Alison Willmore

After Years Of Playing The Friend, Sandra Oh Is Finally Getting To Be The Star

Michael Buckner / Deadline / REX / Shutterstock

In her first big-screen leading role — in Mina Shum’s 1994 indie Double Happiness — Sandra Oh played an eager 22-year-old aspiring actor named Jade Li who dreamed about getting cast as Blanche DuBois or Joan of Arc. In the film, Jade practices monologues in the childhood bedroom she still lives in and half-earnestly fantasizes with a friend about how she’ll eventually win an Academy Award: “I’d get nominated for a really dramatic part. Something really hard and real. I don’t know, something that I had to, like, gain weight for.” And then she auditions for a small role as a waitress, and her yet-uncrushed aspirations acquire a dent or two.

The casting director tells her to try running the lines with an accent, and is unamused when Jade speaks in a cartoony French one — he knows that she knows what he means. After a few seconds, the smile drops from her face and she accedes, affecting the halting English of the recent Chinese immigrant that she is not. In that instant, she’s confronted with the reality that while she sees herself as a capable of playing anyone, including the lead, others look at her through a much narrower lens.

It was impossible not to think about Double Happiness — a film that feels like it could be some lost Asian American ’90s landmark, except that it is, like its leading lady, Canadian — when reading Oh’s recent conversation with Vulture’s E. Alex Jung. In the interview, she confessed that when first reading the script for her new BBC America series Killing Eve, she didn’t understand that she was being offered the lead role, and called her agent to ask which part she was supposed to play. “I didn’t even assume when being offered something that I would be one of the central storytellers,” the 46-year-old Korean Canadian said. “After being told to see things a certain way for decades, you realize, ‘Oh my god! They brainwashed me!'”

BBC America

Oh in her new role as MI5 officer Eve Polastri in Killing Eve.

It was as if Oh were Jade in that moment, after years of shitty run-ins with the limits of the industry’s vision convinced the actor to let those Tennessee Williams dreams go. One could imagine Oh flipping through a script looking for the stern authority figures or savvy tech experts used to fill out scenes and deliver exposition — anything but the star.

Oh started acting when she was a teenager — you can dig up online bootlegs of her acclaimed early performance as a runaway addicted to drugs in the threadbare 1994 Canadian TV movie The Diary of Evelyn Lau — and in her decades-long career, she’s certainly turned up in those kind of roles, ones in which a performer functions as, essentially, talking scenery. But she’s never been someone who easily disappears into the background, or who fits into the confines of the stereotypes Asian women have had to fight to escape onscreen. With her precision timing, mobile face of a screwball heroine, and big mane of curls, she takes up space in the best way — too big a presence to be folded neatly in the slot of character actor she’s been defaulted to, yet apparently too unconventional to be considered for the spotlight, no matter how much it seems to be calling.

When doing press, Oh has tended to acknowledge racism while resisting the idea that her career is defined by it. “I work really hard to not think that way,” she said to Vulture, when asked if she felt like she was getting the offers she wanted after leaving Grey’s Anatomy in 2014. “Thinking of it that way just causes me suffering.” Back in 1995, when Double Happiness got a limited release in US theaters, she told the Los Angeles Times about being labeled “The Quota Child” because she was one of the few Asian actors in an otherwise mostly white pool: “You wondered if you were picked for your ethnicity or your talent. I just didn’t let it get to me but it really could if I had let it. I decided very early that I was going to be an actor. Period. The best actor possible.”

Fine Line Features

Sandra Oh as Jade Li in Double Happiness auditioning for the role of a waitress.

Embracing this outlook in a profession so dependent on the whims of (mostly white, mostly male) executives feels like an act of self-protection, but could just as easily be an act of shrugging self-care when dealing with an industry that’s clearly liked having Oh around, even if it never seemed quite sure what to do with her for reasons that go beyond race. Oh’s gloriously no-nonsense aura is one of her most gratifying qualities onscreen, but it is also arguably one that seems to consign her to side roles. That’s not to say the characters she plays aren’t vulnerable, or messy, or goofy. They simply feature a groundedness that’s such an underrated onscreen quality that it tends to turn up in advisers, authority figures, or friends to be leaned on rather than protagonists.

One of the reasons Killing Eve, which was adapted for TV by Fleabag writer-star Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is so satisfying is that it both showcases this quality and turns it on its head. In it, Oh plays title character Eve Polastri, an MI5 officer who is good, if underutilized, at what’s essentially an office job, until one of the professional assassins she’s made a hobby of tracking comes crashing into her life. The series is a convention-defying, tonally unpredictable combination of thriller and dark comedy that fits Oh like a glove (that you’d put on before jaunting off to murder someone).

Polastri, a comfortably married desk drone dropped into a world of off-the-books espionage, isn’t in line with the sorts of tragic Southern belles and doomed French saints Jade Li imagined herself playing in 1994, but she is immensely interesting on a scale all her own. Turns out, Oh didn’t need to wait until someone finally saw her as Blanche DuBois in order to step into the lead — she just needed someone to see her.

Touchstone Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Oh with Diane Lane and Giulia Steigerwalt in Under the Tuscan Sun, 2003.

Sandra Oh has played multiple teachers, several coworkers, a couple of assistants, and a few neighbors from around the way — most notably in John Cameron Mitchell’s 2010 Rabbit Hole, in which she played a fellow grief support group member who smokes pot with, almost has an affair with, and steal scenes right out from under Aaron Eckhart. Race-unspecified side characters have become the meat and potatoes of many an actor of color’s career; Oh specifically has become best known for playing the “bestie.” By my count, she’s played the stalwart friend to a blonde woman at least four times: She shows up on the doorstep of Diane Lane’s villa midway through 2003’s Under the Tuscan Sun and accompanies Virginia Madsen on double dates with the two main characters in 2004’s Sideways. She’s one of a small chorus of wacky pals to Heather Graham in 2005’s Cake, and for 10 years she played Meredith Grey’s (Ellen Pompeo) “person” on Grey’s Anatomy, in a role that’s so much richer than the rest that it feels a little unfair, if not inaccurate, to group them.

Cristina Yang is far and away the defining role of Oh’s career so far, but she didn’t come out of nowhere. If you squint, you can see some of Oh’s earlier roles floating through her — in the proto Cristina–Meredith solidity of the friendship in Under the Tuscan Sun, or in the Yanglike wounded toughness of her character in Sideways, who beats the crap out of Thomas Haden Church with her motorcycle helmet after learning he’s been lying to her, a sequence that’s staged like brutal slapstick but still manages to highlight the pained betrayal on her face. Cristina Yang is what happens when a character has her genesis as a “sensible friend” but is filled out by an actor who allows that character to become a whole, complex person with her own narrative.

Fox Searchlight / Courtesy Everett Collection

Oh and Thomas Haden Church in Sideways, 2004.

For whatever it’s worth, Oh is notably great at sharing the screen with other women. Her most central onscreen relationships have mostly been with women, not necessarily with a queer subtext — though she does play one half of a lesbian couple in both Tammy and Under the Tuscan Sun, in romantic relationships that exist alongside the platonic ones given the main focus. She’s a particularly adept channeler of female friendship, in all of its intimacy and complications, even if it means she’s there to accessorize the dramas of the main character rather than be a part of them. It’s why she was at the heart of one of the great, sprawling explorations of female friendship in recent years — the epic saga of Pompeo’s Meredith and Oh’s Cristina on Grey’s Anatomy, a pairing that managed to feel more central to the series than any of the swoony romantic ones featured during Oh’s decadelong tenure on the show.

Cristina and Meredith immediately saw something in each other during their early days as interns — a wry sense of humor, a dark streak, and talent — and fell into step so effortlessly that there’s never really a place to mark where their friendship actually began. It simply was this intensely enviable but never simple thing that unfolded alongside Meredith’s tormented love story with McDreamy (Patrick Dempsey), Cristina’s similarly complicated one with Burke (Isaiah Washington), and all the other entanglements and twists that would follow over the years. Cristina and Meredith were soulmates, the Twisted Sisters, but they were also a nuanced study in two women making different choices with regard to how they wanted to balance their careers and their personal lives. The divergence between them eventually caused a scorchingly real fight in Oh’s 10th and final season, when Cristina tells Meredith that Cristina’s outstripped her as a surgeon because Meredith “let up” professionally in order to devote more energy to motherhood.

Ron Tom / Getty Images; Eric McCandless / ABC via Getty Images

Oh and Ellen Pompeo as doctors Yang and Grey on Grey’s Anatomy.

Cristina was a well-written character — quietly revolutionary, even — but Oh’s performance is what made her so vibrant. She played the character as warm but never soft — an acerbic, brilliant force who got referred to as a “robot” and a “machine,” but who was far from heartless. Rather, she was unapologetically ambitious, someone for whom surgery was a passionate calling. That she lived and breathed work did not make her inhuman, or without desire. Oh steered Cristina clear of both model minority and chilly career woman associations, leaning into her confidence, her pragmatism, and her drive with an easy assurance usually only available to men.

Grey’s Anatomy wasn’t Oh’s first US TV series as a regular — that would be Arliss, the sports agent comedy turned punchline from the dark ages of HBO programming, on which she played wacky assistant Rita Wu. But her multiple-Emmy-nominated 10 years on the series both secured her spot as one of the most famous Asian faces on television, and demonstrated what she was capable of, given the right platform. She did just as much to make Grey’s Anatomy what it continues to be today, whatever its highs and lows — a show that could straddle soapy surprises and delicate, difficult character work.

Dark Sky Films

Oh and Anne Heche in Catfight, 2016.

Two years after Oh left Grey’s Anatomy, she starred alongside Anne Heche in 2016’s Catfight, an oddball indie from director Onur Tukel about two former college frenemies who keep running into each other, old resentments and repressed rage bubbling up until they engage in ridiculously violent brawls that leave first one and then the other in a two-year coma. It’s mostly a funny-strange curiosity in the careers of both women, but for Oh, it has the additional resonance of seeming like a response to parts in which she was cast as the friend. In this movie, instead of offering solace and a shoulder to cry on to her blonde costar, she undermines her, insults her, and then ends up smashing her face into the ground repeatedly — supportive bestie no more.

Oh has been frank about her frustration with how few offers came her way after she left the series, telling Vanity Fair that the lull was “heartbreaking.” But one of the notable things about Killing Eve, when it finally did roll around, is that it feels — much like Catfight — like a reaction to all that time spent playing the good pal, and a place where Oh could be darker and more uncomfortable. In Killing Eve, she’s yet again paired with a pretty blonde, only instead of ending up in an affectionate huddle together, it’s perpetually unclear whether the duo will kill each other, fuck each other, or do some combination of the above, so wire-taut and unidentifiable is the tension between them. Villanelle (Jodie Comer) is a sociopathic but terrifically fun contract killer, a woman with a taste for designer clothing, Paris, lovers of any gender, impulsive carnage, and traumatizing children. She is the stuff of outlandish thrillers, neck-deep in intrigue — the kind of character stories happen to.

And Eve, by design, is not. Killing Eve starts with a winking shot of Oh waking up screaming in bed — not, it’s then revealed as her sputtering husband wakes up alongside her, because of traumatic dreams, but because she fell asleep on her arms after going to bed drunk. Eve, with her practical parka and hangover from an office karaoke party, works for MI5 in a way that is largely mundane. Her deep interest in female assassins turns out to come in handy, but it starts off less as something work-related than as a hobby with a definite whiff of true crime fandom to it. When she and Villanelle cross paths for the first time, it feels like two genres smashing into one another — bloody, globe-trotting suspense and workplace dramedy — as Villanelle, who’s come to a hospital to kill a witness in protective custody, advises Eve, who’s there to question that same person, to wear her hair down when the two share an unsuspecting moment together in the bathroom.

Bbc America

Villanelle (Jodie Comer) and Eve (Oh) in Killing Eve.

Characters like Eve are supposed to obsess over characters like Villanelle, these charismatic antiheroes we’ve seen plenty of on screen lately. The fact that Villanelle, in her child-pulling-wings-off-flies way, becomes just as fascinated by Eve is the biggest and most pleasant early surprise of the series, a sign that it isn’t going to follow predictable patterns. Villanelle serves as a kind of opposite of the humiliating casting director in Double Happiness. She’s a psychotic onscreen booster of Eve’s potential who gifts the older woman with a suitcase full of beautiful clothes and murders a colleague she thinks is holding Eve back. It’s like, after years of going underappreciated, Oh has been cast in a role alongside a character intent on making it all up to her by being her scariest fan. Comer gets to be outrageous, but Oh more than keeps up with her. She’s the heart of the series, by dint of her engaging realness as a woman getting a crash course in how to be an honest-to-god spy, which sometimes means hastily shaving her armpits over a hotel sink in order to wear a sleeveless dress out to flirt with a source.

There’s something expressly poignant about seeing Oh, with her business-casual garb and her hair in a bun, at the center of Killing Eve, which has already been renewed for a second season. Eve is funny and dorky, eager and intense, possessed of so many of the qualities that made Oh shine in those supporting roles, not discarded now that she’s been bumped up to lead, but burnished — a refreshingly unromanticized character dropped into a lurid conspiracy, not as a joke, but as the point. It’s not even that Eve is a rich role, though she is — it’s the expanding of imagination that she represents, the promise that writers and directors and showrunners can see a place for an actor like Oh, not just on the sidelines but at the heart of the story. There’s never really been any doubt that Oh could hold the screen when given a chance at the lead, and that audiences would show up to watch her. What’s changed is that there are people willing to give her that opportunity, and roles that aren’t written to an older, narrower idea of what a leading lady is like. Jade Li, in Double Happiness, might never have dreamed up a character like Eve, but that’s part of her appeal. She’s not an archetypal heroine — she’s something new. ●

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“Three Billboards” Channels One Kind Of Rage At The Expense Of Another

Merrick Morton / Twentieth Century Fox

Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

There are better movies in 2017 than Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but no performance this year has felt more rawly resonant than Frances McDormand’s turn as its caustic heroine, Mildred Hayes. You could put Mildred on a t-shirt, layering her scowling face over selected quotes from the ever-growing mountain of inadequate apologies from disgraced men. You could make her into a meme: Here’s Mildred in the pair of no-fucks-to-give coveralls she wears everywhere, except to bed, as she firebombs government buildings, kicks sniggering high schoolers in the crotch, and takes out a series of unignorable ads about how the rape and murder of her teenage daughter remains unsolved.

Mildred, who McDormand plays with a resplendent wrath and heartsick grief, is perfectly positioned to be the fictional patron saint of our current cultural moment. She is a woman who refuses to let the act of brutal sexual violence that tore her family apart be forgotten, to let it slide into the realm of regrettable but normalized tragedy. She insists on writing what happened in 20-foot-high type: “RAPED WHILE DYING. STILL NO ARRESTS. HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” Her singularly feminine rage glows so brightly that you could hold your hands up to the screen and warm yourself by its furious glow. Anger is destroying her life, but it’s also liberated her in a way that — on the heels of the first year of the Trump presidency and the continuing, Weinstein-fueled revelations of harassment and assault — is incredibly cathartic.

McDonagh, who wrote the part of Mildred eight years ago with McDormand in mind, has stumbled into something that reverberates deeply with 2017’s discourse about sexism — a tale of a small-town crime and cops that gets at what happens when a society runs out of patience for female pain. But while Three Billboards gets at something bitterly real in showing the turn that takes place when a woman’s outrage becomes genuinely inconvenient for the powers that be, there’s a less laudable way in which it also feels timely. The film tells the story of a woman pushing back against the ingrained misogyny of her town, and props it up with a remarkably lukewarm treatment of anti-black police brutality. Three Billboards is so sharp when it comes to depicting Mildred’s pain, and yet so clumsy when it comes to depicting the habitual racism of the place in which she lives, that it feels indicative of the terrible fallacy that we can only focus on one type of oppression at once.

Merrick Morton / Twentieth Century Fox

Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) meets with Mildred (McDormand)

If an inadvertent side effect of “the reckoning” over sexual harassment and assault has, in fact, been that a conversation about gender has in some ways subsumed that of race (or, as Jay Z put it while addressing a young fan who’s surely going to have to deal with both, “at this very moment America is way more sexist than they are racist”), then Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the film of a moment in more ways than one. It forces you, as a viewer, to decide whether its desultory treatment of the black characters on the movie’s sidelines is worth tolerating in exchange for the satisfaction of its protagonist’s burn-it-all-to-the-ground fury.

What the film gets right on all fronts is how power protects itself, via active threats but also through the unspoken push to maintain the status quo, to yield to the welfare of “good men.” That’s a very loaded term in the movie. Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the head of the Ebbing police department and the person named on Mildred’s billboards, is a “good man,” as Mildred is reminded by her priest, and by the dentist who then tries to remove one of her teeth without anesthetic, and by Willoughby’s threatening cop colleagues.

Based on what we see of the sheriff, the beloved boss and married father of two girls has a sardonic sense of humor and is likable enough, even if he’s not a candidate for sainthood. Willoughby also has terminal cancer, which gives him a grim emotional advantage over Mildred in the war she instigates. Her daughter is dead and gone, whereas Willoughby is actively dying. The film portrays, with painful precision, how little Mildred needs to do to lose the town’s support, even as the mother of a murdered child. Their sympathies instinctively turn toward the prominent family man, the cop whose job it is to keep the peace (while turning a blind eye toward the occasional act of brutality committed by his employees).

The pressure to keep quiet about sexual misconduct and violence isn’t just about protecting perpetrators; it’s about not rocking the boat, not disrupting the structures that “good” folks benefit from the most, regardless of whether they’re abusers themselves or blithely oblivious. It’s not like the Ebbing community doesn’t know exactly what happened to Mildred’s daughter or considers it anything other than monstrous. But they’re also writing off the crime as a deplorable but occasional consequence of living in the world — women get raped and murdered, especially when they go out alone. What can you do?

The only move Mildred feels she has, as time passes and attention fades, is to place a series of giant ads on a local road that offer a reminder in stark, clear terms. It’s a revelation that comes with a price — not just because she can’t really afford the signs, but because she’s also reopening old wounds. She has to look at the billboards every day on her ride home; she can see them from her house. They are, in bright red with black text against the big blue sky, the movie’s second most eloquent image, after McDormand’s clenched jaw. They’re how her high school–aged son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) learns the details of his sister’s death, which he’d been trying to avoid.

Merrick Morton / Twentieth Century Fox

Willoughby (Harrelson) and Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) by one of the billboards

When Mildred takes out those ads, she also breaks an unspoken rule regarding who gets to speak out and who should be held accountable. Willoughby isn’t the man who assaulted and murdered Mildred’s daughter. But, as Mildred rightfully points out, the buck stops with him, as he’s the guy in charge. Yet this inconvenient truth causes everyone in town to recoil, her tragedy apparently only worthy of compassion until it threatens a prominent man. The ways in which the people of Ebbing form a protective layer around Willoughby provides an all-too-familiar demonstration of who instinctively gets public sympathy and how sexual violence gets smoothed over.

Mildred’s choices are not those of a “good woman,” who’d presumably retreat from view, accepting the fate of her daughter as just a sad but unavoidable casualty. But being “good,” in the film’s parlance, doesn’t seem to be available to Mildred in the same way it is to some of Ebbing’s men. It seems to have nothing to do with kindness or moral forthrightness and everything to do with who deserves to be given second and third and fourth chances, and who gets shielded from consequences.

Mildred’s ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes), was presumably also “good.” He’s a cop, and he used to abuse her, and in the one flashback in which we see Mildred’s dead daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) alive, the girl spits at her mother in the midst of an argument that “we’ve only got your word” on whether the beatings really happened. So Mildred has intimate experience with a “good” man and how his word gets taken over yours — even by your own kid — because his reality is more convenient. It makes the incensed act that kicks off the film all the more powerful because it’s clearly a kamikaze move: the act of someone who knows that what she’s doing will likely cost her her place in the community, and doesn’t care.

The fictional Ebbing, Mo., is a setting that’s far afield for Martin McDonagh, who was born in London to Irish parents, and who was a four-time Tony-nominated playwright before he ventured into film (you can hear that in his dialogue, which is dense and determined to dazzle, sometimes at the expense of the characters tasked with delivering it). His 2008 directorial debut In Bruges was about Irish hitmen (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) trading profanely philosophical barbs while hiding out in a historical Belgian town. His self-referential 2012 follow-up Seven Psychopaths was set in the US, but had Farrell back as another Irishman, this time struggling to write a screenplay in Hollywood.

Merrick Morton / Twentieth Century Fox

Dixon (Rockwell) confronts Mildred (McDormand)

But the characters in Three Billboards aren’t visitors or transplants. They’re spending their whole lives in Ebbing, and while the town may not be real, that area of the US certainly is. And Ebbing happens to be located in the same state where, three years ago, protests against police violence fueled an ongoing social movement after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

In striving to make Ebbing feel like a lived-in place, rather than just an idea of one, Three Billboards treats racism like it’s just another quaint regional detail — part of the local decor. Here’s the gift shop, here’s the bar, and here’s Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a violent, openly intolerant alcoholic who’s rumored to have tortured a black man in his custody. That’s a claim the other characters don’t deny so much as they defend on the basis of a lack of evidence. Dixon also gets declared a “good man,” if there’s any question of how little the term has to do with moral quality and how much it has to do with how many chances someone is given. Even Mildred herself is let off the hook for an assault she’s definitely committed. Dixon instead arrests Mildred’s black friend and coworker Denise (Amanda Warren) for possession, to use her as leverage (seemingly her only function in the movie). His colleague congratulates him for coming up with the idea.

Dixon’s behavior, and the way it’s tolerated by others, is depicted with a matter-of-factness that’s striking — but not nearly as striking as the disinterest the film has in actually engaging with that racism. It’s a disinterest that becomes clearer as Dixon becomes increasingly central to the last act of the movie, eventually starting to reckon with his anger and his brutality, but never with his bigotry. He doesn’t exactly end up redeemed, but while his character gets deepened and complicated and made miserable, there’s no further discussion of his horrifying past.

Rockwell, who leans mesmerizingly into the character’s sloppy self-loathing, has been getting Oscar talk since Three Billboard‘s premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September. But as the movie has started to play to national audiences, the glowing critical acclaim it’s racked up has been countered by other writers wondering why its flippancy — not just about racism, but about racist police brutality — hasn’t gotten the same attention as its acting has. In letting Dixon’s attitude skate by unchallenged, the film doesn’t just turn a vague Darren Wilson figure into this sad clown. Instead, like the New York Times’ much-criticized Nazi-next-door piece, it humanizes a hate-filled man without offering anything close to the same empathy to the people on the receiving end of that hate.

Merrick Morton / Twentieth Century Fox

Mildred (McDormand) and James (Peter Dinklage)

McDonagh certainly finds proximity to prejudice useful, at least in his Tarantino-esque tendency to pepper his dialogue with slurs in order to take advantage of their transgressive heft. When Mildred taunts Dixon, she drops the n-word in her description of his history of violence, and it feels like it’s there more so that McDonagh can try the term out than to give Dixon a chance to retort that “It’s ‘persons of color’-torturing business, these days, if you want to know.”

“Retard,” “faggot,” “midget” (aimed at a longsuffering local played by Peter Dinklage, who infuses the part with a poignant dignity) — Three Billboards is peopled with characters who’d use these words without thinking twice. But McDonagh doesn’t seem to have more than an abstract understanding of the impact this speech or the contemptuousness that spawned it can have. The word “cunt,” on the other hand, becomes the spine of an intensely bittersweet set of scenes involving Mildred’s relationship with her murdered daughter and living son. McDonagh seems to have no trouble comprehending that insult and the residual sting it carries, but he doesn’t get why putting an air-quotes n-word in his heroine’s mouth evokes the wrong kind of flinch. He has a solid grasp of how a woman can be dismissed as crazy, as a bitch. But when it comes to American racism, he’s playing tourist.

Three Billboards‘ failures of intersectionality do as much to make it a fitting capper for this year as its incendiary female ire. It’s a year that started with a presidential inauguration that was, to many, an admission of misogyny writ on a scale larger than any billboard.The election that led to that was (and still is being) messily re-litigated by different factions of the left, each intent on deciding which demographic failed to show up, or showed up in the wrong way. The marches that followed were energizing — women united in a show of force and solidarity! Except for the participants of color who struggled to feel welcome. This year’s highest profile feminist fare in pop culture has been rolled out with much fanfare but little diversity, from the action-heavy but comfortably fantastical Wonder Woman to the dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale, whose scariness was matched only by how unconvincing its blithe post-racialism felt.

And then there was Harvey Weinstein, who didn’t exclusively prey on white women, but whose downfall, it’s hard not to feel, came about because of just how many famous white women had the courage to speak out against him. Sexual harassment and assault aren’t experiences unique to white women in any sense, but it is apparently white women against whom it counts the most, and who have become the face of those fighting back against it. They’ve embraced public displays of anger in thrilling ways — like Uma Thurman, whose measured seething in an October Access Hollywood video went viral. At that moment, she could have been a sister in formalwear to Mildred, both of them ready to burn everything down. But while that is a rage that’s exhilarating to witness, it’s a rage that’s not available to everyone. Just as not everyone in Ebbing can claim the protection of being considering “good,” we still don’t live in a world where everyone gets to be angry. ●

Merrick Morton / Twentieth Century Fox


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The Resurrection (LOL) Of The Dumb, Fun Teen Slasher

Tree Gelbman is not your typical final girl.

Final girls, those young female characters who have so often been the sole survivors of slasher movies, are usually also nice girls — in the sense that they’re both sweet and well-behaved. They’re resourceful and quite possibly plucky, and they don’t drink and they don’t have sex, and their reward for their unfussy wholesomeness is that they’re allowed to survive the story and the climactic showdown with the big baddie.

Tree, the time-looping heroine of Happy Death Day played by Jessica Rothe, is none of these things. She is (as she’d probably cop to herself) a bit of a bitch — a flaky, catty, blonde sorority girl who helps enforce a harsh social hierarchy in which she occupies a prime perch. In a scene the film repeatedly returns to like a save point in a video game, she wakes up in a stranger’s dorm room bed, irritatedly warns the guy (Israel Broussard) “not a word of this to anyone,” and hoofs it, in last night’s outfit, back to her sorority house, where she’s grilled by frenemy Danielle (Rachel Matthews), not about whether she’s okay, but about whether the guy she was with was of appropriate status.

Tree parties, she fucks, she’s mean, and she has a habit of wandering into amusingly sinister locations by her vulnerable lonesome, often in a primed-to-get-gore-stained white dress. She’s chosen an unforgivably annoying “it’s your birthday” ringtone for her phone. She is — at least by the rules of the genre so memorably made explicit in Scream and deconstructed in The Cabin in the Woods — doomed. And indeed, she’s murdered by a masked killer in a pedestrian underpass in Happy Death Day‘s first act, the kind of bloody end you might expect for a cheerleader type in this sort of horror film. Only she gets to come back, and to try to find a way to live on for another day.

Happy Death Day, which was directed by Christopher B. Landon and written by Scott Lobdell, is a welcome sign that the teen slasher might be returning to life (sorry) after getting pinned under the weight of the self-awareness that, on the plus side, did give us the meta humor of things like Scream and Cabin in the Woods. It’s a product of Blumhouse Productions, which leveled up this year with Get Out and Split, two legit cultural breakthroughs as well as box office hits; the company also deserves some attention for what it’s done to help resurrect (sorry) this shrieky, silly, and curiously satisfying subgenre for the smartphone generation. Blumhouse is behind, among other titles, 2014’s improbably good desktop found footage feature Unfriended and 2015’s improbably bad (but successful) theater found footage feature The Gallows. Happy Death Day falls somewhere between them quality-wise, eschewing the found footage concept for an equally high Groundhog Day–meets–House on Sorority Row one.

The result is something that’s just the right amount of ridiculous, flipping between legit scares and horror comedy. Happy Death Day‘s highlight isn’t a scene of dread, but a demented montage of Tree spying on suspects in order to solve her own murder like some inept, respawning Nancy Drew — only to get hunted down, again and again, by her dogged, baby-faced executioner. But the film doesn’t just find a clever way to refresh a maybe-calcified genre. It also overturns some of the genre’s more puritanical tendencies by focusing on the sort of character whose death would traditionally be presented as an extreme but deserved kind of comeuppance, because surviving these sorts of stories is a reward reserved for the nice, the pure, and — occasionally — the comic relief.

In that way, Happy Death Day represents a kind of reparation on behalf of conventional slasher fodder. Instead of moving on from Tree after she’s snuffed out, the film stays with her as she runs through her fateful birthday again and again, looking for a way out. She isn’t discardable: Her character gets filled out more and more as the day repeats, into a person with tragedy in her family life and a great deal of denial. She’s someone who sought solace in becoming a particular form of campus socialite, remaking herself in the image of the pretty, shallow, demanding sorority queen. In moments of self-reflection, she admits to having become someone she doesn’t think her mother would be proud of.

Tree isn’t just a type. And neither is the roommate, Lori (Ruby Modine), who’s placed in her immediate proximity for seemingly easy comparison. Lori works at a hospital, doesn’t wear makeup, and kindly gifts Tree with a homemade cupcake that the birthday girl promptly discards (too carb-heavy). Lori, in fact, is the kind of character who, from the outside, has the markers of a standard final girl (she’s even a brunette, in contrast to Tree), and the way that the film frees both her and Tree up from their expected destinies is witty and pointed. Because, really, why keep holding fast to the conservatism of those unspoken requirements for survival in these films, anyway?

Happy Death Day trades the moralism for a more palatable arc of self-improvement, with Tree peeling off the brittle veneer she’s acquired as the movie rolls on, shedding the phony friends and the casual cruelty and reexamining the life she’s made for herself. And though her self-examination — like the movie itself — is highly imperfect (in particular, in how it resolves the affair she’s having with a married professor), her sense of liberation isn’t. Tree doesn’t make it to the end of Happy Death Day because she’s somehow unspoiled or because she learns to clean up her act, but because she frees herself from the highly regimented persona she was using as armor. She’s not good, but maybe she’s better — and that’s the kind of final girl revamp worth rooting for.

One Of The Best Movies Of The Year Is Now In Theaters, And You Should See It


Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project.

The Florida Project takes place a few miles and a whole universe away from Disney World, in a lavender-painted motel called The Magic Kingdom. Like the other businesses along its commercial strip in Kissimmee, Florida, it’s a clear attempt to catch tourist runoff from the nearby theme park. And travelers, like the dismayed honeymooners who arrive to see the lodgings they booked online aren’t remotely what they expected, do occasionally wash up in its lobby.

But most of the guests of The Magic Kingdom aren’t visitors, they’re residents, crowding into rooms they rent by the week because getting together the chunk of change needed to even begin thinking about an apartment isn’t tenable. The inhabitants of the motel are one wobbly rung above homelessness, many of them families whose children hang out together, a transient playgroup made up of members that come and go with little warning.

It’s a precarious situation that, you’d think, would make a name like “The Magic Kingdom” read as bitter irony. And that’s certainly a part of The Florida Project, which juxtaposes the rough realities of its characters with an awareness of the massive monument to corporate cheer and consumption lurking just down the road — the Happiest Place on Earth, ready and waiting, providing you can afford to get in.

But what’s so great about the film, so astonishing and so devastating, is that there’s some sincerity to that name as well, at least in the case of the day-to-day adventures of 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), its kid protagonist. The motel and the line of buildings around it are the beautiful-seedy dominion she reigns over with a combination of impish curiosity and slowly fading innocence. Childhood can be its own kind of magic kingdom, though the instability of the life she and her young ex-con mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) share keeps threatening to burst that bright, unconcerned bubble.


Christopher Rivera, Prince, and Valeria Cotto.

The Florida Project is written and directed by Sean Baker, who’s made an increasingly prominent career out of chronicling existences eked out in economic gray zones, first in New York, then in Los Angeles, and now the Sunshine State. His 2004 movie Take Out centers on an undocumented Chinese immigrant scraping by as a deliveryman, while 2008’s Prince of Broadway goes further uptown to track an African man whose counterfeit bag hustle gets complicated when he has to care for a toddler. Starlet (2012) focuses on the friendship between an adult film actor and her elderly neighbor in the San Fernando Valley, and 2015’s Tangerine, Baker’s biggest breakout so far, follows two trans sex workers through a long day of dealing with johns and personal dramas on a block of Santa Monica Boulevard.

These are stories about marginalized lives that don’t get put on screen very often, but Baker’s greatest worth as a filmmaker comes not just from his interest in representation, but also from his understanding that he’s making movies about people, not poverty. That’s certainly the case with The Florida Project, which doesn’t pretty up its characters’ frequently miserable straits in any way, but is never miserablist, either. Moonee and Halley have good days and bad ones — mostly good for Moonee (it’s summer vacation) and starting to tend toward the bad for Halley, who’s come off a recent stint in prison, lost her job at a strip club for refusing to do extras in the back room, and is struggling to find another gig.

Since she’s not working, Halley watches over both Moonee and Scooty (Christopher Rivera), another Magic Kingdom kid whose mom Ashley (Mela Murder) is, for a while, a friend who works in a nearby diner and sneaks out food for free. But Halley generally opts to lounge, unconcerned, in front of the TV while the kids roam free. Baker cast Vinaite off of Instagram, and in her first role, with her tats and her brightly dyed hair, she’s as magnetic a figure as she is an alarming one, her character as prone to acts of reckless destruction and wild outrage as she is to ones of boisterous joy.

The film is startlingly good at showing echoes of Halley’s impulsive behavior in Moonee — or maybe it’s vice versa. While Halley has to reckon with some depressingly grown-up developments, she’s still half a kid herself, screaming “You’re not my father” like a rebellious teen when warned about her behavior.

When The Florida Project follows Halley, it shows her attempts to get by, hawking knock-off perfume or purloined MagicBands to tourists, and making a consequence-heavy, desperation-driven decision that’s hinted at long before it’s actually revealed. But when the film follows Moonee, it revels in play as she wanders, at first in the company of Scooty and then, when Ashley and Halley have a falling-out, with a nearby motel girl named Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Jancey’s a sweet sidekick who befriends Moonee after an initial confrontation involving shrieking and spitting, a development that speaks as much to their quickly shifting community as it does the unique capacity kids have to exist in the present.

The children beg for change for soft serve (Scooty’s pitch is that “the doctor said we have asthma and we gotta eat ice cream right away”), explore abandoned homes in a pastel-colored development, and pay visits to the motel’s long-suffering staff. Baker clearly turns extended sequences over to his child actors, ones that don’t appear to be scripted at all — letting them just be mischievous kids and occasional little shits who make their way through worlds of their own creation, closed worlds that are much more inviting than the one the adults in their lives have to deal with.

Marc Schmidt / A24

Vinaite, Prince, and Cotto.

Prince is, like Vinaite, a newcomer to acting, and her performance in the movie is enough to convince you that she has to be one of the planet’s most charismatic children. But some more seasoned faces make their way into The Florida Project as well, chief among them Willem Dafoe as The Magic Kingdom’s manager Bobby, a man who’s been around the block but remains invested in the well-being of the residents, despite it being a source of constant heartbreak.

Bobby starts out as a straight-man foil for Moonee and her gang, but becomes a grander, sadder figure as the film goes along, engaged in the impossible task of trying to ward off harm from people too vulnerable to be able to do much to evade it themselves. Dafoe is worry embodied, constantly harried, and a shorter appearance from (a surprisingly normal) Caleb Landry Jones hints that the motel is something that’s consumed whatever life Bobby once had.

But it’s Moonee and Halley to whom The Florida Project belongs, two troublemakers trying to keep all consequences at bay by denying they exist, stocking a shopping cart full of throwaway treats in a dollar store, laughing and whirling around like it’s a mystical playland. Which, in that moment, you can believe that it is. But while the power of imagination may be a savior in a Disney movie, it isn’t in the sun-washed reality of The Florida Project, which concludes with a touch of poetry that might break you in two. It’s not a happy ending, but it is, like the rest of the film, pretty much perfect.

The Beautiful Emptiness of “Blade Runner 2049”

Alcon Entertainment / Warner Bros.

Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049.

Blade Runner 2049’s melancholy hero K, played by Ryan Gosling, has some things in common with his predecessor Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), protagonist of the original Blade Runner. Like Deckard, K is a loner who likes a long coat, and whose job is to kill — though no one in this dystopian universe calls it that, preferring the euphemism “retire.” K, like Deckard, is a blade runner, a professional hunter of replicants. Unlike Deckard, whose origins were famously left ambiguous in Ridley Scott’s 1982 film, K knows his nature exactly: He’s a replicant himself, and the targets he retires are his own kind — though older, wayward models who’ve attempted to escape the subservient existences for which they were created.

K is part of a new, more obedient line of replicants, synthetic beings primarily invented to bear the brunt of the dangerous labor of space colonization, the fruits of which are then enjoyed by humans who get to start anew in nicer off-world climes. The prime mindfuck of the Blade Runner universe is that replicants are so close in every way to humans that — superhuman strength aside — there’s no way to immediately tell them apart. In the first Blade Runner, a haunting test has been formulated in order to suss out who’s human and who’s not by highlighting the uncanny valley of a replicant’s not-quite-right emotional responses (they are, to quote their corporate manufacturers, “more human than human”).

By the year 2049, in the sequel, all K needs to do is check for a serial number embedded in the sclera of every replicant’s left eyeball. The opening sequence, in which he travels to a protein farm to retire Sapper (played by Dave Bautista), who’s been passing as human, makes it clear that this is easier said than done.

Stephen Vaughan, Alcon Entertainment / Warner Bros.

Harrison Ford

Replicants, as K puts it, don’t have a soul — though as his flinty boss Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) snaps when he uses the word: “You’ve been getting along fine without one.” So it’s maybe appropriate, if disappointing, that Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t have a soul either. Like its main character, the film (very loosely adapted from Philip K. Dick and directed by Denis Villeneuve from a script by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green) coasts along perfectly well without one, until its cavernous hollowness becomes unignorable. The new Blade Runner is a gorgeous simulacrum of a meaningful movie, one that’s even more beautiful, if so much less resonant, than the classic in whose footsteps it follows. The best thing about it is the return to one of cinema’s most memorable and influential landscapes: a near-future Los Angeles on a dying Earth from which everyone fortunate enough has already left.

That LA, vast and dense, is the most compelling character Blade Runner 2049 has to offer, more interesting and more engaging than any of the people, familiar or new, replicant or human, who make their way onto the screen. The film, shot by Roger Deakins, is strenuously dazzling to look at, presenting detailed panoramas of an urban setting made up of dark, jam-packed blocks studded with the occasional pyramid-like mega-skyscraper. The visuals of the sequel are sharper and more self-consciously designed than the original, but the conceptualizing of that forward-tiling LA remains fascinating, the urban equivalent of a garden that’s been allowed to grow wild and untended for years.

It’s a city as a globalized, hypercapitalist hallucination, loomed over by buildings emblazoned with glowing brand names, signage more often in Cyrillic or katakana than English. Ads project holograms towering 40 stories high over packed streets teeming with vendors offering everything from black-market object analysis to automat food to sex. The expanded view presented in Villeneuve’s film includes San Diego as a garbage dump so substantial that it’s home to its own community of trash pirates, and also a giant wall that has been built to keep out an encroaching ocean boosted by rising sea levels. It’s too lived-in a future to feel alarmist — it’s our world, but worse, but also so alluringly cinematic.

Stephen Vaughan, Alcon Entertainment / Warner Bros.

Robin Wright and Sylvia Hoeks.

The existence K has carved out for himself in this urban sprawl beset by endless precipitation is a lonesome one. The presence of new-model replicants like him are apparently tolerated but disliked by the Earth’s remaining humans — he’s sneered at by his neighbors, and his non-replicant coworkers within the worn confines of the LAPD headquarters have a tendency to use the slur “skin-job” in his presence (then remember and apologize).

The only company K keeps is an AI companion named Joi (Ana de Armas), a biddable holographic fantasy who adores him with a unquestioning wholeheartedness that’s clearly her big selling point but, to us, is still disturbing. She sometimes disturbs K, too: “I’m so happy when I’m with you,” she croons to him; “You don’t have to say that,” he tells her, aware that she, in her computer-mandated ardor, is as compliant with his desires as he is with the humans’.

The uneasy scenes with Joi — this computerized receptacle for longing in the form of a beautiful, incorporeal woman — are K’s most intriguing. His character otherwise comes across as just a still point in an intensely art-directed world. Gosling plays K like a wan variation on the type of roles directors like Nicolas Winding Refn (in Drive and Only God Forgives) and Derek Cianfrance (in Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines) like to give him — emblematic of a certain kind of romanticized masculinity, stylish and self-sacrificing and sad-eyed, hardboiled exterior with a gooey sentimental core.

And mostly functional, in this case — K questions his own existence, and his search for a purpose coincides with his execution of an assignment which eventually leads to him meeting up with Deckard. But not until after a long, long stretch that’s not meditative: It’s patience-testing. By that time, K’s gone from being the apparent key to the movie to its biggest piece of narrative baggage, a figure who looks great in that shearling duster but is an exasperatingly colorless presence.

Stephen Vaughan, Alcon Entertainment / Warner Bros.

Barkhad Abdi and Ana de Armas.

And the rest of the film looks so vivid, from the golden lighting that pools around K and sinister fellow replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) as they walk the Wallace Corporation halls to the glowering loiterers K must stride past in the cluttered halls of his own apartment building. The imagery of Blade Runner 2049 has a resonant grandeur the rest of the film can’t come close to matching. It tries, primarily with Jared Leto, whose appearances as blind industrialist Niander Wallace are mercifully brief. Wallace’s theatrical speeches about space expansion and how civilizations move forward are the movie’s equivalent of Rutger Hauer’s “tears in the rain” monologue from the original, and while they include verbiage that plays into the film’s religious parallels, they come nowhere near that splendid conviction, that pulpy power. They’re just Leto muttering about angels on his Zen island of a conference room, all surface and nothing there.

Which is the case for all of the film. It’s exquisite-looking and distant, inviting you into a painstakingly crafted world but no further — certainly not into any particular investment in K, or Joi, or Joshi, or even its older and embittered Deckard, whose presence is still easily the warmest to the touch of anyone onscreen. Ford’s character wasn’t necessarily sympathetic in the first Blade Runner, but he was one whose fate felt important, an individual trying to survive in a system run by giant, indifferent institutions, unwilling to consider the question of whether he himself was just a tool created by one of them. He was someone whose limited point of view was forcefully cracked open. Blade Runner 2049, on the other hand, manages to be prettier but far more prosaic. It might put on a convincing face, but you couldn’t ask it to pass a Voight-Kampff test.

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6 New Movies You Might Not Have Heard About, But Won't Want To Miss

1. Brad’s Status

Seacia Pavao / Annapurna Pictures

Ben Stiller and Austin Abrams in Brad’s Status.

Brad’s Status is a portrait of white middle-class male anxiety that’s so dead-on, it’s actually excruciating to watch. That might sound like a strange sort of recommendation, but the film is the work of writer-director Mike White, creator of Enlightened and scripter of Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl — a man for whom discomfort is an art form. In lead actor Ben Stiller, doing a more serious turn, White’s found an excellent collaborator with whom to create some truly exquisite cringy-ness. Stiller, with a trying, restless dissatisfaction, plays the Brad of the title — a Sacramento man who runs a small nonprofit and shares a nice suburban house with his wife (Jenna Fischer) and their teenage son, Troy (Austin Abrams). Troy’s a sweet, smart kid, but his likely acceptance into Harvard comes as a surprise and then seismic shock to his father, who hadn’t expected it, and who’s been busy grappling with fading idealism and a general sense of having already peaked.

By any rational measure, Brad’s life is a comfortable and happy one. But he can’t help seeing himself as a failure compared to his undergrad pals (played by Jemaine Clement, Michael Sheen, Luke Wilson, and White himself), who’ve gone on to wealth and fame. Plunged into turmoil in the midst of taking his kid on a college tour, Brad vacillates between elated hope for Troy’s future and a desperate desire for him to avoid what Brad perceives as his own lack of success, feelings that are expounded upon in claustrophobic voiceover. Until White softens up right at the end, Brad’s Status is a quiet but hilariously biting portrayal of earnest liberalism running up against lingering white entitlement.

How to see it: Brad’s Status is now in theaters in limited release.

2. Clínica de Migrantes: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness


Clínica de Migrantes: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Mainstream attention tends to turn to short documentaries only once a year, when their category presents a mystifying challenge of five unfamiliar titles to choose from when filling out Oscar pool ballots. But Clínica de Migrantes deserves to be seen and to be talked about beyond its awards potential. Director Maxim Pozdorovkin (Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer) has made a 40-minute movie that isn’t just emotionally wrenching, but remarkably timely, occupying territory at the intersection of our current, urgent conversations about health care and immigration. The film profiles Puentes de Salud, a nonprofit, volunteer-run clinic in south Philadelphia that offers free medical treatment to undocumented, uninsured, and financially insecure immigrants who otherwise don’t have access to it.

Clínica de Migrantes observes patients who come in, some in desperate need after having been denied health care elsewhere, or having gone without it as long as possible out of fear of deportation. In simply depicting the day-to-day operation of the clinic, it’s a powerful record of some of the difficult realities and vulnerabilities that come with being undocumented. But it’s also a resonant film about health care, about doctors who actually strive to understand their patients’ working and domestic realities, who try to earn their trust and to help them navigate bills from other hospitals. It presents, simply and movingly, a case for caring for those who need it as a moral mandate.

How to see it: Clínica de Migrantes: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness is now streaming on HBO.

3. First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers


Sareum Srey Moch in First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers.

Angelina Jolie’s career as a director has taken a wildly unpredictable path. First she took on a fraught romance straddling different sides of the Bosnian War in In the Land of Blood and Honey, then made a staid bid for Oscar glory with the World War II movie Unbroken, and more recently offered up the 2015 lush, indulgent melodrama By the Sea, in which she and soon-to-be-ex-husband Brad Pitt played troubled (and childless) marrieds and also played peek-a-boo with promises of insight into their real-life relationship. And now, it’s back to war with a film based on Loung Ung’s memoir about what happened to her during the reign of the Khmer Rouge — a child’s-eye view on a devastating period in Cambodian history.

But despite Jolie’s seeming intentions here to use cinema as an extension of her humanitarian work, she’s too interesting a filmmaker to turn out the movie equivalent of vegetables, something to be consumed dutifully under the recommendation that it’s good for you. First They Killed My Father has worth as a work of art beyond its devastating subject matter, in particular in the way it approaches the atrocities it depicts through the perspective of someone whose understanding of what’s happening is limited. Young Loung (first-time actor Sareum Srey Moch) and her family have their world upended with dizzying speed, going from a middle-class existence in Phnom Penh to being scattered among work camps, where people starve and are executed. Aside from the jarring montage at the start, the film is freed from having to explain the whys of what’s happening, allowing it to be an act of sensory overload, a rush of unsettling images. It’s all the more powerful for being so experiential, a national apocalypse as seen by someone who’s only just grasped what death is.

How to see it: First They Killed My Father is now streaming on Netflix.

4. Lucky

Magnolia Pictures

David Lynch and Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky.

Screen legend Harry Dean Stanton, who died in September, couldn’t have picked a more fitting swan song for himself than Lucky, the directorial debut of fellow character actor John Carroll Lynch. Stanton plays the title character, a ninetysomething man whose comfortable routine gets a jolt when he collapses one morning and is forced to confront his own (and everyone else’s) mortality. But Lucky is joyful, not mournful, a rambling opportunity to while away an hour and a half in the company of an actor who rarely got a leading role, but who delightfully fills out this one.

Lucky isn’t cantankerous so much as he is incapable of altering his behavior to accommodate anyone at this point in his life. He’s been pared down to his essential self, looping from the diner of his small desert town to the store to buy cigarettes (his doctor, baffled by his health, suggests he’d best never quit smoking), back home to watch game shows, and then off to have a drink. Different characters drift through to shoot the shit, including David Lynch as a bar regular whose tortoise has gone missing, Tom Skerritt as a fellow former WWII vet, and Ron Livingston as a lawyer urging Lucky to look into estate planning. It’s the kind of loose-limbed movie that you visit more than you watch, and it’s an awfully pleasurable stay.

How to see it: Lucky is now in theaters in limited release — here’s a list of locations.

5. Rat Film

The Cinema Guild

Theo Anthony’s Rat Film is an essay in the form of a convention-busting documentary that starts by recounting a creation myth (in which a rodent nibbles the world into existence) and then works its way up to another story of conception. It’s about rats — including the one shown trying to leap out of a trash can in one of the first shots — and the neighborhoods in which infestations have been the worst. But it’s also about the formation of an American city, and specifically about the forces of redlining that shaped Baltimore, where Anthony is from. His film flips from computer-generated images of streets as a video game landscape to historical maps, from a pest control specialist at work to an examination of how the area was split up into risk zones for homeowner loans that were, functionally, a form of segregation.

While the score, by fellow Baltimore native Dan Deacon, offers an enveloping whirl of electronic sounds, Rat Film adds layers upon layers to its dense argument about how acts of urban planning and engineering can conceal acts of racism and classism, and about how their legacy can be felt today. It’s a brilliantly ambitious and unapologetically odd movie that might be best summed up by philosophical exterminator Harold Edmond, one of the interviewees, when he says: “It ain’t never been a rat problem in Baltimore. Always been a people problem.”

How to see it: Rat Film is now in theaters in limited release — here’s a list of locations.

6. Strong Island


Strong Island.

In 1992, filmmaker Yance Ford’s brother William was killed during an altercation with a local mechanic on Long Island, where the family lived. William was unarmed, but he was black, and the man who shot him was white, and an all-white grand jury decided not to indict the latter, to the shock and distress of the Fords, declaring the act one of self-defense. As an instance of racialized injustice, it’s a story that feels sickeningly familiar, but for Ford, it’s obviously also intensely and agonizingly personal. Strong Island, Ford’s directorial debut, is about William’s death, but it’s also about how his family contended with both grief and feeling so devastatingly wronged — how it fell apart in the wake of this brutal reminder of who was really welcome on the path of upward mobility their suburban town seemed to offer.

Ford’s film presents a heartbreakingly detailed portrait of his brother as an outraged counterpoint to the demonization done in court to present him as so dangerous he deserved to be murdered, sometimes punctuated by confrontational if formally distancing sequences in which Ford talks directly to the camera. But it’s Ford’s mother who provides the film’s most devastating moment when she reminisces about how she feels she failed her son: “I did William a great disservice in raising him the way we did. We’ve always tried to teach you guys that you see character, and not color. And many, many times I wonder, how I could be so wrong?

How to see it: Strong Island is now streaming on Netflix.

Here It Is, The Most Self-Referential Movie Tom Cruise Has Ever Made

In his new movie, Tom Cruise plays a hotshot pilot with a need for speed, a megawatt smile, and penchant for breaking the rules. Yup, just like he did in Top Gun, only this time around, he’s not an all-American hero: He’s an all-American fool. He’s Barry Seal, a fictionalized riff on the real man of the same name who ran drugs for Pablo Escobar, served as a DEA informant, and — at least in the film — did it all under the questionable protection of the CIA, who recruited him to run surveillance missions and, later, guns to the Contras.

Three decades after Maverick in Top Gun smirkingly fought baddies from an enemy nation the movie never bothered to name, Barry in American Made carelessly smuggles coke and weapons, and gets so rich off the venture that he runs out of space in his house to store all the dough he’s yet to launder. “If this ain’t the greatest country in the world…” he muses, never giving more thought to the massive Cold War schemes he’s become a part of, or the consequences of what he’s doing.

American Made, which was directed by Doug Liman and written by Gary Spinelli, isn’t the greatest of Tom Cruise roles, but it is the most resoundingly self-referential. What’s otherwise a diverting but dismissible romp through some of the darker elements of the ’80s (including Iran-Contra, which Reagan nostalgists prefer to gloss over, revise, or flat-out ignore) becomes sometimes more with Cruise at the center, letting out familiar whoops of glee as his plane just barely clears a short Columbian runway. It becomes a referendum on the type of character that made him a movie star in the first place, in the Risky Business/Top Gun/Cocktail/Days of Thunder era — the underdog whose let’s-just-do-it-and-be-legends cocksureness is synonymous with his appeal.

Like a lot of the protagonists Cruise spent the better part of the ’80s playing, Barry is an American dreamer, a guy with a particular talent and an easy certainty that he deserves the good things that come his way. But these qualities are more amusing than charming on Barry, who takes up the CIA’s dangerous proposition like it’s the opportunity he’s been waiting for all his life. Barry isn’t portrayed as morally compromised so much as morally oblivious, treating every offer that comes his way as a new adventure, accepting the description of “crazy” as a compliment. He’s a man who thinks he’s the hero of the story, when in fact he’s the punchline.

It’s unclear how aware Cruise is of the way American Made plays off his own onscreen image, because the role depends on the actor playing it straight, with not a wink of self-awareness even when Barry crash-lands a plane in a suburban street, emerges covered in cocaine, and makes his escape by pedaling away frantically on a child’s bike. Barry’s lack of self-awareness is his foremost quality, really. At the start of the film, he’s a commercial pilot stultified by his TWA gig, to the point where we see him creating “turbulence” on a flight just for kicks.

When a CIA agent named Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson, playing his character as a frustrated cubicle drone just trying to get ahead) approaches Barry at a hotel bar one day, talking about “building nations down there,” it doesn’t take much to get him on board. A fast plane, a shell company, and a mission to take photos of rebel groups in Central America is enough to lure the pilot into dumping his stifling but stable job. He has no problem keeping this secret from his wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), until bad timing sends them scurrying from their home in the middle of the night and off to a CIA-provided stretch of land in Arkansas that becomes the base of a larger off-the-books operation.

“I do have a tendency to leap before I look,” Barry confesses to a camcorder in one of the self-made videos the movie is punctuated with, a stylistic choice that’s more irritating than illuminating. Barry does a whole lot of impulsive leaping, from surveillance to drug smuggling to gun running to flying Contras back to the US for training, at which point most of them run away. He’s a fitting point person for an operation that no one on the government side seems ready to admit is a disaster — someone for whom self-interest and serving his country are one and the same. American Made doesn’t surprise with its arc of rise and fall, the apex being the glorious scene in which Barry and Lucy have temporarily weightless sex while flying a plane full of goods back from Columbia, giddy with illicit success. The inevitable comedown is hard, of course, but not that hard, because you’re never really invested in Barry, with his piles of cash overflowing from every cabinet and his blithe, unthinking participation in large-scale trafficking.

It’s Cruise who sticks in your mind, especially in scenes like the ones in which Barry shows off in the air, dodging rebel army fire or taunting the DEA agents trying to track him down. There’s one sequence in which he wakes up a fellow pilot who’s fallen asleep at the wheel by jostling the wings of their planes together, and it really is like a dirtbag version of the opening sequence of Top Gun. It’s as if Maverick grew up, settled down, got bored, and then went back to chasing the same hotdogging highs he used to in a queasier setting, his avowed patriotism exposed as an empty excuse. When Cruise, as Barry, laughs as he and his boys evade capture on the way back into the US with cargo holds full of coke, it’s with the same confident sparkle he’s always projected. But there’s no blockbuster cool to it — what you end up thinking is, God, what a dick.

Jake Gyllenhaal Isn't The Best Part Of The New Jake Gyllenhaal Movie

Jake Gyllenhaal is the star of Stronger, David Gordon Green’s film about Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman. He portrays the trauma of losing both lower legs in the blast with startling frankness — the post-traumatic stress, the wait to heal, the slow and difficult process of rehabilitation, and what it’s like to contend with both depression and being made into an unwilling national symbol. Gyllenhaal may get an Oscar nomination for his work in the film, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing. But Tatiana Maslany is the reason the movie works as well as it does — as more than a chronicle of suffering and recovery in the wake of an act of terrorism.

It’s not just Maslany’s performance that’s remarkable, though she’s genuinely great as a woman trying to figure out if she can make a life with someone who seems, at times, unwilling to make a life for himself. The prominence given to her character, Erin Hurley, Bauman’s then on-and-off girlfriend, eventual spouse, and now ex-wife (a part of their relationship that doesn’t make it onscreen), is noteworthy in itself. Stronger, adapted from Bauman’s memoir and written by John Pollono, is as much Erin’s story as it is Jeff’s, and is a far better movie for it. More than anything, it’s a love story, and a difficult, intense one that’s not just about two people contending with catastrophe, but about how catastrophe doesn’t erase relationship problems that were already there.

What it’s not is an attempt to capitalize on still fresh distress, in that strange Hollywood tendency to put rough recent history onscreen as if reenactments of tragedies justify themselves, nothing more needing to be said. Stronger is the second Boston Marathon bombing movie to come out in the less than five years since the incident happened — not a giant span of time in which to accommodate two major movies featuring two big stars. It arrives less than a year after Mark Wahlberg’s Patriots Day, one of two ripped-from-the-headlines features Wahlberg and director Peter Berg released in 2016, and the kind of film that did solemnly serve up the attack and its aftermath as if it were a kind of public service.

To its credit, Patriots Day was a relatively restrained affair that resisted the urge to sensationalize. But it really didn’t need to, given how it jabbed at healing wounds in the name of prestige cinema, casting Wahlberg as a fictional police sergeant who ended up conveniently central to the all major events surrounding the bombing, its aftermath, and the subsequent manhunt. It was a movie about an act of violence, while Stronger is a movie about people whose lives were spun out by that act of violence, and who struggle to move forward in its wake. Stronger is, in some ways, the opposite of Patriots Day in its deep sense of humanity, its focus on recovery rather than revenge, and its interest in contending with the public’s habit of neatening complicated narratives into inspirational fables.

And Jeff and Erin’s story is complicated. They are, at the start of the film, a month into their latest breakup. A chance run-in at a bar makes how much they still like each other clear, as well as Erin’s reasons for pulling away. While Jeff is sweet and smitten, he’s also flaky, immature, tending to let his protective, raucous family dictate the terms of his life, including the place his outsider sometimes-girlfriend has in it. He’s a little too comfortable where he is, and, as Erin puts it, he doesn’t show up, and it’s to prove that he’s changed that he turns up as promised on the day she’s running in the marathon, staking out a spot by the finish line to cheer her on. When the bombing occurs, their nebulous relationship is made even more so by the guilt Erin knows she shouldn’t feel but can’t entirely shake off.

Jeff endures something terrible, and Gyllenhaal, looking especially boyish, transmits his shock and anguish so believably it’s sometimes hard to watch. But Stronger also stays alongside Erin as she sits in the hospital next to his family, distraught and uncertain, quiet in the corner while they grieve out loud. In those early sequences, Stronger sometimes unexpectedly recalls another, very different film from this year, The Big Sick. It, too, captures how it feels to be unsure of where you belong in someone else’s calamity, especially when romantic ties can be defined along so much more of a spectrum than familial ones. Erin lingers there by Jeff’s side, visiting and accompanying him through harrowing medical procedures. She’s there right up until he’s brought home to the apartment he shares with his mother (Miranda Richardson), to prepare for rehabilitation and a readjustment to an altered life that he dismisses her from. And she, having no excuse to stay, leaves.

The movie suffers whenever Erin’s not onscreen, not just because of how painstakingly present Maslany is in the role, but because as a solo show, Stronger can’t help but drift into the territory of so many past depictions of disability, in treating it as a kind of acting challenge, a technical feat. The film is careful and empathetic about Jeff’s experiences — how he contends with living in a space where the stairs, the hallways, and even the placement of a toilet paper roll in the bathroom no longer accommodate his body and mobility. There are rare moments when you’re reminded that you’re watching an able-bodied actor play a person with a disability, but they exist and are always uncomfortable. And all of them arise from scenes built around the idea of Jeff learning to overcome his disability, rather than exist with it.

Stronger is at its best when it’s a movie about allowing Jeff to live rather than needing him to triumph. Which means, at times, that he’s a jerk and a lousy partner, wallowing in self-pity and inertia, getting trashed with his hard-drinking mom or his friends from the neighborhood. The boldest thing Stronger does is trust enough in Maslany’s performance and in the writing of her character to allow Erin to do something that a lesser movie would never even attempt — to walk away, and not just once, when Jeff is ready to let himself go. When Stronger does find its way to a happy ending, it’s hard fought and hard won.

Gyllenhaal’s may be the showy part in Stronger, but Maslany’s is, in many ways, the more difficult one, and the one that affirms the movie’s subdued but undeniable worth as a relationship drama. When everyone is choosing to see Jeff as a heroic figurehead, an emblem of “Boston strong,” Erin looks as him as the flawed guy he’s always been. And Maslany exudes a heartbroken but confident certainty as her character calls him on his own shit, and grapples with whether they have a future together. It’s unbearably sad, and unbearably real.

The Definitive Ranking Of 2017 Movies (Based On Their Use Of John Denver Songs)

6. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul

Daniel McFadden / Twentieth Century Fox

Jason Drucker, Charlie Wright, and Alicia Silverstone in Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul.

John Denver song used: “Take Me Home, Country Roads”

The Wimpyverse returned to theaters after a five-year absence in May at the expense of a no-longer-age-appropriate original cast that got ruthlessly dumped like puppies that had grown into larger-than-anticipated dogs. The Long Haul‘s newer, spryer version of the Heffley clan was accordingly paired with a fresh, current topic — how to balance face time with screen time in the digital age. The road-trip comedy results were so dismal they might have killed the franchise for good, but in one aspect, at least, they were pretty on point: And that aspect is John Denver, whose music has bewilderingly been everywhere, at least at the movies, this year. At a low point for the Heffleys on their device-free, problem-plagued road trip to grandmother’s house, their luggage gets strewn all over the highway to the tune of “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” But, like everything else in The Long Haul, its participation in 2017’s strangest soundtrack trend is just off: The movie opts for the Me First and the Gimme Gimmes cover instead of the Denver original. Get it together, Heffleys!

5. Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Giles Keyte / Twentieth Century Fox

Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, and Pedro Pascal in Kingsman: The Golden Circle.

John Denver song used: “Take Me Home, Country Roads”

The greatest pleasure the underwhelming Kingsman sequel has to offer comes not from anything it actually puts onscreen, but from reading director Matthew Vaughn’s grumpy interview responses about realizing that his film is actually the sixth this year to feature a Denver tune. “I was like, fuck you, Ridley,” he (mostly jokingly) told Uproxx about discovering that his movie and Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant share a song. “Not that he had any idea, but it did break my heart,” Vaughn said. And sure, it’s possible that The Golden Circle‘s incorporation of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in a scene of heroic sacrifice might have had more impact if audiences hadn’t heard it employed for a similar cornball-poignant effect so recently before. It’s also possible that the sequence would have fallen flat no matter what, given the only setup it got was a hurried earlier mention of a character’s unexpected fondness for country-western music. Like a lot of The Golden Circle, the moment plays like rough notes for a scene no one got around to actually writing.

4. Free Fire


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Armie Hammer, Jack Reynor, and Noah Taylor in Free Fire.

John Denver songs used: “Annie’s Song,” “It’s Up to You,” and “This Old Guitar”

Ben Wheatley’s feature-length firefight takes place in the ’70s, which at first seems mainly like an excuse to dress its stellar cast in outlandish period fashions and to liberate the plot from pesky “why don’t they just use their cell phones” questions. But as the film goes on, it starts to feel like Free Fire was really set in the ’70s in order to make sense of its heavy use of John Denver tracks. The cynical shoot-em-up may not have the year’s best use of Denver’s music, but it definitely has the most, incorporating three songs into its scenario of criminals cracking wise while killing each other in a Boston warehouse. Chief among them is “Annie’s Song,” the surprisingly mellow choice playing in the van of the hotheaded Harry (Jack Reynor) as he pulls up to an arms deal that’s about to go spectacularly wrong. When, multiple acts of violence later, someone gets back in the van and starts the engine, the song gets cranked up again, becoming the perfectly incongruous accompaniment to a sloppy, brutal skirmish that concludes with the crushing of someone’s skull just as the song reaches its peak — fill up your senses on that.

3. Alien: Covenant

Twentieth Century Fox

Danny McBride and Katherine Waterston in Alien: Covenant.

John Denver song used: “Take Me Home, Country Roads”

We never hear the original version of John Denver’s most famous (and the year’s most cinema-friendly) song anywhere in Alien: Covenant. We only hear it sung posthumously by a character who died offscreen between films: Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), the scientist who was one of the few survivors of Prometheus, the previous film in Ridley Scott’s planned trilogy of prequels. The cracked recording of Shaw croaking out the lyrics to “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is beamed into space like a beacon (or a lure), leading the crew of the colonization ship of the title to land on the planet on which she’d gotten stuck. The more we realize about what happened on the ground, the more Shaw’s song choice turns tragic and haunting, because going home to the place she belonged wasn’t an option.

2. Logan Lucky

Claudette Barius / Bleecker Street Media

Channing Tatum and Farrah Mackenzie in Logan Lucky.

John Denver songs used: “Some Days Are Diamonds (Some Days Are Stone)” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads”

If any film on this list is entitled to revel in “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” it’s Steven Soderbergh’s joyous heist movie. The characters in Logan Lucky live in West Virginia, the state the song is about, even if work and eventual crime frequently take them into North Carolina. Matthew Vaughn could take a lesson from how Soderbergh’s film sets up its extremely effective John Denvery payoff. Logan Lucky opens with Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) telling his beloved daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) about the song, making the case for it as one she should sing in an upcoming pageant. While she’s a fan, she opts for Rihanna’s more crowd- and costume-friendly “Umbrella” instead. But when it comes time to perform, and she spots her dad in the crowd, she makes the last minute decision to sing his favorite tune instead, a cappella, imperfect, and absolutely wonderfully. It’s an irresistibly tear-jerking moment, sure, this act of child generosity to a struggling parent, but it also captures the bittersweetness lurking underneath what is, on the surface, a rollicking comedy. Logan Lucky‘s characters may identify fiercely with the place they’re from, but they’re also constantly made aware of the economic tenuousness and limited options that come with it. Theirs is a strong love, but a painful one as well.

1. Okja


Paul Dano in Okja.

John Denver songs used: “Annie’s Song”

Okja‘s John Denver moment comes in the midst of a scene of madcap chaos: The title character, a genetically engineered superpig being hunted by malevolent global conglomerate Mirando, has been on the run with her owner, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), the giant animal wild-eyed and panicking as she tramples through the crowded and unfamiliar urban territory. But just as Mija and Okja hit a dead end and Mirando’s men come blundering in, they’re rescued by the forces of the Animal Liberation Front, who’ve come to attempt to save the day. The action slows, “Annie’s Song” starts, and as K (Steven Yeun) helps the bruised Mija up, the rest of the ALF clash, amusingly, with the corporate employees, fighting them off with umbrellas and tablecloths. The camera holds on Mija’s face as she watches J (Paul Dano) tenderly pull a shard of plastic from Okja’s foot. How is this scene so silly and so profoundly moving at once? Maybe it’s director Bong Joon-ho’s astounding skill with balancing tonal juxtapositions, or the aura of serene kindness that Dano projects. Or maybe it’s Denver, singing that ode to his wife, the sweetness of his voice used not quite for irony or for pure sentimentality, but somehow both at once. There’s no more perfect accompaniment for this moment of grace in a movie that portrays the world as increasingly cold and cruel — it’s not just the best use of a John Denver song in 2017, it’s one of the best scenes of the year.

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