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

tumblr_plx279jcul1s5o8nro1_1280

Director/screenwriter Shelly Chopra Dhar (center) and cast members on the set of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, 2018. (Photo: BizAsiaLive)

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

tumblr_plx2hw8d6h1s5o8nro1_1280

FEBRUARY 1 (in theaters & on VOD): Braid (dir. Mitzi Peirone)Tribeca Film Festival synopsis by Matt Barone: “Lifelong best friends Petula and Tilda have been making ends meet by dealing drugs in New York City. But when a random drug bust results in them losing $80,000, they’re left with no choice but to flee town to evade both the police and their pissed-off dealer. Their hideout location is obvious: a mansion occupied by childhood friend Daphne, an agoraphobic heiress who teeters on the edge of sanity. At first, Petula and Tilda think they’ll just need to entertain Daphne’s seemingly playful world of make-believe; however, they soon come to realize Daphne’s mental state is, to put it lightly, wildly disturbed. What begins with innocent role-playing and dress-up quickly devolves into torture, madness, and bloodshed.

“Genre fans on the lookout for bold new filmmaking voices need look no further than first-time writer-director Mitzi Peirone. With the visually lavish and narratively head-spinning Braid, Peirone makes one hell of a first impression, applying a dizzying sense of dream logic and an uncompromisingly feminist edge to a Gothic, almost fairy tale-like psychological horror. Braid plays by no one’s rules but Peirone’s own. It’s one of the most eye-opening and wickedly singular genre film debuts in years.”

tumblr_plwzquehve1s5o8nro1_1280

FEBRUARY 1: Daughter of Mine (dir. Laura Bispuri)Quad Cinema synopsis: “In rural Sardinia, 10-year-old Vittoria (Sara Casu) has been raised by practical Tina (Valeria Golino) and her partner, only to learn that her biological mother is the village’s free-spirited party girl Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher). Tensions continue to mount between the two mothers when Angelica finds herself in financial trouble and claims the girl as her own. This vibrant, sunswept neorealist drama from director Laura Bispuri (Sworn Virgin) is a piercing inquiry into the trials and joys of motherhood.”

tumblr_plx01eefc51s5o8nro1_1280

FEBRUARY 1 (streaming on Netflix): Dear Ex (dirs. Chih-Yen “Kidding” Hsu and Mag Hsu)San Diego Asian Film Festival synopsis by James Paguyo: “Song Zhengyuan’s (Spark Chen) death has been difficult to process for his wife, Liu Sanlian (Ying-Xuan Hsieh). Only months earlier, Zhengyuan came out as gay and left his family to be with his partner, Jay (Roy Chiu). Sanlian’s anger reaches a breaking point when she discovers Jay is the the sole beneficiary on her husband’s life insurance policy and to get the money, she has to strike up a relationship with the man he was in love with. To complicate matters, her teenage son Chengxi (Joseph Huang), frustrated with the adults in his life, runs away from home and moves in with Jay, uninvited and unwanted, to learn more about the mysterious relationship his father had with this other man.

“What initially begins as a story of grief and betrayal slowly reveals a touching exploration of acceptance and sacrifice. Chengxi may be a typical moody teenager, but he is also a child confused about the world in which he finds himself. Sanlian lashes out in a constant state of pain, while Jay channels his grief by unexpectedly caring for Chengxi in his own way. At times heartbreaking, ironic, and playful, Dear Ex looks at the complexity of three people who must navigate strange living arrangements, fresh grief, and new definitions for love.”

tumblr_plx21ydqwe1s5o8nro1_1280

FEBRUARY 1: Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (dir. Shelly Chopra Dhar)AMC Theatres synopsis: “Some love stories are not simple, Sweety’s (Sonam Kapoor) is one such story. She has to contend with her over-enthusiastic family that wants to get her married, a young writer who is completely smitten by her, a secret that she harbors close to her heart and ultimately the truth that her true love might not find acceptance in her family and society. Resolving these issues proves hilarious, touching & life changing. Welcome to the most unexpected romance of the year!”

tumblr_plx0u6pxim1s5o8nro1_1280

FEBRUARY 1: Miss Bala (dir. Catherine Hardwicke)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Gloria (Gina Rodriguez) finds a power she never knew she had when she is drawn into a dangerous world of cross-border crime. Surviving will require all of her cunning, inventiveness, and strength.”

FEBRUARY 5 (on digital & VOD): Anywhere with You (dirs. Hanna Ladoul and Marco La Via)Cineuropa synopsis: “Amanda (Morgan Saylor) and Jake (McCaul Lombardi) are in love and want to start a new life in Los Angeles. Will they make the right decisions? The first 24 hours of their new life will take them all around the city, bringing them more surprises and frustrations than expected.”

tumblr_plx1x5z0as1s5o8nro1_1280

FEBRUARY 8 (in theaters & on VOD): Berlin, I Love You (dirs. include Dianna Agron, Massy Tadjedin and Gabriela Tscherniak)Cinema Village synopsis: “The latest installment of the Cities of Love franchise (Paris, je t’aime / New York, I Love You / Rio, Eu Te Amo), this collective feature-film is made of 11 stories of romance set in the German capital – with each segment handled by a different director.”

FEBRUARY 8 (in theaters), FEBRUARY 26 (on DVD): Holiday (dir. Isabella Eklöf)Fantastic Fest synopsis by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas: “Pretty blonde Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne) is the epitome of mainstream attractiveness, and is invited to join her Danish criminal boyfriend Michael (Lai Yde) on a no-expense-spared summer holiday on Turkey’s idyllic Turquoise Coast. The young woman’s presence requires her to take on the role of a human trinket, a girl-shaped bauble whose inclusion in the titular getaway with Michael and his colleagues comes with unspoken expectations and demands. And she knows it.

“The feature film debut of Swedish director and writer Isabella Eklöf, Holiday is marked by a fashion magazine gloss with its aesthetic of hyper-commodified femininity. The look of the film feeds shrewdly into a fearless critique of what happens to a young woman who has been objectified to the point where she can only understand her own identity through the very terms of her objectification. At the heart of the film lies an undeniably brutal rape scene that makes explicit the until-then ambient, rumbling suggestion of violence and threat that surrounds Sascha: as a young woman in this man’s world, violence is not just a possibility, but a day-to-day reality.

“The neon-colored bikinis, nightclubs, fancy drinks, and crystal-clear swimming pools lie in sharp contrast to the dark revelations of Sascha’s journey, sparked into action when she meets free-spirited Dutchman Thomas (Thijs Römer). In the hands of a less capable, thoughtful, and original director, this scenario could easily collapse into the terrain of the cliched love triangle trope, but Eklöf knows the world is never so simple or clear-cut for women in situations like Sascha’s. Rather, violence becomes viral — a way of maintaining the status quo, even if that comes at the loss of agency and the acceptance of an identity that transcends two-dimensional commodified womanhood.

“Like so much in Eklöf’s film, the title is both an invitation and a provocation: HOLIDAY is no escape, but rather an unflinching, urgent, and desperately important statement about the world so many young women find themselves in.”

tumblr_plx1q5nbsz1s5o8nro1_1280

FEBRUARY 8 (streaming on Netflix): ReMastered: The Two Killings of Sam Cooke (dir. Kelly Duane de la Vega)Tribute Magazine synopsis by Alexandra Heilbron: “Sam Cooke is profiled in this episode of the documentary series featuring famous stories about music’s impact on society. The most influential black musician of the Civil Rights Movement, Sam Cooke advocated for the rights of his fellow black musicians. An investigation into the circumstances surrounding his shooting death include theories that he was robbed and ‘trick-rolled’ by a prostitute. But many believe he was targeted by music industry moguls with links to the mob who wanted him dead for emerging as a totem for black musicians’ rights.”

tumblr_plx397ewoe1s5o8nro1_1280

FEBRUARY 8 (in theaters & on VOD): Untogether (dir. Emma Forrest) (DP: Autumn Durald)The Hollywood Reporter’s Tribeca Film Festival review by John DeFore: “A handsome relationship drama about four fantastic-looking people whose interior lives are something of a wreck, Emma Forrest’s Untogether has its share of life/art parallels beyond the fact that the sisters at its core are played by real-life siblings Lola and Jemima Kirke. That excellent bit of casting, along with that of co-stars Ben Mendelsohn (the director’s ex-husband) and Jamie Dornan, should make the debut feature considerably more attractive to indie distributors, who will also respond to its smart, uningratiating screenplay and polished look.

“The Kirkes play Andrea (Jemima) and Tara (Lola), daughters of a deceased musician who evidently left them both a Los Angeles house and left Tara some daddy issues as well: She has lived here for a while with a much older man (Mendelsohn’s Martin) who was himself a two-hit wonder musician long ago. Now Andrea has come to stay with the couple, a year into recovery from heroin addiction and many years past the publication of her only novel.

“Andrea falls into a relationship with the much more successful Nick (Dornan), a physician who struck gold with a memoir about an affair he had while doing volunteer work in the Gaza Strip. Declaring from the start that he’s emotionally unavailable, Nick enjoys having Andrea on call, watching her dance for him in vintage lingerie (the script is oddly attentive to her retro wardrobe) and, in an echo of Dornan’s most famous role, sometimes tying her up with silk stockings. Though their personality defects aren’t identical, the two are enough alike to fall into something like doomed love.

“Meanwhile, though Martin is more emotionally mature than one expects a midlife rocker to be, Tara needs something beyond their relationship. A Jew who’s never participated in religion, she discovers a congregation led by a rabbi (Billy Crystal’s David) who radiates moral integrity; she begins spending free time at his synagogue, being carried away by the music. Kirke is persuasive as a woman so ready for deeper meaning in life that she may latch onto the first big idea she encounters.

“An early cross-cutting sequence hints at Forrest’s intent to mix things up for these rootless characters: Tara lingers after hours with David, listening to his earnest talk of social justice and activism; Andrea takes Martin to an insufferable book party after he casually points out some of the things wrong with her life. The film hops back and forth between the conversations, showing the sisters attempting to connect with moral or professional aspirations that their love lives may be hindering.

“The story’s least engaging character, Nick, hovers outside the moral orbit of the others, but Forrest has plans for him. A controversy awaits that will make his interactions with Andrea more meaningful, and whether they point toward a healthy relationship or not, the script pulls its elements together pleasingly in the end.

“Forrest started off as a music journalist, and occasionally seems to go out of her way to shoehorn some personal favorites into the plot. It’s eyebrow-raising, though of course not impossible, that 30-ish Andrea quotes the Manic Street Preachers (a band whose fans lean considerably older) and plays late-period Siouxsie and the Banshees on the bus; when the film needs to reveal the presumably decades-old song that made Martin a star, it appropriates an excellent 2007 composition by Austin’s Okkervil River that is probably too meta to fit the character or his period.

“But the film’s emotional intelligence gets it past the occasional false note, and the strength of its central performances keeps us engaged even when the characters themselves might not deserve our sympathy. ‘Untogether’ here isn’t a reference to relationship status as much a verdict on whether our protagonists have their acts together. Though they’re far from settled when the credits roll, they’re at least more pleasant to be around.”

tumblr_plx2kr1woc1s5o8nro1_1280

FEBRUARY 13 (NYC), FEBRUARY 15 (LA): Birds of Passage (dirs. Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra)The Playlist’s Cannes Film Festival review by Jessica Kiang: “We humans have a mania for classification. We divide things into epochs and eras — Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous; Elizabethan, Victorian, Edwardian. We draw borders around regions, cutting rivers in half, like the flowing waters care, and creating nations so notional that a sneeze in one can bury a town beneath an avalanche in another. We boil sprawling cultures and variegated ethnicities down to single words, the better to pop up on census forms with a little checkbox next to them, waiting for your x. And if we’re not careful, if we’re not frequently reminded of their artificiality, we can start to see those divisions as real and defined. With the stunning Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra did a mournfully psychedelic job of exploding that misconception a little, imagining the tragedy of colonialism as a long, drawn-out process more defined by the inevitable transformation of an ancient way of life than its annihilation, as though the modern era was hallucinated into being by a past that, as Faulkner said, is not dead; it is not even past. And with Birds of Passage, the new film Guerra co-directed with his Embrace producer and partner Cristina Gallego, that beautiful and strange project is continued and expanded upon, into the troubled and often violent Colombia of the late 20th century, an era when airplanes and mirrored sunglasses and foreign exploitation commingled with the beads and silks and superstitions of tribal life, and gave rise to the phenomenon we recognize today as the Colombian drug trade. This is an absolutely extraordinary film.

“On one level it is easier to embrace than Embrace, given that it unfolds as a kind of dynastic rise-and-fall story, a Colombian Godfather spanning the late ’60s and ’70s, divided into 5 lyrically named chapters, or ‘cantos’: Wild Grass, The Graves, Prosperity, The War and Limbo. It starts, as do most such epics, with a young man who craves social betterment. Here it is Rapayet (José Acosta) the nephew of a respected ‘word messenger,’ who exists on the periphery of the Wayuu tribe of northern Colombia, and wants to consolidate his standing by marrying the beautiful Zaida (Natalia Reyes), a young Wayuu woman to whom we’re introduced in a glorious billow of blood-red silk and face paint during her ritual ‘coming out party.’ Reluctant to give Zaida’s hand in marriage to someone not in the inner circle, her mother Ursula (a blazing Carmiña Martínez, giving us the best ruthless clan matriarch since Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom) sets a near-impossible dowry. But Rapayet, along with his loose-cannon friend and business partner Moises (Jhon Narváez) makes a deal with some Peace Corps soldiers, stationed in the area ostensibly as a bulwark against communism, but really just looking for a regular supply of weed. And with a few quick flips, Rapayet has not only made the money to meet Zaida’s dowry, he’s made the connections that will soon make his extended family the most powerful in the region.

“But not everyone is as level-headed as Rapayet. The alijuna (outsider) Moises quickly becomes a trigger-happy liability and later Ursula’s younger son Leonidas (Gredier Meza), a dyspeptic brat of a child, will grow up into a sociopathic, cruel, bottle-blond Crown Prince, a kind of Colombian Commodus, giving the family dynamics of Birds of Passage the dimensions of a Greek tragedy. And throughout it all, Ursula and Zaida are beset by portentous dreams in which their children’s faces wear shrouds, and Rapayet is haunted by the yoluja (ghost) of the friend he betrayed in the name of family honor.

“The Coppola parallels are writ large, but the early portion also owes a great deal to the Scorsese of Mean Streets in its depiction of the bonds of brotherhood among low-level hoodlums on the make, while the film is also saturated with imagery from genre westerns — John Ford doorway silhouettes and Sergio Leone widescreen vistas that echo with sussurating crickets and the screeching of unseen animals, as well as with the exotic instrumentation and pounding tribal percussion of Leonardo Heiblum’s uncanny score. But in the ethnographic strangeness that lurks in the corner of every frame, there is also something of Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, and not since Zhang Yimou’s House of the Flying Daggers has there been a film more sensuously dedicated to the texture and colors of richly dyed fabrics and traditional textiles.

“DP David Gallego (who also shot Embrace and Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not a Witch and must surely now be counted among our foremost working cinematographers) finds explodingly colorful compositions that embody the tension between old and new, and between the often tacky trappings of Western-style new money, and the untameable natural world with which the Wayuu used to live in harmony. The greatest example is the folly of Rapayet’s flashy mansion, looking like something out of the ‘The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,’ standing white, spare and architect-designed on baked earth cracked like pottery glaze, with the hot, crazy-making desert wind blowing ceaselessly though even its interior corridors.

“By locating this story within the indigenous population who become as much the architects of their own downfall as the Westerners they supply (who only exist on the periphery of this film), Guerra and Gallego along with screenwriters Maria Camila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde, have written Colombia’s tribal history back into the story of Colombia’s conflicted present. The Wayuu here are neither exploited innocents nor backward savages, but flawed humans indulging recognisable human instincts of greed and rapaciousness, and who have a hierarchical social system in place that is not so exotically alien that it cannot be easily crossbred with Western-style wealth and corruption. And so Birds of Passage is not squeamish about violence, and does not ignore the bigger sociological and geopolitical forces at work. But it does march to its own, slow, chantlike rhythm, depicting not a clash, but a continuity where colonialism seeded capitalism, which in turn bred conflicts in which ethnic Colombians were as complicit as they were victimized. The lack of sentimentality is startling.

“And that clear-eyed revision of accepted history has resonance far beyond the borders of Colombia. You do not have to have Wayuu ancestry, or any connection to the region to understand the broader implications of this epic story of haunted druglords and ruthless power grabs that are partly predicated on traditional beliefs and shibboleths. Guerra and Gallego’s film is no dusty period piece, it is wildly alive, yet it reminds us that no matter how modern we are, there are ancient songs our forebears knew whose melodies still rush in our blood. We are not creatures of one era or another or of one place or another, we are only ever birds of passage between our mythic pasts and our unwritten futures, being tossed around by the wind.”

tumblr_plx2r8lamg1s5o8nro1_1280

FEBRUARY 15 (streaming on Netflix): The Breaker Upperers (dirs. Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek) (DP: Ginny Loane)Variety’s SXSW Film Festival review by Amy Nicholson: “Got a thousand bucks and a yen to be single? Call The Breaker Upperers, two nihilistic New Zealand best friends and roommates who will knock at your soon-to-be ex’s door, hand them your watch, and announce you drowned. Writer-director-stars Jackie van Beek and Madeleine Sami play Jen and Mel, who committed exclusively, if platonically, to each other 15 years ago when they found out they were dating the same man. Now, both are so soured on love that their hearts have curdled, making it easy to stick fake pregnancy bellies under their shirts and shatter strangers’ lives.

“Too bad for lovelorn rubes who here look like fools, but hooray for audiences discovering that the Wellington comedy scene has launched a female version of Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement. (Waititi signed on to executive produce.) The Breaker Upperers has the increasingly familiar patter of Kiwi comedy: dogged naivety, nervous politeness, hazy thoughts that trail off like vapor.

“Their business takes on all kinds of clients: straight, gay, male, female, old and angry, and young and stupid. Their newest client, 17-year-old rugby jock Jordan (Boy star James Rolleston, all grown up), can’t understand why his temperamental girlfriend Sepa (Ana Scotney) didn’t realize he broke up with her using emojis. He texted her a broken heart and a thunder cloud — take the hint. He’s as dumb as, well, pretty much every other character in the film, and he falls in love with Mel on sight. ‘Is that short for Melon?’ he asks. Sigh. But when Mel and Jen interrupt his game to give Sepa the bad news, Mel can’t help staring lustily as he swigs a soda in slow-motion and then sensually pours the fizz all over his head.

“That’s the kind of surrealist touch that makes The Breaker Upperers sparkle. It sputters along with an alt-world logic where a sucker like grief-stricken Annie (Celia Pacquola) truly believes her husband is at the bottom of the sea, not partying it up in Brazil. Annie will blunder back into Mel and Jen’s lives causing a minor crisis of conscience — or really, the realization that one of them still has a conscience — and along the way, she’ll set a penis hat on fire, blurt out too much about her gynecological health, and scramble Jen’s brain by putting on a ’90s Celine Dion karaoke ballad that will cause the cynic to hallucinate walking arm-in-arm with her ex (Cohen Holloway). In flashbacks, we see van Beek allow her face to soften. She plays most of the film on edge, accusing Mel of breaking company rules she’s just invented on the spot in order to make sure her only friend sticks with her. Someone’s got to be there for the awkward dinners with her sex-mad mom who refuses to frame pictures of Jen solo because her singleness makes her sad.

“Van Beek and Sami are clearly banking their careers on their debut feature helping them become known names in America. (They’ve both cameoed in What We Do in the Shadows and Eagle vs Shark, but, as Sami joked after the film’s SXSW premiere, you’d only spot her if she wrote down the timestamp.) Even so, they’ve let their film feel marvelously shaggy around the edges — their personalities pop — until after a whiplash-funny first hour, they play it safe with an everyone-gets-a-hug Paul Feig-style climax. (The movie literally ends with a soul train.) Still, it’s a terrific showcase for the duo and their entire cast, which, besides a pop-up bit from Clement, is curated from a local talent pool that Hollywood has yet to spelunk. After this, it should.”

FEBRUARY 15 (in theaters & on VOD): Patrick (dir. Mandie Fletcher)Time Out London review by Olly Richards: “If you’re not dog mad then there is absolutely nothing for you here. If you are then you’ll ‘aw’ and ‘ooh’ yourself silly at Patrick, a very gentle, quite adorable little film that essentially boils down to the story of a pug helping a sad teacher compete in a fun run.

“Beattie Edmondson (daughter of Jennifer Saunders and Adrian Edmondson) plays Sarah, whose life is, she thinks, not going well. Her boyfriend has left, her parents think her work as a comprehensive teacher makes her a failure and she’s starting to think they might be right. She also somehow lives in a huge flat in Richmond on her teacher’s salary, which withers your sympathy somewhat. Sarah’s misery is made worse when her late grandma bequeaths her Patrick, a very badly behaved pug. Sarah hates dogs, but perhaps Patrick can change all that…

“The dog, or in fact dogs, who play Patrick are, frankly, BAFTA-worthy. He’s a character that packs the charisma of a much larger beast into his tiny, wrinkly body. Credit for that, of course, should really go to director Mandie Fletcher (Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, ‘Blackadder’), who’s made a selection of well-trained tricks look like a performance. Patrick’s presence serves as a boost to every joke in the script, making them all just a little funnier because his presence is so delightful. He’s surrounded by a cast of excellent comic actors – Jennifer Saunders, Tom Bennett, Adrian Scarborough, Gemma Jones – but they’re all mere support. The pooch is the star.”

tumblr_plx2tp6yta1s5o8nro1_1280

FEBRUARY 15: The Unicorn (dirs. Isabelle Dupuis and Tim Geraghty)Anthology Film Archives synopsis: “This extraordinary, years-in-the-making documentary grabs hold of a truly unique central figure: outsider musician Peter Grudzien, the one-man musical force behind ‘The Unicorn,’ which has been described as possibly the first openly gay country album. But country doesn’t begin to describe the dizzying range of music included on this 1974 release. Peter composed, performed, and recorded ‘The Unicorn’ entirely in his childhood home in Astoria, Queens, and sold the 500 pressed copies out of a suitcase on the streets of the city. Despite this unpromising genesis, the album was rescued from oblivion and re-released in the 1990s, prompting the music critic and collector Paul Major to declare it the ‘greatest New York LP since the first Velvet Underground or first New York Dolls.’

“By the time filmmakers Isabelle Dupuis and Tim Geraghty encountered Grudzien, though, mainstream recognition remained elusive, with Peter himself living a marginalized and paranoia-fueled life in Queens with his forbidding, nonagenarian father, Joseph, and his schizophrenic twin sister, Terry. The Unicorn immerses us in Peter’s life, a hermetic world transfigured by his musical talent and stubborn resilience, but full of shadows both real and imagined.

The Unicorn is at once an invaluable act of cultural excavation, an unforgettable character study, and a cracked family portrait in the vein of Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb. But while it may superficially resemble other biographical documentaries, it’s unusually alert to the messy contradictions and intermingling of creative inspiration and mental psychosis that characterize its remarkable subject, his even more unhinged family members, and by extension American culture itself. Ultimately it’s a powerful depiction of a troubled soul for whom music represents a vitally important survival mechanism in the midst of a difficult existence.”

FEBRUARY 22 (in theaters & on VOD): The Changeover (dirs. Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie)New Zealand Film Commission synopsis: “Based on the acclaimed novel by Margaret Mahy, The Changeover tells the story of Laura (Erana James), who loses her little brother in earthquake-scarred Christchurch. A decrepit old man (Timothy Spall) marks the child’s hand with a noxious stamp. Jacko (Benji Purchase) sickens quickly while the man grows younger. The doctors insist Jacko needs a bone marrow transplant — and Laura is the only donor. But Laura becomes convinced a mysterious older boy (Nicholas Galitzine) can help her ‘change over’ and become a witch, defeating the evil spirit sucking the life out of her brother.”

FEBRUARY 22: The Competition (dir. Claire Simon) (DPs: Prisca Bourgoin, Pierre-Hubert Martin, Aurélien Py and Claire Simon)DOC NYC synopsis: “In this Venice Film Festival winner, director Claire Simon goes behind closed doors during the months-long admissions period at France’s most selective film school, La Fémis, where thousands of hopefuls apply for only 40 available slots. The state-run institution, which teaches aspiring filmmakers their craft through handson training with working professionals, also turns to the latter to evaluate applicants. Simon captures entrance interviews and candid discussions among the selection committee, creating a revealing portrait of an institution and its gatekeepers.”

tumblr_plwxafiuka1s5o8nro1_1280

FEBRUARY 22 (streaming on Netflix): Firebrand (dir. Aruna Raje)PopSugar synopsis by Corinne Sullivan: “Following the success of her National Award-winning Marathi-language film Ventilator, Priyanka Chopra teamed up with director Aruna Raje for another Marathi production, which follows a successful lawyer and sexual assault victim (Usha Jadhav) as she tackles difficult cases, as well as intimacy issues with her architect husband (Girish Kulkarni).”

tumblr_plx32gab4k1s5o8nro1_1280

FEBRUARY 22 (streaming on Netflix): Paris Is Us (dir./DP: Elisabeth Vogler)Netflix synopsis: “Dreams and reality collide as a young woman (Noémie Schmidt) navigates a tumultuous relationship and rising social tensions, protests and tragedies in Paris.”

tumblr_plx2yqlbaf1s5o8nro1_1280

FEBRUARY 22 (streaming on Netflix): The Photographer of Mauthausen (dir. Mar Targarona)From a Cineuropa article by Alfonso Rivera:El fotógrafo de Mauthausen, which is based on real life events and was written by Alfred Pérez-Fargas and Roger Danés,stars Alain Hernández, Macarena Gómez and Richar Von Weyden. The film narrates how, with the help of a group of Spanish prisoners who lead the illegal organization of Mauthausen, Francesc Boix, an inmate working in his photo lab, risked his life to plan the release of some negatives that would demonstrate to the world the atrocities committed by the Nazis in the hell that was the Austrian concentration camp. The photographs they managed to save were decisive in condemning Nazi officials in the Nuremberg trials in 1946, where Boix was the only Spanish witness.

“The producer of El cuerpo and The Orphanage and director of Secuestro [Mar Targarona] stated ‘I was very moved when I read about the story of Francesc Boix and the 7,000 republicans who were in Mauthausen, which is not a very well-known historical event in Spain. It is shocking to see Boix testify in the Nuremberg trials and point out the executioners, evidently demonstrating that they knew what was happening in those camps. It is a historical example in which criminals were brought to justice thanks to the courage of a few. I wanted to honour those heroes and all the victims of Mauthausen with this film.'”

FEBRUARY 23 (airing on HBO at 10:00 pm): O.G. (dir. Madeleine Sackler)Tribeca Film Festival synopsis by Loren Hammonds: “Jeffrey Wright delivers a powerful performance as a maximum-security prison inmate named Louis, who, 24 years after committing a violent crime as a young man, finds himself on the cusp of release from prison, facing an uncertain future on the outside. He encounters Beech (Theothus Carter), a newly incarcerated young man who offers him much needed-friendship, though it’s not without unfortunate complications. The younger inmate echoes of his older counterpart, stirring instincts within Louis that had long been buried beneath a tough exterior. Sackler’s film is a taut prison drama that follows the seemingly mundane countdown of days before Louis’s release, until, almost imperceptibly, it transforms into a thriller, suddenly crackling with intensity. Filmed on location in an actual maximum-security prison with inmates participating as actors, the film lays bare, with remarkable realism, the very specific complexities of existing as an incarcerated man in America. Sackler’s background as an esteemed documentarian influences her first fiction film, a portrait of a proud yet regretful soul at a crossroads.”

2019 Oscar Nominations: My Predictions

tumblr_plpsrf8gnw1s5o8nro1_1280

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

tumblr_pkolm27DXF1s5o8nro1_1280

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.)

tumblr_pkoiu9bJZw1s5o8nro1_1280

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.”

tumblr_pkoiyjYooH1s5o8nro1_1280

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.”

tumblr_pkolcr3iu51s5o8nro1_1280

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.”

tumblr_pkojf9kJ161s5o8nro1_1280

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.”

tumblr_pkojizvvqh1s5o8nro1_1280

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.

tumblr_pkojmetchB1s5o8nro1_1280

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.”

tumblr_pkojq64U3F1s5o8nro1_1280

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.”

tumblr_pkojt21Lyw1s5o8nro1_1280

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.”

tumblr_pkok6jwOf31s5o8nro1_1280

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.”

tumblr_pkok9h6w5V1s5o8nro1_1280

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.”

tumblr_pkokf7qPJw1s5o8nro1_1280

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.”

tumblr_pkokhlFupG1s5o8nro1_1280

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.”

tumblr_pkol59RNd21s5o8nro1_1280

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.”

tumblr_pkokj4H09A1s5o8nro1_1280

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.”

tumblr_pkokpmFqID1s5o8nro1_1280

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.”

tumblr_pkw1qlnEfJ1s5o8nro1_1280

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.

tumblr_pkmiks1PRB1s5o8nro1_1280

1915-1919: Heart o’ the Hills; M’Liss

tumblr_pkmmrsRFrw1s5o8nro1_1280

1920-1924: The Love Light

tumblr_pkmmqdsxHL1s5o8nro1_1280

1925-1929: The Last Command; Piccadilly; Underworld

tumblr_pkmj4mTiDL1s5o8nro1_1280

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

tumblr_pkmlzeMdW21s5o8nro1_500

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

tumblr_pkmlwuY5lY1s5o8nro1_1280

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

tumblr_pkmmokvLW21s5o8nro1_1280

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

tumblr_pkmm7d2Bus1s5o8nro1_1280

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

tumblr_pkmkcvQ4HE1s5o8nro1_1280

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

tumblr_pkmkgof3ox1s5o8nro1_1280

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

tumblr_pkmk5xo8rq1s5o8nro1_1280

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

tumblr_pkmmb19Uz81s5o8nro1_1280

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

tumblr_pkmkntyAR71s5o8nro1_1280

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

tumblr_pkmmk6pTKD1s5o8nro1_1280

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

tumblr_pkmmf3oPFt1s5o8nro1_1280

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

tumblr_pkmlsgq8zh1s5o8nro1_1280

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

tumblr_pkmlbfHn2A1s5o8nro1_1280

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

tumblr_pkmlixenb31s5o8nro1_1280

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

mysonriverexportedvdfcrrexportedgimp255c50ms

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

tumblr_pkmkz5uoIx1s5o8nro1_1280

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

tumblr_pkmn1dc5C71s5o8nro1_1280

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)

tumblr_pkkmk4zNue1s5o8nro1_1280

tumblr_pkknatfS8Z1s5o8nro1_1280

tumblr_pkkmo1RjSP1s5o8nro1_1280

tumblr_pkkmlzqksl1s5o8nro1_1280

tumblr_pkknnv5M3f1s5o8nro1_1280

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.

tumblr_pkkmvzG6ys1s5o8nro1_1280

tumblr_pkknrez5Kf1s5o8nro1_1280

tumblr_pkkmyxvUZ31s5o8nro1_1280

tumblr_pkkn31Oxlb1s5o8nro1_1280

tumblr_pkknfiycF01s5o8nro1_1280

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.

tumblr_pkko1qfRBH1s5o8nro1_1280

tumblr_pkko3vFDrM1s5o8nro1_1280

tumblr_pkknz012yv1s5o8nro1_1280

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)

tumblr_pkb49nKNYX1s5o8nro1_1280

tumblr_pkb3l7bv0i1s5o8nro1_1280

tumblr_pkb2u3HB8a1s5o8nro1_1280

tumblr_pkb3u64Aw71s5o8nro1_1280

tumblr_pkb2w9Fi2F1s5o8nro1_1280

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.

tumblr_pkb2xhzvj31s5o8nro1_1280

tumblr_pkb2ssmdAg1s5o8nro1_1280

tumblr_pkb2ynrxEm1s5o8nro1_1280

tumblr_pkb2zsD2aZ1s5o8nro1_1280

tumblr_pkb30twrRc1s5o8nro1_1280

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.