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Year by the Sea

Directed by Alexander Janko




      Joan Anderson (Karen Allen) decides to rent a house along the beach on Cape Cod after her husband, Robin (Michael Cristofer), relocates to Kansas because of work and her two adult children finally move out of house. She hopes to begin writing again while finding peace of mind far away from her family. John Cahoon (Yannick Bisson), a fisherman, befriends her and agrees to hire her, temporarily, at his local fish market. When she meets Joan Erikson (Celia Imre), who's grieving the loss of her husband, psychologist Erik Erikson, Joan Anderson's quest to find true happiness and to get to know herself officially begins.

      Based on the memoir by Joan Anderson, Year by the Sea is an enchanting, warm, wise and profoundly moving film brimming with humanism, a truly special effect that's rare to find these days in American films. Writer/director Alexander Janko finds just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually. Many scenes feel relatable and ring true. Janko also knows how to introduce characters in a way that's compelling, i.e. how Joan Anderson meets Joan Erikson in a dream-like sequence on the foggy shores of Cape Cod. Right away you're able to grasp how witty and wise Erikson is. Janko handles the many scenes of Anderson attaining enlightenment gracefully without veering into preachiness. He also avoids turning the emotionally resonant scenes into sappiness.

      Anyone who calls Year by the Sea conventional or formulaic isn't paying close enough attention to the many little surprises that come along, including a revelation about Joan Anderson's literary agent, Liz (S. Epatha Merkerson), and how Anderson doesn't yield to the temptations of cheating on her husband, Robin, even though she could have if she wanted to. The way that she helps a waitress, Luce (Monique Curnen), to deal with her abusive, alcoholic husbands speaks volumes about how kind, selfless and considerate she is as a human being. Janko includes other telling details about her Anderson's character like when her husband suddenly laughs at something that he thought about. Instead of acting offended or shocked by saying "Stop laughing!", she asks him, with genuine compassion and a healthy dose of curiosity, "What's so funny?" Small, beautiful scene like that are part of what makes Year by the Sea such a treasure behold.

      The scenery of Cape Cod becomes a character in itself with many awe-inspiring shots that would be best experienced on the big screen. The well-chosen music also helps to enrich the film. Moreover, each of the supporting characters feels lived-in, complex and interesting enough to even be turned into a protagonist. Although Anderson's husband does have flaws, he's far from a villain and has many redeeming qualities. The same can be said for Luce's abusive husband (Tyler Haines). Even the homeless man who shows up at the fish market to receive free food from John has an interesting backstory about how he became homeless. Janko clearly understands that the more specific a story is, the more universal it becomes. He also finds the right balance between light and dark elements---yes, many scenes are uplifting, but there's also some gentle, underlying sadness and tragedy lurking beneath the surface. Just like life itself, it would be difficult and unfair to lump Year by the Sea into a genre.

      The talented Karen Allen anchors Year By the Sea with her radiance. She gives the best performance of her career, and Janko allows for her shine thanks to the beautifully-written screenplay. It's also quite refreshing for a modern film to have such a complex role for an actress, and to watch a film that can't be turned into a video game or that doesn't rely on sex or violence as a means of entertaining the audience. In a less sensitively-written film, the character of Joan Anderson would have had no inner life; in Year By the Sea you can grasp her inner life from start to finish which makes the film all the more exceptional, poignant and unforgettable. At a running time of 1 hour and 54 minutes, which breezes by like an hour, Year by the Sea is a life-affirming, breathtaking, and inspirational film that will nourish your heart, mind and soul. It's the perfect antidote to Hollywood's blockbusters. What a triumph! It would make for a great double feature with Under the Tuscan Sun, 45 Years and Muriel's Wedding.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Real Women Make Waves.
Opens Friday at select theaters in Florida.

Lovesong

Directed by So Yong Kim




      Sarah (Riley Keough) lives with her 3-year-old daughter, Jessie (Jessie Ok Gray), and husband, Dean (Cary Joji Fukunaga), who's traveling for work very often. While Dean's away on a business trip, Sarah goes on a road trip with her free-spirited best friend, Mindy (Jena Malone), along with Jessie. They develop feelings for one another during the road trip and end up getting physically intimate before Mindy suddenly leaves back home all of a sudden. Three years later, Mindy's about to get married to Leif (Ryan Eggold), but Jessie still has feelings for Mindy which may or may not be requited.

      A more appropriate title for Lovesong would be It's Complicated because that sums up the relationship between Sarah and Mindy to a tee. Are they good friends who merely had a meaningless connection with one another for one night? Or are they more than just good friends? A good lover is a good friend, but a good friends is not necessarily a good lover. For the three years since Mindy had left Sarah, they barely kept in touch with one another, but that doesn't mean that they weren't on each other's minds while not in contact. Why didn't they see each other more often? What's the relationship like between Mindy and her mother, Eleanor (Rosanna Arquette), who questions Mindy's decision to get married. Writer/director So Yong Kim and co-writer Bradley Rust Gray trust the audience's intelligence by leaving Sarah and Mindy's complex relationship up for interpretation. If this were a French movie, there'd be sex, nudity and lots of wine-drinking, but none of that is really needed in Lovesong because it would've been too distracting.

      Like a truly great film, Lovesong has just enough truth and spectacle. "Where is the spectacle?" you ask. No, it doesn't have any car chases, explosions or superheroes nor does it need to because there's enough spectacle within its truths---if you're willing to look beneath the surface. One could compare the film to Moonlight because both films are about a friendship that suddenly turns physical, but Lovesong is more powerful and organic than Moonlight, and far less pretentious. The three-year gap in the plot here makes narrative sense without affecting any dramatic momentum while in Moonlight the not one but two leaps forward were distracting.

      Both Keough and Malone give raw performances that make the chemistry between Sarah and Mindy all the more palpable. They both find the emotional truths of their roles and are very well-cast. Kudos to Kim and Gray for grounding Lovesong in humanism, a truly special effect, for not spoon-feeding the audience, and for not tying everything up so neatly at the end which would have made it too Hollywood. The third act, where other dramas usually fall apart or fall flat, feels poignant, bittersweet and refreshingly true-to-life like the rest of the film.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Strand Releasing.
Now playing at Village East Cinema.

The Red Turtle

Directed by Michael Dudok de Wit




      A young man becomes shipwrecked on a deserted tropical island with only crabs, birds and turtles. His attempts to build a sturdy raft are futile. Everything changes when he spots a red turtle that destroys his raft. What happens when the two cross paths will not be spoiled here so that your surprise won't be ruined because it takes the film onto a whole new level.

      Beautifully animated with 2D animation, The Red Turtle is equally enchanting, poetic, sad, breathtaking and mesmerizing. Writer/director Michaël Dudok De Wit and co-writer Pascale Ferran boldly choose to keep the film dialogue and narration-free similar to the survival tale All is Lost. The images don't need words because they speak louder than words; words, after all, are cheap. Even though you'll find lots of pretty colors and some cute crabs that provide a little comic relief, this is by no means a kid-friendly movie because it goes into somewhat dark, somber territory and it has leisurely pacing. The story may seem simple on the surface, but it grows increasing complex beneath the surface as it progresses. Despite that there's virtually zero backstory to the nameless man, you'll still end up caring about him as a human being.

      Dudok De Wit deserves to be commended trusting the audience's patience and intelligence. He deftly combines realism and surrealism in way that's clever, imaginative and, most importantly, unpretentious. If he were to have included more surrealism, it would've been over-the-top and distracting. The quietly powerful ending fills you with so many emotions ranging from happiness to sadness that it will surely haunt you for quite some time, unless you're made out of stone. In only 82 minutes, The Red Turtle manages to tell a captivating and refreshingly wordless story that's engrossing, surprising and unforgettable. It's among the best Animated films in recent years.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Now playing at Landmark Sunshine Cinema.

Toni Erdmann

Directed by Maren Ade




      Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a divorced, retired piano teacher, feels lonely after his dog dies. His estranged daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), works long hours for a consulting firm as a business consultant. He decides to visit her out of the blue and follow her to work to try to rekindle their father-daughter relationship through a series of pranks where he dons a wig and false teeth as "Toni Erdmann."

      To merely describe the plot of Toni Erdmann wouldn't do it any justice. Like many great films, it can't be summarized adequately with words nor can it fit into a genre. On the one hand, it's also a comedy with screwball, witty and absurd humor, some of which is quite bold---please be warned, though: you will never look at a petit four the same way ever again. On the other hand, it's a tragedy with two wounded, lonely souls who come together in spite of their many differences while discovering and learning to love themselves as well as each other. Comedy, after all, is almost always rooted in tragedy. Fortunately, writer/director Maren Ade hits just the right notes as she blends comedy and drama with some depth lurking beneath the surface to allow you to ponder larger issues like the meaning of happiness, family, love and forgiveness. In other words, she grounds the film in humanism, a priceless, truly special effect.

      The character of Winfried isn't easy to like because he seems creepy, selfish, annoying and emotionally needy at first, but as the film progresses he becomes somewhat endearing in spite of his seemingly childish behavior. He fundamentally lover her although perhaps he doesn't quite know how to express his love in the usual ways. One wonders what the relationship was like with his own parents. There's much more to him than meets the eye which makes him all the more interesting as a character. Ines is also complex: she seems cold and overworked with a stiff upper lip, but, with the help of her father, she gradually loosens up and starts to confront her buried emotions. The fact that Ines and Winfried come to life is a testament to the raw and convincingly moving performances by Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek. Both of them help to make their characters actually feel like they're father and daughter even when they don't speak to one another. Their greatest triumph, though, is that they manage to find the emotional truths of their characters.

      The post profound, surprising scene in the film is when Ines sings Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All" as her father plays the piano. Pay close attention to the song's lyrics because they speak volumes about Ines' emotional breakthrough. That scene will probably be remembered the most, but there are other smaller, subtler, quieter scenes that also have leave a powerful emotional impact. Kudos to Maren Ade for trusting the audience's intelligence as well as something that's underrated this days and ultimately rewarding: patience. The understated ending works beautifully and leaves enough room for interpretation. Anyone who dares to call Toni Erdmann shallow either wasn't paying close enough attention to the film and/or is shallow themselves. Whether you see it as a comedy grounded in tragedy or a tragedy grounded in comedy, Toni Erdmann is a profound, heartfelt and outrageously funny emotional journey. It's one of the best films of the year.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Opens on December 25th, 2016 at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

Moana

Directed by Ron Clements, John Musker, Chris Williams and Don Hall




      Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) lives on the Pacific island of Motunai where a shortage of fish and coconuts has become a serious problem threatening everyone. Her grandmother, Gramma Tala (voice of Rachel House), tells her the tale of a demi-god, Maui (voice of Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson), who had stolen the heart of Te Fiti, the mother island, which has the capabilities to create life. Moana defies her father, Chief Tui (Voice of Temuera Morrison) and finds the courage to sail into the ocean on a mission to find the coveted heart of Te Fiti. She eventually joins up with Maui on her quest, and the two of go through a number of obstactles, including a battle with pirates and Tamatoa the crab (Jemaine Clement), along their way to Te Fiti.

      Moana boasts a winning combination of action, comedy, musical, adventure and drama that allows for it to soar high among the best animated films of the year. At it's core, a warm and big-hearted story which makes it all the more engrossing and relatable because it's grounded in humanism, a truly special effect. Most importantly, though, it has a very strong, positive female role that young girls of can look up to just like in other Disney films like Brave which is on the same level of quality as Moana. On a technical level, the animation looks breathtakingly and captures the majestic beauty of the Pacific. You might even forget that you're watching an animated film at times because everything looks so real, especially the photorealistic water.

      Screenwriter Jared Bush expertly balances the captivating story with just the right amount of memorable characters each of whom has an interesting backstory. The scene with Moana and Maui bantering with one another when they first meet is particularly well-written with plenty of witty and clever humor. Heihei the rooster (voice of Alan Tudyk) provides a lot of the comic relief as Moana's sidekick, i.e. how when it tries to eat everything it sets its eyes upon including rocks. The screenplay does tend to resort to slightly excessive exposition at times, but that's a minor, forgivable issue that's not systemic. Both kids and adults will be able to thoroughly enjoy Moana thereby making it the best family film of the holiday season. Please be sure to stay until after the end credits for an amusing stinger with Tamatoa the crab.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Walt Disney Pictures.
Now playing nationwide.

Elle

Directed by Paul Verhoeven




      Isabelle Huppert stars as Michèle Leblanc, a divorced woman who runs a video game company with her best friend, Anna (Anne Consigny). After she gets brutally raped at home, she decides to take matters into her own hands and try to catch her rapist instead of seeking help from the police. Her familial relationships are quite dysfunctional. She's jealous of ex-husband, Richard Leblanc (Charles Berling), when she learns that he has found a much younger lover, Hélène (Vimala Pons), and she dislikes Josie (Alice Isaaz), the fiancee of her son, Vincent's (Jonas Bloquet). She has no shame when it comes to having an affair with her best friend's husband, Robert (Christian Berkel).

      Based on the novel by Philippe Djian, Elle is a character-driven psychological thriller that goes into unexpectedly twisted directions more often than not. Michèle may not be particularly likable as a character because of some of the choices that she makes and her personality, but it's precisely those flaws that make her all the more interesting as a character. She's given a backstory involving something traumatic from her childhood which won't be spoiled here. That trauma has shaped her current mental state and makes her a complex human being---she's not exactly an easy nut to crack. The darker that Elle becomes, the more captivating and even somewhat gripping it becomes.

      Director Paul Verhoeven ought to feel very lucky to have Isabbelle Huppert as his lead because she's just the right actress for the role. This is her best role since The Piano Teacher. She tackles Michèle's strength as well as her innate fragility concurrently. Perceptive audience members will be able to grasp the battles with her mental scars which are far more traumatic than physical scars. in other words, Huppert's impeccable acting skills help to provide a window, albeit a small one, into Michèle's head. Although you probably would not want to spend time around Michèle in person, she's nonetheless a truly fascinating character that's complex enough to be open to interpretation. Bravo to Verhoeven and screenwriter David for trusting the audience's intelligence and thereby turning Elle into a smart, sophisticated and riveting psychological thriller for adults.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Now playing at Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
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