Marriage Story

“Criminal lawyers see bad people at their best; divorce lawyers see good people at their worst.”

There are many films that tell entertaining or compelling stories, but there are far fewer that are so real that they hurt. Marriage Story, directed by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha) and starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, is definitely real enough to hurt. It’s a story of a divorce—and Baumbach has done a so-real-it-hurts divorce movie before in The Squid and the Whale, but, where that one was emotionally brutal, this story has that raw emotional brutality, but it’s tempered with love and a touch of humor (there are a few laugh-out-loud funny scenes) that keep it from getting too depressing. So couple a smart script with what are perhaps the best performances of the two leads’ careers and you get an outstanding dramatic film on par with some of the hardest-hitting classics out there.

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Note: This film has been featured on an episode of my podcast about movies and mental health, Peculiar Picture Show.

“This didn’t put an end to shit, you fucking retard! This is just the fucking start! Why don’t you put that on your Good Morning Missouri fucking wake-up broadcast, bitch?”

In the cinema world, even in films without action and adventure, we’re accustomed to heroes and villains. We have films with complex villains, problematic romantic leads, and even adventures without any discernible villains, but the audience just instinctively knows who to root for and who to jeer against. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, directed by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) and starring Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell, is different because it sets itself up as very black and white, with a slighted middle-aged woman and an angry, racist cop, but the film’s narrative goes to some interesting places and it really makes audiences question who they’re rooting for, and why. It’s also a solid, smart drama with effective darkly comedic elements. This is a film that gripped me, but left me thinking for a long time after the credits rolled, and that’s not an easy thing to do.

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American Hustle

The main cast of American Hustle

“Did you ever have to find a way to survive, and you knew your choices were bad—but you had to survive?”

Most films go heavy on plot and light on characters, but I have to admit, I’m a sucker for strong characters even when the plot is not stellar. American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, I Heart Huckabees) and featuring an amazing all-star cast including Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence, has amazing characters and performances, even if the plot meanders a bit more than it should. It’s also a ton of fun and a great slice of authentic 70s goodness, even though it came out in 2013. Every character, from the con man to his distant wife of convenience to his brilliant mistress and partner in crime to the overzealous FBI agent, has more vices than virtues, but they’re so complex and fleshed-out that I found myself mesmerized by the characters interacting on screen. If you want a complex and brilliant plot, go watch Chinatown; but if you want a fun film with great characters and style, look no further than American Hustle.

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Carol

Therese and Carol meet in Carol (2015)

“I always spend New Year’s alone. In crowds. I’m not alone this year.”

In film, lesbians have almost always gotten the short end of the stick. On the one hand, you have the stereotypical butch lesbians, who exist as jokes; on the other hand, you have the stereotypical sexy lesbians, which exist mainly for the entertainment of men. Very rarely do you see a lesbian character in film that’s neither a joke nor a set piece, and when you do see a smartly-written lesbian character, she’s usually a background character with little bearing on the plot. That’s why the 2015 film Carol is so important. Directed by one of the pioneers of the New Queer Cinema, Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven) and starring Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, this is a smart romance between two women in the 1950s—a time that was not accepting of two women falling in love, but also a time that didn’t really accept the livelihood of women without men. The hardships they face are as big a part of the plot as the romance itself, and this is a touching but also heartbreaking tale of two women trying to find love.

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Her

Theodore installs Samantha in Her (2013)

“I’m becoming much more than they programmed. I’m excited!”

A man falls in love with his computer’s operating system. That’s the premise of Her, a film by Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are, Adaptation) starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johannson, and Amy Adams. I’ll admit, the premise sounded so dumb to me that I put off watching this film for a long time. Well, now that I’ve watched it, I’m sad that I did—this is a brilliant film that hits hard in the feelings department too. I don’t think it’s meant to be viewed literally, like most sci-fi films; instead, it’s more like a metaphor or allegory, commenting on what it means to be human and have human relationships by showing us the relationship that develops between a lonely human and this artificial intelligence. In fact, there are some noticeable holes in the science behind this film, so I’d be hesitant to call it a science fiction film at all. It’s a solid drama and romance, though, with some important philosophical things to say about human nature, human relationships, and, of course, love.

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Mean Streets

Johnny Boy flashes a wry smile in Mean Streets

“You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.”

With the newfound freedom afforded by loosened censorship laws, the 70s were a Renaissance of crime films. In 1972, The Godfather made a crime family as familiar as your next-door neighbors. In 1973, Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, Taxi Driver) released Mean Streets, which brought crime from a family affair back to the streets, where it was untamed, unsafe, and unpredictable. Starring Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, this film had a brilliant script, strong performances by lead actors, and some innovative cinematography that made the film seem more real than many of the earlier crime films, as well as many modern ones. This is admittedly not the best work in Scorsese’s stellar career, but it was his first masterpiece, and it holds a place in crime film history, paving the way for many later brilliant films.

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Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette playfully tastes cake frosting off of her fingertip in the 2006 film

“Letting everyone down would be my greatest unhappiness.”

Marie Antoinette, the person, is someone I didn’t know a whole lot about, aside from the fact that France beheaded her and she allegedly told peasants to eat cake when they had no bread. Marie Antoinette, the 2006 film by Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, The Virgin Suicides), takes that vague historical figure and brings her to life, making her more human than a lot of fictional characters I see in film. Starring Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzman, the humanity of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI really is the focus of this film. Antoinette especially is made relatable to viewers today, even if the film is not 100% historically accurate—a very conscious decision on Coppola’s part. This is a film that I didn’t fully appreciate until my second viewing, as the true depth of the film evaded me on my first viewing because I was expecting something very different. The film has some great things to say about gender norms and societal expectations that elevate this from a breezy biopic into intelligent social commentary that’s surprisingly relatable.

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500 Days of Summer

Tom and Summer laugh together in a cinema in 500 Days of Summer

“Just because she likes the same bizzaro crap you do doesn’t mean she’s your soulmate.”

Are you sick of romantic comedies? You know, boy meets girl, there’s some cute awkwardness, and then they live happily ever after? The “nice guy” with horrible romantic luck eventually meets the quirky, beautiful girl of his dreams? 500 Days of Summer may be the cure. It’s a smart comedy (I hesitate to call it truly romantic) about what happens when a character buys into that ideal, but the reality doesn’t match. In fact, the lead character, Tom, is so bought into the ideal romance that he completely ignores the woman he’s dating and the real romance right in front of him. Directed by Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man) and starring Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, this film is intelligent, insightful, and oozing with hipster style.

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Donnie Darko

“I hope that when the world comes to an end, I can breathe a sigh of relief, because there will be so much to look forward to.”

Note: although most of my reviews are spoiler-free, this one does have some spoilers. Read at your own risk! Also, this film has been featured on my podcast, Peculiar Picture Show. Listen to the podcast episode on Donnie Darko here!

I was in college when Donnie Darko came out. Just about everyone around my age had that one friend who would not shut up about this film, how it was deep and mysterious. I didn’t get around to watching this film until the end of 2016, 15 years after its release. I’ll admit, on my first viewing, I wasn’t that impressed. There seemed to be too many loose ends and unexplained mysteries for me to take it seriously. I’m revising my review after a second viewing, not because I’ve figured out the many mysteries here, but because I think I’ve figured out why they’re in there. Is this a great film? I won’t say it’s one of the best on my list, but it’s unique and thought-provoking, to say the least.

Written and directed by Richard Kelly (Southland Tales, The Box) and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, this is an independent sci-fi film that takes some serious risks. Some of them pay off, and some of them don’t, but this is markedly different than most other films out there, sci-fi or otherwise. There’s also a lot of depth lurking underneath the surface of this film, although some of it is buried a little too deep to make sense of. Is it brilliant? Is it nonsense? I think that’s really open to interpretation. That said, I’ll give you my take on it.

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Sorry to Bother You

Cassius Greene holds a cell phone to his ear and has a bloody bandage on his head in Sorry to Bother You

“If you get shown a problem, but have no idea how to control it, then you just decide to get used to the problem.”

Sorry to Bother You is a hell of a movie. Before watching it, I’d heard it described as Office Space for Millennials, but that’s only partly true. Much like Office Space, it goes beyond office humor and very succinctly details all of the generation’s frustrations with the workforce, and it’s very funny to watch; however, Sorry to Bother You goes beyond the office and also comments on race, politics, and capitalism. Office Space was an anthem for Generation X people who were entering the workforce (like myself), but Sorry to Bother You is one of the smartest and most daring satires I’ve ever seen on any topic. Written and directed by Boots Riley and starring Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson, this is sharp, funny, at times shocking, and perhaps above all else, thought-provoking, and that’s a tall order for any movie, let alone one that’s as entertaining as this one.

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