At Eternity’s Gate

Directed by Golden Globe winner Julian Schnabel whose 2007 film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and was nominated for four Academy Awards, At Eternity’s Gate is a beautifully-shot and uniquely creative biopic about the final days of famed Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh living and working in the South of France towards the end of the 19th century. Played by the mesmerizing Willem Dafoe who is nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance, the penniless and unappreciated Vincent van Gogh is encouraged to move to the small town of Arles in the South of France and is occasionally accompanied by his friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin, played by Golden Globe winner Oscar Isaac. Besides Paul Gauguin, the only emotional and financial support that he received was from his brother and struggling Parisian art dealer Theo, played by Emmy nominee Rupert Friend. Rather than following the typical formula of a straightforward biopic, the movie reflects the impressionistic artworks of Vincent van Gogh by relying on shaky avant-garde camera work and an unstructured storyline that also explores the mental instability of such a genius as Vincent van Gogh. A majority of the film follows him as he travels the French countryside with his paints and easel trying to discover the perfect places to paint his now masterpieces. His work and mind was so out-of-the-box at the time that he was disparaged by the villagers as a violent lunatic and would be committed several times to a mental institution for his eccentric behavior. The vibrant sequences in which Vincent van Gogh is recreating his environment are brilliantly captured by the filmmaker who visually compares the final results with the actual surroundings inspiring the artwork. The movie is also broken up by several philosophical monologues given by Vincent van Gogh and those caring for him in the institutions, including a priest who is played by Mads Mikkelsen and a doctor who is played by Mathieu Amalric. Evident by his ideas of grandeur and his blasé decision to famously cut off his own ear, Vincent van Gogh is portrayed as the archetypal tortured genius who was before his time and thereby led a very troubled life that eventually ended in tragedy. Overall, I found it to be a hypnotic and extremely well-crafted film that effectively tries to explore the inner psyche and artistry of such an enigmatic and only relatively recently internationally well-regarded artistic icon as Vincent van Gogh who is magnificently brought to life by the one and only Willem Dafoe.

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The Favourite

Directed by critically acclaimed Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos whose 2015 movie The Lobster was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, The Favourite is a rather bizarre historical drama containing elements of dark humor that is elevated to be one of the best movies of the year because of the Oscar-worthy acting performances of the three lead actresses. The story is based on real life events that took place during the time of the British monarch Queen Anne in the early 18th century, at a time when England was at war with France. Played by Olivia Colman who is nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance, Queen Anne is portrayed as a rather weak and frail figure as a result of her struggles with illness, including gout, and is at the center of palace intrigue including two ladies of the Court. The Duchess of Marlborough Sarah Churchill, played by Oscar winner Rachel Weisz, is initially the favorite of Queen Anne and is given great responsibility over matters of the state during the convalescence of the Queen. The audience quickly learns that Sarah is also the secret lover of Queen Anne who relies heavily on Sarah’s personal advice and looks to her for support. Things are complicated with the arrival of Sarah’s young cousin Abigail Hill, played by Oscar winner Emma Stone, who has lost her position and is now seeking a job working at the Royal Palace. After she gets into the good graces of Queen Anne, Abigail begins a very tense rivalry with the Queen’s current favorite Sarah over who can become the coveted personal favorite of the rather buffoonish Queen. At the same time, the Queen’s power is being tested by the Member of Parliament Robert Harley, played by Nicholas Hoult, who opposes the monarchy’s plan to raise land taxes to support the unpopular war with France. The cunning ploys between the fiercely competitive Sarah and Abigail eventually come to a head and leads to Sarah temporarily being away from the Royal Court. With her absence, Abigail continues in haste her successful endeavor to curry favor with Queen Anne whose disconcerting and petty antics continue to bewilder the Court. Evident of her rise in stature, Abigail even begins a relationship with a baron named Samuel Masham, played by Joe Alwyn. A key aspect of the filmmaker’s unique style, the movie is filled with some rather outlandish and quite simply weird moments, however, it is to a much lesser degree than his earlier works. The strangeness is quite effective in satirizing the excesses and eccentricities of a Royal Court, particularly Queen Anne’s in the early 1700s at the corroding height of the British Monarchy. Overall, I found it to be a highly entertaining and fascinating film that delves deep into the closed-door politics of the Royal Palace, and it is very special as a result of the brilliant casting of three actresses at the top of their game.

Green Book

Directed by Peter Farrelly who along with his brother Bobby is best known for such comedic films as 1994’s Dumb and Dumber and 1998’s There’s Something About Mary, Green Book is a heart-warming comedic drama about an unusual road trip through the South in the 1960s with a famous black musician and a rough Italian-American driver. Inspired by a true story, ill-mannered tough guy Tony ‘Tony Lip’ Vallelonga, played by two-time Oscar nominee Viggo Mortensen, is a Manhattan bouncer looking for a job and eventually lands a job as a driver for the sophisticated and proper African American jazz pianist Dr. Don Shirley, played by Oscar winner Mahershala Ali. Despite their mutual misgivings mostly as a result of their ethnic differences, Shirley is told that the strong-willed Tony would probably be best suited for a journey through the extremely hostile South for black men like himself. Tony’s wife Dolores, played by Emmy nominee Linda Cardellini, encourages her hesitant husband to take the job. At first, both men really do not understand each other at least from a cultural and ethnic perspective, with Tony feeling that Shirley is really not black enough according to the day’s stereotypes. In almost a role reversal, at least according to the prejudices at the time, Shirley objects to the profane and often irreverent mannerisms of Tony who has never really left his comfort zone of New York City. Most of the road trip is smooth sailing with the exception of several incidents in which a few racist Southerners verbally and physically attack Shirley simply due to the color of his skin. Ironically, Shirley who is an extremely talented classically-trained pianist with impeccable manners is often barred from patronizing the same clubs and other venues where he is performing as they venture deeper and deeper into the Jim Crow South. Although at times the film glosses over the much more inhumane treatment that Shirley would likely have experienced as a black man in the South, the story evolves into a bittersweet buddy comedy in which Tony and Shirley look past their differences and develop a friendship that would last a lifetime. Emphasizing the racial underpinnings of the movie, the title itself refers to the actual travel guide known as the Green Book that directed black motorists to the black friendly establishments in the Deep South. In a rather jarring moment for Tony, he seems confused by receiving this book because he did not know that its existence was required for someone as respected as Shirley just because he is black. Overall, I found it to be an endearing and entertaining buddy road trip film that largely promotes interracial harmony evolving over an extended trip between two different men from two very different backgrounds. Furthermore, the movie works so beautifully as a result of the terrific chemistry between such acclaimed actors as Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali.

Boy Erased

Written and directed by Golden Globe-nominated Australian actor Joel Edgerton who is best known for 2015’s The Gift and 2016’s Loving, Boy Erased is a powerfully-acted drama that explores gay conversion therapy and its negative impact on the LGBT participants. The story follows the emotionally fragile Jared Eamons, played by the terrific young Oscar-nominated actor Lucas Hedges, who is sent to a religious-oriented gay conversion therapy program by his deeply religious parents living in small town America. His father Marshall, played by Oscar winner Russell Crowe, is a local car dealer and a Baptist preacher who is horrified to learn that his son is homosexual, while his mother Nancy, played by Oscar winner Nicole Kidman, is equally shocked but slightly more sympathetic. In a series of flashbacks, the audience witnesses Jared’s struggles with his sexual orientation in which he tries to deny it as a result of his religious and conservative upbringing. Eventually, he comes to terms with who he is after a particularly traumatic experience in college and decides to come out to his indignant parents who believe that he can be cured at a gay conversion therapy center. While undergoing so-called treatment under the guidance of the leader Victor Sykes, played by Golden Globe nominee Joel Edgerton, the predominantly young men undergo verbal and emotional abuse supposedly designed to help them overcome their homosexuality. Jared becomes friends with the other participants and comes to resent Victor and the other employees who lack the sympathy to understand what they are going through in a society that tells them that they are morally wrong and deficient. Through his subtle yet emotionally provocative performance, Lucas Hedges brings a level of realism that allows the audience to truly understand how damaging and ineffective gay conversion therapy is on the LGBT participants who are sometimes forced to remain at the facility against their will. The fact that the movie is based on a true story and countless other experiences makes it even more heartbreaking to see the level of torment many of the victims go through during and after what is described as helping homosexuals become straight. Overall, I found it to be a truly extraordinary and harrowing account of the inner workings of gay conversion therapy and how it does nothing besides scarring those who undergo this so-called therapy; the stellar acting performances from the extremely talented cast helps to humanize the LGBT participants or victims as well as their well-intentioned but flawed family members.

The Front Runner

Directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Jason Reitman who is best known for 2007’s Juno and 2009’s Up in the Air, The Front Runner is a fascinating political drama about the Democratic rising star politician Gary Hart whose aspirations for the presidency came crashing down after the revelation of a scandal during the election of 1988; the film is marked by a terrific ensemble cast led by Hugh Jackman. We first meet the charismatic and Kennedy-esque Colorado Senator Gary Hart, played by the terrific Academy Award nominee Hugh Jackman, after his failed bid for the Democratic nomination in the 1984 presidential election. Buoyed by support from the youth and the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party, Gary Hart decides to run again in 1988 and quickly emerges as the front runner for the nomination and even the presidency. Alongside his strong wife Lee, played by Academy Award nominee Vera Farmiga, he embarks on a refreshing political campaign in which he has a deep understanding of the issues and is able to convey it to enthusiastic voters. His highly energetic campaign is run by his officious and highly skilled campaign manager Bill Dixon, played by Academy Award winner J.K. Simmons, whose job becomes increasingly difficult once a story in the Miami Herald goes public revealing that he is having an extramarital affair with a young woman he meets on a chartered yacht out of Miami. The story is discovered by ambitious journalist Tom Fielder working for the Miami Herald who is eventually given the go-ahead to publish the story by the editor played by Kevin Pollak. Fielder along with another journalist played by comedian Bill Burr travel to DC to confront Senator Hart in the alley outside his townhome to ask him questions about the alleged affair. At the time, the personal lives of politicians were largely kept out of the media, and the publication of the story set the precedent for investigating the private lives of politicians, especially if it involves a scandal. Becoming more of a movie about journalism, the film also explores the initial hesitancy of the Washington Post and its famed editor Ben Bradlee, played by Alfred Molina, to follow up on the Miami Herald article that was at first deemed tabloid material and beneath the national press. Gary Hart’s campaign with the help of his hard-working manager goes into crisis mode and tries to figure out how to revive the flailing aspirations of Senator Hart. The movie does a good job of portraying his mistress Donna Rice, played by Sara Paxton, in a sympathetic light and shows how she had to go into hiding in order to avoid the media who continually harasses her for information about her affair. It also explores the intense relationship between Gary Hart and his strong-willed wife who expresses her anger at his indiscretions but tries to stay at his side as his campaign goes off the rails. Although the script sometimes veers off-course and could have explored the important issues in greater depth, the film itself becomes a good starting point for discussing the issues at hand that are even more relevant in today’s society with the prevalence of cable news and social media affecting modern politics. In addition, Hugh Jackman brings his greatest performance to the screen by embodying a flawed yet talented politician who appears remorseful for cheating on his wife and actually caring about the direction of the United States even after his presidential hopes are dramatically and publicly dashed. Overall, I found it to be a intriguing political and journalism movie that kept me engaged as a result of its true life aspects about such a transformative scandal that still has repercussions to this day, and I felt it was made even better by the truly top-notch acting performances, especially from Hugh Jackman.

A Private War

Directed by Oscar-nominated documentarian Matthew Heineman best known for 2017’s City of Ghosts and 2015’s Cartel Land, A Private War is one of the most powerful films depicting the horrors of war brilliantly told through the eyes of a real-life war correspondent and is elevated by the extraordinary acting performances. The story tells the true story of famed American journalist Marie Colvin, played by Oscar-nominated British actress Rosamund Pike in a career-best performance, who works for the London-based Sunday Times covering foreign wars throughout the world over the course of several decades. The film itself chronicles her riveting story from the year 2000 and through the climax of the movie in 2012 as Colvin perilously journeys to the war-ravaged city of Homs during the brutal Syrian Civil War that is still ongoing today. The talented filmmaker whose documentaries explored violent conflicts in Syria and Mexico expertly crafts what feels like extremely realistic portrayals of the hellish nature of war. Although she was not as recognized in her native country the United States, Marie Colvin was considered one of the greatest war correspondents who courageously went into extremely dangerous combat situations in order to report back to the world of the atrocities perpetrated during wartime. One of the first battle sequences shows her working in Sri Lanka in 2001 when she throws caution to the wind by being in the middle of a gunfight in which a grenade explodes resulting in her losing her left eye. Eventually, over the course of other conflicts, including the war in Iraq, she meets the famed war photographer Paul Conroy, played by Jamie Dornan, and enlists him as her partner and photographer. The true impact of the film involves the personal struggles that Colvin experiences on her trips back home to London and while on assignment as a result of her immersion in horrific conflicts. She most likely has PTSD which manifests itself in her inability to maintain romantic relationships and her propensity to drink too much alcohol. Pike’s remarkable performance shows just how fearless and complicated a figure that Marie Colvin was: she often wore a eyepatch and designer bras and could easily blend in in the high society parties of London as well as conversing with brutal dictators such as the Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi. Similar to her lifestyle, the audience is taken on an emotional roller coaster between action-packed traumatic war sequences and her somewhat more normal life back in London even though she experiences nightmares and self-medicates with alcohol. Her romantic relationships are equally as complicated as she sporadically continues a sexual relationship with her ex-husband and begins a new love affair with the wealthy Tony Shaw, played by Stanley Tucci. Showing her bravado, she often ignores the safety concerns of her editor Sean Ryan, played by the terrific British actor Tom Hollander, and ventures into increasingly life-threatening situations. In one of the most affecting war sequences in cinematic history, the heart-wrenching movie concludes with the intensely violent and catastrophic siege of the Syrian city Homs, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians caused by the Assad regime. Tragically, Marie Colvin becomes the subject of what could have been one of her many stories about the personal effects that war has on its victims. Overall, I found it to be a top-notch movie about journalism, in particular the thankless job of war correspondents who put their lives at risk on a daily basis, that is brought to life by the magnificent acting from Rosamund Pike who gives an Oscar-worthy performance. The film’s subject matter is particularly significant at a time when journalists are criticized during today’s highly divisive political climate, and it shows the importance of journalists who often risk everything in order to get a story.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Directed by Bryan Singer who is best known for 1995’s Usual Suspects and several X-Men comic book film adaptations beginning in 2000, Bohemian Rhapsody is an entertaining biopic about the hugely successful pop rock band Queen with particular focus on the eccentric and talented lead singer Freddie Mercury who is brilliantly played by the lead actor Rami Malek. We first meet the Indian-British Parsi Farrokh Bulsara, the real birth name of Freddie Mercury played by the mesmerizing Malek who is best known for his Emmy Award-winning performance on the TV series Mr. Robot, working a dead end job at London’s Heathrow Airport, and he happens upon his favorite local band Smile in 1970 who are looking for a new lead singer. The film then follows the meteoric rise of the band after it changes its name to Queen and explores the flamboyant Freddie Mercury’s relationship with the other band members, including the lead guitarist Brian May who is played by Gwilym Lee, the drummer Roger Taylor who is played by Ben Hardy, and the bass guitarist John Deacon who is played by Joseph Mazzello. Following the stereotypical formula of a movie about musicians, the story chronicles the often contentious issues surrounding the different personalities of the band members and the desire for the lead singer Freddie Mercury to control the band and eventually embark on a solo career. It also explores the behind-the-scenes business decisions that ultimately allows Queen to become an international sensation: the one-time manager John Reid, played by Aidan Gillen who is best known for his role on the HBO TV series Game of Thrones, and their lawyer and eventual manager Jim Beach, played by critically acclaimed British actor Tom Hollander, fight with the studio EMI about what music should be released on the radio. In a fun twist, the executive Ray Foster who does not think that the hit song Bohemian Rhapsody should be played on the radio is played by Mike Myers, who himself supported the idea of using the song in the 1992 comedy Wayne’s World despite the studio’s hesitation. Since it mostly follows Freddie Mercury and his complicated personal life, the script reveals his unusual relationship with his girlfriend Mary Austin, played by Lucy Boynton, who suspects that Freddie Mercury may in fact be gay. Eventually, he does fully embrace his lifestyle and begins a sexual relationship with his personal manager Paul Prenter while, at the same time, his outfits become increasingly outrageous and gender fluid. The movie does suffer at times from a lack of a cohesive narrative direction, punctuated by well-choreographed concert scenes in which the band’s greatest hits are played by the energetic Freddie Mercury. The whole film feels like it leads up to the best part of the film when the reunited band members come together to play a truly extraordinary concert at the internationally broadcast benefit concert series Live Aid in 1985 in front of a live audience of over 70,000 at Wembley Stadium in London and a television audience of over 1 billion. During this exhilarating final sequence, Malek transforms himself into the role of Freddie Mercury and sings and dances eerily similar to the real Freddie Mercury at the summit of his career. Overall, I found it to be a fascinating look into the origins of the world famous rock band Queen who helped to define music throughout the 1970s and 80s, and whose main asset was the outstanding performance given by the extremely talented actor Rami Malek.