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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh who is best known for his work in Shakespeare plays and film adaptations, Murder on the Orient Express is a stylish adaptation of the classic 1934 Agatha Christie novel of the same name and later adapted into a critically acclaimed movie in 1974. It feels very much like a modern update to the murder mystery genre and is jam-packed with an all-star cast, but the film largely does not live up to its predecessor and the novel itself. The always terrific Academy Award nominee Kenneth Branagh stars as Hercule Poirot, a brilliant and eccentric Belgian detective who is a recurring character in Christie’s books. While on a break between cases in the winter of 1934 in Istanbul, he is recruited to investigate a case in the UK and is offered a ticket on the world-famous luxury train the Orient Express headed to Calais, France in order to quickly reach his destination. He, along with thirteen strangers, mostly keep to themselves on an uneventful first leg of the journey. The first few scenes on the train introduce the audience to the passengers ranging from a governess, a professor, a duchess, a secretary to a mobster and are played by such famous faces as Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., and Derek Jacobi. Things rapidly become chaotic after the Orient Express is stranded after an avalanche and a body is discovered in one of the cabins. Detective Hercule Poirot is then enlisted to help solve the murder before the train reaches its next destination. With unique cinematography, including overhead shots and long panning shots, and sumptuous detailing of the original Orient Express and 1930s costumes and decor, the meticulous detective interrogates all the passengers and tries to piece together the evidence to discover the culprit. The best part of the movie is Branagh’s portrayal of the charismatic and mysterious Poirot and the fascinating ways he is able to solve the murder mystery, all the while interacting with a terrific ensemble cast. Overall, I found it to be an enjoyable and beautifully shot movie that does not reach perfection as a result of its bloated cast, sometimes too slow pacing, and attempt to revitalize an already beloved classic murder mystery novel and film.
Directed by Sean Baker who is best known for the 2015 independent film Tangerine, The Florida Project is a wonderfully crafted indie film that explores the largely unseen impoverished American population living in budget motels and the struggles that the adults go through while the children seem happy in the innocence of childhood. It is a fairly simple film that is more of an observant witness to the characters, predominantly a group of children, and follows their daily lives surrounded by what most people would describe as horrible living conditions. As emphasized by the movie’s title referring to the name used for Walt Disney World before it was built, the filmmaker points out the cruel irony of these innocent kids living in a rough neighborhood of Kissimmee, Florida next door to the fantastical Disney World, a place they can only dream of visiting. The main protagonist is a 6-year-old girl named Moonee, terrifically played by the charming young actress Brooklynn Prince, whose mother Halley is a troubled out-of-work single mother that goes to increasingly desperate lengths to financially support her daughter. The movie sentimentally depicts the rebellious young girl as she happily enjoys what she believes is a normal childhood playing with her group of friends and exploring her neighborhood full of run-down strip malls and motels, almost oblivious to her otherwise depressing situation. She even has a special relationship with the kind-hearted manager of her home The Magic Castle Motel, a gentle man with his own problems who becomes a father figure to the children living at the motel. Brilliantly played by Willem Dafoe in one of his best performances, the manager Bobby Hicks clearly has the kids’ best interests at heart, and he is often in the hard situation of cleaning up their parents’ messes, ranging from drug addiction to prostitution. Despite lacking a traditional plot line, the filmmaker is a master storyteller who is able to flesh out the characters through a series of small moments in their lives that add up to a powerfully empathetic portrayal of such a tragic yet hopeful underrepresented segment of our population. The audience viscerally experiences both the heartwarming and heartbreaking moments in these people’s lives: the children’s innocence lifts up our spirits while the adults’ daily challenges reminds us of the hardships of those living in poverty. Overall, I found it to be one of the best films of the year because of its captivating storytelling that feels very real and is able to illuminate a previously unexplored problem in today’s modern society in a sympathetic and non-condescending manner.