Monday, December 31, 2018

Top 10 Films of 2018

I’ve never announced my picks this early, but the year is over tonight and, for probably the first time ever, I feel like I’ve actually seen almost all the movies I want to see - 200 exactly, in fact. There are still a few I need to catch in the next few weeks which are now or will soon be available to stream - namely “Annihilation,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” and “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” and I’m sure I’ll need to watch a few technical contenders once Oscar nominations are announced. As a result, I’m saving my official AFT Awards for early February, with just a list of my personal favorites. Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments and share what you enjoyed best this year. Most of all, please see these films!

Runners-up: Green Book, The Favourite, Capernaum, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Black Panther, Free Solo, Shirkers, Dark Money, If Beale Street Could Talk, Breath, First Match, Disobedience, Ralph Breaks the Internet, and Boundaries,.

Note: Thoroughbreds was released theatrically in 2018 but was included on my list last year - don’t miss this superb thriller featuring excellent performances from Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy.

The Top 10 Films of 2018

#10: Colette

This wasn’t the only film this year about a female author whose husband took credit for her work, but it was easily the most colorful and energetic. Keira Knightley infused so much personality into the title character, who channeled her creativity into storytelling that influenced a nation. The costumes and scenery complement Knightley’s wonderful performance greatly.

#9: Jonathan

Fresh off his baby-faced driving debut, Ansel Elgort impressed in a dual role in this low-key Tribeca entry, playing twin brothers who share the same body and awaken separately. A concept that could have been dismissed as absurd works magnificently here, as the relationship between these two brothers who meet only via video footage each morning or evening is just as complex and affecting as any sibling dynamic.

Some may dismiss it as a stoner comedy, but seeing this film at Sundance demonstrated its simple inventiveness, following bored high school dropouts trying to get through the banality of their lives. Augustine Frizzell’s feature directorial debut is hilarious in a way that many comedies aren’t, crafting its humor out of the situations that arise merely from its characters being themselves.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead completely dominates this under-appreciated comedy from Tribeca about a young woman trying to make it in stand-up comedy. The rhythm that anchors the sets performed by Winstead’s Nina is matched by the film that surrounds her, immersing this young adult in the real world that will eventually force her to get serious.

The notion of a legendary musician disappearing into obscurity under mysterious circumstances is nothing new, but this highly enjoyable comedy found a way to make it feel fresh, from Chris O’Dowd’s hopeless fanatic to the sweet romance that forms between Rose Byrne’s apathetic protagonist and the omnipresent Ethan Hawke’s faded rocker.

#5: Widows

Steve McQueen’s follow-up to “12 Years a Slave” didn’t wow audiences for some reason. This complex film is equal parts social commentary and action movie, featuring a formidable cast. Elizabeth Debicki is particularly fantastic, and Daniel Kaluuya and Brian Tyree Henry both excel at playing villains with their own layered motivations.

There’s still an outside shot that “Winter’s Bone” director Debra Granik could end up with an Oscar nomination for this quiet but marvelously effective portrait of a father and daughter trying to live away from civilization. Ben Foster is typically terrific, and Thomasin McKenzie is a true discovery.

One of two fantastic movies from Lebanon released in 2018, this film, which was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Film last year, deals not with children but with adults who can’t find a way to get along. Its examination of cultural barriers and the dangerous power of hatred is exemplified tremendously through this story centered on two people representative of larger communities.

Actress Jordana Spiro’s feature directorial debut is a powerful portrait of youthful maturity and adversity in the face of problematic circumstances. Young actresses Dominique Fishback and Tatum Marilyn Hall act much more than their age in this extremely affecting and very human drama.

This documentary-thriller hybrid is a truly unique specimen. It’s equally suspenseful and hilarious, and the interspersion of actors and the real-life people they’re playing is both seamless and dizzying. This is no ordinary heist movie, but rather an exceptional instance of defying genre that proves to be completely fascinating.

What to expect here at Movies With Abe in early 2019:

January 1st: Golden Globe winner predictions
January 7th: Detailed predictions for each Oscar category January 22nd: Oscar nominations reactions and analysis January 23rd: Screen Actors Guild winner predictions January 25th: Sundance Film Festival coverage from Park City, UT February: The 12th Annual AFT Film Awards, my choices for the best in film from 2018 in 20+ categories

Occasional reviews of 2018 stragglers and 2019 releases will also be here frequently, and visit for regular pilot and episodic reviews!

Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Movie with Abe: Shirkers

Directed by Sandi Tan
Released October 26, 2018

Every year, hundreds of films are released and consumed by the public. Some screen across the globe for millions of people, while others play only to small audiences at film festivals. Year-end lists cite the best and award acting and technical achievements, but that’s only for those films that actually see the light of day. Tremendous time and effort is put into many projects that, for any number of reasons, don’t end up ever being completed and as a result are never seen.

In 1992, Sandi Tan is a teenager in Singapore obsessed with movies and trying to make her countercultural mark on her young country’s minimal cinema industry. She writes a screenplay for a road movie called “Shirkers,” and cobbles together a production with little more than youthful energy. As she works on the film with her friends Jasmine and Sophie, her teacher and mentor Georges Cardona, serving as director, remains distant and mysterious. His sudden disappearance at the very end of filming with all the footage leaves the friends dejected and heartbroken, until unexpected events give the project a new life almost two decades later.

This documentary is at once reminiscent of another construction of a film that never was, though production never got nearly as far on the project depicted in “Jodorowsky’s Dune.” Here, pieces of someone else’s work are not being assembled but instead it’s the filmmaker herself who is digging into the annals of her memory and the few physical remnants of her hard work. This experience, though it took place many years ago, feels impossibly recent, unmatched by anything else she has done in her career and all the more poignant because it never came to fruition.

Tan, who appears onscreen mostly only in archive footage as she remains behind the camera and narrates, describes her path to filmmaking as backwards, beginning with a full production followed by her studies at film school. What recovering this film does for her is helps her to fully understand and unpack her origins, aiming as a young visionary to reinvent the cinema of her country in a way that felt totally pure and unhinged. This film documenting that journey feels the same, inviting its audience on a wild, unexpected ride that proves to be immersive and exciting, showcasing true art from its conception to its disappearance to its unlikely reincarnation.


Movie with Abe: Dark Money

Dark Money
Directed by Kimberly Reed
Released July 13, 2018

Money has the power to do many things, and those who have it in turn are able to exercise an enormous amount of control over whatever they want. This is especially true in politics, where votes can be directly influenced by advertising, and negative press as a deterrent often works much better than efforts to bolster a candidate. The amount spent on campaigns these days is unbelievable, and it’s problematic enough when the sources of funding are known. This documentary seeks to investigate all those contributions that can’t be traced and are far more prevalent than anyone would expect.

This exploration of the proliferation of dark money begins in Montana, where many groups with few members officially on the books are behind targeted advertising launched just days before elections designed to influence voters to suspend their support for a particular candidate because of alleged opinions or actions. Investigative journalist John S. Adams reports and researches extensively, pivoting to federal election commissions to show how, despite the intention of oversight, they are rarely doing their part in ensuring fair practices and the upholding of the law, which itself becomes murky when corporations and the first amendment become all too muddled.

Adams is a great protagonist to anchor this story because he will stop at nothing, including founding his own organization, The Montana Free Press, to continue to expose the process that makes dark money an influential actor in American politics. He frequently diagrams out the confirmed connections between massive organizations and the more shadowy links to these strongly-named fronts created almost explicitly to work against candidates that don’t follow the party line. His frustration with not being able to interview the funders because he doesn’t know who they are is felt as he presses on despite many obstacles. Adams describes the situation as “government controlled by a corporation controlling the people,” a fearsome concept extravagantly illustrated in this investigation.

This is an urgent film that doesn’t discriminate based on party affiliation, even if many of the corporations profiled are right-wing. Elected officials and failed candidates from both major parties decry this practice as something utterly opposite to the idea of democracy and corruptive of the nature of free speech. Those interviewed, as well as Adams, frequently respond with incredulity that their career aspirations have been so easily derailed by powerful people hiding behind invented advocacy groups. This is a thorough and immensely involving exposé fully worthy of inclusion both in PBS’ POV series and on the list of finalists for the Oscar for Best Documentary.


Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Film Experience: The Mule

I'm pleased to be making my debut over at a site I've been reading for almost two decades, The Film Experience, with a closer look at “The Mule.” Head on over to Nathaniel's site to read the piece!

Saturday Night Movie Recommendations with Abe

Welcome back to a weekly feature here at Movies With Abe. I'm going to be providing a handy guide to a few choice movies currently playing in theatres as well as several films newly released on DVD and Netflix. I invite you to add in your thoughts on any films I haven’t seen in the comments below.

Now Playing in Theatres

It’s the very end of the year, and there are four noteworthy releases from this week, three of which contend for Golden Globes. The best of the bunch is Stan and Ollie, a relatively entertaining and engaging portrait of the later years of Laurel and Hardy starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly. I couldn’t get into Destroyer, featuring a wearied Nicole Kidman, and it’s far from a must-see despite praise for her performance. Vice has its merits, though I’d argue that the Globe nominations leader is very much overrated. If the subject matter is appealing, it’s worth a watch. If you want to learn about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, watch the documentary “RBG” on Hulu instead of the much weaker narrative version, On the Basis of Sex. Better yet, skip all four new releases and check out the films I’ve recommending for weeks: If Beale Street Could Talk, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, The Favourite, Green Book, and Widows.

New to DVD

Nothing new this week, so check out a handful of great options that have been out for a bit: All About Nina, Colette, Juliet, Naked, Never Goin’ Back, In a Relationship, Fahrenheit 11/9, Blindspotting, The New Romantic, and The Miseducation of Cameron Post.

Now on Netflix Instant Streaming

I’m going to be checking out “Avengers: Infinity War” sometime next week. At First Light, recently released on DVD, is lackluster sci-fi. Otherwise, try great options previously available like Roma and Breath.

Movie with Abe: Communion

Directed by Anna Zamecka
Opening January 4, 2018

The truest way to document something is to be in the experience with someone, acting as a fly on the wall as they go through their daily life. Being there to witness how people interact and how actions lead directly or indirectly to consequences helps to provide a greater understanding of what it means to be in someone else’s world. That form of documentary filmmaking may not be as common as hard-hitting exposés or portraits of a famous person’s life, but there is value to be found in placing a camera close to the members of a family and seeing what it manages to capture.

Ola doesn’t lead an easy life. She is fourteen years old yet easily ranks as the most dependable member of her family. Her brother Nikodem is thirteen and is autistic. Her father has a problem with alcohol and can’t seem to stay sober even when a case worker makes a visit to check in on the family. Her mother is nowhere to be found, yet she’ll likely come to the communion that Nikodem is preparing for, with the assistance of the sister who knows how to guide him in learning the required material and answering the questions he must know in a way that works with his personality.

Ola is definitely this film’s protagonist, fighting constantly with the father who can’t take care of himself or his son but insists on still giving her a curfew that she feels she must obey. She is mature yet at the same time still a teenager, placed in a difficult situation but also focused on remaining popular with her friends and helping her brother succeed while not spending too much time with him. The undercurrent of religious values emphasized by school teachers provides an additional, though not necessarily healthy, identity for this family that hardly seems to be their priority in existing day to day.

This Polish documentary, which runs just one hour and twelve minutes, made the fifteen-film shortlist for the Oscar for Best Documentary. It’s very unlike the rest of the films, with the presence of its camera and who holds it never acknowledged. Its title references the event that might serve either as a healing opportunity or another chance for explosive disaster for this family, and that mysterious camera sits with its subjects as it looms. Those content merely to watch and see vulnerability and humanity unfold on screen may be entranced, but this film doesn’t include all too much direction or focus that might have enlivened it and underscored its effectiveness.


Friday, December 28, 2018

Movie with Abe: Free Solo

Free Solo
Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Released September 28, 2018

Where some look and see an idea that scares them, others see an incredible opportunity and challenge. Most people would balk at the notion of scaling a mountain, and even fewer would ever consider doing it without a harness and people nearby to help them should anything occur to put their climb in jeopardy. Yet there do exist those for whom such possibilities are immensely appealing, and to try to accomplish a daring feat with safeguards in place diminishes the excitement and feeling of success that comes from the achievement of a climb without injury or, worse, death.

The focus of this documentary is on Alex Honnold, a climber in his early thirties who is an accomplished free soloist. His history of climbs is covered over the course of the film, but the main challenge he seeks to complete is to be the first person to ascend El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without any assistance. His friends follow him, adding to the experience by watching him as he moves up the side of the mountain with no knowledge of whether their next shot may capture his final moment since they too are in it with him as he works towards his next incredible goal.

This film serves as a spotlight on this field but also an examination of what kind of person lives this kind of life. Relationships are difficult since those who don’t have the same urge to climb can’t understand why someone feels the need to put themselves at risk. Alex describes how he didn’t learn much about love and hugs, and had to teach himself that as he grew up in this more isolated hobby, one that counts many among the dead. The realization of just how precarious each free solo is comes up again and again, with so many expert climbers lost far too soon in the midst of one of their daring ascents.

This film introduces its subject matter and dives right in, showcasing Alex in action as he plots out the mathematics of his route and the best way to be able to start and end without either stopping or falling. The influence of the camera is analyzed here too in an intriguing way, since, unlike most documentaries, its presence as a factor that affects the behavior of those captured within its lens is recognized and acknowledged. This film manages to be thought-provoking and exhilarating at the same time, and while this reviewer probably wouldn’t climb a moment even with all safety precautions, this world is completely worth visiting from this viewpoint.


Movie with Abe: Charm City

Charm City
Directed by Marilyn Ness
Released April 22, 2018

The city of Baltimore, Maryland is very often in the news, and not usually for good reason. This film’s title references attempts to rehabilitate the image of a city ruled by crime and violence, repositioned by advertisers as a potential source of sunny tourism. The death of Freddie Gray in the back of a police van following his arrest in 2015 was an especially dark moment for Baltimore, and became the face of a movement to ensure that black lives do in fact matter. This documentary takes a look at the complicated nature of the community and what lies ahead for its future.

This film examines a few different facets of Baltimore’s neighborhoods. Police officers, some who are black and some who are not, struggle to stay on top of areas that they know are hotspots for drug dealers while being held back both by mistrust of the police from citizens and bureaucratic obstacles related to what they are legally able to do. Those who run community members and serve in local government are desperate to change the culture in a way that’s lasting and not simply based on each individual death, fully aware that what is happening in their city would easily be deemed a national emergency were it anywhere else or if the color of its population’s skin were different.

There are no easy answers to be found here, and the people interviewed know that. Hearing from black police officers who are regularly stopped and searched by unknowing colleagues is always disturbing, and enforcing the law becomes increasingly difficult with established discriminatory practices fueling anger and mistrust. One elected official stops along his drive to call in to a radio broadcast to acknowledge that one of his priorities – to increase penalties for illegal gun possession – is never going to work to truly discourage guns being on the street, but that any successful strategy needs to be cohesive and in conjunction with other efforts addressing the many factors that contribute to the makeup and tendencies of the city.

This is a film that seems to understand that what it is probing is indeed complex, and that anyone who believes that one single action can fix the problems Baltimore has is sorely mistaken. Yet it isn’t all bad, and there is an emphasis on the value of people there, with all participants in this film making concrete progress in thinking differently and acting in a way that should serve as an inspiration for future generations. This approach feels genuine and hard-hitting at the same time, creating an urgent and affirming documentary that tries to get to the heart of why Baltimore is what it is and how it can become better under the right circumstances.


Thursday, December 27, 2018

Movie with Abe: Minding the Gap

Minding the Gap
Directed by Bing Liu
Released August 17, 2018

Activities that for most are hobbies or ways to blow off steam may for others be a necessary escape from the harsh realities of their everyday lives. What it means for someone to be able to be free and away from stresses and miseries will be completely different than the same activity for someone who enjoys luxuries and privilege. Sports are one such outlet, with skateboarding representing a particular area that may seem like a throwaway appeal for those with little experience or interest in it, while others take considerably more meaning from indulgence in it.

In Rockford, Illinois, three young men with different identities share their stories. None of them have much in the way of money or possessions, and they rely on their social experiences to help them get by, connecting over a shared love for skateboarding. Zack is forced to grow up and accept the reality of his situation when his girlfriend Nina becomes pregnant. Kiere is the only African-American of the group, who doesn’t always feel comfortable as the representative of a minority, while Bing, who is Chinese-American, expresses himself through filmmaking, capturing this story and editing it together to represent the experiences of his friends that he rightly feels aren’t commonly showcased.

There is a great deal of self-reflection that happens in front of the camera, with each of the characters contemplating their pasts and what lies ahead for them in the future. Kiere explains how he didn’t realize that the fact that his family was black was important, while Zack tackles his newfound fatherhood as an extremely complex state. Conversations with their mothers to dissect the abuse they endured as children are extraordinarily eye-opening, especially as it helps them to realize what kind of adults and parents they want to be, deciding what should be justified and what represents crossing the line.

This is an extremely intimate film, one that truly allows its subjects to be themselves. No moments or scenes feel staged, and the three friends are eager to share their thoughts. For them, talking casually about their innermost feelings seems to feel just as natural as getting on a skateboard. After getting to know its characters in a real and honest fashion, Bing weaves together an endearing montage that demonstrates how it has managed to capture and translate the humanity of these people, assuring that even those who might not have connected throughout are hopeless to leave without feeling something.


Movie with Abe: Hale County This Morning, This Evening

Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Directed by RaMell Ross
Released September 14, 2018

When the slate is listed for film festivals, the titles are usually divided into two main categories: documentary or narrative. That difference is meant to distinguish between nonfiction and fiction filmmaking, though it also implies, to a degree, the existence of a script to structure the latter, whereas the former may be composed of interviews and other footage edited together to create a coherent examination of its subject matter. While experimental filmmaking is found most commonly in narratives, it’s also possible to assemble a documentary from a series of shots or ideas into something that represents a facet of society.

This film is centered in Hale County, Alabama, looking at the lives of its black community. Individuals such as Daniel and Quincy are frequently shown but not fully introduced, captured during their daily lives as if there was no camera present. Director RaMell Ross proudly presents images constructed together to showcase the way in which black people in America are often misrepresented and have their culture portrayed, turning any previous conceptions on their head by presenting events expressly as they are, with his only commentary being the way in which he assembles the footage he has subtly taken to show what he sees as representative of the real black American community.

Those expecting any sort of conclusions to be concretely drawn or arguments to be made in an explicit way will be disappointed in this film, which puts its content out in the world to be taken as is. That style has the potential to be enlightening, but it also leaves much to be assembled and analyzed by the audience, which will delight some and frustrate others. In rare cases, Ross does juxtapose classic film footage of a man in blackface peering out of the bushes with shots of driving onto a plantation in the present day, but that’s among the most direct influence he lets seep into the film.

There is an intentionality to the randomness on display here, which often follows a child running around for a few minutes or ends up being just shadows on the wall. Those who prefer hard-hitting investigative documentaries that clearly posit what they aim to argue will find the experience of watching this film unfulfilling, with an added involvement and engagement with the material needed to truly internalize its message. It does have considerable value, but its deliberate lack of construction isn’t nearly as formidable an asset as framing it even slightly might have been.


Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Movie with Abe: Stan and Ollie

Left to right: John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy, Shirley Henderson as Lucille Hardy, Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel, Nina Arianda as Ida Laurel Photo by Nick Wall, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Stan and Ollie
Directed by Jon S. Baird
Released December 28, 2018

There are names throughout history that speak for themselves and need to only be referenced in part for nearly any audience to know immediately who they are. Often, such people come in pairs. Laurel and Hardy are definitely well-known all throughout the world, and their many public and screen appearances seem worthy of a cinematic tale of their own to tell their story. While they were always called by their last names, this film chooses to use their first names, representing a more intimate chance to get to know these two comedy greats towards the end of their illustrious careers entertaining people together.

Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) are legends in the industry, making crowds everywhere double over with laughter at their acts. Years after the height of their popularity, however, they find themselves on a tour through Ireland and England that hardly feels fitting for their universal appeal. Desperate to get funding for a Robin Hood parody film that Stan is writing, they play to barely-filled small venues in the hopes that the producer will come see their final performance in London, where their wives Ida (Nina Arianda) and Lucille (Shirley Henderson) will also arrive to show their respective brands of support.

Much of this film’s success hinges on the effectiveness of its actors imitating these famous performers. Coogan is known for his dry comedy, and this reviewer particularly appreciated his turn in “The Look of Love,” in which he played another larger-than-life personality, Paul Raymond. Here, he gets to play Stan, the straight man whose mind is always running, coming up with the next great idea to continue their greatest successes. Reilly, an Oscar nominee for his invisible husband in “Chicago” and a Golden Globe nominee for this film, is buried under extensive makeup as the extremely overweight Ollie, who follows the lead of his partner with considerably less ambition.

Coogan and Reilly prove to be strong choices to play these iconic figures, and they receive commendable support from Henderson, who portrays the shy, reserved Lucille, who worries constantly about her husband’s health, and Arianda, who steals her every scene with a formidable Russian accent and equally fierce personality to go with it. The film’s energy level mirrors the enthusiasm of its lead characters, which results in some lackluster mid-film scenes before a strong and optimistic rally as the two come to be nostalgic about everything they’ve done over their many years together.


Movie with Abe: Girl

Directed by Lukas Dhont
To be released January 18, 2019

As society evolves and more liberal interpretations of identity become normalized, those who might previously have been underrepresented in fiction are increasingly more visible. Same-sex relationships have been spotlighted for many years, and now an increased focus on transgender protagonists is finding its way into cinema. “A Fantastic Woman,” a Chilean drama starring transgender actress Daniela Vega, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film last year, and now, one of this year’s Golden Globe nominees in the same category, from Belgium, tackles another story featuring a transgender character.

Lara (Victor Polster) is a fifteen-year-old who dreams of being a ballerina. Her supportive father Mathias (Arieh Worthalter) accompanies her to each of her appointments with doctors to track the progress of her hormone therapy, while instructors at her ballet school stress the difficulty of starting to dance so late, especially when she grew up learning to use the feet of a boy. Lara struggles to feel like she fits in with the other girls, pushing herself to excel as a way to compensate for the physical and emotional challenges that present themselves all too frequently as a result of the transition she is actively undergoing.

This film has been the subject of controversy in part because it comes from Lukas Dhont, a cisgender male director, and stars Polster, a cisgender male actor. Whether they are entitled to tell a story that doesn’t inherently belong to them is a larger ethical artistic question, but what is clearly problematic is the way in which Lara’s mental state is portrayed. Her single parent is incredibly devoted and encouraging, and though she does experience harassment and trauma at certain points, most of what she suffers is self-inflicted. That as a result paints as destructive and damaging not the world but instead those who seek to truly express themselves, which is a disturbing message to send to its audience.

Polster, who was just fourteen years old at the time of filming, does deliver a performance that feels true to the character of Lara, even if the sculpting of her identity as portrayed in the film is laced with issues. The emphasis on dance does not reach outside of its central character as it has in other films like “Black Swan,” and instead the narrative is presented in an uninventive and straightforward manner. This film doesn’t ultimately make the proper case for its existence, with its potential for adverse consequences outweighing its positive elements.


Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Movie with Abe: Birds of Passage

Birds of Passage
Directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra
Opening February 13, 2019

Many people live in multiple worlds at the same time. Professional enterprises may be in direct conflict with cultural traditions prevalent in a person’s upbringing, and that oppositional relationship can result in the cutting off of any connections to home life, whether from members of the community or by the individual themselves. When no such separation is created, pervasive elements of a financial endeavor that involves unfamiliar practices and behavior begin to seep into the fabric of the previously unexposed place, often leading to detrimental problems that threaten to rip a community apart.

In the 1960s in Colombia, Rapayet (José Acosta) becomes engaged to Zaida (Natalia Reyes), a member of a native Wayuu family of considerable prestige. In order to pay the dowry required, Rapayet begins a lucrative business supplying visiting Americans with marijuana. His friend and business partner Moisés (Jhon Narváez) frequently clashes with the Wayuu because of his different heritage and his lack of respect for their customs, leading to increased tension between Zaida’s family and Rapayet’s cousin Aníbal (Juan Bautista), his main supplier who values the upholding of tradition and dignity above all else.

This film looks at a very different side of the rise of Colombian drug trafficking, seemingly on the other side of the world from Pablo Escobar and the Cali cartel. Rapayet’s engagement is cemented by his successful completion of a ritual dance, and livestock are among the frequent gifts presented from Rapayet both as a sign of respect and as an apology for the actions of his associates. Word messengers are treated with particular authority in this society, which feels like an ancient relic positioned next to the truck that Rapayet drives and the gun he wears around his waist. This is an examination of how the distant preserved past meets the inevitably invading future, threatening to forever alter a community that has remained much closer to its origins than most.

Directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra previously collaborated on the Oscar-nominated “Embrace of the Serpent” several years ago. This film proceeds at a much more involving pace but lacks some of the cinematic quality that made that story haunting and difficult to forget. The frills-free presentation of the Wayuu people and Rapayet’s efforts to balance the two homes that pull him is perhaps its most effective trait, and there is power to be found in the simpler moments featuring Wayuu customs at their barest. This film, which is one of nine finalists on the shortlist for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, feels like a truly genuine portrait of a culture not often showcased in film.


Movie with Abe: The Guilty

Jakob Cedergren in THE GUILTY, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The Guilty
Directed by Gustav Möller
Released October 19, 2018

The person answering the emergency police line is the first point of contact for someone in distress. In film and television, procedure is usually stressed most, as whoever answers tries to get crucial information to be able to send help to the caller on the other end of the line. It’s not the job of the operator to see the entire case through, and there’s even an action procedural series on FOX dedicated to beginning each episode with the fateful call. This Danish film begins at a similar point but stays only with the operator for the duration of the film.

Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) has been assigned to desk duty in the wake of an investigation, culminating in a trial scheduled for the next day. Fielding emergency calls, Asger follows the script and passes each message along to the appropriate department. When a woman, Iben (Jessica Dinnage), calls and indicates that she has been abducted, the line is disconnected once Asger is sure that she is telling the truth and is under duress. Desperate to find her, Asger pushes to reconnect with her and do anything he can to locate her, seeming all too willing to disregard protocol and even the law to ensure the safety of a woman he has never met.

This film takes place entirely in the call center at the police station, with Asger interacting with a few colleagues around him, but otherwise sitting, or sometimes pacing, with his headset while on the phone with off-screen voices. The fact that the action can remain compelling when it’s seen from only one side for a duration of eighty-five minutes is impressive, and it helps to intensify the tension by trapping audience members with Asger, who wants nothing more than to be out in the field knocking down doors instead of coordinating from a computer screen.

Director Gustav Möller makes a noteworthy debut for what can best be described as a tight thriller that unfolds subtly as Asger learns more about what he’s gotten himself into and how much more complicated it is than in initially seems. Cedergren delivers a focused performance, conveying his impatience and frustration with the situation and showing just how dedicated he is to executing his job the way he sees fit. Denmark’s Oscar submission for Best Foreign Film, which made the nine-wide shortlist of contenders for the award, manages to feel like a more populated ensemble film while really only showing one central character on screen, an accomplishment in itself.


Monday, December 24, 2018

Movie with Abe: RBG

Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West
Released May 4, 2018

There aren’t a lot of people who are known simply by their initials. While it does seem somewhat casual, it acknowledges a certain universality and recognizable nature that wouldn’t allow them to be confused with anyone else. Presidents come to mind, particularly FDR or JFK, though, in both of those cases, their legacies were cut short by their premature deaths while still serving in office. One person currently holding a high office has definitely gone much further than anyone expected, defying expectations throughout her entire life and earning her three-letter moniker.

RBG, whose full name is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is the second woman ever appointed to serve on the United States Supreme Court. Her incredible life is chronicled, from her start at Harvard Law School as one of just a few women in her class. Her close relationship with her husband Martin, who never treated her as an inferior but an equal partner in their marriage, was central to her success, but RBG achieved everything on her own merits, working as a law professor when no firm would hire her and making magnificent strides to roll back gender discrimination laws in the United States on the path to the high court.

This documentary opens on an energetic note, showing the eighty-five-year-old lifting weights as quotes from those who doubted her abilities are played. Her diminutive stature is used as a weapon throughout the story of her life, as people constantly underestimated her because of her size and her gender. She is described by friends who have known her for decades as much shier than Martin, far more extroverted only in recent years. The fanbase that has amassed itself around her now is especially wonderful, and seeing how she responds to that affection with reserved gratitude is endearing.

RBG’s reputation may now be larger-than-life, but this is a documentary that really gets to who she is as an individual. Watching as she laughs at Kate McKinnon’s parody of her on “Saturday Night Live” is sweet and entertaining, as she notes that it’s funny even if it doesn’t remind her at all of herself. Seeing footage of her and her ideological opposite, Justice Antonin Scalia, appearing together as true friends despite their differences is a wonderful remnant of a time where one party’s judicial nominee being confirmed 96-3 was actually possible. This is a winning documentary that paints a marvelous portrait of a fascinating and impactful figure in recent – and current – American history.


Movie with Abe: On the Basis of Sex

On the Basis of Sex
Directed by Mimi Leder
Released December 25, 2018

Movies often pull double duty as history lessons, bringing the past of a famous figure to the masses. Big names can in turn draw big audiences, and while physical resemblance can play a part in casting, makeup and a capturing of the overall essence of a person can compensate. Rarely is what plays out on the screen entirely true to life, and those interested in the subject matter would do well to do further research rather than take what is presented as fact. These films usually take one of two forms: a biopic about a person’s entire life or a more focused excerpt centered on one formative event or accomplishment.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg (Felicity Jones) begins law school at Harvard as one of just a few women, and soon begins attending the classes her second-year husband Martin (Armie Hammer) is enrolled in when he gets sick. After graduation, Ruth struggles to find a job at a law firm since no one wants to hire a woman and begins work instead as a professor at Rutgers Law School. As the years go by, Ruth’s frustration with not being able to fulfill her potential grows, until she finds the perfect opportunity to make her mark, defending Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), whose exclusion from a tax exemption for providing nursing care for his ailing mother because he is a man could provide a pathway towards ending legalized gender inequality in the United States.

Anyone paying even minimal attention to what’s going on in this country will be aware that Ruth is now a Supreme Court Justice, and therefore every hurdle she experiences during her early years will eventually lead to greatness and respect from the majority of the population. Ruth is evidently brilliant, and that makes watching men talk down to her and presume what she is capable of all the more agonizing. Her success, once achieved, is gratifying, and the film sets her up for a major victory by stacking everything against her along the way.

Ruth is undeniably a fantastic protagonist, also the subject this year of the likely Oscar-bound documentary “RBG.” Where this film falters in its miscasting of English actress Felicity Jones as Ruth. Her attempt to nail the Brooklyn accent distracts from the effectiveness of her performance. As her extraordinarily supportive husband, Hammer feels like a much more natural fit. Throughout most of its full two-hour runtime, this film acts like the feel-good Christmas movie it’s been marketed as rather than a cohesive biography of a trailblazing lawyer. It finishes strong, however, demonstrating the momentous nature of this case and the incredible contribution to law and gender equality that its subject has made.


Sunday, December 23, 2018

Movie with Abe: Incredibles 2

Incredibles 2
Directed by Brad Bird
Released June 15, 2018

Every superhero faces a moment in which they are perceived as a threat to society rather than a protective asset. Wearing a mask can make the experience all the more isolating, since those who know the person behind it only in their everyday identity may join the masses in decrying the motives of their alter ego. Having a reliable support system is rare for those who serve as the defenders of their cities and countries, which is why watching a family of super-powered people who, despite their issues, look out each other, is a delightful experience.

Facing public condemnation of their best efforts to stop supervillains, the Incredibles look to an uncertain future with the closure of the Superhero Relocation Program. Telecommunications tycoon Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener) approach the team with a plan to rehabilitate their image, positioning Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) as the face of the public relations campaign while Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) struggles to take care of the children, including the rapidly developing baby Jack-Jack. The emergence of a new villain called Screenslaver threatens all the progress they have made with a vicious plot to rid the world of superheroes for good.

This film serves as a highly anticipated sequel to the 2004 Oscar-winning original, which this reviewer has actually never seen. The experience of viewing this film without the context of the previous installment does not feel daunting, and there’s plenty of character development to be found with more than enough prefacing information to inform those few encountering this franchise for the first time. As daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) deals with the troubles of being a teenager and an uncertain relationship with a boy, her father must contend with being a stay-at-home parent for the first time, making this a fully functional family story to be truly enjoyed by all.

Superheroes and sequels are equally prevalent at the moment, and it’s nice to see a film that delivers on both counts, showcasing the members of the Parr family as most concerned with doing good for those without powers but also trying to find themselves as individuals and as a unit, both with their masks on and off. The trajectory of the film is relatively familiar for animated adventures, but it works well enough here in this fun, engaging film full of action. The inevitable third film is surely in the works, and based on this installment, it’s more than merited.


Movie with Abe: Destroyer

Directed by Karyn Kusama
Released December 25, 2018

Actors almost always receive plenty of attention when they go through incredible physical transformations for a role. This can involve gaining or losing a substantial amount of weight or either applying or removing considerable makeup so that the character barely resembles the person portraying them. That buzz can overwhelm the project itself, with the star getting all the write-ups rather than the film. The last time Nicole Kidman appeared dramatically different on screen was in her Oscar-winning role in “The Hours,” and now she’s back with an altogether darker and grimmer portrait of someone who looks very little like she usually does.

Detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) is a shell of her former self years after a traumatic experience during an undercover operation with her partner Chris (Sebastian Stan). Antisocial and easily angered, Erin is reluctantly thrust back into the world that so scarred her as she attempts to track down the leader of the gang, Silas (Toby Kebbell), and his most loyal devotee, Petra (Tatiana Maslany). With a rebellious daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), threatening to go down the wrong path, Erin must delve deep within herself to uncover long-suppressed memories that will help her put everything in the past once and for all.

The image of Erin’s wearied and hardened face adorns the poster for this film and serves as its defining still, capturing all that she has been through as Erin wears her pain in every moment. This film simultaneously plays out in the present and in the past, where Erin is considerably fuller of light and positivity, not yet aware of how profoundly her undercover work will affect the trajectory of her life. The difference in the two Erins is incredible, and Kidman does deserve commendation for being able to paint these two characters who seem nothing alike and portray them in the same film.

Kidman has received praise for her work, though this turn doesn’t really compare to some of her best past performances. In a relatively small scene-stealing role, Maslany demonstrates that she should always get top billing after her incredible lead work in “Orphan Black.” This film, which is reminiscent of many other police dramas with similar themes, suffers from several structural issues, with plot developments casting the legitimacy of its narrative in doubt and diminishing its overall effectiveness. The examination of a woman devastated by her past has merit, but the surrounding story is much weaker than its lead character.


Saturday, December 22, 2018

Saturday Night Movie Recommendations with Abe

Welcome back to a weekly feature here at Movies With Abe. I'm going to be providing a handy guide to a few choice movies currently playing in theatres as well as several films newly released on DVD and Netflix. I invite you to add in your thoughts on any films I haven’t seen in the comments below.

Now Playing in Theatres

It missed out on a Golden Globe nomination, but Cold War is still pretty much guaranteed to be an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film and likely the strongest challenger to “Roma.” Fans of director Pawel Pawlikowski’s previous film, “Ida won’t be disappointed. I liked his newer film more even if it’s still moderately miserable and melodramatic. If Beale Street Could Talk, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, The Favourite, Green Book, and Widows.

New to DVD

One of my favorite films from Tribeca, All About Nina, didn’t earn its star Mary Elizabeth Winstead any accolades for her superb turn as a stand-up comedian. It’s one of my top films of the year and should be widely seen. In a Relationship, another underappreciated Tribeca selection, features fantastic performances and a great modern-day love story. It didn’t make the Best Documentary Oscar shortlist, but Michael Moore’s latest film, Fahrenheit 11/9, is well worth a watch, especially for anyone feeling politically frustrated at the moment. Previous picks include: Colette, Juliet, Naked, Blindspotting, The New Romantic, Never Goin’ Back and The Miseducation of Cameron Post.

Now on Netflix Instant Streaming

A handful of films from the past two decades are now available. The journalism thriller Kill the Messenger, starring Jeremy Renner, is a solid choice. The 2002 Oscar winner The Pianist still holds up as one of the most affecting Holocaust movies ever made. It didn’t get much attention aside from Maggie Smith’s lead performance, but I enjoyed 2012’s Quartet quite a bit. Another 2012 film that received considerably more attention is Silver Linings Playbook, which I liked even though it’s relatively overrated. One Day features an inventive premise that works somewhat well and great performances from Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess. Though I’d recommend the fourth and fifth entries of the series best, the original 2001 The Fast and the Furious has its merits, while its immediate Vin Diesel-free sequel, 2 Fast 2 Furious, isn’t quite as strong. And don't miss previous releases like Roma and Breath.

Movie with Abe: Ready Player One

Ready Player One
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Released March 29, 2018

There are movies that become hits, either with critics or audiences and sometimes both, at the time that they are released, immediately appreciated for their artistic and entertainment value. Others register only with a select few and, over time, are understood to be cult classics. There is a fan base for films like this, and becoming especially knowledge about the history behind specific moments and scenes is considered a badge of honor. There is more than enough source material for what in this film serves as a virtual reality world teeming with pop culture references.

In 2045, everyone is obsessed with and immersed in OASIS, created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and made all the more popular by his posthumous challenge to players to “win” and take ownership of the virtual world by finding three keys to unlock an Easter egg. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), better known by his avatar, Parzival, expertly studies everything Halliday has done and makes enough progress to catch the attention of Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), a power-hungry executive who wants to control OASIS. With the help of Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and a few other determined players, Wade pledges to locate the keys before Sorrento can warp OASIS into something that will enable him to exercise detrimental control over both its users and the real world.

One of Parzival’s first big gains in OASIS is to come close to finishing a race driving a DeLorean through a recreated New York City that is interrupted constantly with villains from “King Kong” and “Jurassic Park.” The more that Parzival and other players know about pop culture, the better their chances of succeeding are. Director Steven Spielberg proudly declared that this was not a film but a movie when he introduced a surprise premiere screening at South by Southwest last March, and that’s definitely true. This film throws a whole lot of familiar conventions together, and it creates an experience that’s both mentally and visually stimulating.

Both Sheridan and Cooke are extremely familiar to this reviewer from their independent film origins in Sundance hits like “Mud” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” respectively, and it makes sense that anyone who saw those projects would want to cast them in a big-budget blockbuster like this. They are capable of handing the material, joined by dependable thespians Mendelsohn and Rylance in more relaxed roles than they usually take. There’s a whole lot of an action in this cleverly-constructed film, based on the 2011 book of the same name, and it manages to be mostly exciting and involving with the assistance of strong visual effects during its rather lengthy two-hour and twenty-minute runtime. Its greatest flaw may be that those who appreciate its references most are no longer part of the teenage demographic that this film seems most targeted to, though they should find it perfectly enjoyable.


Friday, December 21, 2018

Movie with Abe: Paddington 2

Paddington 2
Directed by Paul King
Released January 12, 2018

There’s something about a well-received sequel that can really help to attract a far wider audience. This reviewer would never have thought it would be necessary to sit down to watch a PG-rated comedy about a talking bear who mysteriously is accepted by all the humans around him, but when it receives top-tier nominations from BAFTA, the British equivalent of the Academy Awards, and a spot on the top ten films of the year from Time Magazine, it’s clear that, no matter how far away from normally appealing genres it may be, it’s probably worth checking out.

Paddington (Ben Whishaw) lives a wonderful life in London with Henry Brown (Hugh Bonneville), Mary Brown (Sally Hawkins), and their children, brightening the days of those in the neighborhood with his genuine goodness and determination to make everyone smile. The person he most seeks to please is his Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton), who never had the chance to visit London before settling in a retirement home. When he finds the perfect book to give her, it is stolen just as he makes the money he needs to buy it by the duplicitous actor Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant). Sent to prison for a theft he didn’t commit, Paddington must band together with his fellow prisoners and set out both to prove his innocence and get back that book for his beloved aunt.

This premise is certainly ambitious, not even including the CGI necessary to insert this animated bear into nearly every scene. The fact that no one questions that Paddington is a talking bear may have been explained in the first film, which this reviewer has not seen, but it’s actually an asset because he fits in so well with the humans around him in nature even if his physical stature often leads to hijinks and embarrassment. Just as all the characters come to understand, it’s easy to love Paddington, because what he cares most about in the world – aside from marmalade – is making everyone he meets happy.

The actor who has primarily received acclaim for this film is Grant, who is definitely experiencing a career resurgence after “Florence Foster Jenkins” and the miniseries “A Very English Scandal,” in which Whishaw also stars. He is absolutely having fun making his villainous character as extravagant as possible, committing fully to the premise of a film that some might not have taken as seriously. The way in which all of the members of its impressive cast give this their all is part of why it works, a fun adventure which really can be enjoyed by the whole family or really by anyone sitting down to watch.


Movie with Abe: Cold War

Cold War
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski
Released December 21, 2018

Love stories are timeless, but they aren’t always easy. Some couples have the fortune of meeting under the best of circumstances and seeing their relationship develop into a long narrative full of happy moments and a large family. Accidents, natural disasters, social barriers, and political conflicts can keep two people destined to be together apart either temporarily or permanently, cutting short a tale that should continue much longer than it does. In such instances, people may choose to move on with their lives, opting for a different path, but in some cases, those in love and unable to see it realized will continue to pine for a better future as long as they live.

Zula (Joanna Kulig) immediately catches the eye of musical director Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) when she auditions for his troupe. A passionate love affair soon begins, but Wiktor fears they can never be together under the Communist regime and plots an escape to the West. When Zula fails to show up, Wiktor finds himself starting over in a new place, thriving artistically but pining eternally for the woman he cannot stop thinking about and continues to try to reunite with throughout tumultuous times of unsteady peace.

Like director Pawel Pawlikowski’s previous film, the Oscar-winning “Ida,” this film features black-and-white cinematography from Lukasz Zal, which makes the lengthy and troubled relationship between Zula and Wiktor feel all the more painful and stark. Much of their romance is based in a musical setting, and it’s definitely possible to understand how Wiktor becomes enchanted by Zula, who is frequently framed within his gaze as she performs for a new audience with all eyes and ears on her. The way the two look at each other stands out greatly from the somber backdrop that against which their love exists.

Kulig channels such contemplative energy into every look that Zula gives, particularly each time she performs. Kot matches her with a laser-focused admiration that never has Wiktor taking his eyes off of Zula. More than anything else, this film wraps its audiences up in the spirit of the times and the cultural landscape of the moment, expressing its protagonists’ miserable fates through the confines of the time in which they meet and are prevented from living happily together. That experience is not always pleasant or urgent, but there is value and haunting power in the depiction of this forbidden romance.


Thursday, December 20, 2018

Movie with Abe: Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns
Directed by Rob Marshall
Released December 19, 2018

In an era of unending sequels, remakes, and reboots, it’s no surprise to see familiar classic fare revisited on the big screen. It’s not all that common for a sequel to be commissioned for a film released over half a century earlier, particularly because most of the new movie’s audience wasn’t alive when the original was first produced. Updating a concept that has become part of film history is a major gamble since fans of what exists have the potential to be disappointed, and the most important thing is to preserve the spirit of the source material.

Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) and his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) are grown and living in London, though Michael has fallen on hard times after the death of his wife and his worsening attempts to keep his family that consists of three energetic young children afloat. As he learns that he is going to lose his home if he cannot prove that his father left him bank shares, the unforgettable nanny Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) arrives to help bring back the magic into their lives, with the help of local lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), someone who has managed to grow up and preserve the idealistic attitude that he, Michael, and Jane had as children.

The marketing for this film celebrates the wondrous return of the title character, who is a staple of musical cinema whose many memorable songs have become immensely popular since Julie Andrews won an Oscar in 1964. Blunt inherits the role marvelously, delighting in the incredible presence the nanny has, effortlessly enlivening each situation with her soft signature touches. This film is fully aware that it is continuing a beloved story and aims high, recreating a lavish spectacle full of colors and sounds that do indeed make the impossible seem possible.

Blunt is deservedly on the road to her first Oscar nomination for this very fitting and endearing turn. Miranda, a Tony winner for “Hamilton,” doesn’t feel quite as seamless in his portrayal of the heir to the chimney sweeper role from the original, too prone to showy raps and other solo performances. This film, which runs long at two hours and ten minutes, achieves its best musical scene towards its enjoyable, affirming end, dragging a bit until that point despite some well-crafted visuals and decent songs that can’t quite match those from the original. This sequel is not unwelcome and manages to be perfectly entertaining, likely to win many audience members over more than this reviewer.


Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Movie with Abe: Isle of Dogs

Photo courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

Isle of Dogs
Directed by Wes Anderson
Released March 23, 2018

There are filmmakers who leave a distinct imprint on each of the movies they make, to the point that they can be almost instantly recognized as having been created by them. Wes Anderson is one such writer-director, who has made nine films in the span of twenty-two years, each focusing on characters who speak with a pointed intelligence and move through the world to a particular rhythm. Most of his films have been live-action, but his own previous foray into animation, “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” was a tremendous success. His latest film may well be his most imaginative yet.

In Japan, a dog flu poses a threat to the human population, inspiring its mayor, Kenji Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), to expel all dogs to the nearby Trash Island even as one dissenting scientist, Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) claims he can develop a cure. The mayor’s ward and nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin), steals a plane and flies to Trash Island to try to find his dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber), and is greeted by a crew of determined dogs including Rex (Edward Norton) and former stray Chief (Bryan Cranston) who search for Spots before the mayor’s henchmen find them. Back in Japan, American exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) leads the resistance movement in defense of the dogs she believes have been unjustly banished.

All of Anderson’s movies assume realities that are shaped by their characters and move with them, and this is no exception. It begins with an educational summary of the imagined history that predates its events, explaining the role of dogs in Japanese culture. An interpreter (Frances McDormand) translates all of what is uttered in Japanese by those within the government and news establishment, while the dogs speak in nothing but English, as does Tracy. Their ability to function and communicate, not to mention the fact that dogs are able to speak and be understood by humans, is accepted as normal in this reality. It’s presented not as an impediment but rather just the way things work in this product of Anderson’s brain.

There are so many familiar talents Anderson has collaborated with before present in this film, with a number of his regular actors voicing dogs and humans, and composer Alexandre Desplat providing a dependably buoyant and metered score. Like so many of his previous films, this manages to work despite its inherent strangeness, embracing odd ideas and using them to guide its inventive and particular plot. The notion of an “isle of dogs” is decidedly peculiar, but that is an asset for this very weird and worthwhile film that marks the latest work of art from Anderson.


Movie with Abe: Ruben Brandt, Collector

© Ruben Brandt LLC, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Ruben Brandt, Collector
Directed by Milorad Krstic
Released December 7, 2018

Each year, the race for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature includes standard fare that serves as appealing entertainment for children and is, occasionally, decently enjoyable for adults as well. In addition to mainstream movies, foreign entries with considerable prestige often make the cut thanks to tremendous international acclaim. Bending visual possibilities using animation is commonplace in such films, and it’s always interesting to see what more mature themes end up as the inspiration for these less standard and distinctively original projects bolstered by their placement on the Oscar eligibility list.

Ruben Brandt (Iván Kamarás) is a psychotherapist who has disturbing dreams about being attacked by famous works of art. A patient, Mimi (Gabriella Hámori) happens to be a professional thief, and she puts together a team to steal a number of the paintings, hoping to help Ruben conquer his fears by taking possession of them. As Ruben struggles to get through the night and his art collection grows, the thefts attract the attention of an American private investigator, Mike Kowalski (Csaba Márton), hired to stop Mimi whose intent on carrying out his job matches her delight at illegally attaining each work of art.

This is a concept that is difficult to describe in words because of the deep reliance it has on images. Ruben’s time spent sleeping is just as vivid, if not more so, than the hours he finds himself awake, wrestling with demons that literally come alive from a two-dimensional canvas. Mimi’s escapades are even more colorful, as she treats her robberies as a craft, almost dancing around each museum as she evades Kowalski and gets away with yet another thrilling heist. It sounds like wondrous, sweeping choreography, though it’s often just as dizzying as it is meant to be mesmerizing and intoxicating.

This film comes from Hungary, though all of its dialogue is in English. It is undeniably interesting, but also prone to getting swept up in each of its moments rather than following a more comprehensible and coherent narrative. Ruben is an intriguing protagonist, but its more substantial characters are Mimi and Kowalski, who share a similar energy despite their placements firmly on opposite sides of the law. Seeing the world through their eyes and as presented in this adventurous lens is an experience, though one that truly does boggle the mind as much as it rewards it.


Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Monday Oscar Odds: Tuesday Edition

I spent all of yesterday morning and early afternoon eagerly awaiting the announcement of the shortlists for nine different categories, and of course it wasn’t released until just after I had to leave for an event and a screening. Therefore, what I planned to put up yesterday had to wait for today. I’ll look at six of the newly clearer races below, but first: the SAG nominations.

SAG announced their picks on Wednesday, with only a few surprises and snubs. John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman) got a boost while Ethan Hawke (First Reformed) was left off again. Viola Davis (Widows) can kiss her chances goodbye as Emily Blunt (Mary Poppins Returns) showed her strength. She even managed a second bid for “A Quiet Place” along with Margot Robbie (Mary, Queen of Scots), bumping Claire Foy (First Man) and, much more shockingly, Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk). Sam Elliott (A Star is Born) showed up after his Globe snub, replacing Sam Rockwell (Vice). The ensemble race contained more surprises. “A Star is Born” managed to get in despite having a small cast, joined by “BlacKkKlansman” and “Black Panther,” cementing their Oscar prospects, and “Crazy Rich Asians,” whose presence here doesn’t really increase its Best Picture chances. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was a more unexpected choice, making it a very likely Best Picture contender given the stats that no Best Motion Picture – Drama Globe nominee also recognized in this race has ever been snubbed for the top Oscar. This is bad news for “The Favourite” and “Vice,” though I’d liken them to “The Shape of Water” and “Call Me By Your Name” last year, both of which weren’t affected by missing out here. “Roma” wasn’t ever going to make the cut, in my opinion, so being left off is no big deal, whereas “If Beale Street Could Talk” is more problematically absent. “Widows” is officially dead, which saddens me. The one change I'm making is a slight substitution in Best Picture, though I may reverse that based on guild honorees.

The alphabetical first of the shortlists released by the Academy today was that for Best Documentary Feature. I’ve seen just four of them – “Crime + Punishment,” “Of Fathers and Sons,” “On Her Shoulders,” and “Three Identical Strangers.” I’ve been meaning to see “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (which my wife saw at Sundance and loved), “RBG,” “Free Solo,” “Minding the Gap,” “Shirkers,” and “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” as well as “Dark Money” and “The Silence of Others.” I’ve never even heard of “Charm City,” “Communion,” “The Distant Barking of Dogs.” Even with less than 30% of the films screened, all five that I had previously predicted are on this shortlist. I’m not changing my list until I’ve seen more. I’m also not commenting on the short film categories since I’ve seen nothing in those.

Next up is Best Foreign Language Film, which didn’t present too many surprises. “Girl” (Belgium), which I’m actually seeing tonight, is the one Golden Globe nominee that didn’t make the cut. Best Picture frontrunner “Roma” (Mexico), “Shoplifters” (Japan), and “Capernaum” (Lebanon) are all in, as is Globe nominee “Never Look Away” (Germany) and the Globe-snubbed “Cold War” (Poland). Joining them is “Burning” (South Korea), a great choice, and three films I have yet to see: “Birds of Passage” (Colombia), “The Guilty” (Denmark), and “Ayka” (Kazakhstan). A few films I had seen didn’t make the cut, like “The Cakemaker” (Israel), “El Angel” (Argentina), and “Beauty and the Dogs” (Tunisia). I never expected the latter of those to make it, but would have been very pleased if it had. I’m tempted to swap “Burning” in for “Never Look Away” after having seen it, and I think I’ll do that for the moment.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling only has three nominees, now drawn from a pool of seven. I haven’t seen and don’t plan to see “Suspiria,” and I’m not sure I’m going to bother with “Border” either, especially after it didn’t make the cut as the Swedish Foreign Film entry. “Vice” and “Stan and Ollie” make sense here because of just how much they disguise their leads, while “Mary, Queen of Scots” is a decent regal choice even I see a much stronger case for “The Favourite,” which didn’t make the bake-off. The mentions here for “Black Panther” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” mark the latest wave of popularity for these two films, though I don’t think either of them will ultimately make the final list.

Best Original Score would usually have been announced around this time with a list of the full 156 contenders, but instead, which I didn’t even realize, we just get the fifteen finalists this time around. I’m seeing Golden Globe nominee “Mary Poppins Returns” tomorrow night, and missing just three more, all of which are available on demand or will be within the next three weeks: “Ready Player One” (HBO Go), “Avengers: Infinity War” (Netflix, December 25), and “Annihilation” (Hulu, January 5). The expected frontrunners are Golden Globe nominees “First Man,” “Isle of Dogs,” “A Quiet Place,” and “Black Panther.” Other buzzy films placing here are “Vice,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “BlacKkKlansman,” and “Crazy Rich Asians.” Less expected finalists are “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” and, most excitingly, “The Death of Stalin.” I plan to listen to all of these once I’ve seen them and offer more detailed analysis, including who the composers are, with my current predictions listed below.

Best Original Song also got fifteen finalists instead of the ninety eligible being revealed. Only “Requiem for a Private War” (A Private War) is missing from the list of Golden Globe nominees. “Shallow” (A Star is Born) remains, in my mind, the frontrunner, with “All the Stars” (Black Panther), “Revelation” (Boy Erased), and “Girl in the Movies” (Dumplin’) all in a good spot with Globe mentions. Other expected contenders are “I’ll Fight” (RBG), “The Place Where Lost Things Go” (Mary Poppins Returns), and “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” (Mary Poppins Returns). Entertainingly blunt anthems like “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings” (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) and “A Place Called Slaughter Race” (Ralph Breaks the Internet) are fun choices, but not what I’d expect to become nominees. Though I’ve seen the films, I don’t remember “Treasure” (Beautiful Boy), “OYAHYTT” (Sorry to Bother You), and “The Big Unknown” (Widows). I’ll have to listen to “We Won’t Move” (The Hate U Give), “Keep Reachin’” (Quincy), and “Suspirium” (Suspiria). I’m going to make a playlist shortly and will report back with my thoughts.

Finally, there’s Best Visual Effects, where all five of my predictions from the originally-announced twenty appear on this revised ten. I’ve seen just two: “Black Panther” and “First Man,” both of which are likely to be nominated. “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Ready Player One” seem like good bets to be join them, as could “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” or “Ant-Man and the Wasp.” I’m not as confident about “Christopher Robin” or “Mary Poppins Returns” getting in, but maybe “Welcome to Marwen” could. I’m not changing anything at the moment.

That’s it with the big announcements until guilds start unveiling their nominees on January 4th, so this feature will be back after that time as full predictions in all categories begin, as well as Golden Globe and SAG odds, as well as an early look at my favorites of the year!

Best Picture
Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Eighth Grade
Green Book
If Beale Street Could Talk
Mary Poppins Returns
A Star is Born

Best Director
Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman)
Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite)
Alfonso Cuaron (Roma)
Bradley Cooper (A Star is Born)
Adam McKay (Vice)

Best Actor
Christian Bale (Vice)
Bradley Cooper (A Star is Born)
Ethan Hawke (First Reformed)
Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody)
Viggo Mortensen (Green Book)

Best Actress
Emily Blunt (Mary Poppins Returns)
Glenn Close (The Wife)
Olivia Colman (The Favourite)
Lady Gaga (A Star is Born)
Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali (Green Book)
Timothee Chalamet (Beautiful Boy)
Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman)
Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born)
Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams (Vice)
Claire Foy (First Man)
Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk)
Emma Stone (The Favourite)
Rachel Weisz (The Favourite)

Best Original Screenplay
Eighth Grade
The Favourite
First Reformed
Green Book

Best Adapted Screenplay
Black Panther
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
If Beale Street Could Talk
A Star is Born

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Mary, Queen of Scots
Stan and Ollie

Best Original Score
Black Panther
The Death of Stalin
First Man
If Beale Street Could Talk
Isle of Dogs

Best Original Song
“All the Stars” (Black Panther)
“Revelation” (Boy Erased)
“Trip a Little Light Fantastic” (Mary Poppins Returns)
“I’ll Fight” (RBG)
“Shallow” (A Star is Born)

Best Animated Feature
Incredibles 2
Isle of Dogs
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Best Documentary
Of Fathers and Sons
On Her Shoulders
Three Identical Strangers
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Best Foreign Film
Burning (South Korea)
Capernaum (Lebanon)
Cold War (Poland)
Roma (Mexico)
Shoplifters (Japan)

Best Visual Effects
Avengers: Infinity War
Black Panther
First Man
Ready Player One
Solo: A Star Wars Story