By William Wolf

THE BEST TEN FILMS OF 2017  Send This Review to a Friend

The films on this list have been selected from among those released in New York theaters during the year and are listed in order of preference.











Other outstanding films of 2017 listed in no special order include: Graduation; Darkest Hour; Faces Places; Molly’s Game; The Women’s Balcony; Lady Bird; Foxtrot; Menashe; A Fantastic Woman; Dunkirk; Beatriz at Dinner; Call Me By Your Name; Downsizing; Aftermath; Afterimage' Wonder Wheel; Wonderstruck; The Florida Project; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Stronger; Maudie; Mudbound; Victoria & Abdul; First They Killed My Father; Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story; Detroit; The Big Sick; The Promise; In the Fade; Wind River; Jane; The Unknown Girl; BPM (Beats per Minute); The Midwife; The Fencer; Indivisible; Footnotes; My Journey Through French Cinema; The Ticket.

RENDEZ-VOUS WITH FRENCH CINEMA 2018  Send This Review to a Friend

Each year the “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” series, a presentation by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance, offers a sampling of new films from France, and the 2018 edition (February 19-22) is highlighted by some worthy examples from among those I have seen, as well as some less appealing inclusions.

“Number One,” right in tune with the time, stars the superb Emmanuelle Devos as Emmanuelle Blachey, a highly placed executive in a drama about what a woman must endure in rising to the top. Directed by Tonie Marshall from a screenplay that she wrote with Marion Doussot, the film presents an in-depth portrait of its protagonist, with Devos capturing the various subtleties in the character portrait.

Blachey at first shows no interest in getting into the battle for executive supremacy, but she is pressed by a forward-looking group to make the most of a chance to become the CEO of a water-distribution company. But the temptation is there. As the plot moves ahead, Blachey will learn about infighting with resentful men, having to allow the job to monopolize her time at the expense of her personal life, and being the target for those digging up her past.

“Number One” is an involving, intelligent look at the corporate world, and most importantly in tune with what’s happening now with respect to the support for women’s advancement. It therefore has a universality even though it is specifically set in France.

Another favorite of mine in the lineup is “The Guardians,” directed by Xavier Beauvois from a screenplay written by Beauvois and Frédérique Moreau. This is a war film that doesn’t stress battlefields, but concentrates on what’s happening on the home front.

The setting begins in 1916 on a French farm run by Nathalie Baye as Hortense Sandrail, the family matriarch. It is a stellar performance, with Baye embodying the toughness required to keep the farm going with the sons in the family off to war.

The plot grows interesting when Francine Riant, played with spirit by Iris Bry, arrives to seek work. She is taken on by Hortense and proves to be an excellent, dedicated worker with a sunny disposition. But trouble brews when the sons return on a furlough.

A romance develops, and the plot turns ugly as Hortense wants to thwart a relationship of which she disapproves because of Francine’s common status. The acting is excellent all around and director Beauvois achieves eloquent visuals that depict the French farm and countryside.

One film that annoyed me is "Jeannette, the Childhood of Joan of Arc,” written and directed by Bruno Dumont. It is certainly a valid idea to reach back to examine the development of Joan of Arc and see what impelled her to follow the path that led to her heroism and becoming a legend. But although exquisitely shot to capture the ambiance of the French countryside in 1425, the film becomes numbing.

We first meet Jeannette when she is eight and tending sheep. (The director has used non-actors.) I suppose if one is steeped in religion the film could connect emotionally. But I quickly tired of this kid singing and praying, singing and praying, and already obsessively devoted to God above anything else. It is the same as she grows up in different stages (embodied by different casting). More singing and praying.

We follow her trajectory with her child and adult relationships, including with twin nuns, until ultimately she mounts a horse and sets out to do battle in the still-raging Hundred Years’ War. The rest is history but at least we don’t have to endure more of a kid singing and praying.

On the up side of the series, there is a stunning, deeply emotional “Ava” by Léa Mysius. What is it like for a 13-year-old girl to learn that she is going blind? In Mysius’s film, the young heroine battles to savor very moment of her diminishing sight.

The plot is somewhat of problem, as the protagonist goes off on an unlikely venture that stretches credibility. Still, Mysius manages to hold our interest and sympathy for the afflicted youngster.

Noted French director and actor Mathieu Amalric has come up with a film that’s different, a salute to the so-called legendary singer Barbara. The triumph is in the casting of the dynamic Jeanne Balibar in the role of a woman who plays Barbara.

The singing is strong, although the melodramatics of the plot don’t rise to the film’s musical aspect. As for the other casting, always-interesting-to-watch Aurore Clément plays Barbara’s mother. I can recommend “Barbara” as among the best of what I have sampled.

The strangest of the films that I saw is “See You Up There,” directed by Albert Dupontel. A soldier in World War I is wounded, with the result that his face is badly shattered. He is distraught and doesn’t want to show it to anyone. He wears a mask and doesn’t want to return to his family in that condition.

He teams up with a friend in a fraudulent art scheme, and soon they are making money with a mail order business in which they sell what are supposed to be important originals. The tone of the film grows zany in this post World War I setting, and of course, there has to be a romantic story requiring resolution. Reviewed March 16, 2018.


The most rousing reception in the 16th annual Broadway Unplugged Concert last night (November 30) went to Chuck Cooper, who in the final solo number on the program sang the iconic “Old Man River” from “Showboat.” Without a mike, Cooper cannily built to a climax that soared with the intense feeling that the song communicates when sung from the depths of the soul with the painful awareness of the racial suffering reflected. It was a supremely powerful performance.

The opportunity to hear singers without amplification, as it once used to be on Broadway, is what creator-writer-co-director and host Scott Siegel likes to call listening to voices “designed by God.” He used that description again as he hosted the event, held at the Merkin Concert Hall, and wittily introduced an impressive array of 15 vocalists.

There were other memorable performers in addition to Cooper. Farah Alvin, for example, wrung every bit of emotion out of the poignantly resentful “Cry Me a River” from “Swing!” The great William Michals was on hand, opening the show with a heartfelt “God Bless America,” the durable anthem that Iriving Berlin wrote, included in “This Is the Army.” Michals also soloed impressively with “Where’s the Girl?” from “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” and he teamed with Douglas Ladnier for the amusingly macabre “Pretty Woman” from “Sweeney Todd.”

On his own Ladnier did romantic justice to “Stranger in Paradise” from “Kismet.” A highlight of the evening was Robert Cuccioli singing the amusingly reflective “Where Is the Life that Late I Led” from “Kiss Me, Kate.” Other male stalwarts with excellent voices included Hunter Ryan Herdlicka singing “Younger Than Springtime” from “South Pacific;” Brian Charles Rooney performing “Love Can’t Happen” from “Grand Hotel;” Bob Stillman enthralling with “It All Fades Away” from “The Bridges of Madison County;” Kevin Spirtas mining “Zorba!” for the affirmative “Life Is,” and John Easterlin superbly singing “Wanting You” from “The New Moon.”

Ethel Merman is lo longer with us, but Klea Blackhurst is. She let go entertainingly with Merman-style blasts as she power-housed “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” from “Anything Goes.” I can still hear her as I write. Likable Jenny Lee Stern brought freshness to the warhorse “Cabaret” from “Cabaret.” Looking great, Emily Skinner dazzled with her interpretation of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from “The Little Mermaid.”

Other crowd-pleasers were Maxine Linehan singing “Unexpected Song” from “Song & Dance” and Kristin Dausch tearing into “Some People” from “Gypsy.” The gang assembled for a finale to sing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from "The Sound of Music."

Accompaniment was provided delightfully by Ross Patterson, musical director, arranger and pianist, Tom Hubbard on bass and Mairi Dorman–Phaneuf on cello. Rick Hiknson was co-director and stage manager, Joe Burke assistant director and assistant stage manager and Holly Cruz production assistant and in charge of musical staging.

Scott Siegel announced that as a result of contributions received, fifty students of the arts were invited to attend the concert. At the Merkin Concert Hall, 129 West 67th Street. Reviewed December 1, 2017.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2017--WONDER WHEEL  Send This Review to a Friend

Woody Allen has turned the tables on those who criticize him for his penchant toward having older men in love with younger women in his films. In “Wonder Wheel” it is an older woman in love with a young hunk.

As usual, Allen’s new film set in 1950 Coney Island is beautifully filmed—the cinematographer is Vittorio Storaro—and gorgeous to look at. Kate Winslet gives a colorful, dynamic performance as Ginny, who is approaching 40 and is the frustrated wife of James Belushi as Humpty, who operates a carousel as the two try to make a living along the Coney Island boardwalk. Ginny labors as a waitress in a clam joint.

Ginny has a 10-year-old son, Richie (Jack Gore) from her former marriage, and Allen finds humor in the kid’s being an incipient firebug who likes to set things ablaze, a running gag in the film. Ginny is frustrated emotionally and sexually and, longing for romance and an upswing in her life, is ripe for an affair.

Things take an exciting but forbidden turn when Justin Timberlake as Mickey, a war vet studying to write plays but working as a lifeguard, and Ginny get hot for each other. Allen gives the character of Mickey the job of narrating to frame the story.

Belushi also delivers a strong performance. The situation is complicated by Humpty’s daughter, Carolina, played by Juno Temple. They have been estranged, and as the as plot spins, she is hunted by mobsters with her life in danger. She married a gangster against her father’s advice and, having turned informer to the FBI, is now hunted by thugs assigned to kill her.

That would seem enough of a plot, but life gets even more entangled when Mickey is attracted to Carolina, which bodes ill for the older Ginny, Carolina’s step mother. Allen’s screenplay meshes the ingredients with suspense, all the while being true to the characters he has created.

In “Wonder Wheel” the main thrust is drama, but punctuated with the humor that comes from our observing the characters and the trouble they get into from our safe distance. More specific humor comes from the kid firebug bit. Overall there is an undercurrent of romanticism abetted by the glimpse into Coney Island past. This may not be Allen’s strongest film, but it is certainly enjoyable, even moving at times, and further evidence that this most prolific of American directors continues to hone his skills and entertain us. An Amazon Studios release. Reviewed December 1, 2017.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2017--VOYEUR  Send This Review to a Friend

Years ago a friend tipped me off that if I ever go to Louisville, Ky., and stay in a particular hotel there is a room I should ask for because it has a peephole through which one can observe whatever hot things are going on in the room next door. I never got to Louisville but I did get to see “Voyeur” at the 2017 New York Film Festival. It is a documentary directed by Myles Kane and Josh Koury covering the second hand voyeuristic adventures of writer Gay Talese.

A problem with the film is that there is not much voyeurism in which we can indulge. Yes, a little. But there is more talk than action as Talese explores what he has been told by Gerald Foos, who bought a motel in Colorado in the 1960s. Foos boasts that he has set up a system that allows him to spy into hotel rooms from above, and he escorts Talese to view his handiwork.

Talese, who had known Foos for a long time was working on a book, “The Voyeur’s Motel” and there was even a pre-publication chapter in The New Yorker. But a time discrepancy occurred, which put a dent in Foos’s ownership account.

Talese talks at length about his research and what happened. He is an interesting raconteur and he is a renowned writer with an illustrious career and reputation. However, the film becomes long-winded and for a movie with its tantalizing title it doesn’t deliver very much for the viewer who would like to see more, and certainly for the confirmed voyeur. A Netflix release. Reviewed December 1, 2017.


Even though this film takes place in Finland, its dealing with refugees gives it a universality that is particular pertinent in light of immigrants struggling to find safety and new lives in countries that will receive them. Take notice, Donald Trump.

Writer-director Aki Kaurismãki, who injects wry humor in his films even when the subject is serious, delivers impressively once again with “The Other Side of Hope.” Khaled, played likably by Sherwan Haji, is a Syrian refugee from death and destruction who smuggles his way into Finland because that’s where the ship on which he stowed away happens to be bound. We see him first when he emerges soot-covered from his hideaway.

Khaled wants to gain asylum and also is determined to find his missing sister and get her to Finland. He has lost track of her and desperately wants friends to locate her. Meanwhile, he goes through the interview process with authorities in hope of being allowed to remain. We see a woman interviewer trying to be understanding but also asking pertinent questions that must be weighed.

Khaled also must find work, and that is where Kaurismãki interweaves human and humorous elements into the story. We meet Wikström (the excellent Sakari Kuosmanen), a traveling shirt salesman who walks out on his alcoholic wife. After placing his keys and his wedding ring on the table, he exits to start a new journey. He buys a restaurant, staffed by incompetents who are a funny lot.

When Wikström discovers the homeless Khaled, he feels sorry for him and gives him a place to sleep in a storage space that he maintains. He also gives him a job in the restaurant, which isn’t doing very well. An extremely funny part of the film involves successive failed attempts to make the restaurant ethnic, with waiters dressed accordingly, as the place shifts ridiculously between Indian and Japanese.

There is also humor in the set-up for preparing a fake ID for Khaled, and a relief when the phony document works. Kaurismãki never loses sight of the human drama and the stakes involved and works up suspense regarding Khaled’s precarious status and the hunt for his sister. Wikström’s life is also about to take another turn. The plot also highlights the hatred by anti-immigrant thugs, one of whom viciously attacks Khaled.

The director never loses the opportunity to wrap events with offbeat humor. “The Other Side of Hope” is a thoroughly engrossing and ultimately uplifting film that strikes a blow in favor of treating refugees properly. It is one of my favorite films of the year. A Janus Films release. Reviewed November 29, 2017.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2017--CALL ME BY YOUR NAME  Send This Review to a Friend

Shown at the 2017 New York Film Festival and now in commercial release, “Call Me By Your Name” is a sensitive story of a budding gay relationship told against a colorful summer background in northern Italy with visuals that further the film’s simmering but mostly understated sexuality. The accomplished film has been directed by Luca Guadagnino, with a screenplay by James Ivory, Guadagnino and Walter Fasano based on the novel by André Acimen.

The set-up involves Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), who invites a student to aid in his research, as he does every summer. This summer of 1983 the student is an American, Oliver (Arnie Hammer), a handsome young man to whom the professors son, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), is drawn.

At 17, Elio is unsure of his sexuality, although he has a girl as a friend. What the film gradually observes is the temptations that arise on the part of both Elio and Oliver, with the older Oliver a constant lure. In one sense, this is a coming of age story as well as a drama about the discovery of sexual identity.

This could easily have become a sleazy tale, but the complications that fascinatingly escalate step by step command serious attention. There is also an interesting element in the relationship between Elio and his father. As for Oliver, he must proceed with caution both because of the his position with Perlman and the inexperience of Elio.

The lead actors are excellent, and supporting roles are also well played. Above all, the direction by Guadagnino hits the right notes, as does the cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Reviewed November 24, 2017.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2017--MUDBOUND  Send This Review to a Friend

Based on Hillary Jordan’s novel, “Mudbound” is a major film attempting to shed light on race relations and societal juxtapositions against a background of struggles on the land in the Mississippi Delta. Set after World War II, the film reflects an effort by director Dee Rees, who wrote the screenplay with Virgil Williams, to tell a sweeping story in intimate terms.

At the core are two families, one white, the other African-American, each with a tough existence, but as one might expect, the black family suffering most as a result of the discrimination prevalent at the time in a South with the KKK still marauding.

An excellent cast contributes toward making the various characters lifelike, and the filmmakers have opted for individual narrations to both further the story and increase our understanding of the characters and what they face.

Henry McAllan, played by Jason Clarke, with his wife Laura portrayed stoically by Carey Mulligan, has bought land and a rickety house into which they move. Henry’s younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) is more aware of Laura’s needs and longings than her husband is. One discerns a possible romantic inclination in him as well. The grandfather in the family, played by Jonathan Banks) is thoroughly reprehensible for his bigotry.

Working the land that McAllan has bought is the Jackson family. Interestingly, popular vocal star Mary J. Blige is cast in the demanding role of Florence Jackson, married to Hap (Rob Morgan), and she makes the most of her dramatic opportunity,

An important part of the plot involves the friendship that develops between Jamie and the Jacksons’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who bond despite race divisions and the frowning upon white-black relationships. In the military and fighting abroad, Ronsel has experienced relative freedom for the first time and a relationship with a white German woman that will later produce a dangerous situation back home.

The plot becomes extremely intricate, with deeply emotional events occurring, and sometimes the story seems over-extended. However, the humanity that pervades “Mudbound” at times has a powerful impact. The film is also visually potent with excellent cinematography by Rachel Morrison. A Netflix release. Reviewed November 17, 2017.


Tennis was on the agenda big time on opening night of the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The selection was “Borg/McEnroe,” directed by Janus Metz, a dramatization of the famous 1980 Wimbledon court battle between Sweden’s Bjõrn Borg and America’s John McEnroe.

The film, which I am belatedly getting around to writing about, is really on two levels—the tennis matches and the portraits of the players themselves. Each actor is first rate, Sverrir Gudnason as Borg and Shia LaBeouf as McEnroe. The film, although over-long, has a generous helping of excitement. But it is plagued by a basic difficulty.

It is all personality and no real tennis. Yes, there is plenty of cleverly done editing of clips to give the impression of the match. How much better it would have been to see real clips of the actual match itself! But that would have been a documentary.

Such an approach would not have made it possible to dramatize the anxieties and lives of the two players, as the actors in the roles would not match those we see on the court. By not going back to the real match, the film could show the two stars going through some motions on the court to lend authenticity, but emoting in the reality-based drama.

As involving as the portrayals are, the more their skills are touted, the more I longed to see the real tennis combat. But it has to be said that the editing by Per Sandholdt and Per K. Kirkegaard is outstanding, as is the direction by Metz. The interweaving of the clips is extremely effective. LaBeouf often steals scenes with the bad-boy outbursts for which McEnroe was known.

As is the custom, the opening night screenings of the film were followed by a packed party in the TIFF Lighthouse building to celebrate the internationally popular event. Posted November 1, 2017.


Greta Gerwig has earned a good reputation as an actor and now, with “Lady Bird,” she shows that she also has considerable talent as a writer-director.

Gerwig chronicles the restlessness of a high school girl In Sacramento who wants to break loose from her mother’s grip, which includes plans for a close-to-home college education instead of letting her daughter fly away. ( Lady Bird is really named Christine, but she chooses to be known as Lady Bird to help make her seem special.)

The title role is played by the excellent Saoirse Ronan (“Brooklyn”) and although she does a skillful job, I find her appearing too old for high school age. She looks more like a person already into the world beyond that and this bothers me on the credibility count.

I know there is a lot of buzz about the film, which apparently speaks to many who have had growing up problems of their own. But while on the one hand, Ronan gives Lady Bird plenty of spirit, her personality can be rather annoying as we watch her go through the paces of her assorted experiences and attitudes.

Lady Bird is bent on going to college in New York to see broader horizons. This idea is anathema to her mother, Marion, given a superb performance by Laurie Metcalf. The father is portrayed by Tracy Letts, convincing as usual.

There is much to enjoy in watching Lady Bird wrestle with life and in laughing at some of the humorous lines and situations, and Gerwig directs sharply. But I find the title character rather tiresome at times. You may feel otherwise. An A24 release. Reviewed October 30, 2017.


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