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Review: Les Misérables

Les Miserables

One day feels like an eternity in Les Misérables. And in this latest film from French filmmaker Ladj Ly, he uses this kind of deep-dive approach into a specific day in a specific place to create a larger, vital look at a part of French society that rarely gets depicted in popular culture.

The film is not an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, though it does share a setting and some general themes, which are further underscored by a couple of direct references to the more famous Les Misérables. However, it certainly doesn’t feel like a heavy-handed homage, with Ly taking a distinctive and hyper-modern perspective with his story. In this contemporary version of France’s Montfermeil district, the neighbourhood is riddled with gang dynamics, police corruption, and a rag-tag group of children largely left to fend for themselves in their sometimes-punishing environment.

Our entry point to this insular neighbourhood is Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), a police officer who’s just been transferred to the area, joining a pair of veterans of the district, Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga). And for his first time on duty, Stéphane is thrown into the job headfirst on a summer day that notably includes a World Cup victory, punishingly hot temperatures, and a lion cub who’s been taken from a travelling circus passing through.

As Chris and Gwada lead Stéphane through a day on the beat and introduce him to some of the neighbourhood’s key figures, it becomes clear that there is a delicate ecosystem at play. The police officers’ roles are sometimes as diplomat and mediator, and other times as unscrupulous (and active) participants in the shadier side of the social hierarchy. And then, when things on this particular day inevitably boil over and violence punctuates that balance, the inner framework all starts to crumble.

From the start, Stéphane quickly becomes aware of the unconventional (and certainly not above-board) tactics Chris and Gwada bring to their work, and his moral struggle with complicity becomes a major crux of the film. In that sense, it’s very akin to Training Day, and the power dynamics between Stéphane and Chris, in particular, in some ways clear the path for how the rest of the story will unfold.

One of Ly’s greatest strengths here as a storyteller is how clearly he depicts the complicated web of relationships in the film. As viewers, we meet every character we need to – from the main trio to the smallest bit player – introduced in a concise way that tells us about who they are and sets the stage for how they’ll come back into play later on.

This exceptionally efficient storytelling is one of the major contributions to the film’s propulsive pace. If you have a (false) perception that “foreign” films are often slow or meandering, you need to check this one out. Though not an action film in the typical sense of the genre, there is an hour-long or so stretch in the middle that’s as well-paced and compelling as any other 2019 film I saw.

Because I was so locked in for a big portion of the film, though, it made it feel jarring when the story later takes an unexpected jump in time. To say more would get into spoilers, but I was surprised by Ly’s choice to somewhat break the tension that he’d been building over the course of the one increasingly crazy day much of the film spends showing. For me, the film struggled to fully get back on its feet after that point, ending in a way that felt inevitable but less impactful than it could have.

Slightly wobbly ending aside, though, Ly creates a visceral and richly-woven world. The cinematography feels naturalistic – hard-hitting without ever feeling intrusive – and the cast of characters also feel extremely believable throughout. As a viewer, we spend by far the most time with the main trio of police officers, and seeing the world largely through their skewed perspective feels like an unexpected and unique way for Ly to tell a story that is at its core actually about the mistreatment and struggle of the underclass they’re supposedly protecting. And indeed, Ly takes many opportunities throughout to buck what could otherwise feel tired and expected. There is a nuance to much of what happens (and even in which characters enact which type of violence) that complicates things far more than this type of crime story often would.

Aiding the film’s complexity is its cast, which is extremely strong across the board. All three of the main actors are excellent, creating (with the script, co-written by Ly and Manenti) characters that feel refreshingly well-rounded. Zonga, in particular, brings an unspoken soulfulness and duality in his performance. He subtly leans into the subtext surrounding the fact that Gwada is the sole black officer in the group (who was himself raised in Montfermeil) and the film is all the more impactful for it.

Les Misérables tells its story through the lens of one highly specific, insular neighbourhood, yet it also feels grand in scope. And it balances those two modes of operation remarkably well. It’s making a point to touch on many timely themes, seemingly acting more broadly (if you want it to) as a critique of French society as a whole. Much like the story it borrows its name from, Ly’s tale presents fascinating, richly told characters through a well-constructed story. It also powerfully highlights internalized, structural problems that we as people – no matter how much time passes – can never quite seem to resolve.

10 Most Anticipated Films of 2020 Directed By Women

Zola

Now that we’ve settled into January and the procession of best of the year/decade lists has mostly passed, it’s time to look forward. Originally I was going to make a general list of my most anticipated 2020 films, but then I realized no one needs to hear once more why Tenet looks good. I’ve decided to instead focus on a few films coming out this year directed by women. This is just a small selection of many interesting-looking films, with more undoubtedly set to be announced/discovered as the year goes on.

Firstly, a few honourable mentions for some high-profile female-directed films that don’t necessarily need more attention: Wonder Woman 1984 (Patty Jenkins), Mulan (Nikki Caro), Eternals (Chloe Zhao), and Black Widow (Cate Shortland) are all led by incredibly accomplished directors, and it’s exciting to see a number of female-directed tentpole films being released this year. (See also: Birds of Prey.) I’m looking forward to all of them. However, I also want to highlight some films that may not already be receiving heaps of consideration. So, without further ado, here’s my list in order of release date:

The Photograph (Stella Meghie, February 14)
When I saw the trailer for a romance film starring Lakeith Stanfield, I had some sort of galaxy brain moment of clarity. He’s a character actor who’s been consistently proving that he should absolutely be a classic (if quirky) leading man. Add the very charming Issa Rae as the film’s female lead, and you’ve got the makings of something extremely likeable. Meghie has been establishing herself with well-received indie fare, and it’ll be interesting to see what she’ll do with an increased budget and a killer supporting cast that includes the likes of Courtney B. Vance, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Chelsea Peretti, Lil Rel Howery, and Teyonah Parris.

First Cow (Kelly Reichardt, March 6)
I love the slightly winking cow-centric advertising campaign A24 already has going for this one. And the trailer looks just as low-key and lovely as you’d expect for another Reichardt period piece. Word has been strong from festivals, and there really is something oddly delightful about a movie being called First Cow, isn’t there?

Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hitmann, March 13)
I enjoyed Hitmann’s last film, 2017’s Beach Rats, so much that I’m automatically on board for whatever she chooses to do next. Never Rarely Sometimes Always continues in the coming-of-age vein, but this time follows two teenage girls from a small town as they take a trip into New York City to obtain medical assistance for an unwanted pregnancy. If it’s anything like Beach Rats, you can probably expect this one to be searing, sadly beautiful, and vibrant.

Candyman (Nia DaCosta, June 12)
Normally a remake of a slasher film wouldn’t land on my list, but based on just this short synopsis, I’m intrigued by 2020’s Candyman: “A ‘spiritual sequel’ to the 1992 horror film Candyman that returns to the now-gentrified Chicago neighborhood where the legend began.” We’ll have to wait and see exactly where it goes, but I have hopes that this is a film with some more subversive ideas in mind.

Happiest Season (Clea Duvall, November 20)
Out just in time for the holidays, this latest from actress Clea Duvall stars Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis as a couple on the verge of engagement, even though one of them hasn’t yet come out to their parents. It has the potential to be a refreshing twist on the romantic comedy, and an opportunity for Stewart to show her comedic chops.

Bergman Island (Mia Hansen-Love, TBA)
Mia Hansen-Love (Eden, Things to Come) has been somewhat quietly been making great films for years. And now it seems she’s taking the next step of notoriety, with Bergman Island being her first English-language film. It also stars the likes of Mia Wasikowska, Tim Roth, and Vicky Krieps. And get a load of this IMDB synopsis: “Revolves around an American filmmaking couple who retreat to the island for the summer to each write screenplays for their upcoming films in an act of pilgrimage to the place that inspired Bergman. As the summer and their screenplays advance, the lines between reality and fiction start to blur against the backdrop of the Island’s wild landscape.” Am I allowed to WILDLY speculate that Wasikowska and Roth are playing quasi-stand-ins for Hansen-Love and real-life husband Olivier Assayas?

The Last Thing He Wanted (Dee Rees, TBA)
Dee Rees adapting Joan Didion? Sign me up immediately. This drama stars Anne Hathaway, Willem Dafoe and Ben Affleck, following a journalist who becomes “an unwitting subject in the very story she’s trying to break”. I’ve not read the Didion novel it’s based on, but I have to imagine it’ll be thorny and intriguing.

On the Rocks (Sofia Coppola, TBA)
The prospect of a new Sofia Coppola film is always exciting. And the premise (Bill Murray and Rashida Jones playing father and daughter who reconnect on a trip to New York) sounds, at least in theory, more straightforward than a lot of her previous work. (Although perhaps not that far removed from Somewhere.) I almost always like her films (even ones like the oft-shrugged-at The Bling Ring) and I don’t imagine that will change here.

Worth (Sara Colangelo, TBA)
Colangelo has told very specific and personal stories with her first two films, Little Accidents and The Kindergarten (both underrated films, as a side note) but seems to be expanding her scope considerably for this third feature. Worth tells the story of a lawyer fighting to support victims of 9/11, and it stars Stanley Tucci, Michael Keaton, and Amy Ryan. I’m intrigued to see what she’ll do with a “bigger” story – and hopefully it’ll come with some more attention paid to her work.

Zola (Janicza Bravo, TBA)
Movies can be adapted from all sort of different source material, but this might well be the first one that’s based on thread of tweets. In 2015, Aziah Wells went viral by sharing 148 tweets about a wild trip to Florida, and now that tale is being brought to the big screen in this film starring Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, and Nicholas Braun. If nothing else, that’s a hell of an origin story.

My 10 Favourite Films of 2019

Happy New Year!

Yesterday I shared my picks for my top 10 films of the decade, but we still have a bit of unfinished business with 2019. So here, keeping it (comparatively) brief, are my top 10 films of the year.

Homecoming

10. Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé

This film landed at #10 when I made my mid-year favourites list back in July. It remains at #10 now, bumping out several films that had initially placed higher. It’s a testament to just how vibrant and entertaining this doc is. Beyoncé is a master at cultivating a very specific sense of style for herself, and this A+ concert film has it in spades.

Waves

9. Waves

I had to watch Waves twice to figure out how I felt about it. I’ve decided that, for me, its many positives outweigh the considerable flaws also present. Trey Edward Shults took a lot of risks, and I think his ambition pays off in the sense that it’s a film that is memorable and never feels like it’s playing it safe. I’ll take that any day over something consistent yet mediocre. And all hail Taylor Russell and Sterling K. Brown.

Maiden

8. Maiden

There were a lot of strong 2019 docs that also could have found a spot on my top 10 in a weaker year (Apollo 11, Knock Down the House, Midnight Family, After Parkland, and Honeyland) but none more rousing than Maiden. Telling the uplifting story of the first all-female crew to compete in the prestigious Whitbread Round the World sailing race, it’s a crowd-pleaser in the best sense of the world. Probably also the film that I shed the largest amount of non-sad tears for in 2019.

Parasite

7. Parasite

Bong Joon-ho’s latest is as well-constructed and entertaining as everyone says. It’s so universally acclaimed that I feel that I don’t have much to add to the conversation. However, if you haven’t seen it, be sure to add this bold, twisty treat to the top of your to-watch list.

BOOKSMART

6. Booksmart

I still absolutely adore Olivia Wilde’s smart, hilarious coming-of-age tale just as much as I did when I saw it some seven months ago. Its entire cast is a true delight, and I love the goofy, sweet, raunchy script. If we got one big-budget comedy this good every year, we’d be doing just fine.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

5. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

This is the 2019 film I most desperately want to rewatch. Tarantino’s latest is so freewheeling and oddly likeable that it feels, in a way, like you’re hanging out with friends. It has an ease to it that you barely notice the lengthy runtime, and it leaves you with a lot to ponder even after it’s over. Easily top 5 Tarantino. Maybe even top 3? (I sense a viewing project for 2020 coming on.)

'Rocketman' Film - 2019

4. Rocketman

I’m more excited about Rocketman than the vast majority of people, but I really just adore it. It contains easily some of the most memorable and entertaining scenes of the year, and it’s a would-be glossy biopic that actually has a lot of genuine heart and artistic flare. Get Taron Egerton his Oscar nomination, please.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire 2019

3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

All of my top 3 films that combine a sort of formal elegance with considerable emotional heft, and perhaps no film was as restrained yet passionate this year as Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Celine Sciamma’s latest is a pleasure to watch and one that, while perhaps initially seeming understated, is likely to stick with you long after the fact.

Mouthpiece

2. Mouthpiece

Easily the most obscure film on the list, this Canadian gem certainly deserves to find a wider audience. Taking a premise that could have gone horribly wrong (it depicts the life of one woman by having two different actresses embody her on screen at the same time) it instead finds a unique, surprisingly accessible rhythm that hits pretty perfectly the whole way through. I loved the creativity.

Pain & Glory

1. Pain & Glory

Some years it’s difficult to land on which film will be the one to take the top spot on this list, but Pedro Almodovar’s Pain & Glory was my petty clear-cut favourite of the year. Everything about its style and story just clicked for me. Antonio Banderas gives the performance of his career and, from start to finish, I loved every colourful, heartfelt, and sometimes idiosyncratic choice Almodovar made.

My Top 10 Films of the ‘10s

The chance to write a “best of the decade” list is pretty rare, and I tend to put an inordinate amount of weight on the task. (If you happen to be curious about the full 100-film list I put together for the 2010s while preparing, you can find it on my Letterboxd here.) It was actually helpful looking back at the “best of the 2000s” list I published a full 10 years ago and realizing that half of the films on that list wouldn’t make the cut if I re-made it today. Tastes change, but these sorts of lists, to me, are an interesting way to at least capture a moment in time.

So, without further ado, here are the 10 films that I (for now) consider my favourites of the decade that was the 2010s.

Fish Tank

10. Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2010)

We’re starting with a slightly “controversial” choice, considering Fish Tank came out in the UK (and played quite a few film festivals) in late 2009. However, it didn’t get its North American theatrical release until January 2010, so I count it as a ‘10s film. And indeed, Fish Tank seemed to usher in a spate of films about economic disparity in the UK throughout the decade that followed. But it was Arnold’s naturalism in telling the story of young Mia (Katie Jarvis), a young woman fighting (often literally) to break out of the suppressive social class she’s been raised in, that had the biggest emotional impact on me. It is a quiet film full of extremely flawed characters who are given the empathy to simply exist as they are. It’s the film on this list that I’ve had the longest to sit with, and it’s haunted me since I first saw it.

Columbus

9. Columbus (Kogonoda, 2017)

Speaking of empathy, there was perhaps not a kinder film I saw all decade than Kogonoda’s stunning debut, Columbus. Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho play extremely warm, realistic characters and the pure bliss in watching them share ideas, learn from each other, and explore the unique architecture in the titular Columbus, Indiana is far stronger than it has any right to be in such a simple film. It’s a film that some absolutely adore and others shrug at. I just sat there in the theatre absorbing every beautiful frame.

Lore

8. Lore (Cate Shortland, 2013)

Cate Shortland is a director who doesn’t make nearly as many films as I’d like, having released just three in total since her debut in 2004. (Although she’s about to get a major bump in notoriety, given that her next project is 2020’s Black Widow.) Her second film, Lore, tells the harrowing tale of a group of young German siblings who must flee their home unaccompanied after the end of World War II. It is a quietly stressful adventure tale, a coming-of-age story, and an artfully told period piece all at once. It also boasts captivating performances from its young German leads, Saskia Rosendahl and Kai Malina, and pitch-perfect cinematography. This is the least well-known film on the list, but one that I think a lot of people would appreciate if they sought it out.

the-end-of-the-tour-eot_r1_1-83-1_rgb

7. The End of the Tour (James Ponsoldt, 2015)

After this year’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, I’m going to put forward a motion that we retire the narrative structure of having a journalist interviewing a celebrity as the premise of a film. However, that structure was less overused when The End of the Tour was made, and Ponsoldt chooses it not out of convenience, but as the entire emotional crux of his story. It also helps that the two men being depicted (David Foster Wallace and journalist David Lipsky) are much more evenly-matched in their respective career accomplishments at the time the film takes place, acting as a mirror, an echo, and a sounding board for each other. (They also have a rich real-life text to draw from, as Lipsky published an entire book containing his conversations with Wallace during his book tour for Infinite Jest.) Ponsoldt depicts their relationship so cleanly, yet realistically, creating an incredibly emotionally rich film from conversations may on the surface sometimes seem offhanded or even banal. Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg also turn in wonderful performances, seeming impressively unburdened by the “real life-ness” of the characters they’re playing. It’s a fun hangout film, as also one that sneaks up on you with an understated emotional wallop.

Oslo August 31

6. Oslo, August 31 (Joachim Trier, 2012)

I do tend to love depressing Scandinavian films, and Oslo, August 31 is a prime example. Set over the course of one day in the life of a man who’s been temporarily let out of rehab to attend a job interview, it’s a meditative, artful take on addiction. Trier levels up from his already impressive debut, 2007’s Reprise, and creates something even more beautiful and deeply felt. I only caught up with the film this past year, but I’m actually glad that I watched it now (rather than in my early 20’s when it first came out) because I found a relatable aspect (aside from the topic of drug addiction) that wouldn’t have hit me in the same way eight years ago; through the people that Anders interacts with in vignettes throughout the film, Trier perfectly illustrates that sense of feeling alienated from those around you by not having followed the path that you’re “supposed” to by the time you hit 30-ish. It’s not quite the main theme of the film, but it’s sprinkled as an undercurrent throughout, and it really hit me in a relatable, raw (though not necessarily sad) way. Oslo, August 31 is a stunner and, for me, was a great example of watching the right film at the right time.

Roma Cuaron

5. Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018)

I would struggle to think, on a frame-by-frame basis, of a more beautiful film that came out this decade. There was something about Roma that I found so captivating, despite its seeming straightforwardness. I know some found it a bit emotionally disconnected, but I was right there with Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) from frame one through to the end of her quietly seismic journey. This is perhaps partly because Cuarón crafted it with so much love, and the autobiographical elements came through beautifully. I could have watched another of hour of his vibrant, wistful, clear-eyed point of view.

Lost City of Z Gray

4. The Lost City of Z (James Gray, 2017)

James Gray was another director who succeeded at transporting viewers to a perfectly realized world, here with The Lost City of Z. Having caught up with it earlier this year (on gorgeous 35mm projection, no less) I immediately fell in love with how it evoked a sweeping historical epic, but depicted with a modern sensibility. Gray perfectly (yet deliberately) paced this tale of a single-minded adventurer, and I was along for the journey every step of the way.

The Social Network

3. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)

I could write thousands of words on The Social Network (and maybe have, over the course of my various viewings throughout the decade). There was no film that I watched more in the ‘10s (five times, in case you were wondering), and The Social Network holds up perfectly every time I watch it. From the performances to the score to the cinematography to the Sorkin script, it’s one of the extremely few films that I would classify as close to perfect. There is a rhythm to it that is unlike any other film that came out in the past 10 years, and it seems to somehow only gain relevance as time goes on. When I think of why I love movies, this is a film that almost always pops into my mind.

OJ Made in America

2. O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman, 2016)

The ’10s was definitely the first decade where I paid attention to documentaries. (Prior to this, my knowledge of docs pretty much started and ended with Supersize Me and March of the Penguins.) And I saw a lot of really great ones. But the one that eclipsed all the others (both in terms of my appreciation for it, and just it’s sheer length) was Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America. It’s a film that feels daunting to write about, because it does so much over the course of its nearly 8 hours. (And yes, I do consider it a movie, rather than a miniseries.) It is an incisive examination of American culture, a compelling “true crime”-style story, and an extremely thorough dive into the psyche of one of the most inscrutable figures in pop culture. And it’s all constructed with such an elegance that it’s impossible not to admire its craft, even as you’re engrossed in the story. This is an accessible, definitive, and unique take on a story that many of us thought we already knew. And, on top of that, it’s a film that’ll probably make you question why you had been so quick to form your previously-held opinions on its central figure.

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1. The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2013)

Lists like these are always extremely subjective (hence why I’ve called this post “MY Top 10 Films of the ‘10s”) but there’s no other way I can really explain putting The Place Beyond the Pines in my number one spot beyond to say that it was just my personal favourite film of the past 10 years. I think it’s incredibly well-constructed, expertly acted, and tells a gripping story. I do think it’s a quantifiably great film. But the simpler, non-critical way to describe it is that it just “clicked” with me. Cianfrance, coming off 2010’s emotionally thorny, almost uncomfortably intimate Blue Valentine, crafted a big, generation-sweeping family epic with The Place Beyond the Pines. He balances the film’s unique structure perfectly, dividing it into three distinct parts that are satisfying on their own, but that also resonate with each other in fascinating ways. And though it’s a film that has a “twist” that seems like it might lose its impact after seeing it once, I found the film has only gained complexity and impact on multiple subsequent viewings. I’ve been on a quest ever since to find other films that balance the same level of bold structure and craft with deeply humanistic storytelling.

The Place Beyond the Pines is not a film you’re likely to see on a lot of other “best of the decade” lists (let alone at the top), but for me, it’s the film that defined my movie-watching in the 2010s.

Review: The Laundromat

The Laundromat

I’m a bit of Soderbergh skeptic. That combined with the tepid response from this year’s festivals meant that I went into The Laundromat with fairly low expectations. This must have worked in the film’s favour, though, because I had far more fun with it than I expected to.

Borrowing a healthy helping of self-referential winks and fourth wall-breaking from The Big Short, Soderbergh’s latest follows the Panama Papers scandal with a breezy, sardonic “explainer” approach. And while Soderbergh’s grasp on the film’s “meta” aspect sometimes feels ham-fisted (e.g. the film’s thudding final scene) there’s enough wit and genuine glee to make for an entertaining watch. It also helps when your narrators/guides through it all are as effortlessly charming as Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman.

The rest of the cast here is stacked, too. Delightful faces arrive throughout (in some cases only to exit a few minutes later) and many of the film’s lesser-known actors fit seamlessly into Soderbergh’s starkly, subtly off-kilter worldview, feeling right at home alongside the likes of Meryl Streep.

This works with the film’s sometimes episodic approach. Inevitably, some vignettes work better than others, but when they work, the film really pops. This is especially true of the scene between Rosalind Chao (one of those less familiar faces giving a standout performance) and Matthias Schoenaerts, who square off in a business deal late in the film. To say more would get into spoiler territory, but that sequence is a wonderful showcase for Soderbergh’s chops when it comes to directing clear-eyed suspense.

I do wish the rest of the film had more of that kind of bite to it, though. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns take a largely comedic approach, but some of the punchlines don’t have quite the impact they seem to be working towards during the (sometimes lengthy) buildup. It’s an entertaining watch, but it alternates at times between being too heavy-handed or too vague to have the intended impact.

Being a Soderbergh project, though, there are still some wonderful details included. One small thing I particular appreciated was the subtle focus put on the secretaries and assistants playing witness from the sidelines. Sometimes they try to reason with their wayward bosses, and sometimes they just observe, but they’re always in the frame bearing witness to the corruption. It’s a surprisingly subtle “show don’t tell” touch for a film that does an awful lot of telling.

I guess this all comes with the Soderbergh territory and it worked well for me here. He’s a director who’s always willing to try new things, and while it certainly hasn’t all worked, there’s always something interesting happening in his films. The Laundromat doesn’t have the crackle that some will crave, but given the subject matter its slightly scattered tone somehow feels just about right.