Thursday, January 31, 2019

"PIERCING" IS A MOVIE THAT HURTS SO GOOD




As you sit down to watch the new thriller PIERCING, a number of nagging questions may pester you, based on the sales pitch of the movie. Do we really need another serial killer story or another female lead who’s a prostitute? And isn’t a happily married man with a baby living a double life as a serial killer all a bit too DEXTER? Haven’t we seen this material many times before? Those concerns nagged me as I started PIERCING, but soon the film and its numerous surprises won me over. This film may be dealing with a lot of tropes that are tried and true, but it keeps twisting and turning the pulp, based on the novel by Ryu Murakami, into something fresh and unique. 

For starters, this is a horror movie that’s more of a dark comedy, and one that is actually exceptionally witty at that. Dark comedy has been having a field day as of late, what with such entries as BLACKKKLANSMAN and THE FAVOURITE making the Academy Award’s final eight, and PIERCING keeps the genre momentum going. This film is exceedingly bleak and black, and writer/director Nicholas Pesce does a superb job of keeping everything nihilistic and tawdry, inviting us to laugh at the two screwed-up leads at the center of this two-hander. 


The couple doing a mating dance of death and destruction around each other are a mild-mannered serial killer named Reed (Christopher Abbott) and his potential victim, a moody call girl named Jackie (Mia Wasikowska). In the opening scene of the film, the evil Reed actually contemplates stabbing his infant daughter with an ice pick as she cries in her crib. Clearer heads prevail though as the killer knows the way to channel his homicidal urges. He has developed a painstakingly regimented modus operandi of traveling to another city on a faux business trip to lure a prostitute into his lair where he will stab her. He shrewdly seeks out call girls who will let him tie them up for S & M, and when they’re capacitated, he slices them to ribbons. With his demons exorcized, he cleans up and returns home to his loving wife Mona (Laia Costa), ready to play the doting husband and father once again.

This time though, he’s picked the wrong prostitute. Jackie is a real piece of work, on edge and moody. She’s alternatingly brusque and sweet towards him, and it throws Reed for a loop. How can he be in control when the call girl seems to be making him jump through her hoops? He keeps trying to gain the upper hand, attempting to cajole her into letting him tie her up, but she keeps delaying the inevitable. Jackie wants to order food first, chat for a while, and get to know him. She’s lonely, and more than a little psycho herself, and the more she doddles, the less calm and collected Reed is able to act. Suddenly, he doesn’t seem like a modern Ted Bundy, using his good looks and calming matter to gain the trust of his target, but rather, a nerdy teen boy unsure of what to do when a hot classmate invites him to the prom.


Abbott is an actor who runs the emotional gamut in most roles from A to D, and that suits Reed perfectly. He plays the character very close to the vest, not giving up too much, even at his most discombobulated. This is a cold-hearted ice machine who can rationalize every step of his killing spree, from the need to hear the victim scream to his tightly packed death kit. Barely room in his suitcase for a change of clothes, what with all the weaponry and chloroform taking up so much real estate.

Wasikowska is shrewdly cast too in the more enigmatic role of Jackie. Will the wry heroine she played in Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND show up here, or a surprising and evil character more akin to the stone-cold killer she essayed in Chan-wook Park’s STOKER? Maybe both, actually. Indeed, Jackie turns the tables on Reed in many ways, starting with all her chattiness when they first get together. And she becomes a walking jumble of mixed signals throughout. Jackie may wear a little girl’s page boy haircut and have the pouty, pink cheeks of a grade schooler, but her womanly gait is excessively world-weary, and her side-eyed glances would put to shame a slithering serpent about to swallow a rodent whole.

When Jackie disappears into the bathroom of Reed’s darkly sensual hotel room to freshen up, the serial killer thinks she’ll come out in her S & M garb, and he can get the ball gag rolling. Instead, she viciously stabs herself repeatedly in the leg in what appears to be an act of self-hatred. Horrified, and even driven to sympathize, Reed turns into a good Samaritan, rushing her to the emergency room for treatment of her gouged leg. As he waits for her release, the insecure Reed tortures himself with bad memories from his past, many which led him to become a killer. Then, when Jackie is released, they both soften towards each other, and it looks like the film might turn into romantic treacle. But Pesce isn’t interested in that in the slightest and stays true to the material’s sadistic bent.  


To give away any more of the story would be to spoil many of the rich surprises awaiting viewers. Suffice it to say, Reed will continue to lose his upper hand, Jackie will continue to straddle being both Madonna and whore, and their bonding will turn into a slow-burn Grand Guignol. Pesce takes time to dole it all out, bathing it all in dark hues, whether it's that sexy high-end hotel room or Jackie's eclectic apartment, all the while turning his pacing into its own vicious tease. The director constantly zigs right when you’re sure he’s going to zag. His film may be stylish and jazzy, but as the story continues, it becomes more and more bizarre, shockingly cruel, and funny as hell. It’s a film about S & M that indeed, teases its audience and enjoys smacking us around the whole time. And boy, does it hurt so good.

Friday, January 18, 2019

DEAR M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN, WILL YOU PLEASE STOP MAKING SUCH TERRIBLE MOVIES?


Dear Mr. Shyamalan,

I know you don’t think a lot about those critiquing your films, as evidenced by the treatment of the critic character that Bob Balaban played in your film LADY IN THE WATER, but I think it would behoove you to listen to what they’re saying about your latest. GLASS is hovering at 35% certified fresh at RottenTomatoes.com, a genuinely loathsome score and a 40-point drop from the critical consensus there on your previous film SPLIT. If you accept that critics thought well of that film, then you should recognize the issues taken with your newest. 

I wish I could say this is unusual, but for decades now most of your movies have been diminishing returns since your high-water mark of THE SIXTH SENSE in 1999. I will use my time here to identify some of the most egregious elements of your latest, and at the end of it, offer a solution to help you avoid such disasters in the future.  

GLASS is badly conceived, with poorly developed characters, and more pretentiousness with every utterance than all the lines the Hugh Simon character says in Peter Bogdanovich’s screwball comedy WHAT’S UP, DOC? from 1972. Nonetheless, because of the marketing apparatus working overtime to sell GLASS, your new film will likely take the weekend. That’s not saying much in a month like January where almost nothing opens in theaters, and most of what remains at the Cineplex is Oscar-bait films that began in December. Some may even find that your new thriller provides an antidote to such high-minded fare, but that doesn’t mean that GLASS is good. 

Hopes were high for it though, and indeed, you do start things out with an intriguing premise. What would happen if the three extraordinarily gifted characters, from two of your previous movies, battled it out in an epic smackdown similar to those in comic books? What would that battle of good versus evil play like? Thus, the story starts with Kevin Wendall Crumb (James McAvoy), the Philadelphia serial killer suffering from dissociative identity disorder, still at large and creating more havoc. He’s kidnapped four comely cheerleaders, and we know that death awaits them just like Kevin’s teen victims in SPLIT. At least the predator is himself being stalked by someone who can kick his sorry, murdering ass. Aging vigilante David Dunn (Bruce Willis) may be older and grayer, but he’s still fit, still out to right wrongs, and striving to provide the denizens of Philadelphia a sense of brotherly love from his caretaking.

But then, things quickly start spiraling out of control. Dunn gets into a brawl with Crumb while he’s in his “Beast” incarnation, the most violent of his dozen personalities. Even though he thinks he’s unbeatable and pumps himself up with chutzpah and adrenaline, Kevin is not a modern-day “Superman.” That’s the Dunn character, a human being gifted with being “unbreakable.” No matter how many veins bulge in the Beast’s neck, he is still mortal. His bones would break, and he wouldn’t be able to hurt the granite-like exterior of Dunn who survived a train crash and walked away without a scratch from that catastrophe. Yet, the two trade punches like machines from a TRANSFORMERS movie and it strains credulity.  It also lessens the entire idea of Dunn, not to mention paints mental illness as a disorder that can defy physics. It cannot.

When they’re both arrested by an alerted police force, Dunn and Kevin get carted off to a mental institution that coincidentally houses Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), AKA “Mr. Glass,” the villain Dunn defeated in UNBREAKABLE 19 years ago. Price seems to be in a catatonic state when we find him, and apparently, he’s been that way for years, but the movie has bigger problems before the story gets to his true state. Specifically, the introduction of Dr. Ellie Stapleton (Sarah Paulson) into the mix brings the movie to an absolute standstill. For the next 30 minutes, this monosyllabic, cliché villain yammers on and on about the three inmates when the film should be showing us them in action. 

Instead of seeing the three interact together, you mostly show them just sitting in front of Stapleton while she delivers a ton of exposition, backstory, and critiques of them. It’s like watching a college lecture more than a movie. (Isn’t the first rule of screenwriting show, don’t tell?) Where are the scenes with the three characters encountering each other in the cafeteria or the exercise yard? For all this chatter about good vs. evil, we never get to see any of it play out because these scenes don't exist. Instead, the middle third of the film just sits there, wasting time on hoary asylum clichés like showcasing not one, but two, sadistic orderlies who seem to be employed only to torture the patients. The institution doesn’t seem to have any other significant employees or doctors on premise, yet somehow manages to have state-of-the-art technical accouterment in every room that would make NASA or the CIA wild-eyed with envy.

As if the snide doctor going on and on about these men in her assessments isn’t static enough, she also starts pontificating endlessly about the philosophical underpinnings of comic books. Of course, this isn't really Stapleton explaining things at all. Instead, it's you, sir, ‘fan-splaining’ for all of us beneath your acumen and talent who don't appreciate you or what you're trying to do on film. When did you turn into the Comic Book Guy from THE SIMPSONS, bullying us through your pretentious scold of a script? Worst. Lecture. Ever.

Finally, after that long and static hour in the middle, your film's climax arrives. Glass has been revealed to be faking his catatonic state for years, all the time plotting an escape and the right time to level a big building in town. He's supposed to be a genius, yet his one dumb plan is wholly dependent on the coincidence of a useful tool like Kevin showing up to help him overpower a couple of paltry and inept guards. After that happens, Dunn of course finally breaks out too and goes after them. But before anyone can get out of the parking lot (the parking lot!), you, sir, decide to stage the final battle to the death right there. 

SWAT teams show up to stop the mayhem, yet no one fires a kill shot. Why? Kevin is a known serial killer so why the kid gloves approach? Cops shoot all too quickly at unarmed bystanders and kids with toys these days, but in your world, they're extremely courteous to not intervene. At least until they decide to blatantly drown a character, that is. But until they, they're extremely passive to the point of ridiculousness. Guess you didn't figure out a way to write yourself out of that corner, especially when you wanted to milk the ending for all its worth.   

Such appalling writing would not make it past a freshman film student drafting his first script, but it’s part of the sloppiness that has plagued your movies for over a decade now. It’s bad writing not stick to physical rules. It’s equally egregious to give a key figure like the character Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) so little to do in this film considering the large part she played in this sequel's predecessor. It’s even worse to saddle Paulson with such an appalling one-note character, who poster notwithstanding, emerges as the true main character here. Unfortunately.

You once said you know the secret to a great movie. Based on your track record, I would hazard a guess that you believe it’s a great, big plot twist. But movies aren’t O. Henry stories, and a rug pull does not a movie make. You know what does? Great scripts. 

So, here’s my solution to you to help make better movies. Stop writing and hire screenwriters who can. Film their stories. It worked for Hitchcock, the man you so desperately want to be like, right down to your self-serving cameos in every film, so it should work for you. Bring someone else’s story to life with the skills you’ve accumulated behind the camera in the last 20 years, but please stop making these terrible movies. It's not filmmaking. It’s infuriating.

Sincerely,
Jeff York

Friday, January 11, 2019

TOO MUCH KEVIN HART SCHTICK BRINGS DOWN THE SERIOUSNESS OF “THE UPSIDE”




A little Kevin Hart goes a long way. He’s a comedic performer whose schtick relies on rapid-fire dialogue, broad expressions, and a fretting physicality. It worked wonders in JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE where he played a motor-mouthed coward, bungling his way through the dangerous terrain. Unfortunately, his new movie THE UPSIDE is a dramedy, and what was supposed to showcase his maturing as an actor only serves to highlight his inability to break from old habits.

In this remake of the 2011 French film THE INTOUCHABLES, Hart plays a man named Dell who fumbles his way into an interview to be the caretaker of a quadriplegic billionaire named Phillip (Bryan Cranston). All the other candidates that the 1-percenter and his trusty aide Yvonne (Nicole Kidman) have seen are super-sensitive and touchy-feely, but not Dell. He’s not even supposed to be there, getting directions to another job interview mixed up with this one, but that doesn’t keep him from acting like a complete bull in a china shop. In just a few minutes, Dell manages to insult both interviewers, disrespect the man’s handicap, slur his wealth, and toss quips about like the job he’s going for is an emcee at a local comedy club. 

Instead of underplaying his interloper character, Hart underlines every line and punchline as jokes are his comfort zone. Some of his schtick is funny here, but most of it feels strained as if he’s pushing to keep the material from getting too dark. Meanwhile, in the plot, Phillip hires him on the spot as he appreciates his insensitivity to his handicap. Thus, the “odd couple” story begins. Soon, Phillip will teach Dell about culture and opera, and Dell will get his boss to loosen up and enjoy life, even if he’s in a wheelchair. Dell even tweaks the chair to go faster allowing Phillip to feel like a kid pushing his 10-speed to the higher numbers.

The film misses most of the opportunities to show more of the demands of the trying job and the true maturation that happens as Dell becomes responsible for such tasks. That was a crucial driver in the original film, but here, it gets short shrift. Instead, the movie seems more content with comedic set-pieces and even a tone that too often turns crass. Director Neil Berger spends an exorbitant amount of time dragging out the screen time of Dell’s aversion to changing Phillip’s catheter. In an outdated bit as politically incorrect as the tweets that got Hart fired from his Oscar gig, Dell winces, howls, and almost vomits due to his homosexual panic while refusing to touch Phillip’s penis. What such a lame dick joke actually exposes is that Dell is such a, well, you know. 

Sadly, too much of this remake goes for broadly drawn comedy like that scene, whereas the original had a much lighter touch. This one was obviously tailored to fit Hart’s comic abilities, but it's far too close to the feel of his straight-up comedies co-starring along Ice Cube, Dwayne Johnson, or Tiffany Haddish. When Dell is overwhelmed by the “monsoon” level on an automated, talking shower head, his reaction is so aghast it's as big as the blast of water. The film starts to creep more and more towards big gags, bits, and repeated schtick. Even Kidman’s role, one clearly beneath her talents, is a silly one requiring her to huff and puff through combative scenes with Hart. Why turn her into little more than Margaret Dumont to Hart's Groucho Marx?

Thankfully, Bryan Cranston gives a performance that is understated and genuinely moving. He uses the nuances of his facial expressions and varying vocal tones to add tremendous depth to his characterization. Julianna Margulies also shines in a late scene in the film where she plays Phillip’s pen pal Lily who agrees to go out on a date with him. She’s poised and dignified in a painful scene as she confesses she doesn't want to see him again, but then the film betrays her and Cranston by requiring more broad slapstick. He throws a tantrum and his chair knocks into guests until finally, a waiter ends up spilling a whole pot of coffee in his lap. It's played as tragic but it's pitched at comedic levels. The scene ends with shrieks and howls as Phillip protests that it’s all okay since he can’t feel anything. Oh, if only those of us cringing in the audience could say the same.

Some of the film works, when it stays very close to the original French script by Eric Toledano, but too many parts are as large and clunky as Phillip’s chair. Hartmere’s adaptation has unwisely added a B storyline involving Dell trying to reconnect with his estranged wife and son after a lengthy stint in prison, but it quickly turns maudlin and even pious with both parents throwing their sense of morality at the other. No wonder the film favors Hart being comedic. 

In fact, the last third of the film comes dangerously close to turning Dell into a scold. Suddenly, he’s telling everyone how to live, and it doesn’t fit with the character or the comedy. Dell should at least be kinder in his coaching, but instead, Hart plays him just this side of belligerent. Where’s the upside in that? Let alone the comedy?

Monday, January 7, 2019

"STAN & OLLIE" SALUTES THE LEGENDARY COMEDY DUO WITH DEPTH AND DISTINCTION

Original caricature by Jeff York of Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly in STAN & OLLIE. (copyright 2019)

There’s a delightful movie about a world-famous duo that opened this season starring John C. Reilly, but it’s not HOLMES & WATSON, the dreadful film he made with Will Ferrell. It’s a film concerning another famous duo – Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the film world’s greatest comedy team – and it’s called STAN & OLLIE. In this one, that opened in New York and Los Angeles over Christmas, and opens nationwide this weekend, Reilly costars with Steve Coogan and the movie bio is easily one of the best films of 2018. That’s saying a lot, considering all the Oscar bait that was released around it. This film should be in consideration too, especially Reilly’s stellar turn as the troubled Ollie.

Everyone knows Laurel & Hardy, but few know much about their backstory. After acting as individuals for almost a decade in the infancy of film in Hollywood, Laurel and Hardy paired up for filmmaker Hal Roach in 1927 and soon became international film stars. Their comedy style - one that mixed broad physicality with sophisticated gags - made them beloved characters. They quickly became icons, and even their bowler hats and "The Cuckoo" theme music became known the world over too. 

Their schtick was built on the contrast in size and temperament between the two men. Laurel played the clumsy naïf, a man-child character walking through life, guilelessly causing chaos. Hardy played a pompous and proud man, large and in charge, one who always blamed his friend for any misfortunes as he struggled to maintain his dignity throughout all the craziness. That dynamic was adored by audiences, aged six to sixty, and their popularity even grew larger when ‘talkies” took over cinema.  Laurel’s soft, hesitant vocal tones fit perfectly with his timid character, while Hardy’s rumbling delivery ideally melded with that of the blowhard he was playing.

For his screenplay of STAN & OLLIE, writer Jeff Pope has wisely chosen to not focus on the story of their rise to fame but rather, their waning years in the early 1950s. Specifically, his script highlights the team’s comedy tour through Britain in 1953 which was intended to raise their profile and conjure up funding for a big comeback film, but instead, the tour served as the duo's swan song. Not only did the producers back at home balk at the aging comic's dream of a big budgeted return, but the obese and hard-living Hardy's failing health put the final nail in the coffin when he realized he couldn't perform the way he used to and was forced to retire. 

STAN & OLLIE both glorifies their comedy and eulogizes the end of their vaulted careers. The affection for the two men is evident in every moment, but it leans hard on the drama and the pathos of their declining showbiz stock too. Yet, through it all, the good and the bad, Laurel and Hardy remained good friends. They knew each other better than anyone, and theirs was a true love story.  

Often in biopics, the filmmakers fail to get a handle on what made artists so unequivocally brilliant. Despite an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in 1992, Robert Downey Jr.'s turn in CHAPLIN spent more time focusing on his peccadilloes than his talents. STAN & OLLIE never suffers from that problem because the film goes out of its way to ensure we in the audience understand precisely what made this comedy team the greatest so tremendous. Many of their classic gags are painstakingly recreated here, including the intricate skit where they keep missing each other's entrances and exits on a simple train station backdrop on the stage. It’s an incredible piece of comedy, dependent upon pinpoint timing. Laurel and Hardy turned that wordless skit into art, and Coogan and Reilly recreate it impeccably here. 

And even though STAN & OLLIE serves as a loving valentine to the two men, their work, and their friendship, the film also slyly slams the vagaries and slipperiness of the town that gave them their fame. By sixty, Tinsel Town considered the legends to be "old hat," a yesterday's news. The duo's sophisticated physical style was being replaced by something cruder and more obvious on film, the broader and brasher stylings of over-the-top comics like Abbott and Costello, and Martin and Lewis.  

And even though the film shows Laurel trying to come up with new bits to compete in the modern marketplace, as he was the author and choreographer of all their bits, it shows how futile his efforts are. The audiences need reintroducing to the boys, and Laurel & Hardy start doing local advertisements to help build interest in their tour. It's quite a comedown for them and Laurel, in particular, seems wholly stymied having to pander. In moments like these, the film even becomes a timely commentary on ageism. Granted, that prejudice has always plagued the entertainment industry, but now it's overwhelming all kinds of businesses across the globe and in epidemic proportions. 

Both lead actors do incredible work throughout the film, recreating the comedy of the duo, but also digging deep to find the real hurt inside these aging men. Coogan is an expert comic and has always been a razor-sharp impressionist, so it’s no surprise that he nails every single element of Laurel’s voice, gait, and bearing. The Brit also has built up quite a reputation of late as a superb dramatic actor too, as evidenced in his Oscar-nominated film PHILOMENA, and he ensures that melancholy is always just under the surface of his Laurel. Watch the way Coogan hesitates before delivering his lines as he faces one indignity after another while trying to cajole producers to believe in the twosome. It slyly matches the same cadence he uses to comic effect in the skits.  

O’Reilly, not known for being a mimic, impersonates all of Hardy's qualities as if he is the comic too. The lilt in the voice, the side-eyed glances, the heaving up and down of his gait, they're all here and done with uncanny expertise. Even though Reilly's buried under a fat suit and brilliant makeup that turns him into a dead ringer for Ollie, in never inhibits his performance. Every emotion, subtle or broad comes through, and if the film were released earlier in the year, Reilly likely could've been a frontrunner for Best Actor. (He was recognized with a Golden Globe nomination, but will probably miss the short list when the Oscar nods are called as the late debut might mean not enough Academy members have seen it.)

What's especially fascinating about Reilly's performance is how he makes Ollie so different from his screen persona. In his personal life, Hardy was as sweet as his onscreen character was bellicose. And who knew that the man was such a romantic? The affection he showers on his wife Lucille (Shirley Henderson) is one of the film's revelatory delights, and the poignancy with which they deal with his health issues will tug mightily on your heartstrings.  

One of the nicest surprises in STAN & OLLIE is how the secondary characters shine through as well. This could have easily been a two-hander, but the film has greater scope and ambition than that. Instead, the wives come through better than some of the actresses reaping Best Supporting Actress nominations. Henderson gives a gracious, warm and witty performance showing all the sides she had to be to her husband -  lover, confidante, and caretaker. Nina Arianda shines too as Ida, Stan’s tart-tongued Russian wife. She gets almost as many funny quips as the two leads do. And Rufus Jones should win some sort of award for essaying such a scoundrel of an agent. His Bernard Delfont is so oily it’s amazing he doesn’t slide right off the screen.  Jones makes his lies, half-truths, and broken promises a hoot every second he's onscreen.  

Director Jon S. Baird gets the best from his cast, including Danny Huston as a pompous Roach, and delivers a period piece that can stand up to any such film this year. The fact that he did it with such a modestly budgeted film speaks volumes to his talent, as does his control in keeping the film from becoming maudlin. Even when Ollie starts falling down and sweating profusely from his weight problems in the final act of the film, Baird prevents it from becoming caricatured.

And while the award season is in full-throttle, here's hoping that Academy members do manage to put this screener into their DVD players and recognize Laurie Rose’s rich photography, John Paul Kelly’s detailed production design, and Guy Speranza’s pin-point costumes. This sleeper should at least snag one Oscar nomination - that for Mark Coulier's makeup. Indeed, he is already on the short-list for his astonishing prosthetics makeup on display and stands a real chance of winning. 

So many movie biographies tend to tear down their subjects, a feat this one manages to avoid. Sure, it shows the men, flaws and all, but it never loses sight of their greatness and the type of people it takes to be such artists. Even better, it shines a proper spotlight on these two giants that deserve to always be held in the same esteem as Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. STAN & OLLIE salutes these two comics as the treasures they were and should remain no matter how many decades have past from their heyday. This small and intimate little film is a treasure itself, one that should be a must-see for the moviegoing public this January. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

"BLACKKKLANSMAN," "EIGHTH GRADE" & "FIRST REFORMED" TOP JEFF YORK'S 10 BEST OF 2018


How good a film year was 2018? Consider these greats, not on it: 

A STAR IS BORN
COLETTE
PADDINGTON 2
TULLY
SEARCHING
MARY POPPINS RETURNS
STAN & OLLIE
RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET
WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR
SORRY TO BOTHER YOU
THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS
BLACK PANTHER
ISLE OF DOGS
THE RIDER
CRAZY, RICH ASIANS
LEAVE NO TRACE
COLD WAR
A QUIET PLACE
INCREDIBLES 2
RBG
MADELINE’S MADELINE
THOROUGHBREDS
DISOBEDIENCE
A PRIVATE WAR

 However, these superb 10 did make it.

BLACKKKLANSMAN
Spike Lee’s best film since DO THE RIGHT THING finds a pioneering black policeman in the late 1970s taking on the Ku Klux Klan. Detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) pretends to be a white nationalist on the phone talking to various Klansmen to uncover their terrorist acts while his white co-worker Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) goes undercover to expose them even more. BLACKKKLANSMAN is a gripping and tense period piece, all the more amazing considering its tone is that of a dark comedy, reflecting the realization that the story is so ludicrous it could only be true. Lee’s film also, not surprisingly, is a searing commentary on our modern world and its continued embrace of bigotry. One would think we’d be beyond such white nationalist thinking in western countries but look at the surge of racial hostility across Europe, as well as our American president who sows the seeds of prejudice and hatred at every turn. The film is not only a brilliant entertainment, one that stays with you, but it’s an alarm bell ringing out for our better angels to wake the hell up.

EIGHTH GRADE
The most impressive first film this year was Bo Burnham’s EIGHTH GRADE. A coming-of-age film that could almost be a companion piece for last year’s LADY BIRD (my pick for 2017’s best), Burnham’s film tells the story of Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), an introverted and insecure junior high kid on the crest of adulthood, trying to get through each day with the minimum amount of uncertainty and anxiety. Told in episodic fashion, nothing much happens in the story, and yet everything happens that is important to modern youth.  Parties, texting, cliques, tests, boys, friends, privacy, fashion, v-blogs, and acne – they are all a part of Kayla’s daily dysfunction. And her battle to overcome her anxieties is both hilarious and heartbreaking. Few examinations of children are as smart or as compassionate as this one.

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK
Can love conquer all? That is one of the central questions at play in Barry Jenkins’ sensitive adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK. A young black couple is in love, but little will come easy for Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James). An unexpected pregnancy, family rejection, harsh economic realities of Harlem, and racist police will all create obstacles for their relationship to overcome. While a filmmaker like Jenkins never sugarcoats the world, in his central characters here he finds plenty of hope as long as they have each other. It’s a spiritual and political film about love, prejudice and soul mates.

FIRST REFORMED
Paul Schrader has written some of cinema’s finest scripts (TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL) and at 71, the legendary screenwriter wrote and directed perhaps his finest. The world is taking a toll on Pastor Toller (Ethan Hawke). He’s losing faith as corruption ruins religion, man ruins the planet, and a terminal disease his ruining his body. Toller decides to keep a journal of his remaining days and little he finds gives him reason to pray. It’s riveting from its first seconds to its last, and here another filmmaker is asking in 2018 if humanity can get its act together. Toller doesn’t believe so, but even in the darkest recesses of Schrader’s imagination, it appears he still is a true believer in redemption.

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?
What does an artist do when people stop paying attention? Reinvention has never been more outrageous as it is here when biographer Lee Israel starts faking celebrity letters to earn money to pay the rent and get her sick cat proper medical attention. Melissa McCarthy makes the criminality of Israel not only understandable but heartbreaking. And, as her lost soul of a drinking buddy and co-conspirator, Richard E. Grant deserves an Academy Award for making his cad so sympathetic too. In an era with far too many tentpoles, sequels, and superheroes, it’s nice to see such a small film as this gem, directed by Marielle Heller, show that a good story with fascinating characters beats wall-to-wall CGI any day of the week.

THE FAVOURITE
Two women fight like cats and dogs trying to curry favor with Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) during the early 18th century. You’d think it would be enough for Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone) to be amongst the one-percent in the queen’s court, but their selfishness and duplicitous ways know no bounds. The three actresses in Yorgos Lanthimos’ darkest of dark comedies all do extraordinary work, as do all the below-the-line talents too. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, as the saying goes, and indeed, the ruling class has never looked more absurd than they do here.

ROMA
Alfonso Cuaron’s deeply personal and detailed film about his childhood in 1970’s Mexico City is one of the most beautiful, dramatic, and devastating portraits of the working class ever put on film. Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) displays quiet strength and immovable devotion to the doctor’s family she tends as a housekeeper. Much will befall the family, and her as well, but Cleo manages to be a rock for all of them, a woman who stoically puts their needs first at each moment. It’s a character study of a woman who says nary a word yet speaks volumes with her perseverance and ability to manage whatever comes her way. Look for this to win Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars in a walk, and likely give A STAR IS BORN and whatever other American-made movies are up for Best Picture the stiffest of competition.

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE
With little hoopla or fanfare, this animated superhero swept into town and dazzled critics and audiences alike. SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE is not only the best Spider-man film to date, but it’s one of the top five superhero movies ever made. That’s how good it is. Mixed race teen takes over as Spider-man after Peter Parker is killed, but a rip in the time continuum not only brings the original back but additional Spidey’s from alternate universes. The jubilant and vivid animation mixes 3D and 2D, not to mention styles that range from comic panels to pop art to art deco. Visually, it will blow you away, but the story and characters are utterly as extraordinary. It may have taken three directors to bring this to the screen – Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsay, and Rodney Rothman – but boy, did they deliver the goods. My spider senses are still tingling!

THE HATE U GIVE
This truly has been a banner year for films showcasing the African-American experience, and none is more prescient that THE HATE U GIVE. Amandla Stenberg gives a wonderfully intense performance as Starr, a teenage girl who may come from the poor section of the city but manages good enough grades to commute to a prestigious private high school. One day, her worlds collide when she hitches a ride with a friend from her neighborhood, and the black teen is shot dead by a white policeman during a traffic violation. It’s a complex story, one that director George Tillman Jr. handles with great care and time. (The film clocks in at 2 hours and 13 minutes, and it needs every second of it.) His cast is utterly sublime and should be up for a SAG Ensemble Award. Hopefully, more people will see it and give it due in the awards cycle and video rentals.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE FALLOUT
How is it possible that six films into the franchise, the Christopher McQuarrie directed MISSION IMPOSSIBLE FALLOUT is its best one yet? Is it because this movie knows how to put characters in adventures that are compelling and exciting? Is it because Tom Cruise, now in his mid-50s, still does almost all of his own stunt work and it’s really him flying helicopters, jumping over rooftops, and suspended from midair on dangling ropes thousands of feet above the ground? Is it because despite the MI films being star vehicles, they somehow always manage to find great supporting roles for six to seven others? Yes, yes, and yes. Bring on the seventh, I say, as we now know it’s virtually impossible to screw this series up.