Archive for the ‘Documentaries’ Category

Finally, FINALLY!, I’ve seen all the films I needed to see to put together the Top 10 list for *last* year. Living in a flyover state is such a burden for the recreational cinephile (#FirstWorldProblems).

I’ll keep the intro brief, but wanted to comment on the year that was. I already noted in my post for the Number 11 film about how great movies were spread out through the calendar year instead of being clustered only in the November-December holiday season. But what also stands out to me about 2017 was the level of humor in the best films of the year; not necessarily as outright comedies but as film’s that didn’t feel forced to cram themselves strictly into the typical binary of serious vs. silly.

It made for richer movie-going experiences, IMHO. And besides, in 2017 I think we could all use a few extra laughs.

Without further ado, here’s the 10 best movies that came out 2017. It was an agonizing process to select them, as always, and I’ll add a few extra shout-outs to good movies that didn’t quite make the cut at the end.

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10. Phantom Thread

Say it ain’t so DDL!!!!  Daniel Day-Lewis, currently the greatest living male actor (come at me!) claims that his latest collaboration with director Paul Thomas Anderson is his last film — as in, ever. As tragic as the thought is, it’s at least comforting to know that he’s going out on a great note.

Day-Lewis stars as Reynolds Woodcock, a renowned dressmaker and unyielding perfectionist who finds his latest muse in Alma (Vicky Krieps). Their relationship is toxic and one-sided, by Woodcock’s design, except that Alma isn’t content to wither and fade as the dressmaker’s former lovers did.

The movie takes a bit too long getting to its deeper machinations, which in the hands of a lesser filmmaker and cast would doom the film. But the combination of DDL’s customarily immersive performance and PTA’s ethereal direction make every minute on a hypnotic delight, even if their combined weight causes the film to drag slightly.

Watch it on: Currently in theaters

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9. Nobody Speak: Trials of a Free Press

Whoulda thunk one of the most troubling and potentially detrimental challenges to the First Amendment would involve a Hulk Hogan sex tape, but here we are. Terry Bollea (the man behind the do-rag) quite literally sued the pants off of Gawker after the site posted excerpts of Bollea’s sex tape, arguing that while *Hogan* was a public figure and subject to additional scrutiny by the press, the man behind the character, Bollea, was a wholly separate individual who deserved his privacy.

Much like the infamous McDonald’s hot coffee case, there’s a lot more going on here than one might immediately suppose, and director Brian Knappenberger does a superb job at peeling back the layers of this particularly rotten onion. In a time when the media is under concerted attack by public figures (“FAKE NEWS!”) and reality TV stars and tabloid provocateurs have their hands on the highest levers of governmental power (again, “FAKE NEWS!”) the ability of someone like Bollea, backed by the personal fortune of a vendetta-driven billionaire (in this case, Peter Thiel), to sue a media outlet into oblivion over objections to its content is, quite simply, terrifying. (Yowza, how’s *that* for a run-on sentence?).

Watch it on: Netflix

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8. The Disaster Artist

There have been many movies about making movies, and even a few movies about making bad movies (See: Ed Wood). But there’s never been anything quite like The Disaster Artist, which dramatizes the true and truly bizarre story of the making of The Room.

Part biopic for the notoriously terrible film’s director/writer/star Tommy Wisaue, part love-letter to film itself and part tribute to the fruits of indefatigable optimist. Centered around the all-in performance by James Franco, himself an occasionally out there multi-hyphenate, The Disaster Artist is the funniest film I saw this year. Between the abundant laughs, it’s also succeeds, somewhat unexpectedly, at making a sympathetic character out of its wackadoodle protagonist, who managed to achieve his goal of being an all-American Hollywood star (and maybe vampire?) through the most unlikeliest of routes.  (Bonus: Make sure to see “The Room” if you haven’t, but not necessarily *before* you watch The Disaster Artist. It works in either order).

Watch it on: Currently in theaters

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7. The Big Sick

Directed by Michael Showalter and written by the real-life couple whose story is dramatized on screen, The Big Sick is the charming millennial love story none of us knew we were waiting for. Kumail Nanjiani (playing a version of himself) and Zoe Kazan (as Emily) are dynamite as the central couple. And when Kazan is sidelined by the titular physical ailment of her character, the movie pops to a whole new level with the arrival of Emily’s parents, played on-the-money by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano.

On its face it’s a love story, but the smart and unfussy script folds in themes of religion and family ties for a rom-dramedy that truly shouldn’t be missed.

Watch it on: Amazon Prime video

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6. Logan Lucky

After the 2013 movie “Side Effects,” Steven Soderbergh claimed he was done directing movies. He focused on television, churning out some great work in projects like The Knick and Behind the Candelabra, but maintained that he was retired from the big screen.

*Lucky* for us (see what I did there?) he changed his mind.

Going back to the heist format that launched him into the upper-Hollywood stratosphere with Ocean’s Eleven, Soderbergh bottles lightning with “Logan Lucky” a madcap, freewheeling story about misfit toys who come together to rip off a NASCAR event. It’s anchored by the oddly soulful performances of Channing Tatum and Adam Driver, the latter sporting a comically rudimentary prosthetic arm, and bolstered by an A-plus ensemble cast that includes the indescribably joyous casting of Daniel Craig as the redneck bomb-maker “Joe Bang.”

If there’s one weak point, it’s Seth McFarland as an obnoxious NASCAR driver, but it’s a minor complaint in an otherwise inventive and refreshingly clever smash-and-grab job.

Watch it on: Available for rent or purchase on streaming services

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5. The Post

Not only is Steven Spielberg’s latest very good, it’s also very necessary, arriving at a moment when the free press and First Amendment are under more scrutiny and pressure than they’ve been since…well…since the Nixon Administration depicted in the film’s plot.

The cast is stellar and the plotting is taught, diving into the emotions at play as the leadership of the Washington Post (then a second-tier paper behind the behemoths like the New York Times) wrestles with whether and how to publish the Pentagon Papers. At the center of it all is Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, waxing journalistic as the Post’s publisher and editor respectively. For newsy folk like myself, it’s the cinema equivalent of catnip, but for those outside the industry it’s a reverential and informative peak behind the curtain of one of our nations most essential democratic institutions.

Watch it on: Currently in theaters

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4. A Ghost Story

No film that I saw this year stuck with me the way A Ghost Story did. If you’ll pardon the pun, I was haunted by it.

There’s nothing conventional about this movie: it’s a bold and enigmatic story of a couple separated by mortality in which the protagonists spends the bulk of the running time obscured by a sheet like a child’s simplistic Halloween costume. You literally could not do less to show a ghost on screen, but the effect works wonders as the character (unnamed and played by Casey Affleck) looms outside the perception of his grieving wife (Rooney Mara) before becoming lost in time through a series of ponderous vignettes, all paired to precision with the single best soundtrack of any film this year.

Watch it on: Amazon Prime video

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3. Lady Bird

Few films feel as effortlessly alive as “Lady Bird,” the impressive directorial debut of indie darling Greta Gerwig. Starring Saoirse Ronan (it rhymes with “inertia”) in her funniest role to date, Lady Bird is a coming-of-age-tell that shrugs off expectations to tell a story that is at times universal (awkward first loves, parental embarrassment, dreams of adulthood in the big city) and at times wholly individual (to whit, the incredible mother-daughter pairing with a never-been-better Laurie Metcalf).

Watch it on: Available for rent or purchase on streaming services

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2. Get Out

Speaking of directorial debuts, from the mind of Jodan Peele comes the biggest talker of the 2017 year in film. Released in February, “Get Out” landed with a bang so loud the ground was still shaking by December. Not quite a horror movie, not quite a comedy and not quite sane, the movie leaned hard into America’s racial tensions, taking a textbook “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” setup and spinning it around until the wheels fall off.

Most impressive, the film doesn’t fall apart without the element of surprise. By the time most people saw it (myself included), word-of-mouth and buzzy reactions had made even the most diligently spoiler-averse audience member aware that strange things were afoot at the Circle K. You may not know exactly what is in store, but you know going in (or very shortly afterward) that things are going to be a little odd.

No matter, because Peele’s twisty concept and in-your-face constructions are simply that good. In a way, “Get Out” is spoiler proof, because what it has to say is louder than plot.

Watch it on: HBO Go/Now

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1. Dunkirk

I had a hard time choosing the image for this entry, since every option seemed so small compared to the experience of actually watching Christopher Nolan’s epic film in the theater (if you missed the large-screen format, you should still watch Dunkirk but know that you’re missing out on it’s most impressive effect: size.)

Dunkirk is a film at odds with itself. Everything about its imagery is big, from the wide-angle aerial shots to the endless horizon of a sea boiling with hulking warships toppled under billowing clouds of smoke and fire. But it’s individual moments are small, and largely wordless, as we follow various groups of soldiers, pilots and civilians engaged in the most straightforward of tasks made daunting by circumstance: getting from one side of the English channel to the other.

The contradictions in tone are made all the better by the film’s format, which weaves together three narratives that take place in different windows of time (one week on land, one day at seat and one hour in flight). It is at first disorienting, until you embrace the disorientation and look past chronology. Every scene is its own story of survival, so it doesn’t quite matter which order they occur in.

The Battle of Dunkirk has been depicted on film before, most notably in the excellent film Atonement. But while those stories made pit stops at the beach, Nolan’s story is lazer-focused on the plight of the English and French forces trapped between the German invaders on one side and the treacherous waters on the other. A straightforward telling would have made for a straightforward movie, something Nolan has shown he has little interest in, and one that may have been fine but wouldn’t stick with you the way “Dunkirk” does.

Watch it on: Available for rent or purchase on streaming services

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And a few more:

As always, there’s more than 10 movies that deserve recognition. I mentioned a few already with my Honorable Mentions, but most of those weren’t ever under consideration for my end-of-year Top 10.

Because movies come late to Utah, I end up making a Top 10 and then bumping titles off as late releases outrank them, which is heartbreaking. This was particularly the case with I, Tonya, with which I went back and forth for a few days deciding between it and Phantom Thread for the final spot.

Similarly, it killed me to not include Blade Runner 2049. I’m a huge fan of director Denis Villeneuve and really enjoyed his gorgeous sequel to the Ridley Scott classic. But I can also see where its detractors are coming from, and while I recommend it wholeheartedly there are few little nit-picky things that kept me from ranking it.

Battle of the Sexes, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell is very good, and Stone *in it* is particularly excellent. I was going to mention it as Best Indie but I just couldn’t get over It Comes at Night. Similarly Wonder Woman deserves every inch of its success and I look forward to what Patti Jenkins does with the franchise (still the only corner of DC’s cinematic universe worth paying attention to.)

I was surprised by how much I liked Murder on the Orient Express. I knew nothing about the story which probably added to my enjoyment (your mileage may vary if you already know the big reveal) and I’m pleased that a sequel is reportedly in development, especially since this time it *won’t* include Johnny Depp.

Also Wind River is another worthwhile directorial debut, this time by Taylor Sheridan who has written some of the best crime-related films in recent years (Hell or High Water, Sicario). His skills in the director’s chair aren’t quite to the level of his writing ability, but it’s a strong first film that suggests even better things on the horizon (Sicario, you may recall, was directed by Denis Villeneuve, which ties this list together in an interesting way. And its sequel “Soldado” comes out this summer. I am, to put it mildly, excited.).

Last but not least, The Greatest Showman is a darn good musical. Sure, I would have liked a less sanitized version of P.T. Barnum — a complicated man, to say the least — but the music is great, the choreography pops, and its quite successful at what it sets out to do.

**Addendum*** This morning’s Oscar Nominations reminded me that I forgot to include The Shape Of Water in my post-list shoutouts. GDT is a visionary director, and his latest has the feel of a moving painting. Great performances by the cast (most notably Sally Hawkins is a near-silent role) and a great fantasy creation. It was a contender for the Top 10 but got bumped in the final weeks.

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I’m still a few weeks out from completing the due diligence for this year’s list. Living in Salt Lake City doesn’t help things, as several of the big December titles won’t make it to Wasatch Front theaters until January (sigh).

But the end (of the year) is near, and inevitably there are more films warranting recognition than fit onto a Top 10 list. Sure, I could write a longer list, but ain’t nobody got time for that.

Here’s a few favorites from the year that you should check out if you haven’t already.

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Best January Surprise: “Split”

Welcome back M. Night Shyamalan. The pop culture world had rightfully written off the erstwhile-wunderkind behind The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable after a lengthy string of mediocre to downright awful films.

Wisely, Shyamalan gave up on trying to be blockbuster director (remember After Earth? Ugh) and went back to his smaller-scale roots, crafting a low-frills, eerie thriller about a man with multiple personalities, some of whom like to kidnap young girls as offerings to “The Beast.” James McAvoy anchors the film with his playful and committed performance, and the signature twist at the end is a whopper for fans of Shymalan’s filmography, setting up ever more exciting things to come.

Stream it on: HBO Now/Go

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Best Box-Office Flop: “Free Fire”

“Free Fire” to put it mildly, was not a successful film. It had a limited, art house run and while not an expensive film to produce (online reports say roughly $7 million) it made decidedly less than that in ticket sales.

And that’s a shame. It takes a fairly traditional set up — a gathering of criminals erupts in violence after a deal goes bad — and churns out a funny, exciting and entertaining-as-hell bottle episode of a movie as the various characters (played by Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson and Sharlto Copley  try to gun their way out of a bad spot, shifting alliances and betraying hidden motivations as they go.

Stream it on: Amazon Prime Video

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Best Binge: “Okja”

Netflix is inching closer and closer to having it first bonafide film smash. It’s original television shows have already broken through, but it’s original films have yet to cross that Rubicon. In 2015, Beast of No Nation was a critical success, but wasn’t exactly a water cooler conversation, and the streaming giant is putting a lot of weight behind next week’s “Bright,” starring Will Smith in a more traditional (and likely underwhelming) fantasy-adventure role.

But all of that makes Netflix’s acquisition of “Okja” all the more interesting, and commendable. In no world was a surreal drama about a South Korean girl trying to save her pet giant pig from the slaughterhouse, and directed by the guy behind “Snowpiercer,” going to achieve mass appeal.

Okja is like nothing else you’ll watch this year. It’s got both Jake Jake Gyllenhaal and Tilda Swinton in roles that almost seem to be competing to out-crazy the other and a legitimately hard-to-watch scene of forced animal reproduction, all in service of a larger allegory on the meat processing industry. It’s out there, like *way* out there, and it’s great.

Stream it on: Netflix

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Best Foreign: “Raw”

Written and directed by Julia Ducournau, “Raw” is a French film about a vegetarian woman at veterinary school who develops a compulsion for raw meat after a new-student hazing ritual. That compulsion becomes intense, to put it mildly, eventually leading to fatal results.

It’s a dressed-down approach to what could have been a campy, neo-Zombie/Vampire retread. If there is anything supernatural at play, Ducournau only hints at it, instead preferring to tell a human story of addiction, which just happens to involve the consumption of human flesh. The movie is also deft in its use of gore and practical effects, making quiet scenes hang in the air with apprehension — a particular sequence involving the main character’s sister, a botched bikini wax and a pair of scissors stands out.

Best to watch it on an empty stomach.

Stream it on: Netflix

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Best Superhero: “Logan”

As far as superhero films go, 2017 was an embarrassment of riches. Warner Brothers, which has little to show for its DC efforts so far, scored a major victory with Wonder Woman, the long-overdue superheroine movie we’ve all been waiting for. Marvel had two successes by embracing the weird in Guardians 2 and Thor: Ragnarok. And even Sony got into the game with it’s Spider-man: Homecoming, which put Peter Parker back in high school where he belongs.

(The less said about 2017 *other* big superhero movie, the better).

But the biggest risk, and subsequently greatest reward, was Fox letting writer-director James Mangold go out on a limb with the studio’s marquee character, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. In “Logan,” Wolverine is nearing the end of his long life, his healing powers of near-immortality waning, and is living off the grid as a limousine driver in a post-mutant world while caring for an ailing Professor Charles Xavier.

For long stretches of the movie, you might forget you’re watching a superhero film. It has little of the computer-generated phantasmagoria that have come to define the genre, instead putting its characters in actual dirt, covered in blood and sweat. It also does what most of these mega-franchises are too afraid to do: it ends.

Stream it on: HBO Now/Go

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Best Documentary: “Chasing Coral”

Climate change is no longer something that can be safely ignored (in fact, it never was) and yet the nonsensically controversial and unnecessarily partisan “debate” drags on. Meanwhile, the Earth’s oceans get hotter and hotter, literally cooking the plant and animal life that make up a largely-unseen but crucially important ecosystem beneath the waves.

That effect, happening in real time, is what “Chasing Coral” captures, by sending a team of divers with underwater cameras to document the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. The footage is striking, showing the decimation of once-vibrant areas over a matter of weeks, and making it abundantly and undeniably clear that our oceans are burning we all fiddle with the politics.

Stream it on: Netflix

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Best Horror: “It”

The horror genre took a decidedly indie-dominated turn a few years back, with films like “The Babadook,” “The Witch,” and “It Follows” generating buzz while mainstream fare puttered along with diminishing returns.

But there’s no denying the particular alchemy of “It,” which managed to take one of the biggest titles in horror history and update it. With all deference to the great work by Tim Curry, the old “It” doesn’t hold up very well, and it was high time somebody take another stab at adapting Stephen King’s signature work for the big screen.

Enter director Andy Muschiett, working off great writing by multiple screenwriters and equipped with a cast of capable child actors (including Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard). The script moves the action up a couple decades to capitalize on peak-80s nostalgia and wisely trims some of King’s more problematic impulses. And deserved credit to Bill Skarsgård, who is faced with the task of filling Curry’s shoes while making the character of Pennywise his own. He succeeds.

Stream it on: N/A

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Best Indie: “It Comes At Night”

Few films stuck with me after I left the theater the way “It Comes at Night” did. Set in a thinly-defined post apocalyptic world, ICAN is focused on a family who live in solitary isolation in a boarded-up cabin, barricaded to keep out the unspoken menaces of a communicable ailment and the people who might bring it with them. After a man invades their home, ostensibly in search of supplies, the family is forced to weigh their safety over the risk of exposing themselves to other people.

It’s a quiet, dark and moody film with an omnipresent air of menace. So much is left abstract, with blurred lines between nocturnal dream sequences and diurnal reality, and only whispers on the wind and the fear on the characters faces communicating the stakes. The conclusion is haunting and begging for interpretation and it left me shook like few films can.

Stream it on: Amazon Prime Video

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The 2017 Wood’s Stock Balls-To-The-Wall Award: “Mother!”

The saying is “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” and by God, did “Mother!” venture. A challenging and provocative film by Darren Aronofsky, operating as an allegory on religion and the creation story (I guess?) “Mother!” would likely have been best served as a limited art house release, but distributor Paramount decided instead to go all-in on a nationwide roll-out.

That meant a lot of surprised and frustrated audiences, earning a rare “F” grade from CinemaScore (akin to exit polling, but for theaters) and a lot of “What were they thinking?” from the entertainment press.

But all of that noise distracts from the actual movie, which is bonkers and beautiful and dangerous and confusing and incredible. A synopsis would be pointless, suffice it to say that an artist and his wife find their country home increasingly invaded by strangers who adore the man’s work, culminating in a hypnotically gonzo sequence that follows Jennifer Lawrence through an escalating hellscape of violence and destruction. It’s a boldly executed, jarring film, the sheer ambition of which left my jaw on the floor.

Stream it on: N/A

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The Incredible Jessica James

Jessica Williams stars as the titular Jessica James, an aspiring New York City playwright on the bad end of a breakup. It’s a showcase for the comedian, consisting largely of her character’s whimsical take on life, love and ambition with little by way of plot besides wanting to make it big and maybe meet a nice guy while she’s at it.

It provides enough laughs for the price of admission, and is an encouraging argument in favor of Williams as protagonist. But there’s not a lot of there, there, and not much to say beyond what a million other young-in-New-York films have said before.

Grade: B-

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The Big Sick

Written by and based on the life of Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick functions like an inter-nationality take on “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” for the millennial generation.

Before he was an anchor player on TV Comedies like Silicon Valley, Nanjiani was a stand-up comedian slumming it on his way up the food chain and a closeted agnostic in a family of strict adherents to Islam and Pakistani culture, which includes arranged marriages. In the dramatized version, he meets the decided *not* Pakistani Emily (Zoe Kazan) after a gig, kicking off a courtship that is tested first by his reluctance to reveal all to his disapproving parents and second by a mystery ailment that places Emily in a medically-induced coma.

The writing is sharp and funny, with a nice blend of comedy and drama as Kumail deals with the titular “Big Sick” Emily is going through. It also includes knock-out supporting roles by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. That the movie ends on a positive note isn’t spoiling much, and the film easily earns its sentimental finish.

Grade: A

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An Inconvenient Sequel

In a way its frightening that we’ve had 10 years since Al Gore first delivered his power point presentation on climate change in “An Inconvenient Truth” only to still be debating the science of carbon emission.  But at least the ensuing decade has given the once-and-future president plenty of material for a round two.

Yes, the ice has melted, the waters have risen, the storms have worsened and myriad other Gore predictions have manifested, but “Sequel” also goes beyond the doom and gloom to track the real and significant political efforts made, notably the Paris Agreement of last year. Naturally, President Trump’s pledge to tear up that agreement and double down on fossil fuels is a bummer for Gore, and a bit of a thorn in the third act of “Sequel,” the documentary still manages a message of optimism among its impressively researched call to arms.

Grade: B+

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Rememory

The best way to describe “Rememory” is that it is relentlessly serious. Peter Dinklage stars as one of several broken souls in a pseudo-science fiction world in which a machine has been created that can record and display the mind’s memories. When the machine’s inventor dies under suspicious circumstances, Dinklage’s Sam steals the memory machine in order to both probe his own dark past and solve the inventor’s murder. But the final reveal on both points is underwhelming and bogged down by the slog of dull greys and moody glances.

It’s a notable film, largely due being one of the final performances of the late Anton Yelchin, and there are a lot of lofty ideas about how life’s experiences shape us into who we are. But its ambitions our ground into powder by its crushing atmosphere.

Grade: C+

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You know its a good year for cinema when we have not one, but *two* musicals in the Top 10. And not one, or even two, but *three* exclamation points in the Top 10 titles. But even if you don’t share my love for the powers of song of punctuation, there’s a depth and range to the roster of 2016 films that can not be denied, and that made for an excellent 12 months in front of screens big and small (but preferably big).

Without further ado, the Top 10 movies released this year were:

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10. Nocturnal Animals

There’s just something about a classic tale of revenge, and in “Nocturnal Animals” we get two, simultaneously. In the more traditional sense there is the story of Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal) who suffers an unspeakable tragedy and, with the help of a local lawman (the indispensable Michael Shannon), goes after those responsible. But Tony is actually is the main character in a novel by Edward Sheffield (also Jake Gyllenhaal) who has sent a manuscript of his work to his estranged ex-wife (Amy Adams).

“Animals” is easier to follow than that description suggests, but it is far from uncomplicated. Director Tom Ford is in no hurray to reveal the emotional manipulations at play, or to reveal explicitly the degree to which the two narratives should be viewed as connected. It’s a dark, violent and tragic story that leaves much to interpretation, with much to digest long after the credits roll.

 

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9. Hail, Caesar!

Whether it be “True Grit,” “No Country for Old Men” or “Raising Arizona,” you can always tell when you’re watching a Coen Brothers film, and it’s never *not* enjoyable.

Still, the brothers have made something special with “Hail, Caesar!” a winking tribute-slash-mockery of the golden age of Hollywood, when dames were dames and everyone was looking over their shoulders for the communists lurking among them.

It may not be the same high-drama awards bait of the directing duo’s filmography, but good luck stopping yourself from rewinding whole scenes to watch them again, be it Channing Tatum leading a  tap dancing send-up of “South Pacific” or the exquisite wordplay of the “Would that it were so simple” sequence between Alden Ehrenreich and Ralph Fiennes (whose character name is, brilliantly “Laurence Laurentz”).

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8. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Part coming-of-age story and part Odd-couple comedy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the quirky and endearing New Zealand-set comedy adventure you had no idea you so desperately needed this year.

Foster child and misunderstood “bad egg” Ricky is taken in by warm-hearted Bella and her rough-around-the-edges husband Hec. And after a series of unfortunate events and misunderstandings, Ricky and Hec find themselves the target of a national manhunt as they take to living in “the bush” and working to evade discovery by the authorities.

The chemistry between Ricky (Julian Dennison) and a delightfully crotchety Sam Neil is what makes the film work, as the hunt for the two runaways swells to surprising surreal levels. Keep an eye on director Taika Waititi, whose next project is the upcoming  superhero flick “Thor: Ragnarok.”

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7. Weiner

“Weiner” is the best political documentary ever made. Period. And it owes its alchemy to a fortuitous union of skill and circumstance, as a capable team of storytellers are given unprecedented access to their subject, who in turn manages to torpedo his entire life in front of the camera’s staring gaze.

Anthony Weiner clearly expected a different outcome when he granted the documentarians access, and for the first third you see the story that might have been: a down-but-not-out politician licks his wounds, gets back in the ring and defies expectations to become mayor of New York. But then another shoe drops, and another, and of course the audience knows that there are more waiting even after Weiner is forced to concede defeat.

But what really makes “Weiner” (the movie) something almost Shakespearean is the presence of long-suffering (and now ex-) wife Huma Abedin. An infamous introvert, she hovers at the edge of frame, her jaw set, tense, watching. When the inevitable occurs, it’s Abadin that keeps “Weiner” from being a punch line about a serial screw-up,  and instead a stinging portrait of a political family destroyed by poor judgement.

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6. Everybody Wants Some!!

In 1993, Richard Linklater made “Dazed and Confused,” an American Graffiti-esque film set in 1976 and following a sprawling cast of students celebrating the first night of summer.

Two decades later, Linklater has made his so-called “spiritual sequel,” which is set in 1980 and follows a college basketball team over the last weekend before fall semester starts.

Fans of Dazed will get exactly what they’re looking for, while newcomers will find an endearing and optimistic slice-of-life story about young adults in 1980s America. Like Linklater’s “Boyhood,” EWS is filled with small moments that find the dramatic beauty in humanity and average, everyday lives.

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5. The Lobster

And now for something completely different…”The Lobster” posits a world in which adults are not allowed to be single, to the extent that after losing his wife, David (Colin Farrell) is compelled to reside at a hotel and given 45 days to find a new partner or be turned into an animal of his choosing – in David’s case, the titular crustacean.

Split into two parts, The Lobster first looks at life within the hotel, with its bizarre customs, restrictions and pressures to find a soulmate at any cost. Then, after David flees, we see the other half of Lobster’s world, as our hero joins up with a nomadic gang of woods-dwelling fugitives who have one iron-clad rule: no coupling.

It’s bizarre, to say the least, and wonderful. With a cast of completely game actors (including Rachel Weisz and John C. Reilly)  fully committed to the absurdities of the premise and its execution, Lobster builds on its dry, often dark, humor to an ending that is perfect and disturbingly outlandish.

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4. Moonlight

*The* Roger Ebert often described film as an “empathy machine,” and of all of this year’s movies that role of the cinema is best captured in “Moonlight,” which uses three actors in three time periods to tell the story of a man’s life.  As a child, Little is a soft-spoken boy neglected and demeaned by his substance-addicted mother and taken under the wing of the neighborhood dealer. As a teenager, Chiron is bullied and beaten by his peers and strains to find his place. And finally as a man, Black has adopted the career of his childhood mentor, but seeks out an old friend from his younger years.

It’s a moving, and at times haunting, portrait, and a showcase of diversity. But it’s also understated, and confident. It doesn’t shout “look at me!”  but still results in a film that is impossible to look away from.

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3. Hell or High Water

Too few films are set outside of America’s coastal cities, and fewer still depict the people who reside in America’s heartland as actual people and not flat caricatures.

In Hell or High Water, brothers Tanner and Toby are pressured into desperate measures by desperate times. Their family’s ranch, despite sitting atop an ocean of oil, has fallen into the clutches of predatory banking. To save it, they launch a scheme to rob the money to pay the mortgage from the same banking institutions that have left them in dire straits. On their heels is Marcus Hamilton, a beyond his years law enforcement man circling the drain before he’s shown the door.

The relationship between the brothers is rich, owing no small feat to the capabilities of Chris Pine and Ben Foster (one of the most underrated actors of his generation). They wear their reluctance on their tired faces, and brace themselves against a gathering storm closing in around them.

And while there’s an element of cat-and-mouse as they get closer to their goal, the story never dips into fantasy. It feels real at every turn: real people, pressured into real decisions by the all-too-familiar realities of American economics.

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2. Manchester by the Sea

“Manchester by the Sea” is a heartbreaking, profoundly sad story about loss and grief. It’s also beautiful and inspiring. After his brother dies, Lee (a phenomenal Casey Affleck) is called back to his childhood home and tasked with looking after his nephew Patrick (an also phenomenal Lucas Hedges). But returning home means confronting old demons, and Lee struggles to reconcile his loyalty to his family and his own compulsion to put distance between himself and his past.

Manchester is a master-class of “show don’t tell,” with Affleck in particular conveying more with his gestures and expression than even the lengthiest monologue could manage. Many sequences are practically wordless, and the mood hangs heavy, despite being punctuated by frequent instances of warming humor.

Directed by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester is the type of film where the seams of movie-making disappear, and you forget for a moment that you’re watching fiction.

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1. La La Land

Through three films together, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have crafted a level of creative chemistry unparalleled in modern Hollywood. It helps that both actors are independently charming, but their combined effect is something akin to fireworks.

Take that element, and add it to the showmanship of a well-made musical production and what you have is cinematic magic.

Stone plays Mia, an aspiring but as-yet-unsuccessful actress whose day job is serving coffee on a studio backlot. Gosling plays Sebastian, or “Seb” for short, a jazz pianist and musical idealist who rejects the dilution of pop. They meet, over and over again under circumstances that are delightful,  before a romance eventually blossoms, and in each other they find creative inspirations and motivations that position them at the precipice of either realizing their dreams or falling in defeat.

All of which is set against a backdrop of song and dance numbers that  embrace the old-Hollywood legacy of “Singing in the Rain” and “West Side Story” albeit with a concertedly modern setting and style. But this is not simply a light and breezy affair, concerned only with vibrant colors and Joie de Vivre (both of which, it has in spades). “La La Land” climaxes on a forceful musical number by Stone, singing a tribute to “the ones who dream” and then, in its final moments, the film presents one last pièce de résistance sequence that dazzles you before punching you in the stomach, leaving you wide-eyed, out of breath, and looking to find where your jaw landed on the floor.

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, the 31-year-old (!!!) phenom behind 2014’s “Whiplash,” “La La Land” exudes the confidence of a veteran filmmaker. But think on this, Chazelle has directly exactly 2 feature films, and it’s all-but-assured that both will have been nominated for Best Picture Oscars when this year’s list is announced (and it’s looking entirely likely that La La Land will score the statuette come ceremony night). If I were to have a complaint about the otherwise perfect film, it would be the nagging knowledge that its director is two years older than myself, which has the unfortunately side effect of making you feel inferior before greatness.

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*Note: This review was originally published during coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

3000

It’s easy to imagine a parallel universe in which Anthony Weiner successfully repented of his sins (or never committed them in the first place) and won an unlikely victory in the race for mayor of New York City. In that universe, one can only speculate on what could have been in the embattled politician’s future.

The contrast between that once-bright vision and Weiner’s corresponding fall from grace, is made all the more Shakespearean in this searing, at-times-uncomfortably intimate documentary, which tracks the meteoric rise, fall, resurgence and crushing implosion of an American political career.

“Weiner,” the film, is shot with astounding access to Weiner, the man’s, inner circle. That access was no doubt expected to chronicle a much different, and much more positive, outcome, and it makes the inevitable trainwreck all the more daunting as it approaches.

But the film also succeeds at humanizing a man who became a national punchline. Weiner is shown here as passionate, energetic, sympathetic and deeply, deeply flawed. The film juggles the laugh-out-loud humor of a campaign in crisis with the profound sadness of watching a family and marriage nearly torn apart by scandal.

That no other politician would allow this level of exposure, combined with the singular drama of Weiner’s personal story, creates a documentary experience with few equals.

Grade: A

*Weiner opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 3.

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Sleight

Jacob Latimore stars as Bo, a street magician by day and drug dealer by night who gets in too deep with his criminal employer and has to rely on his illusions to get his family out of a jam.

Written and directed by J.D. Dillard, “Sleight” has a winning combination of playful charm and a dangerous edge. His protagonist is sympathetic and flawed, a balance capably handled by Latimore, whose career appears to be full of potential.

There are echoes to last year’s Sundance darling, “Dope,” albeit with a tone that plays like a superhero origin story. And while there’s plenty of familiar beat’s in Dillard’s script, the director carefully builds to well executed climax that stays just this side of fantasy.

Grade: B

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The Birth of a Nation

Writer-director-star Nate Parker blew the doors off Sundance with this historical epic, which netted a record $17.5 million pickup. The film tells the story of Nat Turner, who led a violent slave revolt in Virginia in 1831, and is filled to the brim with commentary on America’s past, present and future.

While limited by a independent budget, Parker’s camera captures plenty of stomach-churning horrors. Prior to his rebellion, Turner visits neighboring plantations as a preacher-for-hire, providing a window into the disparate treatment eked out by slaveowners reacting and adapting to economic downturn.

The film seems perfectly poised to drop into the current national conversation on race in America. Its rough edges could slow it down in the mainstream market, but it’s a meaningful, boldly-made film with plenty to say.

Grade: B+

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The Bad Kids

Set in an alternative high school in California, “The Bad Kids” is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about empathy in education.

The school at the heart of the film is the proverbial one where the bad kids go, only directors Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe are more interested in how a dedicated educator, in the case the school’s principal, can have a profound effect on an otherwise neglected child’s chances for success.

The stories in the film are intensely personal, and Fulton and Pepe handle them with care. But that same focus on a single school and its students has a myopic quality, making it unclear how the lessons learned would be applied elsewhere.

Grade: B

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How to Let Go of the World (and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change)

The subject of climate change has been treated by many documentary filmmakers, to varying degrees of success. “How to Let Go of the World” is one of the more effective examples, showing the physical effects of a warming world, from families displaced by major storms to island nations vanishing under rising seas and air so polluted by fossil-fuel dependency that children can’t play outside.

Director Josh Fox (“Gasland”), banjo in tow, globe-trots while documenting the creeping environmental crisis and the steps both made and ignored as danger. The film runs unnecessarily long, buoyed by distracting insertions of Fox into the story, but the overall portrait is sufficiently alarming while also clinging to hope that mankind can save itself from the edge.

Grade: B+

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White Girl

After moving from Oklahoma to New York City for school, Leah (Homeland’s Morgan Saylor) embraces the freedom of adulthood through nonstop partying and drug use. That leads her into the arms of Blue, the friendly neighborhood drug dealer, who is promptly scooped up by the law, leaving a heartsick Leah with a bag of cocaine and the drive to rescue Blue from America’s arcane mandatory minimum laws.

“White Girl” is aggressively non-puritanical, but it’s still challenging to look past what amounts to Bad Decisions: The Movie. Leah’s quest to free Blue is dogged by a consistent stream of failures that are either the result of everyone in the world of the movie being a disgusting creep or the result of our heroin insisting on snorting one more line.

There’s a commentary here about our modern times, drug laws and racial privilege. But any nuance is buried under layers of exhaustion as an unsympathetic protagonist stumbles from one disaster to the next.

Grade: C

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*Note: Portions of this review were first posted during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival

Roger Ebert — a man whose name is as associated with film as are Hitchcock, Fellini and Spielberg — was the premiere voice of film criticism in America and the first movie reviewer to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Last year, he passed away after a yearslong fight with Thyroid cancer, leaving behind a legacy that will never, and truly can not, be matched.

In “Life Itself,” the documentary based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name, filmmaker Steve James paints a comprehensive portrait of the man. With Ebert’s full collaboration — or rather, encouragement — James’ camera captures the struggles with alcoholism, the contentious relationship with longtime colleague Gene Siskel, as well as the ego, the poise, the drive, the romantic. We see Mr. Ebert’s final weeks in the hospital leading up to his death, expressive and jovial, cracking wise and energetically describing his favorite films as well as the low moments in physical therapy when the frustrations boil beneath his voicelessness.

But in telling the history of a man at the movies, James’ also produces something of a love letter to the history of film criticism. We watch Eberts’ evolution from a beat reporter in Chicago to a nationally-recognized expert on film and along the way James’ presents us with Eberts’ famous philosophy of film serving as a machine for empathy, uniting diverse minds and presenting an audience with a peek into the world through another person’s perspective.

At one point late in the film Mr. Ebert, speaking with the assistance of his computer, remarks that he does not fear death as it is a part of life and would have felt cheated if his time had come abruptly as a result of an accident, cheating his life out of its poetic arc.

“This is the third act and it is an experience,” Ebert says.

The film is a must-see for any film fan and an insightful portrait of a legend whose life was, in many ways, a living tribute to the power of cinema.

Grade: Two thumbs way, way up

*Life Itself opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 25.

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