette that turns what could be a dull and grey borough into a magnificent maze of dazzling images that feel heightened but never artificial.  Trailer

The Last Shift
(Andrew Cohn, USA)  A man who has been working the same shift at a fast food joint for over thirty years is now on his last weekend before retiring, training a young man barely out of high school who has a child to support and is forced to work as part of his parole.  The message about a white man who gets away with questionable morals and the black man who is punished for not being flawless is neither muddy nor subtle, for some it might seem almost vulgar in its plainness, but Andrew Cohn’s script and direction, sort of a male version of Support The Girls, create fully-dimensional characters with which to relay the information.  Trailer

Let Them All Talk
(Steven Soderbergh, USA)  A successful, difficult-to-impress author has been awarded a significant prize in England and refuses to fly to accept it, going on a luxury cruise with her nephew and two old friends that she wants to catch up with instead.  The resentments that the plot promises will come from the people surrounding our protagonist make it sound a spicy good time, but Deborah Eisenberg, here writing her first produced screenplay, isn’t interested in any of it, capturing realistic and generous conversations that are never rich or challenging and directed by Soderbergh at a cold remove without any delicate intimacy.  Trailer

My Salinger Year
(Philippe Falardeau, Canada/Ireland)     In the summer of 1995, Joanna Rakoff moves to New York City and is hired at a venerated, generations-old literary agency, assigned to write the rejection letters sent to all prospective correspondents hoping to connect with J.D. Salinger.  This combination of The Devil Wears Prada and Can You Ever Forgive Me has a number of wonderful elements that it lines up quite beautifully without ever really choosing one as its centre, lacking the crackle that its sharp and charismatic lead actress  Margaret Qualley needs and deserves.  Trailer

Stage Mother
(Thom Fitzgerald, Canada)  A conservative Christian woman in Texas is called to San Francisco after the death of her estranged gay son, and learns that she has inherited the drag bar he owned.  You’ve seen everything in this movie somewhere before, in Viva the young man is still alive, in Muriel’s Wedding the jokes are funnier and in Sordid Lives the sense of whacky southern gothic is better defined, but this film is too good-natured to be damned for not outdoing its predecessors (or for the fact that you never for a second believe that Jacki Weaver was going to give us much trouble crossing the aisle).  Trailer

The Witches
(Robert Zemeckis, USA/Mexico/United Kingdom)  An orphaned boy and his affectionate grandmother go on a trip to a fancy hotel where, unbeknownst to her, the witches of the world are having their annual conference.  A bouncy visual look and some fun and exciting sequences try to make up for the fact that this one is missing both the whimsy and menace that Nicolas Roeg brought to the story thirty years earlier, with Anne Hathaway hampered by a script that rarely allows her to do more than preen around like she’s preparing to burst into a musical number, her appearance constantly undermined with obvious visual effects.  Trailer

 

BB.5

 

Bloodshot
(Dave Wilson, USA)  After being taken hostage by a villain who kills his wife and then shoots him in the head, a man wakes up in a science lab and is told that he has been put back together as part of a program to create immortal supersoldiers, but his quest for revenge ends up unveiling secrets that suggest that he is a pawn in a much bigger game.  A plot that has been mashing up Frankenstein and Robocop starts to go towards Memento and Le Samourai territory but never gets much further than an imaginative premise, the execution is dull and Vin Diesel is, as always, terrified to show us that he might ever have a good time doing anything.  Trailer

The Courier
Ironbark
(Dominic Cooke, United Kingdom/USA)  After a high ranking member of the Kremlin sends a message to the west through the American embassy in Moscow, MI:6 and the CIA team up to find a way to turn him into a valuable asset and convince a prosperous businessman to go into Russia and set up trade opportunities that are covers for opportunities to bring back hidden envelopes and microfilms.  A fascinating, at times devastating true story is given chilly treatment by Cooke and screenwriter Tom O’Connor, who paint the experience by numbers and never allow for any excess of excitement to liven up the proceedings.   Trailer

Downhill
(Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, USA)  Loosely faithful remake of Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure, in which a family of four are on a skiing vacation at an Alpine resort when an avalanche sets off a crisis in the couple’s marriage.  Masculine fragility was the issue in the original, poor communication is the villain this time, but while Julia Louis-Dreyfus provides perfectly acidic delivery, Faxon and Rash let us down with a weak conclusion that does not give us the closure that we were feeling manipulated into looking for, and doesn’t make up for it with any kind of intelligent, open-ended whimsy either.  Trailer

French Exit
(Azazel Jacobs, Canada/Ireland/United Kingdom)  A New York society matron is informed by her financial advisor that the money she inherited from her late husband is about to run out, making the sudden decision to pack up her disaffected son and head to Paris, presumably to get away from being impoverished in front of her peers but actually for much darker reasons. Jacobs, who nailed the deadpan humour of his 2008 comedy Momma’s Man, doesn’t succeed at bringing literary caprice to life this time, and the conclusion feels forced, but Michelle Pfeiffer fans should still make this film a very high priority: the sight of her setting a table setting on fire just to get a waiter’s attention is worth the price of admission alone. Trailer

The Glorias
(Julie Taymor, USA)  Activist, writer, leader, intellectual and style icon Gloria Steinem is played by four different women who capture her at various ages, the little girl witnessing her father keeping house and home together in increasingly impractical ways, the teenager who has to take care of her mentally ill mother after years of carrying the stress of her father’s cavalier attitude towards responsibility, the young adult who travels to India and is inspired to focus attention on women’s essential and underappreciated role in society, and the confident and accomplished adult who co-founds a feminist magazine (Ms.) and leads a movement to push for the ERA.  All the actors bring this magnificent figure to life with verve and intelligence, Julianne Moore in particular does a perfect job of capturing Steinem’s deep, controlled voice and unwavering resolve, but when you get to her creating the National Women’s Political Caucus and her campaigning for the Congressional election of Bella Abzug (played by a spirited Bette Midler), we lose touch with the subject’s personal feeling and she becomes am impersonal symbol for the right side of history.  Trailer

Happiest Season
(Clea DuVall, USA/Canada)   Harper was planning to go home for the holidays but decides she can’t get through it without her girlfriend Abby, but it’s not until they arrive in Harper’s upper-crust Pennyslvania town that Abby learns that her family doesn’t know she’s gay and they will have to pretend to be roommates.  DuVall can never decide on her film’s comedic tone, ruining the goofy fun by trying to be sincere and then losing credibility every time she tries to have an abandoned, good time, with characters who are all satirical takes on heteronormative nightmares (how many times can they call Abby an orphan) but then demand that we allow them human feelings in the last third without really earning the privilege.  Trailer

I’m Thinking Of Ending Things
(Charlie Kaufman, USA)  A couple visiting his parent’s house during a snowstorm are sidetracked by surreal, non-linear moments that spin out of control on their way home, stopping at his old high school and fully entering a dreamscape of intangible images.  The seamless manner in which things play out is impressive, but there’s no denying that the only person having a great time in a Charlie Kaufman movie is Kaufman himself, who has a curiously funny but often obnoxious need to make sure that no one can keep up with the most obscure aspects of this story: the answer to “what’s going on” is eventually “who cares”.  Trailer

Like A Boss
(Miguel Arteta, USA)  Two best friends since childhood now own a business selling makeup products in their start-up shop in downtown Atlanta, thrilled when a cosmetics tycoon steps in and offers to buy their company and erase their debt before realizing that the terms of the deal will test their loyalty to each other and their creations.  Taking a tired formula and giving it no new life, this Girlboss fantasy comedy has every intention of paying lip service to the important issues of female friendship and women’s presence in the business world, but with so few credible moments in its plot, particularly a near-supernatural ending, the feminism has only a weak effect and we were better off when Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion didn’t try so hard to be meaningful. Trailer

Mama Weed
La Daronne, The Godmother
(Jean-Paul Salome, France/Belgium)    A woman who uses her Arabic language skills as a translator for the Paris police discovers that the nurse who looks after her mother is connected with the Moroccan drug ring that she is helping to capture, solving her own financial woes by secretly becoming the biggest dealer in the city.  This stylish caper begins with great energy, delighting us with the lengths to which this woman will go to get what she wants, then gets indecisive about whether it wants to be frothy or poignant, but Isabelle Huppert brings her luminous sense of caprice to the experience and makes it worthwhile for her fans. Trailer

Sophie Jones
(Jessie Barr, USA)  A young woman is actively looking to explore sex as a way to reverse the emotional numbness that has been brought on by the recent death of her mother. A number of scenes feel improvised in a loose and often under-rehearsed manner and the casting of Sophie, her sister and their father doesn’t convince you that tese three know each other let alone are related, but the scenes that focus specifically on her goal to get sex with boys her own age are impressive for how much they resemble the often painful and humiliating realities of maturing that other films tend to glamorize.  Trailer

 

BB

 

Aline
(Valerie Lemercier, France/Canada/Belgium)  Barely concealed take on the life and stardom of Canadian songstress Celine Dion, from her childhood with her musical family until her prodigy-level pipes take centre stage and propel her to international stardom.  That director-star Lemercier plays her from childhood, using unapologetic CGI effects to put her face on the bodies of the character at the ages of five and twelve, suggests satire, but there are no outrageous claims made about the singer here, she is always professional, sincere and reliable, her relationship with her husband is never presented in an ironic or critical light and aside from playing up the casts’ adorable Quebecois accents, she’s not exactly being lampooned as country trash made good either.  Trailer

Antebellum
(Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz, USA)  On a southern plantation in pre-Civil War America, a woman lives in degradation as a slave, recently brought back after an escape attempt that saw her punished brutally for her efforts, but a flashback to an earlier period in her life reveals a shocking twist about her actual circumstances.   Bush and Renz are too concerned with their theme and with executing it in the most visually exciting manner to give their conceit much working logic or their characters much life, America’s refusal to escape its issues with racism is exploited more than investigated by what eventually feels like a very distasteful plot, criticizing a place for treating inhumanity like an amusement park ride when their film is doing the same thing.  Trailer
BB

The Devil All The Time
(Antonio Campos, USA)  A spiderweb of characters centers on a young man who loses his mother to illness and his shell-shocked father to suicidal religious fervour, then is raised alongside another orphan for whom he becomes protector after they are grown and must deal with a hypocritically lecherous preacher and a Honeymoon Killers-style couple who are cutting a swathe across the Bible belt.   Imagine if Fried Green Tomatoes was produced by Blumhouse and you have an idea of the haphazard melding of genres happening here, it looks like Mudbound but it barely plays as more than an excuse for Southern-shaming and povery-porn exploitation, with a cast of mostly British and Australian actors in ill-fitting roles doing overripe accents.  Trailer

The Prom
(Ryan Murphy, USA)  The cast of a Broadway bomb decide to distract themselves from their failure by going to a small Indiana town and protesting a young woman’s being prevented from bringing a girl to her high school prom.  With a cast like this it’s hard to imagine how any of it doesn’t work, but this adaptation of the stage musical of the same name (based on true events) is a slog of an experience to get through, a tired and uninspiring version of Hairspray with poorer music and a confused script that has characters wandering aimlessly in search of their next move, and always seeming to find it by accident.  Trailer

Rebecca
(Ben Wheatley, United Kingdom/USA)  Remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Best Picture-winning 1940 adaptation of Daphne Du Maurie’s novel, about a mild-mannered young woman who marries an aristocratic widower only to come to his decaying estate and find herself intimidated by everyone’s memories of his reportedly ideal first wife.  Wheatley, who has made experimental period pieces like A Field In England and the very eccentric High Rise, surprises his fans by seeming to just cash the cheque and point the camera, dampening down all of the story’s conflicts and avoiding any kind of narrative urgency, while the screenwriters, likely angry at Du Maurier’s very unfashionable treatment of her character as a background figure in a tale she is narrating (so much so that she doesn’t even get a name), decide to give her some of the self-determined feminism of today but do so without the cool irony and subversion that Du Maurier loved so much.  Trailer

Rifkin’s Festival
(Woody Allen, Spain/USA/Italy)   A neurotic, hypochondriac writer is visiting San Sebastian with his press agent wife while she is promoting the career of a wunderkind auteur with whom he suspects she is brewing a romance, becoming himself entranced with a beautiful doctor with whom he enjoys a chaste friendship.  The familiarity of this set-up is a rut so deep that the actors can barely give performances lively enough to get out of them, starting with the love triangle of the self-aware neurotic who is hampered by his own lack of self-worth, the arrogant phony who dazzles people too stupid to know better (Louis Garrel is this film’s version of Alan Alda in Crimes And Misdemeanors) and the intelligent but careless woman stuck between the two of them (Gina Gershon in place of Mia Farrow).   Trailer

Wonder Woman 1984
(Patty Jenkins, USA/United Kingdom/Spain)  Having saved the world in the Great War, Diana Prince has reached the eighties and decides to lay low as an archaeologist at the Smithsonian Museum, but the acquisition of a gemstone with mystical properties begins to have a strange effect on the insecure personalities around her and she must soon grab her lasso to save the world from destruction.  The challenges are paltry in this overdrawn film and there is absolutely no excitement to be found in any of it, while the scenes that develop the characters and story are even duller. Trailer

 

B

 

Assassin 33 A.D.
(Jim Carroll, USA)  Employees of a multi-million dollar tech company are working to develop time travel technology for their bosses, who turn out to be Muslim terrorists who plan to go back in time to kill Jesus Christ and prevent Christianity from ever happening.  Any chance the film has at being diverting fizzles when you get back to Bible times and watch what basically looks like a bad Sunday school play with cheap costumes and even worse wigs, the screenplay relying more on traditions of Hollywood cinema (guns and lots of them) than it does religious dogma (though as an expression of American culture you could say that one is synonymous with the other).  Trailer

Blithe Spirit
(Edward Hall, United Kingdom)  A struggling screenwriter and his wife invite a famed medium that he knows to be a fraud to conduct a séance at their dinner party as research for his next script, and she accidentally scares up the ghost of his meddlesome first wife.  It’s an insult to Coward’s legacy, and typical of an unimaginative film producer, to assume that his witty repartee volleyed about by elegant and irresistible characters (who, in this case, are played by such glamorous and beloved actors) are not enough to keep people in their seats, inventing a bunch of graceless scenes as excuses to visit other settings without contributing to the development of the plot or relationships.   Trailer

Honest Thief
(Mark Williams, USA)   A thief who once grabbed headlines as the “in and out bandit” has fallen in love and wants to start a new life, deciding to come clean by giving himself up to the FBI but sent on the run when corrupt agents try to frame him for murder.  Naturally, we’re all waiting for that moment when Liam Neeson delivers a gravelly-voiced threat into his phone, but this is a cheap version of a million similar movies and he seems to know it, uninspired to give more than his basic effort to bland execution by disinterested direction and paint-by-numbers script.  Trailer

The Rental
(Dave Franco, USA)  Two couples travel to a gorgeous seaside mansion for a weekend getaway, immediately put off by the caretaker who appears to be letting himself in without warning, then notice a camera in the showerhead and realize something very unsettling is afoot.  These characters are all so odiously self-involved and boring that you’ll be begging for a masked murderer within five minutes of the film’s opening, the appealing cast and beautiful cinematography can do nothing for a horror thriller that treads on every cliché in the Cabin In The Woods handbook and gives them no discernible new life.  Trailer

 

0

 

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey
(David E. Talbert, USA)  A little girl is sent to live with her grandfather, an inventor whose best work was stolen by one of the workers in his shop and used to create a magnificent toymaking empire, and goes on a quest to put things right.  The cast periodically breaks out into song throughout this offensively overlong production, the musical numbers seeming very desperate to recapture the popularity of The Greatest Showman, while the film’s rich and colourful look, sort of a Steampunk Emerald City, seems to set a Hallmark movie in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, but the richer the surface aspects of this film look, the more it is obvious that the substance is lacking.  Trailer

Out of Body
(Jason T. Gaffney, USA)  Henry has also been keeping deeper feelings for his friend Malcolm and is afraid to tell him, then when Malcolm disappears and shows up in Henry’s house as a spirit whose body is somewhere else, they finally have a chance to be together.  It takes far too long for things to happen in this very badly directed and even worse acted film, the instigating object that puts the plot in motion doesn’t make enough sense and the fantasy element doesn’t work either, and as a result it comes off as little more than excuse for star and director Jason T. Gaffney to constantly get naked (which, to be fair, he looks great doing).  Trailer

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