Posts Tagged ‘Documentary’

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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Landline

In this 90’s-set ensemble dramedy, a woman (Jenny Slate) learns of her father’s affair while having one of her own. There’s a lot of talent on screen, with Jay Duplass, John Turturro and Edie Falco rounding out the top billing, but the movie never seems to alchemize its components into something more.

It’s a pleasant and charming enough film, doing interesting work with its web of familial and romantic relationships. Turturro and Falco, in particular, shine as two halves of a strained marriage.

It never quite pops though, resulting in a film that seems to simply exist and then  promptly evaporate when the credits roll.

Grade: C+

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Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press

It’s a tough time to be in the news business. Budgets are tight, left bare by the departure of traditional revenue sources, and the national readership is increasingly lacking in media literacy. According to Nobody Speak, those factors create an opening for the rich and powerful to bury the Constitutionally-protected voices that challenge them.

It’s a growing and disturbing trend expertly documented by director Brian Knappenberger, who focuses on the Hulk Hogan sex tape lawsuit that shuttered Gawker before spiraling outward to include the Silicon Valley billionaire that bankrolled that lawsuit as a personal vendetta, the Las Vegas casino titan that secretly purchased Nevada’s major newspaper to tailor coverage to his worldview, and finally to newly-inaugurated President Trump, who was pledged to “open up” libel laws to make it even easier to torpedo news outlets with crippling lawsuits if they step out of line.

For media junkies, the documentary is catnip. But to even the casual observer of politics and the free press it’s a chilling warning that the worst days for transparency are ahead of us.

Grade: A-

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In Loco Parentis

There’s a long tradition of the quirky school documentary at Sundance, but even within the limits of that at-times tired formula, In Loco Parentis woos with its charm and subtlety.

Set at a boarding school in Ireland, In Loco Parentis takes a fly-on-the-wall approach, soaking in the daily life of the school, with a particular focus on a married teaching couple in the twilight years of their careers. The decidedly European education style is half the fun, as the magicless Hogwarts nature of the boarding school differs from the traditional American school system. But the directors are also able to capture the special something that makes schooling special as kids open their eyes to a world of music, art, literature and discovery.

Grade: B

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Tell them We Are Rising: The Story Of Historically Black Colleges And Universities

Stanley Nelson is an extremely accomplished documentarian who is unafraid to capture difficult subjects. That said, his latest film, Tell Them We Are Rising, is boringly dull in its telling of America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs.

The first two-thirds of the film play like a discount Ken Burns, full of black and white still photos backed by dramatic voice-over reading of journal entires and other texts. It’s an extremely important subject and an often ignored piece of U.S. history, but by the time the film hits the modern era, injecting the screen with living images and color, the feeling of drag has already set in.

Grade: B-

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Chasing Coral

There’s any number of great documentaries out there that make the case that mankind is making devastating and potentially irreversible changes to the global ecosystem. Chasing Coral makes for a worthy addition that list, narrowing its focus to the damage that climate change inflicts on our oceans, in particular the life-giving coral that sustains marine activity.

It begins with the underwater photography of Richard Vevers before touching on the widespread bleaching that is occurring around the world. That leads to an Ocean’s 11-style assembly of a team to capture underwater time lapse of the bleaching in order to proof, in vivid detail the catastrophe occurring underwater.

It’s increasingly depressing stuff, as the vibrant and breathtaking coral scenes make way for images of death and decay. But the film allows for some optimism at the end, highlight the efforts underway to reverse climate trends, and a call to arms to push back against the dying of the light.

Grade: B+

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Wilson

Woody Harrelson’s “Wilson” is the type of movie that people will either love or loathe. The laughter in the screening venue proved that there are plenty of the former, while my own experience and the groans of patrons exiting afterward confirm a significant shareof the latter.

Harrelson stars as the titular Wilson, a loud-mouthed buffoon with no regard to personal boundaries or polite norms. After his father dies and his friend moves out of state, Wilson realizes he’s alone, prompting him to seek out his ex wife (the fantastic Laura Dern), which leads to the discovery that his presumed-aborted daughter is alive and living with an adoptive family.

The comedic punches lie solely on the shoulders of Harrelson, who plays his character in an uncomfortable grey area between clueless and mental illness. Dern elevates every film she’s in, but too much weight is carried by Harrelson, who prattles of an unending stream of listless dialogue. It has its moments, but they are very few and too far in between.

Grade: D

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Colossal

Anne Hathaway stars in this pseudo-monster story, in which an adrift woman moves home after a break-up and discovers that she shares a mental link with a Kaiju terrorizing the people of Seoul, South Korea.

It sounds like the set-up to a quirky dark comedy but “Colossal” remains paralyzed between genres, managing only to be too serious to be funny and to offbeat to be taken seriously. The result is an off-putting mishmash of tone that wastes what minimal goodwill is brought by the cast, including Jason Sudeikis and Tim Blake Nelson. The plot itself hinges on a series of plot contrivances that make less and less sense as the conclusion nears.

Grade: C-

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Raw

In “Raw” a bright, talented and unflinchingly vegetarian student, Justine, enrolls at a veterinary school and struggles to find her place amidst a tradition of byzantine and tiresome hazing rituals. After one such task requires her to eat a rabbit kidney, Justine takes a liking to the taste of meat, which slowly escalates to an insatiable and (ahem) taboo extreme.

It’s an impressive slow-burn and an increasingly unsettling piece of work by director Julia Ducournau. It take a minimalist approach to the grotesque, creating squirm-inducing images with an air of high art. Under a different director, particularly an American one, “Raw” would likely be a vapid, gore-porn slog. But with its European sensibilities and restrained amusement in the unpleasant, the film makes for something truly special.

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Ingrid Goes West

Think of it as “Instagram Millenials: THE MOVIE!” Aubrey Plaza stars as Ingrid, a delusional and social-media addicted stalker who, after seeing a magazine profile of a California socialite (Elizabeth Olsen), decides to move to Los Angeles and become best friends with her new internet obsession.

“Ingrid” keeps things light, plumbing the comedy out of its protagonist’s mania, while also keeping a hard edge that churns under the surface of its characters seemingly blase narcissism. Olsen, who got her start in the excellent and Sundance-premiered “Martha Marcy May Marlete” is able to flex dramatic muscles that have been kept in a box while she endlessly hand-waves in Marvel Movies. But her character is largely caricature, leaving a vacuum for supporting actors Wyatt Russell and O’Shea Jackson Jr. to steal every scene they’re in.

Grade: B

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Oklahoma City

The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing is the worst act of domestic terrorism in American history, and in “Oklahoma City,” it gets the documentary treatment it deserves.

Director Barak Goodman’s piece is a disciplined, thorough and haunting examination of the event itself, while also paying due diligence to the connect the threads that led to the killing of 168 people in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. From Ruby Ridge to Waco, Texas, Goodman connects the threads with elegance, showing the rise of anti-government extremism and white nationalism that motivated Tim McVeigh, all backed up with an impressive catalog of archival footage and first-person testimonials.

Grade: A

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Killing Ground

A couple on a camping trip arrive at a picturesque bend in the river, with a tent standing where another group is camping nearby. But when those campers fail to return to their possessions, the couple begins to worry that something has gone wrong.

The set up is great, as is much of the execution. One tracking shot, in particular, is perfect, shifting from Act I to Act II like a bolt of lightening.

But the film is also too eager to show its hand, doling out information in abundance when mystery should be preserved. The fate of the other camping group, best left for a later reveal, is all but disclosed immediately in broad strokes, leaving nothing but the specific details to work out. “Killing Ground” also makes several wise choices with the relationship of its central characters, but those strengths are undercut by brutally violent scenes that tend to distract more than strengthen investment in the story.

Grade: B-

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Before I Fall

In this mashup of “Groundhog Day” and “Mean Girls,” based on the YA novel of the same name, Zoey Deutch stars as sam, a high school senior who is trapped in a one-day time loop after her friends are involved in a car crash after a party.

The device allows for the type of evolution you would expect, as Sam is forced to reevaluate her loyalty to her rude and WASPy best friend and her treatment of her family and classmates. But what “Before I Fall” does well is allow for all of its characters to evolve, from two-dimensional archetypes in the first act to sympathetic and layered personas by the film’s end. It’s still hobbled by its YA mood, where high school is life and death and mean girls are dictators, but it has more in its head than its peers and Deutch is a winning lead, making for an altogether positive results that exceeds expectations.

Grade: B

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L.A. Times

Much like “Ingrid Goes West,” “L.A. Times” has a lot to say, and mock, about modern young adults, but doesn’t quite have the substance to hold it all together. There’s plenty of smart parody and satire to justify the price of admission, but it never quite adds up to anything.

Telling several separate stories simultaneously, “L.A. Times” follows a group of friends as they navigate today’s dating scene. One couple breaks up after comparing themselves to seemingly successful relationships, another woman fights off the impulse of a bad relationship while being consistently stood up by her cousin’s coworker. The plot is largely irrelevant, and it’s used to serve up commentary on love and living by writer, director and star Michelle Morgan, who is not as clever, nor as good an actress, as she thinks she is.

Grade: B-

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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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2016 was bad. Just ugly, toxic, divisive, terrible, horrible, no good, very bad.

Except for film. In that one category, 2016 was *awesome*! It was a year when filmmakers took risks, writers bucked convention, directors toyed with genre and even the stiffest franchise fare from the major studios flexed their creative muscles — for good or ill.

The annual Top 10 is coming soon. But as always, and in particular this year, there was an abundance of quality film that demands recognition.

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Best Box Office Flop: The Nice Guys

It is a crime, an honest-to-God, should-be-prosecuted crime that The Nice Guys failed to find an audience. It’s a neo-noir action comedy, pairing Ryan Gosling and Russel Crowe as wise-cracking private detectives in late-70s Los Angeles, and is writer-director Shane Black’s follow-up to Iron Man 3. (Black, by the way, also wrote and directed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which if you haven’t seen yet WHY ARE YOU STILL READING THIS PARAGRAPH AND NOT RECTIFYING YOUR WASTED LIFE?)

Black has a talent for structured chaos, in which everyman characters save the day through a combination of ingenuity and dumb luck as dominoes fall around them. His action scenes are like Rube Goldberg contraptions, which burst outward in unexpected ways without every sacrificing credibility. And his scripts, meanwhile, are filled to the brim with smart, winking dialogue that  sizzles with energy. It’s a delightful recipe that in Nice Guys puts a modern spin on the old gum-shoe tale with jazzy, retro setting.

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Best Superhero: Doctor Strange

In a year of strong competition (Deadpool, Civil War) and weak competition (Batman v Superman) it’s Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sorcerer Supreme that turns in the most memorable comic-book tale of the year. As satisfying as the other entries are (or aren’t), they still amount to “Who Punches Hardest?” while Dr. Strange culminates around a kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria and the manipulation of time and space. And while the Marvel movies are routinely lacking by way of compelling antagonists, Strange scores by revealing its big bad to be an amorphous mass while setting up more personal threats down the road. The line for DS-2 starts here.

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Best Documentary: Tickled

Welcome to the wonderful of competitive endurance tickling, where teams of young, male athletes take turns tying each other down and tickling the stuffing out of each other. If that sounds like some weird kinky fetish, well…it kind of is.

What starts as a passing curiosity for journalist David Farrier quickly turns increasingly bizarre and sinister as Farrier falls further down the rabbit whole of internet tickling videos. There’s not much more to say without spoiling the films myriad twists, suffice to say that Tickled tells the kind of true story that gives meaning to the phrase “stranger than fiction.”

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Best Indie (tie): The Witch, Love & Friendship

Two Sundance Festival breakouts share the distinction of 2016’s best indie. Both period pieces, albeit on opposite ends of the genre spectrum, one is a minimalist thriller about a frontier family battling a malicious entity and the other is a Regency-era comedy about a master of manipulation. They’re also among the eeriest and funniest, respectively, cinema produced this year. In either case the filmmakers show an impeccable attention to detail and atmosphere, giving the scenes a lived-in quality in which the actors can disappear, serving spine tingles and belly-laughs in spades.

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Best Western: The Magnificent Seven

In today’s landscape of sequels, prequels, sidequels and all other -quels, its refreshing to see a movie with a healthy budget and recognizable actors commit to telling a single story rather than twisting itself into a narrative pretzel for future installments. And movies are meant to entertain, and sometimes an old fashioned shoot-em-up is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Such are the strengths of The Magnificent Seven, a saddles and spurs yarn about a motley crew of assorted scoundrels teaming up to take out a mustache-twirling villain, with no larger ambitions then to tell its tale of camaraderie and derring-do. It’s a pleasure watching the pieces come together, and it builds to a bombastic climax this is remarkably satisfying for its ability to avoid the pratfalls of lesser efforts while honoring expectations.

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Best Head Trip: The Invitation

When Will arrives at his former home, to attend a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife, something is just a little…off. Thus begins one of the most effective thrillers in years, that takes “slow burn” to a new level, incrementally dialing up Will’s paranoia and building up to a climax that is both inevitable and shocking when it arrives. Director Karyn Kusama is almost too effective at making the audience sense the unease, aided by stellar work by Game of Throne’s Michiel Huisman and jack-of-all-trades John Carroll Lynch, and the final moments of the film’s kicker ending are expertly composed to haunting results.

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Best Setup: 10 Cloverfield Lane

10 Cloverfield Lane, the second film in the barely-defined anthology universe of Cloverfield, has third act problems. Your mileage may vary on the ending, but whether you like or loath the climax, there is no denying that what comes before it is Grade-A mystery box storytelling. For two-thirds of the movie, the audience is kept at arms length about what is or is not going on in an underground bunker and the world above it. At the center is John Goodman, who makes poetry of his doomsday prepper who is either a reluctant savior or an unhinged predator, or both, or neither.

Things go a little sideways, to say the least, when the Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s heroine makes it outside. But even if you turned off the film at that point it would be time well spent.

And finally, the 2016 Wood’s Stock Balls-To-The-Wall Award goes to:

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Green Room

Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier made a splash in the indie scene with his film Blue Ruin, a revenge tale that took a nuts-and-bolts approach to on-camera violence. In his follow-up, Green Room, Saulnier flexes those same muscles but with a greater degree of confidence as a storyteller.

The film, which features one of the final performances by the extremely talented and tragically gone-too-soon Anton Yelchin, revolves around a punk rock band fighting for survival after a gig at a skinhead bar goes south. It’s a story of colliding motivations, and told in a way that feels raw and human, within the realm of possibility and prone to the errors of casual mistakes.

Oh, and did I mention that Patrick Stewart plays a neo-Nazi?

Not for the faint of heart, the walls of Green Room are painted red with blood. But Saulnier’s style is not one of torture-porn exploitation. It focuses instead on the lengths people can and do go when backed into a corner, and it makes for a wild ride.

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

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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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