The following feature films are some of the best that I’ve seen in the last six months. We’ll see how this shakes out at the end of the year, after six more months of movies. But in the meantime…
Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, director) In the Alien films chronology, this one takes place between Prometheus (2012) and the original Alien (1979). I don’t think it holds together, but it has some absolutely terrifying scenes that really freaked me out — always a plus. The feeling that no one can possibly make it out alive is pervasive, which probably doesn’t make it a great first-date movie. Ridley Scott is a terrific director. Like Michael Mann, his films are solid and concrete; you feel the weight of things. I liked Prometheus, which many people didn’t. The first film and the James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) are still the best, though Alien: Covenant has nothing to be ashamed of.
Baby Driver (Edgar Wright, director & writer) An amazing rush of energy with a killer soundtrack to keep it rolling. This is a break-out role for Ansel Elgort. He’s incredibly appealing and engaging in the title role. Kevin Spacey does his thing as only he can do it. Jaime Foxx and especially Jon Hamm make very strong impressions. Everybody is really on the money in this one.
Beatriz at Dinner (Miguel Arteta, director & Mike White, writer) Here’s Selma Hyack as you’ve never seen her before, no makeup, dressed down, a little dumpy, but a spitfire when standing up for what she believes in. She’s great, as is John Lithgow as her dinner party nemesis, an unscrupulous land developer who would probably be close friends with Donald Trump. The running time is a tight 82 minutes, all of them dead on target.
The Big Sick (Michael Showalter, director) Looks and sounds like a rom-com at the outset, but becomes something much deeper and more authentic by the end. The film is written by Kumail Nanjiami and his wife Emily Gordon, based on their real-life romance. Nanjiami plays a version of himself and Emily is played by Zoe Kazan. Anyone who’s followed Nanjiami on HBO’s Silicon Valley knows how special he is. A stellar Holly Hunter and Ray Romano play Emily’s parents who rush to Chicago when she falls ill. The Big Sick is very funny and very moving as it looks at family relationships and the messiness of falling in love, as well as the dynamics of being a Pakistani in today’s America.
The Dancer (Stéphanie Di Giusto, director) I saw The Dancer at this year’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a US distributor, which is really sad, as it’s quite extraordinary. The Dancer tells the real-life story of Loïe Fuller (played by Soko), an who starts out in the American West with her prospector father and makes her way to Paris at the turn of the 20th century. She becomes famous throughout Europe with her “Serpentine Dance” style, which she discovered by accident, crossing paths along with way with the Lumière Brothers, Toulouse-Lautrec, and a young Isadore Duncan, among others. This is one to watch out for. In addition to the trailer, I’ve added a clip from the film that shows more of her unique dancing style, which is quite sensational.
Get Out (Jordan Peele, director & writer) Jordan Peele (of Key & Peele) has done something extraordinary and cleverly subversive here. In the guise of sci-fi horror films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Stepford Wives, he’s given us a study of race relations as deep and insightful as the documentaries I Am Not Your Negro, O.J.: Made in America, and 13th.
The Giant (Johannes Nyholm, director & writer) Here’s another film that doesn’t have a US distributor as yet. I saw The Giant at this year’s New Directors/New Films series and was completely entranced. It tells the story of Rikard, an autistic, severely deformed 30-year-old man who hopes to win the Scandinavian Championship of pétanque, a game similar to boules. Rikard was taken from his mother at birth. He imagines he can get her back if he wins this championship. His challenges are many, but he’s helped at times by a 200 foot giant, which brings a fairy-tale quality to the film. The giant, though obviously imaginary, is presented in very realistic, concrete terms. He’s quite wonderful.
Harmonium (Kôji Fukada, director & writer) This terrific Japanese film is a slow-burn psychological thriller that starts out as one thing and slowly becomes something else. It’s quietly disturbing with a creeping sense of dread. I’m not sure what to make of the ending, but the film is so good overall that I don’t really care.
The Hero (Brett Haley, director & co-writer) I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like Sam Elliott. He’s great here as an aging, over-the-hill cowboy star, who we see at the beginning doing voice-over work for a barbecue-sauce commercial, take after take after take. I just wish it was a better film. What’s here is fine, but there’s something missing. It needs to be longer; it ends before it’s over, for me anyway. Regardless, Sam Elliott in a starring role his whole career has prepared him for makes The Hero more than worth seeing.
It Comes at Night (Trey Edward Shults, director & writer) This film is terrifying in an understated way. It’s set in the near future. An unspecified, extremely contagious viral catastrophe has occurred. We don’t know any more than those trying to survive, which is very little. There’s no radio, no television, no communication with the outside world. What they do know is to keep the doors bolted, don’t go outside at night, have gas masks ready at all times, trust no one. The always excellent Joel Edgerton is barricaded in a remote house in the woods with his wife, her father, and their son. A second family shows up seeking shelter. After tense negotiations, Edgerton takes them in. This is life on a razor’s edge. You do whatever you have to in order to survive. I’ve said the film is understated, but it tightens the screws every step of the way.
Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd, director) This is a nasty little film that I liked a lot. I’ve seen it twice so far; once at a press screening and again when it was screened in this year’s New Directors/New Films series. A plot synopsis from IMDB sets it up more concisely than I probably could: “Rural England, 1865. Katherine is stifled by her loveless marriage to a bitter man twice her age, whose family are cold and unforgiving. When she embarks on a passionate affair with a young worker on her husband’s estate, a force is unleashed inside her, so powerful that she will stop at nothing to get what she wants.” Set in a desolate landscape, the film has echos of Wuthering Heights, but with a fairly modern sensibility. Florence Pugh’s Katherine is smarter and deadlier than anyone around her, determined to survive no matter what. Lady Macbeth opens in New York next Friday, July 14th.
Logan (James Mangold, director & story) Hugh Jackman is the title character, aka Wolverine from Marvel Comics. He’s played this character many times before in X-Men and Wolverine films. But this one is different, a superhero movie that’s not really a superhero movie. It’s R-rated, down and dirty, and very violent. Logan shows the bloody consequences of violent actions that are played for thrills in conventional PG-13 action films where it’s more about the body count than it is about the bodies. This one feels real, even if it’s not. There’s more at stake. Life, death, redemption. Not everyone walks away.
Maudie (Aisling Walsh, director) I didn’t know before seeing this that Maude Lewis was an actual person who became a well-known Canadian folk artist in the 1940s and 50s. Sally Hawkins is simply wonderful in the title role, as is Ethan Hawke as the lonely, extremely gruff (to put it mildly) fishmonger who becomes Maude’s initially unwilling companion. They’re an odd couple if there ever was one. This is a film with a lot of human feeling, but not maudlin or sentimentalized. It earns the emotional response you’re likely to have for it.
The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi, director & writer) Anyone who has seen About Elly
(2009) or the Oscar-winning A Separation (2011) knows how good this Iranian director can be. The Salesman, which also received an Oscar, is no exception. A husband and wife performing in a local production in Teheran of Death of a Salesman attempt to deal with the ramifications of an assault on the wife when she was alone in their apartment. Who attacked her and what will the husband do about it? Like Farhadi’s earlier films, it’s a suspenseful drama with no easy answers.
Their Finest (Lone Scherfig, director) Set in 1940 during the London Blitz, a film company is recruited by government officials to produce a patriotic film about the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk. I generally like films about filmmaking, and this one is no exception. It’s a fairly traditional and straight-forward, which seems right for a film set in this period with this subject matter. There are few surprises, but it’s all in the telling, which is excellent. The great Bill Nighy is a standout in the role of an actor past his prime and quite indignant about that. Gemma Arterton plays a young woman hired to work on the film in a writing capacity. The obstacles she encounters add a feminist layer to the film. There’s also, as you might expect, a love story.
Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, director) Enormously successful at the box-office, and for good reason. Wonder Woman is a knockout. It may not carry the real-world weight that Logan aspires to, but it’s pretty great, and raises the bar for the superhero (or superheroine) genre. This is largely due to the casting of Gal Gadot as Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman. She’s a stunning, dynamic presence. The climactic showdown is the special-effects blowout we’ve seen many times before, but the film works like gangbusters in spite of that.
A Ghost Story (David Lowery, director & writer) Strictly speaking, I shouldn’t include this film at all, since initially I was limiting this post to films I’d seen during the first six months of the year. But I saw A Ghost Story this past Friday when it opened and knew I couldn’t not write about it now. It’s one of the saddest films I’ve ever seen. At the beginning we see Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara in and around their house on land that might be in Texas. They’re married and in love. She wants to move; he doesn’t. Then he dies. And is resurrected as the classic kid’s idea of a ghost, a someone in a sheet with two blank eye holes, the least-expensive Halloween costume ever. The ghost stays in the house, haunting it, I think, silently watching Mara dealing with grief as her life goes on. He remains in the house after she moves out and as a succession of families move in. The film is a strong evocation of loss, loneliness, existence, and time. That’s a heavy load for a film to carry, but I think A Ghost Story more than does it. The film suggests why ghosts might hang around at all, why objects in haunted houses suddenly fly off shelves, and gives new meaning to the expression “giving up the ghost.” This shouldn’t work at all, but it does. Or maybe it doesn’t, I don’t know. You’ll either go with it or reject it entirely. It’s hard to describe the effect it had on me. Well, not hard, exactly; it’s more that I’m kind of embarrassed to spell it out. At the end, A Ghost Story left me feeling lonely and alone, but also exhilarated. At dinner that night I was telling my wife Nancy about the final moments in the film and I got choked up. I didn’t expect this, but I can’t ignore something that provokes a reaction this strong. Maybe I identified too much with the ghost. You might wonder why someone should want to go through that. The answer is because it’s beautiful. I don’t know, maybe I’ll see it again and it won’t work at all. But I strongly doubt it. – Ted Hicks
The following titles are available now for streaming: Get Out, Logan, The Salesman, and Their Finest. Alien: Covenant will be available on August 15.