"Us" Is Bold, Fresh, and Innovative - Even When It Stumbles by Keith LaFountaine

I've seen a statement passed around the Internet since the release of Us which I find interesting: "Jordan Peele is the next Hitchcock."

Aside from the hyperbole at play (as much as I admire Peele as a filmmaker, it seems a bit premature to liken him with Hitchcock upon the release of his sophomore film), I find it incredibly interesting that folks would choose Hitchcock of all directors. As I was reflecting on my walk home though, this choice makes sense. Peele utilizes many of the filmmaking techniques Hitchcock mastered -- creating tension with editing, understanding the difference between "suspense" and "shock", and building his horror around the former, and even the way he frames certain things.

The reason I bring all of this up is because I was surprised by Us on multiple occasions. Going in, I was under the impression that this was going to be a dimension-bending, sci-fi/horror film. While it does adhere somewhat to the premise upon which it is built, the end result is not as otherworldly; rather, it's a surprisingly poignant look at ourselves, at humans as a whole, and our reaction to "others".

Of course, I can't talk to much about this theme without giving too much away. However, there was a lot of pre-release chatter about whether this would be like Get Out in its exploration of real world themes through the lens of horror; the answer is: kind of. Peele tweeted out "Us is a horror film" (when Get Outwas released, he tweeted "Get Out is a documentary"), so it's clear that he, at the very least, did not set out to make a grand statement with this film; yet, one is there if you are interested in finding it.

Much like with Get Out, there's something that doesn't quite work with the integration of Peele's humor. He adheres so hard to horror themes and techniques that when the tension breaks for someone making a quip, or for a random side character to enter into the picture, the result is not levity, but instead the destruction of the viewer's immersion. I will say that Peele's humor didn't take me out of the film as much as it did in Get Out, and the humor is not centered entirely around one character (as it mostly was with Rod), so perhaps that is part of the reason why it worked more for me here.

The only other big complaint I have has to do with the third act. If there's one thing I really don't like in films with big mysteries, it's info dumps in the third act, and -- sadly -- that happens in Us. I understand why it's necessary in the film, but I really wish Peele had been able to impart that information without leaning on expository dialogue.

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Lupita Nyong'o is absolutely fabulous in Us. Adelaide and Red have distinct personalities, completely separate from each other. You almost forget that she is playing both roles. I was also very surprised at Evan Alex's performance, who plays her son. Much like Nyong'o, he expresses his emotions through his eyes, which in turn leads to a more understated and effective performance. The rest of the supporting cast is really solid, including Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker.

It's difficult to tell what Peele's work will look going forward. He's clearly a dynamic director who enjoys using horror as a lens through which to view society. I think that's part of what makes his films so interesting and fresh. For so long, horror films have been very adherent to specific themes and tropes -- one needs only to look at the slew of slashers and jump-scare ghost films at the box office to see what I mean. Yet Peele manages to subvert a lot of these elements, and I don't see him being the kind of director who makes the same film over and over again. If anything, Us is a testament to his ability, and his willingness, to experiment, to try and tell stories that aren't being told, and to do something bold and innovative with a genre that has been churning out rusted crap for over a decade. It's for those reasons that Us remains exciting and important, even when it stumbles in places.

Netflix's "Queer Eye" Is the Perfect Feel-Good Reality Show for Everyone by Keith LaFountaine

I am not someone who tends to enjoy reality shows. Except for the occasional Gordon Ramsay show or old re-runs of Ghost Hunters that I watched when I was a kid, I tend not to watch any reality television simply because I don’t tend to like it. The main reason I dislike reality television is because it feels fake. As a filmmaker, I can tell when emotion is being elicited or edited in, rather than organically integrated. American television is especially guilty of this.

Yet here I am, about to praise and laud a reality show for being both honest and realistic.

Queer Eye is not the kind of show I would seek out on my own. When I was introduced to it by my girlfriend and our friends I was initially skeptical. After all, I don’t like reality television and I really don’t like makeover shows — they’re just not my thing. Yet Queer Eye approaches these genres with a fresh eye and an exciting amount of energy that makes it infectious to watch and impossible to skip. While it adheres to a specific episodic formula (as most reality television does) every episode is imbued with its own personality, often based on the subject the Fab 5 are tasked with assisting.

Most importantly, what helps set Queer Eye apart from other reality shows, and other television currently airing, is its genuine heart and the five affable men who star in the show. Whether they’re helping an older guy who likes making redneck margaritas and going to car shows, or helping a trans man become more confident after his top surgery, they approach each person with honest endearment and affable joy, so much so that it is compelling and heartwarming.

That’s a core part of what helps make Queer Eye a great show for all kinds of people, no matter where on the sexuality spectrum you find yourself. Every member of the Fab 5 brings a unique perspective to each episode and to each person, elevating the show above the typical “reality show” feel and injecting heart and engaging humor in a genre that is often lacking both of those qualities. More importantly, each member of the Fab 5 is drastically different and unique — and did I mention they are all genuinely friendly and loving? I’m actually speaking from personal experience here: I had the opportunity to meet and chat with Antoni Porowski before an event at a local college, and he is one of the nicest, most down-to-earth people I have ever met.

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I think if I was going to come to a general thesis of this blog post, it would be simple: Queer Eye and its team uses the reality television formula and aesthetic to communicate the love, joy, and happiness they want to spread into the world. That’s part of what helps separate it from other shows in its genre; it’s not trying to use misleading editing to create drama, nor is it listless and devoid of meaning — far from it. Rather, Queer Eye (which only releases 8 episodes a season) approaches every person without judgment and with the sincere desire to help. In a time where cynicism seems to be around every corner, that kind of optimism is desperately needed.

In an early interview, after the first season dropped on Netflix, the Fab 5 did an interview (which I will link below) where they discussed both the show and their approach to it. Tan, the fashion perspective on the show, brought up an interesting point that gets at the heart of what I’m trying to say (it starts at 0:53 for those who are interested in watching).

The original show was fighting for tolerance, and it was different to our show because of this: the original show, it was at a time when the audience wasn’t ready to hear about the intimate lives. They wanted the glossy version of what gays are, and that’s all that America was ready for. That’s all the world was ready for. Times have changed. We don’t want you to just think that we’re a bunch of gay guys who can make something pretty - that’s not the case anymore...We want you to accept us as your kin. We want you to accept us as the people we are. We are just men who are out to help, and do the best we can to help everybody that we meet.
— Tan, FOX 5 DC Interview

No matter what your sexual identity or orientation is, I can confidently say you should give Queer Eye a shot.

More important than that, though, I can promise you that you will not find a more enjoyable, uplifting, wholesome, or optimistic show on television right now. The lengths that this team goes to to make both the heroes (as they affectionately dub the folks they help) and the fans they meet happy and feel loved is unlike anything I have seen on television before. It’s something everyone can connect to, whether you are straight, gay, bi, trans, asexual, or anywhere in-between on the sexuality spectrum.

Give it a shot. Watch an episode or two. I have a sneaking suspicion that you won’t be able to stop, just like I wasn’t able to.

7 Films I'm Excited To See In 2019 by Keith LaFountaine

Every year, I get excited about upcoming films. This year feels a little different than past ones, though. Maybe that’s the impending doom of Avengers: Endgame, or maybe it’s because I’m pumped to see what A24 is going to unleash after a solid lineup in 2018, or maybe it’s the number of exciting horror movies that are being released this year.

No matter the reason, here are five of the films I am most excited to see in 2019.


7. STAR WARS: EPISODE IX

Releasing on 20 DECEMBER 2019

written by J.J. ABRAMS & CHRIS TERRIO || directed by J.J. ABRAMS

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Almost nothing is known about the final film of the new Star Wars trilogy thanks to how tight security has been on the film (and understandably so). While I’m hoping that J.J. doesn’t pull too much from the original trilogy with this film (as Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi espouses, we need to kill the past when it comes to this saga), I am excited to see how it all ends.


6. AVENGERS: ENDGAME

Releasing on 26 APRIL 2019

written by CHRISTOPHER MARKUS & STEPHEN McFEELY || directed by ANTHONY RUSSO & JOE RUSSO

Aside from Star Wars: Episode IX, this is easily the most widely anticipated film of the year. While I was not as blown away with Infinity War was some other folks, I am still very excited to see how this first section of the MCU ends. I’m fully prepared to experience the emotional fallout of watching some of my favorite characters bite the bullet.


5. MIDSOMMAR

Releasing on 9 AUGUST 2019

written & directed by ARI ASTER

While I did not totally fall in love with Hereditary upon its release, it has since grown on me. There’s a lot to love about Aster’s direction, particularly in his visual style and the performances he manages to pull from his cast. Midsommar looks to be directly contrasted to his debut film, utilizing bright sunlight to elevate his horror as opposed to inky darkness. This trailer looks unique, dynamic, and eerie — exactly what I want from modern horror. Don’t expect it to be full of jump scares, and don’t expect it to go the way you expect. I fully trust Aster, though, and that’s part of the reason I will be one of the first people in the theater upon its release.


4. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 - PARABELLUM

Releasing on 17 May 2019

written by DEREK KOLSTAD || directed by CHAD STAHELSKI

I am astonished that the John Wick films work. Operating on the usual cliches one would expect from this genre, and this type of storyline, Derek Kolstand and Chad Stahelski managed to create a character and a story that feels wholly unique. Part of that stems from the way the films are shot, with an emphasis on choreography instead of fast editing. The other of it stems from Keanu Reeves’s performance (he hasn’t been this perfect for a role since The Matrix).

All in all, I am pumped to see how this fantastic trilogy ends.


3. THE IRISHMAN

Releasing Fall 2019

written by STEVE ZAILLAN || directed by MARTIN SCORSESE

A crime epic directed by Martin Scorsese, written by the guy who penned Schindler’s List and Gangs of New York, starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin, and Ray Ramano? Enough said.


2. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

Releasing 26 July 2019

written & directed by QUENTIN TARANTINO

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Another film where we know virtually nothing beyond the cast and a rough outline of the plot. Still, considering the number of Hollywood A-listers that are participating in this film (Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, and MANY more) there is no doubt in my mind that this is going to be an incredible film. My only concern is how Tarantino handles the death of Sharon Tate (which is still a painful subject, understandably, for her family).


1. US

Releasing 22 March 2019

written and directed by JORDAN PEELE


Jordan Peele proved himself to be a masterful director right out of the gate with Get Out. While I did have some reservations about that film, I cannot express how excited I am for his sophomore film — a haunting, mind-bending horror film that injects some narrative creativity into a genre in desperate need of it. Plus, how can you go wrong with this cast? Lupita Nyong’o, Elisabeth Moss, and Winston Duke look incredible in this film, and I am pumped to be in the theater when this one releases later this month.

Steven Spielberg Is Wrong About Netflix -- Here's Why by Keith LaFountaine

Steven Spielberg is a man who needs no introduction. As a legend of cinema, with a canon of masterpieces under his belt and a consistent output of quality films (ranging from period pieces to sci-fi epics), his opinion holds sway in Hollywood. It’s also not often that he uses that power; he is a good, humble man who often espouses his support of filmmaking and cinema in general.

This all took a strange turn when he came out gunning for Netflix after the 2019 Oscars. In addition to calling Green Book “…his favorite buddy movie since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, (something that requires its own blog post to unpack), he has taken steps to try and block Netflix films from being able to compete at the Oscars.

There’s a problem here, though: with all due respect to Spielberg, his creative genius, and his important legacy in the film world, he’s wrong on this issue. Not only that, his antiquated views about Netflix are going to hurt cinema more than Netflix ever would.


I. What’s the Big Deal With Netflix?


Steven Spielberg’s focus on Netflix is not because he has some personal vendetta against the streaming service. It’s because he considers Netflix Original films to be “TV Movies” — entertainment that belongs at the Emmys, not the Oscars. His main concern is how long these films are released in theaters just to become eligible for an Academy Award. He’s held these views for a while now. In fact, he’s been quoted in interviews discussing his disagreement with this release strategy.

Fewer and fewer filmmakers are going to struggle to raise money, or to compete at Sundance and possibly get one of the specialty labels to release their films theatrically...I don’t believe that films that are just given token qualifications, in a couple of theaters for less than a week, should qualify for the Academy Award nominations.
— Steven Spielberg, Indiewire Interview

There is some merit to his criticisms here, too. Roma, which was nominated for 10 Oscars (and won 3) this year was only in theaters for three weeks, which satisfied the Academy’s requirement that a film play for at least a week in theaters in LA. Furthermore, this is a criticism a lot of people (myself included) have had.

There is obviously merit to Netflix’s strategy: some folks in rural communities may not have access to theaters, and those who do may not have the financial flexibility to go see movies all the time. Netflix’s streaming platform allows them to see original filmmaking for an affordable price (even the highest tiers of Netflix’ plan cost less than it would to see two or more movies a month at the theater).

However, there is also something to be said for the importance of the theater experience, which is what Spielberg wants to preserve. I would love to see Netflix open up more to theater releases and Blu-Ray investments (one of which the streaming giant has budged on — Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman will receive a theater release upon its arrival).


II. Where Spielberg Went Wrong


As I’ve said, these criticism are not inherently wrong. While I may disagree with him about Netflix Original films being equivalent to TV movies, I do understand his concerns about films sneaking their way into the Oscars by satisfying the Academy’s guidelines with the bare minimum.

There’s just a couple of problems:

1) There are theatrically released films that squeak by the Oscar guidelines with the same kind of tactics Netflix has used. In fact, the majority of Best Picture winners since 2006 (84%) were released in October or November — just a few months before the Oscars ceremony. Furthermore some films, like the recent winner Green Book, go on to use their Best Picture win to fuel further box office revenue.

2) His proposed rule changes would require films to play in theaters for a month before becoming eligible for the Oscars. Furthermore, the Academy has a rule that eligible films must released the year before the awards (so films released January 1st, 2019 can’t compete for the 2019 Oscars, while films released in LA on December 23rd, 2018 can). In essence, his proposed changes would affect the time period when most Best Picture winners — including Green Book — are released.

It’s also important to point out that Spielberg’s film The Post would have been ineligible by his own proposed rules. It premiered in Washington D.C. on December 14 and started a limited run on December 22, giving it just enough time - 10 days - to satiate the Academy’s requirements and earn a Best Picture and Best Actress nomination.


III. The Irony of Spielberg’s Position


Spielberg honestly believes he is fighting for the good of cinema, and I don’t see him being the kind of person to do so with malice. He honestly believes that he is protecting the integrity of filmmaking. The irony of this entire debacle is that Spielberg’s actions would hurt cinema more than Netflix would.

Netflix’s release strategy could certainly be better. I would love to be able to see films like Roma, 13th, and the upcoming Triple Frontier in theaters. I would also love to own a Blu-Ray copy of them to add to my collection. My inability to do so does not mean that films like Roma are not films, though. That does not mean their inclusion at the Oscars is a degradation to the medium itself.

If Spielberg is successful in his attempt to change these rules, it is going to hurt more than just Netflix — it is going to hurt all sorts of filmmakers, further saturate 10 months of the year with tons of releases — too many for most people to see — and remove films like Spielberg’s The Post from eligibility.

Aside from the elitism of the idea that Netflix is beneath the Oscars, the impact Spielberg’s new rules would have on the filmmaker world would be a greater detriment than to allow films like Roma to compete, and win, Oscars.

While nobody really knows whether Spielberg’s efforts will be successful, Netflix has its supporters, including filmmaker Ava DuVernay and The Blacklist creator Franklin Leonard.

Furthermore, whether Spielberg likes it or not, streaming is a glimpse into the future of cinematic releases. It’s only natural that Netflix films are going to win Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys, and other awards. Soon enough, the coveted Best Picture award will go to a Netflix Original — it’s only a matter of when.

2018 Was a Great Year for Film. 2019 Is Going To Be An Awful Year for the Oscars by Keith LaFountaine

2018 was a great year to go to the movies. Whether you prefer huge, bombastic blockbusters like Mission: Impossible — Fallout or, even if you prefer to focus on indie films with small budgets and big hearts, like Jim Cummings’ masterpiece, Thunder Road, there were a ton of good films that came out last year. One would think, given the impressive quality of many 2018 releases, that the 2019 Oscars would be incredible (perhaps even the best show of the decade). Sadly, it’s becoming quite clear that while 2018 was an incredible year for film, 2019 is going to be an awful year for the Oscars.

There are a number of reasons for this, but there are three main ones we can hone in on right now.


I. “MEH” NOMINEES


I, like many folks who were anticipating award-season in late 2018, was appalled when the Oscar nominee list was revealed. Films with average or bad reviews, like Bohemian Rhapsody, Vice, and Green Book made it into the Best Picture categories while universally acclaimed films like Widows, If Beale Street Could Talk, and Can You Ever Forgive Me? were not.

The Best Director lineup was, yet again, all male despite two of the best films of the year — Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here and Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? — delivering indie box-office success and near-unanimous critical praise. Bradley Cooper was snubbed for a Best Director nomination, despite his (debut) film getting better reviews and pulling in more money than Adam McKay’s Vice. Barry Jenkins’ masterpiece, If Beale Street Could Talk was snubbed in almost every category (including Best Director and Best Picture) despite having near universal acclaim and Jenkins’ personal status of already having an Oscar on his shelf (for his 2016 film, Moonlight).

Something is clearly off here, and while certain aspects of these nominations (like the Best Director lineup being all men) will feel like deja vu for most folks, films like Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody give a lot of people (myself included) flashbacks to years when mediocre, problematic films like Crash beat out masterpieces like Brokeback Mountain and Munich.

While there are some bright spots this year, like Alfonso Cuaron’s masterpiece Roma, Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman, and Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite all being up for Best Picture, it’s easy to notice that the nominations this year have been noticeably lackluster.

To illustrate what I’m talking about when I mention critical scores/reception and the disparity between the 2019 Oscars and previous years, check out the critical reception of the nominated films below for 2019 and 2018.

Critical Acclaim of 2019 Best Picture Nominees (Out of 100)

Critical Acclaim of 2018 Best Picture Nominees (Out of 100)

Not only are there fewer nominees in 2019 (8, as compared to last year’s 9), but also those nominees scored consistently lower with critics than last year’s nominees. Even 2018’s lowest-scored film — Darkest Hour, which received an average score of 75 from critics — was far better received than Bohemian Rhapsody, Vice, and Green Book.

In fact, while the average critical score of each ceremony’s entire Best Picture lineup remains roughly the same (in the 75-78 range), Bohemian Rhapsody is the second-lowest reviewed Best Picture nominee in the past decade, only beat by the critically panned Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.

It is a small comfort that the lowest-reviewed film has not won Best Picture in the past decade (which is fair; in a ceremony to award the “Best Film” one should not be awarding the worst of the bunch), but it’s interesting that critically panned films — like The Blind Side, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and Bohemian Rhapsody — all suffer from essentially the same thing: tone-deaf storytelling and messy execution.


II. A LACK OF ORGANIZATION


The 2019 Oscars have felt surprisingly disorganized this year. With their lack of a host after the Kevin Hart scandal, their announcement to give out the Best Editing, Best Cinematography, and Best Short Film Oscars during commercial breaks (an announcement that has received universal disdain from filmgoers and filmmakers alike) while also saying they will focus on musical numbers during their 3-hour runtime, it feels like the Academy doesn’t know what they’re doing this year.

This is further augmented by the consistent scandals that have followed some films — like the massive expose on Bryan Singer’s sexual assault allegations and Rami Malek’s consistently tone-deaf response to questions about working with the director on Bohemian Rhapsody, to revelations of Green Book director Peter Farrelly’s own sexual misconduct allegations and co-writer Nick Vallelonga’s Islamaphobia.

Most notable of all is the Academy’s decision to go without an Oscar host, something they haven’t done since 1989. It’s also important to note that, that year, the Academy pushed musical numbers and performances to fill time, leading to that year becoming known as one of the most embarrassing years for the Oscars in the history of the ceremony’s 89-year lifespan.


III. A LACK OF RESPECT FOR THE MEDIUM


While I already mentioned the Academy’s decision to give out the Best Cinematography, Best Editing, and Best Short Film Oscars during commercial breaks, I think it deserves a larger spotlight. Not only is it disrespectful to the nominees this year, but it’s also disrespectful to the medium of filmmaking itself.

Alfonso Cuaron put it best in his recent tweet.

Couple this with the disingenuous claim that this move was done to save time (even though they could easily cut time in other places if they wanted to), and it seems that this claim is as silly as it is disrespectful. At an award ceremony that is dedicated to recognizing achievements in filmmaking, it seems astonishingly dumb not to award two of the most important aspects of filmmaking and the creators of the nominated short films, who worked hard on their films just like everyone else.


Ultimately, the 2019 Oscars feel like a trainwreck waiting to happen. Only time will tell whether any of these issues are fixed, or if the Academy decides to double-down on their awful decisions. Regardless, let’s not forget that 2018 was an incredible year for film. A bad award ceremony can’t take away that fact.

"Velvet Buzzsaw" Is a Searing Indictment of Art Dealers That Doesn't Quite Stick Its Landing by Keith LaFountaine

The art world is notoriously classist and money-driven. Controlled by a small group of dealers, art critics are often less driven by the quality of the art in front of them and more by how many dollar signs pop out at them. This is part of the reason why it is so hard for young artists to break into the business -- in addition to being a highly competitive, highly saturated market, the subjectivity of the art world is poisoned by the greed of those who guard its doorway.

Velvet Buzzsaw immediately presents itself as a scathing indictment of these kinds of art critics and dealers. They are vain and selfish; they are more than satisfied to give a bad review to an artist out of personal spite, and will just as easily exploit a dead man's work for profit, even when he has asked for his work to be destroyed.

It's this central theme that drives the majority of the film (even the more surreal, horror-driven aspects of it) and I can see what Dan Gilroy is trying to do. By contrasting the modernist, sleek world of these rich dealers and critics with the grungy, eerie work of a dead hermit (and the effect the latter's work ends up having on the former) is inherently an interesting concept. It's also one that is easy to convolute. Unfortunately that is what has happened here.

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Parallels will be made to Nightcrawler, though I don't think such comparisons are fair. While both films serve as searing condemnations of practices in their respective fields, I think Velvet Buzzsaw is more ambitious. It attempts to embrace its own peculiar oddities to such an extent that they lose their visual value. It can also be difficult to wrap one's head around Gilroy's visual style and the goal of his narrative. While it's easy to see what he's trying to say, how he's trying to say it also tends to hamper the film's overall quality. So, in other words, Velvet Buzzsaw deserves accolades for its sheer ambition, but it's that ambition that hurts the film in the end.

There's some really good stuff in Velvet Buzzsaw, and it's presented with a zany, effervescent charm that seems to come to Gilroy effortlessly. Jake Gyllenhaal's performance is great, and the supporting cast is impressive as well, even if some of those folks are extremely underutilized. However, at the end of the day your enjoyment of the film will greatly depend on how much you buy into the surrealistic aspects of the narrative, especially once the film reveals its head-scratching conclusion.


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“VELVET BUZZSAW” ★★★

written and directed by DAN GILROY

Rated R || 112 MIN || Released 1 February 2019

Top 50 Films of 2018 by Keith LaFountaine

2018 has been written off by some as a bad year for film. Quite the contrary in my view; not only as 2018 been an impressive year for film, it’s been a year of important films. However, with that comes the truth that the market has been flooded with too many movies to watch. Between the hundreds of films theatrically released, the 100+ Netflix Original films released online, and the independent films that went straight to Video On Demand (VOD), cinephiles like myself felt as though we were drowning in stuff to watch.

I managed to watch 90 films released in 2018. That excludes films that premiered in 2017 (like You Were Never Really Here and First Reformed) and some films which never came to my state (like Suspiria and If Beale Street Could Talk).

So, without further ado, here are the top 50 films of 2018.


50. DUMPLIN’

written by KRISTIN HAHN || directed by ANNE FLETCHER

Rated PG-13 || 110 MIN || Released 7 December 2018

“Willowdean, the plus-size teenage daughter of a former beauty queen, signs up for her mom's Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant as a protest that escalates when other contestants follow her footsteps, revolutionizing the pageant and their small Texas town.”


49. OUTLAW KING

written by BATHSHEBA DORAN, DAVID MACKENZIE & JAMES MacINNES || directed by DAVID MACKENZIE

Rated R || 121 MIN || Released 9 November 2018

“A true David vs. Goliath story of how the 14th century Scottish 'Outlaw King' Robert the Bruce used cunning and bravery to defeat the much larger and better equipped occupying English army.”


48. HALLOWEEN

written by JEFF FRADLEY, DANNY McBRIDE & DAVID GORDON GREEN || directed by DAVID GORDON GREEN

Rated R || 106 MIN || Released 19 October 2018

“Laurie Strode confronts her long-time foe Michael Myers, the masked figure who has haunted her since she narrowly escaped his killing spree on Halloween night four decades ago.”


47. DEADPOOL 2

written by RHETT REESE, PAUL WERNICK & RYAN REYNOLDS || directed by DAVID LEITCH

Rated R || 119 MIN || Released 18 May 2018

“Foul-mouthed mutant mercenary Wade Wilson brings together a team of fellow mutant rogues to protect a young boy with supernatural abilities from the brutal, time-traveling cyborg, Cable.”


46. SET IT UP

written by KATIE SILBERMAN || directed by CLAIRE SCANLON

Rated TV-14 || 105 MIN || Released 15 June 2018

“Two corporate executive assistants hatch a plan to match-make their two bosses.”


45. GAME NIGHT

written by MARK PEREZ || directed by JOHN FRANCIS DALEY & JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

Rated R || 100 MIN || Released 23 February 2018

“A group of friends who meet regularly for game nights find themselves entangled in a real-life mystery when the shady brother of one of them is seemingly kidnapped by dangerous gangsters.”


44. CALIBRE

written & directed by MATT PALMER

Rated TV-MA || 101 MIN || Released 29 June 2018

“A shocking deed turned their weekend trip into a nightmare. Now their only hope is to swallow their paranoia and act normal.”


43. BIRD BOX

written by ERIC HEISSERER || directed by SUSANNE BIER

Rated R || 124 MIN || Released 21 December 2018

“Five years after an ominous unseen presence drives most of society to suicide, a mother and her two children make a desperate bid to reach safety.”


42. HOLD THE DARK

written by MACON BLAIR || directed by JEREMY SAULNIER

Rated TV-MA || 125 MIN || Released 28 September 2018

“After the deaths of three children suspected to be killed by wolves, writer Russell Core is hired by the parents of a missing six-year-old boy to track down and locate their son in the Alaskan wilderness.”


41. THE NIGHT EATS THE WORLD

written by JÉRÉMIE GUEZ, GUILLAUME LEMANS & DOMINIQUE ROCHER || directed by DOMINIQUE ROCHER

Rated TV-14 || 93 MIN || Released 13 July 2018

“The morning after a party, a young man wakes up to find Paris invaded by zombies.”


40. FIRST MATCH

written and directed by OLIVIA NEWMAN

Rated TV-MA || 102 MIN || Released 30 March 2018

“Hardened by years in foster care, a teenage girl from Brooklyn's Brownsville neighborhood decides that joining the boys wrestling team is the only way back to her estranged father.”


39. BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE

written and directed by DREW GODDARD

Rated R || 141 MIN || Released 12 October 2018

“Circa 1969, several strangers, most with a secret to bury, meet by chance at Lake Tahoe's El Royale, a rundown hotel with a dark past. Over the course of one night, everyone will show their true colors - before everything goes to hell.”


38. HEARTS BEAT LOUD

written by BRETT HALEY & MARC BASCH || directed by BRETT HALEY

Rated PG-13 || 97 MIN || Released 8 June 2018

“A father and daughter form an unlikely songwriting duo in the summer before she leaves for college.”


37. A SIMPLE FAVOR

written by JESSICA SHARZER || directed by PAUL FEIG

Rated R || 117 MIN || Released 14 September 2018

Stephanie is a single mother with a parenting vlog who befriends Emily, a secretive upper-class woman who has a child at the same elementary school. When Emily goes missing, Stephanie takes it upon herself to investigate.


36. AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

written by CHRISTOPHER MARKUS & STEPHEN McFEELY || directed by ANTHONY RUSSO & JOE RUSSO

Rated PG-13 || 149 MIN || Released 27 April 2018

“The Avengers and their allies must be willing to sacrifice all in an attempt to defeat the powerful Thanos before his blitz of devastation and ruin puts an end to the universe.”


35. ANT-MAN AND THE WASP

written by CHRIS McKENNA, ERIK SOMMERS, PAUL RUDD, ANDREW BARRER & GABRIEL FERRARI || directed by PEYTON REED

Rated PG-13 || 118 MIN || Released 6 July 2018

“As Scott Lang balances being both a Super Hero and a father, Hope van Dyne and Dr. Hank Pym present an urgent new mission that finds the Ant-Man fighting alongside The Wasp to uncover secrets from their past.”


34. ISLE OF DOGS

written and directed by WES ANDERSON

Rated PG-13 || 101 MIN || Released 13 April 2018

“Set in Japan, Isle of Dogs follows a boy's odyssey in search of his lost dog.”


33. THE BLEEDING EDGE

written by KIRBY DICK & AMY ZIERING || directed by KIRBY DICK

Rated TV-14 || 99 MIN || Released 27 July 2018

“A look at the unforeseen consequences of advanced technological devices used in the medical field.”


32. APOSTLE

written and directed by GARETH EVANS

Rated TV-MA || 130 MIN || Released 12 October 2018

“In 1905, a drifter on a dangerous mission to rescue his kidnapped sister tangles with a sinister religious cult on an isolated island.”


31. LOVE, SIMON

written by ELIZABETH BERGER & ISAAC APTAKER || directed by GREG BERLANTI

Rated PG-13 || 110 MIN || Released 16 March 2018

“Simon Spier keeps a huge secret from his family, his friends and all of his classmates: he's gay. When that secret is threatened, Simon must face everyone and come to terms with his identity.”


30. BLACK PANTHER

written by RYAN COOGLER & JOE ROBERT COLE || directed by RYAN COOGLER

Rated PG-13 || 134 MIN || Released 16 February 2018

“T'Challa, heir to the hidden but advanced kingdom of Wakanda, must step forward to lead his people into a new future and must confront a challenger from his country's past.”


29. CRAZY RICH ASIANS

written by PETER CHIARELLI & ADELE LIM || directed by JON M. CHU

Rated PG-13 || 120 MIN || Released 15 August 2018

“This contemporary romantic comedy, based on a global bestseller, follows native New Yorker Rachel Chu to Singapore to meet her boyfriend's family.”


28. RBG

written and directed by JULIE COHEN & BETSY WEST

Rated PG || 98 MIN || Released 14 September 2018

“The exceptional life and career of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has developed a breathtaking legal legacy while becoming an unexpected pop culture icon.”


27. THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

written and directed by ETHAN COHEN & JOEL COHEN

Rated R || 133 MIN || Released 9 November 2018

“An anthology film comprising six stories, each dealing with a different aspect of life in the Old West.”


26. SHIRKERS

written and directed by SANDI TAN

Not Rated || 96 MIN || Released 26 October 2018

“A woman explores the events surrounding a film she and her friends began making with a mysterious stranger decades ago.”


25. LEAVE NO TRACE

written by DEBRA GRANIK & ANNE ROSELLINI || directed by DEBRA GRANIK

Rated PG || 109 MIN || Released 29 June 2018

“A father and his thirteen year-old daughter are living an ideal existence in a vast urban park in Portland, Oregon, when a small mistake derails their lives forever.”


24. UNSANE

written by JONATHAN BERNSTEIN & JAMES GREER || directed by STEVEN SODERBERGH

Rated R || 98 MIN || Released 23 March 2018

“A young woman is involuntarily committed to a mental institution, where she is confronted by her greatest fear--but is it real or a product of her delusion?”


23. THE NIGHT COMES FOR US

written and directed by TIMO TJAHJANTO

Not Rated || 121 MIN || Released 19 October 2018

“Ito, a gangland enforcer, is caught amidst a treacherous and violent insurrection within his Triad crime family upon his return home from a stint abroad.”


22. HEREDITARY

written and directed by ARI ASTER

Rated R || 127 MIN || Released 8 June 2018

“After the family matriarch passes away, a grieving family is haunted by tragic and disturbing occurrences, and begin to unravel dark secrets.”


21. MANDY

written by PANOS COSMATOS & AARON STEWART-AHN || directed by PANOS COSMATOS

Not Rated || 121 MIN || Released 14 September 2018

“The enchanted lives of a couple in a secluded forest are brutally shattered by a nightmarish hippie cult and their demon-biker henchmen, propelling a man into a spiraling, surreal rampage of vengeance.”


20. SAY HER NAME: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF SANDRA BLAND

written and directed by KATE DAVIS & DAVID HEILBRONER

Rated TV-MA || 105 MIN || Released 9 November 2018

“An investigation into what happened to activist Sandra Bland, who died in police custody after a routine traffic stop.”


19. SEARCHING

written by ANEESH CHAGANTY & SEV OHANIAN || directed by ANEESH CHAGANTY

Rated PG-13 || 102 MIN || Released 31 August 2018

“After his 16-year-old daughter goes missing, a desperate father breaks into her laptop to look for clues to find her.”


18. INCREDIBLES 2

written and directed by BRAD BIRD

Rated PG || 118 MIN || Released 15 June 2018

“Bob Parr (Mr. Incredible) is left to care for the kids while Helen (Elastigirl) is out saving the world.”


17. A QUIET PLACE

written by BRYAN WOODS, SCOTT BECK & JOHN KRASINSKI || directed by JOHN KRASINSKI

Rated PG-13 || 90 MIN || 6 April 2018

“In a post-apocalyptic world, a family is forced to live in silence while hiding from monsters with ultra-sensitive hearing.”


16. THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER

written and directed by SARA COLANGELO

Rated R || 96 MIN || Released 12 October 2018

“A kindergarten teacher in New York becomes obsessed with one of her students whom she believes is a child prodigy.”


15. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT

written and directed by CHRISTOPHER McQUARRIE

Rated PG-13 || 147 MIN || Released 27 July 2018

“Ethan Hunt and his IMF team, along with some familiar allies, race against time after a mission gone wrong.”


14. ANNIHILATION

written and directed by ALEX GARLAND

Rated R || 115 MIN || Released 23 February 2018

“A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition into a mysterious zone where the laws of nature don't apply.”


13. THEY’LL LOVE ME WHEN I’M DEAD

written and directed by MORGAN NEVILLE

Rated TV-MA || 98 MIN || Released 2 November 2018

“In the final fifteen years of the life of legendary director Orson Welles he pins his Hollywood comeback hopes on a film, The Other Side of the Wind, in itself a film about an aging film director trying to finish his last great movie.”


12. PRIVATE LIFE

written and directed by TAMARA JENKINS

Rated R || 123 MIN || Released 5 October 2018

“An author is undergoing multiple fertility therapies to get pregnant, putting her relationship with her husband on edge.”


11. EIGHTH GRADE

written and directed by BO BURNHAM

Rated R || 93 MIN || Released 3 August 2018

“An introverted teenage girl tries to survive the last week of her disastrous eighth grade year before leaving to start high school.”


10. FIRST MAN

written by JOSH SINGER || directed by DAMIEN CHAZELLE

Rated PG-13 || 141 MIN || Released 12 October 2018

“A look at the life of the astronaut, Neil Armstrong, and the legendary space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969.”


9. WIDOWS

written by GILLIAN FLYNN & STEVE McQUEEN || directed by STEVE McQUEEN

Rated R || 129 MIN || Released 16 November 2018

“Set in contemporary Chicago, amid a time of turmoil, four women with nothing in common except a debt left behind by their dead husbands' criminal activities, take fate into their own hands, and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.”


8. THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND

written by OJA KODAR & ORSON WELLES || directed by ORSON WELLES

Rated R || 122 MIN || Released 2 November 2018

“A Hollywood director emerges from semi-exile with plans to complete work on an innovative motion picture.”


7. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU

written and directed by BOOTS RILEY

Rated R || 111 MIN || Released 13 July 2018

“In an alternate present-day version of Oakland, telemarketer Cassius Green discovers a magical key to professional success, propelling him into a universe of greed.”


6. A STAR IS BORN

written by ERIC ROTH, BRADLEY COOPER & WILL FETTERS || directed by BRADLEY COOPER

Rated R || 136 MIN || Released 5 October 2018

“A musician helps a young singer find fame, even as age and alcoholism send his own career into a downward spiral.”


5. THUNDER ROAD

written and directed by JIM CUMMINGS

Not Rated || 92 MIN || Released 30 October 2018

“A police officer faces a personal meltdown following a divorce and the death of his mother.”


4. BLACKKKLANSMAN

written by CHARLIE WACHTEL, DAVID RABINOWITZ, KEVIN WILLMOTT & SPIKE LEE || directed by SPIKE LEE

Rated R || 135 MIN || Released 10 August 2018

“Ron Stallworth, an African American police officer from Colorado Springs, CO, successfully manages to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan branch with the help of a Jewish surrogate who eventually becomes its leader. Based on actual events.”


3. THE FAVOURITE

written by DEBORAH DAVIS & TONY McNAMARA || directed by YORGOS LANTHIMOS

Rated R || 119 MIN || 21 December 2018

“In early 18th century England, a frail Queen Anne occupies the throne and her close friend, Lady Sarah, governs the country in her stead. When a new servant, Abigail, arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah.”


2. THE TALE

written and directed by JENNIFER FOX

Rated TV-MA || 114 MIN || Released 26 May 2018

“A woman filming a documentary on childhood rape victims starts to question the nature of her childhood relationship with her riding instructor and running coach.”


1. ROMA

written and directed by ALFONSO CUARÓN

Rated R || 135 MIN || Released 21 November 2018

“A story that chronicles a year in the life of a middle-class family's maid in Mexico City in the early 1970s.”

"The Favourite" Shows Yorgos Lanthimos At His Most Cunning and Accessible by Keith LaFountaine

Yorgos Lanthimos loves to make his audience uncomfortable. If there was any doubt of this, one needs only to look how he starts his films -- Dogtooth begins with a scene depicting explicit sexual intercourse; The Lobster opens with a scene of a woman shooting a donkey; The Killing of a Sacred Deer begins with a real beating heart filling the screen for an extended period of time. By throwing his audience off, and by upending their equilibrium, Lanthimos is able to retain control over their cinematic experience.

The Favourite's opening is rather tame in comparison to the others, but it does catch you off guard. Its odd opening credits, spaced out in a way that is both pleasing to the eye and visually jarring, immediately cutting to a luscious opening shot of the Queen's extravagant bedroom throws you for a loop. In comparison to his other films, this cut may seem relatively normal, but Lanthimos is still toying with us. Much like he does throughout the entire film, Lanthimos is setting up chess pieces for us in the smallest ways.

The Favourite follows two women in the early 18th century — Lady Sarah (played by Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (played by Emma Stone) — and their attempts to win the affection of the ailing Queen Sarah. Both women go to extreme lengths to cement their status as the Queen’s confidant and lover, resulting in everything from political maneuvering to attempted murder.

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It is important to say that The Favourite is easily Lanthimos's most accessible film. The Greek director has been anything except straightforward when it comes to filmmaking, and while he retains the ambiguity and distinct artistry that helps set his work apart from other films, The Favourite isn't obtuse. It has a very straightforward story, distinct characters, and a linear narrative.

Still, when the credits rolled people in my theater were confused. A few let out an audible "What?" while others just shook their heads in disbelief. So, even in his most accessible film, Lanthimos manages to remain an enigma.

To me, though, The Favourite is unique, but not difficult to decipher. While Dogtooth played with odd ideas of language and meaning, and while The Lobster did its best to be anything but understandable, Lanthimos is telling a very clear story of power and control here. The battle to be Queen Anne's "favorite" leads to an interesting discussion of what power is — more importantly, it’s a discussion of what attaining power leads to, especially for those who are not ready to wield it. So while Lanthimos utilizes his trademark visual abstraction and dour narrative ambiguity at the end of the film, its underlying meaning is surprisingly straightforward.

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Complementing the narrative of this film is the dizzying visual style. By utilizing fish-eye lenses, distinctly luscious production design, and gorgeous, naturalistic lighting The Favourite sets itself apart from other period pieces. It feels distinctly modern while simultaneously reveling in its period-piece aesthetic. This dynamic visual style calls back to the decadence of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon while keeping a foot firmly placed in the modern era.

Furthermore, the script is a triumph. Written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, The Favourite is equal parts funny and chilling. Some of the most memorable lines of the year come from this film; words are thrust around like spears, and each character has their own unique speaking style. Abigail balances regal speech with modern cussing, tossing around f-bombs while alone. Lady Sarah’s arrogant attitude and “tough-love” dialogue inform a genuine affection for Queen Anne, even if her well-meaning intentions are soured by her brusqueness.

To put it simply, The Favourite is a triumph. Lush production design, beautiful cinematography, hilarious and powerful performances, and razor-sharp dialogue all help contribute to the success of this film. Lanthimos's direction is the cherry on top -- the unique flavor to this delectable sundae.

I'd hazard a guess that even if you disliked Lanthimos's previous projects, you will like this one. More importantly, though, its discussion of power and servitude is one that is oddly resonate to our current political situation, and it is a film that is worth analyzing even after we move into the new year.


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“THE FAVOURITE” ★★★★★

written by DEBORAH DAVIS & TONY McNAMARA || directed by YORGOS LANTHIMOS

Rated R || 119 MIN || Released 21 December 2018

"Bird Box" Is Chilling and Emotional, but Falls Just a Bit Short of Its Ambitious Goals by Keith LaFountaine

In apocalyptic films, family is most often the core theme. No matter if it's M. Night Shyamalan's abysmal film, The Happening or this year's smash hit, A Quiet Place, familial drama is something we can all relate to on some level; it helps ground the horror of the situation on screen. Therefore, I can see why many people are drawing parallels between Bird Box and the aforementioned films; they are, at the most basic level, dealing with the same kind of story.

I don't think the comparison is entirely accurate, though; while Bird Box is concerned with family, its thematic center is not "family" in the strict sense of the term. The film opens on Malorie, played by Sandra Bullock, giving a harsh speech to two children who she calls "boy" and "girl". Malorie's arc is not one of self-sacrifice, but rather one of emotional investment. Her impersonal orders, barked at these children as though they were adults, too, are spoken with the air of someone terrified to get attached to anyone or anything in a world where she could lose them in a split-second.

That theme and arc lend itself to more interesting character work -- work that Bullock mostly nails. The film falters in a few places, mostly toward the end of its second act, but Bullock is always an earnest and sympathetic protagonist who we root for and understand, even with her faults.

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Bird Box's appeal comes from its unique premise, though. While it isn't capable of offering the cinematic immersion in its narrative that A Quiet Place was able to do with clever sound design, Bird Box makes the most of its invisible menace, utilizing shadows, wind, disembodied voices, and horrific, gruesome deaths to sell how dangerous it is. For some, this may not work. After all, there's only so many times you can see a shadow descend over a home, or wind begin to blow through trees before the aesthetic loses its charm. I found it to be an intriguing approach, though. Director Susanne Bier never shows her hand with what the monster is, where it comes from, or what exactly people see before they go insane, but with this restraint comes some effective horror.

In fact, I'm reminded a bit of 10 Cloverfield Lane which -- while still a great film -- reveals its hand in the final fifteen minutes of its runtime, effectively ruining the tension and fear that it created over the previous ninety minutes and undercutting the restrained, effective horror at its core.

Bird Box doesn't do that. One character postulates that it's a viral weapon attack from North Korea, while the sentient nature of the shadows and disembodied voices lend credence to the notion that this is a living being. I've even read intriguing reviews from folks who see the monster as a metaphor for mental illness, like schizophrenia.

Leaving the monster's identity open for interpretation allows for two things: first and foremost, it allows it to focus on the human story at the core (and the horror that comes with that), and it allows us to be just as confused and disoriented as our protagonist. While we can't spend the entire film blindfolded, Bier still gives us some level of chilling terror that Malorie experiences in this film.

My major complaint comes from this film's fragmented narrative. While I am a sucker for non-linear narratives, the constant cutting back and forth between present and past here undercut the tension that one or the other was in the midst of. Both in terms of its plotting and its emotional complexity, it would have been better for this film to be more linear and to use the river rapids as the actual climax of the third act. The runtime is a bit bloated, as well.

Bird Box doesn't nail every emotional moment it sets up, nor does it feel fully realized when the credits roll. However, the moments that do work are impactful. The horror is gruesome and chilling, and the emotional beats tend to work in spite of the fact that they rely on film conventions we've seen before. Even still, Bird Box is anchored by Sandra Bullock's impressive performance, Susanne Bier's restrained direction, and the no-holds-barred, visual horror on display. Bird Box may not reach its ambitious goals, but it comes pretty damn close.


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“BIRD BOX” ★★★½

written by ERIC HEISSERER || directed by SUSANNE BIER

Rated R || 124 MIN || Released 21 December 2018

"Dumplin'" Is a Flawed, but Important Exploration of Body Positivity and Internal Confidence by Keith LaFountaine

If I’m being completely honest, I did not expect to like Dumplin’ as much as I did. After you see as many films as I have, narrative conventions and cheesy plot points stick out like sore thumbs, often pulling me out of the film and making its flaws that much more apparent. It’s very fitting, then, that the confidence behind every aspect of this film — from its writing, to its direction, to its cast — is part of what helps make it work. This is a film that is full of cheesy moments, that sports some pretty forced dialogue, and offers a narrative that is easy to predict; yet, in spite of all of these apparent flaws, Dumplin’ emerges as not just an enjoyable film, but one that has a vital message at its core.

Dumplin’ follows Willowdean (played by Danielle MacDonald) - a plus-sized teenager who happens to be the daughter of a former beauty queen, Rosie (played by Jennifer Aniston). After the death of her aunt, who helped build Willowdean’s confidence throughout childhood, the young girl enters the local beauty pageant, which Rosie helps run.

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I think what helps make Dumplin’ such an important film — and what helps make its flawed elements ultimately work — is that this isn’t the story of a young girl needing a boy to find confidence, nor of one where a girl discovers her self-confidence because of the beauty pageant itself. While there is a male love interest and a beauty pageant in the film, Willowdean’s journey is an internal one. She is searching for inner confidence, not for validation from other people. It’s a more difficult journey, as we see on multiple occasions, but it’s ultimately a more fulfilling one.

It would be easy to mess this film up, too. So many films that have preceded it have stumbled when it comes to this messaging. Dumplin’ makes it a point not to tie Willowdean’s journey specifically to any element other than herself and her fond memories of her aunt. It doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to showing the bullying Willowdean experiences because of her size, nor does it try to shy away from the clearly tense relationship Willowdean has with Rosie. Instead, it embraces these elements and utilizes them to make a point — one we’ve known for quite some time now, but which still needs to be said; one which is adorned on the swimsuits of Willowdean and her best friend Ellen (played by Odeya Rush) when they walk out on stage together — “every body is a swimsuit body.” The point being that beauty is not, and should not, be defined strictly by our waistline.

I’m sometimes criticized of being too hard on films for their flaws, and perhaps there is some truth to that. As much as I adore films, I do use my incessant movie-watching as an opportunity to learn from the faults I see on screen, which helps limit the chance that I too will make them. I’m not cold-hearted, though. I can see the importance of a film’s message, and even be moved by it, even when it is surrounded in conventional Hollywood cliches and narrative conventions I’ve seen a thousand times.

I’m not going to pretend Dumplin’ is a perfect film, because it’s not. It is an important one, though; it’s one that wears its heart on its sleeve, much like Willowdean herself. It’s these elements that help elevate it, and it’s these elements that make it worth watching.


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“DUMPLIN’” ★★★

directed by ANNE FLETCHER || written by KRISTIN HAHN

Rated PG-13 || Released December 7, 2018 || 110 MIN

Why Kristen Stewart Is One of the Best Working Actors Today by Keith LaFountaine

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Hollywood is not a forgiving place. One bad film, one bad performance, one flopped blockbuster and your career can be effectively ended overnight. This is especially true in 2018, where social media and aggregator sites like Rotten Tomatoes can driving money to (or away from) specific projects.

Kristen Stewart experienced this in 2008 when she was cast as Bella Swan at eighteen-years-old. Despite being a popular actress who had already been working in the industry since 2001, this one role was what she became known for. Due to a variety of unfortunate circumstances, ranging from bad direction to a poor supporting cast, Stewart’s acting abilities were largely maligned and made fun of. Couple that with a few scandals, and it looked like she was bound to carry the baggage of this one role for the rest of her acting career. After finishing the Twilight franchise (and even in-between production on each installment) Stewart focused on independent films with smaller filmmakers. It is there that she consistently proves why she is one of the best working actresses today.

One needs only to look at her work with French director Oliver Assayas to see how talented she is.

Between Personal Shopper and Clouds of Sils Maria, Stewart showcases a quieter, more introspective approach to acting. She inhabits her characters to a stunning degree, spending time with them to flesh out their insecurities and their motivations. While it’s easy to assume that her soft speaking voice and her lack of flamboyance mean she’s a bad actress (or, as some have claimed, a monotone one), these kinds of criticisms are missing the point of her acting style. It’s this understanding of her character from the inside out that helps make her performances more nuanced, less obtuse, and increasingly impressive with each new film.

Camp X-Ray is another example of this; playing a military guard in Guantanamo Bay, she manages to bring a profound level of humanism to a complex character. While the film around her isn’t perfect, Stewart is a quiet, steady force throughout its entire runtime.

Stewart also has a surprising amount of range. While the aforementioned films all showcase her quiet, introspective style she has plenty of films that are more bombastic and lively. Take for instance her performance as Joan Jett in the 2010 film The Runaways. Not only does she manage to embody Joan Jett’s mannerisms and style to a startling degree, she also brings her own punk attitude to the role, helping make the role much more than just a copy of a real person’s mannerisms. Her performance in the action-comedy American Ultra also showcases this more fiery style of acting she can bring to a role.

Ultimately, what separates her style from other actresses is her understanding of each character that she plays. Acting is so contingent upon other factors — the director one is working with, the supporting cast, or even working in a green screen studio as opposed to an actual set. No matter what film she’s in, or what role she’s playing, Kristen Stewart always tries to understand the person she is portraying. Some actors are incredible at mimicking accents; others, like Daniel Day-Lewis, immerse themselves in their character on and off set so as to remove the barrier between them and their role. Stewart, to my knowledge, is not a method actor. Rather, she focuses on embodying her character, rather than immersing herself in them. That’s what sets her apart from other actresses.

As a director, I am sometimes asked by friends and colleagues what I look for in a performance. That’s a complicated question because it’s dependent on the project and the type of role I’m casting. However, what I look for in an actor is dedication. I want to cast someone who will work hard to not only understand the script, but to bring their own personal flair to a role. Kristen Stewart does this in her own way. Whether she’s playing a quiet, more contemplative role or she’s playing punk rock on stage as Joan Jett, she always brings her A-game. That’s an admirable trait in an actress, and one that we should recognize (and praise) more.

"Hearts Beat Loud" Is the Feel-Good Film We Need In Our Troubled Times by Keith LaFountaine

You aren’t going to see Hearts Beat Loud nominated for any Oscars this year, nor will you see it plastered all over every inch of the Internet. This indie film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January, got a limited US release in June, made just under $3 million at the box office, and is now available to rent on Amazon Prime for just $0.99.

All of these things do not change the fact that Hearts Beat Loud is one of the most effortlessly likable films not just in 2018, but in recent memory. Fueled by endearing lead performances, an all-star supporting cast, and top-notch music this film made an impression on me in its first act.

Hearts Beats Loud follows a widower, Frank and his daughter Sam. Frank, played by Nick Offerman, was in a band with his late wife, and he has been trying to carry on the musical tradition with his daughter, played by Kiersey Clemons, who is studying to go to medical school out in California. During one of their late-night jam sessions, they write and record a song that ends up being a hit on Spotify. Sam is then faced with an important question: does she continue to pursue medical school, or does she pursue music with her father?

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The thing that really helps sell this film is its cast. In fact, I was surprised at how star-studded this little indie film (made on a budget of just $2 million) is. In supporting roles are Ted Danson, Sasha Lane, Toni Collette, and Blythe Danner; that is a hell of a lineup! Offerman and Clemons are perfectly cast as the father/daughter duo, and their chemistry is believable. Offerman is in top form, managing to switch between grieving widower, supportive father, and excited music enthusiast with ease, while Kiersey Clemons steals all of her scenes with her magnetic voice and her impressive screen presence.

Best of all, the music is really good. There is a lot of importance placed on “feeling” in this film — in fact, there is one scene where Frank explains to his daughter that lyrics don’t need to make sense if the feeling is there — and these songs drip with emotion, whether it’s the titular song “Hearts Beat Loud” or the emotional “Everything Must Go”.

The narrative does stumble in places, mainly in its more dramatic moments where the script relies on old cliches to push the narrative forward. These moments don’t derail the entire film, though, and the cast helps ground these conventional moments with emotional clarity.

Overall, I implore you to go watch Hearts Beat Loud at your next opportunity. Not only is it a fun, enjoyable film that is endearing, funny, and well made, it is the kind of feel-good antidote we need in our troubling times.


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“HEARTS BEAT LOUD” ★★★½

directed by BRETT HALEY

written by BRETT HALEY and MARC BASCH

Released on June 8, 2018 ||’PG-13 || 97 MIN

Jim Cummings's "Thunder Road" Is Powerful, Poignant Exploration of Grief and Emotional Repression by Keith LaFountaine

It's difficult to acknowledge grief when you are in the midst of overwhelming pain. While everyone offers you apologies and condolences, while offering platitudes and statements masquerading as hope, it's difficult to push through the overwhelming darkness that usurps your life when someone you love passes away. The silver lining, of course, is that we talk about grief more in our current year than we have ever before, and every year that passes we get better at talking about it, about seeking help when we need it, and about understanding it.

What's not talked about, though, is how men react to this grief. It ranges from explosive outbursts of tears to years of bottled up sadness, both of which make their mark on the world in some form or another. That's part of what is so spectacular about Jim Cummings performance, and about Thunder Roadin general. It's not just the story of a guy grieving the loss of his mother. Rather, it's a poignant exploration of a man coming to terms with the fact that he can't control everything and learning that it's okay to feel.

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The opening scene perhaps best exemplifies this paradigm. Officer Jim Arnaud, while eulogizing his mother, drastically switches between emotional and stone faced. He apologizes profusely every time he has an emotional moment, and he feels ashamed after leaving the funeral despite offering a genuine, heart-wrenching dance which resembles his connection to his mother. This moment is transplanted from Cummings's award-winning short film of the same name (though there is a one big difference between the two scenes), but the remainder of the film allows us to explore Jim as a character in a much deeper, more profound way than the short film ever could. What was melancholic grief in the short film -- as we see a heartbreaking, yet endearing display of affection for his mother -- turns into a difficult, yet sympathetic character study of a man who struggles to allow himself to feel emotion.

Part of this can be inferred from his role as a police officer (a decorated one at that). Scenes of Jim on cases intersperse the family drama that makes up the majority of the film. I don't think it was a coincidence that Cummings chose a police officer, of all occupations, for Jim to be, either. When Jim is on a case he is methodical, easy-to-anger, and sometimes violent. His repressed sadness comes up in fiery waves, no matter if it's in response to a man throwing a drink at him, or a teacher discussing his daughter's academic performance. What's remarkable, though, is how Cummings manages to make Jim sympathetic even in light of these outbursts and these tendencies. It would be easy for a character like Jim to be unlikable. However, Cummings manages to ground Jim's emotional instabilities in a genuine affection for his daughter and his mother.

There's a reason I keep mentioning Jim Cummings, too. Not only was he the writer, director, and star of this film, he is also the lifeblood of it. The supporting cast is very good (especially his close friend, Officer Nate Lewis), but Cummings's deft direction and powerful performance are what help set this apart from other family dramas. Whether due to his distinct mustache, his manner of speaking, or his general demeanor, Cummings has managed to Jim Arnaud not just a good character, but a memorable one. Even more important, the film surrounding Arnaud is taut, emotional, and offers brief glimpses of dark humor.

It saddens me that Jim Cummings and Thunder Road won't be seen among the Oscar nominees announced this year, nor will it win the mainstream discussion it deserves. Yet, its independent nature (made on a budget of just $200,000) helps make it more accessible to young filmmakers and cinephiles. Cummings has clearly made a film he is passionate about, along with creating a story that is steeped in emotional turmoil and genuine brilliance. It's the kind of film I need when I hit a creative nadir; it's the kind of film any viewer can watch and connect with. The ubiquity of its accessibility is one of its many charms, and I cannot implore you enough to go see it as soon as you can.


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“THUNDER ROAD” ★★★★★

written and directed by JIM CUMMINGS

Released on October 30, 2018 || Not Rated || 92 MIN

The Moment Has Come: "Avengers 4" Trailer Dropped by Keith LaFountaine

We’ve been waiting for what feels like forever.

Despite the fact that Avengers: Infinity War released less than a year ago, every Marvel fan has been waiting with bated breath for any news they could get of the next film. Rumors swirled about the name of this climactic sequel. Now, the trailer has come and the subtitle for the film has been revealed.

Clearly there is a lot to unpack here, from Tony Stark’s ominous speech to start the trailer, to the final giddy moments with Ant-Man at the front door. However, if there’s one thing that the Russo brothers want you to take away from this trailer, it’s that they’re serious about this being an end of sorts. Of course, the MCU will live on after Avengers: Endgame, but it won’t exist in the way it has for the past ten years. That’s exciting and scary in equal measure.

I will say that this trailer feels a bit underwhelming, though I think that’s a calculated move on the part of Disney’s marketing team. While the Infinity War trailer showed off big, splashy CGI battles and explosive action, this trailer feels more like the calm before the storm. I’m sure with future trailers (Disney usually releases one or two more before the premiere date) we will see more of the climactic, emotional story elements we are waiting for.

The New "Captain Marvel" Trailer Has Dropped, and It's Everything We Could Have Wanted (and More) by Keith LaFountaine

Since the final moments of Avengers: Infinity War, fans have been waiting with bated breath for as much news about the upcoming Captain Marvel film as they could get. Now, with roughly four months until its release, Marvel has dropped a new trailer — and damn it’s good

Here’s the thing, I’ve personally been unsure what I want the Captain Marvel film to be like. Having seen so many origin stories at this point, a part of me was concerned (and still is concerned) that the usual clichés and superhero ascension conventions could rear their heads in this narrative, ultimately diminishing its power due to its familiarity.

However, this trailer seems to be using the origin story formula in a unique way. By framing the story in different timelines (the current one, and the one our hero can’t entirely remember), there is plenty of opportunity for interesting plot twists, more character depth, and narrative complexity — all of which are welcome.

The CGI also looks pretty good for the most part. I was worried about Nick Fury mostly; de-aging software still isn’t perfect (as we could see in Star Wars: Rogue One) and I was hoping that Fury’s face wasn’t going to look overly edited. Time will tell whether it does or not, but in this trailer it looked okay. Still, though, I would have been happy if they recast a young Nick Fury (another opportunity to get Donald Glover on the silver screen).

Captain Marvel is slated to be released on March 8, 2019 in the United States. Until then, we’ll have to pick apart this trailer for any and all easter eggs while we wait!

Despite Rami Malek's Energetic Performance, "Bohemian Rhapsody" Is A Muddled Mess of Pulled Punches by Keith LaFountaine

What does one want out of a Freddy Mercury biopic? When you push past all of the other issues this film has -- from Bryan Singer's problematic presence and dramatic leave-of-absence, to the film's problematic revisionism -- this is the question that lingers. This is also the question that has divided critics and audiences, with the former (in my view) wanting a film about Mercury, and the latter wanting a biopic about Queen.

Those are two very different things. After all, Mercury was not defined by his time with Queen, though his place as their frontman was certainly important. With Bohemian Rhapsody, Singer and his team (including Fletcher, who finished up the last few weeks of principal photography after Singer left the project), seem as though they want to have their cake and eat it, too. In attempting to mix the difficult personal life of the enigmatic Mercury with the crowd-pleasing performances of popular Queen songs, Bohemian Rhapsody feels like a muddled mess of pulled punches.

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It cannot go without mentioning that Bohemian Rhapsody has issues beyond the film itself. The decision to use Queen's most iconic live performance -- Live Aid -- as an integral, and emotional, part of the plot, effectively revising the truth and changing history, is one that I could not condemn stronger. Biopics have always played fast and loose with the truth (such is the nature of creative liberty), but it is disrespectful toward the icon the film is exploring. In addition to that, the usage of Live Aid as this profound moment, as a reunion concert, is also untrue. The usage of Live Aid just manipulative, to put it as bluntly as possible, and with that it’s difficult to take this film as the truthful and complex biopic it claims to be.

This speaks, as I mentioned before, to the desire this team has to both tell the honest story of Freddie Mercury and to have a crowd-pleasing climax.

Bryan Singer is lucky that Queen and Mercury are as important as they are. The film itself feels undefined from the multitude of other musical biopics; in fact. As another critic, David Ehrlich, pointed out in his review, this film could have been about any band. It follows the same structure as every other biopic (though, as mentioned before, with some detours), and it comes across less as an honest exploration of Mercury, and more as an opportunity to play Queen's greatest hits.

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The diamond in the rough, here, is Rami Malek. Despite the shortcomings of the script, he manages to turn in an energetic performance as Freddie, and it shows on screen. His most impressive moments are when he is off-stage, though. HIs tumultuous relationship with Mary Austin (played impressively by Lucy Boynton) feels earnest and honest. It also, thankfully, is very true to their real relationship; a rare glimpse of honesty in this biopic.

The supporting cast, unfortunately, is never written with the care that Malek and Boynton receive. Some of them, like Ray Foster (played by Mike Myers) feel silly and disrespectful.

It's easy to be seduced by the charm of Queen's music and Malek's performance. As someone who grew up listening to classic Queen albums, I had to resist that urge myself. Queen will always remain one of the most seminal rock groups ever to form, and Freddie Mercury will always be an important figure for the LGBTQ+ community, as well as one of the best frontman rock as ever seen. If the goal was to humanize Mercury, though, then nobody -- except for Rami Malek -- who worked on this film should be patting themselves on the back.

At best, Bohemian Rhapsody integrates complex elements of Mercury's personality into a film about Queen; at worst, it changes history to maintain the legendary star power of its subjects. Thus, its subject is not Mercury, but rather Queen and their fame. That, when pushing aside all other faults, is the gangrenous wound that rots this film from its core.


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“BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY” ★★

directed by BRYAN SINGER & DEXTER FLETCHER

written by ANTHONY McCARTEN

released on November 2, 2018 || Rated PG-13 || 134 MIN

Reboots & Sequels Have Dominated 2018, While Original Filmmaking Has Floundered by Keith LaFountaine

It comes as no surprise that sequels and reboots have dominated the cinematic landscape throughout the entirety of 2018. While we have had occasional flashes of original, stand-alone films making a decent chunk of change at the box office (Hereditary comes to mind) they are by far the exception to the rule, not the rule itself.

We should not be surprised by this, though. Marvel, for instance, set them up for an incredible year by releasing Black Panther, Infinity War and Ant-Man and the Wasp all in the same year. In fact, Disney has shown the power of their cinematic entities, both through Marvel and with the release of highly-anticipated projects like Incredibles 2.

On the flip-side, stand-alone projects, like Steve McQueen’s Widows, Alex Garland’s Annihilation, Damien Chazelle’s First Man, Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale, or even Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria (which, while technically being a remake, had almost nothing in common with its predecessor) all flopped at the box office — and hard.

Just look at the box office revenue compared to the films’ budgets and see if you can spot a difference between the two types of films released this year.

Stand-Alone Original Films' Budget vs. Revenue (Millions)

 

Sequels/Reboots Budget vs. Revenue (Millions)

I couldn’t even fit Avengers: Infinity War on this graph because it made over $2 billion (domestic & foreign combined) at the box office.

Now, please understand, I’m not saying “death to all sequels” or that we should end Marvel because it’s taking up too much of the box office revenue. However, if we are serious about wanting new, original films we need to actually show up so they make money. Hollywood is a machine, and its fuel is box office revenue. Without that fuel, investors aren’t going to go with new, brazen ideas; they’re going to go with what’s safe. That’s why Disney is rebooting every single one of their animated films — even the ones nobody is asking for. That’s why Marvel is pumping out 2-3 films a year. That is why every production company is obsessed with the “cinematic universe” concept. Now, with Disney acquiring Fox and all of its entities, it looks like we’re going to see even more of this.

We like familiar ideas; we like characters we know, and we thrive on childhood nostalgia. This is all understandable. A Star Is Born for instance, is currently my #3 film of the year. Remakes and reboots are not inherently awful. However, the amount of money they are claiming at the box office, and the amount of remakes and reboots being pumped out of the Hollywood machine, is frightening. Compounding this is how quality films from accomplished filmmakers (Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave scored a Best Picture win just four years ago, and Luca Guadagnino was nominated last year for Call Me By Your Name) are failing miserably at the box office, lowering the chances of investors giving them further opportunities to create original, stand-alone films. That is not good for filmmakers, and it is not good for cinema as a whole.

This Teaser Trailer Proves Just How Unnecessary the "Lion King" Remake Is by Keith LaFountaine

The Lion King remains one of my favorite films to date. Not only does the 1994 film, directed by Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff, have its own vibrancy and unique aesthetic that sets it apart from other Disney films, it also has one of the most robust and impactful narratives. The Shakespearian depth to the relationships between Scar and Mufasa, and the impressive character growth seen in Simba’s ascension to power, rivals many other films — children or otherwise.

That is part of the reason why I was skeptical of the remake, slated to be released in 2019. And now, with this teaser trailer being released, my concerns have been substantiated.

Here’s the thing - I don’t dislike remakes. Quite the contrary; a quality remake can bring new depth and perspective to an older film. However, for me, there needs to be that spark of creativity. I need to see that the director is going to be doing something different with their vision of the film, not just updating the previous version.

The best example of this is how David Lowery handled the remake of Pete’s Dragon.

Lowery’s version of the film found new emotional depth, better character interactions, and better performances. It is the exploration of a family, and of grief in the face of profound loss. However, it never loses its childlike appeal. In creating the film the way that he did (Lowery also co-wrote the screenplay), he managed to take inspiration from the original film and find a new lens through which to view it. Not only does it pay homage to its predecessor, it pushes the narrative to new heights. That’s how a remake should be handled.

From the teaser trailer, I have a feeling that this new version of The Lion King is going to be just what it looks like: a remake whose only purpose is to update the visuals of the story that came before it, with no creative autonomy, comfortable just copying the narrative that came before it. While I will always support any project that gives Donald Glover work (in fact, if there is one thing going for this film it’s the casting), this remake feels unnecessary and — frankly — silly.

Time will tell whether I’m right or wrong on this. However, for now, I remain unimpressed.

In Steve McQueen's Near-Masterpiece, "Widows", Change Is Front and Center by Keith LaFountaine

Widows is about much more than a heist. On the surface, this remake of the 1983 miniseries updates its characters and themes accordingly to further service its slick, explosive action. However, there is something deeper going on here; McQueen is not just telling a story about a heist, he's telling a story about change.

This is ironic given the events of the final act, but I think that is intentional. Rather, I am confident it is. Widows takes place during an election. Jack Mulligan is running for alderman of his ward, a position his family has held for decades. Running against him is Jamal Manning, a man of color who also happens to be involved in criminal enterprises throughout Chicago. Their election largely happens behind the scenes, with flashes of yard signs, radio broadcasts, and occasional conversations being all we see. Yet, the implications of this election's outcome directly parallel the importance of the widows' final heist. Both have the potential to change everything.

At the end of the day, though, very rarely do things change on a macro scale. While in film and television we are used to seeing these macro changes -- elections bringing sweeping change, characters attaining millions of dollars and running away to another country, and more -- the smaller, more personal changes have more of an impact. Not only is it more realistic for a person to change rather than an entire ward, it's more fulfilling for us as a viewer. Yet, it is also more difficult for us to process.

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Widows follows four women who undertake a heist in the wake of their husbands’ death. As they do, Jack Mulligan fights to win a seat for alderman that his family has held for four decades from insurgent candidate Jamal Manning.

Widows is nearly perfect when it comes to characterization. Aside from the men, who we don't have time to really contextualize due to the nature of the plot, every character is handled with care and depth. Even Robert Duvall's character -- the slimy, sinister Tom Mulligan -- has enough characterization for him to seem like a real person while also functioning as an integral part of the plot. The women are also very well written, especially Viola Davis as Veronica. Their individual stories are interesting, though the film really fires on all cylinders when they are together. The final twenty minutes are a perfect example of how consistent characterization and meticulous plotting can lead to a memorable and exhilarating climax.

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McQueen's direction is just as impressive as you would expect. His visuals are always on-point (especially one of the final moments in the film, where two characters' faces are reflected in mirrors in a wide angle shot), but his editing is particularly taut. Despite the film's runtime topping out at two hours and ten minutes, the pacing is brisk and engaging. You never feel as though the story is going to fast, nor too slow; rather, it is taking its time in the right places, and pushing you to the brink in others. Gillian Flynn's writing is as good as one would expect. Her ear for dialogue is as sharp as ever, and paired with McQueen's weighty themes, they make a great team. I would love to see them work together on future projects.

I have a bad feeling that Widows is going to get passed over this year. It's not doing well at the box office, and it's the kind of film that we will look back on with fondness. I even think this is the kind of film film professors will dissect in classes, especially in terms of its sociological themes. I implore you to go see it in theaters though, if for no other reason than it is a thrilling, exciting, and engaging experience.


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“WIDOWS” ★★★★½ 

directed by STEVE McQUEEN

written by GILLIAN FLYNN & STEVE McQUEEN

released November 16, 2018 || Rated R || 129 MIN

"Eighth Grade" Is the Coming-Of-Age Story We've Been Waiting For by Keith LaFountaine

Bo Burnham did something quite astonishing: he made a very accessible, very compelling coming-of-age film.

This may not seem like a revelation; there are tons of coming-of-age films released every year, often centered around high school students, all of whom are searching for themselves in a world that seems increasingly odd and uncomfortable. In fact, coming-of-age films tend to cover the same basic themes of alienation, bullying, breaking out of one's shell, and discovering inner confidence.

Eighth Grade follows Kayla Day during her last week of eighth grade, during which she struggles to connect with fellow classmates.

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The difference between the usual coming-of-age film and Eighth Grade could not be starker, though. Comedy tends to be the lens through which tragedy is viewed, taking the gravitas out of the latter element. While these films are still well worth watching, and can even be considered great (Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused comes to mind) none of them have truly captured the young-adult experience quite like Bo Burnham did here. Kayla Day is a regular eighth-grader, someone who I could imagine being in school with. Her experiences are grounded and realistic, from the conversations she has with her father, to the ways she attempts to interact with girls who are more popular with her. While these elements of Burnham's scripts aren't groundbreaking (as I said, these are the same themes other writers and directors have covered), his direction and execution of these themes do feel fresh.

The best thing about Eighth Grade is that it treats Kayla as a person: someone who is flawed, who is struggling with her identity, someone who wants to be liked and accepted. She feels layered and complex; when people say mean things to her, or laugh at her, we see the consequences of those actions on her psyche. Even the smallest details -- from the way her face contorts into sadness when she hears her senior superlative, to the breathless way she talks on the phone while pacing back and forth -- inform her personality without using dialogue or exposition. In fact, one of the largest elements of her personality -- her disconnect with her father -- is never truly explained until the end of the film, even though we can clearly see an empty spot at the kitchen table.

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In other words, Bo Burnham made a film that actually explores what middle-school (and young-adulthood) is like; he didn't make the typical coming-of-age film. He set out to tell a specific story about a young girl coming to terms with her own insecurities during the last week of her middle school experience. That is drastically different than what films like I Love You, Beth CooperAmerican Pie, and Superbad offered us. Eighth Grade does not offer scenes of rambunctious parties filled with drunk high schoolers, nor does it create the "gorgeous jock" character who our protagonist befriends and/or dates. Instead, it is a stripped-down, turbulent, and complex film that is accessible to the current generation of young-adults and people like me, who left middle-school a decade ago. It is for these reasons that this film will be looked upon fondly as the definitive coming-of-age film for quite some time.


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“EIGHTH GRADE” ★★★★½

written and directed by BO BURNHAM

Released August 3, 2018 || Rated R || 93 MIN