I’m back with the next batch of mini-reviews from the movies I saw last year (so far that is, still catching up). I thought I could do it in two parts, but hey, it turns out there’s going to be a Part 3! Stay tuned:
DUNKIRK * *
I almost feel guilty for not getting into this movie, like I’m too much of a novice to appreciate the filmmaking achievement that it was. But I’m not- I recognize that Christopher Nolan made a sweeping, visionary war film that for many was thrilling and unconventional in its non-linear structure. I just wasn’t moved by it. I felt detached from the action, uninvested in the anonymous characters, as if I was watching a technical exercise that had no emotional stakes. The technique is undoubtedly impressive, but the effect left me cold in spite of it.
MOTHER! * * 1/2
I’ll give this one the extra half star for the audacity alone, but it didn’t completely work for me either. It was advertised as a bonkers head trip from a studio that had no idea who to market it to (Paramount deserves some credit for taking a risk and putting this in wide release at all), and it’s certainly that. But the biblical metaphors are so unsubtle and the last act so relentlessly unpleasant to watch that I can’t say this was an experience that I enjoyed in any way. On the other hand, it does give you a lot to think about and try to dissect after it’s over, and no film that does that is completely worthless. A mixed bag.
BATTLE OF THE SEXES * * *
A pretty straightforward retelling of the 1973 exhibition match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, but it works best as a biopic of Billie Jean King that depicts her experience coming out (to herself) as a lesbian. It’s boosted by what was Emma Stone’s best performance of her career so far (much better than her Oscar winning one for La La Land), and Steve Carell was quite good too, but the film felt like it wanted to be Billie Jean’s story through and through. It also hit a very timely nerve in the depiction of what has and really hasn’t changed at all since the overt sexism of the early days of the women’s movement. King was and is a feminist icon to be celebrated for the barriers she fought to break down and the frustration speaks to us all every day- this is a battle that’s still being fought.
BLADE RUNNER 2049 * * * 1/2
The astonishing cinematography and direction from Roger Deakins and Denis Villeneuve alone is enough to recommend this film, to be honest. If you’re a fan of the original 1981 classic, this is a true sequel, a faithful tribute to that influential film and the cult following it has inspired ever since. But the world created in this one, from the incredible production design and look of the film feels like something else, something genuinely new, with a languid pace and hypnotic storytelling. It almost feels too big for the script itself, which turns out to be a relatively small scale story, one that ties very closely (too closely?) to some of the characters from the original movie, when this is the kind of unique sci-fi universe that demands something truly its own. But it remains mesmerizing nonetheless and is frankly superior to the Ridley Scott film.
THE FLORIDA PROJECT * * * *
Sean Baker directs a neo-realist look a the impoverished life of a 6-year old girl who lives with her very young mother in a motel on the rough outskirts of the Disney World resort in Florida. The residents of this motel endure life the best they can, and though we don’t get the backstory of little Mooney and her mom, we see through her eyes (and that’s what makes it bearable) the hardships and occasional pleasures that entail simply surviving from one day to the next. Willem Dafoe shines as the hotel manager in a thankless job, while the kids do what they can to pass the time as their parents either manage to get by or fall off the fringes of society. Where will Mooney’s fate lie? An instant classic.
THOR: RAGNAROK * * *
I ended up liking this movie in spite of myself, which is pretty crazy because I hated (and I mean HATED) the first two Thor movies. But I think I can say with relative certainty that the people involved in them probably did as well, because this third entry is nothing like the previous two. Director Taika Waititi comes in and flips the franchise on its head, throwing in some Led Zeppelin, chopping off Thor’s hair and turning him into a wisecracking motormouth, adding Cate Blanchett at her campy best with some gothic headgear, and upping the overall comedic ridiculousness of it all. And it kinda works? I did laugh a few times, the pace was smooth, and all the time spent on a colorful non-Asgard planet with Jeff Goldlbum and the Hulk was so weird that I found myself enjoying it. Plus, I liked seeing Loki with the good guys and Hulk fighting a giant wolf.
LADY BIRD * * *
Greta Gerwig wrote and directed this semi-autobiographical comedy about a Sacramento teenager’s last year in high school circa 2002. It’s a cute, well acted and very likable movie centered on an unsettled young woman (Saoirse Ronan) who desperately wants to leave her hometown and has a difficult relationship with her mom (a really great Laurie Metcalf), but it’s not drastically different from other coming of age stories of its kind (it actually reminded me a little bit of Juno, which I liked better at the time and thought distinguished itself more with the stylized dialogue and teen pregnancy story). Still, it’s a solid and very sweet entry in the genre and a highly assured directorial debut.
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI * *
This is one that probably warrants a longer review, because it’s hard to summarize the conflicting feelings I had about it, and that continued to grow as the film sat with me. First of all, it’s incredibly well-acted from Frances McDormand to Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson, who are always reliable and can elevate anything they’re given. But the movie is confused in its storytelling and very muddled in its messages. Rockwell’s character is a cop who’s said to torture black people with impunity, yet writer-director Martin McDonagh is too afraid to show any of that onscreen because 1) he wants to make light of it with dark comedic jokes about police brutality and racism, which is a lot harder to do if you actually depict the racism you’re referring to, and 2) he wants to redeem his character by having him become determined to help solve the rape/murder of McDormand’s daughter (which has nothing to do with why we’re told he’s such a bad guy). The whole thing left me confused about what he was trying to say, and suspicious that this particular British white man has any idea what he’s talking about when trying to tackle rural American racism, which is why he pulls back from it and changes direction entirely. So yeah, I really wasn’t a fan of this one, but the acting IS superb, I’ll give it that.
MUDBOUND * * * 1/2
Dee Rees directed this sweeping saga about two families in the South circa World War II, one white and one black, who live on the same farmland and whose lives intersect in ultimately tragic fashion. Based on a novel, it’s a sensitive, intimate look at how the unending, firmly ingrained racism at the root of America’s core poisons even the best intentions of decent people who try to transcend it through personal connection and experience. I was more moved by the places this film took me than anything else I’ve seen this year. With standout performances from a terrific ensemble cast that included Garret Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Cary Mulligan, Mary J. Blige, and Jason Clarke.