The Shape of Water

Directed by critically acclaimed Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro who is best known for 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth and 2004’s Hellboy, The Shape of Water is a beautiful and strange fantasy drama benefiting from evocative cinematography and terrific acting performances from a stellar cast. Set in early 1960s Baltimore, the story follows Elisa Esposito, played by the always brilliant Golden Globe winner Sally Hawkins, who is a lonely and compassionate mute woman working as a janitor for the mysterious Occam Aerospace Research Center. Her life dramatically changes when a new so-called Asset arrives at the laboratory after being discovered by the vicious Colonel Richard Strickland, played by the remarkably creepy Oscar-nominated actor Michael Shannon. Primarily living a quiet life alone with the exception of her charming coworker Zelda, played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, and eccentric neighbor Giles, played by Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins, Elisa develops a very close and warm relationship with the Asset, a sea creature that somewhat resembles a human. Strickland along with his overly officious boss General Hoyt, played by Nick Searcy, only see the Asset as a scientific experiment who can possibly help with space technology and allow the United States military to have a competitive advantage over the Soviet Union. Fully aware that the military leadership has plans to exterminate the Asset so that it cannot fall into the hands of the Soviets, Elisa devises a plan to free the Asset from the laboratory with the help of Zelda, Giles, and the secretive scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, played by Michael Stuhlbarg best known for his role on the HBO TV series Boardwalk Empire. Although it is a very peculiar story and features a somewhat grotesque fantastical creature, the movie becomes something much more than simple fantasy; the dark and mysterious setting created by the mesmerizing cinematograph blends with the powerfully poignant emotions of the characters to create a very special movie. Overall, I found it to be one of the best films of the year despite probably being one of the weirdest movies that the audience will see; even though the subject matter may not be for everyone, it is definitely a very worthwhile cinematic experience.

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Justice League

Directed by Zach Snyder who is best known for 2006’s 300 and 2009’s Watchmen, Justice League follows a long line of superhero comic book movies that ultimately falls short of reaching the more entertaining adaptations in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As the sixth installment in DC Comics Extended Universe that desperately tries to emulate the success of Marvel, the film is unfortunately only marginally better than the other critically unsuccessful installments, including 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and 2016’s Suicide Squad. Similar to The Avengers, the plot revolves around a group of famous superheroes who come together to fight off a villain trying to destroy the world. An alien creature awoken after thousands of years, Steppenwolf, along with his army of Parademons, is set on conquering Earth by locating three so-called Mother Boxes whose combined power would set off the destruction of the world. Eventually, Diana Prince who is better known as Wonder Woman, played by Gal Gadot, is alerted to Steppenwolf’s malevolent goal and eventually joins forces with the superheroes Batman who is played by Ben Affleck, The Flash who is played by Ezra Miller, Aquaman who is played by Jason Momoa, and Cyborg who is played by Ray Fisher. After their first major battle with Steppenwolf in Gotham City, the team learns there may be a way to resurrect Superman, played by Henry Cavill, who died at the end of Batman v Superman and is universally mourned as one of the last great heroes. The ending is fairly formulaic because it involves the newly formed Justice League entering into one epic final battle with the villain Steppenwolf and the outcome has major repercussions for Earth and humanity. Overall, although it has many fine actors, the movie feels like a hodgepodge of several different superhero action flicks that includes several new characters that are not properly introduced for the casual filmgoer. It should have followed the extremely successful formula of 2017’s Wonder Woman in which the characters’ back stories are told in greater detail and thereby the audience feels a greater emotional connection.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

Loosely based on a true story, The Man Who Invented Christmas is a fascinating look into the life of Charles Dickens as he writes the classic A Christmas Carol in London in 1843. The film effectively illustrates the inspirations for Dickens, played by Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame, by depicting the characters in the famous Christmas story as characters in the movie. We first meet Dickens ten years after the incredibly successful publication of Oliver Twist and is currently suffering from a string of unsuccessful books. To appease his publisher and maintain his fame, he sets out to write a new novel. Suffering from writer’s block, he eventually finds inspiration after witnessing several events in the daily life of impoverished Londoners and the return of his erstwhile father John Dickens, played by the terrific Jonathan Pryce. For much of the film, he is cooped up in his study where he grapples with the story and characters that will be featured in his Christmas-themed novella and interacts with the imaginary characters, especially Ebenezer Scrooge, played by Oscar winner Christopher Plummer. While struggling to finish the story in six weeks time, he asks for advice from a very unlikely source, a young housekeeper named Tara, who encourages him to make the book into a redemption story. Dickens must also deal with his father who has returned to London because of financial difficulties and becomes an imposition and a reminder of Dickens’ troubled early life, including working in a factory as a child. At the end of the movie, Dickens himself evolves into a better person and is more affectionate towards his father, somewhat like Scrooge embracing the true spirit of Christmas at the end of the book. Overall, I thought it was a well done movie that illuminates the background behind one of the greatest Christmas stories ever told, and I enjoyed the unique twist that the filmmaker used in presenting the fictional characters in A Christmas Carol to show how Charles Dickens was influenced.

Wonder

Based on the 2012 best-selling novel of the same name written by R.J. Palacio, Wonder is a well-crafted sentimental movie with a hopeful and inspirational story about a young boy suffering from a medical disorder. Played by the talented young actor Jacob Tremblay best known for his role in the 2015 movie Room, the story follows August “Auggie” Pullman as he enters fifth grade after being homeschooled by his mother Isabel, played by Julia Roberts, because of his rare genetic condition that causes facial deformities and has required many reconstructive surgeries. He is fearful that the kids at his new school will bully him for his appearance and, like most kids, whether he will fit in and make new friends. The filmmaker uses the unusual technique of starting the film with several different sequences about specific main characters. The film begins to follow the emotional journey of Auggie’s parents Isabel and Nate, played by Owen Wilson, as well as his older sister Olivia who all cope with the difficulties associated with Auggie’s condition. In the segment following Olivia, the audience learns that she is also affected by her brother who receives most of the attention in the family, and she has to deal with the pressures of high school and the distancing of her best friend. Like Auggie, she has to find a safe and happy place, which she discovers is the high school drama program where she meets her new boyfriend. Towards the middle, the movie shifts to a more traditional narrative showing Auggie adjusting to his new school run by the kind-hearted principal Mr. Tushman, played by Mandy Patinkin, and having to face the school bully Julian while developing a friendship with a nice boy his age named Jack. Eventually, Auggie finds his place and is encouraged by his inspirational homeroom teacher Mr. Browne, played by the musician Daveed Diggs. Overall, I found it to be an uplifting film that sheds a light on how severe medical disorders affect not just the sufferer but also everyone around them who must also deal with the challenges. Despite Auggie’s disability, he is able to move beyond the difficulties and become an inspirational figure for his family and classmates.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Directed by Martin McDonagh best known for 2008’s In Bruges, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a terrific film with a stellar cast that expertly blends dark comedy with drama. Set in a small town in Missouri, the movie follows Mildred Hayes, played brilliantly by Oscar winner Frances McDormand, as she tries to find justice for the murder and rape of her daughter several months prior. A force not to be reckoned with, she hatches a plan to rent three abandoned billboards outside of town that directly question the police’s inability to find the culprit. A darkly funny tit-for-tat fight erupts between Mildred and the rest of the townsfolk who are sympathetic to the local police department and Chief Bill Willoughby, played by the always great Woody Harrelson. Things do not get any better with the intervention of the dim-witted and often racist Officer Jason Dixon, played wonderfully by Sam Rockwell, who does not always follow the law in protecting his chief and making sure Mildred removes the incriminating billboards. The issue over the billboards rapidly escalates into violence primarily as a result of the strong-willed and stubborn Mildred who does anything in order to avenge her daughter’s gruesome death. Even as Chief Willoughby is going through his own serious personal problem, she squarely blames the police department for not doing enough to find the perpetrator. To no avail, Mildred’s son Robbie, played by Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges, and her abusive ex-husband, played by Oscar nominee John Hawkes, insist she stop with all the shenanigans in order to prevent further shame to the family. However, she does have some strange bedfellows who encourage her, including the local slick used car salesman who happens to be a little person and excellently portrayed by Peter Dinklage. Although the background story is dramatic and depressing with it involving a rape and murder of a teenage girl, the filmmaker is remarkably able to bring some levity to the situation and allow the audience to laugh at some rather uncomfortable yet ridiculous moments of macabre humor. Overall, I found it to be one of the best films of the year because it contains such brilliant acting performances and is somehow able to effectively mix very real drama with perfectly timed dark comedy.

Lady Bird

Directed by indie actress Greta Gerwig best known for her Golden Globe-nominated performance in 2012’s Frances Ha, Lady Bird is a brilliant film featuring a refreshing take on adolescence and terrific acting performances, especially the young leading actress. A semi-autobiographical story from the first time director, the movie is set in Gerwig’s actual hometown of Sacramento and takes place during the protagonist’s 2002-2003 senior year in high school. The story follows the free-spirited and rebellious Christine McPherson, played by the extremely talented two-time Academy Award nominee Saoirse Ronan, as she navigates the often awkward and chaotic last year at a Catholic high school. The central theme throughout the plot is the sometimes fraught yet loving mother-daughter relationship between Christine, who goes by the self-ascribed nickname Lady Bird, and her equally strong-willed mother, played by Laurie Metcalf best known for her role in the TV series Roseanne. When we first meet her, Christine is somewhat of a troublemaker who constantly frustrates the nuns and does not take her schoolwork seriously. She enjoys playing around with her overweight and funny best friend Julie, but their friendship is tested when Christine desperately wants a boyfriend and hangs out with the popular rich girl at school. During the beginning, she falls for a young man named Danny, played by Academy Award nominee Lucas Hedges, who is a fellow actor in the musical she originally begrudgingly signs up for with her best friend. As she tries to fit in like a typical teenager, Christine has to deal with the repercussions of her father, played by Tracy Letts, losing his job while coping with her stressed-out mother who wants her daughter to succeed but struggles with the possibility that her only daughter may move away for college. Christine’s very strong desire to be independent causes her to act out and eventually starts to date a wild teenager from a nearby Catholic school. Throughout the film, Christine openly loathes her hometown Sacramento and makes it her goal to go to college in a different state as far away as possible from what she sees as such a boring and provincial city. Like her clingy mother, however, she eventually realizes that things in her life need to change in order to grow up. Towards the end, she finally appreciates her family and who she is and develops a sentimental attachment to Sacramento and her experiences at Catholic school. Overall, I found it to be a very impressive independent film, particularly remarkable for having a rookie director, full of excellent performances that help perfect such a hilarious and emotionally dramatic coming-of-age story. 

Last Flag Flying

Directed by Golden Globe-winning director Richard Linklater who is best known for the Academy Award-winning 2014 movie Boyhood and 1993’s Dazed and Confused, Last Flag Flying is a well-crafted and very human film that explores grief and war with powerful moments of raw emotion and levity brought to life by the extremely talented cast. Steve Carell plays former Navy Corps medic Richard “Doc” Shepherd who reunites with former Marines Sal Nealon, played by Bryan Cranston, and Richard Mueller, played by Laurence Fishburne, after he learns his son was killed in Iraq serving as a Marine. Clearly broken by the Vietnam War and the recent passing of his wife and now son, Doc contacts the two other men that he served with decades prior in Vietnam as a means of coping with the profound grief of losing his son to war. We first meet the rambunctious and wisecracking Sal overseeing his dive bar and then the soft-spoken and reformed Mueller presiding over his congregation as a Baptist minister. Eventually, Doc persuades the two very different men to pick up his son’s body from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and take him back home in New Hampshire to be buried instead of Arlington National Cemetery. Over the course of the journey, the middle-aged men reminisce about their time as soldiers in the Vietnam War and try to rectify their prior sins. Underscoring the mixed human emotions experienced in one’s life, the characters, especially the irreverent Sal, share several moments of laughter and bonding time on their road trip despite the extremely depressing circumstances. They also grapple with their patriotism and pride of serving in the military at the same time that they disagree with the American government’s decisions to go to war in Vietnam and now Iraq. The movie works so well because of the very real chemistry that can be felt between all three brilliant actors who bring a certain level of humanity to what most people would expect to be just a sad and grim story about a father grieving over his son’s death. Overall, I found it to be an exceptional film that is both bittersweet and hopeful and provides important insights into the complexities of losing a loved one and the human toll caused by war, complete with heartwarming and heartwrenching moments.