Here’s the rest of the ***½ films, including some of the most acclaimed of the year. Behold my takes:
- The Invitation – 82
Very solid and well-contained little thriller about a dinner party which…I won’t say it goes wrong, but it goes in a way the guests weren’t at all expecting. I don’t want to give anything else away, so I’ll just say that Karyn Kusama does one hell of a job directing it, and Plummy Tucker does a hell of a job editing it. It’s held back from true greatness by the acting, which tends to be a bit stiff and amateurish, and by the mild implausibility of the story, especially as it goes on, but not too much so.
- Under the Shadow – 83
I could dismiss this as just The Babadook in 1980s Teheran, but it’s quite a strong psychological horror-thriller in its own right. A strong debut for writer-director Babak Anvari, it tells of a mother (Narges Rashidi, excellent) and daughter (Avin Manshadi, quite effective) struggling to keep it together as the Iran-Iraq war devastates the city and a djinn may just be trying to destroy him. It keeps the horror elements in check and focuses on developing a sense of mounting dread, and the result quite simply works. It might not have much lasting power, but it works.
- Tale of Tales – 83
Italian director Matteo Garrone weaves together several medieval fairy tales without a hint of irony or undue sentimentality (and maybe just a hair too little cohesion): a queen eats the heart of a serpent in order to have a son, but the scullery maid who cooks the heart gives birth to his doppelgänger; a king becomes obsessed with a flea, and gives his daughter in marriage to an ogre; and a lecherous King falls in love sight-unseen with a homely woman, who gains beauty…but ultimately at a tragic price. Gorgeously mounted and boasts a fine cast.
- Nuts! – 84
Dr. John R. Brinkley became fabulously wealthy transplanting goat glands into human bodies, became a pioneer in the use of radio for commercial purposes, and nearly became governor of Kansas…all while being a massive fraud. This documentary tells his story, much of it with animation, which only makes this bizarre story all the more entertaining. For a while, you might even find yourself rooting for Brinkley, so charismatic a snake-oil salesman was he. As a documentary it loses just a point or two for glossing over his true backstory (we get his rendition of it in full).
- Florence Foster Jenkins – 84
Another bizarre true story, in this case acted by Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, and Simon Helberg, of the titular Florence, whose wealth allowed her to pursue her dream of being a singer…despite her total lack of singing ability. Streep is terrific, of course, but Grant, as her doting (and philandering) husband and manager, is the MVP. Stephen Frears’ direction makes sparkling farce out of the story, but he and the film never condescend to Florence – and nail, to my delight, her final riposte to her critics:
“They may say I can’t sing, but they can’t say I didn’t sing.”
- Swiss Army Man – 84
The very audacity of making a film about a flatulent corpse would’ve gotten me into the theater regardless, but it’s the imaginative script, centered around a surprisingly sweet and sincere bromance, and the sure-footed execution that kept me watching. Daniels (Kwan & Scheinert) do a superior job of directing their own script, and Daniel Radcliffe, as the multi-talented cadaver, gives a fairly perfect performance of a potentially ridiculous role. Paul Dano, as the actual protagonist, is no slouch either. It works like gangbusters until the final reel, which doesn’t really land…but it’s not enough to diminish my admiration.
- Zootopia – 84
Two-thirds of a great film, Disney’s take on race relations through the medium of a city where predators and prey now live and work side by side (albeit somewhat uneasily) has a smart and funny script, endearing characters (who doesn’t love Clawhauser?), and a reasonably engaging plot…until the final third, which brushes the themes aside in favor of wrapping up the story in fairly rote fashion, complete with a villain-reveal which frankly adds nothing. It’s so good up until that point that it deserves to rank this high, but it really does fall apart at the end there.
- Hell or High Water – 84
The sleeper hit of the late summer, this modern Western comments on the follies of modern finance by having two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) rob banks to pay the mortgage on their family’s land. A Texas Ranger nearing retirement (Jeff Bridges) and his partner (Gil Birmingham) try to track them down. What makes the film work so well is that it gives the characters and their dynamics ample room to breathe; Bridges and Birmingham in particular are a great double-act. It’s extremely well-written and solidly made. I don’t think it quite achieves greatness, but it’s damn solid.
- Moonlight – 84
A Best Picture front-runner and one of the year’s most acclaimed films…so why don’t I rank it higher? Frankly, I look to the script, which has moments which work beautifully (the “what’s a faggot” scene is so quiet and so devastating), but also has lines which fall flat and which seems to build up more than it really pays off. Still, it’s beautifully made and incredibly acted (Mahershala Ali will likely win the Oscar, but I thought André Holland and Ashton Sanders were even better) across the board. I may not love it, but I understand those who do.
- Captain America: Civil War – 85
The two Captain America movies are among the strongest Marvel has ever made, and even if this is more of an Avengers film, it’s very strong indeed. The central question of whether the Avengers should operate on their own or under government supervision is compelling enough, but the way the debate plays out through action and character – not just the ones we know and love, but also newcomers like Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) – make it one of the year’s most satisfying blockbusters. Maybe beef up the villain a little more next time, though.
- Miss Hokusai – 85
A superior anime you probably haven’t heard of, this tells the fictionalized story of O-Ei (Anne Watanabe), the daughter of Hokusai (Yutaka Matsushige), perhaps the most famous of all Japanese artists. It relates a number of episodes, some mundane, some fantastical, some tragic, encompassing life, love, sex, the supernatural, and death, as O-Ei tries to manage her difficult father and frail little sister, while establishing herself as an artist in her own right. It’s a bit choppy and has some questionable flourishes, but the animation is gorgeous and the individual episodes are often lovely. Seek this one out.
- Moana – 86
Disney’s other feature of the year, and honestly, by a hair the better one. The plot is comparatively conventional, as Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) sets out to save her people with the help of the demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson), but with the help of the soaring songs (courtesy of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina), beautiful animation, and refreshing focus on Polynesian folklore, it’s a delightful ride. More depth in the middle act might have helped (and the third-act reversals of fortune are predictable), but for a film that otherwise works so well, that’s quibbling.
- Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened – 86
I saw Merrily We Roll Along once. I didn’t like it much at all. (It’s the book; the protagonists just aren’t that interesting or sympathetic.) But this documentary about the original production, directed by cast member Lonny Price and making use of a treasure trove of recently unearthed footage chronicling the project’s genesis, is quite wonderful. It doesn’t hide the fact that the original production was hampered by Hal Prince’s excessive gimmickry, but the emphasis is on the thrill of being part of a new show, a new Sondheim show…and a show, period. A must for any thespian.
- Indignation – 86
This tragic adaptation of Philip Roth’s short novel about a Jewish misfit and a troubled shiksa‘s brief romance in the shadow of the Korean War will go down as one of the year’s most overlooked films. Logan Lerman is magnificent in the lead, Sarah Gadon is poignant as the girl, Tracy Letts is excellent as the dean of their college (his confrontations with Lerman are some of the best-written and acted scenes of the year), and the script is absolutely Oscar-caliber…yet so far it has received very little attention of any kind. But you can do your part.
- The Handmaiden – 86
I saw Chan-wook Park’s erotic thriller as a birthday present to myself, and it was pretty rewarding; Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri are marvelous as, respectively, a secluded heiress and a thief hired to pose as her maid. They have a scene together that could’ve been gross and exploitative, but is instead one of the year’s most stimulating. And the rest of the film is pretty damn good; it’s smartly written, deftly edited, and boasts some absolutely brilliant production design. At 144 minutes it is a little flabby (at least without developing the supporting characters), but I can live with it.
Tomorrow I do the **** films, and then spend the next five weeks catching up on what I haven’t already seen.