Desire and Destruction: Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Todd Haynes’ rock n’ roll drama Velvet Goldmine is not just a queer cult classic; it is a magnificently queer cult classic, draped in luxurious fabrics and tarted up in glittery eyeshadow and lipstick for all the world to gaze at adoringly. Quite a few viewers over the years have misunderstood the film as a David Bowie biopic, but in actuality it’s more of a tribute to the experience of loving the glam rock music movement itself. Excessive indulgence was the name of the game for Bowie, Iggy Pop (The Stooges), Marc Bolan (T. Rex), Bryan Ferry (Roxy Music), Brian Eno, Lou Reed and everyone in the New York Dolls, so of course that’s also the case for the characters in this film. The mystery at the heart of Velvet – the rise, fall and subsequent disappearance of Venus in Furs frontman Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) – borrows details from the lives of many of the aforementioned musicians, plus a little Jobriath thrown in for good measure.

Brian is the object of lust at the center of Velvet’s universe, but the story is primarily seen through the eyes of a fan, Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), whose repressed gay adolescence was given release when glam rock revolutionized the look and sound of the music scene’s young idols. Arthur was fortunate to be present at a few vitally important concerts in Brian’s heyday, most notably the one that involved a shocking assassination-by-gunshot attempt. The incident was quickly revealed to have been a hoax cooked up by his management, a stunt that put an end to Brian’s career. (This is one of the character’s main similarities with Jobriath, who, like Brian Slade, was an openly gay rock star. Jobriath was touted as America’s answer to Bowie, but lost public favor following a huge buildup of hype and a ridiculously extravagant set of tour plans that never materialized. The other similarity is in their album covers.) On the ten-year anniversary of the “shooting,” in 1984, Arthur is working as a journalist in New York and he is tasked with finding out whatever became of the former star. Thus begins an odyssey into his and Brian’s pasts, like Citizen Kane with feather boas.

Like a proverbial phoenix, Brian Slade ascends from hippie singer-songwriter with flowing locks to a spiky-haired glam god singing about spaceships from the POV of his Ziggy Stardust-style alter ego, Maxwell Demon. Brian’s manager, Jerry Devine (Eddie Izzard), raises his meal ticket’s popularity with young Brits to a fever pitch; of more significant importance to Brian, however, is that he meets American glam-punk rocker Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). Modeled on Iggy Pop yet bearing a disconcerting physical resemblance to Kurt Cobain, Curt Wild is a raucous American rebel who inspires Brian’s professional imagination as well as his infatuation. The pair embark on a passionate affair, which drives a wedge between Brian and his party-girl wife, Mandy (Toni Collette, deftly utilizing a mixture of American and phony-English accents à la Angela Bowie). Unlike the real Bowie’s negation of his bisexuality (as a “closet heterosexual”) years after the glam rock era had ended, Brian’s sexual fluidity is never portrayed as a stage act.

As Arthur gets closer to the truth of what happened to Brian in the wake of the murder hoax – naturally, this Icarus’s burnout includes a downward spiral into heroin addiction – the film asks us to consider the malleability of identity and image, particularly with regard to celebrity and artists’ neverending battle between authenticity and artifice. Glam rock was a genre of reinvention for singers in the 1970s, seen most famously in David Bowie’s multiple personae during that decade; over the course of Velvet Goldmine, Brian Slade and Arthur Stuart undergo major changes, both cosmetically (Brian’s ever-evolving hair and makeup, Arthur’s growing ease with dressing in a glammed-up fashion) and sexually. Emotionally, the two men are each other’s foils, with the depth of Arthur’s personal journey contrasting sharply with Brian, about whom we never learn quite enough to get a true sense of his inner self. But in the end, maybe that’s for the best. In our current age of TMI, the idea of a glam rock supernova who rarely discloses his most private thoughts is tantalizing. For all we know, there’s not much going on underneath the androgynously pretty façade, which wouldn’t be a surprise. After all, this is a film fixated on The Picture of Dorian Gray’s symbolism, the mythology of Oscar Wilde himself and the concept that Wilde might have been an alien sent to Earth to share his literally stellar witticisms.

From shot to shot, the aesthetics of the film keep the viewer’s eye roving constantly. Maryse Alberti’s cinematography brings out the dazzling colors in Sandy Powell’s Oscar-nominated costume design, the makeup/hair design by Peter King, the production design by Christopher Hobbs and the art direction by Andrew Munro. The whole shebang is held together with the editing by James Lyons, who also co-wrote the film’s story with Todd Haynes; Lyons excels in the film’s exuberant opening credits sequence, set to Brian Eno’s “Needles in the Camel’s Eye,” and a later montage in which Brian and Arthur performing Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire” onstage is interwoven with scenes of Arthur masturbating to a newspaper photo of both men kissing in front of paparazzi.

It should also go without saying that the soundtrack is wall-to-wall brilliance. Even though David Bowie refused to give Todd Haynes the rights to use the song “Velvet Goldmine,” Haynes succeeds gloriously with tracks by Brian Eno, Slade (a nice joke on the director’s part), Roxy Music, Gary Glitter, Grant Lee Buffalo, T. Rex, Lou Reed and Steve Harley; covers interpreted by Thom Yorke (who does a spot-on Bryan Ferry impression on Roxy’s “2HB”) and Placebo (Brian Molko has a small role as a flashy entertainer at a couple of gigs); and original tunes performed by Shudder to Think and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, the latter showcasing a charmingly nasal, un-singer-like quality to his vocals. Arguably it’s a bit distracting that so many artists with noticeably different voices perform in the guise of Brian Slade, but the recordings are great enough that it doesn’t end up mattering. Additionally, Ewan McGregor does all of his own vocals as Curt Wild, which works especially well when he covers Iggy Pop’s “Gimme Danger.” McGregor’s erotically charged presence is undeniable. It’s a shame that we never learn anything about Curt Wild’s background or the direction his career took post-Brian Slade, but maybe Todd Haynes felt that there was already plenty going on in the plot.

Velvet Goldmine is a film that may take more than one viewing for its meanings to sink again. Certainly it’s more fun the second time around, making it easier to recognize the various moments of foreshadowing and other amusing details that pop up throughout the narrative. It’s a tale founded on a dangerously symbiotic relationship between desire and destruction, but there is also immense pleasure in appreciating the technical craft that makes Haynes’ work electric, reveling in every joyously gaudy frock and screeching guitar riff.

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

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Cinematographer Rachel Morrison (right) with director Ryan Coogler and production designer Hannah Beachler on the set of Black Panther, 2017. (Photo: Lisa Satriano)

Here are twelve new movies due to be released in theaters or via other viewing platforms this February, 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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FEBRUARY 2: Before We Vanish (dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa) (DP: Akiko Ashizawa)RogerEbert.com review by Simon Abrams: “There’s a lot of dead air in the endearingly eccentric Japanese science-fiction thriller Before We Vanish. That’s bound to be a deal-breaker for many viewers given that this film clocks in at 130 minutes, and feels like it could easily be half as long. Then again, you shouldn’t really expect much story or character development from this Invasion of the Body Snatchers-like alien invasion drama. Think of Before We Vanish as a very laid back hang-out movie that often coasts on off-kilter charm, and is frequently buoyed by basic, but stirring ideas that co-writer/director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Pulse, Tokyo Sonata) executes with characteristic flair. It’s an unsettling, and sometimes high-concept doodle, but it’s awfully hard to resist a film that marries Atomic Age paranoia and optimism with Kurosawa’s signature post-modern, atmosphere-intensive style.

“The plot, co-adapted with Sachiko Tanaka from Tomohiro Maekwa’s source play, is simple enough. Three aliens crash-land on Earth shortly before a planned planet-wide invasion. We are told this by the three disoriented Pod People in question: Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda), Akira (Yuri Tsunematsu), and Amano (Mahiro Takasugi). But that’s almost all we know for sure about these extra-terrestrials for a while since getting straight answers from Shinji’s group is rather difficult. Shinji and his fellow E.T.s latch on to human by-standers, like Shinji’s perplexed wife Narumi (Masami Nagasawa) and cynical reporter Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa), because they don’t understand complex concepts, and are therefore easily confused, and sidetracked. Then again, dispelling that confusion seems to be these aliens’s true purpose. They spend much of their time trying to understand complex concepts like ‘ownership’ and ‘family.’ The aliens learn by a bizarre psychic process that allows them to mentally absorb big ideas from reluctant humans’ brains. But once the transfer is complete, the human victim instantly forget whatever abstract theories were taken from them.

“Kurosawa and Tanaka run a fair distance with that tantalizing concept: what happens to people when they’re no longer sure of their character-defining obligations? The first couple of brain-washed humans are all happy, but useless in a society that they no longer mindlessly, but pragmatically devote themselves to. For example: Narumi’s boss has a childish tantrum after he forgets about his inhumane profit-driven concept of ‘work.’ But that reaction is too close to the experience of the man who prowls the streets with a crazed, child-like grin after he’s liberated of the concept of ‘ownership.’ And that response is too close to the one had by an unhinged middle-aged woman who now no longer remembers what ‘family’ is. We get it, we are prisoners of our beliefs. What now?

“Soon, the aliens and their warily sympathetic human guides start to bond, though sometimes for unclear reasons. In one of the film’s biggest highlights, Sakurai tries to warn his fellow humans of the impending invasion. He tells a crowd of dazed on-lookers exactly what’s happening: aliens are coming, and they’re taking the values that we hold most dear. Everybody stares blankly at him, as if to suggest that we are, in fact, the real pod people. This is the kind of scene that’s either ultimately childish or inspiring, depending on how well-executed it is. Thankfully, Kurosawa intuitively emphasizes Tsunematsu’s stiff body language, and the blank expressions on the people that Sakurai addresses. I was reminded of the iconic scene in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington where Jimmy Stewart collapses right after he’s practically buried alive in a mountain of constituents’ letters. Kurosawa’s scene is crucial in a similar way: this is the moment where despair finally gives way to a transporting optimism that carries the film to its corny, but well-executed finale.

“Some viewers might not like the way that the tone of Before We Vanish often drifts between emotional extremes. Some might not enjoy the arch tone of the film’s more unabashedly hopeful scenes. Some will want more naturalistic dialogue, or a more well-rounded narrative. I can’t blame them, or tell them they’re wrong for wanting what they want. But I will recommend Before We Vanish anyway, just because its naive hopefulness is infectious, and its big ideas are captivating. This is the kind of movie that’s destined to inspire a hardcore cult of fans, and will maybe even lead the next generation of genre filmmakers to tinker with their own big ideas. A little dead air is a small price to pay for that kind of lingering happiness.”

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FEBRUARY 2 (in theaters and streaming on Netflix): On Body and Soul (dir. Ildikó Enyedi)Decider review by Joe Reid: “At times, On Body and Soul plays like a parody of the kind of foreign-language film you expect to see nominated at the Oscars. There’s a sparse, wintry eastern European locale, full of hard, grim-faced individuals who work inside the cold concrete environs of, in this case, a slaughterhouse. Juxtaposed with this kind of institutional Hungarian drudgery, though, are dream scenes where two deer meet in the middle of a wonderfully picturesque woods. These dreams, we soon discover, are the shared experiences of two employees: Endre (Géza Morcsányi), an older man who’s the manager of the slaughterhouse, and Mária (Alexandra Borbély), an aloof, newly-hired young quality-control supervisor. There is no conventional way that you’d expect these two characters to end up in a love story, which is where the shared dreams of being deer come in.

On Body and Soul is going to be a leap for anyone looking for a typical love story. Calling it a ‘love story’ at all pretty much misses the point. It’s more a story about alienation and the randomness that comes with making a connection with someone. What director Ildiko Enyedi does rather beautifully is take the mundane day-to-day that these characters are living and depict it so precisely that the imprecise nature of dream connections and love feel all the more ephemeral.

“With the story of Endre and Mária so ephemeral, Enyedi’s most indelible sequences involve everything around them. One particularly scene lingers in gory detail on the slaughtering and dismembering of a cow. It’s very much not easy to watch, but it’s tough to say it doesn’t do the job when it comes to showing the casual brutality of a world where we all rather hilariously attempt to find something as elevating as love.

“The great thing about the foreign-language category at the Oscars is that it pushes American moviegoers, even those who imagine themselves to be particularly dedicated, adventurous cinephiles, to step outside of the American filmmaking mores and dip into filmmaking styles they’re unfamiliar with. This year, there are offerings from Chile, Lebanon, Russia, and Sweden, and the cross-section of styles (and filmmakers). On Body and Soul might be the most singular and strange film of the bunch, and it’s not the easiest to cozy up to. Loveless, the Russian entry, is remote and chilly, too, but there’s something purposefully impenetrable about the relationship at the center of On Body and Soul. Particularly for a film that wants so much to be about this unlikely connection between them. But I keep going back to those scenes of the deer in the woods and how much more breathtaking and magical they are. They’re an escape in the most wonderful way. They’re what will make you sit up and take notice.”

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FEBRUARY 9 (in theaters and on VOD): Becks (dirs. Daniel Powell and Elizabeth Rohrbaugh) (DP: Kat Westergaard)City Cinemas Village East Cinema synopsis: “Inspired by the real life of singer/songwriter Alyssa Robbins, Becks follows a musician (Lena Hall) who moves back to her childhood home in St. Louis after a crushing breakup with her longtime girlfriend. While performing for tips at a local tavern and struggling to reconnect with her ultra-Catholic mother, she strikes up a unique friendship with the wife of an old nemesis. Becks begins to discover her musical voice as she performs deeply personal songs about her ex and the loss of their relationship. Driven by an original score, the film’s musical numbers bring a unique new voice to the American musical movie.”

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FEBRUARY 9: The Female Brain (dir. Whitney Cummings)IFC Center synopsis: “What makes a woman swipe right for Mr. Wrong and left for Mr. Right? This simultaneously entertaining and enlightening comedy is a fresh, witty, and all-too-relatable look at the real-life science behind our (often regrettable) romantic impulses. Writer-director Whitney Cummings (‘2 Broke Girls’) stars as no-nonsense neuroscientist Julia, whose research into the biochemistry of the female brain is illustrated by three couples: newlyweds Zoe (Cecily Strong) and Greg (Blake Griffin), whose career troubles seep into their relationship; Lisa (Sofía Vergara) and Steven (Deon Cole), who are looking to spice up their stuck-in-a-rut marriage; and Lexi (Lucy Punch) who can’t help trying to change her boyfriend Adam (James Marsden). Meanwhile, the straight-laced Julia’s own synapses start to fire when a handsome new subject (Toby Kebbell) joins her study…”

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FEBRUARY 9: The Peacemaker (dir. James Demo) (DPs: Beth Balaban, Kevin Belli, James Demo, Mike Hechanova and Sarah Levy)New York Times review by Glenn Kenny: “Padraig O’Malley is a scholar and what one might call an amateur diplomat. He is the peacemaker of this film’s title. The documentary, directed by James Demo, is not a portrait of an idealist. The Irish-born Mr. O’Malley is an often dour man, and when he speaks of his work, there are no stars in his eyes. One of his recent books, about Israel and Palestine, is called The Two State Delusion. In negotiation, as the movie shows, he is pragmatic, focused and often steely.

“His story is an unusual one, which the director unspools by showing Mr. O’Malley first in a war-torn Iraq, then in the streets of Cambridge, Mass., where he teaches. (He travels so frequently he calls no place ‘home’). He enters a church, and we soon understand he’s in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Filming an A.A. meeting isn’t exactly kosher, but Mr. Demo doesn’t show the faces of the other attendees. (It’s not quite clear that this session hasn’t been staged specifically for the movie.)

“A good part of the picture relies on Mr. O’Malley’s account of his life with and without the bottle — members call it a ‘qualification’ — during this A.A. gathering. He tells how he started in conflict mediation when, in the early ’70s, he bought a Cambridge bar and funneled its revenue into hosting a negotiation between warring factions of Northern Ireland — a first for these groups.

“‘I don’t love anybody,’ the lanky, white-haired Mr. O’Malley admits during one interview segment. It’s his peculiar detachment, perhaps, that makes him good at what he does, even when the summits he hosts — he spent years in Iraq and in South Africa — yield nothing more than agreements on bilingual street signs. The movie is a fascinating portrait that is if anything too brief.”

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FEBRUARY 9 (in theaters and streaming on Netflix): Seeing Allred (dirs. Roberta Grossman and Sophie Sartain)The Hollywood Reporter’s Sundance Film Festival review by Daniel Fienberg: “Utterly and passionately hagiographic, the documentary Seeing Allred presents 96 minutes of reasons to stand and cheer for celebrated feminist lawyer Gloria Allred.

“That means, of course, that for ultra-conservative lovers of Netflix documentaries, it’s doubtful that Seeing Allred is going to dramatically change any opinions about her.

“For people with more tempered views on the notorious attorney, Sophie Sartain and Roberta Grossman’s documentary leaves a lot of questions unasked and tiptoes around plenty of other relevant conversations, but in its presentation of a career-in-full, it advocates persuasively for this advocate.

Seeing Allred, premiering as part of the U.S. Documentary competition at Sundance, feels like the film Allred would want a documentary about her to be.

“‘I think I’m very well understood by many people,’ she says before the film’s title card appears. And what of those who go out of their way not to understand her? ‘I don’t really care,’ she says, believably.

“Sartain and Grossman’s access to Allred began as the criminal accusations against Bill Cosby were starting to reach critical mass. It’s a perfect storm case for both Allred supporters and detractors, because she orchestrated a steady stream of press conferences relating to charges that were outside of the statute of limitations — the sort of thing that has always led to sniveling criticisms of opportunism and self-aggrandizement.

“The directors’ goal isn’t to debunk those slurs or to get Allred herself to debunk them. At the most, we get a couple variations on, ‘If she were a man, nobody would look at these qualities as negatives.’

“When Allred says she doesn’t care what people who don’t like her think, either that was a mantra she continued in interviews or it scared the directors off. Or maybe it didn’t interest the directors to know what she thinks about being lampooned by The Simpsons or Saturday Night Live or right-wing pundits. And they very much weren’t interested in asking her to defend herself, which is entirely fair. It’s left for one of the myriad admiring talking heads — even occasionally adversarial colleagues/pundits like Greta Van Susteren and Alan Dershowitz offer only respect here — to mention that for all of the perception of Allred working in a constantly publicized realm, most of her employment cases we hear nothing about. That’s a point Allred could make or the directors could want to show, but they don’t find it necessary.

“The documentary loosely puts Allred’s feminist awakening in a personal context, but that isn’t really the way the subject wants to frame it. She’s open but terse in discussing her own rape and subsequent illegal abortion, framing both in terms of the empathy she has for her clients. She’s entirely unwilling to discuss the end of her second marriage. She’s admiring, but not effusive in talking about daughter Lisa Bloom. Talking heads speak to Allred’s kindness and compassion; she doesn’t need to tell the camera that she’s kind or compassionate. A friend who does Gloria Allred-drag speaks to her sense of humor and her ability to laugh at herself; she doesn’t need to be funny or self-effacing for the camera (her amusement at frequent confusion with Sen. Barbara Boxer is one of the rare exceptions).

“Where Allred is comfortable is tracing a professional awakening in which she was fast to recognize that in press conferences or just televised announcements, she was being given (or grabbing) a platform and a voice that wasn’t being heard and that in being confrontational and steering into conflict, she was speaking the only language that the establishment was able to understand. It’s one thing to wonder if she has devalued that platform with some of the ways she’s used it, but it’s impossible to dispute that when she’s used the platform consistently on behalf of causes, she’s gotten results. So when she’s sitting behind a microphone next to Cosby accusers knowing that they can’t take Cosby to court, she’s in the business of giving voice, and if cynics ask, ‘Where’s the money or publicity for her in this?,’ the documentary draws the line directly to the Justice for Victims Act and then into her support for accusers of Donald Trump. When you draw enough lines and point to enough voices that she’s supported, you can actually believe Don Lemon when he says that without Allred he might not have his job, even if he’s not making a direct connection. The tentacles of her decades of campaigning are very visible.

“Because Allred isn’t into talking about mistakes or losses, one of the documentary’s most revelatory moments is the Hillary Clinton booster’s growing horror as the directors film what was supposed to be a celebratory 2016 Election Night. It’s unguarded and doesn’t feel camera-ready. There isn’t a follow-up interview where Allred theorizes on the election and what it meant. Instead, we just see her continue to amplify Trump accusers and take her place at the Women’s March and other protests.

Seeing Allred makes Allred’s work the only worthwhile manifestation of her character, and when she says that her only fear is not living long enough to do all the work she wants to do, that’s the case the film has argued, too. It’s not a case for Gloria Allred that’s going to change any minds but, again, she probably really doesn’t care.”

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FEBRUARY 16: Black Panther (dir. Ryan Coogler) (DP: Rachel Morrison)Los Angeles Times review by Kenneth Turan: “We didn’t know we’d been yearning for it until it arrived, but now that it’s here it’s unmistakable that the wait for a film like Black Panther has been way longer than it should have been. On one level this is the next-in-line Marvel Universe story of the ruler of the mythical African kingdom of Wakanda who moonlights as a superhero and has to contend with threats and problems both internal and external.

“But Black Panther, as co-written and directed by Ryan Coogler and starring a deep bench of actors of color, is an against-the-grain $100-million-plus epic so intensely personal that when the usual Marvel touchstones (Stan Lee, anyone) appear, they feel out of place. A superhero movie whose characters have integrity and dramatic heft, filled with engaging exploits and credible crises all grounded in a vibrant but convincing reality, laced with socially conscious commentary as well as wicked laughs that don’t depend on snark, this is the model of what an involving popular entertainment should be. And even something more.

“Energized to a thrilling extent by a myriad of Afrocentric influences, Black Panther showcases a vivid inventiveness that underscores the obvious point that we want all cultures and colors represented on screen because that makes for a richness of cinematic experience that everyone enjoys being exposed to. Like Christopher Nolan, who was 35 when he reanimated the Batman franchise, the 31-year-old Coogler has a gift for putting his own spin on genre, for making popular culture worlds his own. He did it with Creed, making the Rocky franchise and Sylvester Stallone uncannily relevant. That was only his second feature following a Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning debut, Fruitvale Station, but five years ago.

“A key to Coogler’s achievement with Black Panther is that he’s taken key production people along with him on all three of his films, including production designer Hannah Beachler, editor Michael P. Shawver and composer Ludwig Görannson. Director of photography Rachel Morrison, recently the first woman ever nominated for a cinematography Oscar, returns as well, as does expressive actor Michael B. Jordan, the star of Coogler’s first two films. Here Jordan shares the screen with an impressive array of actors, from veterans like Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker (an early Coogler supporter) to energized performers including Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Andy Serkis, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke and, of course, Chadwick Boseman.

“An impeccable actor, Boseman brings the quality of belief he’s brought to playing real people like Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall to the role of King T’Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther. This character made his first Marvel appearance in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, which saw T’Challa’s father, King T’Chaka, killed in an explosion, putting his son in line for assuming the Wakandan throne.

“One of the great things about Black Panther is the specificity of this mythical place, masquerading as one of the world’s poorest countries but actually — thanks to a huge deposit of miracle metal vibranium — a hotbed of futuristic technology. Not only have production designer Beachler and her team created marvelous locations like the Challenge Pool at Warrior Falls, but veteran costume designer Ruth E. Carter was instrumental as well. Both referenced everything including Ghanaian textiles, a 5th century Nigerian script and the dress of tribes like the Maasai, Tuareg, Dogon and Zulu.

“‘Never before in Hollywood have we had the chance to show the continent intellectually — it had all been Africa, dirt floors,’ Carter told California Sunday magazine. ‘We were trying to understand ancient African culture in a way that didn’t look “savage” but looked glorious, kingly, warrior-like.’ Carter’s most memorable creation, complete with neck rings borrowed from the Ndebele, is the Dora Milaje, the eight-member all-female royal bodyguard led by Okoye (‘The Walking Dead’s’ Gurira) who move with dazzling precision to strike terror into all who dare to cross them.

“As crisply scripted by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole (‘American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson’), Black Panther begins with a challenge to T’Challa’s rule that must be played out according to strict ancient protocols followed by a fence-mending expedition to old friend W’Kabi (Get Out’s Kaluuya). Then the new king has to deal with both Nakia (Nyong’o), his former significant other now fully involved in her life as a spy, and his precocious younger sister Shuri (a very amusing Wright), who functions as a kind of Q to Black Panther’s James Bond. T’Challa is also intent on confronting the evil South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Serkis), who was responsible for T’Chaka’s death. Working with Klaue is the mysterious Erik Killmonger, beautifully played by Jordan, a bad guy with a background and an agenda that will make heads spin all across Wakanda.

“With dialogue that deftly explores serious questions, such as how much if anything do wealthy countries owe the poor and oppressed of the world, Black Panther draws energy from Coogler’s sense of excitement at all he’s attempting. The result is a superhero movie that’s worth seeing twice, and that is a rare sighting indeed.”

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FEBRUARY 16: The Boy Downstairs (dir. Sophie Brooks)Tribeca Film Festival synopsis by Liza Domnitz: “From first-time writer-director Sophie Brooks, this original romantic comedy is the coming-of-age tale of a young writer looking to find her way back in New York City after a two-year stint in London. Zosia Mamet exhibits winsome charm as Diana, navigating the rite of passage of every single New Yorker: the search for the perfect apartment. She seemingly finds such a jewel of a home, until realizing her downstairs neighbor is actually her ex whose heart she broke when she left town. Like a true New Yorker, she keeps the apartment.

“Making the oft-told girl-meets-boy story new again, The Boy Downstairs asks real questions about love, chemistry and growing up, as Diana declares her intentions for cordial cohabitation, only to find their initially farcical arrangement giving way to more complicated feelings. Featuring a stellar cast, led by Mamet and supported by indie stalwarts Matthew Shear, Deirdre O’Connell, and newcomers Sarah Ramos and Diana Irvine.”

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FEBRUARY 16 (streaming on Netflix): Irreplaceable You (dir. Stephanie Laing) (DP: Magdalena Górka)IndieWire article by Jenna Marotta: “The upcoming Netflix film Irreplaceable You boasts a female director, screenwriter, cinematographer, and star, a combination that worked well for the streaming service’s three-time Oscar nominee, Mudbound. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beauty and the Beast) plays Abbie, a woman thrilled to finally be marrying her elementary school sweetheart, Sam (Michiel Huisman from ‘Game of Thrones’), with whom she is expecting a child. At a doctor’s appointment, the couple is devastated to learn that Abbie actually isn’t pregnant: she’s given a terminal cancer diagnosis instead.

“Bucking the film’s title, Abbie then resigns to auditioning stand-ins to share a life with Sam. She also attends patient group therapy alongside the alter-egos of Christopher Walken, Kate McKinnon, Steve Coogan, and Tami Sagher (Don’t Think Twice). Irreplaceable You features sympathetic turns from Brian Tyree Henry (‘Atlanta’), Timothy Simons (‘Veep’) and Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook).

“It is the first produced screenplay from Bess Wohl, an actress who has appeared in guest parts on shows such as ‘Bones’ and ‘CSI: NY.’ Director Stephanie Laing has also been given her first opportunity to helm a feature; her resume includes producing credits on ‘Veep’ and ‘Vice Principals.’ Jonathan Tropper — who adapted his bestselling novel This Is Where I Leave You into another death-tinged film — is among the producers.

“Soon after Irreplaceable You debuts on Friday, February 16, Mbatha-Raw will play the mother to Storm Reid’s heroine, Meg, in Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time.

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FEBRUARY 16: The Party (dir. Sally Potter)Variety’s Berlin International Film Festival review by Guy Lodge: “It may have its uses in describing butter cookies and cat videos, but it’s fair to say that ‘short and sweet’ is an over-applied compliment: Sometimes it’s better to be short and severely, cheek-shrivelingly sour. So it proves in The Party, a deliciously heightened, caviar-black comedy that sets up its brittle, bourgeois characters like bowling pins and gleefully knocks them down in 71 minutes flat. Slight and self-contained, it won’t go down in cinema history as anything but, perhaps, the most purely fun film ever made by peculiar British experimentalist Sally Potter. Still, this sketch of an ambitious Westminster politician and dinner-party hostess (Kristin Scott Thomas), whose life comes spectacularly apart before the canapés are even served, is a consummate drawing-room divertissement, played with relish by a dream ensemble. Notwithstanding a somewhat strained twist, it’s as slender, sharp and snappish as a wishbone; chic arthouse distributors should RSVP to this Party without delay.

“Premiering in competition at Berlin, Potter’s film plays as a kind of antidote to Oren Moverman’s The Dinner in the same section. Both films chart the disastrous fallout as assorted secrets are uncovered at a dinner event organized by a political bigwig, but where Moverman’s film, with its grandiose Gettysburg allusions, reveals a pained social conscience, Potter’s is quite content to ridicule its middle-class subjects without taking a defined moral position on their foibles and failings. Think of it as a quinoa-classes update of Mike Leigh’s evergreen Abigail’s Party: Its gaze is fixed a few notches higher up the social ladder, but the characters are just as plagued by petty aspirationalism.

“After opening with one of those all-too-ubiquitous flash-forward shots, with a harried-looking Janet (Scott Thomas) aiming a gun at an unseen target, the film jauntily works its way to that climax. It’s early evening, and guests are beginning to arrive at Janet’s elegant Victorian home in a leafy part of London — raising a toast to her recent appointment as Health Minister. First up is her acidly cynical best friend April (a never-more-waspish Patricia Clarkson), a former idealist who congratulates Janet in the same breath as declaring democracy ‘finished.’

“April regards her boyfriend Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), an anti-political humanist life coach, with eye-rolling contempt, though that counts as affection relative to her scorching dismissal of another pair of guests: dour academic Martha (Cherry Jones), a specialist in ‘gender differentiation on American utopianism,’ and her newly pregnant partner Jinny (Emily Mortimer), who squabble over the correct degree of radical feminism to assume these days. An illiberal outlier among the guests is Prada-suited, cocaine-dusted finance shark Tom (a fine, antic Cillian Murphy), whose wife is mysteriously delayed; still, she’s practically more present at the party than Janet’s husband Bill (played in deliberately, comically checked-out fashion by Timothy Spall), who eventually rouses himself from a glazed fug of ennui to deliver the first of several sequential bombshells.

“It’d poop ‘The Party,’ so to speak, to reveal anything further — though this is less a plot-based exercise than a tipsily conversational one. Potter’s eminently quotable screenplay works up just enough narrative momentum to sustain a barrage of killer one-liners: With the hors d’oeuvres increasingly unlikely to be served, decorum is swiftly shed and these privileged vultures instead feed ravenously on each other’s ideals. ‘Tickle an aromatherapist and you’ll find a fascist,’ April drily observes as even the most genteel guests begin to show their colors, and multiple relationships go into instant shock therapy.

“It’s never specified to which political party Janet belongs — though she’s an ardent defender of the National Health Service, so she’s probably no Theresa May sympathizer — but she appears here so airily removed from the outside world that it hardly matters. Whichever side she’s on, it’s one opposed by April, brilliantly played by Clarkson as the kind of self-styled truth-teller who actually conceals a lot of herself in her blanket nihilism. (‘Pretending hasn’t worked for your party for a while,’ she tells Janet — and she could be talking about either her political party or this particular botched occasion.) The Party flatters neither woman’s position, nor the other guests’ ideological perches in between. Everyone at this woebegone soiree comes off as slightly absurd in what could be read as a blasé, from-within satire of the ‘metropolitan elite’ so savaged by U.K. conservatives of late.

“One shouldn’t pull a muscle, however, in reaching for the subtext of Potter’s witty shaggy-dog story: Its giddy in-the-moment pleasures are enough, even if a final kicker of a reveal doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in retrospect. While this kind of chamber material risks seeming plucked from the stage — it isn’t, incidentally — Alexey Rodionov’s nimble monochrome lensing and Anders Refn and Emilie Orsini’s antsy editing lend Potter’s script a propulsively cinematic, bouncing-off-the-walls quality, smartly drawing to a close just as the joke threatens to wear thin. (Refn has collaborated with Lars von Trier in the past, and The Party sometimes does exude the splintery air of a glossier Dogme 95 exercise.)

“Potter’s cast, meanwhile, is perceptibly having a blast with her savory invective and insults: There’s nothing to dislike about a film that gives Patricia Clarkson the chance to tell Cherry Jones that she’s ‘a first-rate lesbian and a second-rate thinker.’ Months after the U.S. election campaign turned an intended jibe into a rallying cry, Sally Potter’s latest further proves that there’s pleasure, pride or both to be taken in being a nasty woman.”

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FEBRUARY 16: Western (dir. Valeska Grisebach)Film Society of Lincoln Center synopsis: “German director Valeska Grisebach uses the Western as a template with which to draw out eternal human conflicts in this supremely intelligent genre update, her first feature in a decade. In remote rural Bulgaria, a group of German workers are building a water facility. Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), the reserved newbie in this all-male company, immediately draws the ire of the boorish team leader, not least for his willingness to mingle with the wary locals. Cast with utterly convincing nonprofessional actors, Western is a gripping culture-clash drama, attuned both to old codes of masculinity and new forms of colonialism.”

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FEBRUARY 23 (in theaters and on VOD): Half Magic (dir. Heather Graham)IndieWire article by Kate Erbland: “For her directorial debut, long-time actress and Hollywood star Heather Graham tackled an R-rated mainstay — the sex comedy — with a decidedly feminine-focused twist and a strong message of self-love. Graham also stars in the film, which is apparently ‘pulled from personal experiences.’

Half Magic follows a trio of very different women who share the same problem: their love lives just aren’t up to snuff. The ladies, including Angela Kinsey and Stephanie Beatriz, decide to take it upon themselves to pursue only good relationships with worthy men.

“In an official statement from Graham herself, the newly-minted filmmaker shares, ‘On the surface, Half Magic is a comedy about bad dating decisions. Why do we choose the people we choose? What draws us in? Why do we always “know better” but do it anyway? I have made some bad choices and put my self-worth into needing to be with “that” guy. So I made this film because I wanted to share the journey of how I got over the programming of my religious upbringing and terrible dating experiences to come to love myself and my sexuality.’

“Graham added, ‘I want to empower women to feel good about themselves and make better choices. I want to celebrate women enjoying their sexuality and finding their pleasure. I want to celebrate how strong we are and how we can create anything we want. …Over the last few months, a new sexual revolution has begun, with more women than ever coming forward to share their stories of sexual harassment. Gone are the days when women felt powerless, with their abusers facing no repercussions.'”

2018 Oscar Nomination Predictions!

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It’s that time of year again: tomorrow morning, the Oscar nominations will be announced. Some of my predictions were particularly difficult to make, like Best Picture (the Academy can pick up to ten candidates but the final number is more likely to be eight or nine), Best Actress (I consider Sally Hawkins, Frances McDormand, Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan to be the locks but there’s a fight between Jessica Chastain and Meryl Streep for the fifth spot) and Best Supporting Actor (I suspect that Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlbarg will cancel each other out and make room for Christopher Plummer), as well as the many technical categories. Darkest Hour, for example, is now a stronger contender for many awards than I initially thought it would be just a few months ago.

I struggled with figuring out whether Wonder Woman would be able to make it into the Sound Editing/Mixing and Visual Effects competitions. Various films in the sci-fi, fantasy and superhero genres could elbow their way into the conversation. It would also be wonderful if I, Tonya scores in the Best Original Screenplay field, and if Variety’s predictions about The Florida Project earning surprise nods for Best Picture and Best Director come true.

(Incidentally, I have not predicted the short film categories because I have not read enough about them yet.)

Best Picture: Call Me by Your Name; Darkest Hour; Dunkirk; Get Out; I, Tonya; Lady Bird; The Post; The Shape of Water; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Best Director: Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water); Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird); Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri); Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk); Jordan Peele (Get Out)

Best Actor: Timothée Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name); Daniel Day-Lewis (Phantom Thread); James Franco (The Disaster Artist); Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out); Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour)

Best Actress: Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water); Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri); Margot Robbie (I, Tonya); Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird); Meryl Streep (The Post)

Best Supporting Actor: Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project); Woody Harrelson (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri); Richard Jenkins (The Shape of Water); Christopher Plummer (All the Money in the World); Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Best Supporting Actress: Mary J. Blige (Mudbound); Hong Chau (Downsizing); Holly Hunter (The Big Sick); Allison Janney (I, Tonya); Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird)

Best Original Screenplay: Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick); Jordan Peele (Get Out); Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird); Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water); Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Best Adapted Screenplay: James Ivory (Call Me by Your Name); Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (The Disaster Artist); Scott Frank, Michael Green and James Mangold (Logan); Aaron Sorkin (Molly’s Game); Dee Rees and Virgil Williams (Mudbound)

Best Cinematography: Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049); Bruno Delbonnel (Darkest Hour); Hoyte van Hoytema (Dunkirk); Rachel Morrison (Mudbound); Dan Laustsen (The Shape of Water)

Best Film Editing: Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss (Baby Driver); Lee Smith (Dunkirk); Tatiana S. Riegel (I, Tonya); Sidney Wolinsky (The Shape of Water); Jon Gregory (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Best Production Design: Sarah Greenwood (Beauty and the Beast); Dennis Gassner and Alessandora Querzola (Blade Runner 2049); Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer (Darkest Hour); Nathan Crowley and Gary Fettis (Dunkirk); Paul D. Austerberry (The Shape of Water)

Best Costume Design: Jacqueline Durran (Beauty and the Beast); Jacqueline Durran (Darkest Hour); Jennifer Johnson (I, Tonya); Mark Bridges (Phantom Thread); Luis Sequeira (The Shape of Water)

Best Hair & Makeup: Darkest Hour; I, Tonya; Wonder

Best Sound Editing: Baby Driver; Blade Runner 2049; Dunkirk; The Shape of Water; Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Best Sound Mixing: Baby Driver; Blade Runner 2049; Dunkirk; The Shape of Water; Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Best Visual Effects: Blade Runner 2049; Dunkirk; The Shape of Water; War for the Planet of the Apes; Wonder Woman

Best Original Score: Dario Marianelli (Darkest Hour); Hans Zimmer (Dunkirk); Jonny Greenwood (Phantom Thread); John Williams (The Post); Alexandre Desplat (The Shape of Water)

Best Original Song: “Mystery of Love” (Call Me by Your Name); “Remember Me” (Coco); “This Is Me” (The Greatest Showman); “Stand Up for Something” (Marshall); “Mighty River” (Mudbound)

Best Foreign Language Film: A Fantastic Woman (Chile); Foxtrot (Israel); In the Fade (Germany); Loveless (Russia); The Square (Sweden)

Best Animated Feature: The Boss Baby; The Breadwinner; Coco; The LEGO Batman Movie; Loving Vincent

Best Documentary Feature: City of Ghosts; Faces Places; Icarus; Jane; Strong Island

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.”

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