Seen Anything Good Lately?

Well, actually, I have. The following are some of the best films I’ve seen so far this year. This is by no means comprehensive, but these quickly came to mind. After I initially compiled the list I noticed that all of the films had been either written or co-written by the director. I don’t think that’s an accident.

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Custody (Xavier Legrand, director & writer)  This French film, a prize-winner at last year’s Venice International Film Festival, is a tense domestic thriller with an 11-year-old boy as the prize in a custody fight between divorced parents. Miriam Besson (Léa Drucker) wants to keep her son Julien (Thomas Gioria) as far away from her ex-husband Antoine (Denis Ménochet) as possible. Julien is clearly terrified of him. Antoine is a glowering, short-fused presence, though for a long time we’re not sure if he’s as bad as he seems. Custody is wound very tight. There’s always a threat of violence that could erupt at any moment.

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Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham, director & writer)  Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is in her final week of middle school. She constantly posts videos about self-confidence and image on YouTube, but feels like an absolute klutz in her real life. For Kayla, every moment she has to be with other people has the potential for humiliation. Her doubts and fears are something we can all relate to; I know I certainly can. The writing and performances feel completely natural.

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First Reformed (Paul Schrader, director & writer)  Throughout his career as a director and screenwriter, Paul Schrader has been concerned with protagonists — often anguished and doubting — who have been boxed in by their struggles to find meaning in their lives and beliefs. They frequently find expression through violence, as with Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, or, as with Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, by being crucified. In First Reformed, the Reverend Ernst Toller, strongly played by Ethan Hawke in a claustrophobically contained performance, continues Schrader’s exploration of this kind of character. Even his first name, Ernst, makes a tight and constricted sound when you say it, as opposed to Ernest, which is what I initially thought the name was. Toller is the minister of the First Reformed, a small church with a shrinking congregation in upstate New York. The church is an historical landmark, significant for being a stop on the Underground Railroad. Toller gives tours of the church to handfuls of people, which end at the gift shop. He’s also involved in preparing for the 250th anniversary of First Reformed, a celebration to be attended by the mayor, governor, and other dignitaries. Then there’s the parishioner (played by Amanda Seyfried), concerned for her husband, a fanatical environmentalist, who has a suicide vest in the house. First Reformed is a rigorous film, and deadly serious. There aren’t many laughs. None, actually, and no easy answers. At a Q&A at the Walter Reade Theater in May, Schrader explained the absence of a music score by saying he didn’t want music cues to tell the audience how to feel. He said, rather poetically, “You can’t hold the hand of the viewer when you’re asking them to walk into the mystery.” First Reformed is very rewarding. It gives you a lot to think about, and I liked it a lot.

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The Guardians (Xavier Beauvois, director & writer)  I really loved this film. I saw it twice and it was just as strong the second time. The Guardians is set in a farming community in France during World War I. Most of the men are away fighting, so it’s left to the women to do the farming. There are frequent scenes of farm work — plowing, planting, harvesting, etc. These are lengthy and mostly wordless. Having grown up on a farm in Iowa, I appreciated the time and respect the filmmaker gave to this activity. Husbands and sons return on leave, then go back to the front again. During church services, the priest reads he names of those who’ve been killed. Seasons pass and life goes on. It’s a great movie.

Here is the French-language trailer, which I think adds to the one above and is worth seeing.

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The Guilty (Gustav Möller, director & co-writer)  In this riveting Danish film, police officer Asger Holm (played by Jakob Cedergren) has been assigned to an emergency call center. The entire film takes place inside this center. We hear the voices of the callers, but we never see them. The focus is tightly on Asger as he handles each call. The film kicks into gear when he gets a call from a woman who may have been kidnapped by her ex-husband. In a series of calls, Asger attempts to help the woman without alerting her kidnapper. By the end of the film, things have flipped a couple of times as Asger (and the audience) learns more. The Guilty is terrific. It’s a thriller that never leaves Asger, a cop on the phone at a desk. It reminds me of another film I like a lot, Locke (2013), which takes place entirely inside a car with Tom Hardy as he drives through the night, constantly calling people and taking calls. That was a thriller, too. The Guilty will be released in the U.S. on October 19 of this year.

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Hearts Beat Loud (Brett Haley, director & co-writer)  This is another film I love. It is, as the poster proclaims, a “feel good” movie, but it earns it. Frank Fisher (wonderfully played by Nick Offerman) owns a vinyl record store in Brooklyn. His daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemmons) is about to leave for California and pre-med study at UCLA. Frank had been in a band when he was younger. He and Sam are talented musicians; they write songs and jam together. In a great sequence, we see them as they record a song that goes viral after Frank puts it on Spotify, unbeknownst to Sam. Frank feels he and Sam are now a band (which he calls We’re Not a Band) and wishes she would delay college to work on this with him. The cast includes the always great Ted Danson as a bar owner and Frank’s friend, Sasha Lane as Sam’s girlfriend, Toni Collette as Frank’s record shop landlord, and Blythe Danner as Frank’s mother. There’s not a lot of big drama, and things don’t work out the way they might in a more conventional film with this premise. It feels very natural. This is a really, really good movie.

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Incredibles 2 (Brad Bird, director & writer)  It’s hard to believe it’s been 14 years since the first Incredibles movie. That’s an unusually long amount of time to wait for a sequel, but I have to say, it was worth it. I loved the first one, and this is even better. It’s one of those infrequent cases where a sequel surpasses the original, as did The Godfather: Part II (1974), Aliens (1986), and Terminator 2 (1991). Advances in animation technology since 2004 raised the quality of Incredibles 2 to a very high level. Plus it’s impossible not to get swept up by the momentum of the storytelling. Brad Bird‘s work is exceptional. He directed The Iron Giant in 1999, an animated film with a lot of heart  that transported me back to my childhood. I like retro robots, and this has one of the best. His live-action feature debut, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011), is the best of that seemingly inexhaustible series.

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Leave No Trace (Debra Granik, director & co-writer)  This is a very strong, deeply affecting film that doubles down on the promise of Debra Granik’s previous feature, Winter’s Bone (2010). Just as that film provided a breakout role for Jennifer Lawrence, Leave No Trace does the same for Thomasin McKenzie. She’s excellent as Ben Foster’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Tom. Foster plays Will, a former soldier with PTSD. They’ve been living off the grid deep in the forest on public land in Oregon. Their struggle to maintain this way of life forms the crux of the film. Leave No Trace is very understated, free of the more conventional drama you might expect. The film respects all of the characters; there are no villains per se. Foster is excellent as Tom’s father. But he’s almost always excellent, as his work in The Messenger (2009), Hostiles (2017), and especially Hell or High Water (2017) will attest. Film critic Matt Zoller Seitz has described him as “one of those actors who make even a bad film worth seeing.”

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Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (Mouly Surya, director & co-writer) and Revenge (Coralie Fargeat, director & writer) are two distinctly different examples of rape-revenge dramas. It’s worth noting that both of these films were written and directed by women. Marlina, from Indonesia, takes an understated approach, which might sound ironic considering that Marlina carries the severed head of one of her attackers with her for most of the film.

In both films, the women take decisive action against their perpetrators. Revenge, a French film, is anything but understated. The violence is graphic and extreme. Jennifer (played by Matilda Lutz) becomes almost a superhero given the level of damage she sustains at the outset and more than survives. Revenge definitely takes an in-your-face approach that’s not for everyone. At times I was afraid of what I as going to see next.  Marlina is more artful and thoughtful, and probably the better film. Though there’s something undeniably satisfying on a visceral level about watching Jennifer lay waste to her attackers in Revenge. What I’m unsure of is why that is. Regardless, I liked them both.

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The Rider (Chloé Zhao, director & writer)  For me, this is the best film of the year so far. I responded more strongly to The Rider than anything else I’ve seen to date. It concerns a promising young rodeo rider, Brady Blackburn, who suffered a near-fatal injury when a bull stepped on his head before the film begins. He’s told he can never ride or rodeo again. The Rider shows how he struggles to deal with this. Chloé Zhao is a Chinese filmmaker who was born in Beijing, attended boarding school in London, finished high school in Los Angeles, and studied filmmaking at NYU in New York City. Like her first feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015), The Rider was shot on and around the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It has a documentary aspect that reinforces the reality that’s created here. All of the characters are convincingly played by non-actors. Brady is played by Brady Jandreau; his father by his real father; his sister by his real sister. Brady had the same injury as his character has in the film. His friends in the film are his friends in real life. One doesn’t need to know this to appreciate the film, but it adds to the authenticity you feel.

In the scene below, Brady, who is a horse trainer as well as a rodeo rider, tames a horse. There’s something beautiful about it.

As with several of the films on this list, The Rider doesn’t go the way you’d think it might, given its premise. It’s truer than that. It’s also, as has been pointed out by others, visually stunning and deeply moving.

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Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley, director & writer)  Cassius Green (played by Lakeith Stanfield) takes a job with a telemarketing company in Oakland, California where he’s encouraged to use his “white voice” to increase his sales. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. This film is insane. The white voices are dubbed by actual white voices. You could say the film is social satire, but that doesn’t begin to convey the anger that runs through it. It’s also a comedy, a farce, a horror film, and probably a thousand other things. Plus it’s great. Something is revealed in the latter half of the film that will have your jaw on the floor. I don’t dare say anything else about that, though I’d like to. I can only hope that in the wake of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, we’ll see more films that are this full-throttle.

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Under the Tree (Hafstein Gunnar Siguròsson, director & writer)  Black comedy from Iceland. I liked it a lot. The very large tree in the yard of an older couple casts an equally large shadow over the yard of their next-door neighbors, who insist that the tree be either trimmed or cut down so the wife can resume her sunbathing uninterrupted. This becomes a war of nerves, a feud in which the stakes are constantly raised. The Coen Brothers would love this. There Will Be Blood would also be an apt title. It’s very nasty.

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Supplemental

Here is a sampling of interviews and one music video.

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Eighth GradeBo Burnham & Elsie Fisher interview

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First Reformed Paul Schrader interview

— Ethan Hawke interview

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The Guardians — Xavier Beauvois interview

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Hearts Beat Loud Music video of the title song intercut with scenes from the film

— Brett Haley & Nick Offerman interview

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Leave No Trace Sundance interview with Ben Foster & Debra Granik

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The Rider Brady Jandreau interview (don’t mind the French subtitles, the interview is in English)

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Many of these films are still in theaters. The others should be available soon for rental or streaming. That’s all for now. — Ted Hicks

About Ted Hicks

Iowa farm boy; have lived in NYC for 40 years; worked in motion picture labs, film/video distribution, subtitling, media-awards program; obsessive film-goer all my life.
This entry was posted in Feature films, Film, Film posters, Streaming, TV & Cable. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Seen Anything Good Lately?

  1. David M Fromm says:

    Thanks, some films to try to catch up on.

  2. Karen says:

    Always trust your take on a film, but also know you can handle a little more violence than I can. Thanks Ted.

    • Ted Hicks says:

      I remember when I finally persuaded you to see “Taxi Driver” when it opened in Minneapolis. I’d see it probably 5 times already. But you survived.

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