2019 Oscar Nominations: My Predictions

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Here are my predictions for the Oscar nominations that will be announced tomorrow morning. (As always, I didn’t attempt to guess at the three short film categories since I never really know anything about them until after the nominations come out.) Certain categories were particularly difficult for me to decide on, like Best Director, Best Hair & Makeup and the Best Sound Editing/Mixing awards, but I’ve done my best to read the minds of a voting group that is gradually expanding and diversifying.

(P.S. Many pundits anticipate that Ethan Hawke will receive a Best Actor nomination for First Reformed. I would love for that to happen, but Paul Schrader’s drama was ignored by SAG, the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, so ultimately I don’t envision Hawke for the final five among lead actors. If he is nominated, though, I will be just as pleased as everyone else who has seen his remarkable work in the film, knowing that he deserves the acclaim.)

Best Picture: BlacKkKlansman; Black Panther; Bohemian Rhapsody; The Favourite; First Man; Green Book; If Beale Street Could Talk; Roma; A Star Is Born; Vice

Best Director: Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born); Alfonso Cuarón (Roma); Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite); Spike Lee (BlackKklansman); Adam McKay (Vice)

Best Actress: Yalitza Aparicio (Roma); Glenn Close (The Wife); Olivia Colman (The Favourite); Lady Gaga (A Star Is Born); Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

Best Actor: Christian Bale (Vice); Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody); Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born); Viggo Mortensen (Green Book); John David Washington (BlackKklansman)

Best Supporting Actress: Amy Adams (Vice); Claire Foy (First Man); Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk); Emma Stone (The Favourite); Rachel Weisz (The Favourite)

Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali (Green Book); Timothée Chalamet (Beautiful Boy); Adam Driver (BlackKklansman); Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born); Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

Best Adapted Screenplay: BlackKklansman; Black Panther; Can You Ever Forgive Me?; If Beale Street Could Talk; Leave No Trace

Best Original Screenplay: The Favourite; First Reformed; Green Book; Roma; Vice

Best Cinematography: Cold War; The Favourite; First Man; Roma; A Star Is Born

Best Editing: Black Panther; First Man; Roma; A Star Is Born; Vice

Best Production Design: Black Panther; The Favourite; First Man; Mary Poppins Returns; Roma

Best Costume Design: Black Panther; Bohemian Rhapsody; The Favourite; Mary Poppins Returns; Mary Queen of Scots

Best Hair & Makeup: Border; Mary Queen of Scots; Vice

Best Sound Editing: Black Panther; Bohemian Rhapsody; First Man; A Quiet Place; A Star Is Born

Best Sound Mixing: Bohemian Rhapsody; First Man; A Quiet Place; Roma; A Star Is Born

Best Visual Effects: Avengers: Infinity War; Black Panther; First Man; Ready Player One; Solo: A Star Wars Story

Best Original Score: BlackKklansman; First Man; If Beale Street Could Talk; Isle of Dogs; Mary Poppins Returns

Best Original Song: “All the Stars” (Black Panther); “Girl in the Movies” (Dumplin’); “The Place Where Lost Things Go” (Mary Poppins Returns); “I’ll Fight” (RBG); “Shallow” (A Star Is Born)

Best Foreign Language Film: Burning; Capernaum; Cold War; Roma; Shoplifters

Best Animated Feature: Incredibles 2; Isle of Dogs; Mirai; Ralph Breaks the Internet; Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Best Documentary: Free Solo; Minding the Gap; Of Fathers and Sons; RBG; Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Women-Directed/Photographed Films Coming to Theaters: January 2019

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Director/screenwriter Melissa B. Miller-Costanzo (center) with actors Brendan Meyer (l.) and Sam McCarthy (r.) on the set of All These Small Moments, 2017. (Photo: Katie Leary, Filmmaker Magazine)

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.

(Apologies, by the way, for missing out on doing these posts in November and December 2018! I was overworked, and therefore missed out on informing you all of such films as All the Creatures Were Stirring, Anna and the Apocalypse, Becoming Astrid, Between Worlds, Bird Box, Capernaum, Clara’s Ghost, Destroyer, Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes, Dumplin’, Happy as Lazzaro, Jinn, Lez Bomb, The Long Dumb Road, Mary Queen of Scots, Narcissister Organ Player, The New Romantic, On the Basis of Sex, The Party’s Just Beginning, Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, Searching for Ingmar Bergman, That Way Madness Lies, United Skates, Unlovable and Write When You Get Work.)

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JANUARY 1 (VOD), JANUARY 4 (in theaters): State Like Sleep (dir. Meredith Danluck)Variety’s Tribeca Film Festival review by Nick Schager: “The aftershocks of trauma can take many forms, as Katherine (Katherine Waterston) learns following the death of her famous husband in State Like Sleep, writer-director Meredith Danluck’s unsettling first feature. Aided by Christopher Blauvelt’s sumptuous cinematography, this consistently surprising film slinks along with melancholic dreaminess, matching the fugue state that plagues its grief-stricken protagonist. With Michael Shannon and Luke Evans also upending expectations in supporting roles, it’s a confident debut that should reap considerable attention from distributors, and opportunities for Danluck, following its premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

“‘Without stories, the truth is too random,’ opines Belgian actor Stefan (Michiel Huisman) during a TV interview at the start of State Like Sleep. Though the thespian comes off as full of himself (and also something decidedly odorous), it’s an insight that defines Danluck’s tale. Via eerie shots through Stefan and wife Katherine’s messy Brussels flat, as well as oblique glimpses of a gunshot and blood pooling around Stefan’s head, the subsequent drama is set in motion. Before audiences can settle in, however, the film leaps forward a year in time, to find Katherine — a photographer who has since abandoned her home — receiving news that her mother (Mary Kay Place) is in Brussels, and in the hospital. Thus, Katherine’s long-delayed return trip to the scene of the crime begins.

“With a look of perpetual misery plastered across her face, Katherine is soon dealing with not only her mother’s fragile brain-related condition, but also her nasty mother-in-law Anneke (Julie Khaner), who resents Katherine for stealing away the affections of her beloved boy. Back in the residence she fled, Katherine is compelled to confront the marital messiness that immediately preceded Stefan’s death, including a tabloid scandal involving leaked pictures of him with a mysterious woman. Wracked by questions about Stefan’s fidelity, as well as whether foul play was to blame for his demise, Katherine transforms herself into an amateur sleuth, trawling the darker corners of Brussels — and her memory — to solve what she suspects may be a whodunit.

“That endeavor leads Katherine to an underground nightclub run by Emile (Evans), a live-wire who was Stefan’s best friend since childhood (unbeknownst to Katherine), and who attempts to bed her by tricking her into snorting heroin. While eying Emile as a potential suspect, she strikes up an unlikely rapport with Edward (Shannon), a hotel neighbor who first introduces himself by drunkenly trying to enter her room. In Rear Window fashion, Katherine uses her camera to watch Edward through their adjacent windows. Yet despite a guilelessness that verges on bluntness, Edward is anything but a Raymond Burr-ish villain. Before long, their shared feelings of dislocation and longing — for connection, understanding, and relief from their loneliness — draws them into a tentative romance.

“Using Waterston’s changing hairstyle as a way to identify where different scenes fit in the film’s chronology, Danluck cross-cuts between past and present with stream-of-consciousness fluidity, creating a hypnotic mood in harmony with her hazy metropolitan milieu and Katherine’s dazed-and-confused headspace. To that end, State Like Sleep is bolstered by Jeff Wingo and David Mcilwain’s piano-and-electronica score, and moreover, by DP Blauvelt’s rapturous work. His woozy imagery is awash in reflections and light flares, filtered through streaky windows and translucent barriers, and marked by unexpected compositions that lend the action a striking, disorienting edginess.

“Waterston embodies Katherine as a lost soul consumed by delusional sorrow, and around the edges of her morose expressions, one can spy the woman’s marrow-deep desperation. Just as assured are Evans and Shannon, both of whom initially come across as neo-noir archetypes — the volatile underworld scumbag and the charming but untrustworthy stranger, respectively — and then skillfully develop surprising angles to their characters. Seething with irrepressible resentment, Khaner steals every scene she’s in, including a climax that plays like a startling slap to a slumbering face.”

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JANUARY 4 (streaming on Netflix): And Breathe Normally (dir. Isold Uggadottir) (DP: Ita Zbroniec-Zajt)Variety’s Sundance Film Festival review by Alissa Simon: “A struggling Icelandic single mother forms an unlikely bond with a female asylum seeker from Guinea-Bissau in the impressively acted social-realist drama And Breathe Normally from debuting helmer-writer Ísold Uggadóttir. Reminiscent of the work of Ken Loach or the Dardenne brothers, it unfolds amid grim, desolate-looking landscapes that supply the antithesis of Iceland’s tourist brochures. Although some might find the twists and turns of the narrative to occasionally defy credibility, others will be swept along with the gripping human dilemmas of the main characters. Further festival action is a given, especially since it includes zeitgeist topics such as poverty, refugees and LGBT issues.

“Tough, tattooed Lara (Kristín Thóra Haraldsdóttir) strives to stay a few steps ahead of the debt collector yet still provide cute and uncomplaining kindergartner son Eldar (Patrik Nökkvi Pétursson) with the occasional treat, such as rescue cat Músi. She’s not one to accept the kindness of strangers; when someone else in the grocery line offers to cover the toilet paper she can’t pay for, she just pushes the item out of her pile.

“Director-writer Uggadóttir keeps viewers on their toes by subtly providing clues to Lara’s chariness, rather than spelling things out. We learn that her mother lives in Norway, she has not always had custody of her son, that a problem with drugs lies in the past and may resurface and that she has the occasional tryst with the mother of her son’s best friend.

“A lifeline for Lara’s financial situation seems to materialize when the border security forces at Keflavík, Iceland’s main airport, offer her a position as a trainee. And it’s there she first crosses paths with Adja (Babetida Sadjo), who is in transit to Canada on a fake French passport. After Lara flags the passport to her trainer, Adja winds up stranded in Iceland, first with a short prison term, then stuck in a run-down refugee center at the rough edges of the Reykjanes peninsula while the government considers her request for asylum.

“Meanwhile, money isn’t coming in fast enough for Lara, who, hounded by her landlord, puts her few belongings in storage and convinces Eldar that they are going on a secret adventure that involves sleeping in the car. Although Iceland would certainly provide support for housing and basic needs for a single mother like Lara, her unwillingness to seek or accept formal help leads her to make some unwise decisions. In a scene that hits hard with its straightforward simplicity, Uggadóttir shows mother and son satiating their hunger with chicken kebabs from a grocery store demonstration, reinforcing her message that not all of the needy are willing or able to partake of government services.

“When the paths of Lara and Adja cross again, it’s Adja who provides surprising succor, sneaking the mother and son into the refugee center so that they have a place to wash and a bed to sleep in. While this plot point might strain plausibility for some, ‘This American Life’ just reported on the unbelievable chaos and confusion at one small refugee court in Laredo, Texas, so who knows how carefully monitored Iceland’s isolated refugee housing really is.

“Just as one starts to predict what the ultimate arc of the screenplay will be, Uggadóttir, a Columbia University MFA graduate known for her prize-winning shorts, throws in a few twists, showing that Adja and Lara have more in common than they would have guessed. What might, in other hands, be melodramatic or emotionally manipulative remains resolutely unsentimental here.

“In what is essentially a three-hander, Guinea-born Belgian actress Sadjo impresses with her dignity and warmth. Meanwhile, petite Haraldsdóttir displays such patience and love for her son that she keeps viewers rooting for her to overcome her obstacles despite her occasional bad judgment. And young Pétursson is a delight as the least whiny child ever.

“Polish lenser Ita Zbroniec-Zaj, who has done excellent work for Scandinavian helmers such as Måns Månsson, Hanna Sköld and Goran Kapetanovic, provides the standout tech credit here. The turbulent autumn weather and rugged landscapes of Iceland practically become another character. She also visually reinforces the leitmotif of being trapped with images such as the cats at the rescue shelter and stowaways at the harbor, as well as plays of light and shadow throughout. The melancholy score by Gísli Galdur also makes a strong impression.”

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JANUARY 4: Communion (dir. Anna Zamecka) (DP: Malgorzata Szylak)Reverse Shot essay by Caroline Madden:Communion opens with a medium shot of a young man’s laborious struggle to put his belt through the loop of his pants. ‘Wrong, wrong, wrong,’ Nikodem (Nikodem Kaczanowski) says, chastising himself as he twists it backwards and fumbles with its clasp. Writer and director Anna Zamecka lingers on Nikodem’s strain to the point of discomfort, visually embodying the simmering pain and frustrations that embroil him and his family. Shot in Poland for 35 days over the course of a year, Zamecka’s debut feature unfolds in a measured and unvarnished style that reflects her anthropologist’s eye. She originally wanted to make a short fiction film based on her childhood—’It had to be fiction,’ Zamecka explains, ‘because I didn’t know how to begin to look for real people that had this similar situation’—but after serendipitously meeting the Kacanowski family she decided to document their lives instead. Communion concerns the devastating and ironic contradictions of 14-year-old girl Ola (Ola Kacanowski) tasked with nursing her autistic younger brother, Nikodem, and alcoholic father, Marek (Marek Kacanowski). Nikodem’s impending communion ceremony serves as the narrative fulcrum, an event that Ola hopes will reunite her with her absent mother, Magda (Magda Kacanowski).

“Ola occupies the vacancy left by Magda, tending to Nikodem and Marek with a resolute and tenacious spirit. She reminds her father not to drink, cooks his meals, cleans the home, keeps his appointments, and assists him in writing a letter to their landlord. But it is her relationship with the obstreperous Nikodem that puts her fortitude to the test. The simplest tasks—tying his shoes, giving him a bath, or quizzing him on Scripture—are made all the more difficult by his disability, which leaves him distracted and jittery. Nikdoem even self-identifies with the kinetic energy of animals, frequently pretending to be a lion.

“Every so often the pressures of Ola’s domestic role boil to the surface; at one point, after she must repair a broken cabinet door, she shouts, ‘I’ve had enough—is nothing normal in this place?’ The muted colors, mismatched vintage wallpaper, and threadbare furnishings of Ola’s home reflect her aberrant lifestyle and the fractured nature of her family. Zamecka juxtaposes these immuring, tattered interiors with the brightness and vitality of Ola’s social life: the idyllic woods where she plays with friends, or the electronic pulsations and flashing lights of a school dance. These are brief, invigorating respites from the adult responsibilities that encumber her. Aside from some of Ola’s friends, few characters appear outside of her familial orbit. She meets with a social worker, but Zamecka keeps his face off-screen, focusing instead on Ola’s careful replies and minute expressions. The priest who counsels Nikodem is shown only in profile, but we can still sense his exasperation as he tries to wrangle and prepare Nikodem for his sacrament. By obfuscating these adult bodies, Zamecka symbolizes the lack of institutional intervention available to this family.

“Communions are momentous and ornate occasions in Polish culture, but Nikodem’s spiritual milestone arrives without much fanfare. Left alone before the ceremony, Ola gingerly fixes her hair with a half-broken brush, then wrestles with the zipper of her fancy yellow-tulle dress. ‘I feel like a cartoon character!’ she cries, suspecting that she is merely costuming herself in the part of a daughter with a functional nuclear family. When Magda eventually returns, Zamecka collapses her long-awaited arrival under the weight of the family’s rigid tension and banality, suggesting that Ola must abandon her naïve self-delusions and acknowledge that the fault lines between her parents are irreparable. The reunited family remains mostly silent during the post-communion dinner, wolfing down their food. Ola scrounges for every second she can have that day with her mom, who makes discreet phone calls to her new partner to barter for more time with her children. There are indications that this other man is abusive, but Zamecka shrouds the adults’ personal details and history in mystery, perhaps to reflect the children’s unawareness. Ola’s wish comes true when her mother decides to move back in, but then she is saddled with caring for her infant half-sibling and mediating her parents’ fierce bickering. Thus, the tiny apartment seems more claustrophobic than ever, with bodies constantly crowding the film’s frame.

“The sacrament of communion is meant to foster one’s independent relationship with God, but it is the earthly relationships that are at stake in Communion. In regards to Ola’s mother, one of the social workers tells her, ‘There are two of you—it is a mutual relationship,’ but that is hardly the case. The lack of reciprocity in the adult/child relationships in Communion is disquieting; because of her absent parents, Ola endures hardships that no child should have to bear. Holy Communion also symbolizes a child’s entry into adulthood because they confront the idea that they are born with sin, but Ola and Nikodem’s innocence has long been lost, and they are the ones who must pay for the adults’ sins. Although the siblings’ parents care for them, they cannot see past their own problems. In her captivating and unsettling portrait of lost youth, Zamecka follows her destitute subjects with a patient and intimate observational style, imbuing the narrative with a palpable tension and touching upon her film’s many emotional notes with a quiet grace.”

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JANUARY 4 (streaming on Netflix): El Potro: Unstoppable (dir. Lorena Muñoz)Netflix synopsis: “Argentine cuarteto singer Rodrigo ‘El Potro’ Bueno rises to fame amid personal struggles in this dramatization of the charismatic superstar’s life.”

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JANUARY 4 (streaming on Netflix): Lionheart (dir. Genevieve Nnaji)Toronto International Film Festival synopsis: “The directorial debut of one of Africa’s biggest screen stars, Lionheart shows Nigeria’s Genevieve Nnaji taking full creative control of the kind of empowering story that endeared her to Nollywood audiences all over the world. The director and co-writer also stars in the film as Adaeze, a savvy businesswoman who is itching to take over the reins of her father’s transport enterprise. Blinded by sexism, Dad favours his son for the top job, forcing Adaeze to work even harder to realize her ambition without seeming to go against her father’s wishes; but when she discovers that the family company has a faulty financial foundation, she is finally compelled to take the driver’s seat. Fresh from its world premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Nnaji’s vibrant and engaging drama evokes both King Lear and 9 to 5.

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JANUARY 4: Rust Creek (dir. Jen McGowan) (DP: Michelle Lawler)IFC Center synopsis: “An ordinary woman must summon extraordinary courage to survive a nightmare odyssey in this harrowing survival thriller. Sawyer (Hermione Corfield) is an ambitious, overachieving college senior with a seemingly bright future. While on her way to a job interview, a wrong turn leaves her stranded deep in the frozen Kentucky woods. Suddenly, the young woman with everything to live for finds herself facing her own mortality as she’s punished by the elements and pursued by a band of ruthless outlaws. With nowhere left to run, she is forced into an uneasy alliance with Lowell (Jay Paulson), an enigmatic loner with shadowy intentions. Though she’s not sure she can trust him, Sawyer must take a chance if she hopes to escape Rust Creek alive.”

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JANUARY 11 (NYC/LA): Touch Me Not (dir. Adina Pintilie)Museum of Modern Art synopsis: “‘Tell me how you loved me, so I understand how to love.’ Together, a filmmaker and her characters venture into a personal research project about intimacy. On the fluid border between reality and fiction, Touch Me Not follows the emotional journeys of Laura (Laura Benson), Tómas (Tómas Lemarquis), and Christian (Christian Bayerlein), offering a deeply empathic insight into their lives. Craving for intimacy yet also deeply afraid of it, they work to overcome old patterns, defense mechanisms, and taboos, to cut the cord and finally be free. Touch Me Not looks at how we can find intimacy in the most unexpected ways, at how to love another without losing ourselves.”

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JANUARY 16: What Is Democracy? (dir. Astra Taylor) (DP: Maya Bankovic)Zeitgeist Films synopsis: “Coming at a moment of profound political and social crisis, What Is Democracy? reflects on a word we too often take for granted.

“Director Astra Taylor’s idiosyncratic, philosophical journey spans millennia and continents: from ancient Athens’ groundbreaking experiment in self-government to capitalism’s roots in medieval Italy; from modern-day Greece grappling with financial collapse and a mounting refugee crisis to the United States reckoning with its racist past and the growing gap between rich and poor.

“Featuring a diverse cast—including celebrated theorists, trauma surgeons, activists, factory workers, asylum seekers, and former prime ministers—this urgent film connects the past and the present, the emotional and the intellectual, the personal and the political, in order to provoke and inspire. If we want to live in democracy, we must first ask what the word even means.”

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JANUARY 17 (in theaters), JANUARY 18 (on VOD & digital): All These Small Moments (dir. Melissa B. Miller-Costanzo)Tribeca Film Festival synopsis: “Howie Sheffield (Brendan Meyer) is having rough year. He broke his arm, and, on top of that, he and his little brother Simon are unwilling witnesses to their parents’ (Molly Ringwald and Brian d’Arcy James) crumbling marriage. The only thing that keeps him going is the mysterious Odessa (Jemima Kirke), a young woman he sees everyday on his morning bus route. Soon, Howie’s worlds begin to collide as he cultivates a tentative friendship with his beguiling classmate Lindsay (a sensational Harley Quinn Smith), as Odessa is drawn into his circle, and as his parents struggle with whether to stay together or split up.

“First-time writer and director Melissa Miller Costanzo brilliantly brings to life this absorbing coming-of-age tale with heartfelt, nuanced storytelling and genuine intimacy. Shot on the streets of New York City, All These Small Moments features familiar neighborhoods and street corners that seem to change and expand alongside Howie as he travels a circuitous path to self-discovery and adulthood.”

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JANUARY 18 (in theaters & on VOD): An Acceptable Loss (dir. Joe Chappelle) (DP: Petra Korner)IFC Center synopsis: “She was the ultimate patriot. Now, what she knows could bring down the government. Libby Lamm (Tika Sumpter) is a former top national security advisor who, while working with Rachel Burke (Jamie Lee Curtis), a ruthless, steely-willed political veteran, signed off on a controversial military action that was supposed to end the war on terror. The problem: thousands died under false pretenses. Haunted by what she knows, Libby sets out to tell the truth, risking treason—and her own life—to expose a cover-up that stretches all the way to the highest levels of government. This gripping saga of lies, conspiracy, and betrayal is an explosive look at what it takes to do the right thing—even if that means going up against your own country.”

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JANUARY 18 (in theaters & on VOD): Adult Life Skills (dir. Rachel Tunnard) (DP: Bet Rourich)NPR’s Tribeca Film Festival (2016) review by Linda Holmes: “One of the best things about covering film festivals — like the Tribeca Film Festival, where I’ll be for a couple of days — is seeing people’s work with very little context around it. By the time films are released in theaters, particularly when they’re being heavily marketed, I usually know a lot about them. I know something about what to expect, I know a good bit about the directors and actors, and very often, the film has been on various planning calendars for months.

“But particularly with smaller or midsize festivals (Tribeca is lower in profile than Toronto, for instance), I often run into things I’ve never even heard of until they show up in the film guide. Not only is this a useful reminder of just how much art is being made at all times of which even professional critics are unaware or vaguely aware, but it’s a chance to meet a piece of work with almost no expectations at all.

Adult Life Skills is the first feature from writer-director Rachel Tunnard, who first made a short called Emotional Fusebox that was nominated for a BAFTA award. She calls the short a ‘pilot’ for Adult Life Skills, which is having its world premiere here at Tribeca.

“The film stars Jodie Whittaker — whom I knew as the grieving mother in Broadchurch and whose other credits include Attack The Block and Black Mirror — as Anna, a woman about to turn 30 who’s living in the shed in her mother’s garden. Mom is about ready to kick her out, but Anna mostly stays holed up in there, making low-fi web videos where she draws faces on her thumbs. She has an outgoing best friend who wants her recover from what turns out to be buried grief, an awkward maybe-suitor, a plain-spoken grandma, and a sad child living next door who craves her attention even as she only reluctantly gives it to him.

“There are pieces of a lot of familiar stories here: a little About A Boy, a little Young Adult, a little Bridget Jones even. More than that, though, Adult Life Skills pulls from the deep well of the Quirky Oddball Picture, recalling everything from Juno to Submarine to Moonrise Kingdom. There is a quality to it that feels not necessarily cliched, but familiar. And what it amounts to in that regard is a genre film.

“It only makes sense that just as superhero films draw on other superhero films, and romances on romances and mysteries on mysteries, stories about the quirky oddball’s journey would influence each other and grow their own tropes. The composition of the shots that often isolates the oddball traveling across the screen, the editing rhythms, the frequent use of what High Fidelity called ‘sad bastard music’ — it would be easy to see the patterns emerge and to disengage on the theory that you’ve seen the film before.

“But as with any genre film, the trick is execution. Whittaker is so good in this role, so believable and sympathetic, that even the expected beats that perhaps shouldn’t work can work. Similarly, the press notes say that there was originally to be no potential love interest until Tunnard came across Brett Goldstein and wrote him a role as an offbeat old friend of Anna’s who gives the best explanation of the ending of Grease that I’ve ever heard, by the way. His role is small enough but valuable enough that it makes sense. It may be an outgrowth of that fact that because the film was conceived without a romantic element, the romantic element doesn’t seem like the driver of Anna’s story but the result of it, and that’s a good thing.

“That’s not to say Adult Life Skills doesn’t flirt with driving itself into a ditch. Let us be frank about children for a moment: putting a moppet in your movie is a dangerous thing, particularly if that moppet is in acute need, as the neighbor kid Clint is here. It can feel like a fat thumb on the scale, forcing emotion from the audience and even blackmailing it out of other characters in unnatural ways. But Ozzy Myers, whom Tunnard says she found at a school in Leeds and who had never acted before, is so unforced as Clint, and his chemistry with Whittaker is so good, that they pretty much pull it off. Here’s hoping experience with acting doesn’t ruin his acting.

“One of the curious things about recognizing a movie’s general style as fitting within your experience of films generally or festival films in particular is that when something happens that isn’t quite what you’re expecting, it jumps toward you. There is a moment late in the film in which Tunnard unexpectedly cuts to an embrace between Anna’s mother (Lorraine Ashbourne) and grandmother (Eileen Davies) that instantly takes both beyond being essentially the frustrated, disappointed mother and the frank, wise grandmother. It communicates an enormous amount about what’s been going on under Anna’s nose that she hasn’t seen because she is so withdrawn and so sad. That’s the kind of little spin on the formula that makes a genre work stand out.

“I can’t imagine a person experienced with offbeat English-language films of the last ten years not seeing much that’s familiar in Adult Life Skills, but it’s a lovely movie with some very good performances and it makes some very good choices. As, eventually, does Anna.”

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JANUARY 18 (streaming on Netflix): Close (dir. Vicky Jewson)Netflix Media Center synopsis: “Inspired by the life of the world’s leading female bodyguard, Jacquie Davis, the film follows Sam (Noomi Rapace), a counter-terrorist expert used to war zones, who takes on the job of protecting Zoe (Sophie Nélisse), a young and rich heiress — a babysitting job for her. But a violent attempted kidnapping forces the two to go on the run. Now they’ve got to take some lives — or lose theirs.”

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JANUARY 18 (in theaters & on VOD/digital): Egg (dir. Marianna Palka) (DP: Zelmira Gainza)The Playlist’s Tribeca Film Festival review by Kimber Myers: “With this sharp satire, director Marianna Palka continues poking and prodding at the various phases of women’s lives. In her 2008 directorial debut Good Dick, she took aim at dating with its anti-romantic comedy approach. Her 2017 pitch-black offering Bitch explored the life of a stay-at-home mother and wife who is so fed up with her treatment by her cheating husband and misbehaving kids that she begins acting like a vicious dog. With Egg, Palka makes what could be a thematic prequel to Bitch as its characters dissect the many decisions around pregnancy, childbirth, and the gender roles of raising children.

“When Karen (Christina Hendricks) visits her art school friend Tina (Alysia Reiner), the stark contrasts between the two are immediately clear. Karen and her husband, Don (David Alan Basche), are fast approaching the due date of their first child, and they take a traditional approach to pregnancy and parenting. Meanwhile, Tina and her husband, Wayne (Gbenga Akinnagbe), are forging a different path to parenthood. Tina is a conceptual artist and as a part of her upcoming ambitious show on motherhood, she is using Wayne’s friend Kiki (Anna Camp) as a surrogate for their baby. Over the course of an afternoon at Tina and Wayne’s Brooklyn loft, they discuss the merits of each couple’s choices as well as the larger philosophical debate around women and their relationships – or lack thereof – to motherhood. When Kiki finally appears, clad in cutoffs and bemoaning her belly, the day takes an unexpected turn.

Egg has the air of a stage play, with most of the film composed of people talking in a single location. But there’s real attention paid to the visuals, beyond just production designer Sally Levi’s detailed, lived-in creation of an artist’s loft and studio. As director of photography, Zelmira Gainza shoots the space with warmth and strong framing, keeping it from feeling like you’re watching a filmed theatrical piece with no sense of the cinematic medium.

“Palka’s last film, Bitch, had an equal satirical bite to this one, but it was intentionally over the top in its depiction of behavior and choices. Here Risa Mickenberg’s screenplay does amplify the absurdity of its characters and their situations for effect, but all five people in this film seem as though they could really exist, though you might not want to know them in real life. Egg may be making a statement, but the interaction between Karen and Tina largely is authentic, as their dynamic moves between long-simmering competition, outright animosity and sympathetic support. It all works due to Hendricks and Reiner’s performances, who offer emotional grounding to the comedy. Akinnagbe, Basche, and Camp are each hilarious, but the two leads make Egg both funny and real.

“The satire focuses not only on women’s own relationships to motherhood but also on how they’re judged, regardless of what their choices are, in every aspect of it. That judgment comes from all angles: other women, their partners and themselves. Egg deserves credit for shedding a special light on women who actively choose not to be mothers, a subject that might be growing on women’s sites but still isn’t often depicted on screen. Despite all the judgment of these characters by other characters, Egg itself refuses to do the same to them. It may poke fun at Karen and Tina, but it never says that their choices around motherhood aren’t valid and deserving of happiness. Its ultimate sympathy for these women may be at odds with earlier jabs at them, but it creates an empathetic space that is surprisingly emotionally satisfying.”

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JANUARY 18: Who Will Write Our History? (dir. Roberta Grossman) (DP: Dyanna Taylor)Quad Cinema synopsis: “With a wealth of archival footage and detailed re-enactments, this film recounts the incredible story of Emanuel Ringelblum, who secretly led a team of writers and intellectuals to preserve a vibrant Jewish culture in the Warsaw Ghetto shortly after the Nazis took over. What resulted was a startlingly deep and diverse portrait of European Jewish life, as the Oyneg Shabes Archive made an invaluable contribution to the historical record. Based on the book by Samuel Kassow.”

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JANUARY 25 (streaming on Netflix): Ánimas (dirs. Laura Alvea and Jose F. Ortuño)Sitges Film Festival synopsis: “Alex (Clare Durant) is a girl with a strong personality. She’s very close to her best friend Abraham (Iván Pellicer), a shy, insecure boy as a consequence of his complex relationship with his parents. Everything changes when Abraham’s father (Luis Bermejo) dies in a bizarre accident. From this moment on, Alex will be thrust into a mind-bending trip where the line between reality and nightmares will start to start to blur.”

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JANUARY 25: Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi (dirs. Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi and Kangana Ranaut)AMC Theatres synopsis:Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi is the story of Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi (Kangana Ranaut) who refused to cede Jhansi to the British and fought a fierce battle. Her life story is a tale of bravery, valor and woman’s strength to inspire generations to come.”

365 Day Movie Challenge: 2018

Here we are on December 31, so it’s time to go over my list of the films I watched in 2018. I didn’t watch as much as I hoped – the total count is 255 titles – but I tried my best to expand my cinematic knowledge as best as I could. On the plus side, I exceeded my goal to watch 52 films directed by women; that list appears at the bottom of the post.

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1915-1919: Heart o’ the Hills; M’Liss

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1920-1924: The Love Light

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1925-1929: The Last Command; Piccadilly; Underworld

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1930-1934: Blonde Venus; Blondie of the Follies; Bombshell; Finishing School; Flying Down to Rio; Murder in the Clouds; The Phantom of Paris

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1935-1939: Mark of the Vampire; The Spy in Black; Theodora Goes Wild; The Whole Town’s Talking

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1940-1944: The Black Swan; Dive Bomber; High Sierra; In This Our Life; Out of the Fog; The Woman in the Window

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1945-1949: Dark Passage; Deep Valley; It Rains on Our Love; Paris 1900; Pillow to Post; The Threat; The Wicked Lady; Wonder Man

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1950-1954: Angel Face; Armored Car Robbery; Father Is a Bachelor; Hell’s Half Acre; I Was an American Spy; Kansas City Confidential; Knock on Wood; Lullaby of Broadway; The Man Who Cheated Himself; The Prowler; Rue de l’Estrapade; A Star Is Born; This Can’t Happen Here (aka High Tension); The West Point Story; Young at Heart

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1955-1959: The Bat; Eyewitness; Hell Drivers; Meet Me in Las Vegas; The Tingler

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1960-1964: The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb; The Happy Thieves; Zotz!

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1965-1969: Flesh; The Girls; The Sex Killer; Take Me Naked; A Thousand Pleasures

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1970-1974: The Altar of Lust; Angel on Fire (aka Angel Number 9); Heat; Trash; Women in Revolt

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1975-1979: Demon Seed; Eyes of Laura Mars; Face to Face; The Mafu Cage; A Star Is Born; Suspiria

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1980-1984: The Company of Wolves; Deadly Blessing; Fatso; Losing Ground; Making Love; Ms .45; Rocktober Blood; Sleepaway Camp; The Slumber Party Massacre; Special Effects

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1985-1989: The Blob; Blood Sisters; Bloodsport; Call Me; Do the Right Thing; The Fly; Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers; Halloween 5 (aka Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers); Just One of the Guys; A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master; A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child; 9½ Weeks; Pet Sematary; Poltergeist II: The Other Side; Throw Momma from the Train; To Live and Die in L.A.; Twins

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1990-1994: Bad Lieutenant; Blue Steel; Boxing Helena; Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Double Impact; Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare; The Hand That Rocks the Cradle; Indecent Proposal; Jungle Fever; King of New York; Mixed Nuts; The Night and the Moment; Passenger 57; Predator 2; Renaissance Man; Single White Female; Sliver; That Night; Universal Soldier

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1995-1999: Armageddon; The Babysitter; Clockers; The Devil’s Advocate; Embrace of the Vampire; Fire; Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers; Halloween H20: 20 Years Later; Jumanji; Lines from the Heart; Office Killer; Ravenous; Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion; The Sixth Sense; Velvet Goldmine; The World Is Not Enough; You’ve Got Mail

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2000-2004: American Psycho; Bring It On; Campfire Stories; Coyote Ugly; 8 Mile; Halloween: Resurrection; Jurassic Park III; Lara Croft: Tomb Raider; Latter Days; Layer Cake; The Nomi Song; Thirteen Conversations About One Thing; 13 Going on 30; The Tollbooth; Wet Hot American Summer; The Woodsman

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2005-2009: Basic Instinct 2; Belle Toujours; Brokeback Mountain; Bug; Dorothy Mills; Jennifer’s Body; Must Love Dogs; My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done; Penelope; The Ring Finger; Teeth

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2010-2014: Coffee Town; Easy A; Elena; Going the Distance; Honeymoon; The Iceman; Iron Man 2; Kiss of the Damned; The Lifeguard; Margarita with a Straw; Middle of Nowhere; Mosquita y Mari; Scream 4; Soulmate; 12 Years a Slave; Very Good Girls; The Voices; Young Adult

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2015-2018: Allure; American Made; Anything; Atomic Blonde; Avengers: Infinity War; Battle of the Sexes; Beach Rats; Black Butterfly; Black Panther; Blockers; Bohemian Rhapsody; Book Club; The Bye Bye Man; Come Sunday; The Commuter; Crazy Rich Asians; Darkest Hour; Doctor Strange; Don’t Call Me Son; The D Train; The Favourite; The Feels; The Female Brain; Fifty Shades Freed; First Reformed; Fist Fight; The Florida Project; Flower; 47 Meters Down; Freak Show; Freeheld; Front Cover; The Girl on the Train; Good Time; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2; Half Magic; Hooligan Sparrow; Hotel Artemis; The House; The Incredible Jessica James; The Innocents; Itzhak; Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom; Justice League; A Kid Like Jake; Lady Bird; Love, Simon; The Lure; Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again; Marjorie Prime; Mission: Impossible – Fallout; mother!; Nancy; Oh Lucy!; Pacific Rim: Uprising; The Party; Patriots Day; A Quiet Place; Raw; Searching; Shirkers; Skyscraper; Sorry to Bother You; A Star Is Born; Stronger; Suspiria; 10×10; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Three Identical Strangers; To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before; 12 Strong; Unexpected; Venom; War on Everyone; What Haunts Us; Wolves; Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

BONUS: 52 Films by Women Challenge (which I went well beyond!):

  1. Battle of the Sexes (2017) – dirs. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
  2. Freak Show (2017) – dir. Trudie Styler
  3. The Girls (1968) – dir. Mai Zetterling
  4. Elena (2012) – dir. Petra Costa
  5. Lines from the Heart (1996) – dir. Christina Olofson
  6. The Woodsman (2004) – dir. Nicole Kassell
  7. Finishing School (1934) – dirs. George Nichols Jr. and Wanda Tuchock
  8. Don’t Call Me Son (2016) – dir. Anna Muylaert
  9. Unexpected (2015) – dir. Kris Swanberg
  10. Margarita with a Straw (2014) – dirs. Shonali Bose and Nilesh Maniyar
  11. Paris 1900 (1947) – dir. Nicole Védrès
  12. Lady Bird (2017) – dir. Greta Gerwig
  13. The Female Brain (2017) – dir. Whitney Cummings
  14. Losing Ground (1982) – dir. Kathleen Collins
  15. The Love Light (1921) – dir. Frances Marion
  16. Middle of Nowhere (2012) – dir. Ava DuVernay
  17. Hooligan Sparrow (2016) – dir. Nanfu Wang
  18. Itzhak (2017) – dir. Alison Chernick
  19. Eyewitness (1956) – dir. Muriel Box
  20. The Innocents (2016) – dir. Anne Fontaine
  21. Half Magic (2018) – dir. Heather Graham
  22. Going the Distance (2010) – dir. Nanette Burstein
  23. Fatso (1980) – dir. Anne Bancroft
  24. What Haunts Us (2017) – dir. Paige Goldberg Tolmach
  25. The Party (2017) – dir. Sally Potter
  26. Take Me Naked (1966) – dirs. Michael Findlay and Roberta Findlay
  27. The Lifeguard (2013) – dir. Liz W. Garcia
  28. Just One of the Guys (1985) – dir. Lisa Gottlieb
  29. 10×10 (2018) – dir. Suzi Ewing
  30. The Feels (2017) – dir. Jenée LaMarque
  31. The Ring Finger (2005) – dir. Diane Bertrand
  32. Blockers (2018) – dir. Kay Cannon
  33. Fire (1996) – dir. Deepa Mehta
  34. Very Good Girls (2013) – dir. Naomi Foner
  35. Beach Rats (2017) – dir. Eliza Hittman
  36. Mosquita y Mari (2012) – dir. Aurora Guerrero
  37. Embrace of the Vampire (1995) – dir. Anne Goursaud
  38. The Slumber Party Massacre (1982) – dir. Amy Holden Jones
  39. Kiss of the Damned (2012) – dir. Xan Cassavetes
  40. American Psycho (2000) – dir. Mary Harron
  41. Blood Sisters (1987) – dir. Roberta Findlay
  42. Ravenous (1999) – dir. Antonia Bird
  43. Honeymoon (2014) – dir. Leigh Janiak
  44. Pet Sematary (1989) – dir. Mary Lambert
  45. Dorothy Mills (2008) – dir. Agnès Merlet
  46. The Voices (2014) – dir. Marjane Satrapi
  47. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) – dir. Fran Rubel Kuzui
  48. Jennifer’s Body (2009) – dir. Karyn Kusama
  49. The Lure (2015) – dir. Agnieszka Smoczynska
  50. Office Killer (1997) – dir. Cindy Sherman
  51. The Mafu Cage (1978) – dir. Karen Arthur
  52. The Bye Bye Man (2017) – dir. Stacy Title
  53. Soulmate (2013) – dir. Axelle Carolyn
  54. Rocktober Blood (1984) – dir. Beverly Sebastian
  55. Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) – dir. Rachel Talalay
  56. Boxing Helena (1993) – dir. Jennifer Lynch
  57. Raw (2016) – dir. Julia Ducournau
  58. Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2001) – dir. Jill Sprecher
  59. Oh Lucy! (2017) – dir. Atsuko Hirayanagi
  60. Blue Steel (1990) – dir. Kathryn Bigelow
  61. Shirkers (2018) – dir. Sandi Tan
  62. The Tollbooth (2004) – dir. Debra Kirschner
  63. The Altar of Lust (1971) – dir. Roberta Findlay
  64. Angel Number 9 (aka Angel on Fire) (1974) – dir. Roberta Findlay
  65. You’ve Got Mail (1998) – dir. Nora Ephron
  66. Mixed Nuts (1994) – dir. Nora Ephron
  67. The Night and the Moment (1994) – dir. Anna Maria Tatò
  68. Nancy (2018) – dir. Christina Choe
  69. Renaissance Man (1994) – dir. Penny Marshall
  70. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018) – dir. Susan Johnson

Nancy (2018, dir. Christina Choe)

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The only way to describe the psychological drama Nancy is as a mixture of Liza Johnson’s film Return, as far as being a low-budget portrait of a woman in small-town America whose life is quietly spiraling downward, and of Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West, with Choe’s debut feature being a somber take on a woman using media (including social media) to escape her damaged life and create a new one. In all three films, a woman searches for a cure-all that will fill the emptiness in her soul, craving the validation that she believes she needs to define her identity.

The main character of Nancy is Nancy Freeman (Andrea Riseborough), a 35-year-old woman who lives on autopilot. She works temp jobs in and around her upstate New York town and spends the rest of her time taking care of her overbearing mother, Betty (Ann Dowd), who is afflicted by Parkinson’s disease. In any available moments, Nancy stares at the screens of her phone or computer, seemingly addicted to the glow. She uses technology to gain sympathy from strangers; on a blog, under the pseudonym “Becca,” Nancy writes of the grief she has experienced since the death of her daughter. Although she lies about more than her name – including when and how her daughter died – Nancy wants so badly to experience an emotional connection that she goes on a lunch date with one of her readers, Jeb (John Leguizamo), maintaining the deception for as long as possible.

Soon after Nancy’s last encounter with Jeb, Betty dies suddenly from a stroke. This renders Nancy even more depressed and listless than usual. She finds renewed purpose just a few days later, however, when she sees a TV news interview with Ellen (J. Smith-Cameron) and Leo Lynch (Steve Buscemi) on the thirtieth anniversary of their daughter Brooke’s disappearance. The resemblance between Brooke and Nancy is shocking; the latter realizes that she has an opportunity to potentially gain the loving parents she has never had, although she can’t anticipate the toll it will take on her or on the hopeful couple when she insinuates herself into their lives.

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A lot of little details in Nancy add up to make it compelling viewing. The preternaturally large, haunting blue eyes and stark black hair of Andrea Riseborough enhance her character’s aura of detachment, a demeanor that is complicated, one presumes, by a lifetime of sadness. (Childhood traumas are alluded to, though we never learn the full extent of what Nancy endured.) I didn’t mention it in the first paragraph, but another film that Nancy reminds me of is Bug, the William Friedkin thriller about a mother mired so deep in mourning and denial for her vanished child that folie à deux with an evidently mentally ill man is their only logical answer to so much pain. Maybe this is a stretch, but I think Nancy also bears comparison with another little-seen drama released this year, Allure, in which the two female protagonists (one of whom has a history of childhood sexual abuse) yearn for independence from their fractured families, sliding into a dangerous relationship that fools the both of them into a false sense of security until reality becomes too glaring to ignore.

On the other side of the camera, Zoë White’s cinematography for Nancy captures the chilly austerity of New York State in winter, while Peter Raeburn’s score has a melodramatic sound that alternately evokes memories of Angelo Badalamenti’s work on “Twin Peaks” and of Cliff Martinez’s music for sex, lies, and videotape. Most intriguing, however, is the decision made by Christina Choe and editor David Gutnik to restrict the film’s images to the boxlike 4:3 aspect ratio for the first half hour, until the point when Ellen invites Nancy to come to her house. When Nancy packs her bags – as well as her cat, Paul – to embark on a road trip that may result in a brand new life, her world literally and figuratively opens up, demonstrated by the screen’s slow expansion to the “cinematic” 16:9 ratio as she leaves her dull existence behind.

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Getting back to discussing the acting: besides Andrea Riseborough’s strong performance, J. Smith-Cameron and Steve Buscemi do wonderful jobs as Mr. and Mrs. Lynch, particularly the always underrated Smith-Cameron, who has received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for the upcoming Independent Spirit Awards. Ann Dowd and John Leguizamo also make memorable impressions, despite limited screen time. I like that the director cast Buscemi and Leguizamo against type, granting them space to inhabit characters who establish quite easily that they are gentle, thoughtful men who discuss their feelings and are not afraid to show their care and concern for others. I have to admit that I didn’t entirely “get” the ending scenes of Nancy when I saw the film for the first time this past Friday night, but after watching again while simultaneously listening to Christina Choe’s commentary track on the DVD, certain themes and narrative choices appeared to come together more effectively. I appreciate films that give me more ideas to contemplate the second time around.

The Favourite (2018, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

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Run, don’t walk, to your nearest theater to see The Favourite, the new period-piece comedy from Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) that I currently deem the best new film I have seen in 2018. It hits all my sweet spots as a viewer: political intrigue, historical accuracy, absurd humor, extravagant costumes and production design, creative cinematography and, most important, three lead actresses who give marvelous performances as richly complex characters.

The role of “the favourite” alternately belongs to Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and to her conniving cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), as they curry favor with Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) in England circa the early 1700s. To some extent, Sarah – elevated to near-royal status by her marriage to Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss) – has the upper hand since she has been Anne’s closest confidante, as well as her lover, for decades. Abigail, however, is a far more deceitful person, having learned as a teenager how to adapt to difficult situations when her father lost her to another man in a card game. Upon gaining employment in Queen Anne’s court, Abigail quickly maneuvers her way into Anne’s good graces. The question of who has allegiance to whom tears at these women, even as they trade snarky barbs at each others’ expense. Here, malice is often served with a smile.

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A few men do their utmost to proclaim power over the three women, like Lord Harley (an uproarious Nicholas Hoult), who seeks out every possible opportunity to pull Queen Anne’s strings and get his way in matters of state; Lord Masham (Joe Alwyn), who pursues Abigail with unabated passion; and the Earl of Godolphin (James Smith), who is the proud owner of Horatio, known far and wide as “the fastest duck in the city” (yes, Lanthimos shows us a duck race!). But no matter what developments occur in the plot regarding England’s position during the War of the Spanish Succession, these men remain peripheral to Anne, Sarah and Abigail’s intersecting lives. I’m not sure if any male director has made a more pointedly feminist film this year than Yorgos Lanthimos.

Go see The Favourite on the big screen and you will see why it is a shoo-in for a mass of Oscar nominations. Among the film’s many top-notch accomplishments are the direction by Yorgos Lanthimos, the witty screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, costumes designed by Sandy Powell and the combined art direction, production design and set decoration by assorted masters of their respective crafts (the attention to detail on those sets is remarkable). I would also like to give special attention to Robbie Ryan’s cinematography, which constantly utilizes either extreme low angles or a fisheye lens so that the distorted images can visually mimic the absurd, borderline surreal nature of the events that transpire within the walls of Queen Anne’s castle. The icing on the cake is the soundtrack, filled with era-appropriate music by Baroque composers Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and Purcell, in addition to later works by Schubert and Schumann. Finally, there is the song that plays over the end credits; no spoilers, but it happens to be my all-time favorite (ha!) recording by one of the world’s greatest recording artists, so you can imagine how tickled I was to hear it – the perfect garnish to top off Lanthimos’ delectable film.

Ms .45 (1981, dir. Abel Ferrara)

After watching the endlessly strange and fascinating drama Bad Lieutenant recently, I knew I had to see some more of controversial director Abel Ferrara’s work. On the surface, Ms .45 is just another exploitation flick from its era, a post-Death Wish/Taxi Driver rape revenge story intended to trade on the sick pleasures of watching a female victim of sexual violence punish all men for the sins of a few. And the film is certainly the product of testosterone-driven artists; it was written (Nicholas St. John), directed (Abel Ferrara), photographed (James Lemmo), edited (Christopher Andrews) and scored (Joe Delia) by men. Despite those details, it can be argued there would be no Ms .45 without the lead performance of Zoë Lund, then an eighteen-year-old Columbia University student making her feature film debut.

Lund, known at the time by her birth name Zoë Tamerlis, portrays Thana, a mute woman who is employed as a seamstress in Manhattan’s Garment Center neighborhood. On a sunny afternoon, while returning home from her job, she is sexually assaulted twice; first, by a man in a mask (played by Abel Ferrara) who pulls her into an alley, and then by a robber who had broken into her apartment sometime earlier and lay in wait until Thana opened her door. Already traumatized by the previous attack, Thana kills the second offender by bludgeoning him in the head with a paperweight. In a daze, Thana methodically dismembers the rapist’s corpse, lining her fridge with garbage bags full of body parts. Crucially, Thana takes possession of the man’s gun, hiding it in her purse for daily protection on the city streets.

The gun changes everything about Thana. She transforms from a shy introvert to a vigilante serial killer of men, not only those who catcall her or try to assault her but also citizens who have committed no crime other than being male. Thana’s new identity gives her a voice she never had before, and she adjusts her physical appearance accordingly by wearing heavy makeup and fashionable outfits and by putting her hair up in an efficient ponytail. Aided by her more glamorous image, Thana lures her prey to their deaths in various scenarios; her power is fueled by the sorrow and anger of every woman who has been objectified and hurt by men.

It’s hard to say whether this tale of retribution has a moral at the end or not, although the film concludes with a final scene that wraps up its grim narrative on an unexpectedly light note. Determining whether Ms .45 is a feminist film seems like a moot point since that’s not a term I would use to describe Abel Ferrara, based on the comments I’ve heard him make about Lund and other actresses in interviews – the jury’s still out on screenwriter Nicholas St. John, although I assume his views on women were somewhat similar since he had been friends with Ferrara since high school – but ultimately the film would not have the impact that it has without Zoë Tamerlis Lund as its star. You can never look away from her. She commands every frame with her bright green eyes and with her believable development into a single-minded assassin. Late in the film, Lund has her most memorable moment when Thana dons a nun’s habit and bright red lipstick for a Halloween party being thrown by her handsy boss; the poses that Thana assumes as she looks in a mirror and aims her revolver like a big-screen sharpshooter are chillingly reminiscent of Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle. Like the Greek mythological figure that Thana is linked to by name symbolism – Thanatos, god of death – there is a larger-than-life aura surrounding her ability to destroy the male population of New York City.

Research tells me that Zoë Lund was a polyglot, a prolific writer and an accomplished musician/composer, in addition to being the daughter of renowned sculptor Barbara Lekberg. Was Ms .45 to blame for Lund’s decision to abandon her privileged upbringing and education, temporarily move to Europe and become a heroin addict, the last of which defined her existence until her drug-related death in 1999? I don’t know; maybe the path she traveled was one she would have found regardless of a cinematic career. Perhaps there will never be a neat, sensible answer to the question. What remains indisputable, however, is that Lund elevates Ms .45 into something more than a portrait of New York City at its scuzziest. As difficult as the film may be to watch due to its frank themes, it is consistently engaging, a thought-provoking study of how rape and PTSD can alter a woman in unimaginable ways and reshape her concept of herself within society.

First Reformed (2017/2018, dir. Paul Schrader)

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Praised as a return to form for filmmaker Paul Schrader and a career-best showcase for Ethan Hawke, the drama First Reformed is a thought-provoking (if imperfect) meditation on assorted crises of faith. Hope and despair are the two warring states of emotion here, exposing characters’ constant struggles against the entwined losses of loved ones and, thanks to global warming, the natural beauty of our planet. Schrader, who will almost certainly be nominated for the Best Original Screenplay, occasionally makes heavy-handed missteps in articulating his environmental concerns – anyone who seen the film’s “Magical Mystery Tour” sequence has an idea of what I mean, though they may not share my reaction – but the strength of the acting, the dialogue (including voiceovers) that conveys the inner turmoil of Hawke’s Reverend Toller and the superb cinematography by Alexander Dynan make First Reformed one of the must-see films of the year.

Named for a politically active German Jewish playwright from the 1920s and 30s, the Rev. Ernst Toller of Schrader’s film is yet another of God’s lonely men, a solitary figure who embraces warm conversations when given the opportunity yet rejects help from those who would share more intimate expressions of love and kindness with him. Living in a few sparsely-decorated rooms attached to the humble Dutch Reformed church that he presides over in rural upstate New York, this is a man mired in regret and grief for the son who died as a soldier in Iraq, the tragedy of which caused his marriage to dissolve. Unable to cope with his pain, Toller has turned to the bottle for solace. His alcoholism has in turn caused his body to fall apart as surely as his soul, internal ailments that are eventually mirrored by the external conflict that will also trouble him.

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At the beginning of the film, Toller is called on by a local woman, Mary Mensana (Amanda Seyfried), to council her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger, a promising up-and-comer whom I first noticed in last year’s Brawl in Cell Block 99), an environmental activist who is filled with doubt and frustration over humankind’s self-destruction, compounded by the corporate greed that no amount of peaceful protest seems able to stop. Toller slowly comes around to Michael’s line of thinking – the core of which is the simple yet potent question “will God forgive us?” – and Michael’s actions and influence spur Toller to take steps of his own against power structures, chiefly the megachurch run by a gregarious acquaintance, Rev. Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer, wonderfully cast against type) and a nearby factory’s contemptible CEO, Ed Balq (Michael Gaston), whose money is funding the renovation of Toller’s church for its upcoming 250th anniversary.

Paul Schrader’s strict Calvinist upbringing evidently inspired his decision to write First Reformed as much as climate change did, but the lingering traces of his cinematic muses are visible throughout the film as well. Schrader’s first breakthrough as a critic and historian came with the publication of his 1972 book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, and I certainly recognized the impact that Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest and Bergman’s Winter Light had on First Reformed while watching it. As I have also noted with regard to Schrader’s remake of Cat People, his understanding of visual composition is masterful; the images in First Reformed by the aforementioned DP Alexander Dynan are magnificent, not just because of the color palette and camera angles/framing but because of Paul Schrader’s command of mise-en-scène. In this film, empty spaces are as important and symbolic as the arrangements of objects, a physical representation of Reverend Toller’s emotional isolation and the hollowness of his cloistered life. I also appreciate the director’s overt allusions to Taxi Driver, apparent in Toller’s daily journaling of his obsessive thoughts, as well as a scene when Toller drives through his desolate town at night and, most literally, in a moment when he pours some Pepto-Bismol into a glass of liquor à la Travis Bickle’s bubbling Alka-Seltzer tab (itself an homage to Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her).

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First Reformed’s ending has proved itself to be divisive, and I’m not convinced that it was the optimal way to bring the story to a close, but in truth I respected it more when I heard Paul Schrader’s take on moviegoers’ two possible interpretations of the final scene during the post-film Q&A (the screening I attended was at the Museum of Modern Art, where both Schrader and Hawke spoke). I stand by my distaste for some of the film’s clunkier “We Are the World”-isms, and I also thought Amanda Seyfried was perhaps not the best casting choice for Mary – yes, that name is as symbolic as you imagine – but my problem with the latter is not so much with Seyfried’s acting (since I enjoy her work in general) as with the dull lines that Schrader wrote for her. Still, if First Reformed is viewed fundamentally as a display for Ethan Hawke, who is guaranteed a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his sensitive, nuanced and multilayered performance, then it is indeed a great cinematic success. Ever since he was a teenager in Dead Poets Society, Hawke has shown a remarkable ability to illustrate the coexistence of vulnerability and fortitude, and he continues to uncover new ways to demonstrate this tender balancing act with intelligence and grace.