By William Wolf

THE BEST TEN FILMS OF 2016  Send This Review to a Friend

(Selected from films released in New York theaters during the year and listed in order of preference,)

1.I, DANIEL BLAKE

2. LA LA LAND

3. LOVING

4. THINGS TO COME

5. LION

6. THE INNOCENTS

7. FATIMA

8. JACKIE

9. THE PEOPLE VS. FRITZ BAUER

10. MARGUERITE

Other favorites among 2016 films, listed in no special order:

Fences, Neruda, 13th, Elle, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, The Measure of a Man, OJ: Made in America, Denial, Snowden, Sully, Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four, Art Bastard, Mia Madre, Sand Storm, Indignation, Café Society, Florence Foster Jenkins, Toni Erdmann, The Pickle Recipe, Finding Babel, Fire at Sea, A Tale of Love and Darkness, The Birth of a Nation, War Dogs, A Man Called Ove, Anthropoid, Genius, Dough, Papa: Hemingway in Cuba, Louder Than Bombs, Rules Don’t Apply, Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?, Hell or High Water, I Am Not Madame Bovary, I Am Not Your Negro.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2017--MUDBOUND  Send This Review to a Friend

Based on Hillary Jordan’s novel, “Mudbound” is a major film attempting to shed light on race relations and societal juxtapositions against a background of struggles on the land in the Mississippi Delta. Set after World War II, the film reflects an effort by director Dee Rees, who wrote the screenplay with Virgil Williams, to tell a sweeping story in intimate terms.

At the core are two families, one white, the other African-American, each with a tough existence, but as one might expect, the black family suffering most as a result of the discrimination prevalent at the time in a South with the KKK still marauding.

An excellent cast contributes toward making the various characters lifelike, and the filmmakers have opted for individual narrations to both further the story and increase our understanding of the characters and what they face.

Henry McAllan, played by Jason Clarke, with his wife Laura portrayed stoically by Carey Mulligan, has bought land and a rickety house into which they move. Henry’s younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) is more aware of Laura’s needs and longings than her husband is. One discerns a possible romantic inclination in him as well. The grandfather in the family, played by Jonathan Banks) is thoroughly reprehensible for his bigotry.

Working the land that McAllan has bought is the Jackson family. Interestingly, popular vocal star Mary J. Blige is cast in the demanding role of Florence Jackson, married to Hap (Rob Morgan), and she makes the most of her dramatic opportunity,

An important part of the plot involves the friendship that develops between Jamie and the Jacksons’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who bond despite race divisions and the frowning upon white-black relationships. In the military and fighting abroad, Ronsel has experienced relative freedom for the first time and a relationship with a white German woman that will later produce a dangerous situation back home.

The plot becomes extremely intricate, with deeply emotional events occurring, and sometimes the story seems over-extended. However, the humanity that pervades “Mudbound” at times has a powerful impact. The film is also visually potent with excellent cinematography by Rachel Morrison. A Netflix release. Reviewed November 17, 2017.

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2017--BORG/MCENROE  Send This Review to a Friend

Tennis was on the agenda big time on opening night of the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The selection was “Borg/McEnroe,” directed by Janus Metz, a dramatization of the famous 1980 Wimbledon court battle between Sweden’s Bjõrn Borg and America’s John McEnroe.

The film, which I am belatedly getting around to writing about, is really on two levels—the tennis matches and the portraits of the players themselves. Each actor is first rate, Sverrir Gudnason as Borg and Shia LaBeouf as McEnroe. The film, although over-long, has a generous helping of excitement. But it is plagued by a basic difficulty.

It is all personality and no real tennis. Yes, there is plenty of cleverly done editing of clips to give the impression of the match. How much better it would have been to see real clips of the actual match itself! But that would have been a documentary.

Such an approach would not have made it possible to dramatize the anxieties and lives of the two players, as the actors in the roles would not match those we see on the court. By not going back to the real match, the film could show the two stars going through some motions on the court to lend authenticity, but emoting in the reality-based drama.

As involving as the portrayals are, the more their skills are touted, the more I longed to see the real tennis combat. But it has to be said that the editing by Per Sandholdt and Per K. Kirkegaard is outstanding, as is the direction by Metz. The interweaving of the clips is extremely effective. LaBeouf often steals scenes with the bad-boy outbursts for which McEnroe was known.

As is the custom, the opening night screenings of the film were followed by a packed party in the TIFF Lighthouse building to celebrate the internationally popular event. Posted November 1, 2017.

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2017--LADY BIRD  Send This Review to a Friend

Greta Gerwig has earned a good reputation as an actor and now, with “Lady Bird,” she shows that she also has considerable talent as a writer-director.

Gerwig chronicles the restlessness of a high school girl In Sacramento who wants to break loose from her mother’s grip, which includes plans for a close-to-home college education instead of letting her daughter fly away. ( Lady Bird is really named Christine, but she chooses to be known as Lady Bird to help make her seem special.)

The title role is played by the excellent Saoirse Ronan (“Brooklyn”) and although she does a skillful job, I find her appearing too old for high school age. She looks more like a person already into the world beyond that and this bothers me on the credibility count.

I know there is a lot of buzz about the film, which apparently speaks to many who have had growing up problems of their own. But while on the one hand, Ronan gives Lady Bird plenty of spirit, her personality can be rather annoying as we watch her go through the paces of her assorted experiences and attitudes.

Lady Bird is bent on going to college in New York to see broader horizons. This idea is anathema to her mother, Marion, given a superb performance by Laurie Metcalf. The father is portrayed by Tracy Letts, convincing as usual.

There is much to enjoy in watching Lady Bird wrestle with life and in laughing at some of the humorous lines and situations, and Gerwig directs sharply. But I find the title character rather tiresome at times. You may feel otherwise. An A24 release. Reviewed October 30, 2017.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2017--THE SQUARE  Send This Review to a Friend

The art world gets a daffy satirical going-over in “The Square,” written and directed by Ruben Östlund and set in Stockholm. The film is overlong at nearly two and one-half hours, as well as being disjointed, but it does manage to deliver some laughs at various points in spoofing doings at a major museum.

Claes Bang plays Christian, who has a temporary appointment as the museum’s curator, and an unusual exhibit sets the stage for mayhem. A small square is blocked off outside the museum as an area that is meant to be an oasis of trust and caring. What will be the reaction of people who either look at it or step into it? Modern art, you see, with a social function.

But plot contortions lead to a public relations disaster. A campaign to call attention to the project, unthinkingly OK’d by Christian, backfires dramatically. Christian is in a hot spot, as is the museum.

What passes for romantic interest is a quickie sexual escapade between Christian and an American journalist played by Elisabeth Moss. She hops into bed with him and when it is clear that it was a one-nighter, she turns angry in a rather silly reaction, as there was no indication that it would be anything more. Moss is good actor, but the part is a vapid one.

A scene that I enjoyed most was an accident involving a pile of dirt heaped as supposed art. When the dirt is accidently knocked apart in cleaning, it has to be repiled to make it look as if nothing happened. As if it would make a difference. The gag touched a nerve with me, as I have recoiled at such banal exhibitions at museums that are passed off as contemporary art.

Christian gets into another kind of trouble when he has his cell phone stolen and sets out to find out who did it by passing out leaflets in a building. This sets in motion a complication that takes some time to be clarified.

There is plenty going on in the romp with various targets, but despite portions that strike the funny bone, other elements are heavy handed. If the film were far shorter, it would be easier to take. A Magnolia Pictures release. Reviewed October 27, 2017.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2017--FÉLICITÉ  Send This Review to a Friend

Véro Tshanda Beya has an extraordinary face and screen presence. The camera dotes on her throughout “Félité,”directed by Alain Gomis, who collaborated on the screenplay with Olivier Loustau and Delphine Zingg. Beya plays the woman of the title, Félité, and in the city of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo she earns her meager living as a singer in a band.

There is magnetism to her manner and appearance, with a face that the camera absolutely adores as it chronicles her life. As for the story, Félicité is stunned when she gets the news that her son has been seriously injured. Suddenly her life is plunged into crisis, with her ordinary routine shattered by the urgency of needing to raise money for her son’s medical care.

This is a tough task, and we follow her journey as she roams the city to solve the problem. Although the atmosphere is compelling, there is not a lot of action in the film, mainly focusing on the singer and her mission. There is also the welcome music provided by th Kasai Allstars band, and of course, the voice of the leading lady.

Looking at close-ups of Félicité through the film is both engrossing and somewhat tiresome, given the one-note mostly somber expression that we encounter. Not until late in the film does she really flash a broad smile, and that becomes a welcome breath of fresh air that enlivens her character and the movie. A Strand Releasing release. Reviewed October 27, 2017.

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2017--SUBURBICON  Send This Review to a Friend

The film holds special interest because it has been directed by George Clooney. He is also the writer of the script with Joel and Ethan Coen and Grant Heslov. The film has ideas about nastiness in American life, but there’s a problem of mixing two aspects that aren’t really a good fit.

The setting is a supposedly typical American suburb in the 1950s, which production designer Jim Bissell and cinematograph Robert Elswit nail perfectly with a look of stultifying sameness. There are two basic plot situations.

One represents greed and lust. Matt Damon plays Gardner Lodge who is married to Rose but is really hot for her sister, Margaret. Intriguingly both the wife and sister are played by Julianne Moore. How can Gardner get rid of his wife? A murder with insurance money as an added attraction is concocted by arranging what is to look like robbers invading the home.

Naturally, there will be a problem. It arrives in the form of an insurance investigator, played smarmily by Oscar Isaac. That would be enough of a story in itself for a film. But the writers and director have an added idea.

An African-American family moves into all white Suburbicon and this triggers racist hostility and vicious action against the newcomers. Leith Burke and Karimah Westbrook play the black couple trying to hold forth and resist with conviction and dignity. That situation could also make a movie unto itself.

By mixing problems—greed and lust on the one hand, racism on the other—the film doesn’t do right by either. The all-around nastiness comes across, but the film becomes somewhat of an uncomfortable jumble.

On the plus side is the acting, which helps grasp our interest despite the crassly contrived situations. “Suburbicon” is of interest mainly because Clooney directed, and he does show the ability to keep a film very intense against the background of supposed normalcy. But as for the screenplay, perhaps too many hands were involved. A Paramount Pictures release. Posted October 27, 2017.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2017--BPM (BEATS PER MINUTE)  Send This Review to a Friend

Flash back to Paris in the early 1990s, when AIDS was wreaking death sentences upon gays, just as was occurring in the U.S. Also, there was slowness in combating the epidemic in France, another parallel to what gays were experiencing in the U.S.

“BPM (Beats Per Minute,” directed by Robin Campillo, focuses dramatically on Act Up, the French movement fighting the complacency and demanding action. More than that, it is also an intimate look at individuals and their AIDS-fraught relationships.

The film takes us into strategic meetings held and the vehement differences that occur. We get the speeches, the frustrations and the determination to meet the challenge.

Most dramatically, we also see the demonstrations held against the drug companies for not coming forth with enough medication that should be available. There are the invasions of government offices to demand action.

The film becomes a model of portraying activism. It reveals the desperation, the passion and the personal tragedies along the way. It stresses an era that should not be forgotten and salutes the heroism of those who spoke out. The director has assembled an array of excellent actors who make all seem very real. A The Orchard release. Reviewed October 20, 2017.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2017--WONDERSTRUCK  Send This Review to a Friend

Director Todd Haynes’s new film “Wonderstruck,” based on Brian Selznick’s book, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” offers an odd experience. There is overall charm in its exploration of quests by two youngsters, but it takes a while to begin to handle the two stories in different time frames.

One involves Ben, played engagingly by Oakes Fegley, and is set in 1977. Ben not only must cope with the death of his mother, but becomes deaf as a result of a freak accident with lightning. His story involves leaving his home in Minnesota and heading for New York to search for his father, a parent whom he has never met.

In addition to following the adventures and anxieties of Ben, plagued by his handicap, “Wonderstruck” follows the life of Rose in a time frame 50 years before Ben’s saga. Rose, who is 12, is effectively played by Millicent Simmonds. She also is deaf. She comes from Hoboken, N.J. and runs away from home to head for New York, not having as far to go as Ben in confronting the big city while searching for her mother.

There is some confusion as to the time differences, but Haynes attempts to help the viewer by showing Ben’s more recent saga in color, and Rose’s earlier one in black and white. It takes a while to get the hang of it all, but eventually the film comes down in part to how much you will become emotionally involved.

One help is the casting of Julianne Moore, always Interesting, this time in a dual role. Another high point is the treatment of New York in the different eras, and Haynes is fortunate to have had cinematographer Ed Lachman bringing his expertise to the task.

When Ben meets Jamie (Jaden Michael) and they become friends, their hanging out together offers a further opportunity for exploring Manhattan, including a magical foray into the Museum of Natural History.

There is a lot to cover in the twins stories, conceptually connected, and some of the escapades are more amusing or poignant than others. How you react to “Wonderstruck” may depend on how much you are taken by the performances, and how much you are seduced by the visuals and the sense of time and place. An Amazon Studios release. Reviewed October 20, 2017.

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2017--REMEMBERING WILLIAM MARSHALL  Send This Review to a Friend

William Marshall, co-founder of the Toronto International Film Festival (originally called Festival of Festivals), who died in June, was given appropriate tribute at this year’s event. The accolades not only came in recognition during speeches at opening night ceremonies. There was a brief film saluting Marshall shown at the start of every screening during the course of the event.

I knew Bill Marshall and recall the origins of the Toronto Festival. At a Cannes Film Festival one year, Bill, and co-founders Dusty Cohl and Henk Van der Kolk were sitting around on the terrace of the Carlton Hotel talking about the event and plans for it. In fact, I was asked then whether I would agree to chair so-called craft conferences at the Festival—panels covering various aspects of filmmaking. As it turned out, I did that for the Festival’s first two years.

All three of the co-founders were visionaries, determined to give Toronto a festival even though there were naysayers who said Toronto could never pull it off. Dusty died previously, and now Bill was gone. At the TIFF building, there is a Founder’s lounge with the pictures of all three co-founders on the wall. I had the pleasure of having drinks there this year with Henk and his wife, Yanka, who have remained my friends through the years, as were Bill and Dusty.

It gives me great satisfaction that TIFF, which has grown into one of the world’s greatest festivals, remembering the men who started it all. Too often such leaders are forgotten with the passage of time. But this year, we got to see Bill Marshall on film before each screening began. Hats off to TIFF—and to Dusty and Henk as well. Posted October 18, 2017.

  

[Film] [Theater] [Cabaret] [About Town] [Wolf]
[Special Reports] [Travel] [HOME]