The best movies of 2019

1. “Honeyland” — In this gorgeously observant documentary, weathered Hatidze lives in the rocky Macedonian mountains, where she cares for her ailing mother and tends to several beehives that produce honey for a tenuous livelihood. A large, rowdy family moves next door and decides to try beekeeping, but without expertise, they flail and almost comically get stung more than they harvest the sweet goo. Tensions arise between the neighbors, but this achingly humanistic look at an exotic if seriously impoverished way of life is mostly a portrait of Hatidze, a steely, lonely woman who has as much soul as those mountains can contain.

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2. “Booksmart” — Barreling forth with raunchy vigor and unbridled zest, this coming-of-age comedy screams fun. Almost literally: There’s a lot of screaming — in surprise, horror and explosive joy. An amplified spin on school-days greats — “Dazed and Confused” to John Hughes — “Booksmart” piles on twists with a sharp, knowing eye that zooms in on the timely and topical, from female power and LGBTQs, to bullying and the corrosive effects of cliques, and, yah, the liberating if daunting pull of sexual exploration. Starring a terrific Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever as boundary-pushing besties, who learn, in a fleeting haze, that maybe bongs are as fun as books.

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3. “Pain and Glory” — Antonio Banderas, broken-in yet handsomely fit, plays an aging, ailing film director re-encountering figures from his past: his disapproving mother and a former lover, to an actor in one of his most famous movies. Pedro Almodóvar’s lavish drama, revealing the artist in peak form, brimming with soul, pinballs through time for a richly felt reflection on life, love, art and mortality.  

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4. “The Chambermaid” — Ghostly quiet and meticulously observant, this narratively spare but humanely complex Mexican drama follows a hotel maid on her monotonous rounds, evincing stark lines of class. What slowly unfurls is an unsparing character study that’s as hermetic as it is riveting. 

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5. “American Factory” — When a Chinese company takes over a closed General Motors factory in Ohio, an epic culture clash erupts in this fascinating and timely documentary. A Chinese billionaire opens a glass factory in the empty GM facility, hiring two thousand blue-collar Americans. Things seem good until they don’t, and the stark differences between high-tech China and working-class America are exposed for explosive tension and real-life drama. 

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6. “Ford v Ferrari” — A gas. This based-on-a-true-story traces how the Ford company chased, literally, Ferrari in the pursuit of engineering the fastest racing car possible. Matt Damon and Christian Bale are at their charismatic peaks as driving rivals slash pals who ping off each other, willing pawns in the big contest. 

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7. “Non-Fiction” — Olivier Assayas’ French dramedy is a tireless, tonic gabfest that had me speed-reading the flurry of subtitles more than drinking in the faces and colors of the bustling scenes. That’s no complaint. The profusion of words — intelligent, eloquent, biting — brim with ideas, humor, pain and pathos, for an enveloping artful experience. You want to know the fork-tongued characters, led by an enchanting Juliette Binoche, because of the literary, arty cosmos in which these writers, editors and actors orbit.

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8. “Parasite” — A totally implausible class fantasy set in South Korea, Bong Joon Ho’s comic-horror parable is a bit too on-the-nose meditation on wealth vs. poverty. Yet it soars with a warped originality and off-kilter atmosphere that never quite lets on where it’s going. There will be blood. 

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9. “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” — At once arty, elegiac, poetic and tough-minded, this is a tale, a beautiful reverie, that strikes on topics of race and class and gentrification with sparks and lyricism and primary-color Spike Lee sizzle. It’s something singular, and it slowly intoxicates with its emotional and sociological depths.

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10. “Her Smell” — Elisabeth Moss’ performance in this shambolic punk-rock portrait is as athletically interior as it is exterior, spiked with physical fits and childish spasms. In my favorite performance of the year, Moss plays Becky, volatile front-woman of a female punk band she’s struggling to keep together between coke binges and flame-throwing hissy fits. The actress stirs up a cackling, hand-flinging cauldron of Courtney Love, Blanche DuBois and Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence.” It’s all raw nerve, and Moss commits to her anti-heroine in a self-immolating blaze.

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The rest (in alphabetical order):

  • “Atlantics” — In Senegal, an engaged woman, Ada, is in love with another man, Suleiman, who takes to the ocean with co-workers for better job prospects. The men seem to vanish in the sea and a distraught Ada seeks signs of her lover everywhere. What begins as a linear romance morphs into an unpredictable drama of workers’ rights and supernatural mysteries. If it doesn’t wholly congeal, Mati Diop’s film is a uniquely promising debut.  

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  • “Climax” — With the head-spinning, hallucinogenic swirl of body (and camera) movement that is “Climax,” Gaspar Noé takes his visual and thematic tics past the edge of woozy chaos. When a talented dance troupe’s party is ruined by a bowl of LSD-spiked punch, hell uncorks. What was a glorious pageant of writhing bodies becomes a descent into a violent nightmare of screeching, thrashing individuals trying to relocate reality. It’s vintage Noé. 

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  • “Gloria Bell” — A glowing Julianne Moore — is there a more radiant actress? — assumes the title role in this sweet, ebullient, slightly melancholic snapshot of a middle-aged divorced woman seeking love and connection in modern Los Angeles. Deeply heartfelt and human. 

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  • “Los Reyes” — A near-silent documentary following the tales, and tails, of two stray dogs — one old, one young — getting by in a Chilean skate park. The movie, dispensing with music, narration and anthropomorphic cutes, is astonishingly patient, relying on the dogs’ alternately mirthful and mournful antics, quizzical gazes, the way they doze unfazed among the rackety-clackety skaters and how they find joy in chasing balls up and down the concrete. 

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  • “Memory: The Origins of ‘Alien’” — Let’s cut to the chest: Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece “Alien” is forever remembered for one indelible scene: the chest-burster, when a gore-slimed serpent chews its way out of the torso of a hapless John Hurt. Great detail and respect are granted the monumental moment in this dizzyingly in-depth, intellectually exhaustive documentary. But the film’s focus stays mostly on the mythology behind the influential classic, and the obsessive density of it all is both boggling and breathtaking.

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  • “The Mustang” — Breaking a horse is a bitch. Triple the challenge if it’s a rearing, snorting wild desert mustang. That’s what Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is tasked with as a violent criminal in a Nevada prison program in which convicts break mustangs for auction, preparing them for work in law enforcement. If Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s feature debut falls into a formulaic groove, the film doesn’t flinch from bursts of gritty violence and chewy realism.

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  • “The Nightingale” — This bloody revenge thriller from Jennifer Kent (“The Babadook”) is as unflinching as it is affecting. Set in 1825, in a British penal colony in today’s Tasmania, the drama ignites when a young female convict is raped as her family is murdered. Dazed and enraged, the woman, Clare, hops a horse, hires an Aboriginal tracker and sets her sights on sweet, savage revenge. It’s a complex tale of frontier justice, love, death, friendship, betrayal, with an emotionally cathartic core that almost buffers the rattling violence.

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  • “Rocketman”Parts “Tommy,” “Moulin Rouge” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Dexter Fletcher’s bedazzling, beguiling, Broadway-esque biopic of Elton John is vaulting rock opera, fire-hosed in glitter and gold, stars and sequins. The facts of John’s life — born Reginald Dwight, he was a timid piano prodigy who exploded to pop megastardom with lyricist and co-writer Bernie Taupin — are embroidered with lush fantasy that makes the perfect soundtrack (in spite of cornball “Crocodile Rock”) even more infectious. 

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(Acclaimed movies I have yet to see: “Little Women, “Uncut Gems, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire, “The Lighthouse, “Queen & Slim,” “Varda by Agnès.” One that conspicuously didn’t make the cut, Noah Baumbach’s both flat and histrionic “Marriage Story.)

* Bonus fun — Gaseous, over-worshipped disappointments by auteur royalty:

  • “The Irishman” — Scorsese’s plodding, punishingly overlong true-crime saga is historically engaging but rarely entertaining. Baggy and monochrome, the 3½-hour epic misses the color and snap of “Goodfellas,” which it badly wants to be. With geriatric turns by Pacino, Pesci and De Niro, it should be called “Oldfellas,” including the palsied vision behind the camera. Scorsese has recently griped about superhero movies repeating themselves with the same tropes and plots. At the height of hypocrisy, he cannibalizes his own oeuvre with diminishing returns.

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  • “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” — A kaleidoscopic catastrophe, Tarantino’s blundering ode to ‘60s movies, music, television and celebrity is an indulgent sprawl; a brutal, unfunny mess; an embarrassing cartoon scrawled by an ego-drunk adolescent. The film is self-smitten, wearing a slap-worthy smirk, and at times, like the last half-hour, is downright despicable. onceheader.jpeg

9 best films of 2019 (so far)

In no particular order, the movies I’m excited about at the year’s half-way point …

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“Climax”

Puckishly sadistic, Gaspar Noé and Lars von Trier remain cinema’s great pessimists, glib nihilists and gleeful provocateurs. Look, without flinching, at Noé’s masterwork “Irréversible” or von Trier’s “Antichrist” and you’ll see my point. With the head-spinning, hallucinogenic swirl of body (and camera) movement that is “Climax,” Noé takes his visual and thematic tics past the edge of woozy chaos. When an extraordinarily talented dance troupe’s party is ruined by a bowl of LSD-spiked punch, hell uncorks with fury. What was a glorious pageant of writhing bodies becomes a descent into a violent nightmare of screeching, thrashing individuals trying to relocate reality. The camera rides a liquid wave of neon hues, racing and corkscrewing down halls and weaving through rooms. Frequently indulgent and meandering, with no real characters or story, just sensation and electro-shock, the film is pure immersion, a sustained climax. I didn’t say it was pleasant. But it is novel, and queerly riveting. And purely Noé. Watch the trailer HERE.

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“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”

At once arty, elegiac, poetic and tough-minded, this is a tale, a beautiful reverie, that strikes on topics of race and class and gentrification with sparks and lyricism and primary-color Spike Lee sizzle. It’s something singular, and it slowly intoxicates with its emotional and sociological depths. Following Jimmie Fails (played by the actor of the same name — he’s as charismatic as a young Don Cheadle) as he presses to reclaim the giant Victorian home of his grandfather, the film is both a call to honoring blood bonds and a plaintive hymn to a troubled city. Joe Talbot directs (and co-writes) with soaring vision and intense feeling. The result is dire, daring, dreamy. Trailer HERE.

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“Honeyland”

In this gorgeously observational documentary, weathered, middle-aged Hatidze lives in the rocky Macedonian mountains, where she cares for her ailing mother and tends to several beehives that produce honey for a tenuous livelihood. A large, rowdy family moves next door and decides to try beekeeping, but without expertise, they flail and almost comically get stung more than they harvest the sweet goo. Tensions arise between the neighbors, but this achingly humanistic look at an exotic if seriously impoverished way of life is mostly a portrait of Hatidze, a steely, lonely woman who has as much soul as those mountains can contain. The doc won a record three awards at Sundance 2019, including for its ravishing cinematography. Trailer HERE.

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“The Mustang”

Breaking a horse is a bitch. Triple the challenge if it’s a rearing, snorting wild desert mustang. That’s what Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is tasked with as a violent criminal in a Nevada prison program in which convicts break mustangs for auction, preparing them for work in law enforcement. “We’re not training these horses for little kids’ birthdays and pony rides,” growls Bruce Dern’s crusty bossman, who knows both man and horse require an especially prickly strain of tough-love. If Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s feature debut falls into a formulaic groove — the apex of the depiction of trust-building between human and wild horse remains Carroll Ballard’s 1979 “The Black Stallion” — the film doesn’t flinch from gritty, violent twists. The dangerous dance between Roman and his horse Marcus retains tension, as the two captives, both scrappy and obstinate, circle each other in a face-off that could end in injury and defeat, or mutual respect and friendship. Roman’s frustration boils — “Just fucking listen to me!” he snaps. “I’m not going to hurt you! You hear me, you stupid animal!” — and it’s no surprise the horse is listening. Trailer HERE.

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“Her Smell”

Elisabeth Moss’ performance in this shambolic punk-rock portrait is as athletically interior as it is exterior, spiked with physical fits and spasms like a lunatic child in a druggy tantrum. In my favorite performance of the year, Moss plays Becky, volatile front-woman of a female punk band she’s struggling to keep together between coke binges and flame-throwing hissy fits. The actress stirs up a cackling, hand-flinging cauldron of Courtney Love, Blanche DuBois, Charles Manson and Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence.” It’s all raw-nerve, and Moss commits to her anti-heroine in a self-immolating blaze. She’s as shattering as this ballsy, surprisingly sensitive film by writer-director Alex Ross Perry. Trailer HERE.

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“Booksmart”

Barreling forth with raunchy vigor and unbridled zest, this breakneck coming-of-age comedy, actress Olivia Wilde’s impressive directorial debut, screams fun. Almost literally: There’s a lot of screaming — in surprise, horror and explosive joy. An amplified spin on school-days greats — “Dazed and Confused,” John Hughes’ oeuvre and last year’s “Lady Bird” and “Eighth Grade” — “Booksmart” piles on twists with a sharp, knowing eye that zooms in on the timely and topical, from female power and LGBTQs, to bullying and the corrosive effects of cliques, and, duh, the liberating if daunting pull of sexual exploration. Starring a terrific Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever as boundary-pushing besties, who learn, in a fleeting haze, that maybe bongs are as fun as books. Trailer HERE.

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“Gloria Bell”

A glowing Julianne Moore — is there a more radiant actress? — assumes the title role in this sweet, ebullient, slightly melancholic snapshot of a middle-aged divorced woman seeking love and connection in modern Los Angeles. A touching remake of the 2013 Chilean film “Gloria,” by the writer-director of that movie, Sebastián Lelio, the movie follows its wise, free-spirited character onto her favorite place, the dance floor, where she finds romance with a nice guy (a fine, empathetic John Turturro) and all the attendant delights, complications and disappointments of love. No matter how sore things get, Gloria’s joie de vivre stays infectious. Trailer HERE.

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“Non-Fiction”

French writer-director Olivier Assayas‘ dramedy is a tireless, tonic gabfest that had me speed-reading the flurry of subtitles more than drinking in the warm faces and colors of the bustling scenes. That’s no complaint. The profusion of words — intelligent, eloquent, biting — brim with ideas, humor, pain and pathos, for an enveloping artful experience. You want to know the fork-tongued characters, led by an enchanting Juliette Binoche, because of the literary, arty cosmos in which these writers, editors and actors orbit. It’s heady and human: They’re just people, with all of our people-ly problems, and it’s more exciting than you think. Part tart publishing-world satire, part feast of infidelity, part anatomy of midlife crises, “Non-Fiction” is light on plot, more enmeshed in ideas about love and life, loyalty between friends and lovers, and, in a topical concession, a pointed conversation about new media vs. the printed word. It’s like a Gallic Woody Allen comedy, without the tootling clarinet and stammering, gesticulating neuroses. Trailer HERE.

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“The Souvenir”

Not an easy film, Joanna Hogg‘s elusive, divisive relationship drama is boobytrapped with qualities that repel people from the arthouse. It’s glacial, elliptical, remote. It makes you work with loosely hanging scenes, a jagged structure and oblique characterizations. I broke a small sweat trying to solder the plot together, identify with the actors and figure out where Hogg was taking me. The entry point is young film student Julie, played with winsome diffidence by Honor Swinton Byrne. Julie’s lover Anthony (Tom Burke) is a heroin addict, a secret until it’s not, which inevitably snarls their relationship. The story is mostly scenes of the couple muddling through their unconventional, occasionally off-putting upper-middle-class affair. With drugs. And spats. And sex. And dinner parties. And the making of a student film. And an IRA bombing. Somehow, Hogg’s disparate elements crazily fall together. Trailer HERE.

Good movies right now

Before summer’s prequels, sequels and tweak-quels bombard us, I offer this eclectic spread of late-spring cinema surprises, all worth a look:

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 “Booksmart”

Barreling forth with raunchy vigor and unbridled zest, this breakneck coming-of-age comedy, actress Olivia Wilde’s impressive directorial debut, screams fun. Almost literally: There’s a lot of screaming — in surprise, horror and explosive joy. It’s damn near contagious.

An amplified spin on school-days greats — “Dazed and Confused,” John Hughes’ oeuvre and last year’s “Lady Bird” and “Eighth Grade” — “Booksmart” piles on twists and layers with a sharp, knowing eye that zooms in on the timely and topical, from female power and LGBTs, to bullying and the corrosive effects of cliques — and of course the liberating if daunting pull of sexual exploration.

Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever play best friends Molly and Amy, super-nerds at their high school who are maligned for their almost pathological goodie-goodie-ism. They’re all books and no bacchanal and are certain that’s the only way to make it through college and life.

Molly, who has a crush on an unattainable pretty boy, and Amy, who has a crush on a scrappy skate-girl — sort of the story’s dual heroes’ journey — recklessly decide to shed their image and go all out on the night before graduation. The upshot is an epic party-hopping misadventure festooned with the silly, surreal and psychedelic, aided by riotously inspired side players who should get their own movies (including Carrie Fisher’s daughter, the scene-stealing Billie Lourd).

“Booksmart” radiates the crazy anarchic spirit of party-hearty teen classics like “Superbad,” and indeed “crazy” might be the movie’s one-word elevator pitch. Hang on for the insta-classic “doll scene.” It’s a little bit Barbie, a little bit “Team America,” and all warped genius.

In theaters. Watch the trailer HERE.

*nonfiction-actual-final-poster.pngNon-Fiction”

French writer-director Olivier Assayas‘ new dramedy is a tireless, tonic gabfest that had me speed-reading the flurry of subtitles more than drinking in the warm faces and colors of the bustling scenes.

That’s no complaint. The profusion of words — intelligent, eloquent, biting — brim with ideas, humor, pain and pathos, for an enveloping artful experience. You want to know the fork-tongued characters, led by a ravishing Juliette Binoche, because of the literary, arty cosmos in which these writers, editors and actors orbit. It’s intoxicating and deeply human: They’re just people, with all of our people-ly problems, and it’s more exciting than you think.

Part tart publishing-world satire, part feast of infidelity, part anatomy of midlife crises, “Non-Fiction” is light on plot, more enmeshed in ideas about love and life, loyalty between friends and lovers, and, in a topical concession, a pointed conversation about new media vs. the printed word. It’s like a Gallic Woody Allen comedy, without the tootling clarinet and stammering, gesticulating neuroses (though there’s plenty of neuroses to go around). 

Assayas, one of our most talented and inventive living filmmakers — like Michael Winterbottom and the late Kubrick, he’s a virtuoso of versatility — has made a comedy of manners that has more in common with his wonderful, verbose family drama “Summer Hours” than his masterly supernatural genre-buster “Personal Shopper.” Like the best of his movies, it’s brightly observant and conspicuously literate — as rich as a great novel, kind of ironic for a picture titled “Non-Fiction.”

In theaters. Watch the trailer HERE.

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“The Souvenir”

Not an easy film, Joanna Hogg‘s elusive, divisive relationship drama is boobytrapped with qualities that repel people away from the arthouse. It’s glacial, elliptical, remote, woolly. It makes you work with loosely hanging scenes, a jagged structure and oblique characterizations. I broke a small sweat trying to solder the plot together, identify with the actors and figure out where Hogg was taking me. (“Hogg,” writes one critic, “has the courage of her incoherence.”) Mostly I succeeded, finally granting this vaguely experimental flick a shaky B+.

The main entry point is young film student Julie, played with winsome diffidence by Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of indie eminence Tilda Swinton, who has a small role as, who else, Julie’s flittering mother, her face a pinched mask of imperious disquiet.

Julie’s lover Anthony (Tom Burke) is a heroin addict, a secret until it’s not, which inevitably tangles their relationship. The story is mostly scenes of the couple muddling through their unconventional, occasionally off-putting upper-middle-class affair. With drugs. And spats. And sex. And dinner parties. And the making of a student film. And an IRA bombing. Hogg’s disparate elements somehow fall together.

There were two huffy walkouts at my recent screening, and online reviews are tetchy. “I found this film to be tedious and unrewarding,” one gripes. “I want my money back,” harrumphs another. And this: “The only movie I’ve ever walked out of in my life. I’m amazed I stayed awake and endured it for over an hour.”

With a giggle, I take those as good signs — chance-taking auteurism is always encouraging — more reasons to stick with this exacting film and reap its chilly virtues.

In theaters. Watch the trailer HERE.

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 “What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali”

Eyes wide, mouth agape, a fist pounding the table, Muhammad Ali is unleashed, free-associative verse tumbling from his unstoppable maw. Harnessing vainglory and the gift of gab, Ali is showboating, again, his audience of press and promoters rapt and laughing. And then he winds down, admitting exhaustion, the pugilist at rest.

The sudden calm is a rare state for the heavyweight champ, self-anointed The Greatest, whose taunting poetic prattle — “I’m so bad, I make medicine sick!” — earned him both infamy and adulation. “He talks too damn much! Put your fist in his mouth!” Ali recalls a ringside heckler shouting in this HBO documentary, a transfixing, rap-rattling trip through the fighter’s professional life told almost exclusively in his own words. It’s a beautifully edited stream of vintage press conferences, TV and radio interviews, with ribbons of color from managers and trainers, magazine covers and newspaper headlines.  (“He could never keep his big mouth shut,” reads one.)

The two-part, near-three-hour film, directed by Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day,” “Southpaw”) and co-produced by LeBron James, whomps with exhilarating fight footage, and so much more. If Ali was a raving icon in the ring, he was perhaps more of one outside it. He used his supersize personality and cascading eloquence to speak out for civil rights and Islam and against segregation and the Vietnam War. This keen portrait of social decency and athletic supremacy is also a voyage through late 20th-century history and culture, in which an African-American became an international hero.

On HBO and HBO GO. Watch the trailer: HERE. 

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“The Biggest Little Farm”

If John and Molly Chester learn a few things while building their farm from the sun-baked dirt up, it’s that birds decimate crops, pigs get sick, coyotes feast on chickens, organic eggs sell crazy-fast and manure is magic.

Stars of this inspiring, sometimes harrowing auto-doc, thirty-something couple John and Molly chronicle what happens over seven years when they ditch their tiny Santa Monica apartment for 200 neglected acres an hour outside L.A. to miraculously conjure a working, biodiverse farm. It’s a quixotic, back-to-the-land quest made of heedless ambition and fashionable enlightenment.

“Everyone told us that attempting to farm in harmony with nature would be reckless if not impossible,” says John, this enchanting film’s director and narrator.

Well, almost impossible. John, a wildlife cinematographer — blame him for the movie’s plush nature imagery — and Molly, a chef and food blogger, seek purpose via this sustainable farm. Molly yearns to grow everything she cooks in conservational fashion, as if from a “traditional farm from the past,” dutifully echoing the Earth-friendly ethos of the likes of chef Alice Waters and responsible-foodie manifesto-writer Michael Pollan.

Over years battling pests, drought and the elements, the Chesters’ apparent folly assumes the mantle of glorious accomplishment. (How they pay for it is another question entirely.) Through toil and struggle, heartache and heartbreak, they cultivate a luminous idyll, a practically paradisiacal spread bounding with life, joy and abundance. You almost can’t believe your eyes.

In theaters. Watch the trailer HERE.

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  • Bonus pre-summer movie: I haven’t seen it yet, but I know a masterpiece when it has a barrel pressed against my head: “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum. Taciturn and hitman-cool, the Keanu Reeves vehicle has been called bloody, balletic, exhilarating and “a refresher course, and a liberating one, in the nature of escapist entertainment.” If you haven’t caught the first two John Wick flicks, you have my sympathy. The trailer’s HERE.

The 10 best movies of the year, so far

What’s usually a Christmasy pastime, the year-end best-of list, is happening now, today, amidst the gruesome swelter of mid-summer. Movie best-of’s are mostly tiresome, self-aggrandizing exertions, but they seem worthwhile now because the year has already produced a trove of must-sees, pictures that are, largely, detergents to summer’s franchise flotsam.

So this one-time film critic has compiled a litany of bests, even if it’s strictly provisional. For instance, I haven’t seen — and I’m in no rush to see — “Wonder Woman,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “War for the Planet of the Apes.” I’ve also, with regret, missed “Baby Driver,” “Raw,” “It Comes at Night” and “Graduation.” They’re in my crosshairs.

Meanwhile, from what I have seen, here are the top 10 films from the first half of 2017:

  1. “Maudie” — Richly idiosyncratic and unbearably poignant, Aisling Walsh’s intimate biopic about an arthritic Canadian folk artist (played by an avian Sally Hawkins, who’s so fragile she seems made of twigs) and her unlikely marriage to a brusque fishmonger (the macho Ethan Hawke excelling out of his element as a human cinder block with jelly inside). A miniature about art and love, it’s simple, slow, aching, beautiful. (More about it here.)        maudie_film_still.jpg
  2. “John Wick 2” — Oh. Yes. An explosion of Hong Kong-stylized mayhem, fueled by revenge and the ability to look impeccable while dispatching a fleet of attackers with the elastic, tentacular ease of the guy in “Oldboy” (who did it with just a hammer). Über-assassin John Wick (a simmering, sneering Keanu Reeves) is on another tear, engaging in non-stop, surgically choreographed street fighting and bullet ballets — Astaire and Rogers with knives and Glocks. Exhilaratingly bloody and pornographically suave, this exercise in arms and Armani is about as good as the first one. And, yes, Wick has another dog.john-wick-2-guns.jpg
  3. “The Wedding Plan” —  After her fiancé abruptly dumps her, 32-year-old Michal, an Orthodox Jew, decides, demands, insists that she is going, God willing, to get married in 30 days — with or without a groom. A series of comic blind dates, goosed by bumbling despair, is a showcase for Jewish rituals and mating rituals, not to mention an array of sparkling performances. An American director would muck it all up with farce and bathos, and despite the rare feel-good sop, the film, by Rama Burshtein, stays true as a serious, delightful peephole into faith, Orthodoxy and the universality of companionship. A find. wedding plan.jpg
  4. Get Out” — A scathing op-ed about American racism and race relations disguised as a bloody horror-thriller, Jordan Peele‘s ingenious what’s-it follows the relationship of Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) as it graduates to her bringing him home to meet the ‘rents. Hitch: They don’t know Chris is black. Rose assures her nervous beau that it won’t be an issue. Right. Peele keeps the boat rocking, with discombobulating tonal shifts and shocking reversals, as well as jabs of genre-apt violence. This disturbingly original movie also killed at the box office.  get-out-jordan-peele.jpg
  5. “A Quiet Passion” — A fine-grained Cynthia Nixon, alternately pinched and forthright, is 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson in cinema bard Terence Davies‘ lushly elegant biopic of the reclusive writer, who deflects the twin tyrannies of sexism and religion with vocal mutiny and bridling impiety. Far from musty, the movie is an epigrammatic delight. Austenian, even Shakespearean, repartee festoons the crackling script about a bitter, celibate, sequestered genius who considers hers a “minor” life. “I would like some approval before I die,” she says. The world’s response is, well, heartbreaking.
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  6. “I Am Not Your Negro” — Raoul Peck’s cool, contemplative doc is based on a manuscript by James Baldwin about the lives and back-to-back assassinations of his close friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. (He left the manuscript behind when he died in 1987.) Read by an eerily hushed Samuel L. Jackson, the material, catalyzed by riveting archival footage, traces all that was going down in the heat of the Civil Rights movement. The movie’s timely racial resonance makes it an excellent companion piece to last year’s astonishing “O.J.: Made in America.”james.jpg
  7. Personal Shopper” — This offbeat drama is a risky mash of tones and genres, but out-there auteur Olivier Assayas is a daredevil, one of our most fascinating filmmakers, and he achieves wonders. He elevated Kristen Stewart in the entrancing “Clouds of Sils Maria,” and made the callow actress fly. Here she soars. This singular and sometimes freakily supernatural thriller about, yes, a personal shopper, boils down to: Kristen Stewart, Kristen Stewart, Kristen Stewartpersonal shopper.jpg
  8. “Okja” — A Netflix flick by South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho (“The Host,” “Snowpiercer”), “Okja” is a weird, witty and wild action-fantasy about a girl and her pig (think “Charlotte’s Web,” with a dash of “King Kong.”) The titular creature is a ginormous swine that looks more like a galumphing hippo. It has floppy elephant ears, nubby teeth and a tongue that flaps like a beach towel. Okja is a soulful pig, playful and protective, like a child’s canine BFF. But that’s where the joy ends. See, she is a genetically engineered “super pig,” bred by an American corporation for her delicious meat. And the company wants her, now. The spunky little girl who raised Okja for years is having none of it. Paul Dano sympathetically plays an animal liberation leader and Tilda Swinton is splendidly venal as the corp head. Jake Gyllenhaal? He’s the best human cartoon you never saw on “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.” The candy-colored affair is a harrowing, heart-cracking moral tale, whose message is: Free the pig!
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  9. “Logan” — Logan’s the non-mutant name Wolverine goes by, so you know heading into this Marvel Comics marvel that fearsome knuckle talons will retract like 12-inch switchblades and baddie flesh will be slashed and perforated. Logan (a ruffled, ripped Hugh Jackman) is in a pissy mood, a worn and torn X-istential hero who’s had it up to here. This is all he needs: A little mutant girl who happens to be blessed (cursed?) with the same weaponized fists — a distaff Wolverine who’s also a murderous wildcat when danger strikes. (Unfortunately, she forgoes Logan’s luxurious facial fur.) Writer-director James Mangold aspires to an impressive hard-R grit and gore and an almost “John Wick”-ian body count (impaling! beheadings!) in this bruising X-Men installment. The complexion is dark, the tenor aggrieved, yet there’s no lack of the bonkers excitement that galvanized “Mad Max: Fury Road.” The story is unencumbered by fussy superhero mythos, focussed more on family and past, with a bold stroke of unexpected sadness. This one’s for the grownups.

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10.  “Dunkirk” — Certain to go down as the most fulsomely praised picture of the year, Christopher Nolan’s alternately epic and intimate WWII drama isn’t quite as singular or special as you’ve been led to believe. Pity the poor war movie, which has to transcend hoary combat clichés while delivering the bloody, kablammy goods; which has to strive for rigorous tough-mindedness while furnishing the hokey uplift of victory to swelling orchestral strains. Nolan does his best with his mostly gripping, always picturesque telling of the celebrated rescue mission of some half-million Allied troops out of Nazi-surrounded Dunkirk, but convention gets in the way and a you’ve-seen-this-all-before mood settles in. Canned heroics and schmears of sentimentality lard the third act. But Nolan finally prevails for an impeccably staged war rattler of intermittent intensity. Yet let’s not get carried away. Some are calling “Dunkirk” Nolan’s masterpiece. It’s not. Both “Memento” and “The Dark Knight,” er, blow it out of the water.

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  • Honorable mentions: “A Ghost Story” — One of the most wildly original films I’ve seen in ages, this elusive drama about a ghost (a touching Casey Affleck, wearing, yes, a sheet with eye holes cut in it) who haunts while mourning for his still-living wife. Shot in dreamlike ultra-long takes and nearly wordless, David Lowery’s challenging, sensitive love story is a vision, and visionary. … “The Big Sick” — Not bad, not spectacular, Kumail Nanjiani’s smile-making rom-com with a dark undertow, featuring a fine Zoe Kazan and Holly Hunter, is worth a look, and a chuckle. (More about it at the bottom of this post.)
  • Overrated: “The Beguiled” — Sofia Coppola’s uneventful snoozefest has the bounding verve of a somnambulist. Its 94-minute run time is a godsend.