Movies to See Right Now

Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

The Oscar nominations are out, and I recommend some (not all) of the nominated films. I’ve also written If I Picked the Oscars – before the nominations were announced. The best movies of the year are in theaters right now, and here are the very best:

  • Steven Spielberg’s docudrama on the Pentagon Papers, The Post, is both a riveting thriller and an astonishingly insightful portrait of Katharine Graham by Meryl Streep. It’s one of the best movies of the year – and one of the most important. Also see my notes on historical figures in The Post.
  • Pixar’s Coco is a moving and authentic dive into Mexican culture, and it’s visually spectacular.
  • The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s imaginative, operatic inter-species romance may become the most-remembered film of 2017.
  • Lady Bird , an entirely fresh coming of age comedy that explores the mother-daughter relationship – an impressive debut for Greta Gerwig as a writer and director.
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri a powerful combination of raw emotion and dark hilarity with an acting tour de force from Frances McDormand and a slew of great actors.
  • I, Tonya is a marvelously entertaining movie, filled with wicked wit and sympathetic social comment.
  • Phantom Thread, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, is Paul Thomas Anderson’s rapturously beautiful story of a strong-willed man and two equally strong-willed women; unexpectedly witty.
  • The Florida Project is Sean Baker’s remarkably authentic and evocative glimpse into the lives of children in poverty, full of the exuberance of childhood.
  • Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman brings alive Winston Churchill in an overlooked historical moment – when it looked like Hitler was going to win WW II.

Don’t forget what is sure to be one of the best Bay Area cinema experiences of 2018 – the Noir City festival of film noir in San Francisco.

Here’s the rest of my Best Movies of 2017 – So Far. Most of the ones from earlier this year are available on video.

Other current choices:

  • The Disaster Artist, James Franco’s hilarious docucomedy about the making of one of the most unintentionally funny movies of all time.
  • Diane Kruger’s award-wining performance in the German thriller In the Fade.
  • The Final Year, a wistful inside documentary about the Obama Admistration’s foreign policy during his last year.
  • The ambitious satire The Square.
  • Call Me By Your Name is an extraordinarily beautiful story of sexual awakening set in a luscious Italian summer, but I didn’t buy the impossibly cool parents or the two pop ballad musical interludes.
  • Murder on the Orient Express is a moderately entertaining lark.
  • Novitiate, the tediously grim story of a seeker looking for spiritual love and sacrifice, with a sadistic abbess delivering too much of the latter.

My DVD/Stream of the Week are recent Oscar winners for Best Documentary: Amy, Searching for Sugar Man and Undefeated. Follow the link for their availability on DVD and streaming platforms.

On January 28, Turner Classic Movies presents All the King’s Men, one of the best political movies of all time, from the novel based on the saga of Huey Long. Broderick Crawford stars as Willie Stark, the fictionalized Kingfish. Watch for the brilliant, Oscar-winning supporting performance by Mercedes McCambridge. (Note: this is the 1949 version, NOT the lousy 2006 Sean Penn remake.)

Broderick Crawford, John Ireland and Mercedes McCambridge in ALL THE KING’S MEN
Broderick Crawford in ALL THE KING’S MEN

And on January 31, Turner Classic Movies plays Angel Face, the 1953 film noir from director Otto Preminger, This movie has it all, the droopy-eyed magnetism of Robert Mitchum, the fragile beauty of Jean Simmons, and (along with They Won’t Believe Me) the most shocking ending in film noir.

Jean Simmons and Robert Mitchum in ANGEL FACE

Movies to See Right Now

Meryl Streep, Tracy Letts and Tom Hanks in THE POST

The best movies of the year are in theaters right now, and here are the very best:

  • Steven Spielberg’s docudrama on the Pentagon Papers, The Post, is both a riveting thriller and an astonishingly insightful portrait of Katharine Graham by Meryl Streep. It’s one of the best movies of the year – and one of the most important. Also see my notes on historical figures in The Post.
  • Pixar’s Coco is a moving and authentic dive into Mexican culture, and it’s visually spectacular.
  • The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s imaginative, operatic inter-species romance may become the most-remembered film of 2017.
  • Lady Bird , an entirely fresh coming of age comedy that explores the mother-daughter relationship – an impressive debut for Greta Gerwig as a writer and director.
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri a powerful combination of raw emotion and dark hilarity with an acting tour de force from Frances McDormand and a slew of great actors.
  • I, Tonya is a marvelously entertaining movie, filled with wicked wit and sympathetic social comment.
  • Phantom Thread, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, is Paul Thomas Anderson’s rapturously beautiful story of a strong-willed man and two equally strong-willed women; unexpectedly witty.
  • The Florida Project is Sean Baker’s remarkably authentic and evocative glimpse into the lives of children in poverty, full of the exuberance of childhood.
  • Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman brings alive Winston Churchill in an overlooked historical moment – when it looked like Hitler was going to win WW II.

Here’s the rest of my Best Movies of 2017 – So Far. Most of the ones from earlier this year are available on video.

Sally Hawkins in THE SHAPE OF WATER

Other current choices:

  • The Disaster Artist, James Franco’s hilarious docucomedy about the making of one of the most unintentionally funny movies of all time.
  • Diane Kruger’s award-wining performance in the German thriller In the Fade.
  • The Final Year, a wistful inside documentary about the Obama Admistration’s foreign policy during his last year.
  • The ambitious satire The Square.
  • Call Me By Your Name is an extraordinarily beautiful story of sexual awakening set in a luscious Italian summer, but I didn’t buy the impossibly cool parents or the two pop ballad musical interludes.
  • Murder on the Orient Express is a moderately entertaining lark.
  • Novitiate, the tediously grim story of a seeker looking for spiritual love and sacrifice, with a sadistic abbess delivering too much of the latter.

My Stream of the Week is Wind River, smart, layered and intelligent, and another success from one of America’s fastest-rising filmmakers, Taylor Sheridan. It’s now available to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

Graham Greene and Elizabeth Olsen in WIND RIVER

Stream of the Week: WIND RIVER – another masterpiece from Taylor Sheridan

Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner in WIND RIVER

With the contemporary Western thriller Wind River, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has delivered another masterpiece, this time in his first effort as director. Wind River was probably my most anticipated film of the year because I pegged Sheridan’s previous movie Hell or High Water as the best movie of 2016. Wind River doesn’t disappoint and is one of the best movies of 2017.

The story is set in and around Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation. Cory (Jeremy Renner) is a professional hunter who finds the body of a native American teenage girl. To find out what happened to her and who is responsible, the tribal police chief Ben (Graham Greene) calls for help from the feds. That assistance arrives in the form of FBI agent Jane (Elizabeth Olsen), an inexperienced city slicker who has no clue how to survive in the lethal elements of the wild country. She is canny enough to understand that she needs the help of Cory, who knows every inch of the back country. He has his own reason – very important to the story – to solve the mystery, and the unlikely duo embark on a dangerous investigation, which they know will end in a man hunt.

The man hunt leads to a violent set piece that Sheridan directs masterfully. There’s a sudden escalation of tension, then apparent relief and then an explosion of action. Deadly chaos envelops several characters, but we’re able to follow it all clearly, while we’re on the edges of our seats.

Jeremy Renner’s performance as Cory is brilliant. Cory is a man whose life has been redirected by a family tragedy. He’s a Western stoic of few words, but – unusual for his type – an individual who deals with his grief in a very specific and self-aware way. Playing a character who reloads his own rounds, Renner is able to deliver hard-ass, determined efficiency along with some unexpected tenderness.

Olsen is also very good as Jane who understands that she may appear to be the bottom of the FBI’s barrel because she is a woman and very green and tiny. Resolute and spunky, she moves past what others might take as a slight because no unaided outsider is going to be able to navigate the harsh environment and the culture of the reservation. She isn’t trying to make a name for herself, but just to take responsibility in the old-fashioned way that we would expect from characters played by Glenn Ford, Gregory Peck, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. She’s got to do the right thing.

As Martin, the dead girl’s father, Gil Birmingham (Hell or High Water) has two unforgettable scenes. His first scene is phenomenal first scene, as he processes the worst possible news with an outside Jane, and then with his friend Cory. Graham Greene and Tantoo Cardinal are also excellent. Kelsey Asbille and Jon Bernthal are also stellar in a flashback of the crime.

Sheridan and cinematographer Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild) make great use of the Big Sky country, with the jagged topography of its mountains and the feral frigidity of its forests. Wind River opens as Cory hunts in spectacular postcard scenery; when we first see the reservation, we are jarred – this is a very bad place.

Taylor Sheridan has a gift for writing great, great movie dialogue:

      “Who’s the victim today? Looks like it’s gonna be me.”

and

     “This isn’t the land of backup, Jane. This is the land of you’re on your own.”

When Cory says, “This isn’t about Emily”, we know that this is precisely about Emily. When Cory says, “I’m a hunter”, we know exactly what his intentions are – and so does Martin.

Sheridan hates that, in much of our society, people are disposable. He has explored that theme in Sicario, Hell or High Water and now Wind River. Wind River begins with a title explaining that the story is inspired by actual events, and ends with a particularly horrifying non-statistic.  I’ve also written an essay on Sheridan’s filmmaking signatures, the films of Tayler Sheridan.

Smart, layered and intelligent, Wind River is another success from one of America’s fastest-rising filmmakers. It’s now available to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

The best movies of 2017

Javier and Ricardo Darin in TRUMAN
Javier Cámara and Ricardo Darin in TRUMAN

Every year, I keep a running list of the best movies I’ve seen this year. I usually end up with a Top Ten and another 5-15 mentions. Here’s last year’s list.

To get on my year-end list, a movie has to be one that thrills me while I’m watching it and one that I’m still thinking about a couple of days later.

I’m still looking forward to seeing films that are candidates for my final list, including Call Me By Your Name, Thelma, Phantom Thread, The Post and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.  You can see the current list complete with video availability at my Best Movies of 2017.  Here’s the year-end list:

  1. Truman
  2. The Big Sick
  3. The Shape of Water
  4. Wind River
  5. Dunkirk
  6. Coco
  7. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
  8. Lady Bird
  9. The Founder
  10. Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

And the rest: Lucky and The Sense of an Ending

Sally Hawkins in THE SHAPE OF WATER

I try not to tease you with movies that you can’t find, but I need to acknowledge two sure-fire crowd-pleasers from this year’s Cinequest: Quality Problems and For Grace. Both films are emotionally authentic, intelligent and funny, but neither has distribution so far. I will feature them if and when they become available on video.

And here’s a special mention. It’s not on my list, but The Lost City of Z deserves credit for reviving the genre of the historical adventure epic, with all the spectacle of a swashbuckler, while braiding in modern sensitivities and a psychological portrait.

Brooke Purdy in QUALITY PROBLEMS
Brooke Purdy in QUALITY PROBLEMS

DVD/Streams of the Week: the best movies of the year

Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner in WIND RIVER

About half of the year’s best movies are already out on video. I’ve been shilling The Big Sick and Truman over the past month. Here are the rest:

Wind River: another masterpiece from Taylor Sheridan. Smart, layered and intelligent, Wind River is another success from one of America’s fastest-rising filmmakers. Wind River can be streamed from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

Dunkirk: personal, spectacular and thrilling: White knuckle intensity in this filmmaking marvel. It can be streamed from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

The Founder: money grubbing visionary. Michael Keaton stars in this biopic of fast food magnate Ray Kroc. You can watch it on DVD from Netflix and Redbox or stream it from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer: big deals are not for little men. This superb character study is probably Richard Gere’s best career performance. Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer is available on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

The Sense of an Ending: you can’t revisit the past and guarantee closure. This British indie drama is a showcase for its star, Jim Broadbent. It’s available to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

Fionn Whitehead in DUNKIRK

Movies to See Right Now

The new PBS documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, The Vietnam War, is one of the best documentaries of the century and a superb history lesson, crucial to understand the America of today. It’s a Must See for Baby Boomers. For different reasons, it’s a Must See for Americans of later generations. The ten episodes of The Vietnam War can be streamed from PBS through October 15.

Your best chance to see an Oscar-winner is at the Mill Valley Film Festival, now underway at several Marin locations. The MVFF always previews many of the most promising prestige films that are scheduled for release during Award Season.

In theaters now, there is the often funny and stealthily profound Lucky. Here’s my remembrance of its star, Harry Dean Stanton.

Sure to be near the end of its theatrical run, you can still catch the contemporary Western thriller Wind River, which has mystery, explosive action, wild scenery and some great acting, especially by Jeremy Renner and Gil Birmingham.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the compelling and affecting Short Term 12, set in a foster care facility and starring Brie Larson as kind of a Troubled Kid Whisperer.  Short Term 12 is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Netflix Instant, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, GooglePlay and Xbox Video. It was high on my Best Movies of 2013.

On October 15, Turner Classic Movies presents Diabolique. The headmaster of a provincial boarding school is so cruel, even sadistic, that everyone wants him dead, especially his wife and his mistress. When he goes missing, the police drain the murky pool where the killers dumped the body…and the killers get a big surprise. Now the suspense from director Henri-Georges Clouzot (often tagged as the French Hitchcock) really starts.

And TCM offers something completely different on October 16, the delightful Peter Bogdanovich screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc? The nerdy academic Howard (Ryan O’Neal) and his continually aggrieved fiance Eunice (Madeline Kahn) travel to San Francisco to compete for a career-launching grant. The luggage with Howard’s great discovery (musical rocks) is mixed up with two identical suitcases, one containing valuable jewelry, the other with spy secrets, and soon we have juggling MacGuffins.

That’s all funny enough, but Howard bumps into Judy (Barbra Streisand), the kookiest serial college dropout in America, who determines that she must have him and utterly disrupts his life. Our hero’s ruthless rival for the grant is hilariously played by Kenneth Mars (the Nazi playwright in The Producers). Austin Pendleton is wonderful as the would-be benefactor.

The EXTENDED closing chase scene is among the very funniest in movie history – right up there with the best of Buster Keaton; Streisand and O’Neal lead an ever-growing cavalcade of pursuers through the hills of San Francisco, at one point crashing the Chinese New Year’s Day parade. I love What’s Up, Doc? and own the DVD, and I watch every time I stumble across it on TV. Boganovich’s hero Howard Hawkes, the master of the screwball comedy, would have been proud.

WHAT’S UP, DOC?

The films of Taylor Sheridan

Chris Pine and Ben Foster in HELL OR HIGH WATER

The actor Taylor Sheridan has written three recent films, and he has emerged as one of America’s most important filmmakers.  The three movies are Sicario, Hell or High Water and Wind River (which is his directorial debut – I’m not counting the low budget horror film Vile). I named Hell or High Water as the very best movie of 2016.

Here are some observations about Sheridan’s movies so far.

Western settings: This is the most obvious Sheridan signature: Sicario is set on the border between Mexico and Texas and New Mexico.  Hell or High Water is set in West Texas (but primarily shot in New Mexico).  Wind River is set in Wyoming.  Sheridan, very comfortable with wide open spaces, grew up on a ranch outside the hamlet of Cranfills Gap, Texas, between Fort Worth and Waco.  He isolates his characters in sparsely populated landscapes under Big Skies.  But he’s not sentimental – the Mexican border city in Sicario and the Indian Reservation in Wind River are horrible places.

Great dialogue:  From Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” to “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” to “Forget it, Jake.  It’s Chinatown,” great movies are known for iconic dialogue.  Sheridan is reviving that lost art.

From Hell or High Water:

Toby: “You’re talkin’ like you don’t think we’re going to get away with it.”
Tanner: “I never met anyone who got away with anything.”

And from Wind River:

Who’s the victim today? Looks like it’s gonna be me.”

and

This isn’t the land of backup, Jane. This is the land of you’re on your own.”

Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner in WIND RIVER

Resists the easy: Sicario revolves around a fish-out-of water female cop, but he doesn’t mate her her with one of the male stars.  In Hell or High Water, Toby insures the family’s security – but that isn’t enough for his ex-wife to take him back.  In Wind River, Cory and Jane meet cute (in a way) but don’t fall into bed; and Cory’s ex-wife doesn’t comfort him, either.

Not everything is going to be okay:  Sheridan knows how to craft a satisfying movie ending, but it’s not going to Happily Ever After for everyone.  In Hell or High Water, the action that brings peace to Chris Pine’s character brings eternal unease to Jef Bridges’.
Wind River’s reservation still devoid of hope.  Sicario’s border region is still poisioned by drugs and the drug war.

Populist politics:  Sheridan hates that, in much of our society, people are disposable.  Sheridan explores this theme with the victims of the drug wars in Sicario, the flyover-state working class in Hell or High Water and the Native Americans on the reservation in Wind River.

It’s an impressive body of work from Sheridan.  I’m looking forward to his next screenplays, a follow-up to Sicario named Soldado and a TV drama titled Yellowstone.

Benicio Del Toro and Emily Blunt in SICARIO
Benicio Del Toro and Emily Blunt in SICARIO

Movies to See Right Now

Isabelle Huppert in ELLE

We’re on the verge of a promising Prestige Movie Season. For the time being:

  • A Must See: the contemporary Western thriller Wind River, which has mystery, explosive action, wild scenery and some great acting, especially by Jeremy Renner and Gil Birmingham.
  • The historical thriller Dunkirk.
  • The amiably entertaining hillbilly heist film Logan Lucky.

The extraordinary performance of French actress Isabelle Huppert makes the already subversive Elle into a Must See DVD/Stream of the Week. The controversial Elle is available on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

On September 30, Turner Classic Movies presents a wonderfully entertaining comedy about an entire family of professional con artists, The Young in Heart. It’s sweet and sappy, with the optimistic view that the criminals could be reformed by the unconditional love of a lonely old lady. After much fun, it turns out that they just needed some structure that incentivizes them to use their talents for good rather than evil. As readers will know, I’m not generally attracted to sentimental movies, but this one is damn funny. The family is played by Roland Young, Janet Gaynor, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and the always batty Billie Burke,The movie is almost stolen by Minnie Dupree as their intended victim, Miss Fortune. There’s also a nice turn by the gorgeous Paulette Goddard. The Young in Heart is a showcase for Roland Young, so often the supporting character in the great screwball comedies; this film, more than his Topper series, may be his best and most enjoyable performance.

Roland Young and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in THE YOUNG IN HEART
Roland Young and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in THE YOUNG IN HEART

Movies to See Right Now

Ray Romano and Holly Hunter in THE BIG SICK

There are some VERY promising movies about to be released. For the time being, just make sure that you’ve seen these three while they are still in theaters:

  • The contemporary Western thriller Wind River, which has mystery, explosive action, wild scenery and some great acting, especially by Jeremy Renner and Gil Birmingham.
  • The delightful romantic comedy The Big Sick.
  • The historical thriller Dunkirk.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the wonderfully entertaining Gone Girl, the best Hollywood movie of 2014. It’s both a mystery filled with plot twists and a study of psychopathy. The ending is different than that of the best-selling novel, but fans like both. Gone Girl is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming on Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, Xbox Video and Flixster.

On September 24, Turner Classic Movies will present Elia Kazan’s 1957 Boomerang!, a courtroom movie that could NEVER happen in real life – BUT DID. The same District Attorney convicts a guy of murder, changes his mind and then successfully proves the guy’s innocence. The fine cast includes Dana Andrews, Arthur Kennedy, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley (in the first of his 103 screen credits) and (one of my favorites) Sam Levene. Look for Karl Malden and Brian Keith in bit roles. Here’s my full discussion of Boomerang!, including the real life history.

BOOMERANG!

Movies to See Right Now

Jeremy Renner in WIND RIVER
We’re in the dog days of summer movies, waiting for the Prestige Movies starting in late October, and hoping that some gems sneak into theaters now. For the time being, just make sure that you’ve seen these three:

  • The contemporary Western thriller Wind River, which has mystery, explosive action, wild scenery and some great acting, especially by Jeremy Renner and Gil Birmingham.
  • The delightful romantic comedy The Big Sick.
  • The historical thriller Dunkirk.

The best of the rest:

  • Baby Driver is just an action movie, but the walking, running and driving are brilliantly timed to the beat of music.
  • I enjoyed Charlize Theron’s rock ’em, sock ’em, espionage thriller Atomic Blonde.

My DID/Stream of the Week is Stories We Tell from brilliant Canadian director Sarah Polley (Away From Her, Take This Waltz), a documentary in which she interviews members of her own family about her mother, who died when Sarah was 11. It doesn’t take long before Sarah uncovers a major surprise about her own life. And then she steps into an even bigger surprise about the first surprise.  You can rent Stories We Tell on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and stream it from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

On September 17, Turner Classic Movies airs In a Lonely Place (1950). The most unsettlingly sexy film noiress Gloria Grahame falls for the troubled screenwriter Humphrey Bogart, a guy with a MAJOR anger management issue; once she’s hooked, she realizes that he might be a murderer after all…Nicholas Ray directs. In a Lonely Place justifiably made the BBC’s list of the 100 Greatest American Films. The Czar of Noir Eddie Muller has named it as his #1 noir.

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart in IN A LONELY PLACE