Screening Room: And the Winners Are…

2018 was a pretty outstanding year for film. We had smart blockbusters, gorgeous indies and envelope-pushing animation. New filmmaking voices made themselves heard and old favorites returned to form. In this week’s screening room, with help of former Drexel Theatre President Kevin Rouche, we count down the best in film from the year.


Listen to the full podcast HERE.

And check out a far more expansive written review of the best 30 films of the year HERE.

30 Best Films of 2018

By Hope Madden and George Wolf

Who said 2018 was a weak year in movies? We did not. In fact, 2018 offered such a bounty, we had a hard time cutting down our list of the year’s best. So we didn’t!

Thanks to Rachel Willis, Matt Weiner, Brandon Thomas, Christie Robb and Cat McAlpine for working with us this year to see and review so many films that we were helpless in the face of such abundance. So, behold: the 30 best films of 2018.

1. Roma
A breathtaking culmination of his work to date, Roma pulls in elements and themes, visuals and curiosities from every film Alfonso Cuarón has made (including a wonderfully organic ode to the inspiration for one of his biggest), braiding them into a semi-autobiographical meditation on family life in the early 1970s.

At the film’s heart is an extended group concerning an affluent Mexico City couple (Fernando Grediaga and the scene-stealing Marina de Tavira), their four children and their two live-in servants Adela (Nancy Garcia Garcia) and Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio).

Sequence upon sequence offers a dizzying array of beauty, as foreground and background often move in glorious concert during meticulously staged extended takes that somehow feel at once experimental and restrained. The effect is of a nearly underwater variety, a profound serenity that renders any puncture, from a street parade moving blindly past the distraught woman in its path to a murder in broad daylight, that much more compelling.


2. Black Panther
Just when you’ve gotten comfortable with the satisfying superhero origin story at work, director/co-writer Ryan Coogler and a stellar ensemble start thinking much bigger. And now, we need to re-think what these films are capable of. Not a minute of the film is wasted. Coogler manages to pack each with enough backstory, breathless action, emotional heft and political weight to fill three films.

Coogler works with many of these basic themes found in nearly any comic book film—daddy issues, becoming who you are, serving others—but he weaves them into an astonishing look at identity, radicalization, systemic oppression, uprising and countless other urgent yet tragically timeless topics. The writing is layered and meaningful, the execution visionary.


3. The Favourite
Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest covers the declining years of Queen Anne’s (Olivia Coleman) reign, during which the War of the Spanish Succession and political jockeying in Parliament are tearing the indecisive, physically frail queen in multiple directions.

But the men of the court are little more than foppish pawns. The real palace intrigue takes place between court favorite Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and her new maid, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), daughter to a once-prosperous family that has fallen on hard times. Sarah and Abigail vie for Queen Anne’s affection and behind-the-scenes power, although those two things are entangled together to varying degrees for Sarah and Abigail.

Poetic license with the relationships among the women offers an avenue by which Lanthimos can smuggle in his trademark eye for the very contemporary and very weird, cruel ways we treat each other. And in this area, Lanthimos has cast the perfect leading women to keep up with — and even rise above — his vision.


4. Eighth Grade
Who would have thought that the most truthful, painful, lovely, unflinching and adorable tween dramedy in eons would have sprung from the mind of 28-year-old comic Bo Burnham? Or that the first-time feature director could so compassionately and honestly depict the inner life of a cripplingly shy adolescent girl?

But there you have it.

Elsie Fisher’s flawless performance doesn’t hurt. In Fisher, Burnham has certainly found the ideal vehicle for his story, but his own skill in putting the pieces together is equally impressive. Burnham’s as keen to the strangulating social anxieties of middle school as he is to the shape-shifting effects of technology.


5. A Star is Born
Director/co-writer/co-star Bradley Cooper brings a new depth of storytelling to the warhorse, with a greater commitment to character and the blazing star power of Lady Gaga.

Another outstanding acting performance from Bradley Cooper is not a surprise. His remarkably instinctual directing debut here, though, must now place him among the premier talents in film.

Nearly every scene, from stadium rock concert to intimate conversation, is framed for maximum impact. His camera can be stylish but not showy, with seamless scene transitions fueling a forward momentum that will not let the film drag.

The melodramatic story has been stripped of pretense and buoyed by more layers of humanity.


6. Vice
Writer/director Adam McKay is just as pissed off about the polluting of the American presidency as he was about the housing collapse when he unleashed The Big Short. Like that film, the director’s conspicuous outrage as well as his biting comic sensibilities fuel the film.

Christian Bale is characteristically flawless as Dick Chaney, and Amy Adams is his equal as wife, Lynne. Together they anchor an utterly glorious ensemble that—with the help of McKay’s blistering script and wise direction—utilizes comedy to inform, illustrate, and act as an outlet for the otherwise soul-blackening disgust one might carry around with them concerning the American political system.


7. Hereditary
Grief and guilt color every somber, shadowy frame of writer/director Ari Aster’s unbelievably assured feature film debut, Hereditary.

With just a handful of mannerisms, one melodic clucking noise, and a few seemingly throwaway lines, Aster and his magnificent cast quickly establish what will become nuanced, layered human characters, all of them scarred and battered by family.

Art and life imitate each other to macabre degrees while family members strain to behave in the manner that feels human, seems connected, or might be normal. What is said and what stays hidden, what’s festering in the attic and in the unspoken tensions within the family, it’s all part of a horrific atmosphere meticulously crafted to unnerve you.

Aster takes advantage of a remarkably committed cast to explore family dysfunction of the most insidious type. Whether his supernatural twisting and turning amount to metaphor or fact hardly matters with performances this unnerving and visual storytelling this hypnotic.


8. You Were Never Really Here
Two killers lie on a kitchen floor, gently singing along as the radio plays “I’ve Never Been to Me,” surely one of the cheesiest songs of all time. Only one of the men will get up. It’s a fascinating sequence, one of many in Lynne Ramsay’s bloody and beautiful You Were Never Really Here. She adapts Jonathan Ames’s brisk novella into a dreamy, hypnotic fable, an in-the-moment pileup of Taxi Driver, Taken and Drive.

Together, Ramsay and Phoenix ensure nearly each of the film’s 89 minutes burns with a spellbinding magnetism. While Phoenix lets you inside his character’s battered psyche just enough to want more, Ramsay’s visual storytelling is dazzling. Buoyed by purposeful editing and stylish soundtrack choices, Ramsay’s wonderfully artful camerawork (kudos to cinematographer Thomas Townend) presents a stream of contrasts: power and weakness, brutality and compassion, celebration and degradation.


9. BlacKkKlansman
Welcome back, Spike Lee!

In a beyond-absurd true story of an African American Colorado Springs police officer (John David Washington) joining the KKK by phone, only to send his Jewish partner (Adam Driver) to the face-to-face meetings, Lee balances unexpected shifts between humor and drama, camaraderie and horror, entertainment and history lesson, popcorn-muncher and experimental indie with a fluidity few other directors could muster.

Much sit-com-esque absurdity and dramatic police procedural thrills follow, but it’s the way Lee subverts these standard formats that hits home. The insidious nature of the racism depicted in 1979 echoes in both directions—in the history that brought our country to this moment in time, and in the future Ron Stallworth undoubtedly hoped he could prevent.


10. Suspiria
Luca Guadagnino continues to be a master film craftsman. Much as he draped Call Me by Your Name in waves of dreamy romance, here he establishes a consistent mood of nightmarish goth. Macabre visions dart in and out like a video that will kill you in 7 days while sudden, extreme zooms, precise sound design and a vivid score from Thom Yorke help cement the homage to another era.

But even when this new Suspiria—a “cover version” of Dario Argento’s 1974 gaillo classic—is tipping its hat, Guadagnino leaves no doubt he is making his own confident statement. The color scheme is intentionally muted, and you’ll find no men in this dance troupe, serving immediate notice that superficialities are not the endgame here.


11. Leave No Trace
In her first feature since 2010’s gripping Winter’s Bone, writer/director Debra Granik is again focused on souls living on the rural fringes and scraping out a hardscrabble, under-the-radar existence.

Driven by two haunting performances from the always underrated Ben Foster and impressive newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Leave No Trace replaces any of Winter’s Bone’s sinister, menacing layers with a tender, sympathetic grace that feels achingly authentic, and often heartbreaking.

The film follows its own titular advice, broaching a variety of relevant social concerns without ever raising its voice, yet cutting so deeply you may not get out of the theater with dry eyes.


12. Boy Erased
Lucas Hedges once again joins the ranks of likely Oscar nominee with an intensely intimate performance in Boy Erased, a touching and vital account of one young man’s trip through “conversion therapy.”

Based on Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir, it’s a film that also solidifies Joel Edgerton’s skills as both an actor and filmmaker, one able to balance a complicated, troubling subject with grace , understanding and intimacy.

It is precisely this intimacy that fuels the film’s resonance, as one family’s story becomes a vessel for greater understanding. That’s no small achievement, and Boy Erased is no small triumph.


13. Won’t You Be my Neighbor?
The world did not deserve Fred Rogers.

A loving and tender soul if ever there was one, Rogers saw children not as future consumers, but as vulnerable human beings who needed to know they had value.

Directed by documentarian Morgan Neville (Oscar winner for his 2013 doc 20 Feet from Stardom), Won’t You Be My Neighbor? trollies into the life of the children’s TV host. What you’ll learn is that, yes, Mr. Rogers was really like that.

Rogers looked out for children, understanding what frightened us and making every attempt to help us through those “difficult modulations.” It’s tough to make it through the film’s 94 minutes without tearing up, and that’s not entirely from sentimentality. It’s from wondering whether today’s world is simply too cruel and cynical for Mr. Rogers.


14. First Man
We’ve seen a lot of movies about astronauts, loads of sometimes great films about the US space race and the fearlessness of those involved. Director Damien Chazelle’s First Man is something different.

Chazelle strips away the glamour and artifice, the bombast and spectacle usually associated with films of this nature. His vision is raw and visceral, often putting you in the moon boots of the lead, but never quite putting you inside his head.

As gritty and unpolished as the film is, Chazelle never loses his sense of wonder. The jarring quiet, the stillness and vastness are captured with reverence and filmed beautifully. Those images of silent awe are as stirring as anything you will see, but it’s the visceral, queasying and claustrophobic moments underscoring the death-defying commitment to the cause that will shake you up.


15. Sorry to Bother You
Boots Riley’s movie could not be more timely. Though he wrote it nearly a dozen years ago, and it certainly reflects a trajectory our nation has been on for eons, it feels so of-the-moment you expect to see a baby Trump balloon floating above the labor union picket line.

Bursting with thoughts, images and ideas, the film never feels like it wanders into tangents. Instead, Riley’s alarmingly relevant directorial debut creates a new cinematic form to accommodate its abundance of insight.

Does it careen off the rails by Act 3? Oh, yes, and gloriously so. Riley set us on a course that dismantles the structure we’ve grown used to as moviegoers and we may not be ready for what that kind of change means for us. Isn’t it about damn time?


16. Burning
What if a great mystery wasn’t at all concerned with answering the questions it raised? Chang-dong Lee’s Burning is more interested in the journey than it is the destination. The story unravels slowly. Two and a half hours seems daunting at first glance, but the twinge of unease hanging over the film keeps you involved. There’s a sense of dread that is hard to pinpoint, but is also intoxicating. By defying genre conventions and expectations, Burning provides an alternative mystery that pops with excitement.


17. A Quiet Place
Damn, John Krasinski. Dude can direct the heck out of a horror movie.

Krasinski plays the patriarch of a close-knit family trying to survive the post-alien-invasion apocalypse by staying really, really quiet. The cast, anchored by Krasinski’s on-and-off-screen wife Emily Blunt is amazing. That you may expect.

What you may not expect is Krasinski’s masterful direction. His film is smart in the way it’s written, sly in its direction and spot-on in its ability to pile on the mayhem in the final reel without feeling gimmicky or silly.


18. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Spidey gets back to his animation roots with Into the Spider-Verse, a holiday feast of thrills, heart, humor and style that immediately swings to the very top of the year’s animated heap. This Spider-Man is filled with everything you want in a superhero flick today. There are compelling characters and engaging conflicts within a diverse climate, and a vital, clearly defined message of empowerment that stays above the type of pandering sure to trigger a kid’s b.s. detector. And man, is it fun.


19. Thunder Road
Writer/director/star Jim Cummings is responsible for the most criminally underseen film of 2018. If you are looking for a gift to give yourself this holiday season, make it Thunder Road.

Cummings explores grief, mental health, small town stagnation and the genius of Mr. Bruce Springsteen in a film that is breathtaking in its tonal shifts. Simultaneously heartbreaking, funny, nuts, unpredictable and alertly honest, Cummings’s film and his performance cement him as among the most exciting cinematic voices of 2018.


20. First Reformed
Writer/director Paul Schrader delivers a nearly flawless meditation on faith and despair with First Reformed. In what may be his strongest performance, Ethan Hawke delivers a a slow slide from a pleasant façade to destructive rage, perfectly capturing every emotion, every nuance of internal crisis and its external manifestations. Schrader’s film is a masterful character study that asks thoughtful questions about how our choices will be viewed in the eyes of God.


21. If Beale Street Could Talk
Writer/director Barry Jenkins follows up his 2016 Oscar-winning masterpiece of a debut, Moonlight, with the insanely high expectations of movie lovers everywhere. If Beale Street Could Talk meets those expectations with grace.

Based on the writing of James Baldwin (never a bad idea), the film follows a struggling couple as a means to illustrate the intersecting forms of oppression facing African Americans in this country. Jenkins’s poetic camera, the elegance of his interpretation of Baldwin’s world, and the tenderness of the performances—especially from the always wonderful Regina King—weave together to create a hypnotic, heartbreaking story of American resilience.


22. Disobedience
Sebastian Lelio continues his interest in stories of women struggling to be free and live as their true selves, exerting their power to disobey. The message is love and mercy, and how these basic tenets of religion are often forgotten in the name of enforcing a preferred social order. Lelio and his committed actors—Rachel McAdams, Rachel Weisz and Alessandro Nivola—make it intensely intimate but never salacious, a parable with a powerful grip.


23. Mid90s
More than just a time stamp, Mid90s emerges as a completely engaging verite-styled slice of place and person, a clear-eyed and visionary filmmaking debut for writer/director Jonah Hill. Though the film does feel like a labor of love for Hill, it’s not draped in undue nostalgia, but rather a gritty sense of realism resting comfortably between 1995’s “Kids” and Bing Liu’s skateboarding doc, “Minding the Gap.” An often funny, sometimes startling and endlessly human film, Mid90s is a blast from the past that points to a bright filmmaking future for Hill.


24. Thoroughbreds
Wicked, surprising, unapologetic, cynical and buoyed by flawless performances from Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy, writer/director Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds is a mean little treat. It’s a fascinating look— blackly comedic and biting—at how the other class comes of age.


25. Mandy
Writer/director Panos Cosmatos’s hallucinogenic fever dream of social, political and pop-culture subtexts layered with good old, blood-soaked revenge, Mandy throws enough visionary strangeness on the screen to dwarf even Nicolas Cage in full freakout mode.


26. Annihilation
Alex Garland’s work as both a writer and a writer/director has shown a visionary talent for molding the other-worldly and the familiar. Annihilation—an utterly absorbing sci-fi thriller where each answer begs more questions—unveils Garland at his most existential.


27. Border
Border director/co-writer Ali Abbasi has more in mind than your typical Ugly Duckling tale. He mines this story of outsider love and Nordic folklore for ideas of radicalization, empowerment, gender fluidity and feminine rage. The result is both a sincere crime thriller and a magical fantasy.


28. Can You Ever Forgive Me?
The fascinating and true story of biographer turned felon Lee Israel offers a weirdly optimistic if cautionary tale for misfit women. It’s also a great reminder that Melissa McCarthy can really act.

29. Mission: Impossible —Fallout
Tom Cruise’s next mission – and he’ll most likely accept it – is to try and outdo the stunts he pulls in this latest Mission: Impossible entry. Good luck with that, because Fallout delivers the GD mail.


30. The Death of Stalin
Opening with a madcap “musical emergency” and closing with a blood-stained political coup, The Death of Stalin infuses its factual base with coal-back humor of the most delicious and absurd variety.

Trickier Dick


by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Remember when the Vice President of the United States shot some guy in the face, and then the guy with the snoot full of buckshot apologized to the V.P. for all the trouble? That really happened!

When did the upper reaches of the Executive Branch go so brazenly corrupt, so treasonously, moronically, dumpster-fire-with-a-spray-tan wrong?

It’s not as recent as you think.

With Vice, writer/director Adam McKay remembers a time long before moronic presidential tweet storms, when the quiet, steady rise of a ruthless power broker rewrote American politics and changed the course of history.

V.P. Dick Cheney was often thought of as the de facto decision-maker in George W. Bush’s presidency, and McKay uses absurdist humor and a spellbinding cast to give that line of thinking a more weighty focus.

Christian Bale is characteristically flawless as Cheney. With added girth from (according to Bale) “eating pies” and the trademark Burgess-Meredith -as-the-Penguin speech pattern, the physical transformation alone is astounding. But it is the way Cheney’s cut throat ambition, scorched-earth power grabs and soulless devotion to ideology contrasted with his familial tenderness that Bale articulates so astutely.

Because of, or perhaps in spite of, his legacy, Cheney is a fascinating figure, and Bale makes that fact endlessly resonate.

But fittingly, Vice‘s secret weapon is Amy Adams as Cheney’s wife Lynne who commands the screen as equally as Bale. In a performance full of subtle power of ferocity, Adams casts Mrs. Cheney as a pivotal and equally ambitious partner in Cheney’s climb, publicly lessening his weakness as a politician and privately demanding his allegiance to their plan.

Bale and Adams anchor an utterly glorious ensemble (including Sam Rockwell as “W” and Steve Carrell as a dead ringer for Donald Rumsfeld) that—with the help of McKay’s blistering script and wise direction—utilizes comedy to inform, illustrate, and act as an outlet for the otherwise soul-blackening disgust one might carry around with them concerning the American political system.

In 2015, after a slew of directorial successes including Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers, McKay redefined the term “filmmaker Adam McKay” with the blistering, cynical, hilarious, informative and angry The Big Short.

In an act of all out heroism or masochism, McKay did all he could to help us understand the housing collapse with that film. He so understood his material (dry) and his audience (confused/disinterested) that he would cut away periodically to let a bubble-bath-soaking Margot Robbie explain a bit of vocabulary.

It was perhaps his way of saying: This is really important, guys. Pay attention!

Turns out, McKay is just as pissed off about the polluting of American politics, with his conspicuous outrage and biting comic sensibilities again proving to be powerful fuel.

From the film’s false ending and sudden Shakespearean detour to the unapologetic face-shooting, Vice has a definite “can you believe this shit?” air about it, a nod to the need to laugh so you won’t start crying.

Thanks to McKay and his tremendous cast, you might just do both.

Little Women

Welcome to Marwen

by Cat McAlpine

Mark Hogancamp awoke from a vicious attack with no memory of his former life. He remembers, vaguely, that five men beat him to the brink of death, that they beat him because he drunkenly mentioned he liked to wear women’s shoes, and that one of his assailants had a swastika tattoo. The rest of his life has been left for Mark to piece together.

No longer able to draw as he once did (or even write his name), Mark finds a new art to work through his trauma. He models dolls after himself and women he knows. The dolls awaken in the town of Marwen every morning to fight five Nazis, again and again.

The real life story was the basis for the wonderful documentary Marwecol in 2010, inspiring director/co-writer Robert Zemeckis to craft his own narrative version,

Steve Carell does his level best as Mark, and connects with an impressive range. But he’s better than this film, and he’s better than this script.

Also occupying the town of Marwen is a mysterious Belgian witch whose obsessive grasp on Captain Hogie (Mark) is so obviously a metaphor for his addiction that she literally disappears from scenes by morphing into the pills Mark takes each morning. And yet, half way through the film, when he’s asked what real life woman the witch is based on, Mark says in wonderment “I don’t know. I don’t know where she came from.” Someone in my theatre laughed.

Welcome to Marwen’s greatest struggle is that it cannot commit to what it wants to be. Half of the film takes place with Mark’s dolls in Marwen, fully animated and pursuing comical fits of violence. The other half of the film follows Mark in real life as a lovable weirdo whose addiction to his medication and rampant PTSD don’t allow him to live far beyond the model village built in his yard.

The dissonance in the film comes from a holding back of sorts. It never gets quite as weird or fantastical as it could. The real world plot of Mark’s life is boring and predictable. The whole film feels like a concession between Zemeckis’s vision, and what he thought the audience might want to see. Instead, he ends up with something from an alternate universe Hallmark channel.

Worst of all, is the film’s bizarre commoditization of women. Mark fashions dolls from the hobby shop into sexier, more violent versions of women he knows in real life. None of these women seem upset or worried about their doll counterparts, disturbing though they are. Especially when one of the dolls is molded after his favorite porn star.

The film leads by making a joke of calling the women “dolls”, and then uses this joke to consistently refer to them as such moving forward. Twice Welcome to Marwen milks a joke out of a doll’s shirt being ripped open to expose her chest. Mark says he wears women’s shoes because he loves women so much, it helps him connect with their essence. His G. I. Alter Ego, Captain Hogie, screams in a triumphant moment, “Women are the saviors of the world!”

So. Mark can be celebrated for being brave enough to wear women’s shoes, but women’s clothing reduces them to sexualized objects.
Mark’s life seems to be defined by his failure to find a woman to love. His entire fantasy world is based on the idea that women can and will save him. The idea of women is celebrated, but women themselves are only treated as vehicles for romance or items waiting to be idealized. And there’s more. But a review should only be so long and disappointed.

Women aren’t here to fix you, or to save you. And they certainly couldn’t save Welcome to Marwen.

JLo Goes Low

Second Act

by Brandon Thomas

1998 was a good year to be a fan of Jennifer Lopez. She had just come off of a great turn as Selena Quintanilla in Selena, and her performance as Karen Sisco in Out of Sight made even more people stand up and take notice. Unfortunately, in the following years, movies like The Wedding Planner, Maid in Manhattan and Gigli showed that the promise of 1998 was an outlier. Second Act continues that storied tradition of mediocrity.

On the surface, life looks pretty good for Maya (Lopez). She has a job she excels at and enjoys; has a great partner (Milo Ventimiglia); and is surrounded by supportive family and friends. After she’s passed over for a promotion due to her lack of a college education, Maya’s confidence in her life choices start to crumble. When her genius nephew spruces up her resume with a few white lies, Maya lands an opportunity that allows her to use her natural skills, but also forces her to pretend to be someone she’s not.

Second Act is a confusing mix of several different kinds of comedies. There’s the romance straight out of the romantic comedy, pratfalls and potty humor from the Apatow camp, and a gee-whiz camaraderie angle that left me wondering if magic pants were about to come into play.

None of these approaches works.

Lopez is completely out of her element with the physical comedy. She sells tripping over a barrier about as convincingly as Denise Richards did playing a nuclear physicist in The World Is Not Enough. Not helping is her complete lack of comedic chemistry with co-stars Leah Remini, Treat Williams and Dave Foley. When the top comedic performance of the movie is delivered by Charlyne Yi… there’s a problem.

The film’s entire structure is supported by the worst kind of cliches: Maya’s lie and the hoops she has to jump through to keep the lie alive; the workplace competition that was tired in 2013 when The Internship did it; and a lazy second act reveal so bad it’d feel out of place in a Hallmark Christmas movie. Second Act is a Frankenstein’s monster of plot points from already terrible movies.

This is a movie that your mom who sees one movie a year will probably love. For the rest of us, it’s the worst movie of 2002 that somehow got released in 2018.

The Other Queen Movie

Mary Queen of Scots

by Rachel Willis

From a technical perspective, everything about director Josie Rourke’s film, Mary Queen of Scots is nearly perfectly realized.

Saoirse Ronan is resplendent as Mary, the rightful queen of Scotland and contested heir to the throne of England. Margot Robbie is equally enlivening as Mary’s cousin, better known as Elizabeth I.

The film begins with Mary’s return to Scotland at the age of 18 following the death of her husband, the Dauphin of France. As she assumes her rightful throne from her half-brother, she is quickly met with opposition. John Knox (David Tennant), a Protestant minister – and also one of the leader’s of Scotland’s Reformation – immediately dismisses her rule as she is both Catholic and a woman.

From Knox’s initial dissent, more threats emerge, primarily from the English queen, Elizabeth I.

Dual narratives tell the story of Mary and Elizabeth’s rivalry. Through letters, the queens express solidarity, but behind the scenes, Elizabeth worries. Her most loyal advisor, William Cecil (Guy Pearce) stokes those fears. But his genuine affection for Elizabeth is a glaring contrast to Mary, who frequently stands alone.

Much history is condensed in the two hour running time. Because of this, the movie flows smoothly, but history is glossed over, changed, or omitted entirely. While this works, it’s also misleading. Mary’s trusted advisor, David Rizzio, is reduced to a minstrel who is more handmaiden than advisor.

It’s not unusual for a fictional film to mold history to fit a story, but the most disappointing aspect is the portrayal of Mary. The film asserts that Mary was a good queen with a good heart who was an innocent victim of the people around her. This begs the question: Was Mary truly an innocent – a pawn at the mercy of scheming men? Or was she a ruler like any other? One who made mistakes, bad choices, and whose ambition was outmatched by another’s power?

The history surrounding Mary has always been controversial – it’s impossible to know exactly what she knew and what she plotted. But by portraying Mary as a victim, the film reduces her to a caricature rather than a woman – a queen – with agency.

It’s a disappointing decision in an otherwise stunning film.

Beautiful Ben

Ben is Back

by Hope Madden

Family can be a nightmare during the holidays, eh? Well, if you think your Fox-News-spouting uncle is a problem, you need to meet Ben.

Yes, Ben is Back, the damaged teen at Christmas drama from writer/director Peter Hedges, is clear Oscar bait. It is, after all, a family drama starring two of the Academy’s favorite thespians, Julia Roberts and the filmmaker’s own son, Lucas Hedges.

Lucas Hedges plays Ben, the eldest son of Holly (Roberts), who surprises his family—mom, sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton), half siblings Lacey and Liam (Mia Fowler and Jakari Fraser, respectively) and stepdad Neal (Courtney B. Vance)—on Christmas Eve. Ben’s been away in rehab, and not everyone is as thrilled at the prospect of reliving Christmas Horrors Past as Holly seems to be.

Though filmmaker Hedges’s script has a few rough edges, one of its great strengths is its limits. Ben is Back chooses not to spell out every aspect of Ben’s addiction, his descent, his likely court-determined recover program. These are wise omissions as they make the slow reveals more powerful and leave you feeling less manipulated.

What unspools as a tense family drama takes a wild left turn by act three, when Ben’s shaky present and dark past come crashing into Holly’s living room only to make off with the family’s beloved mutt. The balance of the film sees mother and son drive deeper into an ugly abyss of sexual predators, junkies and criminals to have poor Ponce back for the siblings by Christmas morn.

Once the borderline thriller storyline takes flight, Hedges Senior flails a bit with pacing and tone. Hedges Junior and Roberts, however, lose nothing.

The voyage into the underbelly of Holly’s lovely suburbia offers not only some insight into the realities of drug addiction and our current opioid crisis, but allows these two talents the chance to mine their characters’ psyches.

Hedges never overstates the emotions roiling barely beneath the surface. He is almost simultaneously overjoyed, anxious, guilty, dishonest, tender, vulnerable, loyal, broken and resilient. There is nothing showy in his performance as he conveys with clarity the confusing mix of emotions and motives that surface from moment to moment.

Roberts, who has solidified her status as formidable character actor in own second act, takes command of this film and never gives an inch. She owns every scene, and equals Hedges in her own ability to swing—sometimes gently, sometimes seismically—from one emotion to the next. Again, there is nothing inauthentic or overly dramatic in this performance.

The film itself dips too often into maudlin traps. And though the third act is far from awful, the filmmaker’s insights for family dynamics and dysfunction are stronger.

He can cast the shit out of a movie, though.

The Dunce and Future King


by Matt Weiner

A movie that brings together Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, Julie Andrews and Dolph Lundgren is inevitably going to have a lot going on. That’s certainly the case for James Wan’s Aquaman, a weird mix of origin story, Arthurian myth and anti-racist appeal to coexistence. If that sounds like a lot for the frat bro character from 2017’s Justice League, well… it is. But thankfully it’s also never boring.

The new movie takes place after the events of Justice League, allowing half-man/half-Atlantean Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) to resume his day job of serving as a one-man Coast Guard and drinking. Flashbacks piece together Curry’s life story: his father (Temuera Morrison) fell in love with the queen (Kidman) of the underwater kingdom Atlantis, who later had to choose between endangering her taboo love child or returning to the kingdom.

A series of tragedies pushes Curry on his hero’s journey, with enough family strife between him and his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) to fill a Greek play. Together with the Atlantean princess Mera (Amber Heard), Curry strikes out in search of a golden MacGuffin along with his destiny, even finding time to pick up an archenemy for good measure (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Manta).

How much of a comfort it is that Aquaman is one of the better recent superhero movies depends on where you fall on the debate over whether distinctive directors should get picked for more of these big comic book projects (and given a long leash)—or if you wish we lived in a universe where they could pursue these visions without yoking themselves to Disney/Marvel or DC.

It is to the film’s benefit that Wan, veteran of horror franchises Saw, The Conjuring and Insidious, manages to tie Curry’s predictable Arthurian ascent to the most disturbing Lovecraftian horror this side of Hellboy. And it’s almost shocking to see the cotton candy brightness of Atlantis after the pummeling color palettes of Batman v. Superman and Justice League.

With his nonstop pace, steady stream of exotic settings and action that never gets bogged down in its own seriousness, Wan’s entry in the genre hits the mark as his loving homage to vintage Spielberg and Lucas—plus tentacles. Best of all, it’s a refreshing reminder that you shouldn’t need a flowchart and multi-phase corporate synergy to make a good popcorn movie.

Which is good because it doesn’t look like these franchises are going anywhere anytime soon, so if any other directors are looking to wed their creative vision to the corporate motherships then maybe I can learn to be more tolerant of the products they give birth to. It’s a message that sounds oddly familiar.

Practically Perfect

Mary Poppins Returns

by Christie Robb

Recreating the magic of a classic film like Mary Poppins seems like it should be impossible. Thankfully, with the sequel Disney proves that truly everything is possible, even the impossible.

Set 20 years after the original, Jane and Michael Banks are grown and eking out a living during the “Great Slump” (the term for the Great Depression in the United Kingdom). Michael (Ben Wishaw) has been recently widowed and is struggling to raise his three children alone when the bank sends some agents to inform him that his family home on Cherry Tree Lane is in foreclosure. He’s got until Friday at midnight to cough up the cash.

Enter Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), who returns to take care of the Banks children. This time the stakes are clearly a bit higher. Instead of the children and nanny dealing with neglectful and boring parents, they have to negotiate grief over their dead mother, probable homelessness, and some light animated kidnapping. It’s a more Lemony Snicket approach that keeps the plot moving at a good pace, but may be intense for the more sensitive kiddos.

The drama is balanced with some exhilarating song and dance numbers that mirror, but update, those in the original film. Remember Uncle Albert? Now we have a song with Cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep). The live action/animated number occurs inside the pattern of a Royal Doulton china bowl instead of a chalk drawing. And instead of chimney sweeps elevating the kids to the London rooftops for a jig, lamplighters led by Mary’s friend Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) wind the kids through the sewers and engage in some stunt biking and parkour.

Throughout, director Rob Marshall is faithful to the tone of the original film. There’s a continuity established from the opening credit sequence that continues through the choices in musical score, sets and costuming. However, Marshall’s experience directing movie musicals (for example, Into the Woods and Chicago) makes for more dynamic camera work and the occasional vaudevillian set piece.

This charming bit of nostalgia makes for an excellent holiday movie that celebrates the joys of childhood, imagination and family.

I Don’t Want to Go Out—Week of December 17

Know what you can do this week if you get super bored at your in-laws’, or if you get lonely while you’re away from home for the holidays? You can watch a butt-load of movies. Look at them all! Most of them are so-so, to be honest, but a couple are really good and a couple are better than you think.

Click the film title for the full review.

Fahrenheit 11/9

A Simple Favor


The House that Jack Built

The Predator

The House with a Clock in its Walls

Assassination Nation