The Shape of Water–E.T. Meets Aqua Man

 

The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water (2018  Academy Award for Best Picture) is written and directed by the Mexican wunderkind, Guillermo del Toro (of “Pan’s Labyrinth”). Part-fantasy, part-political commentary, and part-love story, “The Shape of Water” is difficult to categorize.   The Shape of Water, an adult fairy tale of sorts, is both deeply familiar and suggests magical realism.

The opening scene, an aquatic beneath-the-sea dreamscape, leads us into a floating world of teal green water, gliding past chairs, lamps and tables, all swirling in the interior of the flooded apartment of Eliza, a mute janitor (the awesome Sally Hawkins), who lives a very spartan and lonely life.  The Shape of Water

Set during the Cold War, an alien aqueous creature worshipped as a god in the Amazon, has been captured for weapons research and is subsequently mistreated in a top-secret military research lab in a race against Russian scientists. The addition of a sensitive Russian biologist, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg of “Call Me By Your Name”,”The Post” and “Fargo”) , who recognizes the humanity of the amphibious anomaly, gives a surprising twist to the Cold War plot.

In The Shape of Waterthe damage is more psychological than physical.  Eliza’s face has been inexplicably burned some time in her past. Both she and the underwater sea creature, as well as her friends, are outcasts in a cruel, unforgiving world. “The others” — those with ethnic, racial and class differences, gays, the disabled, communists— are outsiders and misfits like Aqua Man. The way those “others” are woven together is a minor wonder and a parable for resisting authoritarianism and valuing diversity.

Because of her muteness, Elisa is looked at by others as something less than fully human, a type of alien herself. Her interest in the Aqua Man evolves into a deeply empathetic relationship, stirred less by curiosity than by recognition and identification with his plight. Think ET–an innocent befriending an alien.

Her neighbor Giles (in a wonderful performance by Richard Jenkins), a gay struggling aging artist , and Zelda (a sometimes hilarious Octavia Spencer), her co-worker on the cleaning crew, are her only social connections. Until she meets the Amazon amphibian.

Scientists in lab coats and military officers march officiously past their cleaning carts, rendering Elisa and her friend Zelda invisible at best and insulted more than occasionally. Richard Strickland (an always astonishing Michael Shannon), who is a government official in charge of the research project, carries an electric cattle prod, urinates in front of Eliza and Zelda, and genuinely enjoys sadism towards the Aqua Man. Now who is the monster, the dangerous alien?

Tension builds as one of the Russian research scientists is ordered to assassinate the amphibious creature before the Americans do. Here The Shape of Water pivots from a spy thriller with an ET vibe to a hodge-podge of 1940’s dance musicals (“La La Land” anyone?) and old film clips of musical numbers starring Shirley Temple, Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda and the Glenn Miller Orchestra among others. What happened to the main story? This not only didn’t hold this viewer’s attention but was a major disconnect.

Sadly, Shape of Water does not represent storytelling at its best. The drama is derivative of ET, and while water is ever changing in its shapelessness, only Elisa brings enough form and feeling to allow us to disavow the plot holes, offkilter sidetracking, and lack of backstory to understand some of the other major characters’ flaws.

Nonetheless, this is a career high for Sally Hawkins, who must   communicate emotion with sheer physicality, since she plays a mute woman. And her performance is extraordinary.

Worth watching for Sally Hawkins and her colleagues Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, and Richard Jenkins. Not so much for the story!

Call Me By Your Name…”And I’ll Call You By Mine”

Based on the novel by André Acimen and directed by Luca Guadagnino, Call Me By Your Name delivers a universal coming-of-age narrative. The two main characters’ relationship serves as a mirror through which viewers can recognize their own vulnerability and youth’s promise of love.

Against the backdrop of the Northern Italian countryside in the 1980’s, Call Me By Your Name is a beautiful portrait of the complexity of human desire and sexuality. Elio (the Academy Award-nominated Timothée Chalamet), is the adolescent son of a Jewish archaeologist and a French-Italian mother. Oliver (Armie Hammer, also nominated for an Academy Award), is a research assistant mentored by Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg). Invited to the professor’s home to gather data on ancient Greek sculpture during the summer, Oliver embark on what would be considered a morally-questionable romance, as he and the teenage Elio explore not only homosexual love but also love between an adolescent and an adult ten years older. Call Me By Your Name normalizes this relationship as simply a romance between two men that seems to exist completely outside of time. The two pass the summer under the glittering Italian sun, portraying both the brilliance of the landscape and the idyllic, albeit ephemeral, nature of summer love and heat.

Chalamet and Hammer deliver amazing and sensitive performances that truly capture the struggle of sexual exploration and identity. Call Me By Your Name reveals the subtle complexities and intense sexual attraction between Elio and Oliver, thus helping the viewer to really understand their romance as well as the games they play.. The character of Elio, in particular, proves incredibly raw, insightful, and even alluring—almost an archetype of male youth, mirrored in a pivotal scene where Elio’s father admires the erotic male sculpture of ancient Greece, stating that the art “dares you to desire them.” In his relatable, sometimes clumsy efforts at winning the affections of Oliver, Elio showcases his vulnerability, anguish, and self-actualization. These struggles are poetically articulated in scenes with Elio’s parents who, rather than denounce the relationship, encourage his self-exploration. Elio’s father delivers an electrifying speech–“We rip so much out of ourselves”– that unapologetically combats conventional notions of masculinity and human desire, lost youth, as well as the aching heartbreak of unrealized dreams.

— Sam McKeown, Guest blogger

Currently a graduate student at the American University of Paris exploring different methods of storytelling through food, Sam’s blog can be found at: placebuds.blog

Memento–Remembrance of Things Past

Wesley Saunders, Guest Blogger

[Professional basketball player for Kataja Basket of Finland, Harvard ’15. Stop by his  Instagram: @saunders.wesley and watch his  Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8mC0KC_BZU&t=10s]

Memento movie

Memento (2000), a psychological thriller, is one of director Christopher Nolan’s earliest films, incorporating a couple of Nolan’s signature styles of film making– most notably a dual-plot line and non-linear narrative. Memento follows two distinct story lines, both narrated by the main character, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce). After a head injury sustained during a burglary in which his wife was raped and murdered, Shelby is no longer able to create new memories, only remembering events that occurred before the tragedy. Shelby is haunted by the memory of his wife and her final moments and takes it upon himself to solve his wife’s murder.   His mission: to exact revenge on the person who murdered her and left him with amnesia.

From the onset of Memento Nolan draws us into the first storyline (filmed in color), driven by revenge. In the first scene Shelby exacts revenge and from there, we are shown in reverse chronological order, not only the events that led up to his wife’s brutal murder but also his attempt to reconstruct the past he no longer remembers.

The second narrative is the story of Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky) presented in chronological order and filmed in multiple black-and-white flashbacks. These flashbacks pre-date Shelby’s amnesia, taking us back to Shelby’s time as an insurance agent. During this time, Shelby was assigned a case in which Sammy Jankis suffers from the same type of short-term memory loss. Shelby uses Sammy as a way to understand his condition as well as a guide for what to beware of.

While both of these story lines are presented to us simultaneously, Nolan adds his next cinematic device. Similar to some of his later films — Batman Begins: The Dark Knight and The Prestige,– in Memento Nolan cuts, edits, and merges scenes, skewing the viewer’s perspective of time as well as memory. Some scenes are repeated multiple times, truncated only to be finished later on. All of this contributes to the mystique and the mystery of Memento, while also forcing the viewer to pay attention to minute details within each scene that may not have been previously noticed. This style of film making puts the viewer in the shoes of Shelby.

In some instances, the viewer shares Shelby’s confusion– not sure of what has already occurred, or what information another character may or may not have. We too in some ways experience his amnesia and try to put the pieces of the mystery together along with Shelby. Nolan does a masterful job of placing us in the mind of the main character and of giving us an idea of the inner struggle and frustration he faces. By the end of Memento we are left with some answers but many more questions. We have been on a journey of how memory functions, an involuntary process of discovery and concealing.

Black Sea (2014)–The Darkness Beneath the Surface

 

The British-American disaster thriller Black Sea stars  Jude Law as a veteran (Robinson) deep-sea salvage captain, recently unemployed and divorced with a young son. While dejected and wondering what his future holds, Robinson has drinks with a fellow co-worker, Kurston, in similar circumstances.    Soon the two friends assemble a misfit crew to go after the treasure (rumored to be worth millions in gold bullion) from a World War II U-boat sunken in the Black Sea.   After meeting with a financial backer known only as Lewis, they set off on their adventure agreeing to a 60/40 split with Lewis. One of Lewis’s stipulations for financing is to include his minion, Daniels (David Threlfall), purportedly for monitoring the success of the mission.

The exploration begins in a mothball submarine with a crew half Russian and half British. As expected, personality clashes and differences of strategy develop almost immediately. Greed and desperation take control on their claustrophobic vessel. The increasing uncertainty of the mission causes the men to turn on each other.

Black Sea has complicated plot twists, many unexpected, including the ending. Suicide, murder, betrayal all add to the mix. Only one crew member is bilingual and therefore the essential communicator. The youngest member, Tobin, is mistakenly assumed to be a virgin–a bad omen according to the Russian crew.

One particularly hot-headed British crewman is Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn from the award-winning “Bloodline” Netflix series) who ends up in furious, self-destructive, and damaging relationships with almost everyone. Tensions continue to mount with the expected mechanical troubles but with surprising allegiances formed in order to survive. After multiple betrayals and double-crossings Robinson is forced to attempt a risky navigation through a narrow channel in deep water, against almost all crew members’ wishes. As the leader of this mission, Robinson finds himself in no-win situations, no allies, and left with no values or integrity.

The narrative is high-drama, both character-driven and plot-driven–a rarity, particularly in film of this genre. An engaging, crowd-pleaser for almost everyone, especially submarine movie fans. “Das Boot” and “Hunt for Red October” anyone? Black Sea belongs in the same category.

 

Phantom Thread: Moving Through Love, Death and Genius

[Bill Clark, Guest Blogger]

Phantom Thread

 

In an early scene of writer / director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Academy-Award nominated Phantom Thread,  Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) gazes across the dinner table at Alma (Vicky Krieps) who he hopes will be his next easy conquest. After all, he’s the renowned haute couture dressmaker in 1950s London who clothes royalty and celebrities. She’s just a waitress he picked up earlier in the day. She returns his look with her own dark-eyed steady gaze: “If this is a staring match, you’re going to lose.” And so it begins – a contest of wills and loves, desires and needs, beauty and death.

Alma, from the Latin meaning “nurturing, soul,” enters Reynolds Woodcock’s aesthetic hyper-sensitive world as a life-force determined to break through his hardened upper crust nonchalance. She will have him love her as she wants to be loved, as she knows he needs both to love and be loved.

Closely guarded by his sister / business manager Cyril (Lesley Manville), who’s wary of Alma’s effect on Reynolds, Reynolds flits around Alma, first as his principal model and then lover and inspiration, as a hummingbird, darting in and out. His self-protective indifference provokes and challenges Alma, wanting to become closer to her but driving her to her own obsessive acts.

As this courtship dance goes on, we feast on a visual banquet of couturier 1950s dresses, in deliciously colored fabrics, worthy of a young princess appearing at her favorite charity’s annual gala. You can almost hear silk swish as models walk the runway displaying Woodcock’s artistry.

Jonny Greenwood’s score provides an evocative musical background that completes the extraordinary and convoluted love story, Phantom Thread.

Can there be any doubt what the “phantom thread” is?

 

The Vietnam War–Closure or Catharsis?

The Vietnam War TV series
The Vietnam War

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s PBS masterpiece, The Vietnam War is a mournful, heartbreaking documentary: an essential expose and an unvarnished history of war. The refocusing of history using first-person stories is the most important “Ken Burns effect” producing his best documentary to date.

Burns loves to film everyday people’s “small” stories which give perspective and emotion to the larger picture.   The interviews are unforgettable and poignant–a viscerally searing reminder why there is no winner in war. The human faces, together with the visible psychological damage of all participants (American and Vietnamese), make The Vietnam War courageous and unflinching, staggering, raw and, at times, brutally honest. Decades of bad decisions are verified by archival footage from both North and South Vietnam and secret tape recordings from inside the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. A wasteful, dizzying vortex unfolds: devouring lives due to American overconfidence, arrogance and cultural ignorance on one hand and the relentless groundswell of Vietnam’s peasant resistance to foreign rule on the other.

The Vietnam War unwinds as a montage of the collateral damage of war. Pain is still palpable on the faces of all interviewees, American and Vietnamese, recalling a hellishly dark time they cannot forget. One American veteran articulates his loss succinctly:   “The other casualty was the civilized version of me.”

The Vietnam War’s overwhelming power comes from these oral histories, almost twenty hours of them. An American vet describes dragging insurgents’ corpses “to see who would cry ”. An upstate New York soldier’s mother remembers terror every time she heard the crunch of tires on her driveway. A North Vietnamese officer recalls entering a house abandoned by a South Vietnamese family, a dress half-sewn still lying on a table. A North Vietnamese grandmother is forced to look at her bombed son’s face. A US troop rapes a little girl, and one interviewee breaks down relating the incident that happened more than half a century ago. Rare footage of atrocities on all sides are not for the faint-hearted. The historical sweep and emotional punch are evident throughout: a minimum of 429,000 U.S. and allied soldiers and 533,000 Communist troops and civilians killed between 1954 and 1975 (according to Newsweek). Millions more were wounded. Many sources place the estimates far above these.

Burns believes that the Vietnam war begins in 1945, –not 1965 , when President Lyndon Johnson dispatched the first U.S. ground combat unit. The US could not lose a war, after having come out of World War II victorious.

We are introduced to France’s mid-19th century colonization of territories that would eventually become Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The French plundered the region of natural resources, impoverishing its workers while creating servile French-speaking native bureaucrats to carry out its orders, all largely financed by the opium trade. By the early 20th century resistance was on the rise. Ho Chi Minh, the leader of a nascent revolution, is betrayed by two American presidents culminating in the US installation of a dictatorial regime in Saigon and the canceling of free elections for the Vietnamese people. Now the American war was on. The U.S. installed Ngo Dinh Diem as South Vietnam’s autocratic ruler, and aided him in wiping out his enemies. In addition, the US government engineered an election that Diem stole. Ho Chi Minh, betrayed, becomes the brilliant tactician and leader of the resistance.

The Vietnam War also echoes today’s headlines, as in the subplot of foreign collusion in an American election. Presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon had secretly requested that South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu stay out of peace talks with the North, in order to improve Nixon’s chances in the 1968 race. President Lyndon B. Johnson was aware of the deal through intelligence surveillance, knew Nixon was lying, but did not make that fact public. We hear Nixon’s lies on an audiotape of Johnson’s call. And Nixon’s paranoia about being found out in this lie partly contributes to Watergate.

The U.S. government begins justifying its growing military intervention in Vietnam, first under President Kennedy, then Lyndon Johnson. Washington policymakers redefine the war as a fight for freedom and democracy over communism. Both nations–the US and Vietnam– are torn apart.

The Vietnam War still holds out hope that we might learn from history, after presenting 20 hours of evidence to the contrary. This documentary no longer permits the US to evade the harsh reckoning that is long overdue. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick do not allow us to remain in denial about what we did in Viet Nam and why.

Note: The Vietnam War is brought into even sharper focus if watched with companion pieces, The Post, and I Am Not Your Negro (to be reviewed in my next post).

There are still buried landmines  killing people in Vietnam and international NGO’s are tasked with removing them.

“I Am Not Your Negro”–James Baldwin

 

I Am Not Your Negro

Nominated this year for the Academy Award for best documentary, I Am Not Your Negro is the best film in this category I have ever seen. An indie film (and PBS Independent Lens program) I Am Not Your Negro gives us a fuller understanding of the brilliant mind and soul of James Baldwin, a critical thinker, writer, and essayist, whose work is not as well-known as it should be.

At the time of Baldwin’s death in 1987, he left behind thirty pages of an unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, interweaving his incisive and excoriating psychological analysis of race, national identity, and morality. Filmmaker Raoul Peck envisions the world through the author’s own words. Enabling viewers to appreciate Baldwin’s unmatched eloquence, I Am Not Your Negro paints a portrait of his rich intellectual power, emotional pain and literary achievement.

James Baldwin in France
James Baldwin at home in Saint Paul de Vence, France in 1985.

Remember This House was supposed to be a personal account of the lives and assassinations of three of his close friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.  And his letter to his literary agent becomes the template for I Am Not Your Negro,   interspersing lines from the letter to convey Baldwin’s emotions at the time of his friends’ deaths.   I Am Not Your Negro

 Though James Baldwin has been dead for over 30 years, I Am Not Your Negro speaks with unimaginable clarity and force to both the 1960’s Civil Rights movement of his generation and today’s Black Lives Matter. Some of the most compelling scenes intercut footage of police violence in the ’60s with similar violence today, using Baldwin’s words to conflate the two eras. Uncomfortable truths and stark lessons from the shadows of history illuminate Baldwin’s delineation of the psychological dimensions of racial conflict: a dialectic of guilt and rage. In political and social relations between blacks and whites, Baldwin commands this territory, zeroing in on the lengths that whites will go in order to wash themselves clean of their complicity in and denial of oppression. The seminal and stunning argument that Baldwin presents is that racism is the manifestation of an underlying, psychologically pervasive feeling of self-doubt and vulnerability on the part of bigoted whites. Impotence and violence are two sides of the same behavior. Baldwin mercilessly penetrates the psychodynamices of the racist personality: hate comes from fear (of one’s own fragility and weakness) leading to rage and violence.

For the most part I Am Not Your Negro ignores Baldwin’s identity as a homosexual. As early as 1949, Baldwin intrepidly wrote about being gay, a central theme in some of his fiction. As a black gay man, Baldwin’s intellectual excellence was demeaned on several fronts due not only to racism but also to homophobia (which the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover menacingly reported). One of the most overlooked political activists, Lorraine Lansberry (playwright of “Raisin in the Sun”), is seen with Baldwin, in a courageous standoff against an unempathetic Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, in their failed attempt to have him go down to Birmingham, Alabama to support a fourteen year old girl’s fight for integration of a whites-only high school. This is a moment in history that few of us knew…until now.

I Am Not Your Negro makes you think about the life of an extraordinary black gay 1950’s intellectual in our present overheated, anti-intellectual moment in history.

In a scene from “The Dick Cavett Show,” Baldwin tangles with a Yale philosophy professor who condescendingly scolds him for making everything about race relations. The initial spectacle is painful, but Baldwin’s mildmannered triumph of brilliance over credentialed arrogance is thrilling to witness. In what seems effortless, through James Baldwin’s own eloquence we see race not only as a black intellectual sees it but as American blacks all have been defined by it.

Many of Baldwin’s most acclaimed books were written as an ex-pat in Paris where he found the emotional and physical distance required to create his profound dissection of American life. With chilling clarity, the US history of injustice is evident.

Hollywood traffics in stereotypes of black menace and subservience. In a reflexive move, I Am Not Your Negro also becomes a commentary on a U.S. cultural and economic system devoted only to simplistic racial “types” and on perpetuating a fiction of America as the greatest purveyor of freedom, democracy, and happiness. Posters, ads and a particularly rich selection of period movies –some of them Walt Disney and Dr. Seuss–force the viewer to evaluate and draw conclusions about this country’s fear and denial of race.  Juxtaposition of images and footage of Ferguson and Black Lives Matter with Baldwin’s three civil rights icons serves to underscore the plight of the US in our so-called post-racial present. I Am Not Your Negro is a sobering reminder of how far we’ve yet to go.

Note: Baldwin’s own words:   “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed if it is not faced.”

“I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. . . . I’m forced to be an optimist.”

 

 

“The Post”–High Stakes

 

The Post movie

Perhaps no other film this year captures two important political moments of our time: the issue of fake news and “me too”, the invisibility of women’s voices, until they were not. The Post is high-stakes filmmaking. Released this month, The Post is already receiving wide-ranging, intensely opposing reviews.

The Post opens with a scene of an American military analyst, Daniel Ellsberg shocked by the depths of continued deceit in hiding the loss of American lives in the Vietnam War, under four successive presidents (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson). Ellsberg photocopies 7000 pages of top secret government reports commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. (See my December 15, 2011 review, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Paper” Now he is determined to shed light on the deceit by leaking the incriminating papers to The New York Times.

Only after the US Department of Justice secures an injunction against The New York Times, on the ground of threats to national security, do the Pentagon Papers become The Washington Post’s story and, therefore, Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee’s story.

Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep star as Ben Bradlee (editor-in-chief) and Katherine Graham (The Washington Post owner) in a flashpoint in our history: the courageous decision, in 1971, to publish the Pentagon Papers, which then contributes to the end of the Vietnam War as well as bringing down the presidency of Richard Nixon.

The Post Meryl Streep
Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham

Katherine Graham, with no experience in the industry, has just assumed control of her family’s second-place local newspaper, The Washington Post,. The newspaper has neither significant power nor readership, and she is advised to take the company public since it is running at a financial loss. After her unfaithful husband has committed suicide, Katherine takes over the helm but she is fearful of losing her family’s newspaper legacy, having to lead in a man’s world where women do not manage corporations. Ben Bradlee gives her both respect and reminds her of the challenges of becoming a newspaper CEO.

Perhaps one of the most powerful and climactic moments in the film is when Katherine Graham, whose son has safely returned from Vietnam, realizes that US presidents’ lies have killed tens of thousands of young men over a period of two decades or more. Her turmoil anchors the film. Personal friends with Robert McNamara, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson, masterminds of the Vietnam War, Katherine Graham has multiple challenges to face and conflicting loyalties to balance in this high-stakes game: to publish or not to publish. Similarly, Ben Bradlee, who had been close to John F. Kennedy and proud of his association, is disillusioned as well.

The tensions keep rising. The Washington Post has just had an IPO. How will investors react? Will Graham and Bradley be prosecuted for revealing top secret documents? Will she lose the company she has inherited from her father and grandfather, hoping to bequeath The Washington Post to her children? How can she publish such damning material about her personal friends?

The Post bristles with intelligence. Every role is brilliantly cast: Bob Odenkirk (“Better Call Saul” and “Breaking Bad”) and Sarah Paulson (“The Case of O.J. Simpson” and “American Horror Story”) have brief onscreen roles but commanding speeches.

While the memory of the 1970s is still momentous for many, the context of a president in the Oval Office detesting and trying to muzzle the media bears an unmistakable parallelism with political events today. Such a thing could never again happen in America, right?

Note: Companion films and series to watch along with The Post are The Most Dangerous Man in America, All the President’s Men , and the superb, unforgettable Ken Burns’ PBS Series, The Vietnam War. Look for my review of the Ken Burns’ tour-de-force in the near future.

Note: Viewers who believe that the newspaper beacons–The New York Times and The Washington Post–are outdated and irrelevant, will enjoy disliking this movie. For those born in the seventies and later, this may seem like irrelevant history but in reality it is a lesson to be learned. If you remember the breaking into a locked door of the Democratic National Committee, you will have to explain this ending scene to the millennials who will not know the significance.

 

My Top 19 Movies and TV Series for 2017

 

Here are the reviews I wrote this year with the criteria that they were available online or were at local movie theaters, although not necessarily widely distributed.   Of the 45 reviews, here are my favorites.  It was much more difficult than in past years, since this year was absolutely stunning as was 2016. Both television and cinema have continued to produce phenomenal story-telling.

The following list is not ranked, only grouped by genre. I could not limit my choices to only 10.

INDIES and FOREIGN CINEMA

1) “Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri”: A BOLO for Justice” (December 17 review)  Martin McDonagh’s 2017 film, takes us along Mildred Hayes’ journey as she deals with the unsolved murder-rape of her teenage daughter. Golden Globe 2017 Winners for best drama, actress (Frances McDormand), and supporting actor (Sam Rockwell).

2) “Lady Bird”: A Girl’s Flight From Home (December 3 review) Seventeen-year-old Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, brilliantly played by Golden Globe 2017 Winner Saoirse Ronan navigates parent-child dynamics and the social complexities of her Catholic high school upbringing in Sacramento, California. Director/Writer Greta Gerwig does not let the film drift into a saccharine coming-of-age story.”

3)The Florida Project: Finding the Magic Kingdom (November 7 review) The Florida Project A sad, funny, happy, heart-breaking and most of all, unforgettable story of the secrets a child may have who lives in poverty near Orlando, Florida and Disney’s Magic Kingdom..

 4) The Big Sick: A Prescription for Love (October 16 review) Romance, cultural conflict, things unsaid–based on a true story, The Big Sick takes on the theme of how family bonds can break when their adult children’s relationships are not what the parents wish for.

 5) The Salt of the Earth: Drawing with Light (August 13 review) Perhaps the most startling experience in watching this documentary is the beauty that is embedded in the tragic and cruel situations of this journalistic photographer’s subjects. Each black and white photograph is a meditation, not a representation, and a record of his emotional response.

6) Wind River : Chilling and Icy, Drifting in the Snow (October 1 review)  A terrified Native American teenage girl is running in the snow, barefoot and bleeding.  She falls face down, gets up, and runs for six miles before dying from blood filling her lungs.  That is the opening hook in the true story of Wind River.

7) Loving:The Right to Choose (March 13 review)  Based on the landmark 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia finally invalidates state laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Loving is about hope, hope in the power of the individual –in this case, the least revolutionary couple–to change the fabric of the nation.

8) 13th: Not a Lucky Number (April 23 review) This Academy award-nominated documentary opens with the deeply disturbing fact that, even though the U.S. has only 5 percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. This is mass incarceration and it is deeply ingrained with race and our judicial system.

9) Pure: A Torn Soul (April 9 review)  20-year old Katarina is determined to flee her dreary grungy life, bullied by tormenters at school and neglected by her alcoholic prostitute mother. Everything changes when she hears a performance of Mozart’s Requiem, opening up a new world to a soul aching for an intellectual life.

 PSYCHOLOGICAL AND SOCIOLOGICAL

10 Merchants of Doubt: Certainty Nonetheless (September 26 review) This film is about the tactics used repeatedly by pseudo-experts to mislead the public about scientific findings critical to commercial products or practices.

11) The Staircase: A Fall to the Bottom (October 30 review)  The Staircase is not only an engrossing look at contemporary American justice that features more twists than a legal bestseller, but also an intimate glimpse into the world of the privileged and entitled, who seem bewildered by the entire justice system. The filmmakers had unusual access to the Peterson family within weeks of Kathleen’s death. We are invited behind the curtain but we don’t know why such total access was given.

 12) Bordertown: New Boundaries in Scandinavian Noir (July 23 review) The brooding, dark environment –like all great Nordic Noir —underscores the underbelly of nasty psychopaths and their heinous crimes. Bordertown is also a drama about family in which crime disrupts and plagues the family’s attempts at intimacy and communication.

13) Land of Mine: Made for You and Me (April 17 review)  A harrowing depiction of what many consider to be Denmark’s worst war crime. This film powerfully conveys the Danes’ bitterness towards the Nazi occupation, a rage so terrible that dismembered or exploding young boys were an acceptable, if uncomfortable, consequence.

14) The Accountant: A Hidden Asset (April 3 review)  A brilliant forensic accountant is demanded by organized crime syndicates around the globe, a high functioning Asperger math savant. There is an intense backstory of family dysfunction and a tragic family dynamics which switches to humor, at moments, for relief.

 15) Zero Days:Weaponizing Cyberspace (March 27 review)  A documentary that sounds the alarm about the world of cyberwarfare, and the weaponizing of the Internet, the computer-as-weapon. Stuxnet, the cyber espionage attack on an Iranian nuclear facility in 2010, results in unintended collateral damage to massive computer systems outside of Iran, some of which belonged to US and Israeli allies.

TV and ORIGINAL SERIES

16) Ozark: A Stark, Dark Thriller (September 20 review) [Netflix] This mini-series showcases a couple relocating with their son and daughter to the Lake of the Ozarks, a summer resort community in Missouri.  Marty must find a way to  continue to launder  money for a Mexican drug cartel.

 17) The Keepers: Another Spotlight (July 1 review) [Netflix]  In this true-crime documentary, The Keepers explores the 1969 death of 26-year old Catholic nun and Baltimore schoolteacher Sister Cathy Cesnik and touches on 20-year-old Joyce Malecki’s murder four days later. Both slayings remain unsolved. The cover up that follows has echoes of Spotlight .

18) The Wizard of Lies: Decades of Untruth (June 12 review) [HBO] Providing some insights into the inner circle of the extremely wealthy, The Wizard of Lies  is first and foremost a family saga of tragedy and betrayal. In the course of decades of lies and secrets, we wonder if it were greed that blinded family and friends to believe that their lives were worthy of such excess.

19) Handmaid’s Tale: In Service of Democracy? (May 14 review) [Hulu] Within the borders of what was formerly the United States of America, residents in The Handmaid’s Tale are segregated along strict racial, sexual, and class lines with each social group is confined to a regimented behavioral code. Code infractions are punishable by torture or death.

Note: Both Hidden Figures and Fences would have been included on my list of all-time favorite movies for 2017, but after receiving so many awards, including 2016 Academy Award nominations and winners, these two movies have not been mentioned them in this list. I assume most blog followers have seen these two films by now. I was rather late–seeing both movies in January 2017. If you haven’t seen both of them, they are must-see films for everyone!

 

Chinese New Year 2018 –Year of the Brown Earth Dog (Friday, February 16-March 2, 2018)

 

Chinese New Year 2018Happy New Year!

The Year of the Earth Dog (11th sign of the Chinese zodiac) could be a turning point in history. Born in the Year of the Fire Dog, Donald Trump fits the profile of a fiery, aggressive leader, one who finds it difficult for him to control his emotions, and his desire to dominate others will be very intense, indeed. As Trump has already indicated, he will use every means at his disposal to retain his position and get what he wants. This, almost certainly, will result in conflict and chaos of some type. Those born in any of the variety of Years of the Dog are quick to anger, critical of others, stubborn by nature, and hypersensitive to criticism.

Think about dogs for a moment. In general, while the dog is generally “man’s best friend”, this animal has a dark side. When dogs are badly treated by strangers, they will bite. Regardless of how friendly and loyal they are, canines may attack  due to their master’s command or simply due to a matter of self-preservation or anger.If you benefit from his or her friendship and love, a Dog will never disappoint you. Seeking safety above all, the Dog is the most conservative and traditionalist of all the signs of the Chinese zodiac.

Year of the Dog 2018

2018 is the Year of the Male (Brown) Earth Dog.  Male Earth is connected to soil and mountains. Earth suggests stability, meditation and religion. So there will be a growing interest in spiritual or religious studies, even among those who have had little desire to pursue these subjects in the past.

The mountains of 2018 appearing before us mean something is blocking our view and our path. We need to climb over them to see the other side of the world. Therefore, 2018 will be a challenging year. We need to find a better way to conquer obstacles. If we cannot, then we will remain behind others in the world and be defeated by impediments to moving forward.

Chinese New Year of the Dog 2018
DALIAN, CHINA – DECEMBER 29: A dog lantern is illuminated at Xing-hai Square

Revolution is not out of the question, and this will be true in many countries. There is a reason that Dog years are the years in which many revolutions arise or continue. It is hoped that the dark side of the Year of the Dog does not win the day.