Best of 2017: Lead Actress

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Each year I set aside time to highlight what I think are the best performances of the past movie year. In keeping with the upcoming Oscars I have adopted their format and for several days I’ll be sharing my favorite performances for each of the four acting categories. Next up is the Lead Actress. It too is a category full of fabulous performances to consider. Of them all here are my five favorites

#5 – Gal Gadot (“Wonder Woman”)

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I think for many people this may be an easy choice to brush off. After all this is a ‘comic book movie’ and the field is so full of incredible and deserving performances. But watching Gal Gadot not simply play a superhero but bring out so many unexpected qualities was a delight. I proudly put her on this list among the year’s best.

#4 – Saoirse Ronan (“Lady Bird”)

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It shocks me that Saoirse Ronan is only #4 on this list. It’s a testament to the sheer strength of this category. It’s certainly no knock on her. Ronan has been so good in so many films, but this may be her best performance. She is so in tune with Greta Gerwig’s writing and perception of character. Any other year she would top this list. She’s that good in “Lady Bird”.

#3 – Sally Hawkins (“Maudie”)

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Yep, you read that right. I’m picking her for her performance in “Maudie” over “The Shape of Water” (although the latter is yet more proof of her incredible talent). I can’t tell you how mesmerized I was by Hawkins portrayal of folk artist Maud Lewis. In a role that could easily ‘go big’, Hawkins keeps everything grounded and authentic. She’s nothing short of captivating.

#2 – Haley Lu Richardson (“Columbus”)

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Of all the performances in 2017 it was Haley Lu Richardson in Kogonada’s “Columbus” who was the biggest revelation. She’s incredible. It’s a soulful, understated performance full of melancholy, charm and sincerity. She’s an incredibly expressive actress and we never see her overplay a scene or oversell an emotion. And there is a longing she is able to convey with the smallest effort. I adore this performance.

#1 – Jessica Chastain (“Molly’s Game”)

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Much like Sally Hawkins, Jessica Chastain had an incredible year. She could have easily made this list for her work in “The Zookeeper’s Wife”. But it was her spectacular performance in Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue-rich “Molly’s Game” that topped them all for me. It goes without saying that Chastain has proven herself to be one of the best actresses working today, but here she is given some meaty material and she knocks it out of the park.

So what do you think. Where did I go right and what did I miss. Please let me know in the comments section. Also, there is only one more category remaining, Lead Actor. See you then.

Best of 2017: Supporting Actor

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It’s day 2 of my look back at what I think are the best performances of the past movie year. In keeping with the upcoming Oscars I have adopted their format and for the next several days I’ll be sharing my favorite performances for each of the four acting categories. Next up is Supporting Actor. It too is a category featuring many fabulous performances to consider. But of them all here are my five favorites:

#5 – Robert Pattinson (“The Lost City of Z”)

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For my money Robert Pattinson has emerged as one of the most exciting young actors in the business. In “The Lost City of Z” he is a bit underutilized but he’s a great compliment to Charlie Hunnam’s character and is superb each time he’s on screen. It may not be the big showy type of performance that often gets this kind of attention, but it’s well worth its place on this list.

#4 – Mark Rylance (“Dunkirk”)

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Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” may not be a film focused on character but that doesn’t mean it has none. The always wonderful Mark Rylance certainly delivered a good one. His depiction of a father, patriotic towards his country and deeply bruised from the war’s effects, is so authentic both physically and emotionally. He’s a great cog in Nolan’s action-packed telling.

#3 – Ethan Hawke (“Maudie”)

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I think it’s easy for Ethan Hawke’s performance in “Maudie” to be overlooked especially since the movie itself has been. That’s unfortunate because Hawke (like the film) is fabulous. Playing alongside Sally Hawkins, the two make a fascinating couple. And while Hawkins is the star, Hawke’s role and performance is pivotal. I loved it.

#2 – Idris Elba (“Molly’s Game”)

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Navigating Aaron Sorkin’s dense, fast-paced dialogue can’t be an easy task, but the writer struck gold with Idris Elba. Elba’s performance is sharp, charming, witty and intense – all qualities his role demands. And his chemistry with Jessica Chastain is undeniable and emphasizes how supporting work can sometimes make or break a movie.

#1 – “Rob Morgan (“Mudbound”)

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In a film filled with good performances none struck me quite like Rob Morgan’s. He’s probably best known for his roles in several Netflix series, but he clearly deserves more attention. In “Mudbound” I found his performance full of conviction, empathy and compassion. He was my favorite character in the film and I found an emotional connection with him that has stuck with me. Give Rob Morgan and “Mudbound” a look.

And there you have my picks for Supporting Actor. What did I hit and what did I miss. Please share your thoughts in the comments. Next up, the Lead categories.

Best of 2017: Supporting Actress

SUP actress

Each year I set aside time to highlight what I think are the best performances of the past movie year. In keeping with the upcoming Oscars I have adopted their format and for the next several days I’ll be sharing my favorite performances for each of the four acting categories. Ladies first so I’m starting with the Supporting Actress category. Women had a ton of fabulous performances to consider this year which made this tough to narrow down. Nonetheless here are my five favorites:

#5 – Octavia Spencer (“The Shape of Water”)

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You could make an argument that Octavia Spencer could play this role in her sleep. I tend to agree, but that doesn’t make her any less fabulous in Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water”. There is an incredible natural quality to Spencer’s acting making it a perfect fit for characters like this. The movie certainly benefits from her presence.

#4 – Kirstin Dunst (“The Beguiled”)

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With the many good performances in Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” my mind kept coming back to Kirsten Dunst. It’s a fittingly low-key performance but one that’s hard to read. As the tension amps up in the film’s second half, Dunst is allowed to open up her character a tad more. But through it all she still remains a bit of a mystery.

#3 – Tatiana Maslany (“Stronger”)

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One of the true surprises of the year came from Tatiana Maslany who plays Jake Gyllenhaal’s on again/off again girlfriend in David Gordan Green’s biopic “Stronger”. It would have been easy for Maslany to get lost behind Gyllenhaal’s attention-getting performance but she’s incredibly good and an anchor in many of the movie’s best scenes.

#2 – Mary J. Blige (“Mudbound”)

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Drop this one into the “eye-opening” category. Mary J. Blige kills it in “Mudbound” and it’s great to see her getting some well-deserved attention along the awards circuit. I knew Blige had gotten into acting but I had never seen her work. After her performance as the matriarch of her 1940s Mississippi Delta family, you can expect to see a lot more of her.

#1 – Laurie Metcalf (“Lady Bird”)

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There were several really good performances from women playing ‘complicated’ mothers. Laurie Metcalf’s from “Lady Bird” was easily my favorite. There is a complexity to the character that demands a very careful and precise performance. Metcalf gets it just right and delivers a character who walks the pivotal line between sympathetic and infuriating. Brilliant.

So what do you think? What did I get right and what did I miss. Share your thoughts and picks in the comments section. Supporting Actor is next.

REVIEW: “The Shape of Water”

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No one can deny Guillermo del Toro’s willingness to utilize every trick in the cinematic playbook to create a magnificent visual experience. He has built worlds through several genres including dark fantasy, gothic horror, superhero, and even creature features. Yet despite his keen eye, vivid imagination, and a consistent backing from critics, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is his only film I would call truly great.

His latest movie “The Shape of Water” has generated a ton of awards buzz and is even being compared by some passionate del Toro fans to 2006’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”. Regardless of some things it does well, “The Shape of Water” is no “Pan’s”. But enough with counterproductive comparisons. The point is “The Shape of Water” has a big following and a ton of momentum heading into Oscar season.

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“The Shape of Water” could be called many things – an offbeat fairytale, a political fable, an unconventional love story, an allegory for del Toro’s view of the world today. All of those descriptions fit to some degree or another, and del Toro plays with them with varying levels of success.

Del Toro’s story, with its pulsating Cold War vibe, takes place in 1962 Baltimore. The wondrously expressive Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, mute since birth, who lives in an apartment above an old movie house. She and her next door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) spend their time together watching old musicals and sharing their struggles. Both fit into one of del Toro’s more obvious themes – the plight of the marginalized.

Elisa works the night shift as a janitor at a secret government facility along with her close friend Zelda (a very good Octavia Spencer) who also fits within the marginalized theme. The facility has just acquired an “asset” pulled from a South American river – a tall, gilled amphibian-man accompanied by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). He is there to oversee the study of the creature and he’s clearly the film’s chief antagonist. Shannon is great and it’s a role he could probably do in his sleep. And as you would expect he is completely committed.

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But while undeniably menacing, Shannon (of no fault of his own) is also terribly on the nose. Much of del Toro’s more cynical point of view is encapsulated in Shannon’s character. He’s written to fit the mean old-fashioned Red State stereotype and through him del Toro gets to comment on religion, race and a host of other topics. But there is no subtlety whatsoever. You can practically hear del Toro beating his pulpit through much of Shannon’s dialogue.

Elisa’s curiosity and empathy help her to form a bond with the creature (yet another among the marginalized). She sneaks in the labratory and shares her lunch with the creature and plays it music on a portable record player. How is she able to have so much unguarded access to what is called “the most sensitive asset to ever be housed in the facility” and something we find out the Russians are after? There’s not a good answer to that, but they form a bond nonetheless. And after Elisa overhears talk of dissection, she knows she needs to bust the creature out.

As you watch you can’t help but see allusions to “The Creature From the Black Lagoon”, “King Kong” and even “Beauty and the Beast”. But del Toro pushes his creature fantasy further than any of those pictures. For some the film is genuinely romantic but I never had that sensation. The pacing doesn’t give the relationship time to germinate. And there are other things that get in the way – del Toro’s weird use of sexuality; a brief but bizarre dance number (I’ll leave it at that); and one scene which some have called the most beautiful moment in the film yet I couldn’t get over the sheer absurdity of how it played out. For me all of this underserved the romance the movie is trying to establish.

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While it has it’s narrative imperfections you can’t help but love the world del Toro visualizes. Inside the laboratory has a cold, harsh, metallic look. But outside the film takes on a gorgeous glow. Many images stand out for their beauty. It may be a bead of water dancing down a bus window or a brief camera pan across a movie house marquee right after a rain. The creature itself (played by long-time del Toro collaborator Doug Jones) is a fantastic creation made from traditional effects over CGI. Then you have Alexandre Desplat’s lovely, waltzy, heart-warming score which may be the best of the year. And of course the performances which are top-to-bottom fabulous.

It’s tough to know where to land on “The Shape of Water”. On one side you have a world so beautifully visualized, an enchanting classic movie vibe, top-notch performances, and a score that swept me away. On the other hand you have some glaring storytelling issues – an underserved romance, heavy-handed messaging that spells out instead of engaging, peculiar injections of nudity and graphic violence (sorry kids), and key scenes undercut by their goofiness. Yes, I know this is a fantasy picture and maybe I should be more imaginative, but when I’m thinking about these things as the movie plays – that’s a bummer. But did I mention how pretty the world is?

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

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Playwright turned screenwriter Martin McDonagh is three movies into his feature film career – “In Bruges”, “Seven Psychopaths” and his latest “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”. While each film has their differences they also also have their similarities. All three are black comedy crime pictures and each prominently feature McDonagh’s brash writing style. You can decide whether that last part is a good thing or not.

McDonagh’s inspiration for “Three Billboards” came as he was driving in southeastern United States and noticed some billboards speaking to an unsolved crime. He began filling in his own elements to the story and “Three Billboards” was born. As he began penning the script two characters were written with specific performers in mind. The lead character of Mildred was written for Frances McDormand and key supporting character Dixon was written for Sam Rockwell.

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The story begins seven years after the brutal rape and murder of a teenaged girl around Ebbing, Missouri. The girl’s mother Mildred (McDormand), angered by the sheriff department’s lack of progress on the case, rents three abandoned billboards just outside of town calling out the local authorities. The billboards read “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests?” and “How come, Chief Willoughby?”

Mildred’s billboards spark the ire of the townsfolk including Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), his dense and racist deputy Dixon (Rockwell), and even her depressed son Robbie (Lucas Hedges). But Mildred (a fitting reflection of McDonagh’s abrasive writing style) pushes forward which leads to a series of conflicts that make up a bulk of McDonagh’s problematic story.

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“Three Billboards” is such a mixed bag. McDonagh wildly swings from absurdly goofy to deeply emotional with no real gauge for tone. A scene of oddball humor can shift to a scene of startling violence on a whim. Often the characters are the biggest victims. One minute a man is brutally beating another man and punching a woman in the face. Only a few scenes later we are asked to buy into his moral transformation. Even Mildred suffers from McDonagh’s erratic treatment. She’s an inspirational crusader and a sympathetic mother. She’s also a verbally abusive, dysfunctional parent and can sometimes be needlessly hateful and vile. McDormand goes all in and her performance is solid, but her character (like most in the film) is all over the map.

Funny enough the movie is its most effective when it turns down the volume and focuses on the quieter dramatic moments. Many of these involve Woody Harrelson, an actor often known for big and showy. His Sheriff Willoughby is probably the film’s most tempered character but he’s not immune to McDonagh’s occasional jarring dialogue. And it seems we are meant to be at least a little sympathetic towards him, but to do so the movie ignores some gaping moral holes and expects us to do the same. Sorry, I can’t.

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Several other things keep “Three Billboards” from reaching the potential it teases. There’s McDonagh’s weird vision of small town America. He nails how the effects of a horrible tragedy can ripple through a rural tight-knit community. And visually the North Carolina location is a nice stand-in for the fictional town of Ebbing. But his wonky cast consists of racists, sexists, bigots, abusers, child molesters, and several other offensive classes of miscreants. Is this his rural perception? I’ll take a Coen brother’s version over this one any day.

And then you have McDonagh’s insistence on being blatantly and often pointlessly vulgar and crass. I get that it’s his thing, but forcing it into the bulk of the dialogue becomes annoying and distracting. I have no problem with a writer bringing their own style and sensibility, but it’s never a good thing when you can feel the writer constantly impressing himself on his material. Mix that with the seismic tonal shifts, uneven and often incomprehensible characters, and an overbearing desire to be as un-PC as possible regardless of how it effects the story. The result is a frustrating movie built on a good idea and featuring some strong performances yet undermined by problems too big to dismiss. Ultimately it’s a film that acts like it has something to say, but you quickly learn it’s little more than an empty hull. And for a movie about a mother seeking justice, it’s certainly has little to offer.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Molly’s Game”

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Jessica Chastain already had one knockout 2017 performance under her belt with the World War 2 drama “The Zookeeper’s Wife”. Now you can make it two with her latest film, the biographical crime drama “Molly’s Game”. It’s an adaptation of the 2014 memoir of Molly Bloom, once an Olympic hopeful in freestyle skiing but later the runner of exclusive underground poker games.

Chastain plays Molly Bloom and is given an incredibly meaty role by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. This also marks Sorkin’s feature film directorial debut. Much like his Oscar-winning script for “The Social Network”, “Molly’s Game” slickly weaves together a current day legal drama with flashbacks that tell of Molly’s rise and decade-long run as the “poker princess” which eventually leads to her arrest by the FBI.

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Sorkin’s signature dense, fast-paced dialogue zips us through the backstory with the help of Molly’s narration. It comes in spurts and covers a lot of ground – her time at home with her hard-nosed father/coach (another fine supporting turn by Kevin Costner), her move to Los Angeles after a horrible skiing accident, and her high-stakes poker games that start in LA and end in New York.

Throughout these flashbacks we meet an interesting lot of characters. Take Michael Cera who plays a movie star simply known as Player X. In Molly’s memoir she named several A-listers who frequented her games – movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Affleck, rapper Nelly, and baseball star Alex Rodriguez to name a few. Many believe Cera’s smarmy Player X is an amalgam of these big named celebrities who helped draw billionaires to Molly’s games. But it seems Player X represents one particular movie star who the book paints as particularly reprehensible – Tobey Maquire.

The dialogue also shines in the current day scenes with Molly and her lawyer Charlie Jaffey. He’s played by Idris Elba, so perfect in tone and intensity. Delivering Sorkin’s words can’t be easy. It demands a quick tongue and even quicker wit. Elba’s delivery is smooth as silk and he shares a well tuned chemistry with Chastain. At times there is a fierce energy between the two but there are also quieter moments which offer a unexpected amount of warmth and levity.

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All of it is kept in sync through Sorkin’s impressive direction. He deftly manages his mile-a-minute language and structural hopscotch while giving his performers plenty of space to work. The film also packs a surprising visual punch that matches the spirit and vigor of the dialogue. It’s nothing eye-popping but it’s as sharp and snappy as it’s lead character. And most importantly Sorkin keeps himself out of the way, trusting his material and his actors.

Aaron Sorkin has shown a fascination in self-made success stories as evident by his last four movies. “The Social Network”, “Moneyball”, “Steve Jobs”, and now “Molly’s Game” all tell of individuals who bucked systems and against all probability propelled themselves to success. “Molly’s Game” may be the best of the bunch. It’s one part invigorating character study and one part stunning expose. It features a trifecta of top-notch performances from Elba, Costner, and especially Chastain. It does feel long at 140 minutes yet it’s never dull nor does it run out of gas. Sorkin has too much to say to ever allow that to happen.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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