Booksmart (2019)

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Direction: Olivia Wilde
Country: USA

Teenage agitation and frantic ethos are back in this delicious coming-of-age comedy from actress Olivia Wilde, who excels in her directorial debut. Booksmart is the product of a jointly creative work authored by four female writers: Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman. Unfolding at a hyperactive pace, this highly entertaining film also serves as a showcase for Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever’s acting capabilities.

After learning about their unpopularity among their school peers, two hugely smart graduating high school students and best friends, Molly (Feldstein) and Amy (Dever), resolve to demonstrate the world that they are not one-dimensional A+ people and that brains are just a little part of their tremendously interesting selves. Consequently, they will do the impossible to stand out at Nick’s end-of-the-year party, but before reaching there, bizarre occurrences make the night impudently eventful due to the company of the eccentric Jared (Skyler Gisondo) and the frenzied Gigi (Billie Lourd).

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Expect a drug trip that ends up in obscene doll-related hallucinations, a first-time lesbian sex experience with disastrous results, a serious argument and subsequent poignant reconciliation, an emotional goodbye, and even a funny conversation promptly delivered in Chinese at their most convenience. Everything looks cute with the deft handling of script and camera by Ms. Wilde, whose directorial career starts auspiciously.

At once rebellious and charmer, Booksmart also displays strong technical aspects, including an effective soundtrack with an inclination for hip-hop. Actor/comedian Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay (Vice; The Big Short) were summoned as executive producers, while the casting by Allison Jones (Lady Bird) is brilliant. Without the hypocrisy of its genre-related competitors, this is a refreshing teen movie that bounces with energy and tangy dialogue.

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Birds of Passage (2019)

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Direction: Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego
Country: Colombia

Notable Colombian director Ciro Guerra, here teaming up with debutant Cristina Gallego, has carved his own style with stunning works that speak for themselves. Birds of Passage succeeds to the mesmerizing Oscar-nominated adventure that was Embrace of the Serpent in his short yet exceptional filmography. Even not as striking as the latter, this new film provides extraordinary moments of mature cinema.

Divided into five acts and inspired by real events, the film, written by Maria Camila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde, boasts an effective narrative delineated with refinement, integrity, and a cultivated cinematic sensibility that unfolds in a mixed style that incorporates the mysticism associated with the indigenous Wayuu clan traditions of the Guajira Peninsula in the northernmost part of Colombia and the violent, materialistic world of the noir gangster movies.

Rapayet (José Acosta) is not doing so well in his coffee trade, struggling financially to pay the heavy dowry asked by the family of his intended wife, Zaida (Natalia Reyes). The latter was conveniently prepared to embrace the role of a dedicated wife. Her mother, Ursula (Carmiña Martínez), the superstitious, ambitious and reasonably cautious matriarch who communicates with the spirits, taught her everything she must know.

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Rapayet's solution to the problem consists in teaming up with the voracious Montcho (Jhon Narváez), a childhood friend from a different ethnicity, and sell marijuana to the Americans, a very lucrative business that will cast aside any economic difficulty. However, tragedy and war struck the indigenous family, firstly due to Montcho’s shameless criminal practices and obsession for power, and secondly, due to Leonidas (Greider Meza), Ursula’s vile and vicious younger son.

In addition to David Gallego’s delightful cinematography, which captures both luxurious and arid landscapes with the same exuberance, we have enthralling folk music connected to ancient traditions, dreams, allegories, and premonitions in a stylized, hybrid tale of power, love, vendetta, and honor. This is powerful cinema.

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High Life (2019)

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Direction: Claire Denis
Country: UK / France / USA

French director Claire Denis’ High Life is not an easy film to watch. With simplistic scenarios and unshowy special effects, this psychological sci-fi thriller has bursts of violence within a deliberate pace that, despite fluctuating, never makes it a boring experience. Denis has a magnificent reputation for earthly dramas such as Beau Travail, 35 Shots of Rum, White Material, and Let the Sunshine In, but this story, co-written with frequent collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau, marks a turning point as her first English-language film as well as her first involvement in the specific topic of space exploration.

Intriguingly, the first scenes of the film present Monte (Robert Pattinson), a psychologically strong astronaut working outside a stranded spacecraft in order to fix energy problems while maintaining communication via radio with a little baby girl, who remains inside. They are the unique survivors of a failed mission into a black hole to extract energy. The crew was exclusively composed of death row inmates operating under the orders of the lascivious Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a scientist totally devoted to artificial insemination. Obsessed with creating a child through the aforementioned method, Dibs forbids any sexual contact between crew members. But, of course, she didn't include herself in this restrictive rule. She makes sure that everyone on board becomes a compulsory user of a cabin referred as ‘the fuckbox’.

Through flashbacks, we realize how the radiation positioned in the mouth of the black hole killed a pregnant woman and her infant; how captain Chandra (Lars Eidinger) suffered a nearly fatal stroke; how the violent Ettore (Ewan Mitchell) silently sneaks in the sleeping room to claim Boyse (Mia Goth) as his sexual prey. We also catch sight of every death that leaves Monte and the baby as the sole survivors. Is she his daughter? How was she born?

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The idea matured in Denis’ creative mind during 15 years and the result is a compelling, thought-provoking piece of sci-fi with moments of undisturbed brainwork and sheer horror alike to give the audiences a jolt. Kubrick is a reference that comes to mind and the cinematography by Yorick Le Saux (who worked with François Ozon, Olivier Assayas, Luca Guadagnino, and Jim Jarmusch) is absolutely phenomenal. Also worth mentioning, the trippy score was created by Tindersticks’ frontman Stuart Ashton Staples.

Something really interesting to observe is that the spacecraft was never under external attack. They were never in danger, not even when a similar ship is sighted with ravenous stray dogs inside. As we could testify, humans are the main threat to their own existence. High Life is a mesmerizing, cerebral collision of uncontrolled human impulsivity and troubled survival.

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Us (2019)

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Direction: Jordan Peele
Country: USA

The much-anticipated sophomore film from Jordan Peele, Us, is funny, strange, and unnerving and it’s here to show the director’s expertise in blending comedy and horror with a very personal tone. Two years ago, he managed to consistently entertain with the distinguishable Get Out and his creativity didn’t fail him again on this new exciting puzzle movie where an Afro-American family has a hard time defeating their menacing doppelgängers.

In 1986, the young Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry) had a very traumatizing experience when she entered a funhouse located at Santa Cruz beach, California. The welcoming sign states ‘Vision Quest: find yourself’. Many years have passed and the now mature Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) returns to the same location for a summer vacation period in the company of her funny husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), and their two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). However, the place has a weird effect on her and the unresolved predicaments inhabiting her subconscious emerge stronger, installing paranoia.

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The fright turns into panic when a four-member family, looking exactly like them, silently invade their place to threaten their lives. They are fearless and aggressive. Have you ever imagined if you had to fight your devilish equal? The explanations for the mystery lie obviously in the past, but what is confusing is that their friends, Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss) and their twin daughters are also visited by harmful variants of themselves. The attacks are ironically perpetrated at the sound of The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and then N.W.A.’s 1988 hip-hop hit “Fuck Tha Police”, which I consider extraordinary for the occasion since cops remained out of sight even after being called.

If Adelaide revealed unheralded courage in the face of danger, Gabe made me laugh several times with his asinine observations and incautious actions. He was entrusted with the comedic mission and succeeded.

Even with some over-the-top extravagance popping up here and there, the inventive script definitely puts Peele among the greats of the genre. Moreover, as if the parallel realities weren’t enough to intrigue, he reserves a wonderful twist for the finale that made me draw comparisons with the real world. Executed with stylistic brio and acted accordingly, Us is a smart move that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

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Custody (2018)

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Direction: Xavier Legrand
Country: France

First-time helmer Xavier Legrand engenders an engrossing story filled with tremendous tension and emotional truthfulness, where domestic terrorism inundates the lives of a mother and her two children. After one year, Miriam (Léa Drucker) is still stalked and threaten, both physically and psychologically, by her ex-husband Antoine (Denis Ménochet). He decided to start a legal battle for joint-custody of their 11-year-old son, Julien (Thomas Gioria). The latter and his sister, Josephine (Mathilde Auneveux), 18, write a statement to be read in court, saying they don’t want to see Antoine anymore since, whenever he is around, they fear for the life of their mother.

Despite the gravity and concern that this sensitive case demands, the judge, persuaded by Antoine’s lawyer, allows him to keep Julien on weekends. Selfish and obsessed, Antoine doesn’t really care about his son, inflicting him continuous psychological torture to reach his ex-wife, whom he suspects is having a new affair. Temporarily out of work, he uses every single minute to pest the family, creating discomfort all around, inclusive in his own parents, who, in vain, try to show him the right way.

This violent, jealous man is insanely obstinate and his attacks of fury can be very destructive. When nothing seems to work, he shamelessly changes tactics, playing the nice guy who now regrets his bad behavior. How can this man be so blind to the point of not realizing that the image he wants to pass is far from being affirmative with his attitudes?

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Drawing a painful realism from each scene, Legrand extends his Oscar-nominated short film, Just Before Losing Everything (2013), with no drags or redundancy. He manages to aptly depict the silent anguish of the boy and the restlessness of his family. It’s devastating to see a child completely paralyzed by fear and that sentiment is even more infuriating when it’s one of the parents that deliberately inflicts it.

Custody is heartbreaking, but never feels manipulative, thanks to the believable performances. Indeed, both Ménochet (In The House; Glorious Basterds) and the young newcomer Gioria were perfect choices for their roles. I point them out as the most influential pieces of a film that, rising on the strength of an uncomplicated, solid script, is easier to admire than to enjoy.

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Capernaum (2018)

Direction: Nadine Labaki
Country: Lebanon / France / USA

Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s third feature, Capernaum, is a heart-rending drama focused on the shocking realities of both poor slum inhabitants and migrants living in Beirut. Labaki’s past works has been consistent (Caramel; Where Do We Go Now?), but her directorial career reaches a pinnacle with this saddening tale co-written with regular collaborator Jihad Hojeily and first-time scriptwriter Michelle Keserwany.

The central character, Zain El Hajj (actual refugee Zain Al Raffeea), is a 12-year-old who besides facing the hardships of poverty and neglecting parents, takes in his own hands the responsibility of saving his 11-year-old sister Sahar (Haita Izzam) from an unacceptable marriage. She just had her first period and Assaad (Nour El Husseini), the family’s landlord and local tradesman, is ready to buy her. The kid’s parents, Selim (Fadi Yousef) and Souad (Kawsar Al Haddad), see an opportunity to get a better life in this arrangement. After all, it’s one mouth less they have to feed. Tragic incidences lead Zain to be sentenced five years in prison, but what I was far from imagining is that this astute boy could sue his inconsiderate parents for bringing him into the world.

Prior to his crime and subsequent arrest, Zain had run away from home, finding support in Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an undocumented Ethiopian woman who provides him with housing and food. In exchange, he babysits her little infant Yonas, a target for the malicious Aspro (Alaa Chouchnieh), whose intention is to sell him for adoption.

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Simultaneously sensitive and straightforward in her directorial methods, Labaki articulates the moral complexities of the subject matter with an equal share of fascination and depression. She got precious assistance from the pair of editors, Konstantin Bock and Laure Gardette, as well as German-Lebanese cinematographer Christopher Aoun. And, sure thing, it's not possible to disregard the terrific performance of the young new actor, who makes a notable first appearance. Through him, Zain looks real, showing all that street wisdom that no real school would be able to teach him.

It’s all too painful and frustrating, but there are moments of true love and care. My only hesitation has to do with the too optimistic, even naive idea of justice. At once touching and infuriating, the film bursts with irrepressible sadness and deserves kudos for avoiding gratuitous sentimental deflections.

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Pope Francis: A Man of His Word (2018)

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Direction: Wim Wenders
Country: Switzerland / Germany / other

Perceiving the turbulent times we’re living today is not an easy task and master documentarian Wim Wenders (Pina; The Salt of the Earth) felt the urgency of spreading Pope Francis’ noble ideals and message. He did it in a simple yet compelling way in Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, a documentary where the pontiff’s inspirational words of wisdom echo like bombs in our deaf ears.

This pope, the first to choose the name Francis, lives according to the humble ways of his inspirer, St. Francis of Assisi. He talks about the problems of the modern world without avoiding any sensitive matter. No wonder he points out wealth as the bigger temptation of the church and politicians, naming it God’s highest antagonist. Instead of wasting time dividing religions, he calls brother to every man, at the same time that shows a deep understanding of their choices, paths, and milieus.

Amidst the serious and thoughtful considerations about unemployment, deliberate onslaughts against Mother Earth, pedophilia in the church, gender equality, immigration, and the importance of listening to what others have to say, the pope still finds the courage to throw in funny lines about husband-wife relationships and coping with mothers-in-law. With an overt smile, he makes reference to a prayer for good humor by St. Thomas More. He is so charismatic and unequivocal in his sayings that I could be seated a couple more hours and listen to his recommendations.

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Wenders opted for a type of interview in which he concedes the pope enough space to talk directly to the camera, emulating a face-to-face interaction with us, the viewers. Even if his direction feels more competent than brilliant, he deserves credit for making sure the film progresses with no topic redundancy or unnecessary delays. A pertinent parallelism with the life of St. Francis is made, and for this purpose, black-and-white images are exhibited in a classic style.

The true star here is the pope himself, not only a man of his word, but also a man of impressive openness, humbleness, and fearlessness when speaking the embarrassing truth. He delivers the real message. Words that could help us save the planet, be better persons, and pull us out of this shameful idolatry of money and apathy in the face of injustice.

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An Elephant Sitting Still (2018)

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Direction: Hu Bo
Country: China

Shrouded in gloominess, disappointment, and anguished regret, An Elephant Sitting Still is a moody undertaking on human existence. Despite running for nearly four hours, this incisive realistic drama set in suburban China was never fatiguing as a result of an efficient narrative filled with uncertainty and surprises. Its bleakness hits you even harder when you think that its director, the novelist Hu Bo, committed suicide right after finishing the film. He was 29, and this work became his first and last film.

You can sense the sadness, fear, and emptiness coming from all directions, witnessing the loveless environments that engulf miserable characters looking desperately for a way out. The pale grayish canvases capturing an outside world so big and so limiting at the same time, reinforce this crushing feeling of hopelessness.

Flowing at a steady pace, the film is structured to accommodate four narrative threads that unfold in the same Chinese neighborhood during one single day. The central characters of each story end up connecting with one another at some point.

16-year-old Bu Wei (Peng Yuchang) lives in a constant tension at home, especially after his unscrupulous father has been fired for taking bribes. Courageous, he’s not afraid to confront the bullies that mess with his friend at school. However, after an incident that takes the leader of the bullies to the hospital, he is chased down by the latter’s older brother, Cheng Yu (Zhang Yu), a dangerous and heartless criminal who lives with the guilt of being directly implicated in the suicide of his childhood friend.

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Living in the same building of Bu is Mr. Wang (Li Congxi), an aging man on the verge of losing his own apartment and being sent to a nursing home by his insensitive son. Bu’s classmate, Ling Huang (Wang Uvin), is also in a dead end, unable to find love in her coldhearted single mother. She lets herself being dragged to forbidden encounters with her school’s vice dean (Xiang Ring Dong), an obscure man.

Feeling an urgent need for change, the two youngsters and the old man resolve to search for hope in China’s busiest port of entry, Manzhouli, where the rumors say there is a mythical circus elephant that sits still all day long, doing nothing and ignoring everything around it.

Economic struggle, crime, intimidation in a variety of forms, and, above all, the lack of affection and joie de vivre, are factors strongly influencing the course of the story. Hu Bo, who could have been a true artist of the cinema, put his spellbinding camerawork at the service of a brutal social exposition with plenty of anger and frustration. The effect is intimidating and very real.

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Western (2018)

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Direction: Valeska Grisebach
Country: Germany

Blending work-related issues with personal quests, German writer/director Valeska Grisebach (Longing) has in Western, her best film. You can think of it as if the proletarian realism of Ken Loach had fused with the culture clashes depicted by Jacques Audiard. The film title is a suitable epigram, playing with the east-west differences and with the western genre through the semblance and the actions of its main character.

The quiet Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) is a German construction worker who accepts joining a specialized crew, headed by the antagonistic Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek), to build a hydroelectric plant in a small rural Bulgarian village, next to the border with Greek border. He soon clarifies his boss about his intentions: he’s there only for the money.

Taking advantage of the reduced working flow - there’s no water on the site to be mixed with the cement and a 40-ton shipment of gravel was stolen - he sets out to the village mounted on an old white horse he borrowed without permission. When the conflict was expected, Reinhard surprises us by gaining the trust of the suspicious villagers. His comfortable posture and friendly manners were able to beat the barrier of communication. Thus, he was more than welcome to be part of this small Bulgarian family.

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The horse owner, Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), becomes a close buddy, appointing him as his personal bodyguard. This happened after Meinhard had mentioned to some residents he fought in Afghanistan and Africa as a legionnaire. However, a number of unexpected incidents, involving both locals and his own crew, will mar his staying with glumness.

The story takes its time to develop and requires patience at every languid turn, but once you let yourself be enveloped by its mood, it’s all rewards. Neumann does an impressive work here, embracing his first role with natural ease and assuming great part of the responsibility in making of the tale a grounded and sincere experience. On the other hand, Grisebach is an intelligent storyteller, showing to have a meticulous eye for detail. The realistically filmed Western dissects its male characters, digging into their souls and revealing a human perspective that, even suggesting a vast array of emotions, never hand them on a plate. Actually, it feels great having to search for them.

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Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

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Direction: Marielle Heller
Country: USA

The director of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Marielle Heller, surprises us once again with a charming biopic set in New York about the lonely and alcoholic celebrity biographer Lee Israel, here marvelously portrayed by Melissa McCarthy. The actress loads her performance with wittiness and dramatic instinct, finding an excellent ally in Richard E. Grant, who plays Lee’s homeless friend, Jack Hock.

Based on Israel’s 2008 memoir of the same name, Can You Ever Forgive Me? brings favorable result through the vibrant screenplay by Nicole Holofcener (Please Give; Enough Said) and James Whitty, the silky vocal jazz standards, the warm colors of Brandon Trost’s cinematography, and the tridimensional characters, whose idiosyncrasies hook you in.

Known for her bluntness, discourtesy, and difficult temper, Lee, 51, is being avoided by her agent, Marjorie (Jane Curtin), who stopped returning her phone calls. Obviously, the agent is unenthusiastic with Lee’s idea of writing a book about the film/radio star Fanny Brice. Thus, all her attention and energy are now turned to the far more popular, if less skilled, biographer Tom Clancy.

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As a result of her dismissal from a part-time job, Lee finds herself in a complicated situation since she has been affected by writer’s block. Her rent is three months behind and her cat, which she likes better than people, is sick. That’s when she conjures up a brilliant, easy scheme that would allow her to make a living: to forge personal letters from deceased authors and selling them to book stores for a convenient price. She did it 400 times before being unmasked and her name put down on the bookshops’ alert list. Even under these circumstances, she refuses to give up from the easy life, relying on Jack to continue the stratagem.

In the end, it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for these disconsolate crooks, who contribute humor and sadness in equal measures for the sake of the film. Heller’s expeditious direction and consistent storytelling potentiate both the gravitas and the titillation of an amusing biopic.

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Green Book (2018)

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Direction: Peter Farrelly
Country: USA

In Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, a polished African American musician hires a brave white chauffeur for an eventful road trip along the hostile, segregated Deep South in 1962. Based on a true story, the film delineates the unlikely friendship between the men, depicted through episodes widely discussed in the media concerning their historical accuracy.

The stubborn, quarreling, and teasing Frank Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), better known as Tony Lip, is proud of his Italian roots and proclaims himself a bullshitter. He lived in the Bronx all his life, working at nightclubs and gaining the reputation of a tough guy. Suddenly, Tony becomes temporarily available to do something else when the nightclub that employs him closes for repairs. An eight-week driver job comes up, but a small detail can be relevant in the choice. The employer is Doc Shirley (Mahershala Ali) an erudite, alcoholic black pianist who wants to extend the driver position to bodyguard plus personal assistant. Of course, this is nothing that could intimidate Tony, despite some previous demonstrations of prejudice for black folks.

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The shock of personalities and cultures make the movie. Mortensen and Ali boasting their extraordinary acting skills while following the predictable yet extremely entertaining script devised by Farrelly, Brian Currie, and Tony’s son, Nick Vallelonga. Beyond doubt, Tony is bigmouthed, insolent, and hot-tempered, but it's also true that he has a big heart. In turn, Shirley is a sad person with identity problems; if on one hand, he has too much knowledge and money to be accepted by his fellow black Americans, then, on the other, his artistic qualities never earned him enough respect from the vile white men. He is also gay, which doesn't help him at all in a highly biased society.

Green Book is impregnated with funny moments, conveying assertive energy that occasionally resembles the classics. Regardless of the possible nonconformity with the facts, the film was put together in a way that is visually and narratively exciting, with Farrelly abdicating of sentimental moments and sugarcoated humor in favor of a more down-to-earth approach. He was able to surprise me with this one, which overcomes the shallowness of his dry-as-dust previous films.

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Wildlife (2018)

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Directed by Paul Dano
Country: USA

Actor Paul Dano, best known for his roles in Love & Mercy and There Will Be Blood, has in Wildlife his directorial debut. Dano co-wrote the script with Zoe Kazan based on Richard Ford’s novel of the same name, directing an excellent cast composed of Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan, and Ed Oxenbould. They are the Brinsons, a family living in Great Falls, Montana, in 1960.

Fired without a cause and feeling aimless, Jerry Brandon (Gyllenhaal) temporarily leaves his wife, Jeanette (Mulligan), and 14-year-old son Joe (Oxenbould) in order to join a group of firemen assembled to battle a wildfire that keeps consuming the nearby mountains, close to the Canadian border. Although this is an honorable and brave decision, it comes at a time when his family most needs him. Financial difficulties force both mother and son to find part-time jobs while the inflexible Jerry is decided to risk his life for a miserable salary.

With no news about her husband and mad at him due to his selfishness, Jeanette embarks on a bared romance with Warren Miller (Bill Camp), a middle-aged ex-veteran who thrives in the car business. She doesn’t love him, but he could provide the stability she and her son have been seeking for so long. How does Joe cope with this situation? Well, there’s a traumatic dinner at the man’s house and some unexpected visits that accurately elucidate about his emotional state. Will Jerry be able to mend things up when he returns or it will be even worse?

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Compellingly written and acted, Wildlife is a mature drama about a crumbling marriage and the emotional struggle of a sensitive teenager who just aspires to see his parents together. On many occasions, he acts like the adult person who needs to put a stop in his parents’ uncontrolled impetus.

This closely observed family portrait, a study of loss and trauma, comes in tones of pervasive sadness. The fully shaped characters convey innate veracity, making us plunge headfirst into their afflictions, hopes, and frustrations. In particular, it is Mulligan who excels from start to finish.
Advancing quietly but in an assured way, Wildlife is heartbreaking.

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The Old Man & The Gun (2018)

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Directed by David Lowery
Country: USA

After terrific achievements such as Ain’t Them Bodies Saint (2013) and Ghost Story (2017), American writer/director David Lowery is definitely a name to be followed closely. Despite of the low-key vibe of The Old Man & The Gun, a biographical drama film about the ever-smiling robber and prison-escape expert Forrest Tucker, he doesn’t disappoint, weaving enjoyable episodes through a fusion of non-violent crime and sweet romance. For the script, Lowery based himself on an article by David Grann published in 2003 on the The New Yorker.

Supposedly, this is the last theatrical appearance of 86-year-old actor Robert Redford, who announced his retirement last August. Impersonating Tucker with that habitual devotion he always dedicates to his acting roles, Redford is joined here by Sissy Spacek, in what was their first collaboration on the big screen. The latter plays Jewel, the woman who conquers Tucker’s heart without being able to make him stop from robbing banks like a gentleman.

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Partnering with longtime pals Teddy Green (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits), Tucker never leaves prints, raises his voice, or makes any kind of fuss when operating his scheme. This happy fellow probably never shot a gun in his whole life, not even when escaping from prison, a feat he successfully completed 16 times. Nonetheless, his well-calculated maneuvers became objects of study of police detective John Hurt (Casey Affleck), who is visibly intrigued by and embarrassed for a ‘clean’ robbery executed by the time he was inside the bank.

This efficient account charms with a breezy fluidity, also displaying decorous looks and settings that conjure up that slightly opaque glow of the 1980s. The witty dialogue between Redford and Spacek feels refreshingly romantic, with Lowery abdicating of typical clichés in favor of a tangible honesty that burns with irony, love, and glee. Being a film of minor tensions, The Old Man brought me joy in the quantities required to make it noteworthy.

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The Wild Pear Tree (2018)

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Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Country: Turkey

Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan is revered for his immersive tales, sharp topical observation, critical voice, and insightful approach. He was the mastermind behind the gems Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) and Winter Sleep (2014). His new drama, The Wild Pear Tree, is not as strong as its predecessors, but effectively merges family complication and unemployment crisis in modern Turkey. It can also be pointed as a bitter reflection on loneliness and social/cultural alienation in an undermined society that offers no solutions for the youngsters.

Working under Ceylan's guidance for the first time, Dogu Demirkol is Sinan Karasu, a smart post-graduated man who aspires to be a writer. He returns to the rural village where he was born with the hopes of finding a job, a frustrating effort, and also trying to be financed by the local mayor to launch a book of personal memories. He finds nothing but unhappiness and disappointment everywhere, feelings that extend from family members to closest friends.

His father, Idris (Murat Cemcir), was a respected teacher before turning into an inveterate gambler who dreams about transforming the arid land where he lives into a green oasis. He just needs to dig a well and find water, a task he puts considerable time and effort into. Slowly, he destroys the household with debts and affliction, losing the trust of his wife, Asunan (Bennu Yildirimlar), who, helpless, confides her worries to her son.

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Besides the family-centered bickering, the young man bumps into the beautiful Hatice (Hazar Ergüçlü), a downhearted childhood friend who gave up school and is about to get married in the interest of financial stability. But there are more encounters and long conversations, all of them tolerantly philosophical in tone. The one about art and preconception involves Suleyman (Serkan Keskin), an established writer who overreacts to Sinan's sarcasm. The one related to religion is pretty complex and puts him face to face with the tricky Imam Veysel (co-writer Akin Aksu) and his submissive yet purer apprentice Imam Nazmi (Öner Erkan). Not to mention the prepotent Ilhami (Kubilay Tunçer), a successful businessman who never studied, but reveals prejudice for the ones who did. Sooner than later, Sinan concludes that he has to cover all the expenses related to the book. He is a resolute man, even when expectation vanishes and disillusion sticks around. But by what means?

The film’s narrative arc demands attentiveness. It’s dense and talky, with a lot to absorb and almost no time to reflect. Yet, the deep meaning of the words blended with the pure, hyper-realistic filmmaking style of Ceylan, makes it a very rich experience. Finding a beautiful lyricism in its own desolation, the film dives into estrangement, existentialism, morality, and the passage of time with all the painful changes that might come with it.

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Shadow (2018)

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Directed by Zhang Yimou
Country: China / Hong Kong

Shadow signals the powerful return of Chinese director Zhang Yimou to the wuxia epics, whose fanciful conception he dominates from top to bottom. The veteran filmmaker, whose extensive filmography includes masterpieces such as Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and To Live (1994), collaborated with Wei Li in the script of this fabulous tale set during the Three Kingdom era.

The selfish, presumptuous, and short-tempered King of Pei (Zheng Kai) is worried about the advancements of General Yang (Hu Jun), an unbeatable warrior who already took the neighbor city of Jingzhou. For his defense, the king relies on the high-ranked Commander Yu (Deng Chao), a quick-witted spearman whose true identity is Jing. Essentially, the plebeian Jing is the ‘shadow’ of the real Yu, meaning that he has been trained in an intensive way to become his double since he was rescued from the streets 20 years before.

Jing is confident that he can beat General Yang in a duel. However, the gutless King opts for a different strategy, offering his sister (Guan Xiaotong) in marriage. The future husband would be Yang’s insolent son, Ping (Leo Wu), who insults the princess by proposing an alternative solution: to take her as a concubine.

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Jing is demoted of his duties for disobeying the king’s orders, and still, he doesn’t give up the idea of duelling Yang. Yu keeps on training him and fortuitously finds the pathway to victory through a smart tactic suggested by his wife, Madam (Sun Li).

Entailing dramatic tension, especially with the forbidden love between Jing and Madam, the film then segues into spectacular battles, complemented by terrific musical moments and a broad sense of uncertainty.

The physical confrontations take the shape of balletic dances, meticulously choreographed with whirlingly lethal umbrellas in the mix. Visually, it never ceases to dazzle our eyes, either through the quasi-monochromatic canvases displaying misty Chinese landscapes or the ingenious costume design. Shadow is a sumptuous sensory feast filled with spectacle, surprise, and madness.

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We The Animals (2018)

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Directed by Jeremiah Zagar
Country: USA

Based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Justin Torres, We The Animals is a thoughtful coming-of-age drama that won’t leave you indifferent.

Having the rural upstate New York as a backdrop, the story is told from the perspective of 10-year-old Jonah (Evan Rosado), the youngest of three brothers who become victims of the volatile relationship of their parents, a white mother (Sheila Vand) and a Puerto Rican father (Raúl Castillo), who move apart several times after episodes of domestic violence. Growing up with hunger - a distinguished scene depicts them feeding themselves with soy sauce - and lack of supervision, these kids spend most of their time in the streets, especially whenever the tense atmosphere in the household deteriorates.

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However, Jonah reveals a quite different posture when compared to his brothers. He is far more sensitive and truly cares about his mother, who easily and repeatedly plunges into depression, a predicament that forces her to stay in bed and stop working. The most precious thing for the boy is a journal he conceals under the mattress. He scribbles it, expressing fragments of his quotidian life and emotional states through artistic drawings that often gain movement in his imagination and on the screen.

Mounted with arresting visuals and dream-like tones by documentarian Jeremiah Zagar, We The Animals is a strong personal statement sustained by an absorbing narrative. This most satisfying rendering of a complex family environment and self-discovery carries a desolate beauty of its own that haunts us all.

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Widows (2018)

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Directed by Steve McQueen
Country: USA

Widows, a tale of love and crime based on the 1983 British TV series of the same name, is undeniably the most commercial work by celebrated director Steve McQueen. By no means, this heist film is at the same level as his masterpieces Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years A Slave. However, he found intelligent ways to raise tension and let the nervousness of the unbreakable female characters penetrate our bodies.

When their criminal husbands get killed in the aftermath of an incompetent robbery in Chicago, three women - the self-assertive Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis), clothing store owner Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez), and newly escort Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki at her very best) - are in imminent danger.

Having nothing in common apart from a life ruined by debt, they decide to join forces and steal five million grand to save their asses from incurring in further complications. The plan is not a product of their imagination, though. All the details were written in a notebook left by Veronica’s sly husband, Harris (Liam Neeson). The latter had stolen one million from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a crime boss turned politician, who now wants to be paid by Veronica. He is running for alderman against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), also a powerful politician who’s trying to get things his own way, despite the disapproval of his authoritarian father, Tom (Robert Duvall).

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Aware of the necessity of a driver to carry out the plan accordingly, they add a fourth element to the team: beautician and part-time babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo). Even with a few unanticipated setbacks, the heist is consummated, but tranquility is still not guaranteed since villainous connections and pernicious schemes are disclosed in the final section.

Having the stellar cast putting his creative ideas into effect, Steve McQueen exalts feminine prowess in a story filled with political corruption, criminal violence, adultery, and tainted relationships. The well-founded script came from Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn.

Deftly mounted to please the crowds in obvious ways, Widows benefits from the organized structure of its storytelling and the ability to never slackening in tension or emotion. Although operating in a Hollywood-esque mode, McQueen offers the viewers consistent payoffs.

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The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs (2018)

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Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Country: USA

Taking short rides into the Wild West, the Coen brothers deliver six fabulous vignettes, equally rich in laughs, action, drama, and surrealism. All this is squeezed into their latest feature The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which portrays on the screen the sagas they keep reading in an old book. Entertaining me for more than two hours, the brothers fabricate unbelievable clashes between settlers and desperadoes in a stylistic intersection between Quentin Tarantino and John Ford.

Most of the stories have unhappy endings, including the first one and my favorite, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which features a grinning Tim Blake Nelson as a skilled pistolero, bragger, and country singer, literally turned into an angel by the ultra-fast The Kid (Willie Watson), who had recognized him as the most wanted man in the West.

The second story, Near Algodones, presents James Franco as a sly bandit who decides to rob a bank in the middle of a depopulated prairie. The plan goes wrong because the talkative bank teller (Stephen Root) was bold and surprisingly aggressive.

The saddest story is Meal Ticket, which broke my heart into pieces. It unfolds the appalling fate of Harrison (Harry Melling), a young declaimer with no arms and no legs, whose impresario (Liam Neeson) replaces him with a hen that does the math. It’s all about greed and contempt for human life.

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The following story, All Gold Canyon, is a pleasure to the eyes. An old prospector (a qualified Tom Waits) digs the soil for gold, finding his gratuity after a lot of work. However, an unscrupulous young cowboy (Sam Dillon) had sneakily followed him, waiting for the right moment to exterminate him and take the prize. Without disclosing more of this adaptation from Jack London’s short story of the same name, I must say you'll likely be smiling by the end.

The Gal Who Gets Rattled, an adaptation of the short story by Stewart Edward Wright, tackles romance between an Episcopalian young heiress, Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan), and a Methodist wagon train leader, Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), who helps her to overcome a financial imbroglio. By the end, there are furious Indian attacks and some spectacular images.

The sixth and last story of the collection, The Mortal Remains, is the most ambiguous as it carries a sort of supernatural predisposition that didn’t work so well for me.

This is cinema peppered with generally convincing acting and the superior visual sensibility of French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who had already worked with the Coens in Inside Llewyn Davis. It is original, brainy, and funny.

Zama (2018)

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Directed by Lucrecia Martel
Country: Argentina / other

Zama, a rugged yet rich period drama written and directed by Lucrecia Martel (The Holy Girl; The Headless Woman), offers you a smart, classy, sometimes philosophical storytelling that develops languorously. Its looks are eccentric and exotic, and there’s also a grim humor that makes it particularly attractive. Just out of curiosity, the long list of producers have included the names of Pedro Almodóvar, Gael Garcia Bernal and Danny Glover.

The film’s script, based on the novel of the same name by Argentine writer Antonio Di Benedetto, narrates the 18th-century misadventures of Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a magistrate of the Spanish Crown stationed in a remote Paraguayan town, who patiently waits for his long-promised transfer to the city of Lerma in Argentina.

The first minutes of the film attempt to elucidate for the personality of the title character, a voluptuous voyeur who doesn’t miss the chance to embark on forbidden liaisons. With no recent news about his wife and kids, who kept waiting for him in Lerma, Zama, a man of the law and pacifier of Indians, despairs with boredom.

While flirting with the seductive Luciana Piñares de Luenga (Lola Dueñas), a married yet independent woman despised by women and misunderstood by men, Zama ensures to adhere to an exemplary conduct so that the Governor acquiesces in writing a letter to the King asking for his transfer. Morose and bureaucratic, the process becomes obstructed and his expectations frustrated when a confrontational magistrate assistant, Ventura Prieto (Juan Minujín), becomes a direct rival in more than one front.

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The good times were clearly over for Zama, who falls in disgrace, becoming psychologically tormented due to the interminable waiting. Furthermore, just to complicate his miserable life, he crosses paths with Vicuña Porto (Matheus Nachtergaele), a terrifying bandit with an awful reputation, who everybody thought was dead.

Mrs. Luenga made sure to announce that there is no place for elegance in that town. As compensation, there’s plenty of elegance in Ms. Martel’s ways, which enchants with a blend of sophistication and abstraction in an unimaginable crossing between Claire Denis, Manoel de Oliveira, and John Boorman. If the musical score is perhaps too soft for the incidents, then the visuals are outstandingly feverish, magnified by the contribution of Portuguese cinematographer Rui Poças (Tabu; The Ornithologist).

Filled with situations that mirror the social and racial preconception of the time, this hypnotic tale of punishment and atrocious colonialism is an engrossing experience, likely to be turned into a cult film.

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Cold War (2018)

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Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski
Country: Poland / France

Cold War, the new drama from the acclaimed Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love, Ida), sets a painfully moving story about two musicians in love, whose relationship is curbed by the austere post-war regime of a Stalinist Poland. Bearing the stamp of a classic, the film is tinged with shades of Truffaut and enjoyable musical moments that range from local folk to jazz. The script was loosely based on the director's parents and the time frame of its narrative spans 15 years.

In 1949, while auditioning for the national ensemble, Zula (Joanna Kulig) amazes Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a talented pianist and musical director, not only with her pure voice but also with her natural beauty. They become secret lovers, engendering a plan to escape to France while in Berlin for a public performance. Wiktor actually makes his way to Paris, where he becomes a jazz musician and arranger, while the inflexible Zula deliberately misses the opportunity to join him and follow the dream.

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They reunite briefly in Yugoslavia years later, and then in Paris, time when she was already a married woman - “It didn’t count” she explains, because it wasn't made official by the church. Despite the bliss of the encounter and the productive musical collaboration, the two lovers had changed with the time, especially Wiktor, who became an inexorable businessman. In turn, Zula gets more and more insecure about their relationship. She makes the decision of going back to Poland, where they met once again in 1964 in strange circumstances. He is punished with prison for having betrayed the nation, a situation that forces her to marry the despicable Lech Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), the orchestra’s highly influential manager, who was always attracted to her.

Wrapped in deepest melancholy, Cold War has no idle or frivolous scenes since everything fits and flows under Pawlikowski's masterful direction. It is a simply told, beautifully composed piece of work in which the black-and-white cinematography by Lukasz Zal enhances the dramatic tones of a decadent and ultimately tragic romance. You will ask yourself if the mishap was created by personal choices or simply fate. It’s hard to judge, but I would say a bit of both.