About Dry Grasses (Turkey, Sideshow and Janus Films)
Nuri Bilge Ceylan
At 197 minutes, Turkey’s most prominent director has created an extremely long movie, which is a shame because despite being a bit of a challenge to sit through, it contains many beautiful moments. The story follows Samet (Deniz Celiloğlu), a teacher relocated to a remote village in Eastern Anatolia from Istanbul. He returns from his holiday during the winter term, and the film does a fantastic job of evoking the cold weather. Ceylan’s snow scenes are unparalleled, and certain shots of the pupils in the schoolyard are reminiscent of Bruegel’s “The Hunters in the Snow.” Soon, Samet and his coworker and roommate, Kenan (Musab Erici), are accused of inappropriate behavior by two female pupils, one of whom is Sevim (the stunning Ece Bağcı), Samet’s favorite student, which leads to a change in Samet’s demeanor and actions. However, the film’s second half, which features a magnificent performance by Merve Dizdar (who won the Best Actress award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival), is where it truly shines. Nuray, a teacher from a neighboring village who lost a leg in an accident, is played by Dizdar. Samet initially dismisses her, but his attitude shifts when he learns that her injury could be his ticket back to Istanbul. Meanwhile, Kenan and Nuray appear to be developing feelings for one another.
TURKEY’S ENTRY FOR BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM AT THIS YEAR’S OSCARS.
The story of Nike, Inc. is told by Ben Affleck from Alex Convery’s original screenplay. With good performances from Matt Demon, Jason Bateman, and Viola Davis.
All of Us Strangers (Searchlight Pictures)
The Best Film of 2023 is a masterpiece that features exceptional performances by Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, Jamie Bell, and Claire Foy. Directed by Andrew Haight (“45 Years”), the film tells the story of Adam (Andrew Scott), who has a chance encounter with his mysterious neighbor Harry (Paul Mescal) one night in his almost empty tower block in London. As their relationship develops, Adam becomes preoccupied with memories of the past and finds himself drawn back to the suburban town where he grew up. He visits his childhood home where his parents (Claire Foy and Jamie Bell) used to live and realizes that the house looks exactly as it did on the day they died, 30 years ago.
FISA Nominee: Best Picture. Best Director. Best Lead Performance (Andrew Scott).
NBR: Top 10 Independent Films.
American Fiction (Amazon)
Adapted from Percival Evereyy’s 2001 novel by the director Cord Jefferson, “American Fiction” boasts a funny and appealing lead performance by Jeffrey Wight as Thelonious Ellison, a middle-aged Black American literature professor who, although a good teacher, has not published anything in years. Monk, as he is referred to by his colleagues, balks against the prevailing idea that an African-American author should only write about the African-American experience. Unfortunately, after Monk is forced to go on extended leave and returns to his hometown of Boston, the film evolves from a satire on the American publishing industry to a family drama and it never fully recovers. What was originally smart and biting, becomes cliched and soppy.
FISA Nominee: Best Picture. Best Screenplay. Best Lead Performance. Best Supporting Performance. Best Supporting Performance.
Anatomy of a Fall (France, Neon)
While its slow pace and the ambiguous ending may put off the occasional viewer, the film boasts one of the cinema’s great performances in German actress Sandra Hüller’s prime suspect.
Gothams: Best Screenplay. Best International Feature
NYFCC: Best International Film
FISA Nominee: Best International Film
NBR: Best International Film
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (Lionsgate)
Kelly Fremon Craig
Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig (“The Edge of Seventeen”) hits all the right notes in her adaptation of Judy Blume’s first YA novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret”. It’s 1970, and eleven-year-old Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson, marvelous) returns from summer camp to her beloved New York City only to be informed by her mom, Barbara (Rachel McAdams), who was raised Christian, and dad, Herb (Benny Safdie), who was raised Jewish, that the family is moving to a New Jerzy suburb for her father’s job. Margaret is devastated. She does not want to leave the city and resents being away from Sylvia, her beloved grandmother on her father’s side (Kathy Bates brightens up every scene she’s in). In a beautifully acted scene by McAdams, who steals the picture, we later discover that Barbara is estranged from her devoutly Christian parents because of her marriage to Herb.
Barbie (Warner Bros.)
In “Barbie,” her third outing as writer-director – following the superb “Lady Bird” and her respectable adaptation of “Little Women” – Greta Gerwig and her partner Noah Baumbach (who co-executive produced and co-wrote the screenplay with Gerwig) have been given carte blanch to bring their insanely over-hyped vision of the Mattel doll Barbie to the silver screen. The always-reliable Margot Robbie plays the titular character. Meanwhile, the astonishing pink palette of the movie is the work of the great cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who worked with a massive crew of production designers and art directors. The delicious Barbie costumes are the work of Jacqueline Durran.
NBR: Best Cinematography. Top 10 Films
BlackBerry (Elevation Pictures)
And if Lazaradis is the brain behind Blackberry, then Glenn Howerton’s Jim Balsillie or, as it is constantly mispronounced, BAL-SILLY – the film’s running gag – is the brawn. The marketing force behind the Blackberry brand, he bulldozes through one boardroom after another like an animated cock-and-balls. Balsillie is the yin to Lazaradis’ yang, and Baruchel and Howerton complement one another at every turn. The scene where Balsillie threatens to buy the Pittsburgh Steelers, make them a hockey team, and transport them to Canada is a testosterone explosion!
FISA Nominee: Best Supporting Performance.
NBR: Top 10 Independent Films
“Bottoms” writer/director Emma Seligman’s sophomore effect, features PJ (Rachel Sennott of “Bodies, Bodies, Bodies) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri), two lesbians who are at the bottom of the school food chain. Coasting on a rumor that they are juvenile delinquents – which elevates their coolness factor – they decide to form a girl’s fight club. Any similarity to the David Fincher/Brad Pitt movie. though, ends there. It turns out what we got goin’ on here is a f**k club, our heroines getting off on pinning or being pinned by the straight/fluid cheerleaders they lusted after all through high school. and who they have now lured into their spider’s web of deception under the guise of sisterhood and female empowerment. There is some good stuff here. For instance, the school football players are always in uniform, the school “wrestler” is kept in a cage, and former N.F.L running back Marshawn Lynch gets some well-deserved laughs as the club’s faculty adviser. However, the movie is a mess and is never as smart as it thinks.
FISA Nominee: Best Screenplay. Best Breakthrough Performance.
The Boy and the Heron (Toho)
NBR: Top 10 Films
The Boys in the Boat (Amazon)
The Color Purple (Warner Bros.)
The Color Purple is adapted from the Broadway musical – book by Marsha Norman with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray – by writer Marcus Gardley and director Blitz Bazawule. The latter is a Ghanaian filmmaker who rose to fame when he directed Beyonce’s musical film “Black is King,” for which he won a Grammy. It is ultimately based on the 1982 epistolary novel of the same name by Alice Walker and the failed 1985 movie adaptation by writer Menno Meyjes and director Steven Spielberg. The plot is a passion play that documents the suffering African-American women endured at the hands of their menfolk and others. Rape, incest, child abuse, domestic violence, and more are the order of the day. Set mainly on the Georgia coast, the movie spans the years 1909 to just after the Second World War. While you think this material might not work as the basis for a musical play or film, the trajectory outlined by Norman’s book made it a smash on Broadway and in theatres worldwide. And we all know this film version will be no exception. The story of the sisters Celie (Fantasia Barrino) and Nettie (Halle Bailey), who suffer astonishing abuse at the hands of their father Alfonso (Deon Cole) – Celie has already had one child when we meet her and is giving birth to another. Both are the result of being raped by Alonso and as soon as she has them, they are immediately taken away from her. Alfonso then basically sells Celie into slavery as the wife of Albert “Mister” Johnson (Colman Domingo), who beats her and uses her as his servant, barely acknowledging her presence. At 140 minutes, the film is overlong, and it is choc-a-block with too many musical numbers – around 20 – most of which are forgettable except Celie’s Beyonce-like closer “I’m Here.” The choreography that accompanies the music has a few inspiring moments but is generally underwhelming. The reason to see this movie is the performances of the two Black women who give Celie the courage to move on with her life. The Blues singer Shug Avery (Taraji P.Henson), who loves Celie (and Celie loves her back) – the lesbian theme, which was central to the book, is handled better here than in the Spielberg movie, although you can still feel that the filmmakers are not exactly comfortable with it – and the astonishing Danielle Brooks, who gives a tour-de-force performance as Sofie a proud lady who always speaks her mind. Unfortunately, one day, she gives attitude to the wrong people and pays a terrible price for her actions.
The Delinquents (Argentina, Magnolia Pictures)
Rodrigo Moreno’s movie features branching storylines and has a runtime of just over three hours. It showcases some wonderful scenes and fascinating ideas, but its lengthy duration may wear down the viewer. The movie is full of dualities and reflections, from the characters’ anagrammatic names to the two-part structure. The story revolves around two men – Morán (Daniel Elias) and Román (Esteban Bigliardi) – who work in a Buenos Aires bank. Morán’s part of the story has him pulling off a low-key heist of the bank’s savings, to spend three years in jail for the robbery and then living humbly off the proceeds for the rest of his life. He asks Román to hold the money for him, and Román agrees. The movie then jumps to Román’s part of the story, which takes place in Cordoba, where Morán has stashed some of the loot. There, Román falls in love with Norma (Margarita Molfino), who lives on a farm with her sister Morna (Cecilia Rainero), and the movie takes another track entirely. With its labyrinthine structure, discursive storyline, and exploration of themes such as duality, reality, identity, and the nature of time, the movie is reminiscent of the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges.
ARGENTINA’S ENTRY FOR BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM AT THIS YEAR’S OSCARS.
Dream Scenario (A24)
This is Cage in Charlie Kauffman mode mixed with a bit of Paul Giamatti. There are some funny and touching scenes with the always-excellent Julianne Nicholson as his wife, Michael Cera, who does a nice cameo as an image consultant, and Dylan Gelula as Cera’s coworker whose erotic restaurant table conversation with Cage is the film’s high point.
Unfortunately, just like “Sick of Myself,” Borgli cannot keep the ideas flowing. There are too many scenes straight out of Bunuel’s famously scathing “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” in which dreams keep intruding on the dinner plans of the wealthy. Gradually, you feel this movie has been stolen.
Fallen Leaves (Finland, The Match Factory)
The titan of Finnish cinema, Aki Kaurismaki, returns with his inimitable take on Leo McCarey’s ‘An Affair to Remember” with the occasional nod to David Lean’s “Brief Encounter.” However, you won’t find references to vichyssoise or crepe suzette here. Kaurismaki has always drawn his stories from the Finnish working class and, true to form, “Fallen Leaves” opens with our heroine (Alma Poysti) being fired from her supermarket job because she dared to eat a sandwich that was past date and was about to be thrown out anyway. When, on impulse, she decides to visit a karaoke bar on the way home, she meets Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), and they immediately click. Unfortunately, like Deborah and Cary (and Celia and Trevor), fate will put quite a few obstacles in their paths before they see one another again. The leads are just about perfect, and the film is enlivened at every turn by the director’s usual penchant for deadpan humor.
FINLAND’S ENTRY FOR BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM AT THIS YEAR’S OSCARS.
NBR: Top Five International Films
NBR: Top 10 Films
Fingernails (Apple TV+)
This movie is so bad that, given its title, it’s somewhat appropriate that every scene, every word of dialogue, and every encounter between the characters causes the audience to experience the same sinking feeling one gets when some nasty person drags their fingernails across a chalkboard. Greek director Christos Nikou’s English language debut is irresponsibly clueless, leaving you hoping he never gets behind a camera again. The plot revolves around a “love test” involving the removal of a nail, but it never makes sense. The cast seems to be at a loss, with only Jessie Buckley retaining a small amount of her natural intelligence and dignity. It shows that even Oscar-nominated actresses of tremendous talent, such as Buckley – Florence Pugh in “A Good Person,” is another example – can make astonishingly bad decisions when choosing projects. Buckley’s question about why specific phrases used during the “love test” process are in French will follow her for the rest of her days. With Riz Ahmed and Jeremy Allen White, both of whom should have known better.
Four Daughters (Tunisia, Kino Lorber))
Kaouther Ben Hania
Seven years ago, Olfa Hamrouni, a divorced woman from the coastal town of Sousse, Tunisia, faced a heartbreaking situation when two of her four daughters, Rahma and Ghofrane, left Tunisia to become fighters and wives for the Islamic State in Syria. This left Olfa and her remaining daughters, Eya and Tayssir, devastated. Recently, director Kaouther Ben Hania re-enacted some parts of Olfa’s family life, with Eya and Tayssir playing themselves. However, actors Ichraq Matar and Nour Karoui played the roles of Ghofrane and Rahma respectively, who are still missing as fugitives. On occasion, when the emotional burden of the scenes was too much for her, Olfa herself was played by actor Hend Sabri. It’s an unusual setup but the women on the screen keep you watching.
TUNISIA’S ENTRY FOR BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM AT THIS YEAR’S OSCARS.
Gothams: Best Documentary Feature
FISA Nominee: Best Documentary
Freemont (Music Box Films)
Around the hour mark, Donya embarks on a journey to Bakersfield, and the movie enters a different realm. This is primarily due to the appearance of “The Bear” breakout star Jeremy Allen White, who portrays Daniel, a mechanic who assists Donya when her car breaks down. There is a beautiful, low-key, but very sexy chemistry between the two actors, and viewers only hope they will end up together. In the final scene, Donya is framed by abandoned furniture in Daniel’s backyard, and we feel hope for them and their relationship. Yes, there is hope!
FISA Nominee: Best Breakthrough Performance. John Cassavetes Award for the Best Feature made for under $1,000,000 (award given to writer, director, and producer).
Godland (Iceland, Janus Films)
I have seen Icelandic director Hlynur Pálmason’s epic masterpiece “Godland” twice in the last twenty-four hours, and its images still haunt me. A stunning example of visual storytelling.
ICELAND’S ENTRY FOR BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM AT THIS YEAR’S OSCARS.
FISA Nominee: Best International Film
The Holdovers (Focus Features)
Giamatti is fine as the misanthrope being cured of his misanthropy through a weekend spent with a teenage boy and a grieving African-American woman (there is also a nice performance by Carrie Preston as a secretary), but “The Holdovers” is such a jumble of feel-good cliches that it doesn’t have a genuine bone in its body.
NYFCC: Best Supporting Actress
FISA Nominee: Best Screenplay. Best Cinematography. Best Supporting Actress. Best Breakthrough Performance.
NBR: Best Original Screenplay. Best Actor. Best Supporting Actress. Top 10 Films.
How to Have Sex (Mubi)
Molly Manning Walker
The debut feature film from Molly Manning Walker, winner of Un Certain Regard at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, follows three teenage girls on a rite-of-passage vacation to the Greek island of Crete. Anchored by Mia McKenna Bruce’s heartbreaking performance, Samuel Bottomley and Shaun Thomas offer excellent support.
Io capitano (Italy, 01 Distribution)
ITALY’S ENTRY FOR BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM AT THIS YEAR’S OSCARS.
The Iron Claw (A24)
NBR: Best Ensemble. Top 10 Films.
Killers of the Flower Moon (Apple)
Scorsese directs these multiple storylines with great flair; from the broad vistas captured magnificently by his now-regular cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto – there is a stunning shot of the purple young buds of May in their prime before they are crowded out by larger and taller plants, which alludes to the film’s title: May, in the Osage calendar, is known as the “Killer of the Flower Moon” and it was in May that Molly’s sister Anna was killed – to the most minute-period detail in costume and production design. The movie reminded me of George Steven’s masterpiece “Giant” (1956), perfectly blending the great and the small.
NYFCC: Best Film. Best Actress.
NBR: Best Film. Best Director. Best Cinematography. Best Actress.
Bradley Cooper’s peripatetic biopic of Leonard Bernstein, “Maestro,” leaves out vast tracks of the great composer/conductor’s life, including his deep friendship with composer Aaron Copeland – they were probably lovers, the famous radical chic party that he and his wife threw for the Black Panthers at their fabulous Park Avenue apartment in 1970 and, above all, his Judaism and his deep connection to the young state of Isreal which, given the current horrific situation in the Middle East, can only be considered a kaddish that is shared with the audience. Cooper co-wrote and co-produced the movie and stars as Bernstein. His performance is a vain impersonation of a vain man. This genuflection comes to the fore in his overtly reverential recreation of Berstein’s direction of Mahler’s Second Symphony in Ely Cathedral in England in 1973. Cooper had been practicing directing this masterpiece for years, and the result is a genuine tour-de-force on its own merits. You feel like giving Cooper’s recreation of one of Berstein’s greatest triumphs (recorded for television) a standing ovation, even if you feel that it is a massive piece of self-indulgence on Cooper’s part. Copper does not shy away from Bernstein’s homosexuality and the pain that this caused his Costa Rican-Chilean wife Felicia. Carey Mulligan’s performance as Felicia, who converted from Catholicism to Judaism to marry Bernstein and who knew of his attraction to men when she married him, anchors the film. Happy at first, she began to unravel as her husband had one affair after the other, although she always stood by him and stayed married to him until she died of breast/lung cancer at the age of 56.
NBR: Top 10 Films.
May December (Netflix)
Another fascinating film from Todd Haynes. Like Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece “Persona,” which it resembles in many ways, the film revolves around two women. The first woman, Gracie, played by Julianne Moore, is a housewife who gained notoriety and spent time in prison, where she had a baby (the movie is “inspired” by the Mary Kat Letourneau case of 1997) after having sexual relations with a thirteen-year-old Korean-American boy named Joe. The second woman, Elizabeth, played by Natalie Portman, is an actress preparing to portray Gracie in an Independent Film. She visits Gracie and her family during graduation week, as Gracie’s second eldest twins are about to graduate. Gracie has additional children from her previous marriage, and her eldest daughter from her union with Joe is away in college. Elizabeth’s purpose is to observe Gracie and her family to better understand her character for the film. The characters played by Moore and Portman circle each other in a hypnotic dance, like Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson. However, the standout performance in the movie is delivered by Charles Melton as Joe. Now in his mid-thirties, Joe’s three children are already grown up, and his relationship with Gracie may be crumbling. He is deeply unhappy, only finding solace in the Monarch butterflies he cares for, from caterpillar to chrysalis. Melton skillfully portrays every nuance of Joe’s troubled soul.
Gothams: Best Supporting Performance
NYFCC: Best Screenplay. Best Supporting Actor
FISA Nominee: Best Picture. Best Director. Best Lead Performance. Best Supporting Performance.
Memory (Ketchup Entertainment)
FISA Nominee: Best Lead Performance.
Monica (IFC Films)
Italian-born director Andrea Pallaoro’s “Monica” follows in the footsteps of his previous offerings “Medeas” and “Hannah“ in its smooth, hypnotic style. Trace Lysette is excellent as a trans woman who now goes by the name of Monica and lives in LA. Many years before, when she was an effeminate young man, her mother (Patricia Clarkson) took him to the bus station and put him on a bus for the West Coast, telling him she never wanted to see him again. Now, it is many years later, and Monica’s mother is dying. Should she return to her family’s house in the mid-west, and if she does, should she stay until the end?
FISA Nominee: Best Cinematography. Best Lead Performance.
The Monk and the Gun (Bhutan, Roadside Attractions)
Pawp Choyning Dorji
BHUTAN ENTRY FOR BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM AT THIS YEAR’S OSCARS.
Monster (Japan, Goodfellas)
The Mother of All Lies (Morocco)
Asmae El Moudir
A diorama and stick figures become a kind of catharsis when the director and her family act out their recollections of the Casablanca Bread Riots of 1981. Following years of fighting in the Western Sahara War, the Moroccan economy was on the verge of collapse and prices started to skyrocket. Eventually, on May 29, 1981, rioting broke out. As the figures move around the artificial landscape, family wounds are exposed and healed. El Mourdir uses her documentary as therapy for the trauma inflicted by events that happened over forty years ago.
MOROCCAN ENTRY FOR BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM AT THIS YEAR’S OSCARS.
FISA Nominee: Best Documentary
Napoleon (Sony Pictures Releasing and Apple TV+)
With a director well past his prime (Ridley Scott) filming a lamentably laughable script (by David Scarpa) and an actor (Joaquin Phoenix) who seems to be stuck in his previous role (“Beau is Afraid”), this is a disaster of Waterloo proportions. Taking us from the execution of Marie Antoinette in 1793 to Napolean’s death on the island of Saint Helena in 1821, the movie has no sweep and no style. And if you are looking for a history lesson, go elsewhere. The entire movie makes no sense whatsoever. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers are killed while our little tyrant becomes a dictator who then decides to make war on Europe. Were they trying for a bit of comedy or a bit of camp? There was certainly more camp when Marlon Brando crowned himself in Henry Koster’s overstuffed Jean Simmons vehicle “Desiree” in 1954. And if you are looking for how comedy and the terror of authoritarianism can be brilliantly combined, watch Armando Iannuci’s “The Death of Stalin.” The only reason this film gets a D+ rather than an F is the movie’s one successful sequence, “The Battle of Austerlitz,” where hundreds of Austrian and Russian soldiers were trapped on the ice and fell through when cannonballs fired from the French side penetrated the surface.
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin
Diana is stubborn and demanding, but this inner drive is essential to her success, especially as it happens so late – there are many old-age jokes! In any other actress’s hands, she could have been unbearable. However, Bening is such a great actress that you always feel the presence of a more vulnerable Diana beating on the inside. This is one of the cinemas’ great lesbian friendships and probably the most potent one ever put forward by a mainstream Hollywood movie. It’s Foster’s best work in decades.
Why should you see it? Well, there is no denying Cillian Murphy’s unforgettable performance. Amid all this history and chaos, he gives one of the most intimate and internalized performances on film. Yet he radiates intelligence and empathy topped off with just a soupçon of arrogance. He gets you inside the head of Oppenheimer, the man.
NYFCC: Best Director. Best Cinematography.
NBR: Top 10 Films
Palm Trees and Power Lines (Momentum Pictures)
Valley Girl angst courtesy of writer (with Audrey Findlay)/director Jamie Dack. The palm trees represent LA, while the power lines put us in the San Fernando Valley somewhere near the train tracks that parallel Van Owen. Just draw a diagonal from Burbank Airport to Van Nuys. Welcome to “Palm Trees and Power Lines.” Nice performance by Lily McInerny as our Valley Girl, who is drifting through her summer vacation, and a few lovely moments from Gretchen Mol as her mom.
Passages (SBS Distribution)
The film is loaded with sex, and, for once, the homo encounters easily outshine the heterosexual ones. Rogowski grunts and squeals through all of them, and the second homo tryst, when Whishaw plows him hard, is probably the sexiest and most graphic gay moment ever captured in a mainstream film.
NYFCC: Best Actor
FISA Nominee: Best Picture. Best Director. Best Lead Performance. Best Supporting Performance.
Past Lives (A24)
Director Celine Song’s striking debut film follows the relationship between two childhood friends (Greta Lee and Teo Yoo) over 24 years as they contemplate their relationship when they grow apart to have different lives. The plot is semi-autobiographical and inspired by real events from Song’s life. It’s the independent film of the year and another triumph for its distributor, A24.
Gothams: Best Feature
NYFCC: Best First Film
FISA Nominee: Best Picture. Best Director. Best Screenplay. Best Lead Performance. Best Lead Performance.
NBR: Best Directorial Debut. Top 10 Films.
The Peasants (Poland, Sony Pictures Classics)
D.K. Welchman and Hugh Welchman
“The Peasants” is a historical drama film written and directed by the husband and wife duo of Hugh and DK Welchman, known for their art-house hit, “Loving Vincent.” For this film, they used the same technique of painted animation to adapt Wladyslaw Reymont’s Nobel Prize-winning novel of the same name. The process involved shooting the film with actors, just like a regular film, and then painting each film frame painstakingly using an oil-based process. The painting was done by hundreds of artists in studios in far-flung places like Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Serbia. Unfortunately, it was all for naught! The technique may have worked for Van Gough, but not here. It’s not that painted animation is antithetical to the story of a young and beautiful peasant girl who drives the men wild in a rural nineteenth-century village in what would now, presumably, be modern-day Poland. It’s the source material that is the problem. I don’t know what it was like on the page, but it’s one big yawn on film. Laughable when it should be serious, the movie has no drive whatsoever.
It just goes to show that all the artistry in the world is useless if the underlying story is not up to scratch.
POLAND’S ENTRY FOR BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM AT THIS YEAR’S OSCARS.
Perfect Days (Japan, Neon))
JAPAN’S ENTRY FOR BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM AT THIS YEAR’S OSCARS.
Poor Things (Searchlight Pictures)
NBR: Best Adapted Screenplay. Best Supporting Actor. Top 10 Films.
It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Take the theme of one of your best films – An Innocent in a New Court – and remake it. Instead of Marie Antoinette arriving at the French court of Louis XV to marry the portly Dauphin, we have the barely pubescent Priscilla arriving at Graceland to become Elvis’ child bride. The only part of the movie that works – and gives you a look at what the film could have been – are the opening scenes on the United States Army Base in Germany. Coppola introduces us to the young Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny, who plays Priscilla from her early to mid-twenties) at a diner counter where she sips Coke from a Coke bottle. It’s a gorgeous scene, sexy and achingly cinematic. The camera gently approaches her from behind like a panther stalking its prey. And prey she is because when we get the shot in reverse from her point of view, we see that the camera was the eyes of an army officer who is, quite brazenly, procuring young meat for one of Elvis’ parties. Spaeny and Jacob Elordi, who plays Elvis, are very good in these scenes, reminding us of what could have been. When we move to Graceland, she becomes one gigantic hairpiece while he becomes more mannered and whiney. Coppola lets her actors down as the movie proceeds, and we gradually lose interest.
The Promised Land (Denmark, Magnolia Pictures)
DENMARK’S ENTRY FOR BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM AT THIS YEAR’S OSCARS.
The Road Dog (Freestyle Digital Media)
Writer-Director Greg Glienna’s lovely new feature, “The Road Dog,” is in the great tradition of the American (and European) road movie, only this time with a father and son combo! Doug Stanhope is Jimmy Quinn, an alcoholic standup comedian and certified road dog, who gets a second chance when he connects with the son he has never known (newcomer Des Mulrooney). Jimmy never achieved the success he seemed destined for in his early days. However, he still maintains a loyal following in the small bars and clubs scattered along the Northern Rockies (Oregon, Idaho, Utah, and Colorado are mentioned). Jimmy is a prima donna who ruined his chances at stardom by refusing to appear on television and being hopelessly inflexible. This character defect is a companion piece to his alcoholism. This leads to the film’s seminal scene. Persuaded by David and Laura to give up the booze, Jimmy gives his first sober stand-up routine in decades. I won’t spoil the outcome, but the scene, which must have been extraordinarily difficult to play, is a triumph for Stanhope. It is a miniature masterpiece of great acting.
Rotting in the Sun (Mexico, Mubi)
Almost fifteen years ago, Chilean director Sebastian Silva and his cowriter Pedro Peirano delivered their best film. It was called “The Maid” (“La Nana”) (Chile: 2009). The film centered on the devoted servant (the wonderful Catalina Saavedra) of a middle-class Chilean household who had a special place in her heart for the lone son of the family, Lucas, an obvious stand-in for the young Sebastian. Now, after ten years in the (relative) wilderness, Saavedra and Silva (and Silva’s co-screenwriter Peirano) have returned with a delicious slice of meta, which is pointedly entitled “Rotting in the Sun.” Saavedra is still a maid, but she has been relocated from Santiago to Mexico City, where she waits on the same person that she waited on in that previous movie: the adult version of Lucas/Sebastian, who is played by the director himself! Now, anyone’s guess is whether the actress Saavedra is meant to be playing the same character in both movies. It’s unlikely, however, since her name in “La Nana’” is Raquel, while in her present incarnation, she is called Vero (short for Veronica). The “Sebastian Silva” we get in this movie is a wreck. He’s a ketamine addict who is barely staying afloat and constantly daydreams of committing suicide with the aid of a barbiturate overdose. He rents a room in a ramshackle apartment – the owner is Vero’s boss. He is currently unemployed and pitching ideas. He is always pitching ideas. Then, an acquaintance suggests that he go and unwind at a nudist gay beach.
Following a double near-drowning experience, Sebastian meets up with real-life motormouth and Instagram influencer Jordan Firstman – essentially playing himself – in a hilarious “performance.” Firstman is attracted to Silva both physically and as a potential commercial partner. Silva, however, being in a perpetual funk, wants nothing to do with him. Returning home, however, he changes his mind after his latest pitch to HBO fails, but the interviewers show an interest in a joint Firstman/Silva project. Silva immediately contacts Firstman to come to Mexico City. Then, in a split second of sheer genius, our actor/director allows himself the benefit of doing a simultaneous Alfred Hitchcock and Janet Leigh in a “Psycho” – inspired package, resulting in Jordan arriving at an empty apartment with only Vero to keep him company.
FISA Nominee: Best Editing. Best Supporting Performance. John Cassavetes Award for the Best Feature made for under $1,000,000 (award given to writer, director, and producer).
George C. Wolfe
Gifted actor Coleman Domingo (soon to be seen in the musical remake of “The Color Purple”) lights up the screen playing Bayard Rustin, an American activist for civil and gay rights who reached the peak of his career in the early sixties. Unfortunately, the movie never takes off because of a cliche-ridden screenplay by Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black and clunky direction by George Wolfe.
Saltburn (Amazon MGM)
Writer/director Emerald Fennell’s impressive sophomore effort blends Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” (but without Catholicism) with Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mister Ripley,” and the result is quite extraordinary. The movie looks fabulous, thanks to the lensing of cinematographer extraordinaire Linus Sandgren. The performances are top-notch in a cast that includes Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Alison Oliver, Richard E. Grant, Archie Madekwe, and an amazing Carey Mulligan. However, towering over this sea of mega-talent is a sensational turn by Rosamund Pike that is so delicious it elevates the movie to another level entirely.
The Settlers (Chile, MUBI)
Felipe Galvez Haberle
CHILE’S ENTRY FOR BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM AT THIS YEAR’S OSCARS.
Written, directed, and co-produced by Noora Niasari, “Shayda” is inspired by Niasari’s childhood experiences. Set in an unnamed Australian city in 1995, the story follows an Iranian immigrant woman named Shayda, who is raising her young daughter as the two live in a women’s shelter while she is also attempting to divorce her abusive husband. He is the one who brought them to Australia, where he is studying to be a medical doctor. Zahra Amir Ebrahimi, who won the Best Actress Award at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival for playing the journalist in “The Spider,” is fine as the title character (as is Selina Zahednia who, as the daughter Mona, is Niasari’s stand-in). Still, her role does not have much depth. The same applies to the rest of the cast, only more so – the father, the Australian woman from Immigration who is of immeasurable help to both mother and daughter and a man who seems to take a fancy to Shayda have no characters at all. Eventually, you begin to feel underwhelmed. Many powerful people are behind this film (Cate Blanchett is an executive produced), which could put it over the top at Oscar time (it is certain to make The Short List and maybe even the final five). Overall, though, as a comment on the situation of Iranian women, both at home and in Western society, it’s a missed opportunity.
AUSTRALIA’S ENTRY FOR BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM AT THIS YEAR’S OSCARS.
She Came to Me (Vertical Entertainment)
With “She Came to Me,” we have the same quirky Miller. However, although the ideas are there, they never come together to form a concrete whole. Only the marvelous Joanna Kulig, who won so many awards as the lead in Pawel Pawilikowski’s “Cold War,” playing d’Arcy James’s abused partner and Dinklage/Hathawsy’s cleaning lady whose daughter happens to be in love with their son, manages to create a truly believable character. Her scenes anchor the film, but they are not quite enough to hold your interest throughout.
Shortcomings (Sony Pictures Classics)
Actor-turned-director Randall Park’s debut feature “Shortcomings” (adapted by Adrian Tomine from his graphic novel) opens with a parody of ‘Crazy Rich Asians” (original cast member Ronnie Chung is delightful alongside Stephanie Hsu in the brief film-within-a-film) at an Asian-American film festival in Berkeley, California. It’s the final scene in the movie – mirroring the opening scene in “Asians” – and, as Ms. Chung informs the racist receptionist at a swanky hotel that she has just purchased the building, the mostly Asian American patrons in the audience are whooping, and hollering with delight. Not so our leading man Ben (Justin H. Min), an aesthete who runs a money-losing art cinema and drips condescension in the way that Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer/Isaac Davis just barely tolerated the lesser mortals in his circle in “Annie Hall/Manhattan.” We expect him to launch into an “Apples and Pears by Cezanne” speech at any minute, and it’s not long before we discover that his tastes run more towards Truffaut, Ozu, and Cassavetes. Min, playing an insufferable character, makes Ben, if not exactly likable, then certainly sympathetic. We are always on his side for all the selfish things he does and says. We enjoy being in his company.
It’s an ensemble award but the movie belongs to Michelle Williams who plays a sculptor who is about to have her first big show. Yes, there is her cat and a wounded pigeon who needs looking after but it’s mostly Michelle looking at and molding her strange creations. And that’s all we need.
Robert Altman Award at the 39th Film Independent Spirit Awards (FISA)
NBR: Top 10 Independent Films
Sick of Myself (Norway, Momento Films International)
Writer/director Kristoffer Borgli’s broadly handled – some would say SICK! – black comedy has some inspired moments of tasteless John Waters-style humor and a committed lead performance. Backed by some of the same people who were behind the superb Norwegian movie “The Worst Person in the World,” and also set in Oslo, “Sick of Myself” is more worthy of the first movie’s title even as it gradually loses steam in its second half. However, you could do worse if you can take moments of extreme gore and disfigurement – the movie succeeds more as a horror movie than a piece of social (or social media) satire. The story centers on a nauseatingly self-obsessed couple, Thomas (Eirik Sæther) and Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp). When a pedestrian, bitten in the neck by a dog, stumbles into Signe’s coffee shop, she is the only one to come to the woman’s aid. Walking home with her shirt covered in the woman’s blood, she, not surprisingly, grabs the attention of her fellow pedestrians in a way she never experienced before. Something inside of her changes, and later that day, at a party for Thomas in which he has prepared an elaborate speech, she steals his thunder by pretending to be allergic to nuts and simulating anaphylactic shock. By now, it’s clear to Signe that feigning illness is the only way to be noticed in Thomas Oslo’s celebrity world (he often pretends she is his sister!). So, when she reads about a recalled Russian anti-anxiety medication called Lidexol, which causes horrific side effects – skin rashes that eventually transform into permanent scars – she has no problem getting her dealer to procure them on the internet. Soon, she takes them in enormous quantities with the desired dermatological effects.
Society of the Snow (La sociedad de la nieve) (Spain, Netflix)
J. A. Bayona
The latest take on “The Miracle in the Andes”. In 1972, charter flight Uruguayan 571 flew from Montevideo, Uruguay, to Santiago, Chile, when it crashed in the Andes mountains on October 13, 1972. The flight carried 45 passengers and crew, including 19 Old Christians Club Rugby Team members, their families, supporters, and friends. During the following 72 days, the survivors suffered extreme hardships, including exposure, starvation, and an avalanche, which led to the deaths of 13 more passengers. They famously resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. Eventually, two survivors hiked for ten days into Chile to seek help, and on 23 December 1972, two months after the crash, the last of the 16 survivors were rescued. Director J. A. Bayona (“The Impossible”) gives the audience a spectacular plane crash and some astonishing aerial shots of the Andes, which are simulated by the Sierra Nevada. Echoing Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard,” the movie is narrated by a dead man, law student Numa Turcatti (Enzo Vogrincic Roldán), who was the last person to die on the mountain. Unfortunately, several things are glossed over. Due to severe weather conditions, the flight was broken into two parts, the first leg being from Montevideo to Mendoza, Argentina, and the second going from Mendoza to Santiago. The first forty-five minutes speed by with no introduction to the characters or the plane’s original route. And the editing in the movie’s centerpiece sucks, resulting in confusion between the different surviving characters and, more importantly, what those characters are doing. Overall, a disappointment, but still worth seeing.
SPAIN’S ENTRY FOR BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM AT THIS YEAR’S OSCARS.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (Sony Pictures Releasing)
Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers nad Justin K. Thompson
NBR: Best Animated Feature
The Starling Girl (Bleecker Street)
Writer/director Laurel Parmet makes an exceptional debut with her tale of a young girl (Eliza Scanlen, superb) who is raised in a fundamentalist Christian community in Kentucky but feels that there is more to life than praising the lord. With an equally impressive performance by Wrenn Schmidt as her fanatical mother.
FISA Nominee: Best First Screenplay
Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie (Apple Original Films)
The immaculate comedic timing is still there, only now it unfolds at a slower pace, as Michael’s brain, ravaged by the effects of Parkinson’s Disease, which he has lived with for 32 years, attempts to reach the rest of his body. In Oscar winner Davis Guggenheim’s (“An Inconvenient Truth”) superb documentary, there is only one taking head, and that is Michael. Self-deprecating, affable Micheal.
But there is another Michael here, the Michael J. Fox of “Family Ties” and the “Back to the Future” movies, “The Secret of My Success,” “Bright Lights Big City,” “Casualties of War” and “Spin City,” scenes from which Guggenheim superbly integrates into Michael’s narrative as if we were watching the real-life story of Michael J.Fox. There’s also a great soundtrack with Kenny Loggins’s “This Is It” accompanying Michael’s decision to leave Canada for Hollywood and Alan Silvestri’s theme from “Back to the Future” playing as Michael, with two hours of sleep a night goes back and forth between the “Family Ties” and the “Back to the Future” sets, replacing Eric Stoltz after most of the movie had been shot.
Fox is a wonderful subject, and only occasionally do we hear Guggenheim prodding him the odd question. We listen as Michael outlines the first symptoms of the disease – a finger twitch at dawn that sounded to him like the vibrating wings of a trapped moth as he wakes up from a night on the town while filming the movie “Doc Holiday.” His marriage to actress Tracy Pollan, whom he met on the set of “Family Ties” and who has stood by him through thick and thin all these years, and their four children. And his years on the “Spin City” (1996-2002) and the ingenious ways he devised to disguise his tremors – like holding a pen to steady his arm – before he made his disease public in 1998. Since then, he has been a tireless advocate for Parkinson’s Disease research. The film’s title, in all its double meaning, says it all.
It’s a heartbreaking story but delivered by someone who is the embodiment of hope. It’s a joy to be in his company
NBR: Best Documentary
The Taste of Things (France, IFC Films)
Tran Anh Hung
Previously titled “La Passion de Dodin Bouffant” and “The Pot-au-Feu,” this ode to French cooking and the deep bond that exists between a nineteenth-century gourmand (Benoît Magimel) and his longtime cook (Juliet Binoche) is delicious filmmaking. It’s “Babette’s Feast” meets “Water for Chocolate” and, while not reaching the classic heights of Gabriel Axel’s adaptation of the Isak Denesen novel, it’s more succulent than Alfonso Arau’s uneven film of Laura Esquivel’s hugely popular book. Winner of the Best Director award for Vietnamese-French master Trần Anh Hùng at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Adapted from the novel “La Vie et la passion de Dodin-Bouffant, gourmet (The Passionate Epicure)” by Swiss author Marcel Rouff.
FRANCE’S ENTRY FOR BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM AT THIS YEAR’S OSCARS.
The Teacher’s Lounge (Germany, Sont Pictures Classics)
Leonie Benesch, who impressed us in “The Crown” playing Prince Philip’s unfortunate elder sister, is sensational in director İlker Çatak’s masterful first feature. She plays an idealistic and ambitious young teacher who gets mixed up in the school’s bureaucracy when money goes missing from the pupils’ classrooms and the teacher’s private rest area. The movie’s final scene packs a real wallop.
GERMANY’S ENTRY FOR BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM AT THIS YEAR’S OSCARS.
NBR: Top 5 International Films
A Thousand and One (Focus Features)
This impressive debut from A.V. Rockwell is anchored by the ferocious performance of Teyana Taylor who plays Inez, a convicted thief just released from Rikers Island. One day she sees her son on the street and decides they should be together – essentially kidnapping him. The movie begins in 1994 and one of its pleasures is seeing the changing face of New York City through the years as her little boy Terry grows older. Terry is played by three different actors at ages six, thirteen, and seventeen. They transition beautifully and they all seem to be far wiser than their mama who keeps making the most outrageous mistakes. Eventually, despite the talent both in front and behind the camera, you begin to run out of patience with Inez.
Gothams: Breakthrough Director
FISA Nominee: Best First Feature
NBR: Breakthrough Performance
Tótem (Mexico, Sideshow and Janus Films)
A day in the life of an eight-year-old girl appropriately named Sol (the remarkable Naíma Sentíes), whom we first encounter when she is with her mother in a public restroom. She is sitting on the toilet, unable to poop, and her mom (Iazua Larios) has to relieve herself in the sink. It’s a very funny scene and emblematic of the openness with which director Lila Aviles films Sol and the many members of her extended family while they prepare to celebrate her father’s (Mateo Garcia Elizondo) birthday. Dad is very sick and spends most of the day in bed being tended to by his beloved nurse (Teresita Sanchez from Aviles’s first feature, “The Chambermaid”). Only with herculean effort, does he manage to attend the party. In a beautifully filmed long take, we realize that Sol knows he is dying, and this party will be their last together.
MEXICO’S ENTRY FOR BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM AT THIS YEAR’S OSCARS.
FISA Nominee: Best International Film
NBR: Top 5 International Films
The Unknown Country (Music Box Films)
Gothams: Best Lead Performance
You Can Live Forever (Mongrel Media)
Sarah Watts and Mark Slutsky
Superb performances by two young actresses anchor “You Can Live Forever,” a beautiful yet devastating debut set in the 1990s by Canadian writer/directors Sarah Watts and Mark Slutsky. Anwen O’Driscoll is Jamie, comfortable in her queer sexuality, who is sent to live with her aunt Beth (Lian Balaban) and uncle Jean-Francois (Antoine Yared) in a small Jehovah’s Witness community in Quebec, Canada after her father dies and her mother has a breakdown. June Laporte is Marike, also gay, but as the daughter of the congregation’s leader (Tim Campbell), she has to keep her sexual identity a deep secret, even from her older sister (Deragh Campbell). There is an immediate attraction as the two girls lock their eyes at Jamie’s first congregation meeting. Despite her situation, Marike is the bolder of the two and immediately purses Jamie with invitations to dinner at her family home, complete with (at first) innocent sleepovers and long walks through the stunning countryside and a seashore that extends to the horizon. They circle each other literally and figuratively until they finally kiss and then make out in furtive places like the back seat of a car and a movie theatre restroom stall. There is no separating Marike’s beliefs from her feelings, and Laporte is tremendous in portraying this complex character who, with Jamie in her life, appears to have an escape route but doesn’t. It’s a heartbreaking performance.
The Zone of Interest (United Kingdom, A24)
Director Jonathan Glazer has released his first film in 10 years. His last offering, from 2014, was the horror masterpiece “Under the Skin” starring Scarlett Johansson, which is considered one of the most disturbing and mesmerizing movies ever made. Glazer does not make movies often, and “Sexy Beast” from 2000 and “Birth” from 2004 are his only other offerings. He makes his living shooting music videos. However, when he does turn his hand to moviemaking, the results are spectacular. Nobody makes a movie like Glazer.
“The Zone of Interest” is a loose adaptation of the late Martin Amis’ more complex novel, which had multiple intersecting storylines. Glazer pairs things down and centers the story on Auschwitz commandant Rudolph Hoss (Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Huller) as they strive to build a dream life next to the concentration camp. We can hear what they hear – the screams and the crying – and we are lucky that we cannot smell what they obviously smell – the stench from the combustion of human remains as black smoke consistently rises from a chimney that cannot be more than a mile away, must have been unbearable. But they have obviously gotten used to it. He likes to ride around the camp on horseback. At the same time, she revels in her position as the “Queen of Auschwitz,” constantly reminding her Jewish servants that her favorable opinion is all that keeps them from the gas chamber. Most of her days are spent in their spectacular greenhouse or picnicking by the lake with her husband and children. The banality of evil winds its way around every scene. However, we do feel something. Tension, perhaps, mixed with boredom. We get the feeling that all is not quite right with the family and its dynamics. Hedwig’s mother is the first to become unhinged, as she imagines that a Jewish woman whom she worked for years ago is just right behind the wall. Eventually, their “idyllic” family life comes to an end when Rudolph is ordered back to Berlin, much to Hedwig’s chagrin.
Both Huller and Friedel are superb, and while he has a few moments where we think there might be an actual human being inside that uniform, she appears to be completely devoid of humanity. Glazer and his cinematographer, Lukasz Zal, do wonders, capturing the sunlight in what seems, at first glance, like a bucolic paradise until you discover that you have arrived within the seventh circle of hell. Kudos to the sound design by Johnnie Burn and another haunting score by Mica Levi, whose work on “Under the Skin” and “Jackie” is justly praised.
My only complaint about the movie is its final ten minutes when Glazer skips forward to the present time as we watch the cleaning staff do a round of the camp as it is today. Not needed!
THE UNITED KINGDOM’S ENTRY FOR BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM AT THIS YEAR’S OSCARS.
FISA Nominee: Best International Film
NBR: Top 5 International Films
For me, the one magical moment in the series occurs when Keogh and Claflin share the mic in their first concert together.