***½/**** starring Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón
by Walter Chaw Alfonso Cuarón retreats from the noisy silliness of Gravity to produce something more in line with his A Little Princess--a touch of Children of Men thrown in for topical relevance and actual gravity. It's all in black-and-white, no less, with a non-professional lead and Cuarón himself operating the camera, shooting in 65mm. What results is the slow but dulcet, small but sometimes impossibly large Roma, capturing the microcosm of the immigration question in one wealthy family's interactions with their native servants, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and Adela (Nancy Garcia), and what happens when the small tragedies of the day-to-day intersect with the larger tragedies of a world that doesn't care about them. The mistress of the house, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), her inconstant husband, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), and the couple's four small children live in a posh house in Mexico City sometime in the late-1960s. (An event in the film that is probably the Tlateloco Massacre sets the events somewhere around October of 1968.) Cuarón has called Roma his most personal film, and so it is as he continually directs attention away from the larger events at play, back to the intimate upsets of this upper-class family and their subsistence-class help. The largest scene of the film, a riot that led to a deadly confrontation between students and the military, immediately reverts to Cleo and Sofia's aged mother-in-law, Teresa (Veronica Garcia), interrupted in the middle of a shopping trip.
****/**** starring Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
by Walter Chaw Imagine, if you can, that the leader of the country is ineffectual at best--an invalid, maybe, surrounded by vipers and sharks who do the real business of leading, feeding forever wars to enrich themselves, beholden to the monied upper classes who dictate advantageous-only-to-them policies around taxation. Imagine that this ruling class were devoted to nothing except their own leisure: besotted by firearms and obscure pastimes, throwing lavish parties, while the less fortunate (everyone else) died in wars that could be stopped if only they weren't so profitable. Yorgos Lanthimos's The Favourite is hilarious, but it would be even funnier if it weren't so absolutely spot-on about this mess we're in here in the United States--which is, apparently, spreading. The only comfort Lanthimos offers is that we're probably not in much worse shape than mankind has ever been. Cold comfort, indeed. The Favourite is not just one of the best movies of the year, it's the most topical, too, and the most hopeless as a result.
WHITE BOY RICK ***/**** starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jonathan Majors, Richie Merritt written by Andy Weiss and Logan & Noah Miller directed by Yann Demange
Manbiki kazoku ****/**** starring Lily Franky, Ando Sakura, Matsuoka Mayu, Kiki Kilin written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
by Walter Chaw Yann Demange's follow-up to his bruising, brilliant '71 is this ersatz Donnie Brasco true-crime epic. White Boy Rick details the rise and fall of underage drug kingpin/FBI informant Richard Wershe, Jr. (Richie Merritt--excellent), dubbed "white boy" by the black Detroit gang into which he inculcates himself as first a sort of mascot, then trusted lieutenant, then deep-cover betrayer, then ultimate usurper. White Boy Rick establishes Demange firmly as a formidable technical director. A scene set in a roller disco circa 1984 is as beautiful, lyrical, and effortless an evocation (and affectionate amplification) of time and space as the Cornelius Bros and Sister Rose dance sequence from BlacKkKlansman. A sudden spinout on an icy road later on carries with it the harsh kinetic immediacy and strong knowledge of space of Demange's '71. The film looks right and feels right. There's a scene at a drive-in where Rick takes a date to watch Footloose: a film that couldn't possibly be more alien to Rick's reality. Crucially, White Boy Rick behaves in the right way, too, demonstrating restraint when appropriate, naturalism where appropriate, and expressionism, especially in a sequence where Rick's junkie sister Dawn (Bel Powley, also excellent) is taken from a crackhouse against her will down a red-lit corridor strobed with shadows.
**/**** starring Nicole Kidman, Tatiana Maslany, Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebbell written by Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi directed by Karyn Kusama
by Walter Chaw A laconic noir that promises for a while to be fierce before settling into being familiar, Karyn Kusama's Destroyer drips with style and atmosphere even if its destined-to-be-lauded central performance by Nicole Kidman lacks the same mystique. She plays LA Detective Erin Bell, a woman beset by demons of alcohol and regret that have left her looking cadaverous: rotted gums and hollow eyes. Most of the performance is fright make-up, the rest Kidman speaking breathily, heavily, and maybe overdoing the drunk swaying and slurring a tad. Erin's daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) hates her, of course, and has taken to hanging out with much-older street tough Jay (Beau Knapp), probably just to piss her off. Erin's estranged husband Ethan (Scoot McNairy) seems nice, though, if scarred by her ferocious temper and penchant for vomiting and passing out, usually in that order. Kidman has been extraordinary in small, personal films like this. Her work in Birth is generational; Dogville, too. But Destroyer is too programmatic to make much of an impact. This kind of image-slumming is too familiar by now, and there's not one moment where it's not Nicole Kidman doing a performance up there. Pity.
**½/**** starring Guillaume Canet, Juliette Binoche, Vincent Macaigne, Nora Hamzawi written and directed by Olivier Assayas
by Walter Chaw The questions asked in and by Olivier Assayas's Non-Fiction are slippery and at times satisfying for that. This is his Hong Sang-Soo following a pair of Apichatpong Weerasethakuls (though he would say his films owe a bigger debt to Bresson)--a movie, in other words, involving the intricacies of relational dynamics, shot on what appears to be a shoestring and a lark over a long weekend among friends. Probably it's what one of his characters calls "auto-fiction," a blurred line between memoir and pure fiction, with the tension being that maybe there's not much of a difference after all between what's true and what's made up in the pursuit of truth. It's one of those movies that seems like a defense of concept, a response or an invitation to conversation for critics. (Assayas himself was one, once upon a time.) Even more, the picture suggests an auto-critical confession of sorts, yet I'm not sure of what. Past or present infidelities? A declaration that he's found peace at last? An apologia for indiscretions and a pathway to a more authentic life? Whatever Non-Fiction is, it's maybe just a little too clever for its own good.
ZERO STARS/**** starring Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina written by Matt Bai & Jay Carson & Jason Reitman directed by Jason Reitman
by Walter Chaw In 1988, Gary Hart, the democratic former senator from my home state of Colorado, was the front runner for the Presidency of the United States. About a week before the primary, which would have cemented his ascendancy to a post seemingly all but preordained, this guy--classically handsome, tall, masculine, progressive--did what powerful men in privileged positions sometimes do: he slept with a young woman who wanted a job with his campaign. That's a problem, but the problem is he dared the WASHINGTON POST to follow him; he touted his ethics and morals as a foundational plank to his platform, and when the MIAMI HERALD took him up on his dare, they discovered that he was maybe a serial philanderer who in those last halcyon days before the Internet, hadn't learned the voracious appetite the public has for a good, sleazy story concerning the tragic fall of kings. It's hardly ever the crime--it's almost always the cover-up. And in 1988, Jason Reitman's The Front Runner says, politicians weren't very good at the cover-up. Largely because the press was complicit in helping politicians, athletes, and other powerful men in powerful spheres keep sexual dalliances and abuses quiet. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, after all.
½*/**** starring Robert Redford, Casey Affleck, Danny Glover, Sissy Spacek written and directed by David Lowery
by Walter Chaw David Lowery follows up his enigmatic A Ghost Story with this slobbery, open-mouthed kiss to Robert Redford, in his alleged swan song to screen acting. Redford plays real-life bank robber Forrest Tucker, who, in a blue suit and stupid hat, resumes his long career of traumatizing tellers and imparting folksy aphorisms after escaping from San Quentin. Seeing this life as his calling, Tucker was oft-described as seeming "happy," and so that's the tactic Lowery and Redford take towards this material, presenting everything as this bucolic Americana bullshit of the variety the elderly and the elderly-at-heart, especially, get off on and which Redford has made his stock-in-trade in his dotage. The only thing missing is an early-bird buffet as patrons enter the theatre. Tom Waits and Danny Glover play Tucker's sometime-partners in crime and poor Sissy Spacek is enlisted as his gal Jewel ("Well, y'sure look it!") to deliver "good-natured" to the assembled. Yes, Redford, one of the most exceptional and brilliant actors in film history, is now delivering the patented Robert Duvall elderly performance: repeating phrases, smiling in a non-specific way, and patting people's hands as they talk, complete with a wired hearing aid dangling from his ear.
***/**** starring Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Pablo Schreiber, Christopher Abbott screenplay by Josh Singer directed by Damien Chazelle
by Walter Chaw Damien Chazelle's First Man is the Super 8 shrine for Terrence Malick that Oscar voters never knew they needed. It's a mutant clumping-together of The Tree of Life (all the sad Texas scenes) and Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff (all the astronaut stuff), mixed in with a few scenes that are gritty and true (most of them involving a frankly extraordinary Claire Foy), even if Chazelle remains overly fond of snap zooms and the handheld aesthetic in long shots. It's best, even exceptional, when it's not hagiography and passing fine when it's doing what it "ought" to be doing. Like playing a classical music waltz when stoic-to-the-point-of-deranged astronaut/engineer Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) initiates the first-ever orbital docking manoeuvre, because 2001: A Space Odyssey; or doing a little riff on Bill Conti's amazing score for The Right Stuff right before the first closed-cabin testing. Could be homage. Could be the movie just doing what seems right as a shorthand for emotional engagement. If that's the case, more's the pity, as Chazelle proves in the first thirty minutes or so of his film--which revolve around an orbital "bounce" for a test plane and the death of Armstrong's toddler daughter to cancer--that he's capable of evoking real emotion, and employing smart contrasts in style and action, if he would only let go of the desire to impress.
by Walter Chaw After a decade's absence, give or take, I started coming up to the Telluride Film Festival again six years ago at the urging of good friends whom I otherwise hardly see. I was in a bad place and they knew it. They didn't offer platitudes, they offered a challenge, and so one year I accepted it. The hardest thing to do for someone who's depressed sometimes is to accept help. I have come to find that the best gift you can give your friends who worry about you is to ask for help. The problem with depression is it tells you that you are a burden. It's exhausting.
by Walter Chaw I've been better now for a long time. I get depressed. I'm in recovery, and it's going well. There's a line in a new song by The National that makes me cry every time I hear it. It goes:
*/**** written by Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, Jacek Dehnel directed by Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman
by Walter Chaw I love stop-motion animation. William Blake referred to the "infernal method," talking about etching plates with acid and how each print of his work would be touched by him, the artist, to better imbue it with life. Stop-motion animation to me is evidence that there's something to the idea of a transference of vitality through human contact. It's why I was curious about Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman's insane Loving Vincent, a feature-length film composed of over 65,000 hand-painted oil paintings, animating Van Gogh's most famous paintings and making characters of his subjects. It's a fascinating experiment, the product of one of those late-night bull sessions fuelled by cigarettes and whiskey where aspiring artist-types and freshman cosmology students get profound with one another. Consider Loving Vincent to be the cold reality of the morning after. Over 100 artists laboured over 10 years to essentially make a tedious rotoscope cartoon held together, barely, by an embarrassing screenplay dependent on loads of exposition and a repetitive flashback device. It's an endurance test of rare sadism.
****/**** starring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles, Victoria Hill written and directed by Paul Schrader
by Walter Chaw The title character of Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest is consumed by his inconsequence. Determined to make a difference, he can't even make an impression on the vile inhabitants of the little town that is his parish. It consumes him. It kills him. No one notices. There's nothing to notice. Bresson doesn't even bother to show it. The priest's voiceovers become more urgent, though his faith never flags. He develops terrible stomach pains he seeks to soothe with an austere diet of bread soaked in wine: the Host, I guess, that nourishes communion with the holy spirit, but also the cancer in his gut that consumes him. His last words? "All is grace." Paul Schrader, raised in the Dutch Calvinist Christian Reformed Church, which basically believes that Christians don't earn their salvation but rather receive it as a gift they don't deserve, has made it his life's work to react against his faith--and to live it, too, when reaction fails. Towards the end of his new film, First Reformed, the priest, Toller (Ethan Hawke), writes on his church's whiteboard "Will God Forgive Us?," which is less Calvinist--God already has forgiven us--than a sign of a faith in severe crisis. Schrader's riffed on Bresson's film before with his script for Taxi Driver, still his best-known work despite a career littered with masterpieces of individual fears, men in isolation from God, and spiritual self-loathing. In Taxi Driver, the Priest is a sociopath driving through a Times Square hellscape, praying for the apocalypse to come as a purifying, obliterating rain. He tries to kill himself, but becomes a hero instead. First Reformed is either less cynical or more cynical than that. It's complicated.
**½/**** starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges written and directed by Greta Gerwig
by Walter Chaw Greta Gerwig's hyphenate debut bears the influence of erstwhile collaborator Noah Baumbach's urbane micro-comedies--Hal Hartley's, too, along with some DNA borrowed from Ghost World and Welcome to the Dollhouse for spice. It's a talky domestic drama featuring a precocious, strong-willed iconoclast who has named herself "Lady Bird" (Saoirse Ronan) and is, as a character, the best description of the film that houses her. She's smart but not book-smart and, in the end, not smart enough to avoid having her heart broken by a couple of bad decisions on her way out of senior year in high-school and the great grey beast Sacramento. She tells her first boyfriend, Danny (the already-great Lucas Hedges), that she's from the "wrong side of the tracks," which, when he lets it slip in front of Lady Bird's mom Marion (Laurie Metcalf), obviously hurts Marion's feelings a lot, but she bites her lip. When he does it, he's there to pick up Lady Bird for Thanksgiving at his grandmother's place. His grandmother lives in the nicest house on the other side of the tracks and, to feel better about her life, Lady Bird tells her shallow new "bestie" Jenna (Odeya Rush) that it's Lady Bird's own house. A miserabilist story about the horror of adolescence that is obviously helmed by a first-timer, Lady Bird is redeemed by a cast so sterling that I actually wished the film were longer. It's that kind of movie.
First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers ***½/**** starring Sreymoch Sareum, Kompheak Phoeung, Socheata Sveng, Dara Heng screenplay by Loung Ung & Angelina Jolie directed by Angelina Jolie
by Walter Chaw Angelina Jolie gets a lot of shit for being Angelina Jolie. She's mocked for adopting children from places in the world that need more kindness and attention. Her behaviour as a young woman is brought up constantly to shame her. Her recent separation from Brad Pitt is held up as proof of...something. I haven't liked her previous films as director, but I saw no malice in them. I suggested after Unbroken that she should stop making movies, maybe focus on her philanthropy. It's a good thing I don't know what I'm talking about. First They Killed My Father, adapted from Loung Ung's memoir by Ung herself (with Jolie), is a beautiful, elliptical, child's-eye war film that lands somewhere between Empire of the Sun and Come and See. Jolie is the prime example of a child of extreme privilege who has awakened to that privilege, who still stumbles now and again in her more self-aggrandizing moments but for all that hasn't started a weird product catalogue and advised women to steam their vagina. It's galling to hear about sensitivity from someone who's new to it, I think; easier to go after her for an acting exercise reported in VANITY FAIR where she had auditioning Cambodian children hold money, ask them what they would use the money for, and then ask them to react to the money being taken away from them. Who could defend that sort of cruelty? No one could. I'm doubtful it happened that way.