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)

2017: Part 1

Band Aid. Directed by Zoe Lister-Jones. Notes from July 5, 2017: After a decade of producing films and co-writing screenplays, in addition to her blossoming career as an actress (currently starring on the CBS sitcom “Life in Pieces”), Zoe Lister-Jones makes her directorial debut in Band Aid, which she also wrote and stars in. Lister-Jones and Adam Pally play Anna and Ben, a suburban husband and wife who are on the verge of divorce. In an attempt to save their marriage, they decide to channel their anger into songs by forming a band in their garage and letting the arguments inspire some musical creativity. An excessively kooky neighbor, Dave (Fred Armisen), joins Anna and Ben on drums, and before long the couple begins to see a future for themselves both personally and professionally.

All of the different roads to success are rocky, and some of Anna and Ben’s problems are mediated by Dave, some of Anna’s friends, a marriage counselor (Retta) and Ben’s mother (Susie Essman). These scenes of marital discord show Zoe Lister-Jones’s strengths as an actress and director, although the writing is occasionally mediocre; a scene near in the end of the film in which Anna’s post-traumatic stress over a miscarriage is explained in heavy-handed generalizations about femininity and motherhood that seem to have been culled from Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. The comic and tragic sides of the narrative are unequal in their respective developments and Fred Armisen (as delightfully weird as you would hope) seems to be acting in an entirely different universe from his co-stars, which is more often distracting than quirky. Even so, most of Band Aid’s music hits the right notes, particularly the wonderful “Love and Lies” and the energetically cathartic “Mood.” I also appreciate that Zoe Lister-Jones worked with an all-female crew, resulting in some first-rate cinematography by Hillary Spera (High Road, Black Rock, Wildlike). Band Aid isn’t likely to sweep any stages come awards season, but it’s a more than pleasant enough way to spend an hour and a half.

Baywatch. Directed by Seth Gordon. Notes from June 30, 2017: You can guess it just from knowing that the movie exists: the 2017 big-screen reboot of Baywatch was created solely for the purpose of objectification. There are no stunning new revelations made about the sexual/emotional natures of men and women, the value of teamwork or the importance of integrity; there is just the awareness of the camera constantly finding excuses to gawk at well-flaunted body parts. I could pick apart the finer points of the plot concerning the crime-fighting Florida lifeguards played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (one of the most likeable dudes in the movies, it goes without saying), Zac Efron, Alexandra Daddario, Jon Bass and others – I’m sure that critics with more patience than I have noted the wasted opportunities of casting Rob Huebel and Oscar Nuñez in boring roles that could have been played by not-comedic actors – but what I really want to discuss is the level of audience participation in the theater where I saw Baywatch, and how it intersected with desires for objectification.

Three vital issues could be gleaned from the screening where I saw Baywatch, all information provided by the tweens/teens sitting in the row directly behind me:

  1. Internalization of Hollywood’s standard attractive/unattractive binary: Zac Efron’s reverse uncanny valley abs give him a “desirable” body (the loudest of the girls screamed “Zac Efron! Bae! He’s mine, guys!” during the opening credits), whereas Jon Bass’s physique automatically goes beyond the “undesirable” range into “ewwww, disgusting” territory (the noises that the girls made at the sight of his chest were pitched somewhere between groaning and terrified shrieking)
  2. Weird noises made when Pamela Anderson made her cameo at the end of the film (during which she does not have a single word of dialogue, by the way) lead me to believe that young people don’t know who Pam Anderson is and/or they have deeply judgmental feelings about her looks (what a shock, people complaining about a fifty-year-old woman’s appearance)
  3. The worst and most confusing of all: toward the end of the film – I can’t remember which exact scene, but it was something making plain that Priyanka Chopra’s villainous plans were about to fail – one of the girls behind me made the comment, “Yeah, take that, you slut!” (The other girls giggled in response, maybe out of embarrassment but possibly in agreement.) What is it about Chopra’s character that connotes slut? Did the main tween read the character’s confident, unabashed sexiness/sexuality as the defining quality of her badness? Did race/ethnicity play any part in the tween’s conclusion about the character? What does this remark tell us about how young girls perceive girls and women in media today?

The avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren once said that the advantage of an “amateur production” over a Hollywood movie was that a smaller project is not “expected to return profit on a huge investment by holding the attention of a massive and motley audience for 90 minutes.” Baywatch is precisely the type of big-budget time-waster that Deren opposed, designed to be a silly and fun exercise in surefire entertainment. Should I wish that I could have turned my brain off and enjoyed the stupidity more, or should I be glad that I have the voice of Maya Deren whispering in my ear, reminding me that there is always more than one way to tell a seaside story?

P.S. In fairness to Baywatch, there was no way it could ever have lived up to the precedent set by the greatest beach-action flick of all time, Kathryn Bigelow’s pulse-poundingly awesome masterpiece Point Break (1991).

Fifty Shades Darker. Directed by James Foley. Notes from July 4, 2017: Who would I be kidding if I said that I was ever going to read E.L. James’s Fifty Shades trilogy? I have too many other things to do, like watch more movies, listen to music and read novels that are actually worthy of my time. But I bothered to watch Fifty Shades of Grey just so I could get my toe in the pop-culture door concerning this particular worldwide phenomenon, and as bad as it was it wasn’t actually the worst film of 2015, so I figured that I might as well give the second installment of the franchise a chance too.

Blandly hunky gazillionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and perpetually nervous book-editing intern Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) return in this sequel, which is frustratingly devoid some of the stylistic touches of Grey’s director (Sam Taylor-Johnson). The film also suffers from a comparatively more boring soundtrack: the first film had a pair of genuinely catchy pop tracks, Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” and the Weeknd’s “Earned It,” whereas Darker’s main theme, “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever,” is a thoroughly passionless duet between Zayn Malik and Taylor Swift. Darker observes the complications of Anastasia and Christian pursuing a “normal” relationship rather than their previous S&M-based affair. Before long, two of Christian’s former partners resurface, including a mentally unstable submissive (Bella Heathcote) and the much older woman who initiated Christian into sadomasochistic sex, Elena Lincoln (Kim Basinger). Anastasia meets both of these women; violent encounters ensue.

Assuming that you can survive the onslaught of melodrama and the various sex scenes that are never a fraction as arousing as the series’ reputation indicates, Fifty Shades Darker is actually a fairly painless viewing experience. I like Dakota Johnson more with each film of hers that I see, so that’s a net positive; Jamie Dornan continues to bring little more than abs to his role, but he showed a fair amount of promise as an actor in last year’s overlooked WWII thriller Anthropoid, so I place the blame on E.L. James, screenwriter Niall Leonard and  director James Foley (who did strong work at the helm of the film At Close Range and also S2 E17 of “Twin Peaks,” which fans will remember as the pine weasel/fashion show episode) for Dornan’s blankness in the Fifty Shades films.

P.S. What Fifty Shades Darker lacks in eroticism, at least it makes up for in a line-for-line homage to Working Girl.

Get Out. Directed by Jordan Peele. Notes from April 21, 2017: Believe the hype: the directorial debut by Jordan Peele (”MADtv,” “Key & Peele,” Keanu) is both a mordant satire of horror cinema and a truly disturbing window into the grotesque realities of racism in America. Get Out is a film that you definitely need to see in a movie theater, preferably a crowded one, since it’s a story that really benefits from a receptive and responsive audience. Reactions will undoubtedly differ depending where you live – I saw it at a three-quarters-full screening in a Regal multiplex in Manhattan – but I bet that no matter where you are, your fellow moviegoers’ collective feedback is as much a part of the experience as the film itself.

British actor Daniel Kaluuya, whom I last saw in the film Sicario a year and a half ago, plays our protagonist, a twentysomething African-American man named Chris Washington who works as a photographer and who agrees to go with his girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), to visit her parents in the countryside for the weekend. Rose is white, and she has not told her mother, Missy (Catherine Keener), or her father, Dean (Bradley Whitford), that Chris is black. Rose insists, however, that race is not an issue with her family; early in the film she declares that her dad “would vote for Obama for a third term if he could.” As soon as Chris and Rose arrive in her hometown, though, it is obvious that something is amiss. We know from the film’s opening scene that all is not well in suburbia, when we see a young black man (Lakeith Stanfield) attacked and abducted on a quiet street, but it takes time for us to see the full effect of that act and its many ramifications.

All of the aforementioned actors in the film give fine performances, but I must also highlight Caleb Landry Jones, who does a pretty good Heath Ledger impression as Rose’s mumbling, scraggly-haired, clearly unhinged younger brother, Jeremy; Lil Rel Howery as Chris’s best friend, Rod; Stephen Root as one of the Armitages’ many friends, Jim Hudson; and my personal favorite supporting actor, Betty Gabriel (a newcomer to me, and this film made me an instant fan!), as Georgina, the Armitages’ housekeeper and a woman who holds more than a few secrets. My favorite shot in Get Out is an extreme close-up on Gabriel’s face, an image that every person who has seen the film will instantly recall.

Besides the incredibly powerful messages that Get Out bears about racial hatred and stereotypes taken to gory horror-movie extremes (although they’re not too far removed from actions we have seen or can imagine in real life), the film also revels in similarities and homages to numerous iconic motion pictures both in and out of the horror genre; at times I recognized kindred spirits in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, The Last House on the Left, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and, reaching beyond the cinematic realm to the literary world, Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” (Incidentally, if you are familiar with Stephen Root’s career, you will be reminded of one of his earlier film roles when his character appears in Get Out. I won’t say anything further to spoil the entertainment factor.) (Additionally: there is an instance when a character listens on an iPod to the theme song from a certain film classic of the 1980s; nobody in my theater laughed out loud, but trust me when I tell you it’s a perfect moment that crystallizes exactly what Jordan Peele wanted to get across in that particular scene.) It is obvious that Jordan Peele has not only the creativity but also the technical skill to be considered one of Hollywood’s most exciting and thought-provoking new directors, capable of developing cinema that is both enjoyable for the masses and rich in meaning – an ability that not every young filmmaker can claim.

Snatched. Directed by Jonathan Levine. Notes from June 20, 2017: The only way for me to see Snatched was on the big screen with a friend four weekends ago, since I’m not certain that I would make the effort to watch it on TV myself. I won’t deny that I have some fun watching Goldie Hawn and Amy Schumer play a mother and daughter who reconnect after years of storminess when they go on a trip to Ecuador that soon leads to them being kidnapped and subsequently running all over Colombia. Snatched mines more genuinely amusing comedy than I expected from the ridiculous situations that Schumer and Hawn find themselves in, and I appreciated the supporting performances by Wanda Sykes and Joan Cusack as two resourceful women vacationing at the same resort as our two heroines, Ike Barinholtz as Schumer’s uncomfortably weird older brother, Christopher Meloni as the hypermasculine adventurer who tries (and fails) to help the ladies on their treacherous journey and Al Madrigal as a well-meaning but incompetent worker at the U.S. embassy in Bogota.

As disappointing as it is that Snatched sticks with expected stereotypes for the South American drug lord villain and his henchmen, there are some funny moments mined from the predictability. The opening scene is great (I won’t spoil the punch line), and there’s a ridiculously entertaining encounter with a tapeworm later on in the film. Also, as a woman, I appreciate Amy Schumer’s physical presence onscreen; I don’t recall her size ever being the focus of any jokes, and it’s refreshing to see her walk around a few times in a bikini without having to display any embarrassment or shame. Snatched is full of clichés about learning to love and accept yourself and your family, and very little of the humor felt fresh, but overall I found the film more enjoyable than nearly every critic led me to believe.

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

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Writer/director Kirsten Tan and Bong the elephant on the set of Pop Aye, 2016.

Here are twenty-three new movies due to be released in theaters or via other viewing platforms this June, 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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JUNE 2: Band Aid (dir. Zoe Lister-Jones) (DP: Hillary Spera)Sundance Film Festival synopsis: “Married couple Anna and Ben fight constantly. It doesn’t help that they’ve each come to a standstill in their careers, or that, together, they’ve suffered a heartbreak neither wants to face. But one day they come up with a brilliant idea they actually agree on: Why not start a band and use their arguments as songwriting inspiration? Almost as soon as they dig out their old electric guitars from the garage, their musical partnership starts to jell, but it soon becomes apparent this is only a temporary distraction from their real problems.

“Debut feature director Zoe Lister-Jones, who also writes and stars in Band Aid, offers an honest, intelligent, and hilarious perspective on modern relationships. Carefully observed and cleverly conceived, the film hinges on the undeniable chemistry between Adam Pally and Lister-Jones—not to mention they make a delightful indie pop duo (along with Fred Armisen on drums). Together they create a moving and comedic portrayal of a couple in denial of their pain, and who have to heal separately in order to move forward.”

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JUNE 2: Letters from Baghdad (dirs. Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum)Synopsis from the film’s official website:Letters from Baghdad is the story of a true original—Gertrude Bell—sometimes called the ‘female’ Lawrence of Arabia. Voiced and executive produced by Academy award winning actor Tilda Swinton, the documentary tells the dramatic story of this British spy, explorer and political powerhouse. Bell traveled widely in Arabia before being recruited by British military intelligence to help draw the borders of Iraq after WWI. Using never-seen-before footage of the region, the film chronicles Bell’s extraordinary journey into both the uncharted Arabian desert and the inner sanctum of British male colonial power. With unique access to documents from the Iraq National Library and Archive and Gertrude Bell’s own 1600 letters, the story is told entirely in the words of the players of the day, excerpted verbatim from intimate letters, private diaries and secret communiqués. It is a unique look at both a remarkable woman and the tangled history of Iraq. The film takes us into a past that is eerily current.”

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JUNE 2: Sámi Blood (dir. Amanda Kernell) (DPs: Sophia Olsson and Petrus Sjövik)Toronto International Film Festival synopsis by Steve Gravestock: “Amanda Kernell’s powerful feature debut Sámi Blood explores the Scandinavian variant of a shameful practice employed by self-proclaimed ‘civilized’ (i.e., white) nations around the world in the 19th and 20th centuries: the systematic removal of Indigenous children from their parents, homes, and traditional lifestyles and forced integration into an educational system that taught them that their customs and lifestyles were inferior at best.

“Kernell’s heroine Elle Marja (Lene Cecilia Sparrok) is a teenage Sámi girl in the 1930s who is sent to a boarding school that is intended to raise its Indigenous charges to a level ‘acceptable’ to the rest of Swedish society. (These schools even allowed phrenologists, the pseudo-scientists of the day, to study the Sámi children in order to identify which traits distinguished them from ‘regular’ Swedes.)

“Curious and excited, Elle Marja at first excels in her new surroundings, mastering the Swedish language and her other lessons while her younger sister, Njenna, struggles. But this very success, coupled with Elle Marja’s intense desire to be accepted by her teachers, her internalization of the school’s vile lessons about race and class, and her burgeoning sexuality, soon drives a wedge between her and her fellow students, forcing her to take an action she may not have the opportunity to regret.

Sámi Blood has all the anger and indignation one should expect from a drama centred on such appalling events — events that should by now be all too familiar to Canadians, given the belated apology from the Harper government for Canada’s residential schools system. But with Kernell’s nuanced direction and Sparrok’s devastating performance, it’s also a brilliant character study, showing how this kind of officially sanctioned abuse insidiously attacks the minds of its victims as well as their bodies. Reminiscent of Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Alanis Obomsawin’s work, Sámi Blood is driven by righteous rage, psychological acuity, and a profound empathy.”

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JUNE 2: Wonder Woman (dir. Patty Jenkins)Warner Bros. synopsis:Wonder Woman hits movie theaters around the world this summer when Gal Gadot returns as the title character in the epic action-adventure from director Patty Jenkins (Monster, AMC’s The Killing). Joining Gadot in the international cast are Chris Pine (the Star Trek films), Robin Wright (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Netflix’s House of Cards), Danny Huston (Clash of the Titans, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), David Thewlis (the Harry Potter films, The Theory of Everything), Connie Nielsen (Fox’s The Following, Gladiator), Elena Anaya (The Skin I Live In), Ewen Bremner (Exodus: Gods and Kings, Snowpiercer), Lucy Davis (Shaun of the Dead, FX’s Better Things), Lisa Loven Kongsli (upcoming Ashes in the Snow), Eugene Brave Rock (AMC’s Hell on Wheels) and Saïd Taghmaoui (American Hustle).

“Before she was Wonder Woman, she was Diana, princess of the Amazons, trained to be an unconquerable warrior. Raised on a sheltered island paradise, when an American pilot crashes on their shores and tells of a massive conflict raging in the outside world, Diana leaves her home, convinced she can stop the threat. Fighting alongside man in a war to end all wars, Diana will discover her full powers…and her true destiny.

“Patty Jenkins directs the film from a screenplay by Allan Heinberg, story by Zack Snyder & Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs, based on characters from DC. Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston. The film is produced by Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, Zack Snyder and Richard Suckle, with Stephen Jones, Geoff Johns, Jon Berg, Wesley Coller and Rebecca Steel Roven serving as executive producers.”

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JUNE 7: Ascent (dir. Fiona Tan)Film Forum synopsis: “Mount Fuji, still an active volcano, has long inspired artists with its dramatically symmetrical snow-capped cone, its intimations of danger, and its historical/political role in Japanese consciousness. Dutch artist Fiona Tan, clearly under the influence of Chris Marker and Agnès Varda, draws upon more than 4000 images of the iconic mountain. In both English and Japanese (she speaks English, actor Hiroki Hasegawa speaks Japanese), the film muses upon history, mythology, aesthetics, and geology – plus love and grief, Godzilla and Van Gogh, the role of the cherry blossom, and much else. This is an experimental movie in the best sense – a creative fusion of words and images, historical and contemporary thought, and Eastern and Western philosophy.”

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JUNE 9: As Good as You (dir. Heather de Michele)Queens World Film Festival synopsis: “Jo’s (Laura Heisler) world is thrown into utter disarray when her wife Amanda passes away. Her cozy domestic life shattered, her writing career tossed aside, Jo desperately starts chasing a dream that she and Amanda had once shared – starting a family together. Jo asks her late wife’s brother, Jamie to be her sperm donor. Craziness ensues, in the form of a visit to the fertility clinic’s psychologist (Annie Potts), and a love triangle with her two best friends, Nate (a straight man with his own tragic past–played by Raoul Bhaneja) and Lisa (Jo’s best friend, a lesbian punk photographer and bar owner–played by Anna Fitzwater). As Good as You is a human-scale, character-driven film set in a sleepy, safe Los Angeles; it’s a serious comedy about trying to grieve the right way, and maybe growing up a bit in the process.”

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JUNE 9: Megan Leavey (dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite)Bleecker Street Media synopsis:Megan Leavey is based on the true life story of a young Marine Corporal (Kate Mara) whose unique discipline and bond with her military combat dog saved many lives during their deployment in Iraq. When she is assigned to clean up the K9 unit after a disciplinary hearing, Leavey identifies with a particularly aggressive dog, Rex, and is given the chance to train him. Over the course of their service, Megan and Rex completed more than 100 missions until an IED explosion injures them, putting their fate in jeopardy. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish) from a screenplay by Pamela Gray and Annie Mumolo & Tim Lovestedt, the film also stars Edie Falco, Ramón Rodríguez, Bradley Whitford, and Common.”

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JUNE 9: Raising Bertie (dir. Margaret Byrne)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Set in Bertie County, a rural African American-led community in Eastern North Carolina, Raising Bertie takes audiences deep into the emotional lives of three boys – Reginald ‘Junior’ Askew, David ‘Bud’ Perry, and Davonte ‘Dada’ Harrell – over six-years as they come of age. This powerful vérité film produced by Chicago’s internationally acclaimed Kartemquin Films (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters), Raising Bertie movingly weaves the young men’s stories together as they try to define their identities, interconnecting narratives of family, youthful innocence, first love, systemic racism, educational inequity, poverty and unemployment, and the will to succeed in the face of formidable odds.

“Rural minorities like the youth in Bertie represent some of the nation’s most vulnerable and least visible individuals, existing at that critical juncture of rural disenfranchisement and the achievement gap for young people of color. Rural child poverty rates continue to rise while poverty rates for minorities in rural areas are nearly three times that of rural whites. Despite this, the national media and educational reform movement have focused primarily on the needs of urban and non-rural youth, largely ignoring this vital segment of America. This is particularly troubling considering that rural areas provide most of our food, house most of our prisoners, and provide a large number of our armed personnel.

Raising Bertie is an experience that asks us to see this world through their eyes, inciting recognition of lives and communities too often ignored. Intimate access provides a unique longitudinal observation of the everyday, and what happens in the lives of young people caught in the complex interplay of generational poverty, economic isolation, educational inequity, and race.”

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JUNE 14: Moka (dir. Frédéric Mermoud) (DP: Irina Lubtchansky)Seattle International Film Festival synopsis: “Along the shores of Lake Geneva, a fire is raging. Diane (Emmanuelle Devos, Coco Before Chanel) is grieving, her son the victim of a fatal hit-and-run accident seven months prior. With the police no closer to identifying a suspect and her marriage in shambles, Diane enlists the help of a private detective, who tracks down the make and model of the car—a mocha-colored SL 1972 Mercedes—that permanently altered her family’s life. Diane travels across the Swiss-French border with a list of owners of this rare automobile, finally settling on Marlene (Nathalie Baye, Day for Night) and Michel (David Clavel), a well-to-do Evian couple who fit the sole witness’ description perfectly. With her prey in sight, a pistol in hand, and revenge her sole remaining instinct, Diane carefully, methodically invades the couple’s seemingly comfortable life, waiting for the right moment to strike. Devos and Baye, two renowned veterans of French cinema, share the screen for the first time, going toe-to-toe in this slow-burning psychological thriller of obsession, paranoia, and unbreakable maternal instinct, based on the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay and handled with Highsmith/Hitchcockian panache by Swiss director Frédéric Mermoud (Les Revenants).”

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JUNE 16: From Hollywood to Rose (dirs. Liz Graham and Matt Jacobs)Eye for Film review by Jennie Kermode: “Margaret Thatcher is frequently credited with having claimed that anybody who rides on a bus after the age of 26 is a failure. Liz Graham and Matt Jacobs’ film is full of people making excuses for being on buses. They don’t normally travel this way, they insist. They can’t deny using buses because those are the places where they meet and get talking as one bedraggled middle aged woman (Eve Annenberg) makes her way through Los Angeles at night with make-up smeared all over her face, wearing an increasingly tattered wedding gown.

“Mysterious as the Bride in Quentin Tarantino’s epic Kill Bill, but a lot less glamorous, this tired and confused woman might be invisible to her fellow passengers if it were not for her dress. Everybody wants to know her story but, with the exception of one determined child, nobody wants to ask. Instead they talk around the subject or simply talk about themselves. They talk about their failed relationships, their thwarted ambitions, the mothers who don’t understand them and the lizard people sending telepathic messages from the centre of the Earth. Jewish, Chinese, trans and geek stereotypes abound but are acknowledged as such – sometimes, rather glumly, by those who embody them – and there’s a sweetness about the rendering of all the characters that goes a long way. The film sends the message that what matters is not whom one jokes about but the nature of the jokes.

“Nobody seems a more obvious target for cruel jokes than the poor bedraggled Bride, and her obvious vulnerability gives her the power of immunity through excess, bringing out the best in people (to the point where they sometimes confess the worst). Along the way she proves to have a depth and complexity nobody really expects, giving us glimpses of a much bigger story and forming unexpected friendships. There’s also a showdown with a woman who recognises her that’s straight out of Jerry Springer territory but is given comedic weight by its context, with nonplussed onlookers unsure of the proper way to react.

“Although the film is notably free of characters who insist they’re really actors, there’s a lot of satire here that’s very much focused on LA, and people who know the city will get more out of it. That said, the simple story and well-drawn characters have universal appeal, and the quietness of the film, the dryness of much of its humour, brings something different to situations that would normally be played in full-on wacky style. There’s an edge to Annenberg’s performance that suggests depths of despair just out of sight, and it’s this that lets the film get away with its positivity without becoming too sugary.

“A warm-hearted and thoughtful little film, From Hollywood to Rose travels along a familiar route but lets you appreciate what there is to observe along the way.”

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JUNE 16 (NYC), JUNE 23 (LA): Hare Krishna! The Mantra, the Movement and the Swami Who Started It All (dirs. John Griesser, Jean Griesser and Lauren Ross)Illuminate Film Festival synopsis:Hare Krishna! is a documentary on the life of Srila Prabhupada – the 70-year-old Indian Swami who arrived in America without support or money in the turbulent 1960s. With his unflinching determination and faith, he ignited the worldwide spiritual phenomenon, known as the Hare Krishna movement.

“Suddenly thrust into the raging countercultural scene, Prabhupada speaks of the world’s real need – a revolution in consciousness. He teaches that the way to find real happiness is by going within and connecting to your true self. This universal message resonates with more and more people, including musician George Harrison whose hit song ‘My Sweet Lord’ features the Hare Krishna chant. From there, Prabhupada’s movement explodes!

“This is the true story of an unexpected, prolific, and controversial revolutionary whose books have sold over 520 million copies and has inspired millions of seekers and yoga enthusiasts worldwide. Using never-before-seen archival verite, his own recorded words and interviews with his early followers, the film takes the audience behind-the-scenes of this infamous movement to meet the Swami who started it all.”

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JUNE 16: Lost in Paris (dirs. Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon) (DPs: Claire Childeric and Jean-Christophe Leforestier)From IndieWire’s Telluride Film Festival review by Eric Kohn: “No modern comedy group has shown as much commitment to resurrecting the spirit of classic slapstick than Brussels-based husband-and-wife comedy duo Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon. They have performed for decades, but only brought their talents into feature-length filmmaking in the last 10 years, with films like the wordless Rumba and The Fairy showcasing their commitment to a humor otherwise absent from contemporary cinema. Their lanky figures are ideal vessels for deadpan visuals that mine territory ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Jacques Tati. Lost in Paris, their fourth effort (and first without co-director Bruno Romy), continues that earnest commitment to the genre by tapping into the material’s appeal without reinventing it.

“Abel and Gordon have yet to produce a full-bodied work with more originality than references, and Lost in Paris doesn’t move the needle in that regard. But it’s another charming doodle that does justice to their brand of studied humor. The pair blends storybook visuals with a stream of clever gags and oodles of pathos to deliver an infectious romance almost too eager to please at every turn.

“While the appearance of French screen legend Emmanuelle Riva in a supporting role suggests the filmmakers are moving beyond their own antics, Lost in Paris predominantly belongs to Abel and Gordon, once again playing would-be lovers in an eccentric story filled with bizarre turns. It starts with Fiona (per usual, the couple uses their real names) living in a remote, frozen region of northern Canada that looks like something out of Wes Anderson’s toychest, where the wind blows all the locals around the room whenever someone opens the door. It’s here that she receives a desperate note from her senile Aunt Martha (Riva), complaining that a nurse has been attempting to lock her away in a retirement home. On a whim, Fiona heads to Paris — all it takes is a gentle push out of the snowy frame from one of her peers, and she’s arrived in the big city — and promptly falls into the conundrum of the title.

“Fiona’s a walking punchline from the moment she gets to town, wandering the streets with an oversized red backpack sporting a tiny Canadian flag, but the humor turns melancholic when she finds her aunt’s apartment empty and she has nowhere to go. Things only get worse: she tumbles into the Seine on more than one occasion, loses her passport and her cash, and gains a pesky stalker in the process. That would be Dom (Abel), a Chaplinesque tramp who lives by the river and instantly falls for Fiona after he comes across her missing belongings. But even after offering his assistance to find her missing aunt, she’s mortified by his grimy, streetwise ways, although his persistence pays off.

Lost in Paris becomes a gentle romance about awkward loners with a shared tendency for disaster-prone antics, but the flimsy plot of Lost in Paris provides an excuse for Abel and Gordon to unleash their visual humor, which at best mimics Tati’s ability to turn the surrounding environment into a character itself. The couple’s initial courtship begins in one of the more prolonged and effective sequences, a clumsy pas de deux at a seaside restaurant where blaring music causes everyone in the room to bounce together to the same beat. Elsewhere, tangents include the disastrous effect of a wayward fishing line, and a cigarette that burns through a newspaper to create a peephole as Dom spies on Abel at a diner. There’s also a few moments of terrific comic suspense, including the threat of an incinerator and a wayward ladder at the top of the Eiffel Tower. No matter its wandering trajectory, Lost in Paris remains unpredictable until the bittersweet end.

“…Abel and Gordon are much better at prolonged jokey setups than narrative coherence, but that speaks to the pastiche they’re committed to offering. Notably, Lost in Paris premiered at the Telluride Film Festival at the same time as La La Land, a sugary nostalgia trip that salutes antiquated musicals in much the same way that Lost in Paris pays tribute to another discarded genre.

“While La La Land recreates the spectacular canvas of classic Hollywood productions, Lost in Paris operates on a more restrained scale. The filmmakers use obvious green screen effects, and swap fancy camerawork for clever angles and playful choreography. Rather than reinventing the wheel, Abel and Gordon keep turning it with their own intimate touch.”

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JUNE 16: Maudie (dir. Aisling Walsh)Toronto International Film Festival synopsis by Michèle Maheux: “Maud Lewis is among the most inspiring figures in Canadian art. Afflicted with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, she spent her early life dismissed for what was presumed to be her limited ability. But Lewis’ colourful paintings, made on surfaces ranging from beaverboard to cookie sheets, established her as one of our country’s premier folk artists. Starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke, this moving film explores Lewis’ life in all its heartbreak and triumph.

“Marshalltown, Nova Scotia, 1937. Maud Dowley (Hawkins) is stuck living with her unsympathetic aunt. Desperate to break away, she responds to a local fish peddler’s call for a housekeeper. Everett Lewis (Hawke) is disagreeable and initially cruel to Maudie, but the two quickly acknowledge that each is in their own way a social outcast. They need and understand each other. Within weeks, they marry.

“One day a summer resident comes calling. She’s a New Yorker, wears alluring clothing and talks like Katharine Hepburn. She sees something in Maudie’s paintings and commissions one. Suddenly Maudie’s pastime is recognized as having real value. People come from far and wide. Eventually her work will hang in the White House.

“Cinematographer Guy Godfree fills Maudie with majestic images of maritime landscape and light, while director Aisling Walsh focuses on character, drawing performances of emotional complexity and great physical detail from her leads.

“Though set in the past, Maudie speaks to the present in many ways — this is, after all, a tale of a woman asserting herself as a generator of both art and commerce. But it is also a story of the power of creativity to transform a life and touch the soul.”

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JUNE 16: Rough Night (dir. Lucia Aniello)Sony Pictures synopsis: “In Rough Night, an edgy R-rated comedy, five best friends from college (played by Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell, Ilana Glazer, and Zoë Kravitz) reunite 10 years later for a wild bachelorette weekend in Miami. Their hard partying takes a hilariously dark turn when they accidentally kill a male stripper. Amidst the craziness of trying to cover it up, they’re ultimately brought closer together when it matters most.”

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JUNE 23: All the Rage (Saved by Sarno) (dirs. Michael Galinsky, David Beilinson and Suki Hawley)DOC NYC synopsis: “Dr. John Sarno takes a radical approach to back pain, instructing patients to focus on repressed emotions as the source. His book Healing Back Pain has been dismissed by peers, but acclaimed by countless readers. Among them are filmmaker Michael Galinsky (Battle for Brooklyn) who takes a first-person approach to exploring the work of Dr. Sarno. Through interviews with Sarno and esteemed patients like Larry David and Howard Stern, the film offers a radical rethink of how we approach health care.”

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JUNE 23: The Bad Batch (dir. Ana Lily Amirpour)From The Hollywood Reporter’s Venice Film Festival review by David Rooney: “A savage dystopian fairy tale in which one of the few comforting images is of a makeshift family dining in the desert on a spit-roasted pet bunny, The Bad Batch is another surreally atmospheric post-feminist genre spin from Ana Lily Amirpour. As with the Iranian-American writer-director’s 2014 Sundance discovery, the vampire spaghetti Western A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the new film is both violent and dreamy — a bewitching fusion of The Road Warrior with Robert Rodriguez-style scorched-earth badassery and a mystical Western strain that tips its hat to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo. But those influences notwithstanding, Amirpour creates a world that’s very much her own.

“Running close to two hours, the movie is overlong and not without draggy patches, but it’s sustained enough to keep you watching. And with its depiction of an extraterritorial American wasteland where society’s rejects are dumped to fend for themselves after being tattooed with a ‘bad batch’ number, it’s also a bizarro fantasy that might easily be the hideous result of some kind of demagogical Donald Trump cleanup experiment. Its weirdness alone should guarantee the movie an audience, unlike The Neon Demon, a far more self-indulgent and self-consciously droll recent excursion into genre art that shared scenes of human snack food.

“…A cacophony of announcements at some kind of criminal processing facility reveals that a fresh ‘bad batch’ intake is coming through, and we see Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) being escorted through the gate of a massive metal fence. But this fence is there to keep people out, not in. A sign reads: ‘Beyond this fence is no longer the territory of Texas. Hereafter no person within the territory beyond this fence is a resident of the United States of America or shall be acknowledged, recognized or governed by the laws and governing bodies therein. Good luck.’

“Arlen’s luck runs out fast. She barely has time to take shelter from the sun in a wrecked car and freshen her lipstick when she’s abducted by scouts from a nearby cannibal community, who appear out of the sweltering desert blur on a golf buggy. She’s drugged but still conscious enough to watch in horror as they unburden her of a limb or two using a hacksaw, cauterizing the wounds with a fry pan. Down but not defeated, Arlen manages to overpower her captor and escape on a skateboard, picked up half-dead in the desert by a wandering mute hermit (Jim Carrey) with a supermarket shopping cart.

“As an opening act, this is pretty juicy stuff, as lurid and grisly as anything that ever came out of the Italian flesh-eater exploitation wave of the 1970s, though with a far cooler detachment and a delightful playlist of music that ranges from unnerving to sardonic to hallucinogenic. Arlen’s nightmarish ordeal is ushered in by the bouncy early-’90s dance pop of Swedish group Ace of Base’s ‘All That She Wants,’ in the first of many instances of unexpected music choices yielding slyly twisted results. (The film has no actual score, though it features a soupy soundscape, dense with ambient dread.)

“…The Bad Batch looks sensational. Cinematographer Lyle Vincent — he also worked with Amirpour on A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, as did editor Alix O’Flinn and costumer Natalie O’Brien — gives even the pastels a sinister glow in the vast desert skies over parched, flat ground, at one point whipped by a dust storm. (Shooting, as in Amirpour’s previous film, took place in desert locales around Los Angeles.)

“But the sharpest tool in the movie’s arsenal is its soundtrack, which makes extensive use of sonic duo Darkside, along with tracks from South African hip-hop concept band Die Antwoord, synth-wave exponent Jordan Lieb, who records as Black Light Smoke, indie ambient purveyor Francis Harris, and Portland’s Federale, whose Ennio Morricone-influenced spaghetti Western tracks also were featured in Amirpour’s first film.”

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JUNE 23 (limited release), JUNE 30 (wider release): The Beguiled (dir. Sofia Coppola)From IndieWire‘s Cannes Film Festival review by David Ehrlich: “Ruthlessly shorn from Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel of the same name (and not remade from the Don Siegel adaptation that first brought its story to the screen), The Beguiled is a lurid, sweltering, and sensationally fun potboiler that doesn’t find [Sofia] Coppola leaving her comfort zone so much as redecorating it with a fresh layer of soft-core scuzz. The year is 1864, the Civil War still rages on despite the outcome growing more certain by the day, and — somewhere amidst the unloved willow trees that surround the Great Dismal Swamp of southeastern Virginia — seven women of various ages are cooped up in a schoolhouse like chickens waiting to be plucked.

“These are the small handful of students and faculty who remain at the Farnsworth Seminary; the rest of the residents have abandoned the gothic mansion like rats from a sinking ship (including the slaves, who surely took advantage of their captors’ dwindling numbers), leaving behind only those who have nowhere else to go. The girls range in age from minors to matrons, but they all have one thing in common: It’s been a very long time since they’ve seen a man, and even longer since once has been close enough to touch.

“And then, like the answer to a prayer that these devout belles would never dare offer to their Christian God, a man appears. And not just any man, but Colin Farrell. An Irish immigrant who sold his soul to the Union Army for $300, Corporal John McBurney is in urgent need of some tender care. He’s run away from the battlefield with ‘enough iron in his leg to shoe a horse,’ and he’s on the brink of death by the time he’s discovered by the youngest of the Farnsworth females. She escorts him back to the house, where the air stiffens as soon as the soldier is dragged inside.

“Perpetually clenched headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) agrees to care for this uninvited guest, but she’s well aware that he might cause trouble. Trouble from teenage Alicia (Elle Fanning, another Coppola alum), a born rebel in every sense of the word who sweats pure hormones as she stares at the exposed ‘blue-belly’ from across the room. Trouble from Edwina, her teacher, who seems tortured by the same desire that tickles the younger girls. And trouble for Martha herself, who has a little bit too much fun scrubbing her patient down (particularly when her hands wander below his Mason-Dixon Line). John rouses as inevitably as he arouses, but if he thinks that he’s stumbled into a male fantasy, he’ll soon find that this fantasy may not belong to him.

“Shot in Louisiana’s Madewood Plantation House (a location recognizable from the ‘Sorry’ portion of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade”) and almost entirely confined to the seminary’s withered interiors, Coppola’s film is told with surgical precision and savage grace. The story reveals itself across a tight 93 minutes — a considerably shorter runtime than that of Siegel’s film — packing all manner of ripe details and intimations into each of its frames.

“The writer-director trims Cullinan’s book down to its bare essentials, cutting out all of the most heightened elements (like incest) so that she could see these girls more clearly and represent their conflicting perspectives with less clutter to get in the way. The result is a movie that sometimes feels too compressed, like a bonsai tree that’s suffered one too many cuts, and the scale of the story can be uncomfortably dwarfed by the depth of its characters, and the performances that bring them to life.

“That’s true for Kidman, the movie star going supernova in her hyper-contained role as a woman who’s torn between lust, envy, and her maternal instincts. And it’s truest of all for Dunst, the most conflicted woman at Farnsworth, who longs for the outside world but is tortured by the messenger it sends her way.”

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JUNE 23: Good Fortune (dirs. Joshua Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell)Zurich Film Festival synopsis:Good Fortune is the rags to riches tale of conscious capitalism pioneer John Paul DeJoria. Born with nothing, at times homeless on the streets of LA, ‘JP’ spent his early adulthood in and out of motorcycle gangs only to wheel and deal his way to the top of a vast hair and tequila empire. A modern day Robin Hood, JP’s motto is ‘Success unshared is failure.’ The son of immigrants, JP defies the stereotype of ‘the 1%’ and is the poster boy of the triple bottom line – people, planet and profit. A success story full of ups and downs, Good Fortune is the portrait of an extraordinary business man.”

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JUNE 23: In Transit (dirs. Albert Maysles, Lynn True, David Usui, Nelson Walker III and Benjamin Wu)Synopsis from the film’s official website:In Transit journeys into the hearts and minds of everyday passengers aboard Amtrak’s Empire Builder, the busiest long-distance train route in America. Captured in the tradition of Direct Cinema, the film unfolds as a series of interconnected vignettes, ranging from overheard conversations to moments of deep intimacy, in which passengers share their fears, hopes and dreams. In the space between stations, where ‘real life’ is suspended, we are swept into a fleeting community that transcends normal barriers, and where a peculiar atmosphere of contemplation and community develops. To some passengers, the train is flight and salvation, to others it is reckoning and loss. But for all, it is a place for personal reflection and connecting with others they may otherwise never know.”

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JUNE 28: Pop Aye (dir. Kirsten Tan) (DP: Chananun Chotrungroj)Film Forum synopsis: “A man and his elephant walk into a bar: well, not quite — but close. Pop Aye is the story of a successful Bangkok architect whose late-midlife crisis leads him to an encounter with the elephant (Popeye) with whom he spent an idyllic childhood in the Thai countryside. Together they embark on a road trip to deliver both man and beast to their origins. The local police cite him for not having a permit to travel with an elephant; a transgendered prostitute joins him in a karaoke duet at a roadside dive; and a poetic, possibly delusional, pauper offers companionship. But the real star is the big guy: Popeye lumbers along with great dignity and endless fortitude. He is the center of a mysterious, funny and often absurd universe that while seemingly particular to Thailand is, ultimately, not unlike our own.”

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JUNE 30: The Little Hours (dir. Jeff Baena) (DP: Quyen Tran)Sundance Film Festival synopsis: “Medieval nuns Alessandra (Alison Brie), Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), and Ginevra (Kate Micucci) lead a simple life in their convent. Their days are spent chafing at monastic routine, spying on one another, and berating the estate’s day laborer. After a particularly vicious insult session drives the peasant away, Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) brings on new hired hand Massetto (Dave Franco), a virile young servant forced into hiding by his angry lord. Introduced to the sisters as a deaf-mute to discourage temptation, Massetto struggles to maintain his cover as the repressed nunnery erupts in a whirlwind of pansexual horniness, substance abuse, and wicked revelry.

“Loaded with comedic talent and written with an off-kilter, yet knowing touch, The Little Hours is an immensely charming romp. Writer/director Jeff Baena’s riotous follow-up to Sundance Film Festival favorites Life After Beth and Joshy has transferred the nervy comedic energy from his earlier work to the Middle Ages with hilarious results.”

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JUNE 30 (theatrical release), JULY 4 (Video on Demand): The Reagan Show (dirs. Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez)Tribeca Film Festival synopsis by Cara Cusumano: “A Republican president takes office at the height of his Hollywood-powered, camera-ready fame. He governs with lenses constantly flashing, and claims that he’s just the public face in front of real policy-makers and dangerous global threats. That’s the story of America’s 40th president, Ronald Reagan. The movie star, known for playing cowboys and gun-toting heroes, took over the White House in 1981 and led the United States against Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s threats of war. Amidst the actual governing, though, Reagan’s presidency set a new standard for video documentation. Cameras followed Reagan’s every move, leading opposing pundits to accuse him of ‘majoring in public relations’ more so than hardline presidential affairs.

“Comprised entirely of archival footage taken during those pre-reality-television years, The Reagan Show is a highly entertaining and informative look at how Ronald Reagan redefined the look and feel of what it means to be the POTUS. Co-directors Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill’s film uncannily provides a fascinating precedent for the made-for-TV President.”

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JUNE 30: 13 Minutes (aka Elser) (dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel) (DP: Judith Kaufmann)Lincoln Plaza Cinemas synopsis: “During Hitler’s anniversary speech on November 8, 1939, a man is arrested on the Swiss border for possession of suspicious objects. Just minutes later, a bomb explodes in the Munich Bürgerbräukeller, immediately behind the Führer’s lectern, killing eight people. The man is Georg Elser (Christian Friedel), a carpenter from Königsbronn in the Swabia region. When a map of the site of the assault and detonators are found on him, he is sent to the head of the Criminal Police in the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, Arthur Nebe (Burghart Klaussner), and the head of the Gestapo, Heinrich Müller (Johann von Bülow) to be questioned. From them, Elser learns that his attempt has failed – that the man he wanted to kill in order to stop the bloodshed of the World War that had just begun, has left the Bürgerbräukeller 13 minutes before the explosion. For days, Elser is interrogated by Nebe and Müller, for days, he holds out against their questions. Until he finally confesses – and relates the story of his deed.”