The Distancer

Daily coronavirus viewing recommendations to maintain optimism and empathy amidst social distancing.

  • A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

    A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

    (available to rent from Amazon and pretty much any digital provider)

    For everyone who told me, "Oh, but I saw the Mr. Rogers documentary in 2018, I don't think I really need to see this movie!" Well, now you've got time. (Sorry, even in a virtual quarantine, I will still be a little #petty about people writing off one of my absolute favorite movies of last year.)

    This is so much more than a movie to me. I truly have not stopped thinking about it since I saw it at last year's Toronto Film Festival, and it has been at the front of my mind all this week. Not only because Tom Hanks, our one (1) good person, is battling it out against the coronavirus, but also because I think we could use Mr. Rogers now. And, no, I'm not just referring to the "look for the helpers" quote which circulates on social media in times of crisis.

    A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood recognizes Mr. Rogers' incredible capacity to connect with people by recognizing that they were still children inside. Not to infantilize or patronize them, but to realize that there are certain emotions we never outgrow. Fear, loneliness,…

  • 20th Century Women

    20th Century Women

    (available to stream on Netflix)

    I have a real soft spot for movies that I think are really wise, as opposed to just being smart. 20th Century Women is absolutely one of these. It has such an emotional intelligence that I find tremendously moving, and it really lingers in my head.

    If you've read either of Celeste Ng's novels, Everything I Never Told You or Little Fires Everywhere, you might find this movie particularly intriguing. There's a kind of third-person omniscient narration that dominates them all, but it's used not to give us additional illumination as viewers but rather to emphasize what the characters do not and cannot know. The effect isn't disorienting or depressing, though. I find it revelatory and enlightening. We're all just imperfect people sharing this journey together, doing the best we can to be there for others but inevitably limited in our ability to connect by the blinders that our own lives and experiences erected.

    "My son was born in 1964. He grew up with a meaningless war, with protests, with Nixon, with nice cars and nice houses, computers, drugs, boredom. I know him less every day."

    That's Annette Bening as Dorothea Lange, the matriarch at…

  • Amazing Grace

    Amazing Grace

    (available to stream on Hulu)

    I don't presume to know what everyone receiving this does with their Sunday mornings nor how they feel about religion. (To be clear, you can enjoy this movie no matter how you affiliate or don't.) But there's something deeply spiritual about Amazing Grace that for those like myself who don't have the option of going to church this morning due to coronavirus might find comforting. And for those who don't have that same concern, I presume you at least like live music? Considering that your options there are, uhh, severely limited for the time being, Amazing Grace will be the closest substitute.

    This immersive concert film documents how the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, recorded the titular gospel album (extremely Julie from Lady Bird voice) live at a church in Los Angeles. The goal was to have the authenticity of a performance live with a church choir and a full audience doing call-and-response. But in 1972, the technology just wasn't there to sync up all the audio tracks from the different cameras, so the footage sat in a vault forever. Yet once they were finally able to cut the film decades later, Aretha Franklin sued…

  • Two Days, One Night

    Two Days, One Night

    (available to rent on Amazon)

    I went back and forth on the wisdom of recommending a non-subscription streaming title as well as a non-English language title. But, to quote my boy Bong Joon-ho, "Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films."

    Two Days, One Night comes from Belgium, but it's about the closest thing to a universal movie I can think of. I was too lazy/busy to finalize my top 10 films of the 2010s, but this is in it. In roughly 90 minutes, a simple premise unfolds. Sandra, played with heartbreaking passion by the incredible Marion Cotillard, begins the film facing a layoff from her job because her co-workers have chosen to split what would have been her salary as a bonus among themselves. Her boss, however, gives her the ability to change this. Over the course of a weekend, Sandra must visit each of her 16 coworkers and convince them in a re-vote on Monday to choose her over their bonuses.

    The film was not far from my mind all weekend as I, like I presume many of you, scrolled through social media to find many friends and…

  • Gloria Bell

    Gloria Bell

    (available to stream on Amazon Prime)

    Look, sometimes (and especially now) we just need a movie about nice things happening to nice people. I'm not immune to it. We need nice movies to get us through, to convince us that there's some sense of cosmic fairness and justice in the world.

    Gloria Bell, the titular character played by Julianne Moore, is a mild-mannered, good-natured Angeleno divorcee who loves her kids, her friends ... and dancing. The kind of person we all know and love but maybe don't always respect like we should. Moore radiates that specific kind of gentleness and decency from the film's first moments, so we're in her corner as she battles against the original form of social distancing: singleness.

    The film follows her hilarious and melancholy ups and downs as she entertains life with a new flame, John Turturro's Arnold. In many ways, Gloria Bell is like a slightly more upscale version of your standard rom-com. Don't get me wrong, I love those movies and will likely recommend one in The Distancer here in a few days. But your average rom-com tends to put up blinders to the world, producing a sugar high only possible because it…

  • The Darjeeling Limited

    The Darjeeling Limited

    (available to stream on HBO GO)

    Wes Anderson is as much a brand and a party theme as he is a filmmaker now - may any of us be so fortunate as to become the victims of our own success - but right before he got a little too twee and dollhouse-like for my tastes, the man made a straight masterpiece. The Darjeeling Limited deserves much more love, and it's high time this underrated gem gets its due. (Also, if you don't know who Wes Anderson is - totally fine! I promise you don't have to know to enjoy this movie.)

    The biggest thing I love about this movie is that it totally gets how men, particularly brothers and family members, interact with each other. As a gender, we tend to be particularly tough to portray with any kind of emotional depth on screen. Undergirding most fraternal relationships is a strong non-verbal, unspoken component. Guys don't work things out quite so obviously with words; there are all sort of power dynamics that deal with how people assert control of a situation or dominance of a space that Wes Anderson captures so perfectly.

    But The Darjeeling Limited is not just men…

  • Other People

    Other People

    (available to stream on Netflix)

    Full disclosure: this one is going to make you cry. It will also make you laugh hysterically and see Train's "Drops of Jupiter" in a completely new light. (Though I'm not devoting as much time to explaining these elements in my recommendation, trust me, this dramedy delivers on the "comedy" part of the equation.) But Other People is really going to make you cry, and if you're prepared for it, I think you'll find it a really valuable experience.

    The kinds of tears you'll be shedding are not your typical tearjerker ones. There's something uniquely cathartic about what Other People provides its audience. Writer/director Chris Kelly tells a story based on his own experience of coming home to assist his family as his mother battles cancer. He's had some rocky times with them in recent years after coming out did not elicit the kind of warm embrace he anticipated - particularly from his father, who still refuses to recognize his partner. But a series of professional setbacks leave him a perfect position to lend a helping hand to his mom while she undergoes treatment. He never seriously wavers in his commitment to pitching in, but…

  • Little Men

    Little Men

    (available to stream on Hulu)

    Before you ask, no, this is not in the shared universe of Greta Gerwig's Little Women. But I guess it does share a similar sense of soulfulness, empathy and deep compassion for humanity, so maybe they aren't that far apart.

    The film, at its core, is about a middle-class New York family that moves out out of Manhattan and into Brooklyn after an elderly patriarch passes away, leaving his spacious apartment and downstairs shop property to his two adult children. The job of moving in and handling the property falls on Greg Kinnear’s Brian, an actor who has never quite made it and relies on his wife, Jennifer Ehle’s Kathy, as the primary breadwinner in the household. The family strikes up a friendship with the dressmaker who works in their property, Paulina Garcia’s Leonor, but quickly realize that she’s paying far less than market value in rent thanks the generosity of the now-deceased landlord.

    It’s here when the film’s primary concern comes into focus: gentrification and the human costs it takes. This topic is now closely approaching the point of being done to death, but writer/director Ira Sachs has a remarkably non-didactic treatment of the…

  • Stories We Tell

    Stories We Tell

    (available on Amazon Prime)

    I don't say this about many documentaries, but Stories We Tell is like a warm blanket that wraps you up in the kind of tender embrace you can only receive from a family member. It's an ingenious work of cinema, too, but above all, I keep coming back to the way this movie fills me up with such compassion and sensitivity.

    The film begins as director Sarah Polley's investigation into who her mother was. Since she was young when her mom Diane, a Canadian actress of some renown, passed away, Sarah seeks to find out more about the person behind the easily accessible images. But Stories We Tell is never just a family album that Sarah Polley shares with us. It always opens outwards and speaks to larger truths about what it means to be a family, to be there for people, to hear them and to listen.

    Sarah's inquisitive quest ends up unraveling a family secret hidden behind a joke that she looks nothing like her father, Michael. Eventually, enough people comment on it that Sarah has to look deeper into the rumors. What unfolds might as well be out of a true crime story,…

  • Her Smell

    Her Smell

    (available on HBO GO)

    If you've known me for the last 18 months, you've probably heard me mention Her Smell at some point - most likely encouraging (or nagging) you that in spite of this weird title and the fact that you've never heard of it, this movie is absolutely worth your time and attention. It was my #1 movie of 2019, and it's now conveniently available for you to watch on HBO GO. If you thought my advocacy was going to end now, think again.

    I won't promise that Her Smell is the easiest movie to sit through, but I can tell you that it will be an incredibly rewarding one. (Plus, it has great music along the way.) Elisabeth Moss plays a Courtney Love-style figure, Becky Something, cutting a path of destruction across the '90s grunge rock scene. For most of the movie, she's on the verge of implosion, and Moss' tour de force performance keeps you nervously riveted as you wonder when the wheels are going to completely fall off. There's an entire ecosystem of both bandmates and music industry folks there to support her ... but also to leech off her. If Becky doesn't perform, they…

  • The Skeleton Twins

    The Skeleton Twins

    (available on Amazon Prime and Hulu)

    I'm going to start this recommendation with a big content warning for suicide because The Skeleton Twins starts off with two potentially triggering events. Twin siblings Milo (Bill Hader) and Maggie (Kristen Wiig) might be estranged, but some things still unite them - namely, their inability to win for losing. They both manage to inadvertently cheat death when they attempt to take their own lives and end up back in each other's lives to deal with the aftermath.

    The Skeleton Twins makes the most of these former SNL stars' enormous comedic power - namely, in a musical number about midway through that absolutely brings down the house. (It takes place in a room that I have to presume will resemble the one in which you watch it, should you take my recommendation - so maybe get up and dance it out yourselves?) But it doesn't shy away from the darkness and disappointment that colors both of their experiences. The film steers clear of melodrama and gets right to the bittersweet core of what it means to live a life that doesn't quite match what you envisioned growing up. Despite the heaviness of the inciting…

  • Shoplifters

    Shoplifters

    (available on Hulu)

    I'll keep this recommendation brief because 1) it's late 2) I suspect many people might have already seen this as it was widely ranked among the best movies of 2018. And if you have already seen it, maybe give Shoplifters a second watch - I can confirm that this film's tenderness and sensitivity reveal themselves further on a repeat viewing. (Again, if the one-inch barrier of subtitles is bothering you ... that means you have to give your full attention to this movie, which is an incredibly rewarding viewing experience!)

    "Usually you can't choose your own parents."
    "But then, maybe it's stronger when you choose them yourself."

    That's an intergenerational conversation taking place between two family members roughly halfway through Shoplifters. The film is all about family, biological and otherwise. Writer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda gingerly lays out the connective tissue of a crowded house on the outskirts of Japan, full of three generations of grifters and petty thieves. It feels we're like walking into a handful of lives already in progress, not merely actors inhabiting a role - that's how authentic and grounded a vibe this film exudes. That delicate, unspoken arrangement gets shaken up a bit when…

  • Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution

    Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution

    (available on Netflix)

    No, not those Crips.

    Today's recommendation is made pretty easy because I was assigned to review Crip Camp, the new Obama-produced documentary for Netflix, for its release today. (So now I've got a movie to recommend that I can virtually guarantee none of you have seen!) You can read the full review here, and you'll probably be able to tell it was written after two weeks of penning The Distancer: theplaylist.net/crip-camp-review-20200325/

    The tl;dr - unlike many documentaries about activism, Crip Camp is not rooted in collective trauma. Rather, it's based in collective joy. A large contingent of the disabled activists who helped compel government action around enforcing accessibility came from the eponymous summer camp, Woodstock-adjacent Camp Jened. At this camp, disabled youth experienced normalcy, accommodation and acceptance in a way they never had before - and powerfully took steps to remake the world in that image.

    It's not going to be as wild as that Tiger King show I see in everyone's Instagram Stories, but I think it will probably be quite inspiring!

  • Home Again

    Home Again

    (available on Amazon Prime)

    Look, I'm not going to pretend like this is somehow on the level of some of the award-winning fare I've mostly been pushing through this newsletter. But not everything has to be! A rom-com is just fine, in large part because they take a tension and usually solve it by the end. Especially in this time of great uncertainty, there's something comforting about diving into a movie of any genre. We know the rules, the stakes, the figures, and we get to watch a variation on something familiar that speaks to the sensibilities of the people who made the film.

    I find Home Again immensely pleasurable in spite of its many flaws because of the way it's in conversation with star Reese Witherspoon's career. While she's cast herself in recent years as a bold feminist and crusader for women in the arts and the workplace, it wasn't that long ago she was a rom-com star whose choices of roles did not exactly align with the values she espoused. That's not to say she didn't have them, or that she was insincere! This also required her to take a more active role in making sure that the…

  • Portrait of a Lady on Fire

    Portrait of a Lady on Fire

    (available on Hulu)

    Sorry, working in social media means that there are some habits that die hard, even when doing things non-professionally. That includes having an editorial calendar for this newsletter, and it got disrupted yesterday when the distributor Neon made the surprise announcement over Twitter that they were dropping Portrait of a Lady on Fire available to stream on Hulu today. Reader, I have never been so happy to redo a plan!

    This movie was making its way across screens in February and into this month when its expansion got halted by coronavirus. While it robbed many of the chance to see it in a theater, now it's here sooner to devour! This is not your average costume drama, folks. It's a brilliantly observed romance filtered through a genius artistic eye. Seriously, every frame of Portrait of a Lady on Fire has such a painterly composition that you could pause the movie at any given time and have an image worth hanging in a gallery.

    Full disclosure if you're planning to watch with other people: there's some sexuality/nudity in this movie. But like everything else in Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it's tasteful and non-exploitative. The…

  • Can You Ever Forgive Me?

    Can You Ever Forgive Me?

    (available on HBO GO - but only through March 31, after which point it might end up on Cinemax/MAX GO)

    Unsurprisingly, Marielle Heller (the filmmaker behind A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) is the first director to make a repeat appearance in my recommendations. There's such an emotional intelligence to the way she makes movies, especially when it comes to people who either present as unaccessible ciphers to the world. You might have caught Can You Ever Forgive Me? during awards season 2018 when stars Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant earned much-deserved Oscar nominations. Even if you did, it's worth a second watch - there's a more delicate, intricate sentimental tapestry than initially meets the eye.

    Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the true story of a real fraud, McCarthy's Lee Israel, a down-and-out writer who turns to literary forgery to pay her bills in '90s New York. She's unable to get her arcane celebrity biographies published, so she puts the knowledge of their inner lives to use by writing fake personal correspondences from her subjects and the people in their orbits. McCarthy plays the misanthropic con artist as a fairly ruthless character, but Heller's deeply empathetic direction makes…

  • The Big Sick

    The Big Sick

    (available on Amazon Prime)

    Admittedly, I had initially left this movie off the initial list of potential titles to recommend. Something about a movie that mostly takes place in a hospital as someone fights off a mysterious illness that leaves them teetering on the brink of death just doesn't quite feel like the most appetizing watch right now. But then I saw a tweet from Kumail Nanjiani, star and co-writer of The Big Sick, that made me soften my stance a bit.

    "13 years ago, a ventilator saved my favorite person’s life. The fact that we don’t have enough for everyone who will need one is a terrifying and heart-breaking thought."

    To be clear, if the aforementioned plot elements of The Big Sick don't exactly sound like the most appealing things, don't watch it! Save it for later, that's totally fine. But if you think the movie is just an illness drama, you'd be missing out on what makes this rom-com-dram so special. It's about how extraordinary circumstances can unite people across generations, ethnicities and more. Think of it as a high-stakes My Big Fat Greek Wedding where the cross-cultural exchange only happens after one member of the happy couple…

  • God's Own Country

    God's Own Country

    (available on Netflix)

    This! Movie!

    I watched it in January and literally cannot stop thinking about it. Now hopefully I can convince a few of you to join me in my latest infatuation. If you were a fan of Call Me By Your Name, then God's Own Country may very well be right up your alley as well. This story of yearning, connection and how two people can change and bring out something new in one another absolutely ravaged me in the most fulfilling kind of way. It's like being swaddled in a sweater (speaking of, I will absolutely be looking for the sweater in the movie for next winter) of tender, sentimental love.

    Not unlike Elio from Call Me By Your Name, protagonist Johnny (Josh O'Connor, who fans of The Crown might recognize from his portrayal of Prince Charles) lives largely inside his own mind in bucolic European digs. But the charming Italian countryside this most assuredly is not. It's drab Northern England, and Johnny has little else to occupy his non-working hours than binge drinking and cruising for casual sex. He doesn't seem particularly torn up by questions of sexual identity; Johnny doesn't seem to interrogate his state of…

  • Booksmart

    Booksmart

    (available on Hulu)

    We are in desperate need of a new communal high school movie. Let's face it, we haven't really reset our bearings since Mean Girls, and we completely blew our chance with Easy A. (It's great, Emma Stone is my queen, please watch that, too.) But we've got a real chance to usher in a new generation's high school comedy with Olivia Wilde's Booksmart, a movie that - I presume - captures the ethos of the rising Gen Z.

    And look, wouldn't it be nice if we all emerged from quarantine with a new quotable movie that we can all refer to? Wouldn't it be nice if you could call a meeting to order by yelling "Fair townspeople, I SWEAR TO GOD"? Wouldn't it be great if we could all start calling "Malala" to our friends when we're ready to leave that dreadful bar? Prepare to get consensually bashed by this movie, folks! (These are all references you will get once you watch Booksmart and join our club. Yes, you *can* sit with us.)

    I'm not going to pretend like the movie is somehow particularly revelatory - the plot is, for all intents and purposes, a female Superbad in plot that goes quite a bit deeper in themes of intra-gender friendship. It's rollicking fun all the same, though, with a deep bench of supporting characters who all feel like they've got exciting careers ahead of them. And it's got a big, beating heart to go along with a hearty helping of belly laughs, which really does count for something right now.

  • The Social Network

    The Social Network

    (available on Netflix)

    This is mostly just a PSA that Netflix re-added The Social Network to their streaming library. I wouldn't exactly call it the most optimistic movie to watch, but if you're a fan of pure cinema, let me just say -- there are few things more pleasurable than watching a practically perfect movie, which this is. Nothing against comfort food entertainment, obviously, but there's something to be said for getting lost inside of artistic brilliance.

    The nature of Facebook and the Internet is to change so rapidly that every time you watch The Social Network, the world will be different enough to give you a new outlook on the movie. Have you watched it since Zuckerberg's latest defiant stance to go totally hands-off on any political advertising? Have you watched it since the Cambridge Analytica scandal? Have you watched it since the election? Each of these casts such an interesting shadow over the film that I don't think director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin could ever have predicted. (Little did I know when I first saw it as a senior in high school how much of my income would depend on Zuck and his "video-game," as ex-flame…

  • mid90s

    mid90s

    (available on Amazon Prime)

    Look, if you know me, it was only a matter of time before this pick was coming - despite how it might look based on the fact that I'm quoted in the trailer and on the poster, no, this is not #sponcon by A24. (Haters will still say it's an #ad.) But I stand by my unabashed praise of Jonah Hill's first directorial effort, mid90s, even if it borders on hyperbole. This is a really special little movie, a coming-of-age story that captures all the joys and agonies of finding your people and yourself.

    Despite what the title might suggest, mid90s is not just a time capsule for an era, though there's a certain rubber mask of an iconic figure that makes a bizarre but hilarious appearance. It's not a film tethered to or defined by a certain moment in history, though Jonah Hill roots the movie deeply in the period of his own youth. Loathe as I am to use a word like universal to describe the story's appeal (nothing can truly cut across all demographic boundaries), there's something about young Stevie falling in with a crowd of skateboarding teenagers that speaks to circumstances and…

  • Silver Linings Playbook

    Silver Linings Playbook

    (available on Netflix)

    I have a complicated relationship to this pick -- initially, I actually didn't like Silver Linings Playbook. (But there's an important story behind why and how it's affected the way I see the film now.)

    My first experience of the film was actually seeing a rough cut six months before release. (The screening was organized for my student program at a film festival by a certain disgraced producer who shall not be named; thankfully, the extent of my interactions with him was the way he shushed a crowd simply by walking into the theater.) The film seemed complete to me and totally ready for release as all the components of the story and narrative were completely in tact. I left thinking Silver Linings Playbook was just another standard issue rom-com. Not that there's anything wrong with that...

    Four months later, it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival to rave reviews, and I was left scratching my head from afar as it picked up major Oscar buzz. "Did they see the movie I did?" I asked myself. As it turns out, they actually didn't. When I took a chance on the movie again that year at Thanksgiving, the movie was…

  • I, Daniel Blake

    I, Daniel Blake

    (available on Netflix)

    I won't sugarcoat the truth about this recommendation: it's likely to fill you with anger. (And if navigating government bureaucracy to receive life-sustaining benefits hits a little too close to home right now, maybe shelve this one for a bit.) But Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake, winner of Cannes' coveted Palme d'Or in 2016, will also highlight why you're feeling righteous indignation and guide you towards where to channel that rage.

    Loach's film is a pointed response to the austerity measures of early '10s Britain that personalizes the political. The titular character, Dave Johns' Daniel Blake, needs to file for disability insurance after having a heart attack that renders him unable to perform his job. (The medical incident happens before we meet him, thankfully.) Loach follows his journey step by step as he attempts to navigate needlessly complex systems and processes. At every junction, we see the holes in the social safety net and how policy from the top only exacerbates the possibility that people fall through them.

    There are moments in I, Daniel Blake of enormous frustration that often prove dispiriting. But I don't think that's the overarching sentiment that Loach hopes to convey. (Nor does…

  • The Nice Guys

    The Nice Guys

    (available on HBO GO)

    If you've ever watched a '70s detective movie (I beg of you, please go watch Chinatown if you haven't filled that blindspot), you probably know that these films are generally pretty grim in their outlook on the world. This cinema that emerged from the twin catastrophes of the Vietnam War and Watergate held neither people nor institutions in high regard. Everyone was corrupt - often times, including the hero - and every system was rigged or irreparably broken.

    Shane Black's The Nice Guys, a '70s-set PI narrative, takes the form of these classics, but not necessarily their outlook. Sure, an investigation into a dead adult entertainer turns up malfeasance in both law enforcement and government, but the overarching takeaway is not nihilistic in the slightest. Black's tribute to a classic period of Hollywood cinema is able to take a step back from this fatalistic time in American life to show how, actually, the kinds of worries they had were not particularly unique. Though it took a new paranoid form in the '70s, corruption and collusion has long been a facet of the American experience (and still is, depressingly).

    "This is what I'm talking about, it's over,"…

  • The Florida Project

    The Florida Project

    (available on Netflix)

    A friend texted me a few days ago mid-way through The Florida Project, and his main takeaway was that it was "sad." With all due respect to said friend, who I've conveniently turned into an IRL straw man, I disagree. I don't think the film shies away from sad territory, but the overwhelming sensation I get is joy and wonder. (And as of today, that's available to you on Netflix!)

    I wouldn't hesitate to say that director Sean Baker has made the best contemporary film about poor people with The Florida Project. Note the word choice: it's not a movie about poverty. The economic conditions of the characters may constrain their choices, but it does not define them. Baker puts a human face on people who far too often get reduced to data points.

    Moonee (absolute firecracker Brooklynn Prince) is not made to be this object of our fear or pity; she has agency, and she gets to make the world around her into her own magic kingdom. It just so happens that said territory is quite literally in the shadow of Disney's Magic Kingdom, an area still reeling from the effects of the '08 financial crisis.…

  • Little Women

    Little Women

    (available to rent)

    This is a Greta Gerwig stan account, so many of you should have seen today's pick coming a mile away: the new Little Women is now available to rent! (For those who may not know me personally, close friends knew they had to text me immediately after they saw the movie, that's how real the love is.)

    I could just blather on and on about this film - and, indeed, I already have (more on that later). There's something about Greta Gerwig's incredibly open-hearted filmmaking that just opens compartments of myself that I didn't even know existed. She has a unique ability to approach delicate crossroads in life with a real grace and compassion. At once, she manages the unfathomable: clearly communicating the correct path for her characters without denigrating alternatives. If happiness and contentment are destinations in a Greta Gerwig film, she recognizes that there are many different journeys to arrive there - no one inherently better than the other.

    Little Women presents an epic canvas for her to achieve this - four March sisters, each different in what they represent, embody and choose. While Saoirse Ronan's Jo, the clear stand-in for source material author Louisa…

  • Ghost Town

    Ghost Town

    (available on Amazon Prime and Crackle)

    I get that maybe now, on its face, the idea of watching a movie called Ghost Town set in New York City doesn't sound like the best idea. I can explain! There's no horror here, nor is there anything particularly mawkish or gruesome when it comes to people dying. It's a movie about the dead only insofar as they affect the living, a message the film delivers with equal parts comedy and pathos.

    Ghost Town slipped through the cracks a bit when it was released in September 2008 during the height of the financial crisis. It's a modest, pleasant film that doesn't proclaim the depths of its insight with great fanfare - perhaps to its detriment in terms of finding a passionate audience. But I found it immensely moving when I caught up with the film on cable about 10 years ago, and it's a movie I find myself contemplating frequently. I think it's a great film to have rattling around in your brain right now, too.

    After briefly dying during his colonoscopy, misanthropic Manhattan dentist Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais) finds himself tailed by a number of ghosts who sense that he's now able…

  • About Time

    About Time

    (available on Netflix)

    Stories about time travel tend to fix their gaze on the grand and cosmic elements of life. Richard Curtis' About Time, which uses the magical realist device in the romantic comedy genre, takes the concept in a blissfully opposite direction. It's a film about the small details and minute interactions that seem so disposable in our everyday lives yet constitute a greater share of who we become than we realize. Curtis makes the case that being fully present and appreciative of these little moments of grace in our lives, rather than simply zooming forward to the next big thing, can yield unexpected pathways to contentment.

    In the Lake family, the men can time travel. (Have to slightly roll my eyes at the vague sexism of the film's conceit, especially when you look at the number of movies that can fall under this category for the film's romantic co-lead: "Rachel McAdams in a Romance Movie Where She Provides Emotional Support to a White Man who Can Time Travel.") Specifically, they can go back and relive certain days, granting them what amounts to a re-do of certain moments. The family patriarch (Bill Nighy) chooses to use that bonus time…

  • Tigertail

    Tigertail

    (available on Netflix)

    Before you ask, no, this is not the special episode of Tiger King. (Apparently that's dropping on Sunday.) If you're looking for the antithesis of over-the-top and unbelievable content, though, Alan Yang's Tigertail is a movie for you. And thank goodness it is because I woke up at 6:30 A.M. to watch and make sure that this fresh drop on Netflix was worth your time.

    I guess you could say that this is a story that involves intergenerational relationships, the Asian immigrant experience in America, what's lost when leaving one's home and so much more in the film's packed 90-minute runtime. But none of those are what the movie is "about," per se. Tigertail is really about empathy and connection - both how difficult it can be and how we often fail to modulate our ability to offer it by age, cultural background and other complicating factors. This is the best I've seen a movie explain how culture conditions a personality in a good long while.

    Alan Yang's film is both visually arresting and quietly contemplative as he charts a non-linear journey through the life and psyche of Grover. At a young age, he's forced to make…

  • Manchester by the Sea

    Manchester by the Sea

    (available on Amazon Prime)

    I promise this is not about to be proselytizing or evangelizing, but I'm currently observing Holy Saturday as part of my faith practice. ("Observing" mostly meaning I'm acknowledging the solemnity of the day, not really undertaking any fastidious spiritual task, to fully level with you.) I only mention it because the Holy Saturday situation, wedged between the pain of Good Friday and the triumph of Easter, maps pretty well onto a societal situation at large.

    It's a day of uncertainty and unease. There's a suspension of reality, knowing better days lie ahead but unable to grasp them. Holy Saturday reminds me a bit of how Tony Kushner describes the "painful progress" of the world in Angels in America: "longing for what we've left behind and dreaming ahead." I can't think of a better movie for this specific mood than Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea (which, for my money, still has not been topped by any new release since it came out in 2016).

    If you have any familiarity with the movie, you might be thinking to yourself right now, "Manchester by the Sea? Wow, that's such a downer, and I thought these recommendations were supposed…

  • Groundhog Day

    Groundhog Day

    (available on Netflix)

    Yes, I know today's holiday was Easter, not Groundhog Day ... but this movie is appropriate every day of the year. No disrespect to About Time, which is probably the current leader in terms of positive responses generated by readers, but Harold Ramis' Groundhog Day did the concept of people repeating time both first and better. It's a film open to so many avenues of interpretation by religious and philosophical scholars that, allegedly, Christians, Jews, and Buddhists all fought to "claim" it for their own faith in a 2003 MoMA film series.

    As I've mentioned prior, I am generally loath to use the term "universal" because, well, few things cut across all borders in life. But Groundhog Day comes pretty darn close because it's about the concerns that have dogged societies for ages: what does it mean to be a good person? What obligations do we have to ourselves and to each other in our time on earth? What ability do we have to affect the course of human events? Heck, why are we even here?

    Local news weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) learns how to answer these questions in a brutally tough manner, although it's hilarious…

  • Support the Girls

    Support the Girls

    (available on Hulu)

    I am sure no one in here does this, but after seeing the story about how some people are "tip baiting" Instacart delivery people with high tips so they can move to the front of the line only to then change their tip to $0 or next to nothing, it got me thinking about the way we treat our other essential workers. The service economy is full of people who work just as hard, if not harder, than any other person in the world ... and they do so with much less pay and significantly less respect.

    All this is to say, if you're looking for a movie that was clued into the struggles of this class of worker well before a pandemic forced the spotlight on them, Andrew Bujalski's Support the Girls is about as good as they come. This low-key comedy about the travails of Regina Hall's Lisa, the general manager of a Hooters-style "breastaurant," is full of rich observations about the many varieties of work required of people in the food service industry. Lisa's job entails a great deal of triangulation and emotional labor to satisfy the management class above her, the young women…

  • Stop Making Sense

    Stop Making Sense

    (available on Amazon Prime)

    With some experts saying we might have to wait until fall 2021 for events like live music to resume, we're going to have to start finding more novel ways to fill that void in our lives. Might I suggest the wide world of concert films? A film can never replace the experience of live music, but a great film maker can approximate it in intriguing ways. Case in point: Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense, which captures the unique charms of David Byrne and the Talking Heads.

    I can't say I was a *huge* fan of the group before watching (I had one song of theirs in my Spotify "starred" playlist thanks to its appearance on the 20th Century Women soundtrack, unsurprisingly), but since this is widely considered among the best concert docs of all time, I was willing to give it a chance. Conventional wisdom here was wonderfully correct! I found myself both totally engaged by the music itself and drawn in by how Demme, who would later go on to win an Oscar for directing The Silence of the Lambs, visualized their peculiar energy and vibe.

    Stop Making Sense starts out almost like a deconstruction…

  • American Honey

    American Honey

    (available on Netflix)

    It took me until my third viewing of American Honey to notice something remarkable about its ending credits: no one is listed by rank or title. Every person who worked on the film is credited as an equal collaborator, a nice nod to how film truly requires cooperation and teamwork. It's also fitting for this particular film, a celebration of finding family, community and the spirit that binds.

    Let's face it, none of us (I presume) are seeing much of America right now. Perhaps some of us weren't seeing much of it to begin with, or only saw a small sample. American Honey is a cinematic passport to the country's heartland that refuses to flatten non-coastal regions to mere "flyover country." It's rooted in the authenticity of its non-professional casting of scrappy teens and young adults but also brilliantly filtered through the outsider's gaze of British writer/director Andrea Arnold. The film's unique alchemy of earthy naturalism and studied sociological interest makes it a truly special document.

    Our guide through these unfamiliar lands is Star (Sasha Lane, making an electrifying screen debut), a teenager in Muskogee, OK living in an unstable household. She's the kind of person we…

  • Moonstruck

    Moonstruck

    (available on Amazon Prime)

    A part of me wonders if this isn't just a little bit of homesickness peeping out. There's a moment in Moonstruck where all the characters marvel at the size and beauty of the moon in the New York sky, no matter where they are or what they're doing. It's beautiful, magical even. A reminder of what ties us all together and inspires our awe.

    It's also a bit cosmically minded. For a romantic comedy, John Patrick Shanley's Moonstruck roots itself in some pretty serious traditions like opera and divine fate. For Cher's Loretta Castorini, a widowed Italian-American bookkeeper, following custom is not negotiable in her life. She's convinced that her previous failure to do so led to her first husband's death. Familial duty and obligation looms large throughout the movie, so it's no surprise that Loretta is more than understanding when her fiancé Johnny makes a sudden trip after their engagement to tend to his ailing mother in Italy.

    Johnny does leave her with one important task, though: reach out to his estranged brother Ronny (pre-insanity Nicolas Cage) and invite him to the wedding. As any fan of the genre knows, introducing any new man prior…

  • An Education

    An Education

    (available for free on Crackle)

    Somewhere on earth two, the Carey Mulligan star vehicle Promising Young Woman has just opened, and my Friday plans are made. Alas, we are here, but that will not stop me from celebrating a true screen queen and continuing the long fight to get her the recognition she DESERVES! (See also, my manifesto from 2018: "It’s Time We Stop Taking Carey Mulligan For Granted.")

    I've been pretty much rapt since the first time she caught my attention in her Oscar-nominated breakout, 2009's An Education. The more I watch it now, the more I realize how specifically calibrated this was to resonate with my angsty high-school self who was eager for any narrative about a bookish teen who gets the chance to escape rigid norms and expectations. That specific thrill has faded a bit, yet the film and the performance still more than hold up.

    Mulligan's Jenny is sixteen going on seventeen in a sleepy London suburb. It's 1961, and Beatlemania has yet to take over the country. The postwar surge of optimism and solidarity has begun to fade into a sense of malaise around the emptiness of domesticity and consumerism. Jenny buys in fully to…

  • Drinking Buddies

    Drinking Buddies

    (available on Hulu)

    It doesn't take long into watching Joe Swanberg's Drinking Buddies to realize that Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) are meant for each other. They're co-workers at a Chicago craft brewery who share a natural, jocular rapport. It's to Wilde and Johnson's immense credit that we buy their friendship instantly; there's an instantly perceptible lived-in quality to the relationship.

    So imagine the surprise when, about 15 minutes into the film, we see their significant others arrive at a work function. The hijinks that ensue, largely stemming from a joint couples' outing at a secluded cabin, are the stuff of rom-com gold. But rather than feel corny or contrived, the largely improvisational Drinking Buddies feels authentic and true to life. We all know those two people, co-workers or not, who just feel so right for each other in spite of their current arrangements. Swanberg's loose, actor-driven style allows the talented Wilde and Johnson to see how far they can push their relationship without tipping over into romance.

    More than anything, the film is just an excellent hang. I felt compelled to revisit it for the first time in years this week and really enjoyed watching some familiar narrative elements explored largely through interesting, well-developed characters. It's amazing what results from letting things play out organically rather than contorting unrealistically to hit arbitrary plot points. (And also, it made me think fondly on sharing fun times over brews with co-workers without getting too sad. A win-win!)

  • Eighth Grade

    Eighth Grade

    (available on Amazon Prime)

    "I went into it, like, 'I know nothing about eighth grade right now, so let me do this like it’s World War II,'" writer/director Bo Burnham described his approach to making Eighth Grade to me. Yet while WWII was merely an extreme reference to how foreign and unknown he treated the subject of his film, I think there's a little more truth to the description than he might realize. His movie about contemporary adolescence captures this awkward transitory period with all the momentousness that his subjects would. When you're 14 years old, sometimes walking down a school hallway feels like going to war -- or, at the very least, it's one of the gravest undertakings you know.

    Burnham's chronicle of the particularly harrowing passage between the innocence of childhood and the glory of high school is refreshingly free of irony or condescension. He knows how hard this period feels for Kayla (Elsie Fisher), and he takes her struggles seriously. The stakes of the film have an appropriate scale for how she experiences them. Kayla and her cohort are never subject to lazy armchair sociology from Burnham, either; he took the time to understand how they live…

  • Her

    Her

    (available on Netflix)

    Movies set in the future generally tend to be warnings for the present. They project our worst habits, impulses and instincts onto an imagined landscape to make us reflect on our current state. Especially in the middle of a pandemic that's exacerbating many of our longstanding divides, it's hard to imagine feeling incredibly optimistic about what lies ahead.

    But that's the challenge that Spike Jonze's Her poses for us -- to picture a world where technology does not trigger a dystopian hellscape. (Notably, public transit goes to the beach in LA, what a concept!) Computers may not solve all our problems in the future, but they can open doors to unexpected avenues of happiness and contentment. The film's central conceit of awkward loner Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix, wonderfully subdued and soulful) falling in love with his operating system Samantha (a vulnerable vocal performance Scarlett Johansson) seems like it can't be headed anywhere good. After all, the legacy of the killer computer HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey looms large...

    But Her defies expectations by refusing to treat their relationship as anything aberrant or strange. By withholding judgment, Jonze allows us to consider love, romance and intimacy…

  • Diane

    Diane

    (available on Hulu)

    40 days of this, huh? What a milestone. Biblically speaking, there's something rather symbolic about this length of time. This specific duration symbolizes a period of testing, trial and probation ... which it feels like we both have and have not endured (speaking only for myself).

    There's no better movie for the kind of 40 day mood than Kent Jones' Diane, a film of quiet dignity and tremendous power. Many of you will notice the relative stillness of the images in today's newsletter. There were seriously zero GIFs for this movie available, which is a shame -- not that I expect the subject matter lends itself to GIF usage. But given that the film was on both mine and former Chicago resident Barack Obama's top 10 lists for 2019, you'd expect *someone* would have taken the time.

    Jones focuses his compact narrative on the eponymous Diane, played by faithful and instantly recognizable character actress Mary Kay Place. It's a conscious choice not to go with a flashier name for above-title billing, as this is a film about the kind of woman who normally only exists in the background of movies. Diane is a consummate carer, giving her…

  • Bernie

    Bernie

    (available on Amazon Prime and free on Crackle)

    I think it's safe to say that many of us miss seeing the colorful characters that make up what we like to think of as our communities. It's usually not the amenities, not the architecture, not the city itself that draws us to a given place - to some extent, it's the people. If you're starting to feel cooped up and crave the kind of flavor that a menagerie of unique individuals adds to your life, run, don't walk to Richard Linklater's Bernie.

    I'll admit to feeling a special affection for this one as a Texan. The film takes place in east Texas (Carthage, TX, to be specific) and is filled with the kind of salt of the earth, small-town folk that are very familiar to me. Linklater creates a bottom-up portrait of the community by casting a chorus of townspeople to provide a fact-based backbone in this narrative film. The color - and I do mean colorful - commentary they provide in talking head style interviews helps sell both the veracity of the story and the authenticity of the setting.

    The fact that you come away remembering the townspeople (look out…

  • Something Wild

    Something Wild

    (available on HBO GO)

    The great filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson has a great term for the movie Something Wild: a "gearshift movie." To use his words, Jonathan Demme's film belongs to a unique class of movie "that can change tones [snaps fingers] like that. I like to see that in movies because that’s what real life is like, and it’s also good storytelling."

    It's rare to see a movie that feels genuinely unpredictable, but that's what Something Wild is. It veers wildly between screwball comedy, road movie, revenge thriller and countless other moods and tones without ever feeling like a total hot mess. Demme's work is a live wire that crackles with vitality, opportunity and energy. We don't know where it will end up. But it's pure joy to watch the sparks fly between uptight yuppie Charles (Jeff Daniels) and free-spirited mystery girl Audrey (Melanie Griffith).

    Something Wild is a wonderful tribute to the ups and downs of unmooring yourself from the identity you think you possess and simply adapting to the twists and turns of life. There's something thrilling about leaning into the uncertainty that lies ahead with pure abandon because it's often in these moments that we learn…

  • I'll See You in My Dreams

    I'll See You in My Dreams

    (available on Netflix)

    It struck me as a little odd that I'll See You in My Dreams, a tender, poignant film about aging adults was made by Brett Haley, a fairly young guy. So when I had the chance to interview him back in 2015 (5 years that feels like a lifetime ago) for his film, I asked point blank why he was such an outlier. Do younger generations just not understand the lives of senior citizens ... or do they just not care?

    His answer? “It’s probably a bit of both.”

    But it doesn't have to stay that way. If you feel at all disconnected from the experiences of more advanced generations, I'll See You in My Dreams is a wonderfully empathetic window into lives unavoidably shaped - though not defined - by loss, regret and time passing. It would be dishonest to ignore the melancholy, longing and yearning that is so central to the life of the protagonist, Blythe Danner's Carol Petersen, a widow who gets a revitalized lease on life in her golden years.

    Carol stubbornly resists any changes to her life, including and especially moving into a retirement facility, opting to maintain her own independence and…

  • Miss Congeniality

    Miss Congeniality

    (available to rent)

    It appears I was screaming alone into the void on my live tweet of Miss Congeniality today -- don't worry, all the posts are collected here should you want to pursue and learn a little more about the film. Since I couldn't convince anyone else to join, I figured I'd use this space to further extol the virtues of this film that has grown in my estimation and love over the years! (You all have no one to blame but yourselves for this...)

    Wesley Morris, in one of the few positive reviews of the film at the time (Miss Congeniality holds a shockingly low 42% on Rotten Tomatoes), sums up a lot of why the story resonates with me: "[Bullock's] movies require a certain juvenile mind-set to enjoy: If I root for her, it's because at a given moment we're both 12-year-old girls trying to find a table in the cafeteria. For 'Miss Congeniality,' middle-school angst is transferred to the beauty pageant stage." I first saw the film in cable re-runs when I was, go figure, in middle school. If you didn't know me then and need something to fuel your imagination, imagine a male version of…

  • Bad Education

    Bad Education

    (available on HBO GO)

    I had initially thought I wouldn't recommend Bad Education, a new movie that premiered on HBO last night. The lingering impression left from catching the film's world premiere at last year's Toronto Film Festival was that Cory Finley's tale of a true-life public school embezzlement scandal felt a bit grim and fatalistic. But after being drawn back in for a rewatch last night, I don't think those darker emotions define the film at all.

    While there's a core of sadness and despair in Bad Education, chiefly for deeply insecure and highly performative Long Island superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman giving a masterclass in how to convey subtle facial emotion), it never envelops the film. Bad Education is a dramatically potent treatise on civic engagement at the grassroots level of public services. The film spotlights how white collar crime thrives on misguided trust from people willing to look away from obvious wrongdoing so long as it benefits their bottom line. It's a reminder that we should all stay vigilant to ensure that the people we have in charge to represent our best interests are not merely serving their own. This message feels even more potent now in…

  • Annie Hall

    Annie Hall

    (available on Amazon Prime)

    I'm going to address straight away what some of you might be thinking: "Really, recommending a Woody Allen movie in 2020?" I get it. I hear you. If you don't think he deserves your attention, I will not argue with you one bit.

    My counter is that film is a truly collaborative art form, and wiping his films from the canon also erases the invaluable contributions of so many other artists who helped make his work possible. I'd argue that Annie Hall, his magnum opus and still one of my all-time favorites, belongs just as much to leading lady Diane Keaton. As the mercurial, flighty and altogether irresistible titular character, she's a vision of love in all its insanity and irrationality. (And honestly? A close second for top contributor might go to Gordon Willis' cinematography, which casts New York in such a romantic light that I think this movie sealed the deal that I would one day move there.)

    The film expires from Amazon Prime on April 30, so if you want your chance to view an all-time classic in the romantic comedy genre, now's your chance. (I've rewatched the film since #MeToo, and I think…

  • Steve Jobs

    Steve Jobs

    (available on Netflix)

    I had a bit of a hot take on The Social Network earlier this month - for those who might not have subscribed at the time (or just didn't read), I maintain that the film is actually more hopeful than it lets on. Though Zuckerberg ends the film on a down and desperate note, the filmmakers seem to encourage us to acknowledge the irony and go our separate way. "Live in fragments no more," to quote the film's awards campaign slogan by way of E.M. Forster, "Only connect..."

    That film was the first in what I consider to be an unofficial trilogy for screenwriter Aaron Sorkin as he probes the nature and limitations of (white male) genius. For those wondering, the other two films to follow The Social Network are 2011's Moneyball about how Brad Pitt's Billy Beane used statistics and reason to revolutionize sports and 2015's Steve Jobs, who needs no introduction. The latter film has a bit of a complex legacy; many felt it was superfluous following the truly wretched 2013 Jobs biopic with Ashton Kutcher, and the film tanked at the box office despite generally good reviews. (It's had a somewhat chilling effect on…

  • Win It All

    Win It All

    (available on Netflix)

    Gambling movies (at least the ones I've seen, and I haven't seen Rounders) tend to sport a more cynical and world-weary disposition. The laconic protagonists are often of the antihero variety, happy to live on the edges and by the seat of their pants for another change to win big. Their only use for human emotion is an understanding of it that helps them exploit weakness at the table. So it came as a welcome surprise to me when Win It All managed to be in that world but not of it entirely.

    This is a film that sat in my Netflix queue for at least three years, largely a tack-on effect of it skipping theatrical release altogether and heading straight for the streaming platform. A lot of these movies tend to be rather lackluster, but here's a welcome exception. Win It All comes from the mind of Joe Swanberg, whose film Drinking Buddies was a recommendation here a few weeks back, and it maintains the easygoing feeling of that comedy in the body of a more drama-thriller story.

    Perhaps it helps that Win It All treats gambling less like a sport and more like an addiction,…

  • Defending Your Life

    Defending Your Life

    (available on HBO GO)

    Albert Brooks ran in Defending Your Life so The Good Place could fly. If you like great content about the afterlife served with self-deprecating humor and introspection, this is a movie for you. Not unlike the aforementioned TV show, I'd recommend putting your phone down and paying more attention than normal to the film, as Brooks hides many a sight gag in the background or on the periphery for engaged viewers.

    If you only know Albert Brooks as the voice of Marlin in Finding Nemo, you're in for a real treat to discover his urbane, clever humor here. Defending Your Life begins like many a purgatory/afterlife narrative: the hero dies and ends up in an in-between state where he's forced to account for his life on earth before determining where he goes next. Brooks stars as Daniel Miller, a man who runs into a bus on his 39th birthday and winds up in Judgment City to await "trial." In this afterlife, future plans get determined in a courtroom-style legal proceeding where the newly deceased must ... well, defend their life and prove they showed a sufficient amount of courage in it. If a person cannot successfully…

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

    The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

    (available on Netflix)

    How long have I been sending this newsletter? 50 days? 5 months? A year? What is time, even?

    Which leads me directly into my latest recommendation, new addition to Netflix The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Intimidated by the nearly 3-hour runtime? With all due respect, where else do you have to go? What else do you have to do? There's never been a better time to settle into a long movie and let it wash over you.

    I've been singing the praises of Benjamin Button for years, largely as it has faded into an expensive footnote in film history. While the titular character often gets tossed around as a verb when any movie de-ages an actor, the film itself often faces derision as Oscar bait, the "one for them" movie that director David Fincher had to make to get his personal passion project Zodiac financed, or a bad knock-off of Forrest Gump. I understand the urge to reduce the film into such familiar terms, but I'll quote John Oliver here ... watch it again, watch it again.

    The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has always been a sentimental favorite of mine. I've never seen a film…

  • The Rainmaker

    The Rainmaker

    (available on Netflix)

    As a hopeless Type A, I'm always drawn to courtroom dramas for their consistency and dependability. They thrive on order, decorum and custom in a comforting way -- a kind of traditionalism that isn't hopelessly retrograde but reminds you of the founding ideals of American justice. And while I love a good ambiguous ending as much as anyone, sometimes it's nice to have the clear-cut result of a jury verdict.

    All this is to say, if any of the above sounds at all appealing, then you'll likely find The Rainmaker a very enjoyable film to watch. The pedigree of the filmmaking is shockingly impressive; I, for one, was not expecting to see that the film was adapted and directed by the legendary Francis Ford Coppola. And it's nice to see a babyfaced, idealistic Matt Damon light up the screen (and reminisce about a time before every press tour didn't make him so low-key problematic) as Rudy Baylor, a scrappy new law school graduate who stumbles into taking on an insurance giant in a wrongful death lawsuit.

    Not to spoil things, but if I'm recommending it as not a total downer, you can probably guess how this David…

  • What a Girl Wants

    What a Girl Wants

    (available on Netflix)

    As has been made clear in some previous recommendations, I am NOT above pure comfort food. So tonight's selection mostly just functions as a PSA that What a Girl Wants, that early-aughts teen classic, has just been added to Netflix. I rewatched it this weekend, and let me tell you, it is still a rollicking good time.

    No one really needs a plot summary here; either you've seen the movie and it's irrelevant, or you haven't and this plate of nostalgia likely holds no interest for you anyways. It's been at least five years since I sat down and really watched the film from start to finish, though What a Girl Wants is the kind of thing I would always gladly stop and watching a few minutes from when passing it on cable. I'll own up to the rosy lens of childhood affection coloring my view of the story's silliness and occasional contrived plot beat, sure. (Although, in fairness, spending a semester abroad in London and having a better sense of how class and governance functions in the United Kingdom definitely opens up some pockets of the film I hadn't seen before!)

    But there's just such a…

  • School of Rock

    School of Rock

    (available on HBO GO)

    There was a time before the "manchild" archetype took over popular culture, and it didn't grate on your nerves when once again a grown-ass man can barely function in the adult world. School of Rock rode this initial wave of prolonged adolescence to hit status in 2003, and nearly two decades later (*gulp*), it still more than holds up on its own merits. Like many an early-'00s comedy, it's something I know a good chunk of lines from thanks to many a television airing but rarely watch in full. Thanks to HBO GO, which recently added the movie, I finally got the chance to bask in the full glory of the film once more and had a rockin' good time.

    School of Rock gets a ton of mileage out of the high-energy performance by Jack Black (who, might I add, is still an absolute lightning bolt in quarantine) as washed-up wannabe metal lord Dewey Finn. On the rocks with his roommate Ned (Mike White) and exiled from his former band, Dewey is so desperate for cash that he's willing to impersonate Ned on a substitute teaching gig at an elite private school. Being the inveterate and…

  • My Man Godfrey

    My Man Godfrey

    (available on Amazon Prime)

    There's something so comforting and relaxing about watching a comedy from the early sound era of Hollywood. If you go back even 30 years from now, you can clearly see how overstuffed the current comedies are with joke lines, but if you go all the way back to the 1930s, you get extraordinary patience with remarkable payoff. A film like My Man Godfrey makes for a remarkable watch right now because it asks for your full attention ... and then rewards you for it.

    The film serves as an excellent reminder that comedy did not go away the last time America faced an economy this bad -- although at least they were able to congregate in theaters then -- and it certainly won't disappear now. My Man Godfrey contains one of the most pointedly socially aware storylines I've seen from this period in American filmmaking as the ditzy Irene Bullock (an absolute firecracker Carole Lombard, who perished in a plane crash far too soon) plucks the titular character (William Powell, Lombard's actual ex-husband) from an East River shantytown so she can bring a "forgotten man" to her scavenger hunt. Guess it's equal parts comforting and discouraging…

  • Becoming

    Becoming

    (available on Netflix)

    I'm not going to pretend that Becoming, the new Netflix documentary about Michelle Obama's book tour, is a particularly exemplary example of documentary filmmaking. (It's funded by the Obamas' Higher Ground Productions, and how do you think the final product is going to look with access like this?!) I don't know that it necessarily adds anything to your understanding of the former First Lady that you wouldn't get from reading the book. If anything, it's like one of those special features they'd stuff on DVDs back in the glory days of physical media.

    But, on the plus side ... it's an hour and a half with Michelle Obama soaking in her grace, poise and wisdom. And for those of us who couldn't snag a ticket to her stadium tour when the book came out, the Becoming documentary allows us to get a glimpse at what the massive book tour events were like. The unfiltered moments of her doing sound checks or getting ready for the speaking engagements are joyful, even if they do little to reveal more than what her memoir already did. But nothing tops the moments of watching Michelle meet the Americans who lined up…

  • Driveways

    Driveways

    (available to rent via Amazon, iTunes and other digital providers)

    I try not to recommend too many titles that you'd have to drop additional money to watch, so when I do, I hope you recognize I really believe these movies are that good. Driveways is one such film. It won my heart at last year's Tribeca Film Festival, where I sang its praises. (And, because I am feeling a little lazy today, the following is largely adapted from what I wrote at the time.)

    Teamwork and cooperation amidst adversity are at the heart of the masterwork that is Andrew Ahn’s Driveways, just the second film from a director who already shows signs of being America’s closest approximation to Hirokazu Kore-eda (the Japanese director of Shoplifters). Ahn establishes the film’s tender, understated compassion within minutes (wordlessly, too) and maintains his hold on the heartstrings until the end. He lets go after only 83 minutes — a complete experience, to be clear, but one that could easily have sustained a longer runtime without breaking the film’s gentle spell.

    Driveways chronicles the summer of 8-year-old Cody (Lucas Jaye) as he accompanies his single mother Kathy (Hong Chau) to upstate New York in order…

  • Some Like It Hot

    Some Like It Hot

    (available on Amazon Prime)

    Of any genre, comedy probably tends to age the poorest given how anchored it is to the time in which it was released. But my gosh, over 60 years later, and Some Like It Hot still absolutely undoes me. There's a reason this ranked as the American Film Institute's #1 comedy of all time -- it's a laugh riot from start to finish.

    I loved the film when I first saw it many years ago, but a rewatch this week just confirmed how brilliant and funny Some Like It Hot really is. From idea to execution, this tale of two down-and-out musicians (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) in Prohibition-era Chicago delights through and through. After narrowly escaping a shootout by mobsters, the pair hops a train out of town by joining another band ... an all-female one. Things start to get really interesting when both men are taken by Marilyn Monroe's blonde bombshell Sugar Kane ... and one of them attracts an oblivious sugar daddy admirer.

    Despite the cross-dressing element of the story, it's remarkable how Some Like It Hot never takes the lazy route of transphobic or gay panic jokes. (Admittedly, some of this is…

  • Little Shop of Horrors

    Little Shop of Horrors

    (available on HBO GO)

    Apologies as I wax briefly ontological to start here, but this intro ties back to one of my main areas of study in college (and the topic of my senior thesis), so I'm going to get a little annoying. Anyways ... the relationship between stage and screen is a close and often symbiotic one, with each narrative storytelling medium providing something that the other can borrow from, improve upon and more. Two things that film can offer to live theater is the ability to democratize and disseminate a performance AND the ability for a performance to exist indefinitely rather than only in a single moment. These are, obviously, crucial functions in a pandemic where live theater cannot exist.

    So while we wait for a day when theater can resume, we might as well enjoy some of the great documentations and adaptations of great works. It was fun to catch up with the 1986 film version of Little Shop of Horrors after seeing the stage show off-Broadway just days before New York shuttered all performances. (For anyone who knows theater, I was sitting a few rows behind Jonathan Groff, it's fine.) Whether this will be your first…

  • Lady Bird

    Lady Bird

    (available on Amazon Prime)

    I think of Lady Bird primarily as a movie about what it means to call a place home and how you often don't appreciate these spaces until you make the decision to leave them. (More on that in my personal essay on how the film inspired me to move to New York, if you're curious.) But that's more of an underlying theme of Greta Gerwig's extraordinary debut film. The story itself is more about the simple, strained relationship between mother and child - specifically, a headstrong teenage daughter - in all its beauty and pain.

    Among the myriad admirable qualities of Lady Bird is the way it draws Marion McPherson, mother to the *titular* (had to) protagonist, as a character in her own right rather than merely someone for Saoirse Ronan's Lady Bird to react to. She exists as more than an extension of her child, which is something you cannot say for a shocking number of teen movies. Marion has her own wants and desires, strengths and flaws, passions and resentments. You could watch Lady Bird through her eyes as the main character and go through a complete, satisfying narrative journey.

    This all comes through…

  • The Full Monty

    The Full Monty

    (available on Hulu)

    Before Magic Mike, there was ... The Full Monty. OK, I'm struggling with how to introduce this one and finding a single similarity between the fact that both are about male strippers was the lowest hanging fruit. Beyond that, the commonalities largely end, although they're both rousing fun times.

    You probably would never smuggle a bottle of champagne into The Full Monty, though (as I heard countless stories of during rowdy Magic Mike screenings). Peter Cattaneo's film, a Best Picture nominee from the year Titanic cleaned house at the Oscars, circles some very tough issues of financial stability, body positivity, masculinity and more. The story starts from a situation that's become far too familiar in the post-industrial world: a factory town hollowed out after the largest employer departs, leaving a cohort of jobless citizens unclear how to provide for their families. In the post-Thatcher shell of working-class Sheffield, a group of six unemployed men in need of some dough team up to form a striptease act. The only problem? They can't dance particularly well, and many of them struggle with the fact that they don't look much like Chippendale's dancers.

    A version of The Full Monty made…

  • The Immigrant

    The Immigrant

    (available for free on TUBI - no subscription/profile required)

    The Immigrant is more than just my favorite movie that I saw in my two trips to Cannes — I think it’s the best movie of the last decade altogether. Part of that likely stems from the idyllic circumstances under which I first saw it at the festival, an early-morning screening before any of the official reviews hit. When the credits rolled, I felt I had just seen a masterpiece, and because this was 2013 and I didn’t have a cell data plan, I had no idea what anyone else thought until I connected to WiFi later in the day. The movie was just my little secret, this consummate moviegoing experience defined solely on my own terms. Now, it’s morphed into my critical cause célèbre.

    Despite what you might infer from the title, The Immigrant is not some kind of political polemic on a hot-button issue. Though set in the 1920s, it feels almost removed from time altogether, as if it could happen any period in American history but also needed to occur where it does. The way co-writer/director James Gray tunes into timeless frequencies of human struggle and spiritual anguish…

  • BPM (Beats per Minute)

    BPM (Beats per Minute)

    (available on Hulu)

    Movies have long misrepresented the tough, arduous work of social change, be it by collapsing or simplifying the time span of activism or condensing a movement into a single individual. That’s not the case in Robin Campillo’s BPM, which took home the Grand Prix (the festival’s closest approximation to a runner-up) at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. This film about the ACT UP organizers in early ‘90s France, when AIDS was still ravaging the country’s queer community, devotes much of its runtime to the less glamorous bits of activism that most movies would leave out.

    ACT UP staged a number of high-profile protests against government officials and pharmaceutical companies that they perceived as too slow to react to the urgency of the moment, most notably by splattering them with fake blood in public. In BPM, Campillo intercuts the planning of these demonstrations with the events themselves because, for him, the how and why matters as much as the what. The film’s most familiar setting is a drab university-style amphitheater where ACT UP members convene and debate their tactics and overarching strategy. What might play as rote, boring exposition in other projects becomes genuinely thrilling in Campillo’s hands.…

  • Aquarius

    Aquarius

    (available on Netflix)

    I think I might have expected a little more from Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius when I saw it in theaters back in 2016, largely stemming from the firestorm set off by the cast and crew protesting the Brazilian political situation from the steps of Cannes’ Palais des Festivals. (If you’re curious about these events, I’d advise you to check out this year’s Oscar-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy on Netflix.) The film got caught in the crosshairs of Brazil’s government resulting in a harsher than expected rating and a snub for selection as the country’s Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film. The spirit of protest and unrest gripping the country seemed to coalesce nicely around Aquarius, giving it attention and publicity as a cultural object larger than the film itself.

    If you’re expecting a movie with a story that matches the scale of the controversy surrounding it, you might be setting yourself up for some disappointment. Aquarius is modest in scope yet major in impact. It’s a character study of a high order, though that character — Sonia Braga’s retired music critic Clara — does butt heads with people and institutions that can stand in for…

  • Lamb

    Lamb

    (available on Amazon Prime)

    The cinema has always been a passport to different places and lives — a function that is as important now as ever. (At least, I presume no one is traveling internationally right now…) Movies allow us not only to see the world but to experience it through the eyes of other people whose circumstances are distantly removed from our own. Festivals like Cannes help break us out of myopic, Anglo-centric silos of viewing thanks to the work of programmers who scour the globe for groundbreaking, innovative and fresh voices.

    Festivals are not always perfect at capturing a representative sample of world cinema; Yared Zaleke’s Lamb was the *only* film from the African continent in the entire 2015 Cannes Film Festival when it premiered. But were it not for their curatorial efforts, I doubt I would have ever discovered this gem of a film — the first (at least to my knowledge) I’ve ever seen from the country of Ethiopia. As Zaleke explained in a Q&A for the film, his native land does not have a lengthy history of cinema culture, and making his debut feature there makes this film’s existence even more improbable and miraculous. He…

  • The Straight Story

    The Straight Story

    (available on Disney+ and to rent from various digital providers)

    You might be surprised to learn that David Lynch, director of such surreal works as Blue Velvet, Mulholland Dr. and Twin Peaks, does not consider any of those to be his most experimental work. That honor, per a 2001 interview, belongs to The Straight Story, a G-rated movie he made for Disney. He claims he’s serious — who can really tell?!

    No, you won’t need any kind of explainer journalism to understand or break down The Straight Story, a Cannes competition title from 1999. It’s a film of plaintive simplicity as it follows the journey of Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) on a dinky tractor across the midwest to visit his estranged, ailing brother Lyle. The beautiful camerawork that captures the tortoise-paced trip is both sweeping in its graceful pastoral landscapes and intimate in its close-ups of Alvin’s wrinkled, well-worn visage.

    Not unlike his more radical and inscrutable films, Lynch finds no appearance is quite what it seems; there’s always something lurking underneath. But here, that hidden nature is not something sinister or insidious. Alvin’s initial demeanor of crustiness belies an overwhelming sincerity and wisdom hiding in plain sight — people…

  • Paterson

    Paterson

    (available on Amazon Prime)

    If ever there were a perfect movie to watch on a low-key Sunday, it would be Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson. I can think of few works that possess such a pervasive ambiance of tranquility and a steady pulse of goodness. It’s a cinema that is free of open conflict but is certainly not lacking for tension as Adam Driver’s Paterson, a bus driver and poet who bears the name of the New Jersey town where he lives, attempts to find a balance between the sacred and profane in daily life.

    Paterson is not your run-of-the-mill struggling/aspiring artist movie, chiefly because Jarmusch does not set up an either/or dynamic between Paterson’s vocation and avocation. He’s not a bus driver who wants to be a poet. He is both, and the movie never contemplates this being a contradiction. Paterson finds stability in his routine, which the movie follows over the course of an average (though still eventful) week. It’s this very familiarity that allows him to make space in his life for artistic expression and fulfillment through his poetry.

    What some might call becoming a careerist sellout actually allows Paterson to find the satisfaction so many artists seek —…

  • Inside Llewyn Davis

    Inside Llewyn Davis

    (available on Amazon Prime)

    I very intentionally positioned Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis as the recommendation to immediately follow Paterson — they make a killer double bill, as I learned last week, of aspiring artists in the Tri-State area (with casting directors that had the good sense to have Adam Driver’s agent on speed dial). The kind of down-and-out musician portrayed by Oscar Isaac in his star-making turn as folk singer Llewyn Davis is far more familiar. He’s a talented performer who always seems on the cusp of a major breakthrough but finds himself thwarted at seemingly every turn.

    Much of the discussion about Inside Llewyn Davis when I saw it at Cannes in 2013 (and upon release later that year) centered around a question that’s often raised around the Coen Brothers’ work: are they being mean to their characters? Given the conveyer belt of misfortune that Llewyn seems to be on both personally and professionally, it’s a fair question to raise. Whatever cosmic force governs the universe in the Coens’ films often seems to have it out for the protagonists. Their frequent positioning of the audience at an ironic distance often places us in a position where…

  • The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

    The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

    (available on HBO GO)

    Cinema can take us to far away places and fantasy worlds, but sometimes the medium is at its best when confining us to the human mind. That’s certainly what makes The Diving Bell and the Butterfly such a riveting, unique depiction of a true story. This is not your average story about how the human spirit triumphs over physical adversity and illness. The film is not about how Mathieu Amalric’s Jean-Dominique Bauby is defined by his stroke but rather how he overcomes it in spectacular fashion. (To clear up any possible confusion, this is an inspiring movie — not a depressing one.)

    Miraculously, Bauby manages to survive almost-total paralysis following the medical incident and maintains remarkable mental acuity. He’s diagnosed with “locked-in syndrome,” a condition where the only movement a person can make is with their eyelids. Bauby, a former editor of Elle in Paris, quickly catches onto learning how he can communicate by blinking. At first it’s simple “yes” or “no” responses, but he progresses rapidly to spelling out words as nurses and other visitors read out a chart of letters organized by their frequency of use.

    For over 30 minutes at the beginning of…

  • Humpday

    Humpday

    (available to stream for free on TUBI)

    Turns out, I am able to work a Lynn Shelton tribute into the Cannes mini-series … her 2009 breakthrough feature, Humpday, played in the festival’s Directors' Fortnight sidebar! (It just had its world premiere at Sundance earlier that year and proves the rare movie Cannes will program that has previously played elsewhere; you know it’s got to be something great to earn this distinction.)

    Humpday is where the magic of her technique of just letting actors be natural on screen and inhabit their characters so effortlessly really began to click. Shelton said as much to me in my interview last year. Not to continue the excessive self-promotion of this piece, but I’d encourage anyone who’s at all interested to read her talk about how Humpday was the film where she really honed her process. I make it a point to ask female directors technical questions about filmmaking because they so often don’t get a chance to talk about it in the press — they’re too busy being asked about diversity, representation and feminism, topics that male directors usually don’t have to spend so much time speaking about! She really delivered on my question,…

  • Wonderstruck

    Wonderstruck

    (available on Amazon Prime)

    While there are many things to lament about the current state of filmmaking, one type of movie that has disappeared and rarely gets mourned is the family movie. Not a kid’s movie, mind you — there are plenty of animated talking animal movies to go ‘round. But there seems to be a sense that the only type of movies that can unite kids and parents as an audience are big-budget Marvel/superhero spectacles. Gone are the old-school adventures that can speak to both audiences on parallel tracks, reminding the adults what it was like to have the wonder of a child while also demonstrating the marvels of the world to awestruck youngsters.

    Wonderstruck feels like a small miracle simply for getting made at all in 2017, It’s the kind of wholesome movie we don’t get much of anymore. The film’s charms do not solely derive from its unique market position, however. Director Todd Haynes has mind the kind of movie I wish existed when I was growing up, a film that expertly wields all the tools of cinema to tell a moving story while also drawing us into contemplate how those techniques are producing such emotional effects.…

  • Volver

    Volver

    (available on Hulu)

    Occasionally, a Cannes jury gets creative with how it chooses to award prizes. In 2006, Wong Kar-wai’s jury decided to give the Best Actress award to the female ensemble of Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver — a six-way split that has only been matched once before in the category. It feels like a fitting way to pay tribute to a film that’s so besotted with women and their cleverness, connectedness, cattiness and compassion.

    Fans of the renowned Spanish director Almodóvar will surely not be surprised by any of this given the centrality of female characters throughout his body of work. But I think Volver stands out among his movies for taking a more standard melodramatic narrative and filtering it through a much more humanistic, sentimental point of view. The film doesn’t feel quite as self-conscious or self-reflexive as Almodóvar’s other movies; it’s quite sincere in aligning us with the struggles of the female characters.

    If you’ve never seen any of Almodóvar’s movies before, I think Volver serves as a great introduction. You can see some of his tendencies and fascinations in the film’s shadings, but it does not rely quite as heavily on references to other works as All…

  • The Tree of Life

    The Tree of Life

    (available on HBO GO)

    After awarding prizes, it’s customary for the jury to face the press and explain their choices. In 2011, jury president Robert DeNiro explained why his gang of nine chose Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life for the Palme d’Or in his typically plain-spoken fashion: “the size, the importance, the intention, whatever you want to call it, that seemed to fit the prize.” There’s something kind of perfect about his terse description of the film, which channels the ineffable so exquisitely that it becomes an almost indescribable experience. (Though if you want to read someone who really could channel his appreciation into words, Roger Ebert’s reflections on The Tree of Life from Cannes are among the best he ever wrote.)

    I can’t say I loved The Tree of Life the first time I saw it. While I admired the ambition of a film that attempted to portray no less than the grandiosity of life developing on earth and the mundane yet majestic story of a single Texas family within the span of the same film, it felt a little unpolished. I still feel that way to some extent nearly a decade and countless rewatches later. But I’ve…

  • The End of the Tour

    The End of the Tour

    (available on Netflix)

    The end of the tour — a press tour, that is — represents less of a destination and more of a state of mind. I know because as I was just getting started out interviewing filmmakers, this is usually when I got to talk to them. Their last set of interviews come as the praise start to subside and the artists come to a tough realization: their work no longer belongs to them but to the people. It now lives in the heads of an audience who can take it any way they want, not the mind of the artist who originated it.

    It’s this melancholy moment that provides the dramatic stakes and setting for James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour, a movie about the memorable few days that journalist and aspiring fiction writer David Lipsky (a perfectly-cast nebbish Jesse Eisenberg) spent profiling the novelist and cultural sensation David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel, playing his vulnerability for pathos rather than pratfalls) in the wake of Infinite Jest’s meteoric impact. It’s framed through the lens of retrospection as Lipsky thinks about the impact of Wallace following the author’s suicide at just 46, and, admittedly, I try not…

  • Military Wives

    Military Wives

    (available on Hulu)

    A bit of a thematic pick for Memorial Day, sure (never mind that it’s about the British military)! Military Wives was among the many films scheduled for release in theaters this spring that had the dreams of that form of exhibition dashed by the pandemic. The distributor, Bleecker Street, has now made the film available to stream to subscribers of Hulu rather than going a premium VOD route like some other titles.

    I’m not going to pretend like this story doesn’t unfold exactly like you might think an inspirational drama about a makeshift choir of military wives would. It’s got the kind of conventional storytelling and filmmaking dynamics that I often find myself railing about in less-than-charitable reviews. And yet, in the case of Military Wives, I found myself mostly unbothered by the familiarity of it all. In fact, I found it all rather comforting. By the time the group’s big final performance (not really a spoiler because, come on, you knew one was coming) rolls around, I was genuinely and emotionally moved.

    Military Wives is certainly lucky to have the directorial hand of Peter Cattaneo, who’s most notable for helming previous recommendation The Full Monty. Like…

  • Magnolia

    Magnolia

    (available on Netflix)

    Well, Magnolia was originally going to be my recommendation for Father’s Day, but Netflix’s licensing agreements had other plans for me. If you’re anything like me and tend to put off three-hour movies sheerly because of their imposing length, then perhaps Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia is one of those titles you’ve been meaning to watch for years. If you’ve never seen it, carve out some space in these next five days so you can join the rest of us in rewatching Magnolia.

    PTA’s third film, released right before the turn of the century, is a marvel of unbridled youthful artistry (and is almost certainly fueled by his rampant cocaine use at the time). Anderson was the toast of Hollywood by his late twenties thanks to his 1997 porn industry odyssey Boogie Nights and, as a result, received the kind of carte blanche to make whatever he wanted that no longer exists for filmmakers not named Christopher Nolan. The result? Magnolia, a messy, sprawling and deeply personal epic that explores the ripple effects caused by the sins of the father.

    Magnolia is undeniably high on its own supply, and I think that Anderson’s ambitions ever so slightly exceed…

  • Good Will Hunting

    Good Will Hunting

    (available on Hulu)

    Nothing like an impending platform expiration date to force you into a rewatch of a movie you’d been putting off for years! It had probably been at least a decade since I first saw Good Will Hunting, and I’m as guilty as anyone for underestimating its power. The project that made Oscar-winners out of twentysomething screenwriters Ben Affleck and Matt Damon (their praise for Harvey Weinstein notwithstanding, I still love watching their acceptance speech) serves more as a punchline than a movie movie these days. It’s often flattened in the cultural memory as little more than the Seth Meyers’ parody trailer “Boston Accent: The Movie.” But the film stands as more than the cultural footprint it left behind.

    Good Will Hunting is a deeply emotionally wrought drama about men confronting their trauma and vulnerability (a sight that’s still far too rare in the movies). It’s easy for the memory to fade given all the toughness and bravado of Damon and Affleck’s later action roles, but they are both sincere and raw in their sentimentality in their showcase film. Only Damon cries, but you can feel both of their hearts poured into the fabric of the movie. It…

  • Wadjda

    Wadjda

    (available on Netflix)

    As firm of a believer as I am in the transformative power of cinema, I do not believe any film contains some kind of magical power that can rid the world of hatred and bigotry. What they can do, however, is gently nudge the needle of individual opinion in the way empathy and humanity. The act of experiencing a narrative arc through the perspective of someone different can open new insights into a world different from our own.

    I think this is especially important now when the qualities of compassion and cultural awareness feel scarce, if not entirely imperiled. As the United States has flirted with cutting off connections to the Muslim world altogether in the past few years, we should know what that world looks like from something other than the limited imaginations of the mass media gatekeepers. These countries contain people like us, living their lives under entirely different circumstances but grappling with a sense of self and their place within society.

    Haifaa Al Mansour’s Wadjda gives us a glance into a space likely encountered by very few American viewers: a young Saudi Arabian girl. If a film’s background can attest to authenticity, then this…

  • Michael Clayton

    Michael Clayton

    (available on HBO GO and HBO Max)

    I’ve long fetishized Tony Gilroy’s taut legal drama Michael Clayton for its machine-like precision. There’s not a shot out of place or an edit that doesn’t advance the narrative. It’s a lean, mean filmmaking machine that understands the power of economical storytelling and a neatly-arrayed frame like few contemporary works.

    But that orderliness belies what exists just beneath the surface of the film: a moral morass with no easy escape that entraps three lawyers whose ethical compasses have been thoroughly warped from spending too long mired in litigation. It’s a film that uses aesthetic rigor to convey the messiness that ensues from having a crisis of conscience in a corporate setting. Like the situations it portrays, Michael Clayton offers no easy answers and no opportunities for heroism — simply by participating in a legal system that prioritizes profits over people stains them.

    The more I watch the film, the more I appreciate the way that each of the three main characters skirt the line between villain and antihero, trading roles in our minds even within the same scene. The drama kicks off when Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson, a gale-force wind from his opening…

  • 12 Angry Men

    12 Angry Men

    (available on Amazon Prime)

    If you’re looking for a story about the American legal system more of the inspiring variety, you really can’t go wrong with Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men. I’ll admit, as I rewatched the 1957 film for the first time since high school last night, it felt almost like a fantasy. One juror slowly convincing eleven fellow men to join him in presuming the innocence of a poor young Hispanic boy in the absence of proven guilt through calm, empirical reasoning? It feels like an impossibility in our polarized era where people talk past each other, not to each other; when people use language to bludgeon a perceived opponent into submission, not persuade a differently-minded person to share their point of view.

    And yet, the idealism of 12 Angry Men feels aspirational and inspirational … even if it seems inaccessible in our heated moment. Over the course of a sweltering day cooped up inside a deliberation room, Henry Fonda’s Juror 8 slowly attracts more jurors to favor acquittal without denigrating or shouting down those who disagree with his appraisal of the case. He does not have to hurl accusations of prejudice at the jurors most convinced of…

  • The Kid

    The Kid

    (available on Amazon Prime in fairly suboptimal visual quality, you’d be better off watching via HBO Max or The Criterion Channel if you have access)

    I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to recommend a silent film (in fairness, the relentless present-mindedness of most streaming services mean that few are readily available on subscription services). But given that there are multiple ways to watch the nearly century-old The Kid, I felt the time was right to recommend Charlie Chaplin’s first full-length feature. I think we could all use a film that is, as the first inter-title describes, "A comedy with a smile — and perhaps a tear."

    The Kid puts Chaplin’s iconic Little Tramp character, previously established through a series of short films as a slapstick dynamo, in a deeply emotional situation. The Tramp encounters a young child abandoned by his mother and, with no one else willing to assume care of the kid, decides to take him home to raise as his own. Cut to five years later and the makeshift family has become a real rag-tag duo with the kid breaking windows so the Tramp can sweep into fix them at a price. There are gags galore…

  • Tangerine

    Tangerine

    (available on Hulu)

    Amidst everything, June 1st is still here to kick off Pride Month. Though the whitewashing of gay history is improving, it bears repeating — especially in the wake of recent events — that the faces of this movement for equality do not always reflect the people fighting on the frontlines. The Stonewall riots, widely considered the kickoff for the modern gay rights movement, were largely led by black trans women. (Many fights for justice are interlocking, and I struggle to think of any that are not intersectional.) Despite their outsized contribution to the movement, this group that enjoys disproportionately little media representation. A byproduct of this invisibility can often be a denial of their humanity.

    So if you’re looking for a good place to learn, start by simply walking in the shoes of one in Sean Baker’s Tangerine. While Baker, a white man (and director of The Florida Project), is not from the community, he’s put in the work of listening and researching to be able to convey their story. Baker’s attention to detail and the rhythms of life in a community gives the film a whiff of ethnography; indeed, he claims very little in Tangerine was…

  • Just Mercy

    Just Mercy

    (available to rent for FREE in June through most digital providers)

    Buried in all the news today was Warner Bros. deciding that, in the name of education around the topic of systemic racism, they would make the recent release Just Mercy available to stream for free all June. I’m not under any assumption that this movie can heal the country or solve racism, to be clear. But if it’s a billboard that points you to the extraordinary work of the Equal Justice Initiative or puts a face to a statistic, then the film can serve a great purpose.

    To my discredit and shame, I cannot say I was familiar with Bryan Stevenson prior to seeing Just Mercy at TIFF last year. The film serves as a great primer to his life and work as Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan) shocks his Harvard law classmates by moving to provide legal representation to those who cannot afford it in Alabama rather than taking a flashier gig in a more traditional post-grad environment. The narrative largely centers around Stevenson’s first major case, the wrongful murder conviction of Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx), though it does branch off and cover a few other death…

  • BlacKkKlansman

    BlacKkKlansman

    (available on HBO GO and HBO Max)

    Trivia time! Do you know what the first movie shown at the White House was? If your guess was the KKK-glorifying white supremacist 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, you were correct. (Fellow Wake Forest alumni, the author of the book the film is based on went to our university, just an FYI — apparently there’s a portrait of him hidden in storage/archives somewhere in ZSR Library.)

    Like the rest of American history, the story of film is deeply intertwined with racism. The director of The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith, gets a lot of false credit for pioneering the style of cross-cutting between two scenes that is now standard cinematic vocabulary; in truth, he just popularized what was already in development for several years prior. (This is mostly just useless knowledge for you in case there’s ever a scenario in which you need to explain why, actually, The Birth of a Nation is more culturally significant than aesthetically important.) But the film’s climax uses parallel editing to establish tension that glorifies Griffith’s sick ideology: the white supremacist-upholding Klansmen ride on their horses to come rescue the damsel in distress facing…

  • Monsters and Men

    Monsters and Men

    (available on Hulu)

    Sorry, you’re once again getting a cut and paste job from an old review of mine. (I probably don’t have to say this, but I’m mostly just covering myself in case an editor/publication comes knocking.) I wish I was just made of time and energy, but this week I’m taking my finite amount of it and channeling it into listening and educating myself. I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the triptych story of Monsters and Men this week and the complexity with which it treats the thorny subject of police killings and brutality. I’m even seeing new ways to examine the film through the concept of assimilationist ideology brought to my knowledge by Ibram X. Kendi in “How to Be an Antiracist.” But anyways, less about me, more about the film…

    Reinaldo Marcus Green’s Monsters and Men, a tripartite examination of race and policing in America, is very much a movie of its moment. But with the sheer volume of other films tackling similar questions of racial identity in the face of imminent and insidious oppression – Blindspotting, Sorry to Bother You, BlacKkKlansman, to name a few from its release year of 2018 alone – it…

  • Selma

    Selma

    (available to rent for free on all digital platforms)

    As has happened with many movies, the cultural impact of Ava DuVernay’s Selma might have eclipsed the film itself. The film’s surprisingly paltry showing in nominations for the 2014 Oscars ceremony galvanized the #OscarsSoWhite movement that has helped remake the member composition of the Academy. It launched DuVernay into the stratosphere as a power player in the entertainment industry, a position she’s used to elevate other female and non-white creators. (An underrated legacy of Selma: Chris Pine crying at the Oscars after the performance of “Glory.”)

    But if the memory of Selma leads you to consider it as something akin to an engaging period piece that a substitute teacher would flip on in 8th grade American history class, you owe it to yourself to watch again. (And why not now while it’s literally free?) This is not just a biopic of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (soulfully embodied by David Oyelowo), though we do get to understand him as man rather than just martyr. DuVernay tells the story of a tide-turning moment in the Civil Rights struggle in a way that unapologetically does not cater to either the white gaze or…

  • Starship Troopers

    Starship Troopers

    (available on Netflix)

    I can imagine if I’d have seen Starship Troopers as a teenager with little critical facilities, I’d have assumed it was a regular gung-ho Hollywood action movie. Indeed, it has all those trappings and embraces them with zeal. In fact, it’s so over the top with its jingoistic pride in the military unit that goes to fight intergalactic war against alien “arachnids” that the film feels stilted and even a bit corny. (It’s a bonkers fun movie, even if it’s a bit bombastically ridiculous.)

    Luckily, I didn’t see Starship Troopers until the fall of 2016 against the backdrop of the election, and the real purpose of the film became quite obvious: it’s a satire of how action movies smuggle fascistic, militaristic propaganda into the action genre. Dutch director Paul Verhoeven just manages to pull it off with such an unbelievable poker face that it fooled many critics at the time, who took the film largely at face value. Don’t believe me? Check out the film’s Rotten Tomatoes page, where the consensus reads: “A fun movie...if you can accept the excessive gore and wooden acting.”

    Audiences in 1997, innocently believing they had reached the End of History, failed…

  • School Daze

    School Daze

    (available on Netflix)

    I’m working my way through some blindspots of mine in Spike Lee’s filmography prior to his new film, Da 5 Bloods, dropping on Netflix next Friday. As with any artist, there’s value in examining the deep cuts, especially from their early years. Lee released School Daze just one year before his masterpiece, Do the Right Thing, and I think that film blots out pretty much all that came before it.

    But that’s not to say there isn’t a lot to love about School Daze, even if Lee does it better shortly after. It’s yet another vibrant, layered look at a Reagan-era Black community that resists monolithic thinking about an entire race. (For those who really want to go deep into the era’s representation of Black Americans, I cannot recommend enough Racquel Gates’ “Double Negative: The Black Image in Popular Culture.”) Within the self-contained milieu of an HBCU, Lee probes how black characters related to class, power, color, gender and so much more independent of how they triangulate these topics with respect to whiteness.

    The film’s protagonist Vaughn “Dap” Dunlap (a young, spry Laurence Fishburne) feels particularly relevant to our current moment in history. Though his cause célèbre

  • Josie and the Pussycats

    Josie and the Pussycats

    (available on HBO GO and HBO Max)

    Plenty of movies don’t get fully appreciated in their own time — It’s a Wonderful Life, Vertigo, The Shawshank Redemption. Another film I think we’ll be adding to that list sooner rather than later is the 2001 film Josie and the Pussycats, a misunderstood masterpiece (ok, it’s not that level of greatness, but please allow me the alliteration) of the pre-9/11 era. This farce on consumerist indoctrination, packaged inside a rollicking good time of a girl group’s rise to rock stardom, might have been a little too cynical for a country thinking it was living through the End of History (and it might make a great double feature with Starship Troopers for that very reason). But now, with enough cultural hindsight, the film’s critiques are scarily prescient and depressingly resonant.

    I was eight years old when the film version of Josie and the Pussycats was released, so I can do only the most basic reconstruction of the 2001 moviegoer. But I can imagine just how easy it would be to mistake it for the kind of mindless schlock it mercilessly mocks. Just read the Rotten Tomatoes critical consensus, presumptively from the theatrical release:…

  • Clueless

    Clueless

    (available on Netflix)

    I’ll state up front: Clueless is not a movie for the moment. But it’s also not not a movie for the moment, either. Alicia Silverstone’s slightly big-headed but never air-headed Cher Horowitz, an easy first-ballot Hall of Fame teen movie character, is unmistakably and unapologetically a creature of privilege. Yet her journey over the course of the film from doing good deeds to stroke her own ego to doing good deeds for the benefit of the community is … maybe the activist journey that many people are on right now? We shouldn’t applaud baby steps that much, and Cher gets the storybook happy ending for herself, too. But there are many ways to back into civic engagement, and so long as people end up in the right spot, we should welcome circuitous paths.

    Even beyond stretching for topicality, Amy Heckerling’s Clueless is still a wonderful watch (or rewatch). It’s the film that made a clean break from the John Hughes era and kicked off the ‘90s wave of the high school comedy. If Hughes took teenagers literally in films like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, Heckerling and her contemporaries took them seriously — maybe even to…

  • Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé

    Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé

    (available on Netflix)

    I doubt too many people need convincing that Beyoncé is one of our truly visionary contemporary artists, but these people do exist! (Don’t worry, I’m not the kind of Beyhive crazy that would pelt Ariana Grande with a lemon.) I think she’s especially built for this moment in history when so many are willing to approach and examine culture through an anti-racist lens because she’s been doing this through her own work for years now.

    I was inspired to rewatch Homecoming, Beyoncé’s self-directed behind the scenes concert documentary of her legendary 2018 Coachella concert, after reading a passage in Ibram X. Kendi’s "How to Be an Anti-Racist" on culture. He quotes anthropologist Ashley Montagu on the concept of cultural relativity: “All cultures must be judged in relation to their own history, and all individuals and groups in relation to their cultural history, and definitely not by the arbitrary standard of any single culture.” Most conversations I have with anyone who tries to downplay the brilliance of Beyoncé end up with people trying to negatively compare her against exemplars of artistic merit largely embodied by white men. She lets other people write her songs, she’s more of a…

  • Outside In

    Outside In

    (available on Netflix)

    I was feeling the need for some Lynn Shelton again tonight and, man, did a second watch of Outside In deliver. (Please note: it’s very easy to confuse this with Inside Out, the Pixar movie.) The indie world is sorely going to miss her compassionate, humane cinema. Shelton’s films often centered strange, unconventional relationships between people that cannot be easily categorized, and this was absolutely her masterwork in that regard. This is a movie that aches with the pains and joys of being alive.

    “I like to explore relationships between people who aren’t supposed to – we sort of have this list of people that we’re supposed to be friends with or fall in love with, and they should be in the same age range and cultural/social milieu,” Shelton told Marc Maron (her future romantic partner until her death last month) back in 2018 when promoting Outside In. The film follows the fallout once Chris (Jay Duplass) gets released from prison and attempts to both start his life anew as well as piece together the broken relationships he fractured. The reentry of a prisoner to the outside world after twenty years makes for a fascinating application of…

  • Knives Out

    Knives Out

    (available on Amazon Prime)

    This is mostly just a PSA that Rian Johnson’s deliriously delightful whodunnit Knives Out is now available to stream for Amazon Prime subscribers! I presume the kind of people who would self-select to receive a newsletter like this are probably among the type who saw the film in theaters when it became the fall season’s stealthy runaway smash success. But if you only saw it once, it’s absolutely worth seeing again now knowing what happens and seeing how Johnson subtly sets the stage for what’s to come. And especially in a moment where white privilege is something we’re pointing out and examining mostly from a serious angle, it’s nice to kick back a bit and see it from a more humorous perspective.

    I’m resharing the review I wrote out of TIFF last year because 1) it’s Friday and I’m tired as is and 2) I’m proud of how well this one turned out in under 24 hours amidst a hectic festival schedule. But I’d also encourage you to check out other perspectives on the film if you’re revisiting because I’m definitely not the ultimate authority here. (A good starting point would be Monica Castillo’s “Why I…

  • Ad Astra

    Ad Astra

    (available on HBO GO and HBO Max)

    The first time I saw James Gray’s Ad Astra in theaters, I was struck by the weighty cinematic legacy to which he paid homage. There are clear stylistic nods to such impenetrable space classics as Kubrick’s 2001 and Tarkovsky’s Solaris. Plus, the whole story essentially restages the dramatic arc Coppola’s Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now in space (a film the director loves so much that he presented it at the 2014 Telluride Film Festival and wrote about it for Rolling Stone). This heady pedigree led me to expect the film would end up like Interstellar, bogging us down in complexities to arrive at an emotional conclusion.

    I was a little shocked to leave the theater not trying to piece together the logic of the ending because, well, it’s actually quite simple. Ad Astra travels to the farthest reaches of the solar system to arrive at basic humanist principles. As Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride so succinctly yet elegantly puts it, “We’re all we’ve got.” The film’s exhilarating and unconventional journey through the cosmos is really about the beauty of earth and the people who populate it. It’s disarmingly earnest, so much so that I…

  • Landline

    Landline

    (available on Amazon Prime)

    It really does take a certain agility for a film to depict people stepping on rakes and not pass along that pain to the viewers. There’s a lot to learn from the characters in Landline enduring various personal crises, though writer/director Gillian Robespierre avoids indulging any misrerabilist instincts to the point where we’re enervated as an audience. I was struck rewatching the film for the first time since it blurred in with a five-film day at Sundance 2017 how dark a pit of Clinton-era discontent lies at the core of this movie. But there’s always levity to balance, not negate, the gravity of what we’re watching.

    As a title like Landline might imply, everyone in the film is trying to connect. It’s 1995, Hillary Clinton is giving her “women’s rights are human rights” speech, and the three women in Manhattan-dwelling Jacobs family are trying to figure out what exactly they want from their relationships. The matriarch Pat (Edie Falco) is trying to both “lean in” and keep her family cohering, all the while oblivious to an affair her husband Alan (John Turturro) carries out behind her back. Elsewhere, her newly engaged adult daughter Dana (Jenny Slate,…

  • Raising Arizona

    Raising Arizona

    (available on HBO GO and HBO Max)

    A silly younger Marshall once wrote off Raising Arizona as he did his first pass through the filmography of the Coen Brothers roughly a decade ago as being an amusing but largely slight film about trailer trash. An older, slightly wiser Marshall now realizes the folly of this analysis upon rewatch and review. This is a ludicrously amusing comedy with the manic energy of a Looney Tunes cartoon, to quote actor Simon Pegg, but it’s also razor-sharp satire of Reagan-era family and economic values made in 1987 when most studio movies embraced that culture unquestioningly rather than critically examining it.

    Nicolas Cage stars as H.I. “Hi” McDunnough, an ex-con who falls in love with Holly Hunter’s Edwina, known as “Ed,” the police officer who takes mugshot after mugshot of him. Try as he might to walk the straight and narrow, he slips into recidivism with few options for income or rehabilitation. Hi and Ed want the American Dream of upward mobility and a family just like anybody else, but the combination of his infertility and a criminal record make that out of reach … unless they turn to theft. The Arizona family gives…

  • Baby Mama

    Baby Mama

    (available on Netflix)

    If you were to tell me you absolutely hated Baby Mama, I wouldn’t spend too much time fighting you over it. On its face, the film is far from perfect — though I won’t say it isn’t good, funny or enjoyable. The OG silver screen outing of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler doesn’t withstand a ton of critical scrutiny (and honestly, in now-typical Tina Fey fashion, some of the humor punches down in questionable and cringe-inducing ways). But it’s a film full of sneaky good one-liners, committed physical humor, a coterie of amusing supporting characters … and just a generous helping of a dynamic on-screen duo.

    Baby Mama is the kind of movie I’d always stop and watch a little bit of when it was on cable TV. Now that it’s on Netflix, it’s the kind of movie I’d just have idly on while I do other work. (The appeal of passive viewing isn’t quite the same when you have to pick a movie out of the menu, though it still works.)

    The film really is such a testament to how ably Poehler and Fey can sell their comic woman-straight woman routine, playing off each other’s strengths…

  • Frances Ha

    Frances Ha

    (available on Netflix and The Criterion Channel with extras)

    Frances Ha will forever be synonymous with the kind of New York that inspired me to uproot my life and move to the Big Apple … and its vision of the city, for all its flaws (hellooooooo lack of diversity) is one that I’m scared is already becoming a period piece. I could try to break down the film from a more objective angle, but that would just be futile given the way it’s become entwined with my very mode of being and understanding of myself. It helped me both to self-actualize and take definitive action at a time where I could have remained stagnantly dissatisfied forever.

    I should take a step back and explain: my reaction to the film has not always been so ebullient. As a 20-year-old encountering Frances Ha for the first time, I cringed too much to be fully entertained. In my original review of the film from 2013, I wrote, “On her best days, Frances is a joyful opportunist. Meanwhile, on her worst days, she’s a sloth that borders on being completely unsympathetic.” (In my defense, I followed up with, “Perhaps why I had trouble embracing…

  • Harold and Maude

    Harold and Maude

    (available on Amazon Prime and HBO Max)

    I say this not to trivialize the ongoing “normalize being wrong” movement going on around much more important topics … but y’all, I’m ready to admit that I was wrong on Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude. I don’t know why I didn’t like this movie when I watched it many years ago (I think in college?), but let’s not worry about that now. I’m fully on board now. If you want to know what your boy Wes Anderson was watching that inspired him to make such nice cinematic dioramas in which he unfurls a twee little story, this is the source. It’s also an inspiration for pretty much any filmmaker who’s made an off-beat indie comedy … and weirdly, Fight Club? You’ll see.

    (Before I get too deep in discussing Harold and Maude, I do want to make sure that I give a <>content warning around suicide for the film. The treatment of the issue is humorous — again, you’ll see — but in case that’s triggering to you, please approach with caution.)

    The film opens with the first of many fake suicide attempts by the young Harold (Bud Cort), which has apparently…

  • Miss Juneteenth

    Miss Juneteenth

    (available on VOD — I’d recommend renting through BAM on Vimeo so an independent movie theater can get some of the profit!)

    Perhaps the part of this day that I cherished most was waking up and watching Channing Godfrey Peoples’ assured, accomplished feature debut Miss Juneteenth. Our understanding of the Black experience in America cannot elide or erase the inequality and injustice they face on a regular basis, but it also cannot solely fixate on them in death. It must also celebrate them in life as this film does.

    As an outsider looking in at Miss Juneteenth, far be it from me to make any proclamations about whether or not it’s an authentic or accurate look at the Black community it portrays. But what I can say is that it feels honest to me. Peoples hits that sweet spot where a story gets so granularly specific that it paradoxically becomes generalizable and recognizable to people apart from that experience.

    The film uses a Texas “Miss Juneteenth” pageant as the backdrop for a multi-generational tale of women dealing with hopes and expectations that their daughters will both become them and surpass them. Smack-dab in the middle of it is Nicole Beharie’s…

  • Julie & Julia

    Julie & Julia

    (available on Netflix until 6/30)

    There would be no The Distancer, no Marshall and the Movies and likely no me writing about film at all were it not for Julie & Julia. Something stirred within me when Amy Adams’ frustrated cubicle drone Julie Powell declared, “I can write a blog. I have thoughts!” And from there, it’s been full speed ahead for almost 11 years now. I owe so much to Nora Ephron’s magical film, both on that fortuitous first screening and in the years ever since. I find Julie & Julia a fount of continuous inspiration and reinvigoration as it celebrates the spirit of two protagonists who quit waiting around for institutional validation and simply make themselves the person they want to be.

    For obvious reasons, I found myself drawn to Adams’ Julie portion of the film as she combined her avocation for cooking and penchant for writing into blogging her way through Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” She gives herself 365 days to cook through all 524 recipes, pushing her out of her comfort zone all the while testing her marriage (to all-time movie husband Chris Messina) and upending her professional circumstances as the blog gains publicity…