The Souvenir (2019)

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Direction: Joanna Hogg
Country: UK / USA

Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is a timeless arthouse gem and an evocative piece of cinema that conjures up classic European works, from Wim Wenders to Jacques Rivette, with hints of Michelangelo Antonioni. Moreover, the film is a sensitive personal statement, a look-back portrait of Hogg as a young artist filled with sincerity and focus. Regardless the influences, she was able to create something bold and unique, demonstrating an outstanding directorial maturity.

Lyrically photographed by David Raedeker’s idiosyncratic eyes and boasting a terrific soundtrack whose variety (post-punk, new wave, art rock, early jazz, opera) thoughtfully adapts to each situation, this utterly artistic slow-burner embraces a strangely calm yet tense atmosphere throughout.

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Crafting a poignant story centered in an ambitious 24-year-old film student whose first love is marred by deception, secrecy, affliction, and addiction, Hogg captivates our senses and stirs our souls. She subtlety dissects this relationship between Julie (newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne, the real-life daughter of Tilda Swinton, was not given the script and was asked to improvise instead), an aspiring filmmaker in the quest for authenticity and self-expression, and Anthony (Tom Burke), a secretive, well-traveled gentleman who borrows money from her on a day-to-day basis while frequently dodging any question about his affairs. This cordial, if snobbish junkie seems to love her, but he struggles with addiction, ultimately hitting the bottom and exposing his true self to the point of stealing Julie’s jewelry and pretending it was a robbery. He also lets one of his dealers in the apartment on one occasion. This man is never aggressive, though. By the contrary, he is always affectionate toward her, even when desperate for money. Julie refuses to give up on him and her financial predicament is usually solved with the help of her mother, Rosalind (Tilda Swinton).

The brilliant actors are used expertly, almost in an enigmatic way, conveying all the characters’ pain in those soul-freezing moments where the tough shock of reality feels like a faint, distant dream.

Extremely impactful, both emotionally and visually, the lushly chronicled The Souvenir is already dubbed as one of the best films of the year. Despite achingly cruel, it’s never uncomfortable to watch, and I can’t wait for its sequel, which will feature, once more, mother Swinton and daughter Byrne resuming their respective roles.

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Shoplifters (2018)

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Direction: Hirokazu Koreeda
Country: Japan

The imposing filmography of Japanese Hirokazu Koreeda just became richer with the addition of Shoplifters, an intelligent, fully formed piece of cinema conceived with as much filmic art as emotional insight. The family topic is recurrent in Koreeda’s explorations, with dramas such as Nobody Knows (2004), Still Walking (2008), Our Little Sister (2015), and Like Father Like Son (2013) being very much recommended. It was precisely the latter film that inspired the director to write Shoplifters, based on the question ‘what makes a family?’

Set in the suburbs of Tokyo, the story follows a quirky family struggling with poverty during the peak of the Japanese recession. The father, Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky), hates to work in the freezing cold and spends time with his son Shota (Jyo Kairi), instructing him safe techniques to shoplift goods in small grocery stores. Shota is not his real son; he was taken from a car at a very young age. Osamu and his wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Andô), a laundry employee, say they saved him from negligent parents. The family lives under the roof of a goodhearted elder woman, Hatsue (the late Kirin Kiki), who, additionally, helps them financially via her late husband’s pension. Rounding out the group of misfits is Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), a club hostess who is very close to Hatsue.

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The limiting economical factor doesn't refrain Osuamu and Nobuyo from ‘adopting’ Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a little neighbor girl psychologically traumatized by abusive parents. Without notice, their happiness is suddenly at risk due to several agents. The girl’s disappearance is somehow reported on the TV; Hatsue dies suddenly right after the couple becomes jobless; and Shota starts to inquire in his head about what’s wrong and what’s right.

Stressing family bonds, Koreeda expands his realistic vision, procuring a dichotomy that is equally complex and questionable. Genuine moments of rapture and love found within the improvised family oppose to the stressful atmosphere the kids are subjected in their real parents’ households. In the case of Shota, the uncertainty about his real past and family persist after the credits roll.

Beautifully shot and brimming with precious humane details, the film is always gentle in tone. Nothing surprising here since Koreeda is a creative storyteller that doesn’t need to make a fuss to clearly bring his point of view. The strong social consciousness elevates a story that kind of disturbs in its final phase by exposing some shocking dark secrets. This near masterpiece made me think for long periods of time, meaning that its message and purpose were conveyed with a glorious sense of accomplishment.

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First Reformed (2018)

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Directed by Paul Schrader
Country: USA

The challenges of faith are demonstrated with intense anguish in Paul Schrader's First Reformed, a psychologically disturbing drama film that tells the story of Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke). His insufferable life is like purgatory.

It’s a slow-moving yet incredibly arresting chronicle of a somber journey undertaken by the pastor of the first reformed historical church of Snowbridge, which, in the cusp of its 250th anniversary, is practically transformed in a touristy souvenir shop. However, this is the least of the concerns of Toller, whose deep crisis of faith is related to the loss of his only son in Iraq. Besides bearing the guilt of having encouraged him to enlist, the solitary 46-year-old minister is aching all over with both physical and spiritual pain. This is something that could easily take him to a tenebrous state of mental obfuscation. Drinking whiskey doesn’t help with the infirmity, and things only get worse after Mary Mensana (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant parishioner, asks him to counsel her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), a tormented, hopeless environmentalist.

After Michael’s suicide, the reverend gets closer to Mary. Yet, his suffering is even more excruciating and all the disheartenment makes him another forlorn man. Will she be able to bring him some light and make him change the dire plans he has been preparing for?

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Schrader’s confident filmmaking encompasses both restfully imaginary and painfully earthly scenes, with the film’s climax coinciding with an ambiguous finale meant to be pondered and discussed after the credits roll. The maturity and rigor bestowed by the script don’t surprise me either. After all, he was the one who penned Taxi Driver and adapted Raging Bull to be directed by Martin Scorsese.

Brooding in tone and sincerely acted, First Reformed succeeds on the strength of its complex theme, not only examining the hardships of faith but also alerting for the gradual decay of our planet. This is Schrader’s best film since Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and one of 2018's highlights.

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The Favourite (2018)

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Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Country: UK / USA / Ireland

Magnificently directed by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth; The Lobster; The Killing of a Sacred Deer), The Favourite is a sumptuous historical comedy-drama and feminist extravaganza. It narrates the unmeasurable thirst for power of two cousins, Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), who engage in a battle with each other to earn the favoritism of the whimsical Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) of Great Britain in the early 18th century.

When Abigail, a former aristocrat turned servant, arrives at the royal house, she finds her duchess cousin Sarah enjoying all the authority bestowed by the queen, who, besides insecure and unstable in regard to the country’s affairs - England is at war with France - is also suffering from both physical and psychological illnesses. After finding out that Sarah and the queen maintain a secret affair, Abigail sets a strategy to conquer the power and get rid of her cousin, whose absence related to important war deliberations only expedites her plan. Jealousy and hatred play big in a film where men are relegated to a second plan.

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Broadening his vision and maturing his signature style, Lanthimos skillfully weaves the threads of a story that never stops to amuse us in a sort of mundanity-meets-elegance. The pair of writers, Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis, thoughtfully crafted a story whose wittiness, cynicism, and madness helped to transform The Favourite in one of the most impressive works of 2018.

Shot with sophistication, this unconventional period film is a triumph in many ways. It showcases an off-kilter sense of humor and a special conglomeration of carnality, darkness, fragility, and opulence. The superlative performances from the ensemble cast set this venomous female triangle on fire. If Stone and Weisz are extremely qualified in their roles, Colman is a marvel, playing the childish, solitary queen with so much artfulness and brilliance.

The production values are absolutely formidable, including the set and custom designs, the convenient soundtrack with Baroque, Romantic, and contemporary classical music, and the stunning cinematography by Robbie Ryan (I, Daniel Blake; Fish Tank). Furthermore, I’m glad that the bold, inimitable Lanthimos didn’t lose the power to shock and captivate at the same time, a staple in his filmography.

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Happy As Lazzaro (2018)

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Directed by Alice Rohrwacher
Country: Italy

Alice Rohrwacher keeps up the remarkable directorial career initiated in 2011 with Corpo Celeste and followed by The Wonders in 2014. Communicating with a superbly controlled cinematic language, the Italian director conjures up a surreal folktale in her third feature, Happy As Lazzaro, in which tradition and contemporaneity splice together with tribulation and grief.

Written in a somewhat prophetic way and told with a Visconti-like conviction, the film depicts the methodical life and daily struggles of the few naive sharecroppers that inhabit Inviolata, a mountainous off-the-beaten-track village. Among the youngest natives are Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) and Antonia (director’s sister Alba Rohrwacher). The former, a pure-hearted young man who never complains about anything, is constantly solicited by those who need help, while the latter was selected to be the servant of the Marquise Alfonsina de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi), queen of cigarettes and wealthy proprietor of the local estate.

Shamefully, the Marquise exploits the villagers with the help of Nicola (Natalino Balasso), a tricky trader, who devours the bread and wine of the humble locals without giving them a cent in exchange. If anyone gets pretty bored around there, that person is Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), the Marquise’s rebellious son, who calls his mother a torturer. He forges an unlikely friendship with Lazzaro at the same time that simulates his own kidnapping.

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Leaving the village is considered disrespect to the family and requires the Marquise's consent, but when Lazzaro wakes up from a long sleep, which epitomizes his own death, he finds no one but two burglars in the Marquise’s now decrepit house. One of the men is Pippo, Antonia’s son, but he is grown up and unrecognizable. Lazzaro, who didn’t age during all the years that have passed, reconnects with his family again in an unexplored city, where they struggle to survive. Either considered a ghost or a saint, Lazzaro searches for an adult Tancredi (Tommaso Ragno) and eventually finds him at the time he was trying to fraudulently sell Inviolata, now a property of the bank. Both got very happy with the reconnection, but modern society is a tough ‘place’ to live. Unfitted and misunderstood, our placid young star shed tears, suffering with his new reality.

Reinforced by the story of the saint and the wolf, the film counterpoints subjugation and freedom, in a thoughtful coupling between the mundane and the fantastic. Rohrwacher’s ability to acknowledge pain without being depressing is an asset, and her work is nothing less than a seductive elegy that overflows with imagination and pulsating heart. Despite the idyllic nature of great part of the story, the pace was never affected. In fact, it was often used to lure and hypnotize in conjunction with the powerful images.

It was curious to observe that, even being exploited, the hard-working peasants were so much happier in the countryside, where the economic factors were never the main reasons to exist. Not eschewing subtly wry humor, this depiction of irreparable loss, is an eye-opener for the strange direction the world is taking these days. Rohrwacher’s work is brilliant and very much recommended.

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Madeline's Madeline (2018)

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Directed by Josephine Decker
Country: USA

Set in New York, Madeline’s Madeline is a riveting indie drama, glamorously handled by director Josephine Decker and superiorly acted by Molly Parker (Trigger), Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know; The Future), and the gifted newcomer Helena Howard.

The film dives into the very personal world of 16-year-old Madeline (Howard), a medicated mulatto who finds an escape to the turmoils of her mind in the experimental theater. Madeline has a thorny relationship with her super protective, slightly paranoid, and emotionally unstable single mother, Regina (July). Her dreams and problems at home are frequently shared with the theater troupe’s director, Evangeline (Parker), whom she entirely trusts. At least, until Madeline realizes that the play they were working on was entirely about her own life experiences.

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Combusting with a sharp focus on character, the film fiercely aims to the senses, bringing off a powerful effect through the combination of Ashley Connor’s camerawork, whose dynamic lens often gets out of focus and captures slow-mo sequences, and Caroline Shaw’s pertinent score. It provides a sort of surreal, ritualistic experience where suspense abounds.

In addition to the dreamlike tones created, which feel intriguing and disorienting, there is a furious earthly side well rooted in reality. The scene where Madeline is caught by surprise with the unexpected arrival of Regina when she was watching porn with neighbor friends or the one that illustrates physical aggression from daughter to mother are simply breathless and packed with emotional upheaval.

Madeline’s Madeline is likely the most gratifying indie movie of 2018. I definitely urge you to check it out.

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Dogman (2018)

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Directed by Matteo Garrone
Country: Italy

Matteo Garrone is a compelling Italian director who always brings an authentic ‘mafiosi’ flavor to his thoughtful films, exception made to Tale Of Tales, an incursion into fantasy/adventure, which deviates from his habitually native topics. His bleak, lowlife crime drama Dogman is an excellent addition to a worthy filmography that also includes Gomorrah and Reality.

Co-written by Garrone and his frequent collaborators Ugo Chiti and Massimo Gaudioso, the story has Marcello (Marcello Fonte) at its center, a gentle and patient dog groomer whom everyone in the neighborhood is fond of. However, by looking at his smiling face and maladroit expression, you wouldn’t say he hides a dark secret. Marcello sells cocaine on the side in order to support his beloved daughter Alida (Alida Baldari Calabria).

Despite the worries of his closest friends - bar owner Francesco (Francesco Acquaroli) and gold jewelry proprietor Franco (Adamo Dionisi) - regarding Simone (Edoardo Pesce), an unruly, violent, addictive former boxer who terrorizes the neighborhood, he still wants to be his friend. Even when forced to join the thug in robberies without being paid. This sort of fascination for an ungrateful criminal who constantly takes advantage of his fragile posture and good nature is the film’s most difficult part to cope with.

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When Simone engenders a plan to rob Francesco’s gold from the inside of Dogman, Marcello’s store, the things change radically. The robbery is sloppily executed and Marcello is left in a very delicate position: he whether takes the responsibility for the infraction or denounces Simone to the police. The option of spending one year in prison for his ‘friend’ wasn’t surprising at all. Yet, it will make him tougher and resolute in his future decisions, which include demanding the respect of the beast he covered up.

Fonte gives a blistering central performance and is deservedly rewarded in Cannes, winning in the Best Actor category. Beautifully shot, this character study fascinates in an almost perverse way, building up adequate levels of tension throughout and bursting with disturbing scenes of violence. It is also a tale of solitude, equally tragic and funny, heavy and whimsical.

While the Italian cinema gives signs to come back to life, Dogman is a great choice if you’re sick of showy crime trifles that arrive from Hollywood on a regular basis.

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Border (2018)

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Directed by Ali Abbasi
Country: Sweden

The Swedish fantasy thriller “Border” is the sophomore feature from Ali Abbasi, who improved considerably in terms of thrills and tone when compared with his debut “Shelley”. After learning that the script had the stamp of John Ajvide Lindqvist on it - he authored the acclaimed vampire tale “Let The Right One In” - my expectations went high and, in fact, were never defrauded as I dug this noir fairytale drenched in Nordic folklore and delicious suspense.

The story's protagonist is Tina (Eva Melander), a singular customs officer with an uncommon chromosome flaw, rigid posture, and unfriendly face, who has the special ability to sniff trouble in the passers-by. Her infallible sense of smell can detect things like alcohol, drugs, weapons, and even SD cards with child pornography, as well as inner feelings like shame, guilt, and rage. She does this with such accuracy that, occasionally, the authorities seek her services to solve major criminal cases. The probability of failure while performing her task is tiny, however, she is challenged for the very first time when Vore (Eero Milonoff), a mysterious man with a weird obsession with maggots, is selected for inspection. She knows he hides something impure, but their instant physical chemistry turned into visceral, animal-like passion, made her lenient. Both have a lot in common, and not only physical. They have a strong, strange connection to nature and animals.

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The somber side of Vore is gradually exposed after he accepts Tina’s suggestion to move into her guest house, a situation that bothers her parasitical boyfriend, Roland (Jörgen Thorsson), a Rottweilers enthusiast. Tina’s greatest difficulty, besides accepting her own nature and realizing that, like Vore, she is not a creature of this world, was to understand the lies that populate her ‘human’ past.

While the talented director keeps the things flowing with the appropriate amount of tension, the lead actors respond with absolute brilliance. Well anchored in its unique conception, “Border” can be tender and liberating, furious and disgusting, and even polemic in its vision of decaying humankind. In this case, and for its arresting visuals and compelling narrative, it’s easy to conclude that this is no minor work.

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First Man (2018)

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Directed by Damien Chazelle
Country: USA

First Man”, Damien Chazelle’s biographical drama film about the first man on the moon, is a must-see for its irrefutable dramatic quality and insightful account of the events before and after the launch of the spaceflight Apollo 11. Chazelle, whose short career holds “Whiplash” and “La La Land” as major achievements, worked from an effective screenplay by Josh Singer (“Spotlight”, “The Post”) and guides a fabulous pair of natural actors: Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy. The former is Neil Armstrong, the modest astronaut who would become a world-wide celebrity and national hero in 1969, and the latter is Janet Shearon, Armstrong’s wife, who plays a crucial role in the emotional side of the story. Steven Spielberg joined the film’s crew as an executive producer.

The film starts off with a thrilling landing on the Mojave Desert in 1961, when Armstrong’s X-15 rocket is pulled out of the atmosphere due to a ‘distraction’. At this time, the pilot lives in distress due to his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, who undergoes treatment for brain tumor. Despite being extremely cold in behavior, Armstrong sheds a river of tears when his beloved daughter dies. As a way to fight the grief, he applies to the Project Gemini, an advanced spatial program that aims to beat the Soviets in the race to the moon. He is accepted and moves with his family to Houston, Texas, where he befriends other astronauts and respective families.

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It’s nothing less than brave that, although seeing other colleagues dying in accidents provoked by multiple failures, the resilient Armstrong has never hesitated when it comes to accomplishing such an important expedition. After a few technical setbacks, which he handles with both responsibility and dexterity, Armstrong finally lands his spacecraft and walks on the lunar surface. An exciting section of the movie indeed.

Nicely paced, the film focus on the sacrifices made for the sake of the human progress, including the ones related to Armstrong’s family. In one of the best scenes of the film, Janet forces her husband to have a serious conversation with their sons. He must explain to them that he is going away on a dangerous trip and might not come back. If Gosling’s performance is formidably low-key, then Foy’s is pure perfection, bringing the emotional stimulus to keep us wired.

The magnificent score by Justin Hurwitz enhances the floating sensations of a different gravitational acceleration and combines in perfection with Lindus Sandgren’s detailed cinematography. Chazelle smartly avoided any type of artifice in the imagery as well as sentimentality in the drama. Hence, expect lucid space images and not fabricated spectacles, as well as emotions that feel humanely grounded and powerfully mature. “First Man” means a first-rate experience.

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The Rider (2018)

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Directed by Chloé Zhao
Country: USA

The sophomore feature from Chinese writer-director Chloé Zhao ("Songs My Brothers Taught Me”), “The Rider”, is an impressive documentary-style drama film, whose soulfulness and elegance dazzle. Serving as a backdrop for this true story is the eroded arid region of South Dakota.

By employing non-professional actors, who actually play themselves in the film, Ms. Zhao manages to shape “The Rider” as an authentic emotional journey that is as much gripping as it is true to life. Brady Jandreau deserves credit for the formidable performance as Brady Blackburn, a Native American cowboy and local rodeo star who, after a severe accident, is forced to abandon what he likes the most: to ride and compete. As a consequence of a deep skull fracture, which caused brain damage, he struggles with motor difficulties in one hand and occasional seizures that will likely become worse if he doesn’t stop to ride completely. However, he barely can resist to that unbending impulse of mounting on a horse. 

His eyes reflect all the sadness and he only opens up a bit with his younger sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), a fifteen-year-old who has Asperger’s syndrome. He maintains a cold relationship with his father, Wayne (Tim Jandreau), an old-school horse expert and now a widower. Yet, despite Wayne's drinking and gambling problems, we can tell there’s love between them. It’s just a matter of letting it out.

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There’s not much to do in the vast fields and Ray, besides accepting a few minor jobs as a horse trainer, starts working as a cashier in a supermarket in order to adjust the financial needs of his family. When hanging out with friends - drinking, smoking weed, and singing a mix of pop and country songs - he forgets the troubles for a little while. However, it’s becoming extremely burdensome for him to cope with his situation. This is exacerbated by his regular visits to a medical facility to see a friend, Lane Scott, who got paralyzed and became speechless after a rodeo accident. Ray will learn important things from him, including never giving up on his dreams. But can he just stop, let it go, and move on?

There is an infinite sadness involving Zhao’s “The Rider” but also an immeasurable humanity. What happened to Ray truly broke my heart, maybe because I value a lot the things I like to do. This powerful, quiet, and confessed drama with shades of Western will give you much more than what you are expecting. It’s a treasure and already a favorite of mine in the contemporary drama genre.

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Phantom Thread (2018)

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Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Country: USA

Revered writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson re-teams up with the resourceful actor Daniel Day-Lewis in "Phantom Thread", a perversely romantic, adult drama film set in 1950s London.

Day-Lewis is Reynolds Woodcock, a first-rate fashion designer whose peculiar personality, allied with an elegant yet somewhat vampiric look, makes him a wonderful character. He lives permanently obsessed with work, controlling everything and everyone, except when he gets sick, often haunted by the death of his mother. He shares this abnormal dependency with Alma (Vicky Krieps), a former waitress turned into his new inspirational muse, in a glorious scene wrapped in flirtation and nostalgia.

If Reynolds is completely taken up by work, Alma becomes an obsessively devotional person whose purpose in life is to please a perpetually unsatisfied man. When she first moved in with Reynolds, she was seen as unreliable by his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), the one who helped him build his fashion emporium. Despite initially opaque and a source of enigmatic tension, she becomes more open as her trust in Alma grows sturdier.

That special sparkle that enveloped the couple right after they met, gradually vanishes due to Reynolds’ fussiness. He disapproves too much noise and movement at breakfast, flips out when his work is interrupted, and shows occasional contempt for her in public. Curiously, he is perfectly aware of what he is, calling himself an incurable person who detests surprises or the word chic.

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Their relationship reaches the peak of acidity when a Belgian princess arrives in the city to order the most beautiful wedding dress. Jealous, Alma will have the nerve to play with his life, taming him, taking care of him, and having him to herself. After all, perceiving he’s not so strong as he puts on display, she takes advantage of that camouflaged fragility. It’s insane to see her treating him like a spoiled little baby, fulfilling his deep emotional gap by acting like a caring mother. Because of that desired impression, marriage is mentioned as the next step in their intriguing bond. Where do these obsessives intend to go with their mutual madness? 

Just like it happened in “The Master”, I bow to Paul Thomas Anderson, who managed to engage me in the personalities and moves of every single character, even the supporting ones. Of course, this could only be possible due to the classy acting scenes, which are among the year’s best. Besides this, I found a phenomenal sense of space and extreme attention to light and color balance in every frame. As a curiosity, the success of the cinematography is directly related to the director himself, albeit uncredited. 

Unfolding with splotches of gothic glamour, “Phantom Thread” unearths an intoxicating tale with several dichotomies between authority and submission, power and fragility, passion and contempt, as well as gravitas and dark humor. Imperfect characters actually build a nearly perfect chamber film, equal parts poetic and obscure. Being a difficult one to digest, this is not what you would normally expect from a love story.

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The Shape of Water (2017)

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Directed by Guillermo Del Toro
Country: USA

Among the nine features in the filmography of Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro, only “The Pan’s Labyrinth” can compete with his newest creation “The Shape of Water”, a dark poem rooted in the most fantastic fairy-tale tradition and stirred by magic, excitement, and strong emotional spins. Impeccably written by Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, the film is a successful compound of romance, sci-fi, comedy, drama, and thriller with espionage undertones.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute orphan young woman who loves old musicals and tap dancing, lives alone, above a huge movie theater in 1962 Baltimore. In one of her first scenes, she bursts in sensuality and eroticism, masturbating in the bathtub while immersed in water until the neck. Her best friend is Giles (Richard Jenkins), a solitary middle-aged gay artist who lives next door and struggles both to sell his work and assume his sexual identity. 
 
Elisa works as a janitor at a secret governmental laboratory, teaming up with Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a co-worker who is able to interpret effortlessly her gestural language. They suddenly notice an absurd daily increase of blood on the floor of the lab after being told that the facility is about to hold the most sensitive ‘asset’ ever - a humanoid amphibious creature that had been captured in a South American river by the heartless Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Her nosiness is enlarged when Richard, a merciless torturer, loses two fingers, hauled by the raging monster as a response to the electric shocks he was being subjected to.

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While cleaning or visiting in secrecy, she communicates with the perspicacious creature, which, for her surprise, likes music and also deals with emotion. When a strong bond was consolidated between them, the bad news arrives: the creature is to be dissected in order to study possible advantages in spaceflight improvement for the Americans, deeply involved in a fierce competition with the Russians. Suffering a good deal with the idea, Elisa sees no other option than risk herself to save the living thing. She will do it with precious back up from Giles, Zelda, and Dimitri (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Soviet spy infiltrated as a scientist.

Sank in astounding detail and rich imagery, this bizarre love story gets wildly violent by the end and was devised with all the ingredients needed to entertain throughout without falling into a single dull moment. As a norm, we have the good against the bad; but here, the good ones are truly empathic common mortals with whom we can immediately identify with, while the bad ones become memorable villains, especially Shannon, who gives another tour-de-force performance as an ignoble egotist, sadistic, harasser, and sexist. 

Besides this aspect, we have powerful dynamics, funny lines, and a glamorous soundtrack that ranges from Brazilian samba to romantic waltzes sung in French to expressive chamber orchestrations. Moreover, with Del Toro at his finest, expect to be jaw-dropped with the magnificence of the visuals. Let yourself be hastened into this unforgettable water slide ride.

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Dunkirk (2017)

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Directed by Christopher Nolan
Country: USA / UK / other

Over-the-top American director Christopher Nolan has been giving us countless moments of amazing cinema through irreproachable works such as “Memento”, "Batman Begins”, “The Dark Knight”, and “Inception”.
If last year’s “Interstellar” didn’t catch my eye like the ones cited above, his historical war drama, “Dunkirk”, appealed to me through its quirky storytelling, thrilling scenes captured with the help of a phenomenal camerawork, the clever edition by Lee Smith, and the dazzling visuals supervised by the competent director of photography, Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Interstellar”, “Her”, “Spectre”).

During the World War II, the allied English and French troops get trapped in the Northern French city of Dunkirk, after being pushed to that deadlock by the enemy’s implacable actions. Only a miracle can save thousands of stranded soldiers who, surrounded by Germans and constantly under threat, wait patiently on the beach for an evacuation that seems to take forever to occur.
 
Nolan cleverly assembled his version of this famous warlike episode by portraying it through three different perspectives - land, sea, and air.
 
The mole of Dunkirk harbor is where Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), the pier-master, and Colonel Winnant (James D'Arcy) are stationed. They analyze the difficult situation, showing visible signs of preoccupation as they are occasionally attacked by enemy planes. Without losing face in front of their men, they become visibly disappointed and hopeless when informed that the British Navy was relying on small civilian vessels to rescue their men rather than larger capital ships. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is one of the lucky British privates that managed to reach the beach safely. Instead of joining the long lines to embark, he sneaks in a fishing trawler anchored outside the Allied jurisdiction area with two other friends. They are now part of a group of wounded Scottish soldiers who wait for the rising tide to be evacuated. However, an unforeseen German attack will thwart their plans.

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The sea segment follows the courageous sailor Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), voluntary civilians who operate their small boat independently to help the Allies. They are exceptionally joined by George (Barry Keoghan), their teenage assistant ashore, for an eventful trip marked by the rescue of a soldier in shock (Cillian Murphy), the only survivor of a wrecked ship put down by a German U-boat. 

At sea, they also spot three RAF Spitfires flying over their heads. The pilots have very specific orders to provide air support in Dunkirk, but struggle with fuel limitations. The aerial sequences become easily the most spectacular scenes, also displaying realistic and often jaw-dropping air battles.

The images speak for themselves and despite the three distinct fields of action, the film’s narrative never feels disjointed or confusing. You won’t see smiles here, but the hope never abandons our heroes whose struggle becomes quite palpable. One can feel their unshakeable camaraderie, even in the toughest moments.

Dunkirk” was conceived in a more psychological way rather than sending us directly to the battlefields. This was another aspect I truly enjoyed. There’s no bloodshed or explicit violence, and the enemy is an invisible presence that haunts and excruciates.

Nolan is a perfectionist and his remarkable account of Dunkirk’s episode spawns a distinguished and unpretentious epic war film whose outcome is powerful and sublime.

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Neruda (2016)

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Directed by Pablo Larraín
Country: Chile / Argentina / other

Undoubtedly, Pablo Larraín is the most exciting Chilean filmmaker working today. He has been carving his mark in the contemporary world cinema through beautiful artistic works such as “Tony Manero”, “Post Mortem”, “No”, and “The Club”.
Last year, he filmed a couple of interesting biopics, which regardless the bold approach and peculiar vision, had different impacts on me. If “Jackie” impressed me most through the stylish visuals, “Neruda” strongly hit me with its poetic narrative and passionate conception.

Written by Guillermo Calderón and starring Gael García Bernal and Luis Gnecco in the main roles, the film adopts the qualities of a detective story painted with lyrical hues and bolstered by a cat-and-mouse game taken to philosophical extremes.

In the late 40s, Pablo Neruda (Gnecco), an earthy and provocative poet, throws out passionate words that are food for the poor and strength for the oppressed. In addition to being the voice of the Chilean people, he’s also a proud militant of the communist party and senator, projecting his strong voice against the brutal anti-communist repression led by the president Gabriel Gonzalez Videla (Alfredo Castro).

Forced to abandon his splendid house, a stage for many wild nocturnal parties in the company of intellectuals, aristocrats, and often criminals, Neruda hides in remote rural areas in Argentina, where he tries to escape the astute and relentless inspector Oscar Peluchonneau (Bernal), who tries to hunt him down as he ardently narrates this story. At the same time that Peluchonneau eagerly dreams with the glory of the capture, he often vacillates in his true inner self by showing great admiration and curiosity for the poet’s work and personality. Nonetheless, he focuses on his mission with obstinate determination without exteriorizing what he feels or thinks.

In turn, the incorrigible Neruda is not afraid to expose himself to dangers. He regularly visits bars where he drinks and interacts with women and artists. The ones he can really trust are longtime lover Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán) and the famous Pablo Picasso (Emilio Gutiérrez Caba) who clandestinely takes his words outside.

Obsession remains one of Larrain’s favorite topics and here, he had the chance to explore it with a mix of dark and wry tones, interesting dialogues, and attractively composed settings framed by the lens of his habitual cinematographer Sergio Armstrong.
Neruda” is a fascinating piece of cinema, an elegiac and exhilarating chant of refined artistry that reaches the sky not only through the faultless performances by Gnecco and Bernal, but also through an engrossing direction.

Aquarius (2016)

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Directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho
Country: Brazil / France

With only two feature films, Brazilian writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho has gained a certain cult status, becoming a powerful voice in the alternative world cinema and a keen observer of today’s Brazil.
If “Neighboring Sounds” (2012) had stricken me with its irreverent tones, the recent “Aquarius”, a character-driven drama, completely enthralled me for nearly two hours and a half.
At the time the film was exhibited at Cannes Film Festival, the film’s cast organized a pacific demonstration where they showed discontentment about the impeachment of Brazil’s president Dilma Roussef and the disgraceful political situation lived in the country.

The story is centered on Clara, a retired upper-class music writer and former journalist who refuses to sell her beautifully renewed apartment to a greedy construction company that is eagerly planning to make some more millions by replacing the decayed Aquarius building. 
The narrative, divided into three chapters, begins in 1980 Recife, where we find a young shorthaired Clara (Barbara Colen really looks like Elis Regina) fairly recovered from a traumatic breast cancer and celebrating the anniversary of her aunt Lucia (Thaia Perez), a former political activist, in the company of her family – husband, three children, and brother.

Many years after, we find Clara (Sonia Braga), now a 65-year-old widow, visibly annoyed in the course of an interview for a local journal. The frivolous questions were not focused on her new book but rather if she could cope with digital music as well as her old vinyl collection. She’s living exactly in the same apartment she lived in the 80’s, cherishing every family memory and determined not to open hand of her patrimony despite the venomous persistence of Diego (Humberto Carrão), the unscrupulous new manager of the construction company. 
There’s a spellbinding eeriness associated with the ghostly apartment building since Clara, now the only dweller, keeps tracing lots of noises and suspicious activities, especially in the apartments above hers.
Activities may include cleaning and security inspections but also unimaginable things like orgies and religious gatherings.

It seems everyone is against her decision of staying in the building. Even her own daughter, who’s divorced and faces a delicate financial situation, doesn’t understand why she doesn’t accept the large sum of money that has been offered to her and move into a more secure apartment. 
The visionary director also takes the time to show us how Clara manages to live by herself, brilliantly exposing her sexual life, uncanny premonitory dreams, and social life in the company of her friends, some of them gossip adepts.

Sonia Braga’s tour-de-force performance, likely the best of her long career, bolsters a film that functions as a stirring contemporary eye-opener with a precise focal point.
I’m thinking of a comparable case in NYC: the famous, now-degrading Chelsea Hotel where people are still living in and nobody can throw them away.

Supported by a set of international producers, including Walter Salles (“Central Station”, “The Motorcycle Diaries”) as an executive, Mendonça Filho holds an unflinching filmmaking style reinforced by a haunting narrative fluency. 
A bow to his new masterwork!
 

Paterson (2016)

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Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Country: USA

If you haven’t had your good doses of weird reality and gratifying laughter for the day, “Paterson”, the sensational new comedy-drama from the hip American writer-director Jim Jarmusch, can assure you both. 
The quality of his work is patented in cult films such as “Ghost Dog”, “Broken Flowers”, “Dead Man”, “Only Lovers Left Alive”, “Mystery Train”, and the black-and-white classics “Stranger Than Paradise” and “Down By Law”.

Jarmusch takes you to the city of Paterson, New Jersey, and introduces you to… Paterson, a local bus driver and poet, brilliantly played by Adam Driver, who experiences the same routine every day.
The amiable and often-lost-in-thought Paterson, who hates cell phones and is able to write a mind-blowing poem just by looking at a simple box of matches, lives with his girlfriend, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), and her jealous English bulldog, Marvin.

Every evening he takes Marvin for a walk and stops at the local pub to have a beer with the owner, Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley), his best friend and a chess aficionado. 
Despite the casual conversation, the bar always reserves exceptional surprises. Firstly, he has a sort of encounter of the third kind when he meets two twins, Sam & Dave (alluding to the soul/R&B duo); then it’s Everett (William Jackson Harper) who pulls a gun from his pocket to claim love from Marie (Chasten Harmon); finally it’s Doc, censured by his angry wife whose saving money vanished from the cookie jar.

Surprises also happen at work and home.
Laura, a sensitive night dreamer, is trying to earn some extra by baking cupcakes to sell, a business with strong probabilities of success. However, she just found out she wants to become a singer and guitarist. Her plan is to buy a Harlequin guitar and learn how to play it. The price is not cheap but she counts on Paterson to help her financially.
Paterson's good nature reflects a passive calmness that is never shaken. Not even when Marvin tears his poem notebook into pieces or when his bus suddenly breaks down in the middle of the street due to an electrical problem.
For the finale, Jarmusch reserved us a hilarious encounter between the title character and a visiting Japanese poet. The scene still makes me laugh whenever it pops up into my mind.

Relying on the amazing editing of Affonso Gonçalves, the director has planned everything smartly with a languid composure, controlled pace, and refreshing sincerity. He has this very peculiar sense of filmmaking – nonchalant, highly artistic, and still unpretentious – that makes him one of the most cherished indie filmmakers from our times. 
I love the fact that he always assures room to breathe while the story keeps flowing in a naturalistic way. 
Chaining simplicity to irony is part of the secret.

Toni Erdmann (2016)

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Directed by Maren Ade
Country: Germany / Austria

With the farcical comedy-drama “Toni Erdmann”, German director Maren Ade enriches her narrow yet impressive filmography. This is her third feature and an excellent follow-up to “Everyone Else”, a laid-back examination of a couple’s relationship within a peculiar environment, which got accolades in 2009’s Berlin and Buenos Aires Film Festivals.
Despite distinct in nature, “Erdmann” sticks to the topic of human relationships, only this time focusing on father and daughter.

Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller play with all their hearts Winfried and Ines Conradi, respectively father and daughter. 
Winfried is a spirited music teacher with a compulsive tendency for off-the-wall pranks. To better succeed in them and fulfill his harmless bizarreness, he often disguises himself of various freakish kinds. Being divorced and with his only daughter living abroad, Winfried’s regular company for some time now has been Willy, an old dog that, with no suffering, ends up dying in the front yard.
This happening marks a transition point in his miserable existence. It makes him apprehensive, not plaintive, though.

The sensations of loss and loneliness get deeper when he thinks of Ines, an ambitious workaholic who hardly has time to talk to his father, not even when she visits him on his birthday. Currently working in the oil industry field in Bucharest, Romania, Ines shows great anxiety and urgency of returning to her work.

Without further notice, Winfried decides to go to Romania to stay a month with Ines, who welcomes him more with respect than enthusiasm. Disappointed and worried with the lamentable life Ines is living, Winfried decides to help her by creating an outlandish persona called Toni Erdmann. He wants to get the horrible taste of the filthy world of business by becoming a cynical insider.

Even distinctive, Ms. Ade’s very-European approach introduces fractions of Michael Haneke’s mordant vision on alienation, Ulrich Seidl’s in-your-face provocations, and Roy Andersson’s half-dark half-absurdist humor in order to proclaim her strong social criticism.
Sometimes there’s only a very thin line separating pretense and honesty, artificiality and authenticity, happiness and sadness…

Toni Erdmann” is corrosively biting, surprisingly human, gloriously hardcore, and extremely liberating. 
After two hours and forty minutes, it leaves us with one simple question: what’s worth of living?

I, Daniel Blake (2016)

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Directed by Ken Loach
Country: UK / France / Belgium

I, Daniel Blake” is another urgent work from the brilliant British director Ken Loach. This title now becomes an integral part of the filmmaker’s mandatory ‘social realism’ film list, which also includes “Riff Raff”, “Ladybird Ladybird”, “My Name is Joe”, “Sweet Sixteen”, and “The Wind That Shakes The Barley”.

Loach bites, leaving a bubbly red mark in our consciences as he keenly addresses the social problems inherent to a technological modern world. 
The film, written by Loach’s habitual associate Paul Laverty, got wider reputation after winning the Palme D’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and the Audience Award at Locarno, Stockholm and San Sebastian Festivals.

Dave Johns is Daniel Blake, a hard-working 59-year-old joiner from Newcastle who is aware he can’t work no more after having suffered a major heart attack. Now facing a serious heart condition, Daniel needs the help of the State. However, applying for the sickness benefit program becomes a nightmare populated by frustrating phone calls, moronic obligations, and difficult form fill-outs. 
Despite facing eviction and poverty, Daniel still finds the time to help Katie Morgan (Hayley Squires), a single mother he met at the Job Centre. She has just arrived in town and struggles to feed her children.

I, Daniel Blake” is a tragic, moving, not to mention infuriating portrait of a decaying society. Its account, warmly humane on one side and embarrassingly sad on the other, has the ultimate goal of emphasizing the importance of solidarity, justice, human rights, and community support.

Loach’s raw and ultra-realistic approach, always loaded with strong messages, remains a fundamental weapon to denounce the sicknesses of our world. He doesn’t need special effects to create a powerful film. He just focuses on simple characters, which we can easily identify ourselves with, exposing their plausible problems with heart and emotion.

Krisha (2016)

Directed by Trey Edward Shults
Country: USA

The caustically bitter, micro-budget feature “Krisha” is a serious candidate to the best drama of the year.
Cleverly engendered by Trey Edward Shults, who also plays himself in the film, this genuinely disturbing story is 100% fictional but feels immensely realistic, and the reasons for that can be easily explained.
In order to enhance intimacy among the actors, the writer/filmmaker hired some close relatives but swapped their roles within the fictitious family. Thus, his real mother, Robyn Fairchild, played his aunt in the film, while his real aunt, Krisha Fairchild, became an unexpected star as she plays his frustrated mother who attempts to reconnect with her estranged son while recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. Opposing to these two cases, we have his grandmother who plays her real self.
The motivation for the story was Shults’ own father who passed away due to complications related to severe addiction.

The story begins with the visibly excited Krisha (Krisha Fairchild), who seems to be making an effort to control herself emotionally, searching for her sister’s house where all the family is about to reunite for the Thanksgiving. After her arrival, we immediately have the perception that something’s wrong since everybody, with exception of her sister, looks at her with some sort of fear.
This is the first time in ten years that Krisha has contact with her son, Trey, who had to be raised by Robyn and her sarcastic husband, Doyle (Bill Wise).

Trey, who left his dream of becoming a filmmaker to go to business school, is still mad at Krisha and reacts indifferently to her approaches while she tries to pass the false idea of being fully recovered and in peace with herself. In truth, she struggles all the time to maintain a proper posture due to an excessive consumption of drugs while concealing her most inner frustrations and lack of confidence.
This state of imminent breakdown is wondrously depicted through a well-crafted camerawork (recurrently alluding to the confusion lived in Krisha’s mind), and the addition of odd sounds and noises that intensify the sense of disorientation and chaos.
Eventually, Krisha ends up unveiling all her self-destructiveness toward an agonizing finale that won’t leave you unfeeling.  

I dare to say that Mr. Shults, who resorted to earnest close-ups in order to better define sentiments, is the modern image of John Cassavettes, just as his aunt Krisha is the modern image of Gena Rowlands.
Everything was planned and mounted in accordance to the smallest detail, and while the dialogues are double-edged, the performances are absolutely flawless.
With a hefty discharge of madness enveloping the plausible scenarios, the emotionally biting “Krisha” can be as darkly funny as genuinely disturbing. 
It is, in fact, a superior drama.

Hell or High Water (2016)

Directed by David Mackenzie
Country: USA

“Hell or High Water” is an absorbing crime thriller meticulously written by Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote “Sicario”, and brilliantly directed by David Mackenzie, a talented Scottish filmmaker who already had caught my attention two years ago with the prison crime drama “Starred Up”.
If the latter film, set in London, was based on real prison experiences, this new one, set in the torrid West Texas, is a fictional creation starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Jeff Bridges.

After the death of their mother, two brothers, Toby (Pine) and Tanner (Foster), believe they’ve nothing to lose, and start a series of bank robberies in order to save their family farm from foreclosure. 
The brothers might have the same goal but are very different in nature. 
Toby is smart and likes to plan everything ahead and carefully. His intention is to retrieve the family’s property, where recently was found oil, and guarantee the future of his estranged sons. 
Tanner, the older brother, is an untamed ex-con with no real purpose in life rather than have some fun and make trouble wherever he passes by. 
The men assigned to go after them are two Texas Rangers, also very distinct in character but fond of each other. While the unflappable Marcus Hamilton (Bridges), who is close to retirement, can’t think about anything else but his future, Alberto (Gil Birmingham) is a catholic Comanche who seems not to agree with the surveillance strategy designed by his experienced partner.

In addition to the phenomenal dark humor and gripping tension that accompanies the story since the very beginning, the film ends up in a furiously violent shootout by the end, when the two brothers split up to get away.
The trio of actors was remarkable in their performances, especially Bridges, who truly exposed the adrenaline of being on duty with the tiresome related to his age.
By joining the assertiveness of the direction, the perfectionism of the characters’ conception, and the astuteness of the storytelling, Mr. Mackenzie makes of “Hell or High Water” his best movie till date.
If you’re looking for a well-cooked noir crime story, go for this one. It’s ridiculously good!