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Robert Horton

Review: 20th Century Women

There’s a talking dog in Beginners, the 2010 movie that won Christopher Plummer a supporting-actor Oscar. To be precise, the dog speaks in subtitles, which might make the premise easier, or possibly harder, to take. As a general rule I am not opposed to talking-canine scenarios; for instance, the title pet of the cult picture A Boy and His Dog makes a strong argument for the idea. But in Beginners, it was one thing too many in a film that already pushed the boundaries of cuteness.

Its writer/director, Mike Mills, returns with 20th Century Women, a movie with an attractive premise and cast. It’s set in 1979—a cool time to be young, despite what you may have heard—and it puts three distinctive actresses at the forefront of a coming-of-age story.

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Review: Paterson

If Paterson, New Jersey, already seems overblessed with great poets—William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg both laid claim to the place—Jim Jarmusch believes it may have room for one more. In Jarmusch’s Paterson, the bard in question is a bus driver, an agreeable young man who organizes his life according to a timetable. He has to; he’s a bus driver. But he also writes poetry, and periodically we see his poems projected on the screen. They are written in the off minutes of his job, and they have the beguiling lightness of words written in off minutes. Despite the appearance of casualness, we can see that these words are carefully and precisely chosen.

That is of course a description of the peculiar charm of Jarmusch’s own movies, which—from Stranger Than Paradise to his 2013 gem Only Lovers Left Alive—have projected a superbly crafted shagginess. Paterson joins this list, and is one of the most pleasurable movies in recent memory.

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Review: Hidden Figures

If it were more purely about the workplace and less about the homefront, Hidden Figures might have an even stronger case for shining a light on unknown American history. The history in this case surrounds NASA and the lives of three black women who set a new standard for the status of African-Americans in the space program. The three women only occasionally overlap, but we meet them in an outstanding opening scene as they carpool to NASA’s Virginia site in the early 1960s. A minor problem stops the car, which is really no challenge given the mechanically minded women driving it; the ladies bide their time with jokes and easy, confident banter as they tinker with the engine. Then a police cruiser stops by, and the freeze that descends over the scene is immediate. The cop isn’t especially menacing; but these are black women and a white police officer in the Jim Crow South, and that is enough for instant watchfulness.

A terrific moment, which though defused sets the tone for what is to come. Throughout Hidden Figures the reality of being black and female is presented as a struggle that never ends.

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Robert Horton on The Finest Films of 2016

While everybody else wonders whether 2016 was the worst year since 1968, or simply the worst year ever, the conversation in the world of cinema has brightened of late. Yes, for much of the movie year, 2016 was declared calamitous. Maybe movies were dead, or maybe were they merely much worse than television. And then (as always) a bushel of terrific, smart, challenging films arrived in the final weeks. From the vantage point of December, cinema looks very much alive.

The biggest disappointment of the movie year was Hollywood itself, and not just because Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are calling it quits, devastating as that may be to our lives. The cycle of remakes and sequels was more relentless than ever, and they seemed emptier this year than usual. Of the superhero genre, only Deadpool showed signs of life … by ridiculing the clichés of superhero movies, And it made a lot of money doing so. Meanwhile, a would-be franchise starter, Warcraft, offered more fun than anything on the Marvel slate, but flopped in the U.S., although the international market—crucial to a blockbuster’s success now—saved the day.

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Review: La La Land

It aspires to gossamer and moonbeams, to bygone eras of jazz and black-and-white movies, to Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. It has scenes of people breaking into song and dance in the middle of dialogue. They used to call these musicals.

How can any movie lover, or any civilized person really, be against La La Land?? Let me try to explain. The idea is swell, and the spirited efforts of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone—neither known primarily for song-and-dance prowess, though both have experience in those departments—are, for sure, spirited. There are even moments where the musical-drama format (this isn’t exactly musical-comedy) slips into blissful gear, especially when a rambling nighttime conversation above the lights of Los Angeles morphs into a dance duet that feels truly earned, playing out in a single unbroken take that carries us into the old-fashioned movie paradise that the film is aiming at.

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Review: Miss Sloane

At the heart of Miss Sloane—and a cool heart it is—lies a question. Why does the title character walk out on her lucrative career as one of D.C.’s highest-paid lobbyists to join an underfunded nonprofit in its quixotic attempt at changing some gun laws? The question keeps the movie from falling into the easy do-gooder outline of Erin Brockovich. Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain, all stiletto-heel precision) might possibly be stirred by a sense of social justice, but she might also just want to win a game that everybody tells her is unwinnable. We’re talking about an alpha female who isn’t content with mere victory—she gives you the impression she also wouldn’t mind hearing the lamentations of women (and men) on the field of battle. It’s crucial to this movie’s crisp watchability that we’re not sure what motivates her battle plan. Maybe battle is just her thing.

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Review: Old Stone

The spirit of film noir lives on in Johnny Ma’s Old Stone, a downward spiral set in contemporary China. In the outline of the classic noir, a person makes one wrong move which sets in motion an inexorable series of disastrous events: Fred MacMurray sells a fishy insurance policy to Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity; Tom Neal picks up a good-looking hitchhiker in Detour. The bitter irony in Old Stone is that this particular spiral is set in motion when a man makes a right move—or at least a generous, unselfish one. His gesture, in trying to save someone’s life, brings down a rain of Biblical calamities.

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Review: Rules Don’t Apply

Warren Beatty turns 80 next year, and he’s been talking about directing a film on Howard Hughes for decades. So we’re allowed to assume that Rules Don’t Apply might have the air of a grand opus about it, that it would wear the sobriety suitable to an Oscar-winning filmmaker and elder Hollywood royalty. And that assumption would be wrong. Because whatever else is going on with this movie, it’s quick, jokey, and lively as hell. At times it seems as daffy as the oddball billionaire depicted, but it generally has something thoughtful to say—when it comes to Hughesiana, it’s a more original project than the Scorsese/DiCaprio Aviator.

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Review: Loving

A United States where ignorance has the upper hand, where leaders revel in their bigotry, where average Americans taunt each other with proud, unfiltered fury. The year is 1958—what did you think I was referring to?—a time when Richard and Mildred Loving became criminals because of their marriage. They are the subjects of Jeff Nichols’ Loving, one of those historical films that come along to remind us of the distant past. And, sometimes, of the present.

Richard was white and Mildred was black and Native American, and their home state of Virginia had laws against interracial marriage (like 23 other states at the time). The Lovings were legally married in Washington, D.C., but by returning to their home in rural Virginia, they violated the state’s grandly named Racial Integrity Act. Years passed and the Lovings eventually enlisted the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union to take up their case.

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Review: Aquarius

Aquarius is large but intimate, political but personal; it’s frank in its ambition to explore The Way We Live Today, but also mysterious and elusive. I’ve seen few films this year more fascinating. The second feature by Brazilian writer/director Kleber Mendonça Filho (Neighborhood Sounds), this movie clocks in at a leisurely 142 minutes—some urgent, some curiously relaxed.

We are in Recife, a city of beaches and history. Living in view of the beach is Clara, a writer now in her mid-60s. She comes from a comfortable background and is a widowed cancer survivor, her three children all in adulthood. Clara owns a condo in a gorgeous Art Deco building—the status of which will provide the movie’s backbone.

Clara is played, radiantly, by Sonia Braga, and this is an important part of watching Aquarius.

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Review: Moonlight

There are strong, original things in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, and there are things that would fit in a cautionary ABC Afterschool Special. Sometimes the film’s style is muscular and striking, and sometimes it’s flat. But Jenkins got one thing right: He really knows how to build. By the time Moonlight reaches its third and final act (it’s explicitly divided into chapters), the film has gained power and a slow, steady momentum. The last few scenes consist of two people sorting out longstanding issues between them—and barely managing to do that—but the suspense is formidable.

We follow one troubled character from childhood to adulthood, so it’s one of those movies with three different actors—all haunting—playing the same role.

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Review: Certain Women

Kelly Reichardt’s films quietly creep up on plotlines, sniffing around the possibilities of storytelling before shifting away into a different kind of thing. In Meek’s Cutoff, a wagon train of pioneers is lost in the parched West; in Night Moves, a group of environmental saboteurs plans a bombing; in Wendy and Lucy, a traveler faces a transportation problem on the road to somewhere. None of these situations is allowed to come together in the usual kind of completion, which means you’re left with Reichardt’s wonderful way with actors and dialogue and a sense that we should be concentrating on gesture and intonation rather than plot.

I don’t want all movies to be like this, but I’m grateful for Reichardt’s talent for warping our movie expectations.

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Rachel Weisz in 'Denial'

Review: Denial

“Not all opinions are equal.” How good it is, in this our time of cultural lunacy, to have these words definitively spoken. The fact that the phrase is uttered in a not-especially-great film is perhaps disappointing, but you gotta start somewhere, and movies have been known to lead the cultural conversation. Even when they’re not great.

Denial is written by the esteemed David Hare and directed by the journeyman Mick Jackson, so you might be able to guess where it soars and where it staggers. Hare, the unsparing author of Plenty and Skylight, based the script on Deborah Lipstadt’s experience in the world of Holocaust deniers. Lipstadt is a New York-raised academic (she once taught at the University of Washington) who was sued for libel in British court in 1996 over her book Denying the Holocaust, which named English author David Irving as an anti-Semite and Holocaust denier. The UK legal system mandated that Lipstadt had to establish that what she said was true—a situation that essentially put her legal team in the strange position of proving the Holocaust happened.

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Review: The Birth of a Nation

The provocation begins with the title, a kind of reverse cultural appropriation: Nate Parker’s Sundance smash takes its name from a famous film released 101 years ago. Not just any film, but a cinematic titan of its era:The Birth of a Nation. D.W. Griffith’s mammoth Civil War film sold more tickets than any other movie, inspired a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, and caused enormous controversy as soon as it was released. The film is a synthesis of Griffith’s profound cinematic eloquence and some appallingly racist material, the latter having frequently dominated the conversation about Birth. Parker is reclaiming the title and adjusting film history. Fair enough, but if you’re going to reach that big, you’d better deliver.

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Deepwater Horizon

Review: Deepwater Horizon

The miracle of Sensurround was uncorked in 1974 as part of the gimmicky release of Earthquake. Universal Pictures wanted to add something extra to the glut of disaster pictures in the marketplace (this was the epoch of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno), so Sensurround was born. Theaters added huge speakers, booming bass notes were embedded in the soundtrack, and the ads warned that the effect would be akin to an actual earthquake: “The management assumes no responsibility for the physical or emotional reactions of the individual viewer.” That sold a lot of tickets, and the walls really did shake. But Sensurround was used on only a handful of films before more sophisticated audio systems came into use.

Today, technical advancements make it possible for theaters to rumble and quake with deafening authority—many movie experiences are the equivalent of getting stuck in traffic in front of a car with its thumping subwoofers tuned to the “bleed” setting. Such a film is Deepwater Horizon, a throwback to the ’70s-era disaster flick. The cheesy come-on of Sensurround is nowhere to be seen here; the filmmakers have said the movie is meant as a sober tribute to the 11 workers killed in the oil-rig disaster in 2010. But Deepwater Horizon follows the Earthquake formula, and its sound effects spare nothing in pursuit of tooth-rattling.

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