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5 Movies to be Thankful for (and 1 Turkey)

November 22, 2016

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I haven’t posted any movie reviews on this blog since before Halloween because frankly, this fall’s early crop of movies hasn’t been inspiring. The Magnificent Seven didn’t live up to its titular adjective, The Accountant failed to add up to much, and I felt several stops ahead of The Girl on the Train‘s gear-grinding “mystery.” But now that Thanksgiving is upon us, there’s a sudden cornucopia of good movies for grown-ups.

Two of them star Amy Adams, an actress I’ve previously considered slightly overrated. Sure, she was charmingly quirky in Junebug and Enchanted and endearingly plucky as a nun in Doubt, but whenever she tried to stretch her range and play grittier characters like a Boston barmaid in The Fighter or an Abscam artist in American Hustle, I didn’t buy it. Oscar voters did, however, nominating her for both films. In fact, she’s been up for an Academy Award five times, which seems excessive when you consider that a more dynamic and versatile performer like Jennifer Jason Leigh only earned her first nod last year for The Hateful Eight.

Well, I take back everything bad I ever said about Adams after witnessing her dazzling and very different star turns in Arrival and Nocturnal Animals. She infuses her characters — a linguist straining to communicate with visiting aliens and an art dealer mesmerized by an ex-lover’s novel — with genuine, deep emotion. I’m not a sci-fi guy, but I found Arrival‘s appeal to break down the borders that separate races (extraterrestrial or otherwise) profoundly moving in the wake of our wall-building President-“Elect.” Interestingly, French-Canadian director Denis Villenueve explored the Mexican-American border in his last film, the provocative thriller Sicario.

Writer-director-fashion designer Tom Ford’s stylish mindfuck Nocturnal Animals unleashes some of the year’s fiercest acting, not only from Adams but also Jake Gyllenhaal in a dizzying dual role as her ex and the main character of his novel and especially Michael Shannon as a terminally ill Texas lawman who may be more dangerous than the criminals he chases. In smaller roles, Laura Linney, Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough and Jena Malone gleefully steal scenes.

Nocturnal Animals‘ hypnotic ensemble may be matched in quality only by the cast of Manchester by the Sea, the third film from writer-director Kenneth Lonergan after the remarkable You Can Count on Me and the wretched Margaret. Casey Affleck burns with unexpressed emotion as a Massachusetts janitor who’s forced to reconnect with his teenage nephew (an impressively unaffected Lucas Hedges) after the death of the boy’s father (Kyle Chandler, reliable as ever). Michelle Williams, who has plumbed the depths of marital despair in films ranging from Brokeback Mountain to this year’s indie sleeper Certain Women, radiates aching regret as Affleck’s ex-wife. Lonergan takes his time telling a seemingly simple story, but patient audiences will be rewarded with a quietly powerful conclusion.

Two more films of a certain length, Miss Sloane and Lion, begin slow roll-0uts in theaters this holiday weekend, and each deserves your attention. Jessica Chastain dominates Sloane as a right-wing lobbyist who switches sides and tries to pass gun-control legislation in a twisty thriller from director John Madden, with whom the actress previously collaborated on the underrated drama The Debt. As I discussed in my recent New York Times story with Chastain and Madden, the film may feel sadly outdated in the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s electoral “loss,” but it still works nicely as a satisfying mashup of All the President’s Men and The Sting.

Next-to-last but far from least, there’s Lion. Based on Saroo Brierley’s true story of searching for his long-lost birth family in India, the first film by director Garth Davis (TV’s Top of the Lake) features fine performances by Dev Patel and seven-year-old Sunny Pawar as two different incarnations of Saroo, as well as Rooney Mara and Nicole Kidman as his girlfriend and mother, respectively. The less you know about Lion before you see it, the better, but suffice it to say it resonates with the same universal theme that has made The Wizard of Oz a cherished classic: there’s no place like home. Only in this case, the Lion is anything but Cowardly.

Finally, what would Thanksgiving be without a turkey? (Vegan, I know.) Hollywood has provided one with Shut In, a frighteningly incompetent chiller about a grieving mother (Naomi Watts, who can’t light a fire under this soggy script) trapped in her spooky New England home during an excruciatingly slow-moving snowstorm. Room‘s phenomenal young star Jacob Tremblay is wasted, and when the script’s cruel, empty “twist” finally kicks in, I felt Shut In had been horribly mistitled. They should’ve called it Shit On.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

 

 

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