Women-Directed/Photographed Films Coming to Theaters: January 2018

Director/producer Trudie Styler (right) with actress Abigail Breslin on the set of Freak Show, 2015/2016.

Here are sixteen new movies due to be released in theaters or via other viewing platforms this January, all of which have been directed and/or photographed by women. These titles are sure to intrigue cinephiles and also provoke meaningful discussions on the film world, as well as the world in general.

JANUARY 5 (in theaters and on VOD): Blame (dir. Quinn Shephard)Variety review by Owen Gleiberman: “Abigail (Quinn Shephard), the big-dark-eyed tempestuous waif at the heart of Blame, is an agonizingly sensitive and withdrawn teenage girl who returns to her high school in suburban New Jersey after having suffered some sort of breakdown. We’re never quite sure what happened, but the students now refer to her as ‘Sybil’ and scrawl things like ‘Who let the psycho out?’ on the bathroom wall. They’re outrageously cruel, so when Abigail starts to take solace in the bond that develops between herself and a nerdishly brooding substitute drama teacher, Jeremy Woods (Chris Messina), the whole dramatic architecture of the film invites us to view their relationship in a sympathetic light.

“That’s a subversive thing for a movie to do. Abigail and Jeremy never go further than engaging in a brief, passionate kiss, but in their imaginations they go much further. Blame depicts what happens between them as the chaste but erotically possessed fusion of two lost souls. And that could easily bring about the charge that the movie is thoughtlessly condoning a terribly inappropriate relationship. At a certain point, Abigail is even portrayed as the aggressor, which raises the question: Is the film pandering to a fantasy vision of a forbidden teacher-student romance?

“The answer is yes. Yet Blame is no thinly veiled piece of teensploitation. The movie was directed and co-written by its 22-year-old star, Quinn Shephard (who is best known for her role as Morgan Sanders on the CBS drama ‘Hostages’), and she has made a skilled and confident, if sometimes awkward, filmmaking debut that dares to portray a scandalous situation by taking the scandal out of it — or, rather, by projecting that scandal onto the characters around it.

“The connection between Abigail and Jeremy fuels the school gossip mill, and Melissa, the mean-girl ringleader, played by Nadia Alexander as a milky-skinned schemer with flame-red hair tips and a complicated scowl, tries to use it to destroy both of them, mostly because she’s jealous. The catalyst for her resentment is a dramatic showcase that features Jeremy’s students in selected scenes from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. None of the other students wants to act opposite Abigail, so Jeremy becomes her stage partner, and the two rehearse a scene between the characters of John Proctor and — yes — Abigail Williams. Abigail, wouldn’t you know, already looks the part: She dresses in frocks buttoned to the neck, parts her wavy long hair down the middle, and is so morosely decorous in her speech that all that’s missing is ‘thee’ and ‘thou.’

“The movie (mildly) parallels the witch hunt in The Crucible, with Abigail and Jeremy now cast as the guilty innocents at the center of a maelstrom. Yet Blame, urgent but sketchy, never quite feels like a high-school version of The Crucible. It’s closer to being a Roger Corman knockoff of Carrie (I mean that as a semi-compliment). Shephard’s performance has a radiant masochism — she’s a wallflower in bloom — and Chris Messina, with his thick-set handsomeness, mopes expressively. Shephard has a lively eye for the neurotic ripples of high-school society, but her most audacious gambit is to dare to place the audience in a grey zone between innocence and judgment regarding a relationship that plays out more sympathetically than it should.

“The publicity for Blame has played up the fact that Quinn financed the movie out of her own college fund when one of her investors suddenly dropped out. That’s a good story, but what’s most telling is that in a behind-the-camera industry as daunting to enter for women as this one, she went ahead and followed her impulse by making a movie that rides a roiling B-movie wave of taboo emotion. The pieces of Blame don’t always fit together (Abigail’s mental illness starts off fuzzy, then just recedes), yet Shephard, to her credit, isn’t shy about showcasing the gradations of teenage rage. She gives Nadia Alexander a showpiece role, and Alexander makes the most of it, portraying the villainous Melissa as a chameleon who seems richer in every scene. She’s the movie’s real Sybil.”

JANUARY 5: Goldbuster (dir. Sandra Kwan Yue Ng)Los Angeles Times review by Kimber Myers: “With echoes of Stephen Chow, John Landis and Sam Raimi, Sandra Ng’s directorial debut is a goofy but generally enjoyable Chinese comedy. The standard plot may inspire feelings of déjà vu, but the gags and performances in Goldbuster will win over audiences that like slapstick and silliness.

“Greedy developer Richie Xiu (Shen Teng) and his son, Xu Tianyu (Yue Yunpeng), will do anything to evict the remaining tenants at the dilapidated Prestige Garden apartments so they can build condos in their place. Their henchmen try to trick the quirky remaining residents — including two former mobsters, a grieving herbalist and an internet video sensation — into believing the buildings are haunted, but the stragglers hire Ling (Ng) as their ghost buster to fight back and stay in the homes they love (and aren’t currently paying for).

“Not every joke lands in this wacky mash-up of comedy, action and mild horror, but Ng and her fellow actors (including Zhang Yi, Papi, Francis Ng and Alex Fong) take so many comic shots that more than a few strike their targets. The David-versus-Goliath plot is nothing new, but the storyline isn’t what will draw viewers in or keep them laughing for most of its brief running time. But buried just beneath the zaniness is a soft heart; Ng’s affection for the ragtag bunch is evident throughout the film — and contagious.”

JANUARY 5 (NYC): In Between (dir. Maysaloun Hamoud) [previously opened at other US theaters in November 2017]Eye for Film review by Jennie Kermode: “Is there anything that makes traditionalist men as angry as women talking openly about their feelings and the things many of them do every day? Earlier this year, Indian film Lipstick Under My Burkha faced a ban (later overturned) for doing just that, and now In Between, a film made in Israel by Palestinian director Maysaloun Hamoud, has attracted an angry response. Hamoud, now the subject of a fatwa, says that she knew it would be controversial but never expected such a strong reaction.

“‘Remember where we are living,’ one of the film’s heroines is told. This is not the West; she must, she is told, adjust her expectations as a result, and not insist so loudly on living life on her own terms. But what does being a rebel mean in this context? What makes Hamoud’s film so potent is that it doesn’t just show the impact of sexist tradition on women who want to party, drink alcohol and wear skinny jeans. It also shows what it can do to women who themselves adhere to old fashioned values.

“Nour (Shaden Kanboura) is a shy, sweet-natured hijabi student who seems distinctly out of place when she moves into the flat shared by Leila (Mouna Hawa) and Salma (Sana Jammelieh), but although their lives are very different from hers – Leila has a Jewish boyfriend, Salma is a lesbian, and both conduct their social lives much as they might do in London or Berlin – she’s drawn to their friendliness, and a strong bond forms between them. A mutual love of good food seals the deal. The problem is that Nour’s fiancé doesn’t like these new influences in her life. As his controlling behaviour escalates, she becomes increasingly aware that she has to make a change in her life – and find a way to do it that will let her remain true to herself.

“With Leila and Salma facing problems of their own, Hamoud is able to explore not just the challenges in women’s lives but the solidarity that makes it possible to cope, even if that doesn’t always mean that things work out the way they want. She does so with a deft touch in a film that never feels heavy-handed, and the performances she coaxes from her leads are compelling. Kanboura, in particular, stands out for the depth she gives to her character, making her much more than just a victim, though at times her suffering is heartbreaking to watch.

“A complicated ensemble piece with a lot going on, In Between is an astonishingly mature feature debut from Hamoud, who balances themes and events with great skill. Importantly, the women at the centre of her story never really seem remote from the Palestinian Israeli society around them, but emerge from it as part of an organic whole. Cultural connections go much deeper than the value system built around restricting their behaviour. There are echoes of 2012’s Out in the Dark in the visible disconnection between how cinemagoers expect to see Palestinians represented and what is, essentially, real life.

“This is a gem of a film that is deserving of international attention in its own right, and not just because of the hatred it has attracted. It doesn’t just raise women’s voices; it tells a very human story about women who are complex and believable and intriguing.”

JANUARY 5: In the Land of Pomegranates (dir. Hava Kohav Beller)First Run Features synopsis: “From Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Hava Kohav Beller comes her new film In the Land of Pomegranates, a suspenseful, multi-layered documentary centered on a group of young people who were born into a violent and insidious ongoing war.

“They are young Palestinians and Israelis invited to Germany to join a retreat called ‘Vacation From War’ where they live under the same roof and face each other every day. In highly charged encounters they confront the entrenched myths and grievances that each side has for the other. Woven into this intense footage are the stories of other embattled lives in the Occupied Territories and Israel: a mother and four children living in the shadow of Gaza’s border wall; an imprisoned Palestinian and the subsequent path he’s taken; a traumatized Israeli survivor of a suicide bombing; and a daring Palestinian mother whose son’s life is saved by an Israeli doctor.

“They are all caught in the duality of the pomegranate: will they embrace rebirth and each other’s humanity, or will they pull the pin on the grenade?”

JANUARY 5: The Strange Ones (dirs. Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein)Quad Cinema synopsis: “Selected by no less than John Waters as one of his favorite films of 2017, this acclaimed mystery follows Alex Pettyfer (Magic Mike) & James Freedson-Jackson as two young men traveling across a rural landscape after a violent incident. As they move forward and a sense of dread mounts, it’s clear that there’s something menacing lurking beneath the surface. Hypnotic and masterfully controlled, this atmospheric tale of identity, trauma, and masculinity heralds the arrival of two bold new filmmaking voices.”

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JANUARY 9 (in theaters and on VOD): Almost Paris (dir. Domenica Cameron-Scorsese)Tribeca Film Festival synopsis: “In the wake of the mortgage lending crisis, a former banker has to return home in order to get back on his feet. Directed by Domenica Cameron-Scorsese, Almost Paris is a story of resilience and redemption where one can rise up, collaborate and give back to those he loves in ways that are priceless.”

JANUARY 12 (in theaters and on VOD): Freak Show (dir. Trudie Styler)HeyUGuys review by Stefan Page: “Though the shooting of Trudie Styler’s Freak Show predates the victory of a certain Donald Trump, it’s a film that feels remarkably pertinent, exploring the perpetual conflict between free-thinkers and the narrow-minded, the liberals against the ignorant – and how it seems that, in most cases these days, it’s the latter who come out on top. This is an incongruity that has been studiously, and playfully examined in this indelible drama, through the prism of cross-dressing teenager Billy Bloom.

“Alex Lawther makes his American debut in the aforementioned role, a young man who thrives in being fabulous. Owing much to his eccentric, gloriously extravagant mother – who he affectionately calls Muv (Bette Midler), he is forced to go and live with his far more conservative father (Larry Pine) and thus begin life at a new school. Contemplating toning down his vibrant choice of attire, he thinks better of it, wearing as outlandish and bold an outfit as he could muster up – complete with much eye shadow, of course – and heads to meet his new classmates. Naturally, he faces much persecution and bullying, and after being viciously attacked and consigned to a coma, he garners the support of the popular football player Flip Kelly (Ian Nelson) giving him the confidence (not that he needed any) to run against the ungracious, prejudiced Lynette (Abigail Breslin) for the honour of being crowned Homecoming Queen – and he intends to run his campaign on one thing and one thing only; sass.

“Unfortunately, and in spite of the engaging aspects, and heartfelt underlying message of equality, and how, regardless of our image, we’re all innately the same – this picture comes riddled with cliché, and though somewhat affectionate in its nods to classic American high-school dramas of the John Hughes mould, it’s frustratingly inclination to follow the beats of the formula work against it, particularly when we’re dealing with such a subversive, unpredictable protagonist, it’s a shame to see the film doesn’t follow suit. And yet at the heart of this tale, and the film’s paramount appeal, is the staggeringly impressive turn by Lawther, who manages to be so overtly confident in the role, and yet internally so vulnerable. Billy Bloom is a role who is vying to understand his own identity and place in the world, and parallels in this regard can be drawn to the character Lawther portrays in Departure, and while that was a far more introverted role, this performance is still no less subtle.

“There’s a really heartening message to be taken away from Freak Show; that we’re all a little different, each with our own quirks and idiosyncrasies, and we should embrace our differences rather than be ashamed of them. So while it’s fair to assume many of us aren’t very similar to Billy Bloom (well, in that going to school dressed up like a corpse bride has never crossed my mind anyway), this picture still speaks to a broad audience. Plus, Billy Bloom is absolutely fabulous, and you may just spent the entire day following this film feeling more confident and assured in who you are – and if cinema can have the power to have that effect, then it’s something we should most definitely celebrate and cherish.”

JANUARY 12 (NYC), JANUARY 19 (LA): My Art (dir. Laurie Simmons)Quad Cinema synopsis: “Acclaimed photographer Laurie Simmons stars in her directorial debut, a funny, fanciful, and decidedly feminist take on a personal and professional midlife crisis. Escaping the city for a friend’s summer house upstate, 65-year-old artist Ellie (Simmons) finds inspiration in the out-of-work actors (Robert Clohessy and Josh Safdie) who maintain the grounds. John Rothman and Parker Posey (Safdie’s fictional wife) round out the motley crew Ellie recruits for her fanciful reenactments of Hollywood classics, which help re-invigorate her creative mojo. With a cameo from daughter Lena Dunham.”

JANUARY 12 (streaming on Netflix): The Polka King (dirs. Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky)Variety’s Sundance Film Festival review by Dennis Harvey: “One of those conspicuously talented comics who nonetheless can be tricky to cast, Jack Black has rather surprisingly found some of his best big-screen roles portraying liberally dramatized versions of real people, à la School of Rock and Bernie. (No, ‘Drunk History’ doesn’t count.) Featuring Black’s most eccentric true-life character yet, The Polka King amply plays to its star’s strengths, yielding a hilariously tough-to-believe biopic that should easily prove one of the bigger commercial breakouts of Sundance’s 2017 edition.

“Co-directors Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky’s affectionately farcical comedy is based on a loopy 2009 documentary about Jan Lewan, a colorful Polish émigré-turned-‘Polka King of Pennsylvania’-turned-convicted Ponzi-scheme felon. Perfectly cast down the line, this bizarre tale of the American Dream gone kitschily awry introduces Black’s Jan in 1990, when he’d have been well on his way to realizing that dream, if only the finances would cooperate.

“Jan’s got a loving wife he adores in former Miss Junior Pennsylvania Marla (Jenny Slate), and a son, David (eventually played as a teen by Robert Capron). He’s got a polka band he fronts, co-founded with ‘musical genius’ clarinetist Mickey (Jason Schwartzman). He’s got a live-in mother-in-law (Jacki Weaver, at risk of stealing the whole movie) who nags and doubts his every move. But even she would be a small price to pay if the performing gigs he lives for actually paid the bills, rather than providing chump change. He also runs a knickknack shop and delivers pizzas on the side, yet barely keeps his head above water.

“Jan is a born, shameless, boundlessly energetic showman, and his aged audience adores him. They bite readily enough when he begins soliciting investors for his ’empire,’ which is projected to encompass a polka TV show and other pipe dreams.Though acting with seeming good (even honest) intentions, Jan doesn’t quite realize he needs to register any such business with the government, let alone that creating a financial operation in which investors are paid back simply from new investors’ contributions (rather than actual business profit) is a form of fraud. The state does take notice, however, dispatching investigator Ron (JB Smoove), whom Jan hastily assures he will refund the moneys post-haste.

“Unfortunately, he’s already in deep enough that such a course-change could bring financial ruin. And meanwhile the investors/fans — most of them local retirees — just keep writing ever-larger checks. At this point, things jump forward five years to find Jan actually doing spectacularly well, at least as far as appearances are concerned. The band has expanded, its presentation is splashier (Jan’s costumes now approach Neil Diamond-meets-Liberace sequined grandeur), its crowds are bigger. One of the band’s recordings even gets nominated for a Grammy. But sooner or later the accounting shell-game he’s playing is going to implode, and like the titular figure in Bernie, one more nice guy who just wanted to make people happy — but committed significant crime doing it — is gonna go to prison.

“Forbes and Wolodarsky’s screenplay has a Christopher Guest feel, albeit one that mercifully supplies real narrative structure. It draws on a story that’s outlandishly appealing in outline, but also boasts some truly stranger-than-fiction set pieces — notably when Jan sells a European package tour promising a ‘private audience with the Pope,’ and later when Marva runs for Mrs. Pennsylvania, a crown she wins, then loses, because guess-who bribed a judge. (These things actually happened, as news clips over the closing credits attest.)

“But when it comes to the film’s overall success, these wildly amusing situations take a back seat to the contributions of an excellent cast. Speaking the language of incorrigible optimism in a burlesque Polish accent, Black gets to sing (the soundtrack is wall-to-wall polka favorites, though there’s no ‘She’s Too Fat for Me’), hustle, and deliver broken-English homilies to his heart’s desire. The cartoonish extroversion that can be simply too much in other contexts is ideally harnessed here.

Obvious Child star Slate also has some inspired moments as the spouse who’s uncomplicatedly devoted, but also has a hidden, competitive streak of attention-neediness. Schwartzman nicely reprises some of his mopier roles until a midpoint transformation in which he is re-christened ‘Mickey Pizzaz,’ a lizardly lounge type aspiring to Buddy Love-dom. While the ensemble offers several other funny supporting turns, the big kahuna here in laugh terms is Weaver, whose duly barbed in-law is a hilariously blunt instrument of domestic emasculation.

“Without ever completely losing touch with reality, the expertly turned design contributions here revel in the decor and sartorial havoc that can be wrought when people of deeply tacky taste get some serious spending money.”

JANUARY 12 (in theaters and on VOD): Saturday Church (dir. Damon Cardasis) (DP: Hillary Spera)Samuel Goldwyn Films synopsis:Saturday Church tells the story of 14-year-old Ulysses, a shy and effeminate boy, who finds himself coping with new responsibilities as ‘man of the house’ after the death of his father. Living alongside his mother, younger brother, and conservative aunt, Ulysses is also struggling with questions about his gender identity. He finds an escape by creating a world of fantasy filled with dance and music. Ulysses’ journey takes a turn for the better when he encounters a vibrant transgender community, who take him to ‘Saturday Church,’ a program for LGBTQ youth. Ulysses manages to keep his two worlds apart; appeasing his aunt and discovering his passion for the NYC ball scene, and voguing, until his double life is revealed. Ulysses must find the courage to be who he truly is, all while risking losing those he cares about most.”

JANUARY 12: Vazante (dir. Daniela Thomas)IFC Center synopsis: “Upon returning from a trading expedition, Antonio discovers that his wife has died in labor. Confined to a decadent but desolate property in the company of his aging mother-in-law and numerous slaves, he marries his wife’s young niece, Beatriz. Separated from her family and left alone on the rugged farmhouse in the Brazilian mountains, Beatriz finds solace in the displaced and oppressed inhabitants around her. Exploring the fraught intersection of feminism, colonialism, and race that has persisted across centuries and continents, Vazante is a haunting and stunning solo directorial debut from Brazilian filmmaker Daniela Thomas.”

JANUARY 19: The Final Year (dir. Greg Barker) (DPs: Martina Radwan and Erich Roland)DOC NYC synopsis: “During 2016, filmmaker Greg Barker gained access to key members of outgoing US President Barack Obama’s administration Secretary of State John Kerry, Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, confidant and speechwriter Ben Rhodes and others for an unprecedented look at the shaping of US foreign policy. While TV shows from ‘The West Wing’ to ‘Madam Secretary’ have invented dramas from this milieu, never has a documentary captured the real players so much in the moment.

“The globe-trotting journey makes stops on multiple continents. Rhodes, who’s described as sharing a ‘mind meld’ with Obama, joins the President on historic visits to Saigon, Hiroshima and Havana. Power seeks to put ordinary people at the heart of foreign policy in Nigeria and Cameroon. Kerry negotiates at the UN for a Syrian ceasefire and bears witness to global warming in Greenland. Every move they make stirs reactions from the media, Congress and the public.

“While history books will be better equipped to explore political complexities, The Final Year excels at showing us the humanity of these policy makers in times of breakthroughs, setbacks and tragedies.

“This perspective would be remarkable in any year. But 2016 stands out since US foreign policy changed dramatically under a new administration. The contrast is clear in every minute of the film. As we gain distance from the Obama era, The Final Year will serve as a vital document of that time.”

JANUARY 19: Forever My Girl (dir. Bethany Ashton Wolf)Synopsis from the film’s official website:Forever My Girl tells the story of country music super-star Liam Page (Alex Roe) who left his bride, Josie (Jessica Rothe), at the altar choosing fame and fortune instead. However, Liam never got over Josie, his one true love, nor did he ever forget his Southern roots in the small community where he was born and raised. When he unexpectedly returns to his hometown for the funeral of his high school best friend, Liam is suddenly faced with the consequences of all that he left behind.”

JANUARY 19: Kangaroo (dirs. Kate McIntyre Clere and Michael McIntyre)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “This groundbreaking film reveals the truth surrounding Australia’s love-hate relationship with its beloved icon. The kangaroo image is proudly used by top companies, sports teams and as tourist souvenirs, yet when they hop across the vast continent some consider them to be pests to be shot and sold for profit. Kangaroo unpacks a national paradigm where the relationship with kangaroos is examined.”

JANUARY 19: Mama Africa (dir. Mika Kaurismäki) (DPs: Jacques Cheuiche, Wolfgang Held, Frank Lehmann, Martina Radwan and Eran Tahor)IFC Center synopsis: “Miriam Makeba was the first African musician to become a true international star. Her music – which influenced artists across the globe – always remained anchored in her traditional South African roots and conveyed strong messages against racism and poverty.

“This documentary, directed by Mika Kaurismäki, traces her life and music through more than fifty years of performing. Using rare archive footage of her performances, interviews and intimate scenes filmed over the years, this powerful documentary expertly exposes the biography of a unique person, a world icon. She sang for John F. Kennedy and Marlon Brando, performed with Harry Belafonte, Nina Simone and Dizzie Gillespie, was married to Hugh Masekela and also the radical Black Panther, Stokely Carmichael.”

JANUARY 30 (on DVD from Wolfe Video): Just Charlie (dir. Rebekah Fortune)Eye for Film review by Andrew Robertson: “Charlie wants to play football, and she wants to be who she is – a challenge for anyone, but more so since Charlie is struggling not only with the pressures of vicarious parental achievement but also because she was assigned male at birth.

“‘We have to be realistic,’ they say, and Just Charlie is – astonishingly, painstakingly so, matched to what amounts to a scrupulous fairness, an overwhelming and compellingly sympathetic character piece that was a deserved winner of the Audience Award at 2017’s Edinburgh International Film Festival.

“The heart of the film is a performance from Harry Gilby, in a feature debut – ably managing to convey not only the struggles but the strengths of young Charlie in the face of any number of vicissitudes, not the least of which are in the relationships that are affected by what amounts to a realisation and not a change. Director Rebekah Fortune and writer Peter Machen have worked together before, on a similar project called Something Blue. At 2017’s EIFF, their film was a fitting (and strong) colleague to Daphne and Romans, two other, albeit very different, features expanded from earlier, thematically similar, shorts. All three are rooted in single strong performances of characters re-engaging with the world, and all three would appear to have benefited from what amounts to rehearsal – that business of things becoming easier with practise is reflected in all three on-screen, and to good effect.

“The process of growing up is often a difficult one, but films have access to funding bodies and all manner of support that individuals often do not. Charlie is not without allies, nor her family, and it’s clear that the on-screen support of the organisation Mermaids was matched by off-screen guidance. While usually avoiding the didactic, Just Charlie manages to address each of the elements of a transition with a deftness matched only by Charlie’s prowess on the football pitch. Indeed, one later sequence is made stronger by wrong-footing audiences who are acquainted with some of the sadder statistics of the process. Though it’s potentially the kind of ‘issue movie’ that becomes a learning resource, a combination of factors – not least its quality as a story, but also the realistic quantity of swearing – mean that it will hopefully avoid that fate.

“As Charlie’s parents, Patrica Potter and Scot Williams are good, and their other daughter Eve is well portrayed by Elinor Machen-Fortune. There’s an authenticity here, some of which may come from roles they’ve played in the previous work with Fortune, but most of which can be attributed to the quality of their performances.

“Other striking moments come about from decisions made behind the camera – one beautiful shot relies on the geography of the family’s suburban home, a corridor bisected by the wall dividing two bedrooms, one blue, one pink. There’s probably a paragraph in the way that space is used and what decisions made within and around it signify, but I’ll spare you – suffice to say that it’s one of many small moments of quality within the film.

“The wider supporting cast are good too – not least a turn from Peter Lloyd (another previous collaborator) as Charlie’s coach Mick – it may not be a textbook example of how to be an ally, but it’s close enough without feeling anything other than human. Again and again Just Charlie excels not only in the accuracy of its depiction of a complicated human issue but in being a good film. There’s a power to its ending that’s commendable. Unflinching when things are dark, unfazed by handling complex topics, Just Charlie is a charm, a delight.”

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My Favorite Albums of 2017

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Here is my top ten list for albums I listened to in 2017, plus a few honorable mentions for good measure.

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10. TLC, TLC

Standout Tracks: “Way Back” (feat. Snoop Dogg), “Perfect Girls,” “Start a Fire,” “American Gold,” “Scandalous,” “Joy Ride”

From the moment TLC’s self-titled, fifth and final album kicks off with the vibrant opener “No Introduction,” a contradictory yet inspiring reminder of this R&B girl group’s indomitable spirit, I knew that I was in a for a good time. I’m so glad that Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas returned to the studio for a follow-up to 3D, which came out shortly after Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes’ death in 2002. T-Boz and Chilli bring elements of R&B, pop and funk to TLC, infusing many tracks with a 90s-throwback vibe that never feels dated. Lead single “Way Back” is the album’s best example of that particular style, but I love the atmospheres created by acoustic guitar on the empowerment anthem “Perfect Girls” and on the sultry ballad “Start a Fire,” as well as the social commentary of “American Gold,” the braggadocio of “Scandalous” and the retro groove of album closer “Joy Ride.” I can’t tell you how encouraging it is to know that T-Boz and Chilli are still crazy, sexy and cool enough to put together an album this enjoyable from start to finish.

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9. Feist, Pleasure

Standout Tracks: “Pleasure,” “Any Party,” “A Man Is Not His Song,” “Century” (feat. Jarvis Cocker), “Baby Be Simple,” “I’m Not Running Away”

Feist’s Pleasure is a slow-burner. Like the title track, the album as a whole takes a while to warm up, but after a while I found that the melodies had stuck with me and didn’t leave. Without question the best song on the album is “Century,” an uptempo masterwork of songwriting, performance and production; many of the album’s highlights have relaxed paces, though, and it’s hard to argue against the loveliness of “A Man Is Not His Song” (which has my favorite lines from Pleasure: “A man is not his song/And I’m not a story/But I wanna sing along/If he’s singing it for me”), “Baby Be Simple” (which, dare I say it, begins to feel magical at the 4:39 mark) and “I’m Not Running Away.”

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8. Marika Hackman, I’m Not Your Man

Standout Tracks: “Boyfriend,” “Gina’s World,” “My Lover Cindy,” “Apple Tree,” “So Long,” “Eastbound Train”

The rock influences of the 1990s are all over English singer-songwriter’s Marika Hackman’s second full-length album. This is a good thing, like how opening track/lead single “Boyfriend” recalls Radiohead’s “My Iron Lung” and how “Gina’s World” contains echoes of Nirvana. And for my money, “My Lover Cindy” is probably the #1 song of the year; with a dark sense of humor and sunny guitar licks, it’s an ideal pop-rock jewel that will lodge in your brain and never leave.

I love that Hackman’s songs wittily observe the highs and lows of queer identity while maintaining a universality that every music fan can appreciate. With I’m Not Your Man, Hackman has shot to the top of my list of the most talented women in indie rock right now, alongside Angel Olsen and Courtney Barnett.

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7. Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie (aka Buckingham/McVie)

Standout Tracks: “In My World,” “Red Sun,” “Lay Down for Free,” “Game of Pretend,” “On with the Show,” “Carnival Begin”

It may be uncool or corny to admit it, but I love the recent album by Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie. Few critics feel the same way, but what can I say? I’m a sucker for a well-crafted tune. Buckingham/McVie, as they are often credited, have been in this business for half a century, so it’s safe to say that they know a thing or two about how to make memorable music. Whether you’re a fan of the duo from back in their peak Fleetwood Mac days or you’re a younger listener who just wants to savor some great earworms, you can’t go wrong with the infectious melodies of “In My World” and “On with the Show” and the slower, more sensual motion of “Carnival Begin.”

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6. Texas, Jump on Board

Standout Tracks: “It Was Up to You,” “Tell That Girl,” “Sending a Message,” “Great Romances,” “Won’t Let You Down,” “Round the World”

Like the Buckingham/McVie album, Jump on Board by Scottish band Texas was labeled mediocre by most music critics. But I knew that Texas’s tenth studio album (their debut, Southside, came out in 1989) would be fun before I even heard it; I’ve been a fan for years, ever since I heard a charming BBC Radio interview with lead singer Sharleen Spiteri – isn’t that a fantastic name for a rock band frontwoman? – and the radio show’s host played the wonderful Texas song “Detroit City.” I became an immediate devotee of the group and have adored their work ever since. Jump on Board’s “Tell That Girl” has a similarly 80s-ish aura, but the sound branches out on “Won’t Let You Down,” which evokes classic Pretenders ballads; “Great Romances” (my personal favorite), which borrows its beat from the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back”; the shimmering rhythms of “It Was Up to You” (like updated disco, reminiscent of Roxy Music and solo Bryan Ferry); and the smoldering rockabilly voodoo of “Sending a Message.”

P.S. Last year, Sharleen Spiteri wrote a really nice piece for The Guardian about Harry Dean Stanton, whose film Paris, Texas sparked her band’s name. If you haven’t read it, please do.

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5. Father John Misty, Pure Comedy

Standout Tracks: “Pure Comedy,” “Total Entertainment Forever,” “Ballad of the Dying Man,” “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay,” “The Memo,” “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain”

Full disclosure: I don’t know much about Father John Misty, outside of some essays and reviews I’ve read over the years. I’m not familiar with his catalog prior to Pure Comedy, although I keep telling myself that I’ll listen to Fear Fun and I Love You, Honeybear, in addition to his releases under the “J. Tillman” name, at some point. As a newbie who approached his Pure Comedy album from what I hope is a fairly fresh perspective, I must say I’m impressed. I know that his music is polarizing and engenders a lot of “masterpiece”/”overrated hack” arguments, but I like when that happens with artists; it makes me think that they’re doing something right to inspire such extreme views.

The lyrics on this album are superior to just about everything else that has been released this year and I could easily put a spotlight on nearly every song, although “Total Entertainment Forever” – the first track I heard prior to the album’s release – is the one that will probably stay with me the longest, capturing our freaky zeitgeist with insight, morbid humor and a little snazzy saxophone. There’s no way to top the sheer audacity of its opening lines: “Bedding Taylor Swift/Every night inside the Oculus Rift/After mister and the missus finish dinner and the dishes/And now the future’s definition is so much higher than it was last year/It’s like the images have all become real/And someone’s living my life for me out in the mirror…” Truly a songwriter for these bizarre, unbelievable times.

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4. Lana Del Rey, Lust for Life

Standout Tracks: “Lust for Life” (feat. The Weeknd), “Cherry,” “When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing,” “Tomorrow Never Came” (feat. Sean Ono Lennon), “Change,” “Get Free”

Lust for Life is the first Lana Del Rey album that I have loved from beginning to end. I wasn’t enamored of the opening track, “Love,” when I first heard it last year, but hearing it in the context of the entire album has given me a renewed admiration for the lushly produced songscapes that Del Rey creates. You really fall into a different world when you listen to her music.

“Lust for Life” is yet another 2017 song to reference “My Boyfriend’s Back” (as well as having “do-do-do-dos” similar to Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”), while the lyrics of “Cherry” allude to the classic duet “Summer Wine” by two of Del Rey’s heroes, Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood. “Beautiful People Beautiful Problems” and “Tomorrow Never Came” are collaborations with Stevie Nicks and Sean Ono Lennon, respectively, while the uplifting album closer “Get Free” cites Neil Young (”out of the black… into the blue”) and the chord progression of Radiohead’s “Creep” (Lana’s not alone; Angel Olsen kind of did that too on her single “Fly on Your Wall,” although the bigger similarity is with Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over”). But my absolute favorite track on Lust for Life is “Change,” a haunting statement about realizing the abilities we all have to learn, grow and improve our world that pays homage to Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” along the way.

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3. Blondie, Pollinator

Standout Tracks: “Doom or Destiny” (feat. Joan Jett), “Long Time,” “Fun,” “My Monster,” “Too Much,” “Fragments”

If there is any truth we can rely on in this weird world of ours, it’s that Blondie can always deliver top-quality records. Pollinator, the renowned band’s eleventh album since 1976 (they were on hiatus during 1982-1997), has the same glorious New Wave/pop-punk dynamism that Debbie Harry and company have gifted us with for these past forty years. They worked with some excellent collaborators this time around, featuring Joan Jett on the chorus of “Doom or Destiny” (which has a terrific, politically charged music video), as well as the lyrical contributions of Blood Orange (aka Dev Hynes) on “Long Time” and Johnny Marr on “My Monster,” plus a cover of “Fragments” by An Unkindness (Adam Johnston). Chris Stein is still a legend on the guitar and Clem Burke – in my most humble of opinions – continues to be one of the best rock drummers on the planet, worthy of going toe to toe with anyone half (or even a third) his age. Extra special mention goes to the Greg Cohen Spirit of 79 remix of “Fun,” which is even better than the version on the album.

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2. Harry Styles, Harry Styles

Standout Tracks: “Meet Me in the Hallway,” “Sign of the Times,” “Carolina,” “Only Angel,” “Ever Since New York,” “Woman”

I was never a serious follower of the ultra-successful boy band One Direction, but you can put me down as a fan of “What Makes You Beautiful,” “One Thing” and “Temporary Fix.” Those are three genuinely delightful songs. So I looked forward to what Harry Styles had to offer as an individual performer, interested in what, uh, styles (sorry) he would display on his first solo effort. Luckily, his self-titled debut turned out to be an entertaining achievement, filled with the exuberance and sincerity of a man eager to forge his own path in the music industry. I knew as soon as the album’s first song, “Meet Me in the Hallway,” began that this was not going to be a typical millennial endeavor, and I remained impressed throughout the next nine tracks. I applaud young Mr. Styles’ high levels of ambition.

Worldwide hit “Sign of the Times” has timeless appeal, while “Only Angel” and “Kiwi” burst with brazen vigor, “Woman” is a soulful jam and the love songs “Two Ghosts,” “Sweet Creature” and the Badfinger-inspired “Ever Since New York” are more quietly impactful. Styles shows further maturity on the album closer, “From the Dining Table,” perhaps not lyrically but certainly from an artistic POV. If I have to pick one favorite cut from the album above all, though, I might have to go with “Carolina,” Styles’ most exuberant ode to his muses from the 70s. (I especially love the la-la-las in the background vocals.) Does Harry Styles want to be David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Marc Bolan and Pete Ham, all at the same time? Yeah, probably. But it works for me.

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1. Slowdive, Slowdive

Standout Tracks: “Star Roving,” “Don’t Know Why,” “Sugar for the Pill,” “Everyone Knows,” “No Longer Making Time,” “Falling Ashes”

In the early 90s, Slowdive was a pioneering band in the shoegaze subgenre of indie rock, lending the dreamy vocals and guitar sounds of Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead to the albums Just for a Day (1991) and Souvlaki (1993), in addition to the more experimental textures of Pygmalion (1995). (Some favorites of mine from this era include “Spanish Air,” “Brighter” and “When the Sun Hits.”) The group – which I gather was pretty underrated in their early years, never popular with mainstream listeners and disliked by music critics – disbanded shortly after the critical and commercial failures of that third album, but Slowdive’s triumphant reunion in 2014 led to their latest, self-titled release. And it’s incredible.

Slowdive is only eight tracks long, but each one shines in a unique way. “Slomo” is a perfect opener, slowly unfolding with a classic Slowdive ambience. The feeling endures as the album progresses, especially beautifully in “Don’t Know Why,” which melts my ears into heavenly bliss and is definitely one of my top five favorite songs of the year, and in the final track, “Falling Ashes,” an eight-minute epic propelled by an insistent piano hook. You could listen to any of Slowdive’s recordings, though, and be dazed by the constant splendor. More than any other album in 2017, Slowdive fused past, present and future to shape a collection that glows with both alt-rock imagination and delicate, poignant finesse.

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HONORABLE MENTIONS (alphabetical)

Charlotte Gainsbourg, Rest (“Lying with You,” “Kate,” “Deadly Valentine,” “I’m a Lie,” “Les Oxalis”)

Valerie June, The Order of Time (“Shakedown,” “If And,” “Man Done Wrong,” “Just in Time,” “Slip Slide on By”)

Angel Olsen, Phases [B-sides, rarities, covers and new recordings] (“Fly on Your Wall,” “Special,” “Sweet Dreams,” “For You,” “How Many Disasters”)

Phoenix, Ti Amo (“J-Boy,” “Ti Amo,” “Goodbye Soleil,” “Fleur de Lys,” “Role Model”)

Ride, Weather Diaries (“Lannoy Point,” “Charm Assault,” “All I Want,” “Home Is a Feeling,” “Cali”)

Alexandra Savior, Belladonna of Sadness (“Audeline,” “Cupid,” “’Til You’re Mine,” “Vanishing Point,” “Mystery Girl”)

Ranking the Films of 2017

Although I saw only 32 new theatrical releases in 2017 and I still have a ways to go before awards season kicks into high gear – I have to make time for All the Money in the World, Battle of the Sexes, Call Me by Your Name, Darkest Hour, The Disaster Artist, Downsizing, Faces Places, The Florida Project, In the Fade, Lady Bird, Molly’s Game, Mudbound, Phantom Thread, The Post and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, among others – each film left a definite impression on me. I will republish this list during the week leading up to the Oscars, a revised edition to reflect everything else watched between now and then.

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1. Ingrid Goes West (Matt Spicer)

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2. I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie)

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3. Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan)

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4. Thor: Ragnarok (Taika Waititi)

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5. Maudie (Aisling Walsh)

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6. Lucky (John Carroll Lynch)

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7. Beatriz at Dinner (Miguel Arteta)

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8. Brawl in Cell Block 99 (S. Craig Zahler)

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9. Kedi (Ceyda Torun)

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10. The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro)

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11. Get Out (Jordan Peele)

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12. Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins)

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13. Mean Dreams (Nathan Morlando)

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14. Casting JonBenét (Kitty Green)

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15. Everything, Everything (Stella Meghie)

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16. Step (Amanda Lipitz)

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17. Pottersville (Seth Henrikson)

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18. Salt and Fire (Werner Herzog)

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19. M.F.A. (Natalia Leite)

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20. Unforgettable (Denise Di Novi)

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21. Spider-Man: Homecoming (Jon Watts)

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22. Band Aid (Zoe Lister-Jones)

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23. Kong: Skull Island (Jordan Vogt-Roberts)

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24. Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve)

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25. Baywatch (Seth Gordon)

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26. Wind River (Taylor Sheridan)

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27. The Big Sick (Michael Showalter)

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28. Snatched (Jonathan Levine)

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29. A Woman, a Part (Elisabeth Subrin)

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30. Fifty Shades Darker (James Foley)

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31. Once Upon a Time in Venice (Mark Cullen)

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32. The Mountain Between Us (Hany Abu-Assad)

Films I Watched in 2017: The Complete List

2017 represents a personal best for me: 398 new films watched! Here is the entire inventory, broken down in five-year increments for easier reading. I delved into the filmographies of many of world cinema’s most challenging and innovative filmmakers, including Darren Aronofsky, Kathryn Bigelow, Luis Buñuel, James Cameron, the Coen Brothers, Guillermo del Toro, Atom Egoyan, John Frankenheimer, Samuel Fuller, Werner Herzog, Walter Hill, Neil Jordan, Elia Kazan, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, David Lynch, Paul Morrissey, Sam Raimi, Ridley Scott and Wong Kar Wai, to name just a few. I’m looking forward to the excitement of starting over with a clean slate on January 1, 2018!

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1915-1919: I Don’t Want to Be a Man

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1920-1924: Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler; Kohlhiesel’s Daughters

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1925-1929: Asphalt; The Single Standard; West of Zanzibar

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1930-1934: The Barbarian; Bird of Paradise; The Black Cat; Brief Moment; Bright Lights (aka Adventures in Africa); The Crash; Fashions of 1934; Fog Over Frisco; Gentlemen Are Born; Havana Widows; Heat Lightning; His Private Secretary; The House on 56th Street; Housewife; Island of Lost Souls; I’ve Got Your Number; Journal of a Crime; The King’s Vacation; Lady Killer; The Mayor of Hell; The Most Dangerous Game; Murder in the Private Car; The Office Wife; The Old Dark House; Party Husband; The Phantom of Crestwood; The Reckless Hour; Registered Nurse; Sinners’ Holiday; Smart Money; The Strange Love of Molly Louvain; A Successful Calamity; Turn Back the Clock; Union Depot; Winner Take All; The Woman Condemned; The Working Man

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1935-1939: Algiers; China Clipper; Dancing Co-Ed; The Great Waltz; Kid Galahad; The Phantom Light; Shipmates Forever; Sinners in Paradise; Star of Midnight; Thanks for the Memory; The White Cockatoo

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1940-1944: Across the Pacific; Between Two Worlds; Gentleman Jim; The Ghost Breakers; The Ghost Ship; Girl in the News; Haunted Honeymoon; Hitler’s Madman; Immortal Sergeant; Kid Glove Killer; Life Begins at Eight-Thirty; Passage to Marseille; Phantom Lady; Rage in Heaven; Summer Storm; They Drive by Night; We Were Dancing

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1945-1949: Any Number Can Play; Behind Locked Doors; B.F.’s Daughter; Boomerang!; Escape Me Never; Green Dolphin Street; The Green Years; Impact; My Dream Is Yours; Never Fear (aka The Young Lovers); Outpost in Morocco; Slightly French; Week-End at the Waldorf

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1950-1954: Another Man’s Poison; The Barefoot Contessa; Black Widow; Born to Be Bad; El Bruto; Casanova’s Big Night; Crisis; The Damned Don’t Cry; Dreamboat; Excuse My Dust; The File on Thelma Jordon; The Great Jewel Robber; House by the River; Human Desire; A Life of Her Own; A Millionaire for Christy; Mogambo; My Forbidden Past; The Naked Jungle; Private Hell 36; Pushover; Rich, Young and Pretty; Storm Warning; Susana; The Thief; The Thing from Another World; Westward the Women; Whirlpool; White Christmas

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1955-1959: Baby Doll; The Brothers Rico; City of Fear; Come Dance with Me!; Cry Terror!; Gidget; Naughty Girl; The Night Heaven Fell; The Return of Dracula; Rock-a-Bye Baby; Verboten!

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1960-1964: Billy Rose’s Jumbo; The Carpetbaggers; The Counterfeit Traitor; Eyes Without a Face; Five Finger Exercise; The Lady with the Dog; The Last Voyage; Love on a Pillow; The Naked Kiss; Portrait in Black; Shock Corridor; Sundays and Cybèle; Tall Story; The Third Secret; What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

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1965-1969: The Beast That Killed Women; Les Femmes (aka The Vixen); In the Heat of the Night; The Quiller Memorandum; Seconds; The Sergeant; Shame; Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here; The Trouble with Girls; Two Weeks in September; You’re a Big Boy Now

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1970-1974: Black Christmas; Enter the Dragon; Flesh for Frankenstein (aka Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein); The Gardener (aka Garden of Death or Seeds of Evil); The Salzburg Connection; Terminal Island; The Way of the Dragon; Willard; The Wrath of God

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1975-1979: The Amityville Horror; Beyond the Poseidon Adventure; Coma; Damien: Omen II; Eraserhead; Fedora; The Frisco Kid; The Killer Nun; The Story of Adèle H.; To the Devil a Daughter

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1980-1984: Angel (aka Danny Boy); Blade Runner; Blow Out; Cat People; Cutter’s Way (aka Cutter and Bone); Dune; Friday the 13th; The Funhouse; Halloween III: Season of the Witch; He Knows You’re Alone; Hero at Large; The Long Good Friday; Mortuary; The Natural; The Prowler; Red Dawn; Repo Man; Sphinx; Streets of Fire; The Terminator; The Times of Harvey Milk; White Dog

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1985-1989: Aliens; Beaches; Black Widow; Commando; Family Viewing; Fatal Attraction; Heathers; Kickboxer; Mona Lisa; Near Dark; A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge; A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors; Overboard; Predator; Seduction: The Cruel Woman; Skin Deep; Some Kind of Wonderful; Speaking Parts; Subway; Two Moon Junction; Weird Science; Who Framed Roger Rabbit

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1990-1994: Ace Ventura: Pet Detective; The Adjuster; Alien3; Angie; Bad Behaviour; Clear and Present Danger; The Crying Game; Days of Being Wild; Dream Lover; Exotica; Flatliners; Hard Target; Impulse; It’s Pat: The Movie; One False Move; Paradise; Patriot Games; Prêt-à-Porter (aka Ready to Wear); Princess Caraboo; Pump Up the Volume; Sleepwalkers; Stargate; Stay Tuned; Terminal Velocity; Trespass; True Lies; True Romance; Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me; Under Siege; The Vagrant; Wild at Heart

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1995-1999: Alien: Resurrection; Apollo 13; Barb Wire; Batman & Robin; The Big Lebowski; Blade; Blast from the Past; Bliss; The Boondock Saints; Boys; Breaking the Waves; Crimson Tide; Cruel Intentions; Dangerous Minds; Devil in a Blue Dress; Election; End of Days; Fear; Felicia’s Journey; Guinevere; In Dreams; I Shot Andy Warhol; Johnny Mnemonic; Kiss the Sky; Last Man Standing; The Last Supper; The Life Before This; Lost Highway; Michael Collins; Mighty Joe Young; Pi; A Simple Plan; Sink or Swim (aka Hacks); Sleepers; Sling Blade; Still Crazy; The Straight Story; Superstar; Titanic; Tomorrow Never Dies; Trees Lounge; The Wedding Singer; Wild Things

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2000-2004: Bad Santa; Frailty; I Don’t Know Jack; In America; Legally Blonde; Mulholland Drive; On the Edge; Open Water; Orange County; Phone Booth; Quills; Requiem for a Dream; Scream 3; Speak; Spider-Man; Spider-Man 2; Unfaithful; The Yards; Zoolander

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2005-2009: Adventureland; Baby Mama; Cinderella Man; Forgetting Sarah Marshall; The Fountain; Hard Candy; Inland Empire; Mamma Mia!; Mrs. Henderson Presents; The Nanny Diaries; Nothing Personal; Perrier’s Bounty; Pretty Persuasion; Sky High; Spider-Man 3; Stuck; 28 Weeks Later; V for Vendetta; The Winning Season; The Wrestler

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2010-2014: The Amazing Spider-Man; The Amazing Spider-Man 2; Amira & Sam; Black Swan; Bound by Flesh; The Decoy Bride; Don Jon; The Fifth Estate; Godzilla; The Heat; The Imitation Game; It Felt Like Love; Million Dollar Arm; Noah; Pride; The Riot Club; Search Party; The Spectacular Now; Thor: The Dark World; The To Do List; Transcendence; What If

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2015-2017: The Accountant; All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records; Band Aid; Baywatch; Beatriz at Dinner; The Big Sick; Blade Runner 2049; Brawl in Cell Block 99; The Bronze; Burnt; Casting JonBenét; Dunkirk; Everything, Everything; Fifty Shades Darker; Frank & Lola; Get Out; The Gift; Hacksaw Ridge; Hell or High Water; Hidden Figures; Independence Day: Resurgence; Ingrid Goes West; I, Tonya; Jenny’s Wedding; Kedi; Kong: Skull Island; Lucky; Maudie; Mean Dreams; M.F.A.; The Mountain Between Us; Now You See Me 2; Once Upon a Time in Venice; Operator; Other People; Paterson; Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping; Pottersville; Salt and Fire; The Shape of Water; Snatched; Spider-Man: Homecoming; The Stanford Prison Experiment; Step; Sully; Thor: Ragnarok; Unforgettable; Wind River; A Woman, a Part; Wonder Woman

Women-Directed/Photographed Films Coming to Theaters: December 2017

Writer/director Colette Burson working with actress Patricia Arquette on the set of Permanent, 2016.

Here are eighteen new movies due to be released in theaters or via other viewing platforms this December, all of which have been directed and/or photographed by women. These titles are sure to intrigue cinephiles and also provoke meaningful discussions on the film world, as well as the world in general.

DECEMBER 1: The Dancer (dir. Stéphanie Di Giusto)City Cinemas Village East Cinema synopsis: “A young woman from the American Midwest, Loïe Fuller (Soko) became the toast of the Folies Bergère at the turn of the 20th century and an icon of the Belle Epoque. Inventor of the breathtaking Serpentine Dance, she was a pioneer of modern dance and lighting techniques. It was her complicated relationship to her protégé – Isadora Duncan (Lily-Rose Depp) – that precipitated the downfall of this early 20th century icon.”

DECEMBER 1 (streaming on Netflix): My Happy Family (dirs. Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß)Village Voice review by Bilge Ebiri: “There are few things more terrifying than being asked, ‘How have you lived your life?’ while in the midst of living one’s life. In the new Georgian film My Happy Family, that question is asked, implicitly and explicitly, of a number of characters. The story focuses largely on one woman’s attempt to free herself of the shackles of a stultifying marriage, but a subdued sense of panic courses throughout, infecting everyone else: This is a movie about obligations, and about what-might-have-beens and what-could-still-bes. Directed by Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross — who work together as Nana & Simon, and who directed the lovely coming-of-age film In Bloom a couple of years ago — My Happy Family is coming out on Netflix, but don’t let its lack of a theatrical release fool you. This picture has been ringing in my mind ever since I saw it at Sundance; it may well be the best film I’ve seen this year.

“It opens on 52-year-old literature teacher Manana (Ia Shugliashvili) checking out a rental apartment in a working-class corner of Tbilisi. We soon learn that she has decided to leave her husband, her two grown kids, and her mom and dad — all of whom live crammed under the same roof — to go find a quiet place for herself, a space where she can sit by a window, relax, read a book, and eat some cake, free of the responsibilities and sacrifices of being a wife and mother and daughter. Manana refuses to explain herself to anybody, even as her decision causes shockwaves across her family and friends. She doesn’t have a lover, or an ulterior motive, or dreams of starting some crazy new endeavor. There was no big falling out with her husband. After living for everyone else, now, in her fifties, she wants just to be by herself.

“But My Happy Family isn’t a simple tale of one woman’s liberation. Nana and Simon astutely follow the ripples and counter-ripples of Manana’s decision in the lives of those who know her, and one of the great delights of this film is the way it charts the shifting waves of allegiances that can occur in a family that loves and argues with equal ferocity. Her kids and husband may be shocked, but they suddenly take her side when their extended family tries to intervene. And Manana, as decisive as she is in pursuing this new life, still keeps being pulled back into the tumult of her family’s many disputes and heartbreaks. She’s still a mom and a daughter. She’s still, on some level, a wife.

“The film unfolds as a series of long takes, as we follow characters in and out of rooms, staying close enough to register individual experiences while always making sure to keep the rest of the world in focus. But the camerawork isn’t that rough, handheld, vérité style we’ve become so used to; it’s fluid without being showy, immediate without being unbalanced. The urgency and tension of each scene emerges organically. I was also mesmerized by the intimate detail with which this world was rendered — everything from the particular way a cheese seller holds out her hands while giving an old friend a hug, to the subtle ways that men and women reorganize themselves when in large groups. There isn’t a single second that doesn’t ring as achingly true.

My Happy Family grows more complex as it unfolds, as Manana learns more and more about her world and her family by her decision to separate from them. Nothing is, ultimately, as it seems. In that opening scene, the woman renting the apartment out to Manana tells her about the good luck the flat brings; a gas company employee visiting later in the film reveals that the previous tenant tried to kill themselves. Meanwhile, Manana’s distant, rarely happy husband, Soso (Merab Ninidze), turns out to have had secrets of his own. Usually in movies, these sorts of revelations help clarify matters, further establishing key themes and helping lead to narrative resolutions. But here, the more we learn, the less we know. One person’s betrayal turns out to be another’s sacrifice. Protective impulses become threats. Heartbreak becomes possibility. It all goes on and on until you realize that what you’re watching isn’t a movie anymore. It is life itself, in all its messiness and horror and glory.”

DECEMBER 1: Slumber (dir. Jonathan Hopkins) (DP: Polly Morgan)Goldcrest Films synopsis: “Slumber tells the story of Alice (Maggie Q), a rationally minded sleep doctor, who is forced to abandon scientific reason and accept a family is being terrorised by a parasitic demon which has existed in every human culture since records began. Paralysing victims as they sleep, the ‘Night Hag’ is the original Nightmare.”

DECEMBER 1: 32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide (dir. Hope Litoff)The Hollywood Reporter’s Hot Docs review by Frank Scheck: “More and more documentaries seem to be made as much for self-therapeutic as informational purposes. Such is certainly the case with Hope Litoff’s deeply personal effort about coping with her sister’s suicide. Rough-hewn stylistically and occasionally bordering on self-indulgence, 32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide nonetheless packs a powerful emotional punch with its unflinching portrait of two siblings dealing with past and present demons. The HBO Documentary Films production recently received its world premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs.

“Hope recounts the story of her older sister Ruth, an accomplished photographer who suffered from mental illness and had attempted to kill herself multiple times, starting when she was a teenager, before finally completing the task in December 2008 via an overdose of prescription drugs. The police on the scene told Hope that they had never seen anything like it, with Ruth having meticulously prepared individual notes and gifts for numerous family members and friends. She added a postscript to her note to Hope: ‘I know you know.’ Hope confesses that she has no idea exactly what her sister meant.

“Hope, who has a long history of drug and alcohol abuse herself, put her sister’s belongings in storage. Six years later, finally feeling emotionally equipped, she rented a large Brooklyn loft for the purpose of systematically combing through Ruth’s things in an effort to better understand why her sister did what she did. She begins the daunting task with trepidation. ‘I don’t like to remember things, and I feel like all the memories are in there,’ she says, peering into the packed storage locker.

“The resulting process becomes obsessive, as Hope devotes herself to her task at the expense of spending time with her husband and two young children. The emotionally draining proceedings also threaten her longtime sobriety. She films herself downing a double shot of vodka, her first drink in 16 years. While the film’s producer looks on in horror, Hope samples several pills from Ruth’s large stash of prescription meds (there were actually hundreds of bottles). She posts hundreds of pages from Ruth’s diaries up on the wall, and even goes to the medical examiner’s office to examine the crime scene photos.

“Just as you begin to think that Hope has descended into an irreversible downward spiral, more positive elements emerge. They include her organizing an elaborate installation of Ruth’s photographs in the lobby of Bellevue Hospital, a project begun by Ruth years earlier because she had frequently committed herself there.

“The film benefits by including perspectives of people other than Hope, such as several of Ruth’s former friends who attest to her magnetism, beauty and talent. ‘She could have been a cult leader, she was so charismatic,’ one of them declares. There’s also striking video footage of Ruth as a teenager, excerpted from an episode of ABC’s 20/20 in which she was profiled.

32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide is a difficult film to watch, for myriad reasons. But it will certainly resonate deeply with anyone who has struggled with depression or addiction or loved anyone who has. It’s no doubt been cathartic for its first-time filmmaker, and will likely prove the same for many viewers as well.”

DECEMBER 5 (on VOD): Fits and Starts (dir. Laura Terruso)The Hollywood Reporter’s AFI Fest review by Sheri Linden: “The complicated matters of marital friction and literary striving share center stage with the easy target of artistic pretension in Laura Terruso’s Fits and Starts, a low-key comedy of errors whose leads’ underplayed oomph bolsters the uneven scenario.

“Terruso, taking her bow as a feature director, is best known as the co-writer of Hello, My Name Is Doris, which was based on a short film she made. As with that 2015 Sally Field vehicle, Fit and Starts substitutes quirkiness for convincing narrative drive, relying on a couple of nuanced central performances to make its cutely pained developments matter.

“Playing married writers on very different rungs of the success ladder, Wyatt Cenac and Greta Lee deliver the necessary X factor with effortless, angstful charm, even as the narrative devolves into a collection of clichés and predictable developments. The winningly droll Cenac, formerly of The Daily Show, will be the chief draw when the film follows its AFI Fest showcase with a Dec. 5 VOD release by The Orchard.

“The movie’s mildly absurdist tone is set by the panic dream that opens the story. The dreamer is David Warwik (Cenac), a struggling writer whose wife, Jennifer (Lee), is known to the world as J. M. Lee, author of two best-selling novels. Once pegged for a promising writerly trajectory, David is given to mumbling apologetically about ‘making the transition from short stories.’ Jennifer, a hot commodity who’s sought out for media interviews, does what she can to push him into the spotlight. She seizes on an invitation to an artists’ salon held by her publisher (Buzz Bovshow) and his wife (Diane Ciesla), seeing an opportunity for David to read from his work in progress.

“The gathering, in tony Greenwich, Connecticut, is the setting for most of the action. Through a series of blatant contrivances involving New England blue laws as well as digital devices and the lack thereof, David and Jennifer are separated on the way to the soiree and he winds up there alone. Terruso deftly captures his fish-out-of-water anxiety as he steps into the poseur-thick atmosphere of a living room where opera singing and modernist dance mix with literary drivel, conceptual artists (Jenn Harris, Matt Wilkas) in search of a concept, and a self-satisfied book critic (indie filmmaker Onur Tukel) who spouts ridiculous career advice.

“That the patron-of-the-arts hosts would be so dismayed by David’s awkwardness is as hard to buy as his trust in the goofy cops (Larry Murphy, Sam Seder) who pretend to be looking for Jennifer. But with his deadpan knack for weary disgust, Cenac makes David a strong viewer surrogate as he endures the salon’s assortment of types — characters who sometimes hit the mark but are mainly a matter of diminishing returns. Case in point is Alex Karpovsky’s brief turn as a successful editor. His politely barbed exchange with David heavily underscores the setup’s motif of toxic posturing, adding nothing to the proceedings except the actor’s familiar face.

“The typically compelling Maria Dizzia, on the other hand, lends a jolt of imperious looniness and danger as a big-time lit agent with at least one personality disorder. But while the encounter between her and David has an arresting dark energy, it finally falls into the movie’s overall scheme of broad comic swipes rather than finely honed satire.

“Touching on the intrinsically thorny and fascinating art-vs.-hype question, Terruso’s screenplay acknowledges that creativity and self-promotion are an easier combo for some than for others. ‘Networking is part of the work,’ Jennifer insists to the schmoozing-averse David. It’s a crucial observation that gets lost amid the pileup of caricatures, just as the film’s well-directed moments give way to a less-than-satisfying whole.

“Throughout this mixed bag of an escapade, Cenac’s hangdog exasperation is pitch-perfect, and although Lee is sidelined for much of the action, their scenes together have a sure chemistry. The two actors make their characters’ mutual affection and respect as persuasive as their unexpressed rivalry. In this slight but strained diversion, their wit and subtlety never waver.”

DECEMBER 5 (on DVD and digital): The White King (dirs. Alex Helfrecht and Jörg Tittel)PopMatters review by Paul Risker: “Jörg Tittel and Alex Helfrecht’s directorial feature debut, The White King, an adaptation of György Dragomán’s dystopian novel of the same name, is the story of 12-year-old Djata (Lorenzo Allchurch). The arrest of his father by the totalitarian state is the catalyst for his own coming of age, and the ostracisation of he and his mother, Hannah (Agyness Deyn).

“‘I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.’ These words of Thomas Jefferson resonate with Tittel and Helfrecht’s dystopian vision. Told through the eyes of its young protagonist, The White King sows the seed that one hopes will grow into a dream for a future that is preferable to ‘the history of the past.’ Yet if Djata, like an earlier youthful heroine in Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) of The Hunger Games trilogy, are the heroes upon which ‘the dreams of the future’ rest, then the wisdom of the Buddha — ‘Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment’ — is ingrained in a story told with pragmatic patience.

“Unlike other dystopian tales, amongst them Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962), Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006), Tittel and Helfrecht show little interest in a self-contained story. The choice is one that risks provoking a backlash, but the emphasis on a moment, the chapter between the rise and fall of a regime, strikes up the most unusual or rather unexpected of acquaintances with Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016). An adaptation of author Maile Meloy’s collection of stories, Reichardt’s film is a celebration of the small moments in the lives of the characters. Although one film is set in Montana, the other in a fictitious dystopian country in the future, Reichardt, Tittel and Helfrecht show storytelling as a communal language, or one of close association in spite of seemingly deep contrasts.

The White King is a bold and brave piece of filmmaking that embraces film as an incomplete form. The ideas are presented in such a way that they require the engagement of the audience. While it’s true that any film is fundamentally an incomplete object until it’s experienced by a single spectator, here are two storytellers that seemingly trust and embrace the ciné-literate audience to extrapolate, to understand, of their own volition.

“During my interview with writer-director Nicolas Pesce for the FrightFest blog, I asked him about the striking omission of a key scene from The Eyes of My Mother (2016). He explained: ‘Part of the speed and tone of the movie was giving the audience places to answer for themselves… By letting the audience do the work, whether it’s the dramatic work or the scares, it will be more relatable to them if they are the ones answering the questions.’ Tittel and Helfrecht’s brand of creating space for the audience is perhaps less overt, presenting a tapestry of ideas or images that requires us to build outward from, to intellectualise those seeds sown in the emotional experience of the film.

“As an Orwellian inspired adaptation, the voyeuristic state whose presence is noted through shots of cameras is also sparingly incorporated. These are interwoven with the coming of age narrative, the violent tussles with bullies to discovering the reality in the stories that lend the world a mysterious, strange and fantastical aura.

“Told through the eyes of an adolescent, the film looks to the replacement of the old by the young, and the attempts of the established order to safeguard tradition. The filmmakers understand there’s a process of shedding the childlike perspective for the adult world view. While our adult perspective sees revolution and the collapse of the state, Djata’s are more humanly simple: he wants to be reunited with his father.

“This speaks to the difficulty of following the wisdom of The Buddha, because as humans the struggle to not dwell on the past or to look to the future is a constant challenge. This is attributable to the simple fact that making peace with or resolving the past forms the future dream or hope we are striving for. While Djata’s simple hope captures a snapshot of the past, present and future coinciding within the folds of the drama, adulthood is exposed as a contradiction. This revelation looks to the work of C.G Jung, specifically the inherent pull between the desire to be an individual with the desire to assimilate ourselves into our immediate society.

“Djata’s grandfather (Jonathan Pryce) is a representation of internal and external conflict. The character is initially simple; he’s revealed to be an individual suffering complex feelings, and damaged by the contradiction of his outward projection versus his inward feelings. Pryce’s character throws up the question of how impermanent our identity is. In the same way as the state creates a version of history, through this single character we see the contradiction of identities that are created for purposes of social belonging versus who we are in our isolation, or with those we place trust to reveal our inner most feelings.

“If The a White King is told through the perspective of an adolescent, Djata’s interactions with his elders echoes Jung’s observation that we learn about our world in our formative years, while our post-adolescence is spent understanding ourselves. Yet this understanding is one convoluted by acts of contradictory self-authorship.

“Interviewing Tittel and Helfrecht for the Aesthetica Short Film Festival blog for the UK theatrical release of the film, they described the purpose of any dystopian novel or piece of fiction as being: ‘To hold a mirror to where we are today.’ From within the oppressive folds of a future dystopia emerges a stark presential warning. While numerous documentaries, amongst them The Square (2008) and Silvered Water, Syria Self Portrait (2014) have been produced looking to the struggle against totalitarian regimes in the Middle East, Tittel and Helfrecht’s dystopian and fictional future is not far removed from our present. The White King is a bold vision crafted with conviction, whose youthful hero is destined to escape his own transformative brawl, and forges a powerful and evocative tale of adolescence mortally wounded.”

DECEMBER 6: Bill Frisell: A Portrait (dir./DP: Emma Franz)IFC Center synopsis: “This look at the anti-archetype guitar hero traces the ideas that shaped Frisell’s music, offering rare insight into one of the most influential musicians working today. Full of live music, revealing stories, and intimate access to the normally reclusive artist, the film includes the final performance of the Paul Motian Trio with Frisell and Joe Lovano. Featuring Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon, Ron Carter, and many more.”

DECEMBER 8: Arthur Miller: Writer (dir. Rebecca Miller)New York Film Festival synopsis: “Rebecca Miller’s film is a portrait of her father, his times and insights, built around impromptu interviews shot over many years in the family home. This celebration of the great American playwright is quite different from what the public has ever seen. It is a close consideration of a singular life shadowed by the tragedies of the Red Scare and the death of Marilyn Monroe; a bracing look at success and failure in the public eye; an honest accounting of human frailty; a tribute to one artist by another. Arthur Miller: Writer invites you to see how one of America’s sharpest social commentators formed his ideologies, how his life reflected his work, and, even in some small part, shaped the culture of our country in the twentieth century.”

DECEMBER 8: I Am Evidence (dirs. Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir)Cinema Village synopsis:I Am Evidence exposes the alarming number of untested rape kits in the United States through a character–driven narrative, bringing much needed attention to the disturbing pattern of how the criminal justice system has historically treated sexual assault survivors.

“Why is there a rape kit backlog? What can we do to fix the problem? This film explores these questions through survivors’ experiences as they trace the fates of their kits and re-engage in the criminal justice process. I Am Evidence illuminates how the system has impeded justice while also highlighting those who are leading the charge to work through the backlog and pursue long-awaited justice in these cases.

“In this film, we seek to send a clear message to survivors that they matter, that we as a nation will do everything possible to bring them a path to healing and justice, and that their perpetrators will be held accountable for their crimes.”

DECEMBER 8 (Palm Springs & NYC) and DECEMBER 10 (Providence, RI): Mansfield 66/67 (dirs. P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes) (DPs: Larra Anderson and John Tanzer)Vanity Fair review by Jordan Hoffman: “Apart from being an amusing and entertaining affair, the documentary Mansfield 66/67 breaks new ground by embedding a pun in its title—so long as you aren’t color blind. This look at classic Hollywood’s second-most famous blonde bombshell, Jayne Mansfield, focuses on the end of her life. When the title hits the screen, the three sixes dissolve to red, emerging as the Number of the Beast as some canned, demonic go-go rock plays. (Think karaoke ‘In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida.’) This is the very real and absolutely serious story of how the Devil killed Jayne Mansfield.

“Our first talking-head commentator is John Waters, Grand Mufti of Trash—so that ought to tell you the vibe directors P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes are going for. They do, by and large, succeed.

“There is no shortage of footage-dependent documentaries about 20th-century actors and artists. Many are interesting, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily deserve to be more than glorified DVD extras. But Mansfield 66/67 ups the game in two key ways. Whenever things get boring, it cuts to scenes of men and women in period outfits and blond wigs doing interpretive dance. Also, it regularly and giddily embraces what is most certainly a load of bull, but digests it as if it were fact anyway. ‘Print the legend’ is a cop-out in most cases—but when your subject is someone whose entire career was scaffolded by cheap gossip rags and absurd rumor, you almost have to take myth at face value.

“Jayne Mansfield was the greatest of all Marilyn Monroe copycats. (The runner-up, Mamie Van Doren, makes an appearance here, and in good spirits.) She may have had an ignoble calling, but she did it well. Waters and an array of commentators, including Ph.D. media scholars, feminist authors, nonagenarian filmmaker Kenneth Anger, and drag performer Peaches Christ, isolate moments from her best films, like Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? to prove her natural comic timing. The film also features factoids about her trained musical ability, and that she could speak five languages.

“Still, Mansfield’s essence was Hollywood excess in human form; she had multiple husbands and an enormous pink palace. And just a decade after the Tashlin pictures, Mansfield was working bottom-market nightclubs, supermarket ribbon-cuttings and a disastrous U.S.O. tour in Vietnam. Then, in an attempt to keep her name in the papers (or was it the magnetism of dark forces?), she met Anton LaVey during an drug-and-drink fueled visit to San Francisco.

“Anton Szandor LaVey (real name: Howard Levey) was a camera-ready huckster and one of the great characters of the late 1960s scene. He painted his row house in San Francisco black, and wore a high-thread-count Halloween costume. With his ankhs, altars, pet lion, and home full of topless women, he was like a Hugh Hefner for proto-goth kids. He got great press and, later, wrote a few popular books, making decent money as a consultant on Hollywood productions as well. Some say he actually appeared in Rosemary’s Baby, but this is probably untrue. What is true is that he had a relationship with Jayne Mansfield—and the two of them weren’t shy about letting photographers know.

“As Mansfield’s personal life was at its most complicated—she was dating her married attorney Sam Brody while fighting for custody of her fifth child with her third husband—she took help wherever she could find it. Did she really believe that LaVey’s spells would bring her good fortune? Hard to say. But when LaVey and Brody locked horns, LaVey allegedly hexed him, and warned Mansfield that he’d die in a car crash.

“There were six automobile accidents before the fatal seventh, the one that many believe decapitated Mansfield. (It didn’t, but truck manufacturers did install a safety feature colloquially called the Mansfield Bar soon thereafter.) Mansfield 66/67 weaves in clips of Mansfield’s films and appearances to make insinuating commentary about the influence of black magic toward the end of her life. There are also animated sequences showing scenes that are, to quote, ‘rumored to have happened.’ Among them: LaVey climbing a hill to petition higher powers to spare Mansfield’s son’s life after he was attacked by a lion. (Lions figure into this story quite a bit. The one LaVey owned in San Fransisco eventually co-starred with Melanie Griffith in the bonkers cult film Roar.)

Mansfield 66/67 is one of the least peer-reviewed documentaries I’ve ever seen—and no one from Mansfield’s family, like her daughter Mariska Hargitay, is anywhere to be found. I’m not even sure the film could be said to exist ‘in the spirit’ of Mansfield. What it evokes instead is a different era in gossip, one that cared less about catching celebrities being real but reveled in their authentic or imagined absurdity.

“Still, the film does take Mansfield’s work seriously. Only someone like John Waters can get away with cheering Mansfield’s death ‘with blood and guts and a headline on the front page and a dead chihuahua,’ and only a certain kind of film can include that line without coming off gross. Strange and unbelievable as it may be, this one deserves a little shelf space in the memorabilia shop inside your mind.

DECEMBER 12 (DVD) [also available on VOD as of 11/28]: Love Is Thicker Than Water (dirs. Emily Harris and Ate de Jong)The Independent review by Geoffrey Macnab: “This likeable and charming romantic comedy tells the story of a love affair between a young Londoner from an affluent Jewish background and her working-class, Welsh boyfriend from Port Talbot.

“Vida (Lydia Wilson) is a cellist whose ambition, pushed by her mother (Juliet Stevenson), is to play for an orchestra. Arthur (Johnny Flynn) is a cycle courier who is also a talented animator. They’re besotted with one another. At first, as they roam around London together, going to gigs, drinking champagne at dawn, playing childish games and making love, they manage to keep the outside world at bay. Then comes the inevitable conflict as they have to deal with each others’ families and they realise how different their backgrounds are.

“The film is shot in freewheeling, very fluid fashion, with handheld camera work, animation and lots of music all used to convey the young lovers’ carefree obsession with one another. Directors Ate de Jong and Emily Harris also detail the growing tensions between the lovers in a subtle and comic way.

“Arthur is ill at ease with the pretentiousness and cultural snobbery of Vida’s parents. Vida struggles to deal with Arthur’s pigeon-fancying, fish-and-chip-eating, beer-quaffing relatives. Soon, cracks in the relationship appear. When the two families come together for an engagement party, the gulf between them begins to appear unbridgeable.

“We can guess exactly how the story will unfold but that doesn’t lessen the humour or the gentle pathos. Lydia Wilson and Johnny Flynn have an obvious rapport and there are nicely judged character turns too from Stevenson as Vida’s haughty and mysterious mother, Henry Goodman as her easygoing father and from Sharon Morgan as Arthur’s kindly but indiscreet mother.”

DECEMBER 13: Miss Kiet’s Children (dirs. Peter Lataster and Petra Lataster-Czisch)Film Forum synopsis: “The international press calls Miss Kiet’s Children: ‘a jewel,’ ‘subtle but powerful,’ and ‘tender and shrewdly observed.’ In the Dutch countryside, a gaggle of refugee children, mostly from Syria, are students in Miss Kiet’s classroom. Smart, compassionate, keenly aware of the problems they’ve already lived through – she teaches them to speak Dutch, to talk the talk — but more importantly, to walk the walk.  Trust, patience, compassion, and humor are part of the lesson plan. For a refugee child anywhere in the world, Miss Kiet’s class must be the closest thing to dying and going to heaven. The movie is a revelation to anyone who reads the headlines but has no idea how delightful, confounding, and thoroughly surprising ‘refugees’ can be.”

DECEMBER 15 (in theaters and on VOD): Killing for Love (dir. Marcus Vetter with co-dir. Karin Steinberger)IFC Center synopsis: “In 1985, Derek and Nancy Haysom were brutally murdered in Virginia. The arrest of their college-student daughter and her boyfriend set off a media frenzy, and their trial and conviction were broadcast nationally. But what if the system got it wrong? This gripping true-crime tale examines the romantic obsession and betrayal that may have led an innocent man to take the fall for murder.”

DECEMBER 15 (in theaters and on VOD, including Amazon Video and iTunes): Permanent (dir. Colette Burson) (DP: Paula Huidobro)Magnolia Pictures International synopsis: “It’s the early 80’s in small town Virginia and ‘Perms’ are all the rage. 13-year Aurelie (Kira McLean) dreams about getting one to finally fit in at her new school but when her clueless parents (Patricia Arquette, Rainn Wilson) bring her to a hairdressing academy to save a few bucks, things go incredibly wrong. This is the story about adolescence, socially awkward family members and bad hair.”

DECEMBER 15: The Rape of Recy Taylor (dir. Nancy Buirski) (DPs: Blaire Johnson, Rex Miller and Steve Pearce)Eye for Film review by Jennie Kermode: “Recy Taylor was a quiet woman, a committed Christian, married with a daughter and resident in the small Alabama town of Abbeville in 1944. Although society’s attitude to the colour of her skin meant she was never likely to have good opportunities in life, she might have lived in quiet contentment throughout her life, were it not for what happened to her on the night of the third of September of that year. Walking back home from church along streets generally considered to be safe, she was abducted by six white men who raped and abused her so severely that she barely survived and was never able to have another child. But this wasn’t just another addition to the lengthy list of such incidents in American history. Recy’s experience and the courage with which she spoke up about it signalled a tipping point. It would have a significant effect on the shape of the developing civil rights movement.

“Responding to the attack, Recy did everything by the book. She reported it to the police. She provided a detailed account of what happened and described the perpetrators. Her manifest injuries made it clear that something violent had happened to her, and in fact no attempt was made to deny that the rape had happened. But could a black woman living under Jim Crow laws really expect justice when accusing popular young white men and placing their promising futures in jeopardy?

“Despite plentiful records pertaining to the case, little visual material survives, so Nancy Buirski has used a variety of methods to keep the film visually interesting, including footage from the race films of the period. Made for black audiences, these films make an interesting counterpart to the melodramas made for the white population at the same time, in that the extreme situations they depict are more deeply rooted in reality. Numerous studies have shown that the rape of black women was endemic in the period and almost considered as a right of passage for white men, perhaps a consequence of their failure to consider black people as fully human. Like the heroines of these films, ordinary black women knew that they could be attacked at any time, with a not insignificant chance of being murdered, and that they were vanishingly unlikely ever to see justice. The films set the tone very effectively as, on more familiar documentary territory, a local white, male historian expresses his sympathy for Recy but suggests things couldn’t really have been as bad as they seemed.

“As many of those wielding power in such regimes have ultimately learned, the trouble with keeping people in such an intense climate of fear is that they may eventually decide they have little to lose. Far more than just the story of one injustice, this film examines the way that black women drove forward the civil rights movement with their very survival on the line. With women’s contributions routinely overlooked in both documentaries and dramas on the subject, it is a film of vital importance.

“The figure whom viewers are likely to be most familiar with here is Rosa Parks, who, long before reusing to sit at the back of a bus, travelled to Abbeville to support Recy and demand that she receive justice. Manhandled and imprisoned for her trouble, she proceded to tell Recy’s story to the press in other parts of the country, eventually helping it to spread internationally and shaming the Abbeville authorities. The movement that emerged from this would go on to support other women in similar positions.

“But what of Recy? It’s all most of us could do to survive such an assault, let alone to cope with the publicity that followed and the political attention turned to what was really a very simple request. Buirski’s film reveals its quality in staying with Recy to tell the story of what happened to her after all the fuss subsided. In doing so it gets past all the outrage and reminds us that this is a story about a real woman’s life, about the impact on her and her family across the years that followed. We see the big picture but Buirski never allows us to forget that individuals matter. This also helps to bring into focus the ongoing impact of racism and the compound injustices it creates.

“An intelligent, incisive documentary that illustrates how events in that small town in 1944 still matter today, The Rape of Recy Taylor deserves a wide audience.”

DECEMBER 22: Pitch Perfect 3 (dir. Trish Sie)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Now graduated from college and out in the real world where it takes more than a cappella to get by, the Bellas return in Pitch Perfect 3, the next chapter in the beloved series that has taken in more than $400 million at the global box office.

“After the highs of winning the World Championships, the Bellas find themselves split apart and discovering there aren’t job prospects for making music with your mouth. But when they get the chance to reunite for an overseas USO tour, this group of awesome nerds will come together to make some music, and some questionable decisions, one last time.”

DECEMBER 25 (limited release), JANUARY 5 (wide release): Molly’s Game (dir. Aaron Sorkin) (DP: Charlotte Bruus Christensen)Synopsis from the film’s official website:Molly’s Game is based on the true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), an Olympic-class skier who ran the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game for a decade before being arrested in the middle of the night by 17 FBI agents wielding automatic weapons. Her players included Hollywood royalty, sports stars, business titans and finally, unbeknownst to her, the Russian mob. Her only ally was her criminal defense lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who learned that there was much more to Molly than the tabloids led us to believe.”

DECEMBER 29: Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (dir. Paul McGuigan) (DP: Urszula Pontikos)Screen Daily’s Toronto International Film Festival review by Wendy Ide: “This sympathetic adaptation of a memoir by Peter Turner (played here by Jamie Bell, at one point parlaying his Billy Elliot hoofing skills into an exuberant disco hustle sequence) tells of the late-blooming romance between Oscar-winning movie star Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) (then in her mid-fifties) and Turner, then a hungry, sporadically employed, young actor in his twenties.

“The film covers a period from their initial meeting in 1979 to her death from cancer in 1981 and while their real-life May-December relationship is persuasively full-blooded and vital, the terminal disease narrative is — perhaps appropriately in this case — given a flattering Hollywood gloss. While the balance between the two sections might have benefitted from being skewed slightly more to the former than the latter, first rate performances from the two leads, and a fine supporting cast, confirms this as an awards season contender.

“We are introduced to Gloria in 1981 as she pieces together, with the ease of practise, her now somewhat tattered Hollywood persona. She’s backstage at a provincial British theatre, minutes away from her entrance in a production of The Glass Menagerie. She sips milk from a champagne glass, and chirrups her way through a set of vocal exercises. From a cassette player next to her mirror, a tinny approximation of Elton John’s ‘Funeral for a Friend’ – a recurring musical motif in the film – plays out.

“The song fleshes out onto the score proper at the same moment when, lashes glued and lipstick applied, the careworn middle-aged lady vanishes, and Gloria Graham, movie star, delivers a screen-melting pout to the mirror. But the star power flickers, and she collapses. Discharging herself from hospital, her best chance for recuperation, she decides, will be at the terraced Liverpool home of her former lover Peter, submitting to the no-nonsense ministrations of Peter’s straight-talking mum (a cherishable, irascible turn from Julie Waters).

“Gloria’s affliction is rather more serious than the ‘gas’ she admits to, although, aside from a dry, papery cough, unbrushed hair and the occasional wince, it’s a relatively benign version of stage four cancer. The timeline of her decline is elegantly woven, through edits laced into 360 panning shots, with the start of her relationship with Peter in 1979.

“It’s in the flashbacks that the fun is to be found. In the forthright physicality of Bell’s performance (a well-toned torso is deployed, perhaps more frequently than is strictly necessary); in Bening’s crackling sass and sizzle – it’s abundantly clear that these are lovers who enjoy each other. A couple of scenes stand out: an early date watching Alien is a joy, with Gloria cackling appreciatively and Peter flinching in fear. And there’s a caustic, all too brief scene which introduces Peter to Gloria’s family, and the skeletons in her closet, over one abortive dinner. Vanessa Redgrave’s lavish theatricality as Gloria’s mother would steal the whole sequence, were it not for Frances Barber, playing Gloria’s sister, stewing poisonously at the edge of the frame.

“The production design is the kind that declaims itself through wallpaper which is every bit as dramatic as the temperamental movie star it surrounds. The cinematography, with its snaking pans, and the sensuous caress of the cherished mementos of the relationship – shoes, a locket – also tends towards showy flourishes.

“But although there’s certainly a lot going on on screen, our attention is focused on Bening’s central performance. The pout and the poise, not to mention the Mae West-style one-liners (‘I love habits, especially bad ones’) charge the earlier scenes with unpredictable energy. But even when the character is bed bound and failing, there are a couple knock out moments when Gloria, through sheer force of will, tries to muster what remains of her faltering star wattage.”

Women-Directed/Photographed Films Coming to Theaters: November 2017

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Writer/director Greta Gerwig with cinematographer Sam Levy on the set of Lady Bird, 2016.

Here are twenty-six new movies due to be released in theaters or via other viewing platforms this November, all of which have been directed and/or photographed by women. These titles are sure to intrigue cinephiles and also provoke meaningful discussions on the film world, as well as the world in general.

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NOVEMBER 1 (theaters), NOVEMBER 3 (Video on Demand): 11/8/16 (many directors, including Petra EpperleinAlma Har’el, Sheena M. Joyce, Alison Klayman, Ciara Lacy, Martha Shane and Elaine McMillion Sheldon) (many DPs, including Tacara Donaldson, Autumn Eakin, Alma Har’el, Alison Klayman and Elaine McMillion Sheldon)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “On the morning of Election Day 2016, Americans of all stripes woke up and went about living their radically different lives. These were the hours leading up to Donald Trump’s unexpected, earth-shaking victory, but, of course, no one knew that yet.

“What did that day look like?

“With 11/8/16, producer/creator Jeff Deutchman’s second installment in his Election Film series, viewers are afforded a uniquely cinematic look at the chaotic glory of American democracy from sea to shining sea. Featuring footage captured by a carefully curated group of some of America’s finest documentary filmmakers, 11/8/16 follows sixteen subjects spanning the country’s geographic, socioeconomic and political divides throughout the course of that history-altering day.

“As the evening wears on, and it becomes clear that the impossible was about to become reality, Trump supporters rejoice at their candidate’s surprise victory as Hillary voters come to grips with the shocking turn of events in stunned disbelief. 11/8/16 was an election unlike any other. 11/8/16 brings us back to that day with the immediacy of great nonfiction filmmaking, and shows with vibrant directness how life happens as history is being made.”

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NOVEMBER 1: The Light of the Moon (dir. Jessica M. Thompson) (DP: Autumn Eakin)IFC Center synopsis: “Bonnie (Stephanie Beatriz), a young and successful Latina architect, is sexually assaulted while walking home from an evening out in Brooklyn. While she at first tries to keep the attack a secret from her long-term boyfriend, the truth quickly emerges. Determined to deny the impact of what’s happened to her, Bonnie fights to regain normalcy and control, but putting the assault behind her is harder than she thought.”

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NOVEMBER 3: Battlecreek (dir. Alison Eastwood)Synopsis from the film’s official Facebook page: “Henry Pearl’s (Bill Skarsgård) rare skin disease has left him hiding from the sun in the shadows of small town Battlecreek. His overprotective mother,​ the local diner and his night time job at the gas station provide him a nocturnal and mundane existence. When a beautiful, yet tormented girl becomes stranded in town, Henry is awakened by love, forcing them both to face their turbulent pasts in light of the future.”

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NOVEMBER 3 (NYC), NOVEMBER 10 (LA), NOVEMBER 14 (digital): It Happened in L.A. (dir. Michelle Morgan)Film Journal International review by Tomris Laffly: “Love-hate relationships with urban metropolises make for juicy cinematic satire. There is no prouder term of endearment a denizen can grant to her city than an open declaration of self-deprecating loathing. Michelle Morgan’s nonstop witty, and at times laugh-out-loud funny It Happened in L.A. starts slow but in the end delightfully portrays one such relationship between a town and one of its millions of dwellers—in this case, the writer-director herself, who also plays the perennially dissatisfied yet oddly loveable lead character.

“Morgan’s Los Angeles is full of a certain breed of superficial West Coast people who in theory should be as unlikeable as leftover kale salad or artisanal cocktails served in mason jars in restaurants with two-noun names like ‘Lettuce & Tomato.’ But you can’t really sneer at them when they are clearly in on the joke. Thanks to the film’s insistence on wearing its light satirical air proudly on its sleeve, It Happened in LA is refreshingly not another ‘privileged people having trivial troubles’ film and compulsively watchable even when its characters get on your nerves.

“Annette (Morgan), a writer on hiatus and a self-defined objector to walking and juvenile games like Twister, is our way into to this world where everyone’s working on some sort of a script. ‘It’s about this girl who dies from touching this thing, and I’m working out the rest,’ someone hilariously states at one point, just to give you an idea. Despite being in a seemingly fulfilling relationship with her boyfriend Elliot (Jorma Taccone), a writer on a TV show that looks like a ridiculous spoof of ‘Game of Thrones,’ Annette decides they aren’t happy enough together, especially when compared to some of their blissful friends. So she breaks up with him, moves into a friend’s apartment to housesit and starts evaluating her new romantic prospects. Meanwhile, her good friend Baker (Dree Hemingway), an interior decorator with flawless taste in everything but men, deals with her own share of issues. Romantically pursued by her cousin (Kentucker Audley) and emotionally mistreated by her client-turned-boyfriend Tom (Tate Donovan), Baker is the type who seems to create her own problems and complicate simple situations for herself. And we follow Elliot too while Annette and Baker go off on their own misadventures: He gets involved with a blunt, no-nonsense hooker (Margarita Levieva) who asks odd personal favors from him, with amusing results.

“Of course, you can guess the type of predictable lesson Annette would eventually learn. This is the age of Instagram, as we were recently reminded by Ingrid Goes West, another Los Angeles-based (yet much darker) comedy and we are all posing and playing versions of ourselves in our daily lives. In the end, Annette doesn’t really have it that bad and everyone but she seems to know it. But her self-discovery (which is a joke in itself) is the lesser point in It Happened in L.A., which charms, gratifies and sometimes purposely repulses us with the flaky rhythms of a town Morgan clearly adores but also loves to hate. Peppered with hat tips to Yasujiro Ozu and Federico Fellini and contemporary quips like ‘I don’t feel like eating out of a truck tonight’ that consistently land, Morgan’s script is filled with sharp, quotable gold. And her filmmaking sensibility—often manifested in various impeccably composed, postcard-like shots—is marked by a promisingly sophisticated, stylish flair. One might be inclined to compare Morgan to Woody Allen, but her humor is more akin to Whit Stillman, as her It Happened in L.A. is La La Land’s modern-day answer to Metropolitan.”

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NOVEMBER 3: Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig)New York Times review by A.O. Scott: “Christine McPherson, who prefers to be called Lady Bird — it’s her given name, she insists, in the sense that ‘it’s given to me, by me’ — is a senior at a Catholic girls’ high school. Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), the principal, has read Lady Bird’s college application essay. ‘It’s clear how much you love Sacramento,’ Sister Sarah remarks. This comes as a surprise, both to Lady Bird and the viewer, who is by now aware of Lady Bird’s frustration with her hometown.

“‘I guess I pay attention,’ she says, not wanting to be contrary.

“‘Don’t you think they’re the same thing?’ the wise sister asks.

“The idea that attention is a form of love (and vice versa) is a beautiful insight, and in many ways it’s the key to Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s beautiful, insightful new film, the first for which she is solely credited as writer and director. Ms. Gerwig, a Sacramento native and member of her heroine’s generation — the movie takes place mostly during the 2002-3 academic year — knows her characters and their world very well. Her affection envelops them like a secular form of grace: not uncritically, but unconditionally. And if you pay the right kind of attention to Lady Bird — absorbing its riffs and digressions as well as its melodies, its choral passages along with its solos and duets — you will almost certainly love it. It’s hard not to.

“Lady Bird herself may be a bit more of a challenge. Played with daunting, dauntless precision by Saoirse Ronan (already, at 23, one of the most formidable actors in movies today), Lady Bird can give herself and everyone around her a hard time. Not because she is especially reckless or troubled — Lady Bird is the farthest thing from a melodrama of youth gone wild — but because she insists on asserting her own individuality, even when she’s not quite sure what that means.

“She tackles the practical and spiritual project of becoming who she is with the mixture of self-assurance and insecurity common to adolescents of a certain sensitive kind. She is idealistic and hypocritical; self-centered and generous; a rebel and a conformist; an enthusiast and a skeptic. A typical American teenager, but also — and therefore — a unique bundle of contradictory and confusing impulses.

“‘I want you to be the very best version of yourself,’ says her judgmental, habitually disappointed mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf).

“‘But what if this is the best version?’ Lady Bird responds. It’s a sharp, sardonic line (one of many) and also an anguished existential question.

“Christine (to use the name Marion gave her) wants to satisfy her mother, which is a difficult task because the standards seem impossibly high and subject to change without notice. She also wants to be true to her own desires and convictions, which is difficult for other reasons.

“While Lady Bird honors the gravity of Christine’s struggle, it hardly neglects the everyday absurdity of her plight. The very first scene begins in tears. Mother and daughter, listening to an audiobook of The Grapes of Wrath while driving home from a college tour, cry over the novel’s moving final sentences. Their shared moment of literary catharsis quickly devolves into an argument, which is punctuated by a startling and hilarious jolt of physical comedy (one of many).

“In tone and structure, after all, this is a teenage comedy. It finds humor in the eternally renewable cycle of senior year: homecoming and prom; math tests and school plays; the agonizing stages of the ‘admissions process.’ Along the way, Christine undergoes other, extracurricular rites of passage. She falls in love for the first time and has sex for the first time. She trades in her loyal, longtime best friend (Beanie Feldstein) for a richer, more popular girl (Odeya Rush). She fights with her mother and her older brother, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), and leans on her father, Larry (Tracy Letts), an affable fellow with troubles of his own.

“You might think you’ve seen this all before. You probably have, but never quite like this. What Ms. Gerwig has done — and it’s by no means a small accomplishment — is to infuse one of the most convention-bound, rose-colored genres in American cinema with freshness and surprise. The characters can look like familiar figures: the sad dad and the disapproving mom; the sullen brother and his goth girlfriend (Marielle Scott); the mean girls and the cool teachers; the too-perfect boyfriend (Lucas Hedges) and the dirtbag boyfriend (Timothée Chalamet). None of them are caricatures, though, and while everyone is mocked, nobody is treated with cruelty or contempt, at least by Ms. Gerwig. (Lady Bird is not always so kind.)

“The script is exceptionally well-written, full of wordplay and lively argument. Every line sounds like something a person might actually say, which means that the movie is also exceptionally well acted. It is not too quick to soothe the abrasions of class and family. The McPhersons are hardly poor, but the daily toll of holding onto the ragged middle of the middle class is evident in Larry’s melancholy and Marion’s ill humor. They are a loving family, but their steadfast devotion to one another doesn’t always express itself as kindness. They are real people, honestly portrayed.

“That might make Lady Bird sound drab and dutiful, but it’s the opposite. I wish I could convey to you just how thrilling this movie is. I wish I could quote all of the jokes and recount the best offbeat bits. I’d tell you about the sad priest and the football coach, about the communion wafers and the Sacramento real estate, about the sly, jaunty editing rhythms, the oddly apt music choices and the way Ms. Ronan drops down on the grass in front of her house when she receives an important piece of mail. I’m tempted to catalog the six different ways the ending can make you cry.

“I’ll settle for one: the bittersweet feeling of having watched someone grow in front of your eyes, into a different and in some ways improved version of herself. In life, that’s a messy, endless process, which is one reason we need movies. Or to put it another way, even though Lady Bird will never be perfect, Lady Bird is.”

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NOVEMBER 3 (in theaters and on Video on Demand): Most Beautiful Island (dir. Ana Asensio)Samuel Goldwyn Films synopsis:Most Beautiful Island is a psychological thriller set in the world of undocumented female immigrants hoping to make a life in New York City. Shot on Super 16mm with an intimate, voyeuristic sensibility, Most Beautiful Island chronicles one harrowing day in the life of Luciana (Ana Asensio), a young immigrant woman struggling to make ends meet while striving to escape her past. As Luciana’s day unfolds, she is whisked, physically and emotionally, through a series of troublesome and unforeseeable extremes. Before her day is done, she inadvertently finds herself a central participant in a cruel game where lives are placed at risk, and psyches are twisted and broken for the perverse entertainment of a privileged few.”

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NOVEMBER 3: No Dress Code Required (dir. Cristina Herrera Borquez) (DPs: Cristina Herrera Borquez and Cristina Florez Valenzuela)Human Rights Watch Film Festival synopsis: “Víctor and Fernando, a devoted, unassuming couple from Mexicali, Mexico, find themselves in the center of a legal firestorm over their desire to get married. Weighing all their options, the pair opt to stay in their hometown of Mexicali and fight for their legal rights. With the help of two committed attorneys, Víctor and Fernando withstand a seemingly interminable series of bizarre hurdles and bureaucratic nitpicking with grace and dignity. No Dress Code Required is a rallying cry for equality, a testament to the power of ordinary people to become agents of change, and above all, an unforgettable love story that touches the heart and stirs the conscience.”

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NOVEMBER 3: Princess Cyd (dir. Stephen Cone) (DP: Zoe White)Vulture review by Emily Yoshida: “There is something vaguely utopian about Princess Cyd, the new film by writer-director Stephen Cone. In a way that I can only describe as Miyazaki-esque, there is, for the most part, a noticeable lack of onscreen threat in its sleepy suburban Chicago setting. The story’s main act of violence remains offscreen, referred to in the film’s opening moments via a 911 call reporting a murder-suicide that left our protagonist motherless and brotherless at age 8. With that tragic and half-remembered act in the distant past, Cone’s film feels like it’s willing the world to be a benevolent place his characters can believe in, the kind of place where the neighbors come over to recite poetry and you can walk into a coffee shop and meet a cute stranger. Not a lot happens in Princess Cyd, but it’s hard not to watch this film without feeling changed.

“Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) is 16 when we meet her, having been abruptly sent off for a couple weeks to live with her aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence). Some domestic unhappiness is kept between the lines, but her father seems to think she needs some ‘time out of the house.’ So Miranda, an acclaimed author living unmarried and childless in the house she grew up in with Cyd’s mother, takes the kid in, despite not having seen her since she was a child. Cyd is a soccer player, who announces unceremoniously that she ‘doesn’t really read’ when Miranda attempts to interest her in her book collection. As their first couple days together pass by, Miranda and Cyd regard each other with a kind of bemused curiosity. Cyd takes to ‘lying out’ in the yard in her bright-red, retro two-piece; a scene where she asks Miranda to put sunscreen on her back finds a completely different note for that typically prurient teen-movie trope. In Princess Cyd, other people are not abstract ideas to work with or against, but very tactile bundles of likes and dislikes and experiences.

“It would be easy for Princess Cyd to slip into a kind of pat odd-couple simplicity; two very dissimilar women forced to live under the same roof, fighting and learning things. But Cone continually dodges the expected beats for this kind of story, which is less about conflict and more about coexistence. One of Cyd’s first requests upon arrival is the Wi-Fi password, but it’s not a ‘teens these days’ punch line. Cyd is not dumb, but she’s probably not going to be the same kind of smart as Miranda, and in Cone’s generous worldview, that’s totally okay. Spence plays Miranda, an intellectual Christian and bookworm who hasn’t had sex in five years, beautifully and without judgement — it’s one of the warmest and best performances I’ve seen this year. Miranda’s chief worry at first is not that Cyd’s presence will cramp her style, but that she’ll be bored. But in the tensest exchange between the two, after Cyd makes a crack about her sex life, Miranda passionately defends her version of joy in a startling, eloquent speech.

“Cyd, for her part, ‘likes everything.’ Pinnick’s effortless radiance, her sleepy eyes and nearly perpetual half-smile could be mistaken for jock-ish dullness, but are really the look of untarnished youthful curiosity. She’s a roving inhaler of sensation, trying to figure out what she wants from the world and what captures her imagination. She’s got a ‘sort of’ boyfriend back home, but she falls instantly for a barista with a Mohawk named Katie, with very little anxiety or stress over her sexuality or what it means for her identity. We’re watching her form her identity onscreen, through her relationships with Katie and Miranda and pretty much everyone else who crosses her path. Searching for an outfit for a writerly soirée, she spots a tuxedo in Katie’s brother’s closet and takes to it with a breezy lack of self-consciousness that anyone over the age of 18 will watch with more than a little envy.

“Storm clouds come and go, but in Cone’s film any pain can seemingly be relieved by the simple, generous act of liking someone — not to possess them, but to have your world changed by them. Princess Cyd is a wonderful movie to live in for this reason; it’s full of hope and empathy, as are its two leads. This is a film that believes finding joy in each other is not just what we should do but what we are naturally inclined to do, and man, oh, man, do I want to believe that right now.”

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NOVEMBER 3 (in theaters), NOVEMBER 7 (Video on Demand): Uncle Gloria: One Helluva Ride! (dir. Robyn Symon)Seventh Art Releasing synopsis: “Filed under stranger than fiction, Uncle Gloria: One Helluva Ride! tells the astonishing true story of how a 67-year-old macho owner of a South Florida auto-wrecking company named Butch, who undergoes a nasty second divorce and needs a place to hide. But the last place anyone would think to find him is in a dress, wig and heels, living as a woman. What starts out as a trick to beat the system ends up changing Butch forever. Featuring risky surgeries, sex work, family dysfunction, activism and falling in love, Gloria’s life is one that must be seen to be believed. Fasten your seatbelt. This is most definitely one helluva ride! Winner of Audience Award for Best Documentary at it’s Miami Premiere and directed by Robyn Symon (Transformation: The Life & Legacy of Werner Erhard and Behind the Blue Veil).”

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NOVEMBER 7 (streaming on Netflix): The Journey Is the Destination (dir. Bronwen Hughes)Toronto International Film Festival synopsis: “Fiercely creative artist, restless wanderer, courageous photojournalist, and compassionate humanitarian aid worker, Dan Eldon is a tremendous inspiration to all who aspire to better themselves by doing good in the world. This stirring biopic from director Bronwen Hughes (whose Stander screened at the Festival in 2003) chronicles Eldon’s tragically abbreviated, yet robustly lived life in vivid detail.

“Born in London to a British father and an American mother, Dan (Ben Schnetzer) is raised in Nairobi. By the time he’s a teenager, he’s already organizing a daredevil supply run to Mozambican refugees, an experience that merely whets his appetite for adventure and for meaningful human connections that transcend class, culture, and creed. Dan skips post-secondary study in favour of leaping into the fray, becoming a self-taught photojournalist and covering events such as the end of apartheid in South Africa and burgeoning violence and famine in Somalia. It is in the latter country that Dan will forge his greatest professional triumphs — and where his life will be woefully snuffed out far too soon.

“Eldon accumulated an astonishing wealth of experience in his 22 years and The Journey is the Destination, written by Jan Sardi (Shine, The Notebook), is an homage to his valiant spirit. Featuring charismatic, heartfelt performances from Schnetzer and co-stars Maria Bello, Kelly Macdonald, and Ella Purnell, this is a film that makes you want to re-examine all you hold dear in your life — and live every day to the fullest.”

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NOVEMBER 7 (on Amazon Video, iTunes, and Vudu; also on DVD and Blu-ray): The Secret Life of Lance Letscher (dir. Sandra Adair)Synopsis from the film’s official website:The Secret Life of Lance Letscher is a deeply personal and psychological portrait of internationally known, and Austin based, collage artist Lance Letscher. Told through memories of trauma and triumph, the film provides a doorway into Letscher’s profound insights on creativity, the subconscious, work ethic and spirituality. Through his intricate artistic process, we witness the artist’s unwavering determination to stay in the moment—free of mind, thought and preconception. Featuring detailed images of more than a hundred of his collages, sculptures, and installations, viewers are offered a visual feast while gaining intimate access into Letscher’s methodical techniques and brilliant mind.”

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NOVEMBER 10 (in theaters and on Video on Demand): Bitch (dir. Marianna Palka)Excerpts from IndieWire’s Sundance Film Festival review by Eric Kohn: “There are plenty of stories about domestic housewives who grow tired of their oppressive routines, but none quite like Marianna Palka’s vicious feminist satire Bitch, in which the writer-director-star plays a woman who takes on the identity of a wild dog. It’s a blunt metaphor, but Palka transforms an absurd premise into a chilling look at the destruction of the nuclear family with a vivid, snarling vision driven by the propulsive energy of its biting critique.

“Inspired by a real-life case study documented by psychologist R.D. Lang, Bitch follows the plight of afflicted matriarch Jill (Palka) and her clueless husband Bill (Palka regular Jason Ritter). The usually sweet-natured Ritter boldly plays against type, initially coming across as an American Psycho-like creep who sleeps with his secretary and buries himself in the office, leaving the care of his three young children to his clearly unstable wife. When she snaps, he’s forced to reconsider his ways, although the deranged events around him suggest he may have missed his window to set things right.

“By the first scene Jill’s world is falling apart, attempting a horrific suicide by dangling from her chandelier by a belt. The violent moment plays out with operatic intensity, and while she doesn’t succeed, she snaps. Bill has no idea about the mania he’s about to confront the next morning, as Jill ushers the kids out the door and mutters under breath, ‘I’m terrified I’m gonna do something.’ A mysterious dog prowls the front yard and locks eyes with her, but Bill’s lost in his own world. Then she vanishes, and there’s just enough time for him to throw a fit about her decision to abandon them when she resurfaces in the basement — nude and growling on all fours, smeared in feces and eyes filled with rage. While Jill howls away, Bill struggles to maintain control of a situation far beyond control.

“With its jittery formalism against the backdrop of a nightmarish suburban setting, Palka recalls Michael Haneke, but with an eye for surreal black comedy that suggests the anything-goes weirdness of Quentin Dupieux (Rubber, Wrong). Palka’s fourth feature is lightyears ahead of her last effort, the more conventional romantic drama Good Dick, and even when Bitch stumbles through some of its stranger moments it remains an uncompromising vision. The wacky drama is aided in large part by Morgan z Whirledge’s chaotic score, which erupts with discordant melodies that play off a layered sound mix rich with competing cues, overlapping dialogue, and ever-present barking that convey the sheer chaos of a stable world facing its reckoning.

“Though Palka uses Jill’s plight as its key animating device, Bitch works best when it focuses on Bill’s ongoing shock at the sudden demand for his responsibility, as he fights through the task of delivering his kids to school and suddenly loses traction in the workplace. A fierce portrait of unwieldy comeuppance, it’s both hilarious and terrifying to watch Bill take in the strange events around him. One brilliant sequence finds him dashing in and out of his kid’s school, collapsing onto the ground and throwing tantrums as everything he took for granted dissolves beneath him.

“…Even as the high-concept premise wears thin, Palka manages to generate an unexpected degree of sympathy for the floundering couple, and the wordless finale allows for a complete transformation that extends beyond Jill’s bizarre condition. By its end, Bitch focuses as much on what it means to wake up to the frustrations of an American dream coming to pieces as it is a fierce indictment of them.”

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NOVEMBER 10: Destination Unknown (dir. Claire Ferguson)Cinema Village synopsis: “They endured the death camps. They hid in remote farms. They fought as partisans in Polish forests, but when the war ended, the struggles of the Holocaust survivors were only just beginning. Destination Unknown paints a uniquely intimate portrait of survival, revealing pain that has never faded but hasn’t crushed the human spirit.”

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NOVEMBER 10 (in theaters and on Video on Demand): Gold Star (dir. Victoria Negri)Cinema Village synopsis: “After dropping out of music school, Vicki (Victoria Negri) drifts aimlessly between her family’s house in Connecticut and an itinerant existence in New York. When her father (Robert Vaughn) suffers a debilitating stroke, she has to become his primary caretaker. Vicki resists connecting with him, and making peace with herself, but finds a way forward thanks to a new friend and a life-changing event.”

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NOVEMBER 10: In Between (dir. Maysaloun Hamoud)Eye for Film review by Jennie Kermode: “Is there anything that makes traditionalist men as angry as women talking openly about their feelings and the things many of them do every day? Earlier this year, Indian film Lipstick Under My Burkha faced a ban (later overturned) for doing just that, and now In Between, a film made in Israel by Palestinian director Maysaloun Hamoud, has attracted an angry response. Hamoud, now the subject of a fatwa, says that she knew it would be controversial but never expected such a strong reaction.

“‘Remember where we are living,’ one of the film’s heroines is told. This is not the West; she must, she is told, adjust her expectations as a result, and not insist so loudly on living life on her own terms. But what does being a rebel mean in this context? What makes Hamoud’s film so potent is that it doesn’t just show the impact of sexist tradition on women who want to party, drink alcohol and wear skinny jeans. It also shows what it can do to women who themselves adhere to old fashioned values.

“Nour (Shaden Kanboura) is a shy, sweet-natured hijabi student who seems distinctly out of place when she moves into the flat shared by Leila (Mouna Hawa) and Salma (Sana Jammelieh), but although their lives are very different from hers – Leila has a Jewish boyfriend, Salma is a lesbian, and both conduct their social lives much as they might do in London or Berlin – she’s drawn to their friendliness, and a strong bond forms between them. A mutual love of good food seals the deal. The problem is that Nour’s fiancé doesn’t like these new influences in her life. As his controlling behaviour escalates, she becomes increasingly aware that she has to make a change in her life – and find a way to do it that will let her remain true to herself.

“With Leila and Salma facing problems of their own, Hamoud is able to explore not just the challenges in women’s lives but the solidarity that makes it possible to cope, even if that doesn’t always mean that things work out the way they want. She does so with a deft touch in a film that never feels heavy-handed, and the performances she coaxes from her leads are compelling. Kanboura, in particular, stands out for the depth she gives to her character, making her much more than just a victim, though at times her suffering is heartbreaking to watch.

“A complicated ensemble piece with a lot going on, In Between is an astonishingly mature feature debut from Hamoud, who balances themes and events with great skill. Importantly, the women at the centre of her story never really seem remote from the Palestinian Israeli society around them, but emerge from it as part of an organic whole. Cultural connections go much deeper than the value system built around restricting their behaviour. There are echoes of 2012’s Out in the Dark in the visible disconnection between how cinemagoers expect to see Palestinians represented and what is, essentially, real life.

“This is a gem of a film that is deserving of international attention in its own right, and not just because of the hatred it has attracted. It doesn’t just raise women’s voices; it tells a very human story about women who are complex and believable and intriguing.”

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NOVEMBER 10: Requiem for a Running Back (dir. Rebecca Carpenter)Cinema Village synopsis: “Director Rebecca Carpenter’s father, Lewis Carpenter, was a World Championship running back for the Detroit Lions and Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers. As an NFL coach, he was one of the most respected football minds of his era. When he dies, her family receives a surprise call from Boston University’s brain bank requesting his brain – with shocking results. Lew becomes the 18th NFL player diagnosed postmortem with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative neurocognitive disorder that can cause episodes of rage, social withdrawal, and other unusual behaviors. In disbelief, Carpenter finds herself at ground zero of an unfolding public health controversy and embarks on a three-year odyssey across America to explore the far-reaching implications of this ‘new’ disease.

“Using the diagnosis as an opportunity to heal their troubled relationship, Carpenter travels through time zones and generations to piece together her father’s story. But as her road trip progresses, CTE starts to permeate the national airwaves, and Carpenter realizes that hers is not the only football family shaped by a little-known disease. This simple road trip turns into a cacophony of competing sound bites and complicated family stories, ending with one question: When one in three former players will have these problems, why do we still play football?

“Carpenter approaches her subjects with refreshing humor, manic curiosity, and a huge heart as Lew’s former teammates, scientists, and historians offer their insights and support. Through quirky and poignant visits with Dr. Bennet Omalu and player advocate Mike Ditka, neuropathologist Ann McKee and NFL Hall of Famer James Lofton, headline stealing NFL retiree Chris Borland and hellraiser Dave Meggyesy, Rebecca obsessively pursues every available avenue to understand her dad, including interviews with families living in the aftermath of brain damage: Ray & Mary Ann Easterling, Greg Lens & his daughter Sarah Lens, Mike & Candy Pyle and Mike’s daughter Samantha, and Penny and John Hilton.

“Ultimately Carpenter must confront her own complicity in missing the signs of her father’s brain disease as she begins to understand his depression, obsessiveness, forgetfulness, and unpredictable temper were common side effects of repeat blunt force trauma to the brain.”

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NOVEMBER 15: Rebels on Pointe (dir./DP: Bobbi Jo Hart)Quad Cinema synopsis: “Established in the wake of the Stonewall riots, New York’s all-male dance troupe Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo have for over 40 years traveled the world presenting a distinctly modern take on classical ballet: performing it in drag. This moving verité documentary traces the inspiring history of The Trocks and offers an intimate portrait of its members, past and present, as they upend stereotypes and gleefully pirouette on the line between high art and camp.”

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NOVEMBER 17: Atomic Homefront (dir. Rebecca Cammisa)Cinema Village synopsis:Atomic Homefront reveals St. Louis, Missouri’s past as a uranium processing center for the atomic bomb and the governmental and corporate negligence that led to the illegal dumping of Manhattan Project radioactive waste throughout North County neighborhoods. The film is a case study of how citizens are confronting state and federal agencies to uncover the truth about the extent of the contamination and are fighting to keep their families safe.”

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NOVEMBER 17: Big Sonia (dirs. Todd Soliday and Leah Warshawski)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Standing tall at 4’8″, Sonia is one of the last remaining Holocaust survivors in Kansas City and one of the only survivors there who speaks publicly about her wartime experience. Sonia’s enormous personality and fragile frame mask the horrors she endured. At 15 she watched her mother disappear behind gas chamber doors. Sonia’s teenage years were a blur of concentration camps and death marches. On liberation day, she was accidentally shot through the chest, yet again miraculously survived. Sonia is the ultimate survivor, a bridge between cultures and generations. Her story must never be forgotten.

“Our film interweaves Sonia’s past and present using first-person narrative with stories from family and friends. Along the way, we learn valuable life lessons – ‘Soniaisms‘ – from a woman who can barely see over the steering wheel, yet insists on driving herself to work every day to run her late husband’s tailor shop, John’s Tailoring. Running the shop is Sonia’s entire being – it is her reason for living and the center of her life. Sonia is a ‘diva’ and she’s known for wearing leopard print and high heel shoes – she is the most popular woman I know. Her influence spans generations and cultures, and we see first-hand how she transforms a room of self-involved teenagers into thoughtful citizens. Sonia is an enigma.

“John’s Tailoring is the last shop standing in a desolate corner of a rundown mall, and there is a looming threat the mall could close its doors any day. Will Sonia be able to continue working? Will she have to shut the doors on John’s Tailoring and finally retire in her late 80’s? How will Sonia’s stories make a difference to people now? How will her stories inspire audiences to learn about their own families and ensure that we don’t repeat mistakes of the past?”

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NOVEMBER 17: The Breadwinner (dir. Nora Twomey)IFC Center synopsis: “From executive producer Angelina Jolie and the creators of Oscar-nominees The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, this is the story of Parvana, an 11-year-old girl growing up under the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. After her father is wrongfully arrested, Parvana disguises herself as a boy to save her family, finding strength in her memories of the tales her father used to tell her.”

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NOVEMBER 17 (in theaters and on Video on Demand): Cook Off! (dirs. Cathryn Michon and Guy Shalem)Excerpts from Rolling Stone article by Jon Blistein: “Melissa McCarthy bumbles through a cooking competition in the wild new trailer for the long-gestating mockumentary, Cook Off! The film premiered at the Comedy Arts Festival in 2007 – long before McCarthy’s breakout turn in Bridesmaids – and will finally receive an on-demand and limited theatrical release November 17th.

“Cathryn Michon and Guy Shalem co-directed Cook Off!, which centers around the Van Rookle Farms Cooking Contest, a reality competition with celebrity judges, a $1 million prize and a giant muffin mascot. Along with McCarthy, the film’s cast boasts an array of seasoned improvisors including Michon, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Louie Anderson, Gary Anthony Williams, Niecy Nash, Diedrich Bader, Stephen Root and Ben Falcone.

“The trailer finds McCarthy at her slapstick best, dashing around the competition hall with a heavy pot before falling flat on her face and getting overzealous with her doomed dish. ‘I’m making a sweet potato,’ she excitedly tells a reporter while stuffing marshmallows into an already overflowing pot. ‘Which is technically a vegetable.'”

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NOVEMBER 17 (LA), NOVEMBER 22 (NYC) (opened in Austin, TX last month): Mr. Roosevelt (dir. Noël Wells) (DP: Dagmar Weaver-Madsen)Variety’s SXSW review by Andrew Barker:Mr. Roosevelt is the debut film by writer-director Noël Wells, a Texas native who decamped for Los Angeles to become a comic. It also features Wells in the lead role, as a Texas native who decamped for Los Angeles to become a comic, only to make an abrupt return to attend a cat funeral at the home of her ex-boyfriend, and perhaps take stock of the shambling mess she’s made of her life amidst Austin’s remaining pockets of weirdness. If you’re already starting to roll your eyes, stop: This riotously endearing comedy is substantially funnier, sharper, and more peculiar than that premise is bound to make it sound. While its knowing touch for the rhythms of Austin life make it a perfect fit for SXSW, the film has potential to travel much further, and announces Wells as a behind-the-camera talent worth watching.

“A veteran of L.A.’s improv scene, Wells had a single-season run on ‘Saturday Night Live’ before landing her recent role on ‘Master of None,’ and the former experience certainly seems to inform Mr. Roosevelt’s opening scene, as Wells’ fictional counterpart Emily soldiers through a failed audition for a sketch-comedy show. (Kristen Wiig is among Emily’s celebrity impressions, though it’s her take on Holly Hunter haggling at a yard sale that really should have gotten her a callback.)

“All she has to show for her time in Hollywood is one viral video that she ‘wasn’t able to monetize’; she’s barely making ends meet as a promotional video editor; and the improv comedy dating pool is proving somewhat suboptimal. So when she receives a call from her ex, Eric (Nick Thune), with news that their once-shared cat is sick, she doesn’t hesitate to hop on a plane to Texas with little but the clothes on her back.

“Back home, she learns that the cat has already died, and Eric – whom she had just assumed would let her stay at his place – is happily cohabiting with his new, perfectly poised girlfriend, Celeste (Britt Lower), to whom Emily takes an immediate dislike. After all, she’s completely redecorated the place, relegating all of Emily’s leftover possessions to a shed out back. Pleading poverty, however, Emily gets the couple to put her up for a few days.

“Although she’s only been gone for two years, Emily finds her former home city has been gentrified just as strikingly as her former home. Her favorite dingy coffee shop has been boarded up, and the new one nearby is a modernist maze of antiseptic steel. Eric has embraced a thoroughly L.A. set of voluntary dietary restrictions, and Celeste lists her occupation as ‘entrepreneur.’ The two take Emily out to the kind of restaurant that actually requires nicer attire than t-shirts and jeans, and it isn’t long before she has a tableside meltdown.

“Quickly coming to Emily’s rescue is a firecracker waitress-musician named Jen (Daniella Pineda), who recognizes her from her fleeting bout of YouTube stardom. After employing some tough love methods to staunch her panic attacks, Jen becomes Emily’s new best friend literally overnight, and ferries her around from overcrowded artist co-ops to topless Greenbelt picnics and musical house parties. Meanwhile, Celeste mounts an ever-escalating Cold War with her predecessor, and Eric and Emily spend enough time together to risk rekindling their old flame.

“Nothing here, from the premise to the plotting to the basic tone, is particularly novel, but the entire affair has a distinctive personality. Wells has a clear gift for physical comedy, and as a director, she tends to underplay her funniest bits in a way that gives the film an engaging, lackadaisical flow, rather than fragmenting into a series of sketches. That distinctiveness extends to her character too – the hapless twentysomething woman-child has become almost as well-worn a type as its male equivalent, but Emily feels like an original creation within those broad parameters.

Mr. Roosevelt does occasionally reveal a few first-time filmmaker kinks, and in the later-going Wells forces closure on some narrative arcs that could have just as well stayed open-ended. But never does the film’s comic energy wane, and the supporting cast is highlighted by Lower, Pineda, and a scene-stealing turn from Andre Hyland, whose puckish stoner may be too laid-back even for Austin.”

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NOVEMBER 17 (in theaters and streaming on Netflix): Mudbound (dir. Dee Rees) (DP: Rachel Morrison) – LA Weekly’s Toronto International Film Festival review by April Wolfe: “Writer-director Dee Rees is breaking all the rules with her third feature, Mudbound. In film school, they tell you, ‘No voiceovers,’ yet this film about two WWII and post-war Mississippi families — one black, one white — is filthy with them. They tell you, ‘Play it safe until you’re more experienced,’ yet Mudbound is a sprawling epic. They say, ‘Never make a period piece because the budget will be prohibitive,’ yet the setting here spans multiple years and continents in the 1940s. With Mudbound, Rees proves the truest rule of all: That talent and vision make all lesser rules negotiable. This absorbing, incredibly accomplished film should win awards and be taught in history classes all over America.

“The film opens at the end of this story, with Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan) describing what her existence once was like on the Mississippi farm with her husband Henry (Jason Clarke). She leads her two daughters through a brown and barren expanse of land to the makeshift grave Henry and his brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) have dug for their father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks). ‘When I think of the farm,’ she says, ‘I think of mud. … I dreamed in brown.’ The story of Mudbound is adapted from Hillary Jordan’s book of the same name, and Rees and her co-writer Virgil Williams adeptly use Jordan’s poetic prose in voiceover, with multiple characters getting their turn to control the story, letting us see the world through their eyes and aches and pains.

“After visiting the grave, we go back to the beginning of this story, before the McAllans have even settled on the farm, to the days of the Jackson family eking out a living as cotton sharecroppers. Patriarch Hap (Rob Morgan) and matriarch Florence (Mary J. Blige) send their oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) off to fight the Nazis, but we sense that they take no pride in his decision. Throughout this story, Rees suggests that this black family has little allegiance to a country that wishes to kill them. But overseas, Ronsel is given the freedom to become a man — a human — though later, back home, he recounts that women in Europe would slap his ass to check to see if he had a monkey’s tail. Still, during his tour, we see him in the embrace of a German woman who happens to be white, and the look on his face is one of great peace, something he will not exhibit back home in Mississippi until he befriends Jamie, also an emotionally wounded veteran of the war.

“The friendship that blooms between Ronsel and Jamie isn’t sugarcoated. Jamie doesn’t immediately become Ronsel’s hero, and Ronsel isn’t asking for a white savior anyway. But they both have seen the literal insides of human beings, the blood and guts, and understand their shared humanity. They’re up against some hardcore racists, none more chilling than Banks’ Pappy, but what’s most unnerving isn’t the overt racism depicted in the film but the silence from the ‘good’ white people like Laura and Henry when Pappy spouts his hateful thoughts.

“The poverty on the farm is visceral. No matter what stations in life these characters hold, they are painted in mud, and no amount of money can save them from it. It’s almost as though death is clinging to their skin, asking them to succumb. Hollywood has often done a poor job of filming and lighting black skin, but cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Fruitvale Station, Dope, Black Panther) has mastered her craft, so every minute variation of color comes through clearly. The result of her work has the richness and clarity of an oil painting.

“Production design is also shrewdly considered. When the McAllans move into their new ramshackle home on the farm, I couldn’t help noticing the peeling paint on the walls, one layer revealing another, revealing another. The paint may be a small detail, but it’s one of great meaning. There’s no removing paint once it’s there. If you sand it away, you inhale the lead, and it’s too much work. Easier to paint over it, to hide it with a nicer-looking coat. But underneath, the poison’s still there. What Mudbound does is peel off all those layers, and it’s painful as hell, but necessary. Dee Rees is clearing the poison away.”

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NOVEMBER 17 (in theaters and on Video on Demand): Sweet Virginia (dir. Jamie M. Dagg) (DP: Jessica Lee Gagné)IFC Films synopsis: “A mysterious stranger sends shockwaves through a close-knit community in this nerve-jangling slice of raw suspense. In the wake of a triple murder that leaves the residents of a remote Alaskan outpost on edge, tightly wound drifter Elwood (Christopher Abbott) checks into a motel run by Sam (Jon Bernthal), a former rodeo champion whose imposing physical presence conceals a troubled soul. Bound together by their outsider status, the two men strike up an uneasy friendship—a dangerous association that will set off a new wave of violence and unleash Sam’s darkest demons. Driven by tour de force performances from Christopher Abbott and Jon Bernthal, this precision crafted thriller pulses with an air of quivering dread. With Imogen Poots and Rosemarie DeWitt.”

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NOVEMBER 24: Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (dir. Alexandra Dean)IFC Center synopsis: “Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr was called the world’s most beautiful woman—but her hidden legacy as an inventor who helped revolutionize modern communications is even more stunning. Combining a rediscovered interview with reflections from her closest friends, family and admirers, including Mel Brooks and Robert Osborne, Bombshell finally gives Hedy Lamarr the chance to tell her own story.”

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NOVEMBER 24: Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars (dir. Lili Fini Zanuck)Toronto International Film Festival review by Thom Powers: “For Eric Clapton, blues music made a strong impression at a young age: ‘It was always one man with his guitar versus the world. He was completely alone and had no options other than to just sing and play to ease his pain.’

“Over a five-decade career, Clapton has proven himself to be a guitar virtuoso, creating rock music deeply influenced by the blues. In this documentary, he reflects candidly on how his life experiences were channelled into music. The film traces his career through The Yardbirds, Cream, Blind Faith, Derek and the Dominos, and his solo years, telling the stories behind hits like ‘For Your Love,’ ‘Layla,’ and ‘Tears in Heaven.’

“Filmmaker Lili Fini Zanuck draws from an extensive archive of performances and home movies to construct the film. Accompanying the footage are audio interviews with Clapton and people who played central roles in his life, including his grandmother Rose Clapp, George Harrison, Ahmet Ertegun, Steve Winwood, and his former wife, Pattie Boyd.

“Clapton grew up with an inferiority complex. He struggled with the demands of the music business, tumultuous love affairs, drug addiction, and the tragic loss of his young son. The film traces how he coped with these challenges, for better and for worse, before establishing a family with his second wife, Melia McEnery. We come away with a deeper sense of what has inspired so much memorable music.”

2017: Part 3

Beatriz at Dinner. Directed by Miguel Arteta. Notes from October 9, 2017: Beatriz at Dinner might not literally be the “first great film of the Trump era,” as the poster states – doesn’t that honor belong to Get Out? – but Miguel Arteta’s film certainly is a beautifully made, sharply incisive dramedy observing the many divisions in American society. We follow an eventuful day in the life our protagonist, Beatriz (a brilliant Salma Hayek), who works as a holistic healer at a cancer treatment center and also as a masseuse to an upper-crust clientele in southern California. Late one afternoon, Beatriz drives from Santa Monica to Newport Beach for a massage appointment with a rich housewife, Kathy (Connie Britton). The two women seem to have a personal bond: Kathy’s daughter, Tara, was stricken with cancer as a teenager and Beatriz’s care and friendship helped Tara on the road to recovery. When Beatriz finds that her old car won’t start and that she can’t leave Kathy’s house just yet, Kathy invites her friend to stay for a dinner party that she and her husband, Grant (David Warshofsky), are throwing for some of his colleagues and their wives. This is the point at which the story’s wheels really begin to turn.

As the guests arrive at the house, Beatriz struggles to fit in with conversation topics that concern only the rich, white social circle. Despite engaging in chitchat that she enjoys, it is clear that the other visitors – including Shannon (Chloë Sevigny), Alex (Jay Duplass) and Jeana (Amy Landecker) – consider her a bizarre anomaly encroaching on their comfortable territory. As the dinner progresses, Beatriz finds herself locked in a war of words with Grant’s boss, Doug Strutt (the incomparable John Lithgow), a Trumplike tycoon who flaunts both his wealth and his contempt for anyone of a lower social class (or perhaps a darker skin tone) than him. Beatriz tries to enlighten her companions with her memories of growing up in a Mexican village that was destroyed by an American construction company that never followed through on its building plans, but the only feedback she receives is disinterest.

Beatriz at Dinner’s mood changes as our heroine becomes increasingly aware that Kathy and Grant’s home is a hostile environment. The film shifts from comedy to drama as Beatriz’s confrontations with her adversaries become ever more emotionally charged. It’s too bad that Mike White’s script loses its satirical edge, but this is necessary to show Beatriz’s evolution over the course of this tense and upsetting night. Many viewers have argued that the film’s ending is a letdown, that it suggests – in a “bigger picture” sense – that acquiescing is the ultimate solution when one is faced with a bully or an outright villain. But if you consider Beatriz’s own story, just focusing how much she longs to return to a past that no longer exists (as evidenced in the themes of the song she performs for the dinner guests), the conclusion of her arc makes sense.

It’s amazing to realize how rare it is to see Salma Hayek in a performance like the one she gives in Beatriz at Dinner. The successes and failures of her career have always seemed to be predicated on how much makeup her characters wear and/or how tight and revealing their clothes are; occasionally she gets an opportunity, like in Frida and in Beatriz at Dinner, to show her power as an actress. In Beatriz, she wears no makeup; her hair is tied in a straightforward ponytail; her outfit is a utilitarian work ensemble. Without all of the usual distracting accoutrements, we can concentrate on the simple, striking impact of Hayek’s face, which radiates so much grace and strength in every frame. Even if you think you disagree with the political messages of Beatriz at Dinner, please see it for its extraordinary spotlight on Salma Hayek, as well as the poetic cinematography of Wyatt Garfield.

Brawl in Cell Block 99. Directed by S. Craig Zahler. Notes from October 25, 2017: Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a brutal action thriller that is definitely not for all appetites, but if you can tolerate the extreme levels of violence – the film is unrated, but the MPAA would have slapped it with an NC-17 warning – you will be rewarded with some of the most memorable acting, writing, cinematography and fight sequences of any film that has been released this year.

Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) is a former boxer who loses his job at the local auto shop in the film’s first scene. He is a physically intimidating protagonist; besides being a 6′ 5″ man whose bald head is adorned with a cross tattoo, Bradley rips his wife Lauren’s (Jennifer Carpenter) car apart with his bare hands after he comes home early and discovers that she has been having an affair for the past three months. The only way that the couple can salvage their fractured marriage is for Bradley to return to his former career as a drug runner. This decision seems dangerous for both Bradley and Lauren, who are both recovering addicts, but when the film cuts to “eighteen months later,” the pair are living happily in a bigger, fancier house and expecting their first child.

As we know from the film’s title, however, this paradise will not last. Bradley and some new business partners he doesn’t trust are involved in a police ambush, which results in him shooting his comrades to prevent them from injuring the police. Despite the good intentions behind Bradley’s actions, he is found guilty of the murders and is sentenced to seven years in prison. While in jail, Bradley is visited by a mysterious, German-accented man (Udo Kier, the incomparable king of genre cinema), who shows Bradley photo evidence that Lauren is being held hostage and the only way Bradley can save her is to kill a certain inmate in Cell Block 99 of the Red Leaf detention center, a maximum-security facility for all the most depraved criminals.

Moments after the conversation with the “Placid Man” (as Kier’s character is called in the end credits), Bradley sets himself up by attacking several corrections officers. Branded a severe threat to his fellow prisoners and staff, Bradley is immediately transported to Red Leaf, where he meets sadistic Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson, literally twirling his mustache in malicious delight). A few more skirmishes finally bring Bradley down to the fabled Cell Block 99, where the most psychotic convicts reside. This odyssey, which by now has reached mythical proportions, culminates in a series of supremely gory conflicts between Bradley and some unexpected opponents, some images of which I may never be able to remember without feeling ill. This viciousness is necessary, however, since Bradley is a man on a mission and if he doesn’t complete the Placid Man’s assignment, his wife and unborn daughter will pay the price.

So what makes Brawl in Cell Block 99 so worthy of your time? First, there’s Vince Vaughn’s performance. He anchors the film not only as a physical presence but with solid acting and a sharp wit (my favorite: in an early scene he refers to a young woman’s tight and short blue jumpsuit as “zesty”); humorous dialogue provides much-needed emotional ballast during the film’s relentlessly grim bloodbaths. (Also, for the record: Vince Vaughn has not magically transformed into an excellent actor with Brawl. His dramatic talent has been evident for years, as people have known since his indie days in the 90s and – my personal favorite – in the bar scene from Into the Wild.) Don Johnson and Udo Kier give that extra-special “character actor” touch to roles that are vaguely defined by a general sense of evildoing, and I also enjoyed seeing another veteran of film and television, Willie C. Carpenter, as “Lefty,” the friendly lifer who tries to help Bradley assimilate to prison conditions on his first day there. Finally, as the icing on the cake, there are the aesthetics of Brawl in Cell Block 99. Like the 70s exploitation films that clearly influenced writer-director S. Craig Zahler, Brawl features a soundtrack of soul/Motown songs, including brand-new tracks by some bona fide legends, the O’Jays and Butch Tavares. Visually, the film benefits from cinematographer Benji Bakshi‘s eye for framing and contrasting light/shadow.

If you’re willing to give Brawl in Cell Block 99 a try, more power to you. Some may say that it is a film made in bad taste, but then again aren’t most delicious indulgences unhealthy at their core?

Ingrid Goes West. Directed by Matt Spicer. Notes from September 23, 2017: Ingrid Goes West is one of the surprise gems of the year, a satire about social media mania that asks us to consider the limits any of us would go to just to feel loved and important. Matt Spicer’s film skewers the millennial generation’s habit of creating Instagram celebrities who boast of carefully curated lives, but we also see a thought-provoking exploration of the lengths some people will go to in order to stave off loneliness.

When we meet Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza), she’s busy pepper-spraying a bride at a wedding party. Ingrid’s anger at not being invited to the event is irrational; she only vaguely knew the other woman through Instagram, but in Ingrid’s mind, they were good pals. After Ingrid’s stay in a mental health treatment center, we quickly realize two crucial details about her: she spent a number of years as her mother’s caretaker (I think the film implied that Mrs. Thorburn died not long before Ingrid met her Instagram “friend”) and she easily develops intense attachments to other people. As Ingrid resettles into her empty house and tries to find a new purpose in life, she discovers a magazine article about an up-and-coming Instagram “influencer,” Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), and before we know it, Ingrid is grabbing her $60,000 inheritance from her mom’s will, moving out to Venice Beach, California and trying to figure out how to meet her current obsession.

After renting a house that’s owned by a young screenwriter, Dan (an exceptionally charming O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), Ingrid dyes her hair the same color as Taylor’s (blonde), changes her wardrobe to dress more like her new hero, reads the novels that Taylor mentions loving on Instagram and visits the same eateries and shops that Taylor frequents. An accidental run-in with Taylor at a bookstore is almost disastrous – it would have been, had Taylor deigned to pay attention to such a klutzy commoner – but Ingrid quickly devises a new plan for actually meeting Taylor. One break-in and dog theft later, Ingrid is formally brought into the Sloane house, genially returning “lost” pup Rothko and ingratiating herself into the world of Taylor and her artist husband, Ezra (Wyatt Russell).

Ingrid and Taylor become fast friends, shopping, partying and spending time at a Joshua Tree retreat. Reluctantly, Ingrid also gets closer to Dan, who sees something more like the “real” her than the version of Ingrid that she pretends to be for Taylor and Ezra, but at the same time, a visit from Taylor’s irritating brother, Nicky (a scene-stealing Billy Magnussen), threatens to undermine Ingrid’s new way of life. Throughout the story there is tension as to whether Ingrid’s feelings for Taylor border on psychotic, and whether circumstances might result in a violent outburst; the third act of the film certainly ups the ante and takes our protagonist in several disturbing directions.

The entire cast of Ingrid Goes West does excellent work, but Aubrey Plaza in particular shines in a performance that shows her emotional range, which up to now has not always been reflected in her choice of roles. (She made me cry in the last few minutes of the film, which not every actor can do.) Ingrid is not always likeable, but she is achingly human in every complicated moment. We may not understand or agree with Ingrid’s intentions – she probably doesn’t fully comprehend them either; moreover, the film is ambiguous as to whether she is romantically inclined toward Taylor – but Ingrid’s need for human connection in a world that used to shut her out for being “herself” is a desire that we can all recognize. Ingrid Goes West illustrates how easy it is for people to hide behind façades that they believe are preferable to their natural selves; the absurdity of the situations is sometimes hilarious, but just like real life, sometimes the pain of maintaining that meticulously designed existence is heartbreaking.

Lucky. Directed by John Carroll Lynch. Notes from October 17, 2017: Legendary character actor Harry Dean Stanton capped his career with one last transcendent performance in Lucky, an introspective dramedy that honors its ninety-year-old protagonist with a heartfelt showcase. Lucky (Stanton) is a World War II veteran who lives a bare-bones existence in a small Southwest town, a place where the vistas are not unlike those seen in an earlier masterpiece starring Stanton, Paris, Texas (1984). Over the course of a few days in Lucky’s life, we see him interact with friends and foes alike, including rakishly dressed senior citizen Howard (David Lynch – no relation to Lucky’s director), life insurance salesman Bobby Lawrence (Ron Livingston), married barflies Elaine and Paulie (Beth Grant and James Darren), diner owner Joe (Barry Shabaka Henley), Dr. Christian Kneedler (Ed Begley Jr., in a role reminding me a lot of when he played a physician on “Portlandia”), fellow WWII vet Fred (Tom Skerritt), waitress Loretta (Yvonne Huff) and bodega clerk Bibi (Bertila Damas).

The screenplay by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja was obviously tailor-made for Harry Dean Stanton, whose character often mentions his recollections of growing up in Kentucky, clearly autobiographical tidbits from Stanton’s own upbringing; Lucky’s atheism and his other philosophical musings were probably inspired by Stanton’s beliefs as well. The story moves slowly, perhaps too slowly for some viewers, but for anyone who knows and appreciates Stanton and the many wonderful characters that populate the cast, Lucky is a gem. The film’s beautiful performances – including a bravura monologue by David Lynch’s character about his abiding love for his pet tortoise, and a scene set in a diner in which Stanton and Tom Skerritt compares WWII stories, a poignant moment reminiscent of a similar scene in David Lynch’s 1999 film The Straight Story – and the cinematography by Tim Suhrstedt create a compelling portrait of a one-of-a-kind man. Thanks for the memories, Harry Dean – there was no one else like you.

Unforgettable. Directed by Denise Di Novi. Notes from September 19, 2017: Unforgettable has the plot and acting of a histrionic Lifetime TV movie, but it gives Katherine Heigl an unexpectedly satisfying role that stretches her acting muscles far beyond the scope of her usual rom-com performances. Heigl plays Tessa Connover, the psychotic ex-wife of David Connover (Geoff Stults), a businessman who is about to marry our protagonist, Web designer/editor Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson). David has convinced Julia to leave New York and move in with him in his California house, which also means getting to know David and Tessa’s young daughter, Lily (Isabella Kai Rice). Naturally, David has no idea how angry Tessa is over their divorce or what lengths she will go to ensure that Julia leaves the Connover family alone permanently.

Conventional melodrama fuels the character developments and plot twists in Unforgettable, hurtling the story toward certain inevitable conclusions. David is an exceedingly boring character, straight out of the Lifetime handbook for cardboard-cutout boyfriends. As is the case for heroines in many of that network’s soapy thrillers, Julia is trying to rebuild her life after having been in an abusive relationship, hiding this history from David because she wants to appear “strong” and forget the fact that she was once a victim. It is also no surprise that David and Julia have been fooled by Tessa’s pristine façade; underneath the flawless makeup, tightly tied-back ponytails and crisp white dresses, Tessa is a deeply manipulative person who targets Julia in such a way that David begins to think that Julia is crazy for disliking (then being terrified of) Tessa. Still, the film takes pains to illuminate the source of Tessa’s pathology: her mother, Helen (Cheryl Ladd), drilled both the drive for perfection and the fear of failure into her daughter. As cruel as Tessa is, she is pitiable since we understand that she has been victimized too.

I wouldn’t hold my breath for Unforgettable to receive any honors come awards season, but Katherine Heigl should be commended for stepping outside of her comfort zone. I think she may have played a somewhat similar role in the dark comedy Home Sweet Hell (2015) – a film I haven’t seen but am now interested in – but Unforgettable should earn Heigl some new fans and, with any luck, more complex characters to play. I’m also curious to see what Denise Di Novi directs next; Unforgettable is her first feature, but she has been a producer since the early 1980s, helping make such modern classics as Heathers, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Ed Wood, Little Women and A Walk to Remember.