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.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2018--HAPPY AS LAZZARO  Send This Review to a Friend

A film that starts in the tradition of Italian neo-realism, “Happy as Lazzaro,” which was showcased at the 2018 New York Film Festival and now goes into commercial release, veers into a highly imaginative mode that escalates its creativity and establishes the work from Italy as among the year’s best. It stands as an important social commentary on class differences and exploitation. In addition, there is an implicit Biblical reference.

Alice Rohrwacher has done a superb job of direction from her screenplay, and she has as her leading actor the non-professional Adriano Tardiolo giving a riveting and deeply sympathetic performance in the title role of a young man with an ethereal screen-worthy face. The film is set in the past, with Lazzaro willing to cheerfully take on any task demanded of him in the community of tobacco farm workers exploited by the Marchesa Alfonsina De Luna (Nicoletta Braschi). The men and women are treated as serf-like sharecroppers.

The story is inspired by a 1980s case of a rich noblewoman, who became known as the tobacco queen and similarly exploited workers who had been cruelly kept ignorant of the fact that such sharecropping had been outlawed. The film details the daily lives of the characters under the Marchesa’s rule until they are rescued when officials discover the illegal abuse.

Before that plot development, we see the Marchesa’s layabout son, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), making a friend of the impressionable Lazzaro, whom he personally exploits. Lazzaro thinks this is a sincere friendship. Eventually (spoiler here) tragedy strikes as Lazzaro tumbles to his death from a high cliff.

Anyone familiar with the Biblical story of Lazarus of Bethany, whom Jesus raises from the dead, can make the film’s connection as it jumps to the present when Lazzraro appears looking exactly as he did in his youth, much to the amazement of those who, now older, encounter him and are flabbergasted.

The film, rich in imagination, takes on a new dimension. Some of those freed from their lot as sharecroppers now are scrounging for a living in various ways. The Marchesa, having been exposed, is reduced to poverty. Lazzaro encounters the older Tancredi (now played by Tommaso Ragno) and a bizarre episode unfolds, demonstrating the moral superiority of those who had been the sharecroppers.

Rohrwacher’s film rises to become very special in its religion-tinged allegorical outcome. Scene after scene is superbly photographed (cinematography by Hélène Louvart). Perhaps the film could be trimmed a bit, but “Happy as Lazzaro” emerges as a film that may haunt your memory and engender special respect for this rare accomplishment. A Netflix release. Reviewed November 28, 2018.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2018--ROMA  Send This Review to a Friend

Writer-director Alfonso Cuarón has searched into his own life to create “Roma,” his film set in the early 1970s in Mexico City, showcased as the centerpiece of the 2018 New York Film Festival and now in commercial release. It is both an intimate story and a look at the larger picture of society, within which the lives of a middle-class family and its devoted nanny and housekeeper unfold.

Central to the story, which is filmed impressively in black and white (the director was also the cinematographer) with all the realistic advantages the style communicates, is Yalitza Aparicio in the role as the dedicated Cleo. Remarkably, given her deeply sympathetic performance, Aparicio is not a professional actress. Cleo looks after a family, consisting of Sofia, the mother (Marina de Tavira), four children (three boys and a girl) and their grandmother. We briefly meet the unfaithful father, who goes off on a business trip with another activity in mind. There is also the important family cook, Adela (Nancy Garcia), who is very close to Cleo in friendship as well is in work.

There is special poignancy in Cleo’s relationship with the children, who are a handful, and one harrowing scene at the beach emphasizes how much Cleo cares for them. She works for modest wages, but when she gets into trouble, help is provided.

The trouble arrives when she finds herself pregnant after an encounter with a lout who refuses to have anything to do with her when she confronts him and says it is his child. Aparicio’s understated performance is what holds the film together even though we also become involved in the other characters.

Cuarón makes a point of stressing life in Mexico City, starkly dramatized by including shots of a major controversial event, a protest demonstration by students brutally confronted by rampaging police—an episode in 1971 called the Corpus Christi Massacre. The director handles this by showing what is happening from the viewpoint of Cleo and the grandmother who observe the demonstration and the police attack.

Thus we do not get just an isolated portrait of the family for whom Cleo works and its daily lifestyle and crises, but also the director’s take on the Mexico City he knows. All is surveyed masterfully in human terms via the story, casting, involving performances and direction, a combination that results in a major film of the year. A Netflix release. Reviewed November 21, 2018.


Leave it to Joel and Ethan Coen to come up with a film that’s different, as they have with “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," shown at the 2018 New York Film Festival prior to its commercial release. They have created a half dozen Western tales, presented as if based on a book, which is fictional and evidence of the extensive imagination shown by the Coen brothers.

The first episode makes it seem as if we are entering a blaze of satire. It is an often rollicking look at a singing cowboy, The Kid, played by Tim Blake Nelson. He is fast on the trigger, and when he walks into a bar, watch out. Nelson is extremely amusing in the role, and the Coens have come up with a gunplay variety, including one that is a particular hoot.

But the leading hilarity gives way to a mix, some of it also funny, but other portions serious, wistful or tragic. The Coens show storytelling command throughout as they spin tales set in the atmosphere of old west. The casting is smart too.

James Franco is Cowboy, who robs banks, which gets him into deadly trouble. In another episode, very sad, Liam Neeson runs touring show exploiting a deformed man who draws spectators. But when would-be customers turn their attention to another attraction, the impresario switches gears at the expense of his former lure.

Among the many cast members are Zoe Kazan, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Jefferson Mays, Bill Heck, Granger Hines and Saul Rubinek. The segments vary in length, and at times one may wish the brothers had shortened the 132-minute opus.

There’s a section titled “The Mortal Remains,” consisting mostly of a stagecoach ride. Those assembled may make you think of the John Ford classic, “Stagecoach,” and I particularly enjoyed Tyne Daly as a passenger with a mission as she rides along with others and the talk becomes intense.

The effect of seeing this latest Coen film is like having gone back in time for a trip prompting thoughts about what made American westerns so unique, yet also standing as a hip modern take on it all from the perspective of two movie buffs who enjoy being different. A Netflix release. Posted November 8, 2018. `

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2018--AT ETERNITY'S GATE  Send This Review to a Friend

Julian Schnabel’s “At Eternity’s Gate” is especially important for two reasons. It provides a new look at the final days in the life of artist Vincent van Gogh and excellent actor Willem Dafoe gives an extraordinary and memorable performance as the artist.

Collaborating on a screenplay with the eminent Jean-Claude Carrière and also with Louise Kugelberg, director Schnabel peers into the sad fate of van Gogh and the pitiful situation in which he never sold a painting. The screenplay also depicts the artist’s death in a way that counters the more accepted idea of his having committed suicide.

Throughout Dafoe is superb in the portrait he gives us of van Gogh, a nuanced look at what his life was like in intimate terms. The supporting cast is first rate too, including Rupert Friend as his supportive brother, Theo, Oscar Isaac as Gauguin, Mathieu Amalric as the important Dr. Gachet, Emmanuele Seigner as Madame Ginoux and Mads Mikkelsen in a key role as a priest.

As one has come to expect from Schnable, he creates an impressive artistic atmosphere that in this case creates a vivid sense of the time in which the artist’s final days unfold. The superb cinematography by Benoît Delhomme helps enormously in achieving the affecting visuals.

An unusual mourning scene is chilling, with van Gogh’s coffin in the center of a room, and his paintings on surrounding walls, as visitors select art that he could not sell during his life. The scene is an inkling of the fame that will eventually embrace him posthumously and the enormous prices his work will ironically command. A CBS Films release. Reviewed October 27, 2018.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2018--MONROVIA, INDIANA  Send This Review to a Friend

Documentarian Frederick Wiseman takes his camera into the small town of Monrovia, Indiana, with his fly-on-the-wall style to examine life in this example of American heartland. As of 2017 the population in Monrovia was 1063. Wiseman gives us a revealing look of what it is like to live there and what the people are like. The meticulously observant film was showcased at the 2018 New York Film Festival and is now in commercial release.

Wiseman focuses on conversations, not interviews, which lets his subjects talk among themselves. We see city council arguments about how to expand building without ruining the town. We get a look at students. In one segment we see the surgical clipping of a dog’s tail, depicted as serious an episode in Monrovia as a heart operation might be.

There is emphasis on farming, as well as idle chats between residents. One observation I came away with was how fat so many people are. We see an example of an overweight population typical of what we read in the country’s obesity statistics.

There is observation involving death, and there is one especially long—too long in my opinion—of a cemetery service and burial. But it does focus on family loss and the personal meaning of death.

By the time Wiseman has finished, and the film clocks in at 143 minutes, you get an in-depth tour of this community, and you can see why Indiana is such a conservative state and Donald Trump country.

Add “Monrovia, Indiana,” to the list of the many Wiseman films, such as "Titicut Follies" and "Hospital," that fascinatingly chronicle various aspects of American life. He is an invaluable documentarian to be lauded for his choice of subjects and for his dedication to digging into the fabric of America and shedding light on how people live and how they think. A Zipporah Films release. Reviewed October 26, 2018.


I wonder what Orson Welles would have thought of the completed version of his “The Other Side of the Wind,” which has been finally brought to light after years of rights battles and professional efforts to piece together the footage left incomplete in Welles’s lifetime.

The New York Film Festival has provided a service by showing the film in its revivals section and Netflix deserves credit for bringing about its release. Now it is up to the public to judge and the results are bound by the very nature of the enterprise to be mixed. First, it is important to attempt to surmise what Welles was trying to do when he began shooting in 1970.

From the reconstruction it would seem that Welles was attempting to cast a satirical eye on the process of making movies, with particular attention on the odd gang of people involved in the making. His vision is a turbulent, dark and often comic take behind the chaotic scenes, including a sprawling party in honor of a director’s 70th birthday. One may think of Fellini’s “8½,” also about a director trying to make a movie.

Story-wise the result is an odd conglomeration, as per the screenplay credited to Oja Kodar and Welles. Kodar, born in Croatia, was Welles’s significant other in the latter years of his life. Their collaboration added a further personal dimension.

On the plus side there is fabulous imagery throughout. John Huston, cast as the director, Jake Hannaford, has a face that is totally impressive and it is repeatedly shown in commanding close-ups. His imperial manner is also there, and one of the film’s pleasures is watching him in this central role.

There are also scenes with the beautiful Kodar playing the leading actress, including many nude shots of her, and they are extremely arresting as seen from various camera perspectives doting on her.

The cast also includes Peter Bogdanovich as a disciple of the director, a role played in real life. It is interesting to see the shots of him in his youthful days. His extensive appearances are especially appropriate, as he has been an expert on Welles and a force in pursuit of getting the film freed and completed.

There are impressive appearances of Lilli Palmer, Susan Strasberg, Mercedes McCambridge, Paul Stewart and Robert Random. In fact, one can enjoy the nostalgia of seeing such notables as Edmund O’Brian and Cameron Mitchell. Claude Chabrol, Stephane Audran, Henry Jaglom and Paul Mazursky are also on hand.

Other pleasures are to be found in the set pieces, including a sequence in a drive-in theater. As you might expect, Welles amassed many shots in keeping with his reputation for trying to be unique, and the film is a visual treasure trove.

However—and this is a big however--the bottom line is that if a viewer cannot enjoy all of the above attributes from the point of view of a cinema junkie, one can become completely lost and exasperated in trying to follow what’s going on in the story.

Welles would have undoubtedly edited his film into more solid shape story-wise before he was finished. What we get now is a mélange of his footage. But it must be said with satisfaction that at last the fabled Orson Welles movie is out of the closet, and the mystery can be relegated to film history, the film now to be viewed as part of the great director’s body of work. A Netflix release. Reviewed October 21, 2018.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2018--WILDLIFE  Send This Review to a Friend

Growing up is difficult for Joe (excellent Ed Oxenbould) in “Wildlife,” shown in the 2018 New York Film Festival and now in release. He must deal with the disarray in the lives of his parents in the film directed by Paul Dano, who co-wrote the screenplay with Zoe Kazan based on Richard Ford’s 1990 novel.

Set in the 1960s in Montana, the story focuses on Jake Gyllenhaal as Jerry Brinson, a man who can’t find a satisfactory place in life. He works on a golf course, but gets fired for being too cozy with members with whom he likes to chat, and when he is offered the opportunity to return, his sense of dignity leads him to refuse no matter how badly he needs money for keeping up with expenses.

Carey Mulligan plays his wife, Jeanette, who stoically tries to cope as best as she can with the difficult circumstances. But her patience runs out when Jerry suddenly get a bug that he can fulfill himself and gain self-satisfaction by enlisting to fight forest fires raging in the state. Jeanette is appalled that he would go off to risk his life when he has a family.

Jeanette gets a job as a swimming instructor, and soon she is being pursued by one of the enrollees, Warren (Bill Camp), who has a successful automobile business. Warren, although older and not especially attractive, is Mr. Nice Guy, and an affair blossoms while Jerry is off battling blazes.

I’m not sure I buy the personality transformation Jeanette undergoes, although the affair itself has its logic. She also doesn’t hide her liaison from Joe, and it is from his viewpoint that the film achieves its greatest poignancy. Joe must learn to fend for himself emotionally no matter what the situation with his parents becomes. Oxenbould does a fine job in portraying Joe, which is a highlight of the film.

One gets caught up in wondering how it will all turn out, which is a tribute to this first directorial job by Dano and to the screenplay. Sympathy is engendered for the parents, as well as for Joe, thanks to the solid acting by Gyllenhaal and Mulligan, and “Wildlife” emerges as a solid drama. An IFC Films release. Reviewed October 19, 2018.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2018--PRIVATE LIFE  Send This Review to a Friend

The obsession of a couple wanting to have a baby is examined with a mix of pain and humor in “Private Life,” a main slate feature in the 56th New York Film Festival and now in commercial release. Written with wit and directed by Tamara Jenkins, the film is highlighted by superb cast members who skillfully capture the angst involved and the effect on a marriage and related relationships.

Why is it so important and defining to have a child? Rachel, a writer with a novel about to be published, is played by Kathryn Hahn, who communicates the desperation of a wife whose life begins to be defined by her total obsession with giving birth. Her husband, Richard, is played by Paul Giamatti, a businessman, who goes along with Rachel’s longings until the situation becomes stifling, resulting in an absence of sex between them. We see them living in a lower East Side Manhattan apartment, and Hahn and Giamatti make the couple painfully believable, including in situations colored with humor. Picture Richard, for example, in an isolated room and haplessly watching porn, which is supposed to stimulate his delivery of sperm for the couple’s attempt at in vitro fertilization.

They try everything. Richard’s can ejaculate but there is no effective sperm. Rachel turns out not to be fertile. They try the adoption route by answering surrogate ads, and that leads to a road trip and disappointment.

Richard has a niece by marriage, the 25-yeqr-old Sadie, who is at sea academically and trying to find her place in life. She is impressively played most sympathetically by the excellent Kayli Carter. The film takes a desperate new turn via the close relationship Richard and Rachel have with Sadie, who looks up to them and becomes sympathetic to their goal. As one might expect, that leads to complications with Sadie’s mother.

As I watched the toll on Rachel’s and Richard’s marriage, as fine as the acting is, I began to become impatient with this child-bearing obsession. In light of such an all-consuming desire, one might wonder that if Rachel and Richard ever managed to acquire a kid whether they would make good parents. One could envision their parental lives fraught with fresh anxieties.

The film is successful in the convincing manner that writer-director Jenkins focuses on the issue and prompts thoughts about what other couples may also be going through. Despite society’s current efforts to view women as emerging from the confines of traditional domesticity, “Private Life” suggests that in some, motherhood still defines a woman’s being and those who cannot achieve it may feel deprived and left out. In that sense this film is an engrossing and sometimes wry look at one couple’s symbolic struggle. A Netflix release. Reviewed October 5, 2018.


It was a gala opening night for the 56th New York Film Festival, a major annual cultural event of New York City, and the Festival (Sept. 28-October 14, 2018) got under way with the unusual film “The Favourite,” directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, with screenings at Alice Tully Hall and the Walter Reade Theater. Then it was off to a huge bash at the Tavern on the Green that started at 11 p.m.

Lanthimos was on hand for the occasion. Introduced at the screening that I attended by Dennis Lim, the Festival’s director of programming, Lanthimos, told the audience: “It’s a great thrill for our film to be shown as the opening night film.” The director is especially known for his “The Lobster.”

The after-party, as was the case at last year’s Festival, continued traditionally at the landmark Tavern on the Green in Central Park following a hiatus during the restaurant’s renovation. While it was closed the Festival parties were held at the Harvard Club. Given the pleasant weather, much of the socializing at this year’s party was in the Tavern’s large outdoor space, although indoor rooms were also packed. There were generous servings of hors d’oeuvres by waiters, and main dishes were at conveniently located buffets. Drinks offered were wine, bubbly and an assortment of coctails made with rum.

This year’s Festival has a slate of 30 new films from 22 various countries by a mix of directors. Chosen for the centerpiece was “Roma,” directed by Alfonso Cuarón, with the closing night selection “At Eternity’s Gate,” directed by Julian Schnabel. The Festival also includes many additional films under the categories “Spotlight on Documentaries,” “Revivals,” “Special Events,” “Retrospectives,” “Shorts” and “Projections,” the latter exploring new possibilities for cinema. A large corps of press and industry members were accredited for special screenings.

As for the opening night “The Favourite,” it is a film that further demonstrates director Lanthimos’s broad imagination. Here, with a screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, he explores freely perceived bedroom escapades during the 18th century reign of Queen Anne between her and Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, and also between the queen and servant Abigail Hill.

Queen Anne ruled England, Scotland and Ireland from 1702 to 1707, and then, after Scotland and England were merged into Great Britain, she ruled from 1707-1714, when she died at the age of 49. Queen Anne suffered from gout and other illnesses, and she had a disastrous record of childbirths. There were some 17 pregnancies, including miscarriages and babies dying at birth or shortly afterward. Of five successful births, four children died before the age of two.

The queen is played by Olivia Colman and she is shown as clumsy, overweight and frequently wracked with pain, with a badly swollen leg, and having great difficulty walking. The duchess, given a stark performance by Rachel Weisz, cares for her, and we see them having sex.

Emma Stone sassily portrays Abigail and, young and beautiful, Abigail gains the affection of the queen, much to the consternation of the duchess, and nasty, scheming competition erupts. The situation is complicated by the queen’s frequent tantrums. One minute she can be friendly, the next angry and cruel.

Much of what happens is funny from the perspective of the screenwriters and director. The film comes across as a satire on royalty, and certainly on hidden bedroom cravings, which play out as bizarre rather than erotic.

All this is wrapped in the trappings of palace luxury and lifestyle, and the colorful palace grounds and environs, strikingly photographed by cinematographer Robbie Ryan. Political aspects are introduced, but the main concentration is on the three women and what occurs between them, sexually and otherwise.

“The Favourite” is such an oddball film that it is assured divided reactions, but those who find Lanthimos’s work appealing are likely to be pleased and amused by his foray into 18th century royalty and his imagining what happens behind the scenes. The film is a Fox Searchlight release scheduled for November 23. The Festival scored a coup for getting it as the 56th Festival’s opening night choice. Posted October 4, 2018.


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