Roma (Alfonso Cuaron – 2018) A+

This is a classic already in my book. It’s so well made, so spectacular in its look and details. It shows what a master Cuaron is and why he is one of my all time favorite movie makers. This is a movie about human beings, life and real people. The film is set in 1970 Mexico city and shot in gorgeous black and white. It centers on Cleo, one of two maids for a middle class family. She is quiet, attentive and really loves the four kids under her care. For the first 20 minutes or so, we are just observing her daily routine as she cleans, cooks, gossips with the other maid, tucks the kids in bed and even shares some time with the family as they watch TV.

We observe the world through her perception. Like his masterpiece “Y Tu Mama Tambien“, Mexico is another character in the background. Cleo hears about some political unrest, some land issues, a revolution perhaps but it is in the background as she deals with boyfriend issues and family matters that her employer is going through. There is so much going on here. It is filmed with such loving detail that this will pay even more on repeat viewings.

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Birdbox (Susanne Bier – 2018) C-

Something happens, “things” that we cannot see invade earth, those who see them go nuts and kill themselves, Malorie (Sandra Bullock) is one of the survivors who basically have to wear blindfolds now unless they are indoors…Well it’s a mixture of a survival-apocalypse story in one timeline and a rough river journey as Malorie, blindfolded still, is trying to get two kids to safety somewhere in another timeline five years later. Bullock acts her butt off here but I really could not much care for the characters or feel much for what the whole non-nonsensical situation was.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Ethan and Joel Coen – 2018) A-

It’s a welcome sight to see another quirky, great looking, dark and comical at the same time piece of work. In a series of short stories set in the American west we get all those and more. Some of the “ballads” are better than others and they range from the absurd to the surreal, but the overall work is excellent and made for an excellent Saturday night viewing as a storm was blowing outside.

Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier – 2015) A-

Saulnier is now three for three with me. He is a competent filmmaker that crafts tight thrillers with smart characters. This one centers around an unknown punk rock band of twenty-somethings who see something they should not have seen at a gig they picked up somewhere in the remote woods of Oregon. The characters are smart and behave like real people. They make choices that probably most people would make if they are cooped up in a place with neo-Nazis outside their room trying to kill and get rid of them. The performances are very good especially Patrick Stewart as the leader of the gang and the late Anton Yelchin who plays one of the musicians.

Hold the Dark (Jeremy Saulnier – 2018) A-

In a small Alaskan town a little boy goes missing, taken by wolves that roam the area presumably. The mom enlists a wolf expert who wrote a book about them (Jeffrey Wright) to find him. Where it goes from there is not by any means what one might expect. The mystery of the boy missing is really resolved in the first 20 minutes maybe before we delve into a superb psychological and possibly fantastical exploration of desolation, depression, violence, nature and man. The tone is very deliberate as Saulnier introduces and fleshes out the main themes. The father (Alexander Skarsgard) is in Afghanistan, is a man of few words and really violent tendencies. He is an apex predator. The mother, Medora, played so well by Riley Keough, is mysterious and just tough to pin down.¬†We touch on Native American issues and their relationship with the community at large and law enforcement in particular. Really what the over arching theme here is the wolves. They are perfect for living in their environment. They hunt. They have a hierarchical system. They can kill and eat their young. The missing boy’s parents seem to mirror the wolves that roam the frozen landscape of this movie. They almost cannot live anywhere else either. This is not the most approachable of Saulnier’s films, but it works for me on many levels from its harsh landscapes and dim lighting to the slow pace, excellent performances and surreal aspects.

Mandy (Panos Cosmatos – 2018) B+

Really insane film with crazy, good crazy, Cage performance. It’s a surreal dark story of a couple in love, Red and Mandy, living in what seems like a forest cabin. He’s a lumberjack of course. They get attacked by a weird (is there any other kind?) hippie cult whose leader wants Mandy to join his group of lady friends. Things go horribly wrong and the movie descends into a sort of rock opera, horror revenge thing with psychedelic red tones, mutants, coke and even a chainsaw battle. What can i say? It’s definitely not for everyone but I liked this bizarre adventure.

Whiplash (Damien Chazelle – 2014) A

What would someone do to be truly great, to achieve perfection over and over? This is a topic I am always fascinated by. The sacrifice and hard work of those at the top of their game makes for great movies and documentaries. When Andrew (Miles Teller) gets picked by Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) to join his Jazz band in a prestigious conservatory he sees it as his ticket to greatness. Fletcher’s group is the best of the best, he shapes great musicians and our drummer protagonist worked his butt off to make it there. J.K. Simmons does and amazing job as Fletcher. He is menacing, ruthless, scary but can also lull you into comfort before breaking you down. If Andrew’s dream is to be on of the greats, the real Greats as a drummer, it is Fletcher’s dream to produce one of the greats from his class. While I think Fletcher is a horrible person, the film almost makes a case that him and Andrew are made for each other. Miles Teller does a hell of a job here as well and with Chazelle’s tight direction, awesome music and an outstanding finale this makes for a masterpiece of a movie.