Written and directed by critically acclaimed filmmaker Terrence Malick best known for 1978’s Days of Heaven, 1998’s The Thin Red Line, and 2011’s The Tree of Life, A Hidden Life is a visually spectacular and deeply contemplative film that uses brilliant cinematography and philosophical voiceovers to tell the true life story of Franz Jägerstätter. Visualized by the sweeping bucolic mountain vistas of Austria, we first meet the farmer Franz, played by German actor August Diehl, enjoying his peaceful country life with his wife Fani, played by Austrian actress Valerie Pachner, and we see his life play out over several years as they have children. However, at the outbreak of World War II, Franz is sent away to train for the German military but is allowed to return home after several months training. Eventually, the German military is in need of new soldiers to fight so they call up Franz to swear allegiance to Hitler and become a soldier in his army. A deeply religious man, he refuses to take an oath to Hitler who goes against all of his beliefs. Because of his openly defiant disobedience, he is sent to prison until he pledges allegiance, but, after months of still not giving in, he is transferred to Berlin where he faces a death sentence for treason. At the same time, his wife and three young daughters remain in Austria where they are subjected to insults and outright rejection from the local villagers who believe Franz’s act is reprehensible. Resembling the long and arduous time that he must wait in prison for what he knows is ultimately death, the movie is effectively slow-paced and is almost three hours long, which is fairly typical for a Terrence Malick picture. This somewhat unorthodox approach allows the viewer to truly contemplate what it means to suffer for your beliefs and stand up to what is evil in the world; especially with its shots of nature and the grandeur of the mountains, the film becomes somewhat of a spiritual or religious cinematic experience. Overall, I found it to be a truly magnificent movie that reinforces the unique genius of Terrence Malick who is able to create a film that reflects on the beauty and destruction of the world through the eyes of one of the most famous World War II conscientious objectors who later became a martyr in the Catholic Church.
Written and directed by critically acclaimed filmmaker and actress Greta Gerwig best known for 2017’s Lady Bird, Little Women is a beautiful retelling of the classic 1868 novel of the same name written by Louisa May Alcott and stands out as one of the best seven film adaptations that have been made as a result of the updated and creative storytelling and the spectacular cast. Primarily set in Concord, Massachusetts, the familiar plot follows the four March daughters as they come of age and grapple with their future prospects as wives and independent women, and the story switches back-and-forth between the time of the American Civil War and a few years later as they enter adulthood. Gerwig makes the unique yet extremely effective decision to have the story told through a series of flashbacks from the perspective of the protagonists as grown women that helps the audience better understand how the women view their lives and childhood. Jo, played by Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan, is the leader of the sisters and has a lifelong dream of becoming a writer and is depicted pursuing publication of her stories and later a book in New York City. Amy, played by Florence Pugh, is more traditional with the acceptance of eventual marriage but also wants to become a painter where she pursues it in Paris accompanying her rich aunt, played by Meryl Streep. Meg, played by Emma Watson, dreams of becoming a actress as evidenced by performing plays with her sisters in their childhood home attic, and the youngest Beth, played by Eliza Scanlen, loves to play the piano but her life is often beset by sickness. Their love lives also become fairly complex, especially with the wealthy neighbor’s grandson Laurie, played by Oscar nominee Timothée Chalamet, who falls in love with Jo but is often rebuffed by her the result of her desire to be an independent woman. The movie is rounded out by other acclaimed actors, including Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, Tracy Letts, James Norton, and Bob Odenkirk, who flesh out the very well-known characters in a realistic and human way. Although it seems like another Little Women adaptation is unnecessary, Greta Gerwig is able to create something terrifically brand-new by bringing a modern twist with a greater emphasis on the March sisters’ individuality. Overall, I found it to be a brilliant and gorgeously shot film that was somehow able to bring the beloved Little Women story to a whole new level even after the successful 1994 version with Winona Ryder.
Directed by Danny Boyle who won the Academy Award for Best Director for 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, Yesterday is a very clever and endearing romantic comedy that is remarkable for its extremely creative story in which the protagonist is the only person in the world who has heard of The Beatles after a freak accident. We first meet Jack Malik, played by the talented British actor Himesh Patel best known for his role on the BBC television show EastEnders, struggling to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a successful singer-songwriter but is always encouraged by his childhood friend and manager Ellie, played by Lily James best known for her role on Downton Abbey. While riding a bicycle in his small seaside English town one night, he is involved in a freak accident after a mysterious worldwide power outage and soon discovers after playing a Beatles song to his friends that no one in the world has ever heard of The Beatles, it is as if they never existed. He decides to record as many of The Beatles songs that he can remember and pass them off as his own works, which eventually makes him a major musical star after he catches the attention of singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, played by himself. Over the course of the movie, Jack embarks on a whirlwind and quite entertaining journey to worldwide fame, all set to the greatest hits of The Beatles sung in a different way by the actor himself. However, his recording and tour schedule strictly dictated by his new Los Angeles recording agent Debra, played by Kate McKinnon, pushes him away from his beloved friend and secret love Ellie. Besides the wonderfully nostalgic soundtrack, the film has several moments of humor, including the overall premise of the plot and additional parts of our daily lives that also magically disappeared, as well as the buffoonery yet sweet nature of his roadie and sometimes assistant Rocky, played by the very funny British actor Joel Fry. After his experiences with the glamorous lifestyle of the famous, Jack gradually comes back down to earth, and the film becomes more of a romance after he realizes that he missed out on his chance for true love with Ellie and dedicates the rest of the movie to trying to win her back. Overall, I found it to be a light-hearted and joyful cinematic experience that has truly one of the more innovative and unique storylines and is perfectly set to everyone’s favorite Beatles songs.
Written and directed by critically acclaimed British independent filmmaker Joanna Hogg known for making movies that partly reflect her own life, The Souvenir is a very artsy indie film about a budding film student who enters into a troubled relationship with a slightly older man, and it is remarkable for the terrific acting performances and the unique filmmaking techniques and writing. A slow burn of a movie, the almost philosophical movie revolves around the main character Julie, played by the talented young newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne who is the daughter of Oscar winner Tilda Swinton, who tries to distance herself from her upper middle-class family, including her mother played by Tilda Swinton, by joining a small film school and obsessing over making a movie with a very vague topic. Eventually, she begins a romantic relationship with the mysterious and quintessentially posh Anthony, played by the mesmerizing English actor Tom Burke, who is in a constantly dark place and is revealed to have some serious addiction problems. Similar to Julie, he very much goes against what is expected of him, and it is rather a surprise to learn that his family is from a working class and laid-back background. Often, the film feels like a personal project that is a very meta exploration of filmmaking, romance, class status, and toxic relationships. Yes, it can be a difficult-to-watch and confusing movie, but somehow it leaves a deep impression upon the viewer and reveals itself to be more like a piece of artwork that should be cherished for its complexity and beauty. Overall, I found it to be one of those rare films that I did not initially know whether I liked it or not; it was only after watching the movie did I realize how much it affected me. Only now do I appreciate it as one the best movies of the year as a result of how the filmmaker and actors were able to craft such a superb cinematic experience from an occasionally frustratingly opaque story.
Written and directed by critically acclaimed Indian filmmaker Ritesh Batra best known for 2013’s The Lunchbox, Photograph is a charming and insightful romantic movie that follows the usual patterns of a Hollywood romantic comedy but goes beyond the genre by incorporating subtle messages about Indian society, particularly the color and caste systems. With predominantly Hindi dialogue, the film explores an unexpected relationship between two very different people from separate parts of society in Mumbai, an unusual bond started with a chance encounter at the tourist landmark Gateway of India. Rafi, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, lives in poverty and works as a street photographer taking pictures of tourists in order to repay his family debts back home in his native village. As is the case in most of Indian families, he is constantly urged to settle down and marry an Indian woman. To appease his very insistent grandmother, he eventually decides to pretend that he is in a romantic relationship with a younger shy woman that he took a picture of at the Gateway of India. Over time, he is able to convince the young woman named Miloni, played by Sanya Malhotra, to play along and meet his grandmother who has just arrived from her small village to see this supposed girlfriend of her grandson. Miloni comes from a middle-class background and is currently studying to become an accountant at the insistence of her parents who she still lives with at home. Similar to Rafi, she is a fairly quiet person who is looking for a way out of her rather mundane life. The best part of the movie is the rather funny and persistent performance given by Rafi’s strong-willed yet sweet grandmother who is played by Farrukh Jaffra. Despite the two main characters’ diverging class status and family background, they begin to become fond of one another and spent time alone together outside of trying to convince his grandmother of their potential marriage. Overall, I found it to be a bittersweet romance that, although at times can be slow, is very touching and has a lot to say about the contemporary issues facing Indian society and culture as a whole, all the while relying on beautiful cinematography to capture the essence of Mumbai.
Based on the 2013 novel of the same name written by Jennie Rooney that was inspired by the real-life story of the British civil servant and Soviet spy Melita Norwood, Red Joan is a disappointing film that somehow makes the deeply fascinating material rather boring and bland, with the only bright spot being Judi Dench’s performance, albeit with very little screen time. The story starts in modern-day England when a elderly grandmother named Joan Stanley, played by Oscar winner Dame Judi Dench, is arrested on suspicion of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union following World War II. However, most of the film takes place in flashbacks that portray the young and idealistic Cambridge physics student Joan Stanley, played by the beautiful young British actress Sophie Cookson, falling in love with a Soviet sympathizer named Leo, played by Tom Hughes best known for his work on the British TV series Victoria. After graduating, she works for a secret British nuclear weapon program run by the brilliant scientist Professor Max Davis, played by British actor Stephen Campbell Moore, and is eventually recruited by the Soviet KGB through her connections with Leo to become a spy passing highly classified information about the British nuclear program. At times, it is a fairly typical romantic drama in which Joan falls in love with the mysterious and ultimately dangerous Leo while also developing feelings for her boss Professor Davis. The rest of the film explores the intriguing case of Joan becoming a Soviet spy and her struggle between her allegiance to her native Britain and her disdain for her government’s developing nuclear weapons, particularly after learning the horrific details of the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To the movie’s detriment, the filmmaker relies on telling the story in a unusually slow and stale pace and does not use the talents of Judi Dench very much as a result of his emphasis on the character’s younger life. Overall, I was hoping for a prestige British historical drama that would better encapsulate one of the more interesting stories in espionage history, but, unfortunately, the execution is extremely lacking for such a terrific filmpremise.
Directed by Jonathan Levine best known for 2011’s 50/50 and 2017’s Snatched, Long Shot is an amusing comedy about an unlikely romance between two completely different people while also having the feel of the popular HBO comedy Veep with its humor involving a strong female politician vying for power. The film follows the highly respected and powerful United States Secretary of State Charlotte Field, played by Oscar winner Charlize Theron, who is contemplating launching a presidential campaign after her dim-witted boss, the president of the United States who is played by Bob Odenkirk decides not to run for re-election. Everything seems to go smoothly, with the help of her serious and straight-laced female chief of staff and male assistant, until she meets the profane journalist Fred Flarsky, played by Seth Rogen, who she used to babysit when he was a 13-year-old. After leaving his job as a journalist at a small newspaper after it is bought out by a large media conglomerates run by the conniving Rupert Murdoch-esque Parker Wembley, played by Andy Serkis disguised by grotesque makeup, the stereotypical stoner and relaxed Fred unexpectedly runs into Charlotte after being invited to an exclusive party by his wealthy best friend Lance, played by O’Shea Jackson, Jr. Eventually, against the wishes of her aides, Charlotte hires Fred to be one of her speech writers as she gears up for her presidential run. What happens next is rather unexpected for both of the main characters as they begin a whirlwind romance in which they fall in love as Fred travels the world with Charlotte who is busy with her job as Secretary of State. The movie very much reminds me of one of Seth Rogen’s breakthrough movies, 2007’s Knocked Up in which he enters into a romantic relationship with a beautiful woman out of his league. However, the film relies much less on the vulgar stoner humor typical of Seth Rogen and evolves into a multifaceted comedy subtly mocking current political affairs as well as following the more traditional romantic comedy genre. Overall, I found it to be an entertaining movie that brings out the seemingly realistic chemistry between Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron in a fun movie that makes a slight yet effective twist on stereotypical romantic comedies.