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Cupid's Arrow Pierced My Tender Heart at the Movies

Labor Day is the official start of the awards season with the advent of annual film festivals in Venice, Telluride and Toronto (not that we will forget earlier films like "Get Out"). There are so many good and exciting movies that audiences can look forward to in the coming months that I just wanted to highlight a few of them. As is usually the case, I saw far fewer movies at the festivals than I wanted to, but these are some of the ones I've seen that I highly recommend. I also recommend that you read the reports from our other writers who wrote more in depth about the festivals. (See the Table of Contents for Telluride and Toronto.)

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1. Love Stories That Pierced My Heart

One of my best days at Telluride this year began with Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape of Water," a love story that combines elements of "Beauty and the Beast," except the beast is from the sea, more like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. It tells such a beautiful wondrous story. Leading lady Sally Hawkins' performance is deserving of an Oscar nomination. She duly walks through the routines of her drab life until she is jolted awake by feelings of love. The intensity of the scene where she tries to convince Jenkins to help her rescue the creature is alone worth the price of admission. She makes you believe the passion she has for the sea creature and has you rooting for them. She receives expert support from Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer and Michael Shannon. Guillermo is a masterful storyteller who brings true art to his special effects. But what this film does for the heart is what commends it most of all. 

Next, in collaboration with the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy, Telluride presented Alexandre Volkoff's 1924 silent romance, "Kean, or Disorder and Genius," with the score performed live by musicians. The film's melodramatic gestures generated big emotions, especially following "The Shape of Water." For some reason, silent films in black and white accompanied by live music are perfect for allowing you to get lost in pure emotion. 

After those two films, I stumbled in a daze to Paul McGuigan's "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool." This is based on the memoir by Peter Turner in which he recounts his love affair with Hollywood film star Gloria Grahame while he was a much younger up-and-coming actor. Annette Bening gives a fine performance, nailing the voice and sexiness and vulnerability of Grahame. And in scenes showing how their relationship progresses, Jamie Bell gives an equally enthralling portrayal of Turner. Supporting players are Julie Walters, Vanessa Redgrave and Frances Barber.

Seeing those three love stories in a row made me feel like my heart would burst. So afterward, I decided to see Joe Wright's drama about Winston Churchill, "Darkest Hour," featuring a performance by Gary Oldman that is guaranteed to be talked about at Oscar time. Not only was the film compelling, but it also allowed my heart to recover from the sting of cupid’s arrow. 

The romance continued at Toronto with "Call Me by Your Name," the exquisite new film by Luca Guadagnino, whose ravishing 2009 melodrama, "I Am Love," previously screened at Ebertfest with star Tilda Swinton in attendance. His latest film features Timothée Chalamet as an Italian teenager who falls for his father's research assistant, played by Armie Hammer in a revelatory performance. Hammer has never been more free and emotionally expressive on screen. And Chalamet shines in this coming-of-age romance. The lush Italian countryside mirrors the sensuous stirrings afoot. Michael Stuhlbarg as Chalamet's father gives a wise unexpected speech at the end that any young person struggling with his sexuality would be fortunate to hear. 

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Wim Wenders, who received the Golden Thumb at our annual TIFF Ebert Filmmakers Tribute this year, presented an intelligent romantic thriller, "Submergence," about two lovers (played by James McAvoy and Alicia Vikander) recalling their time together while in separate confining circumstances; Vikander because of her exploration of the depths of the ocean, and McAvoy because of his global political explorations.  

2. Wonder Women

An instance of the truth being far stranger than fiction can be found in Angela Robinson's "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women," where we learn the true origins of the Wonder Woman story. Harvard psychology professor, Dr. William Marston (Luke Evans) shares an unconventional living arrangement with two women, his wife (played convincingly by Rebecca Hall) and his student (Bella Heathcote.) Both women are so intelligent, but with different degrees of dominance and submission, that it inspires him to combine their characteristics to create the titular superhero. They all paid a heavy price for their lifestyle. It's a story that will knock your socks off. However, you may never look at Wonder Woman's wristbands and lasso in the same way. 

Angelina Jolie's wrenching drama, "First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers," is her most accomplished directing to date and was well received at both festivals. It is based on the memoir by human rights activist Loung Ung, who experienced the horrors of the Cambodian genocide as a child. Like Jolie's 2014's "Unbroken," the film is a fact-based tribute to the endurance of the human spirit in unthinkable circumstances. 

Jessica Chastain brought another strong female to the screen in "Molly's Game," a true-life tale marking the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin. It is based on the memoir by Molly Bloom, an Olympic-class skier who was targeted by the FBI after she began running a high-stakes poker game. The film features a splendid ensemble including Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Chris O'DowdMichael Cera and Graham Greene.

"Battle of the Sexes," the new film from "Little Miss Sunshine" directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, entertainingly recounts the 1973 tennis match between world champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and hustler Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). The film is remarkably evocative of the period that it portrays. People may have forgotten how important the match was. The Virginia Slims Tennis Tournaments didn't come about because women liked to smoke, but because the professional women tennis players were banned when they went on strike for equal pay.

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Viewers who think Carell's spot-on performance goes overboard should revisit footage of Riggs himself, whose showmanship is glimpsed in the end credits. One thing the film does that was perhaps unknown is give us a glimpse into the balance Riggs' wife (portrayed by the wonderful Elizabeth Shue) brought to his life. Stone's exceptional portrayal of King makes me wonder if there is anything Emma Stone can't do. She wouldn't have been my first choice to play Billie Jean King, but I would have been wrong. She is marvelous. The film also highlights Billie Jean King's love triangle with her husband and her first lesbian relationship. It does this in a surprisingly gentle and respectful manner, mirroring the gracious way the real parties handled those revelations at the time.  

What surprised me the most about the picture was the fact that it made me think of how far we still have to go in our campaign for human rights. It made me wonder how society has allowed women to be treated like second class citizens for far too long while tolerating outspoken male chauvinists. And lest we think this was just in the past, simply reflect back on the openly disrespectful, almost thuggish way Hillary Clinton was treated last year when she ran for president. I was reminded of Dr. King's words about judging others not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I thought about how people of color, immigrants and the LGBTQ community have been treated unequally, and how that inequality is responsible for a failure of our social systems and the rise of division and violence. Before it is too late, we must begin to treat our neighbors as ourselves. We must strive more than ever to embody the principles of empathy, kindness, compassion and forgiveness.

And I marveled at how this particular seemingly light film subversively caused me to think all of those  thoughts.

3. Familiar Faces

Think of the greatest example of a young actor channeling Woody Allen, and that is essentially what Saoirse Ronan does for her writer/director in the new film, "Lady Bird." It's a semi-biographical comedy that marks the solo directorial debut of Greta Gerwig, the gifted star and co-writer of "Frances Ha." Ronan's embodiment of Gerwig is flat-out uncanny, and she's joined by an excellent supporting cast headed by Laurie Metcalf as her mother.

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The latest film from iconic French auteur Agnes Varda, "Visages Villages" ("Faces Places" in English), was co-directed by JR, a photographer and muralist 50 years her junior. Together, they gather extraordinary stories about ordinary people living in small villages, and then create striking artworks by plastering giant images of the people on the sides of buildings. 

Thirty-three years after its initial release, Francis Ford Coppola has released a restored and extended cut of his 1984 film, "The Cotton Club." This new cut restores many of the scenes that help explain the film's plot. And more importantly, it restores scenes featuring the home life and dance numbers of characters Gregory Hines and his brother Maurice, and songs like "Stormy Weather," sang by Lonette McKee playing a Lena Horne-like character. Previously Coppola was admonished to lose footage that contained "too many Black people." Coppola supposedly retorted, "It is called 'The Cotton Club' you know." 

The film stars Richard Gere, Gregory and Maurice Hines, Diane Lane and Lonette McKee, and a budding cast of other stars like Nicolas Cage, Bob Hoskins, Fred Gwynne, Gwen Verdon, Jennifer Grey and James Remar. Entitled "The Cotton Club Encore," this new version of the picture is being hailed as a masterpiece, and is sure to earn it many new admirers. 

Jake Gyllenhaal has been giving us at least one memorable performance every year lately, in films such as "Prisoners," "Nightcrawler," "Southpaw" and "Nocturnal Animals." This year is no exception, as evidenced by his powerful turn in David Gordon Green's "Stronger," which tells the true-life tale of a man whose legs were severed by the Boston Marathon bombing. Tatiana Maslany delivers equally strong work as his girlfriend-turned-caregiver. The picture is now playing in theaters, and is a fine source of hard-won inspiration. 

Another good film I saw that is currently playing in theaters is "Brad’s Status," directed by Mike White, who has helmed offbeat gems such as "Chuck and Buck," "Year of the Dog" and HBO's "Enlightened" series. White's new film gets at the heart of a man (played by Ben Stiller) going through a midlife crisis. He has worked all his life deriving satisfaction from the nonprofit work he does in the world rather than the money he doesn't earn. But as his son, Troy (Austin Abrams), appears to qualify for a Harvard education, Stiller's character starts to compare his life to his friends who own jets and live in Maui beach houses with multiple women. He comes face-to-face with the question of whether his life amounted to enough. When you have raised a son as kind and level-headed as Troy is, my answer would be yes. The film becomes more profound, authentic and well-acted than the trailer suggests. 

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4. Films That Make You Think

I greatly appreciate films with ideas that force you to debate their merits. Darren Aronofsky is an intelligent man and filmmaker, and I've always been a proponent of his work. His metaphors and allegories may sometimes be difficult to comprehend initially, and there are times he attempts to tackle too many ideas at once, but we recognize that he is an assured filmmaker. "mother!" is full of great performances by Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harris, but what is it about? Is Aronofsky working through his feelings regarding a past relationship, or is he more concerned with exploring the dynamics between an artist and his muse? Or it is all one big biblical allegory? The answer may lie somewhere in between. In interviews he has said that it is about God and the environment. Whatever. I wasn't bored. Horrified by the sudden violence at times, but never bored.

Another filmmaker I've always admired is Alexander Payne, whose latest film, "Downsizing," starring Matt Damon, has received a divided response from festivalgoers. Like Aronofsky, Payne likes to introduce different ideas into his work rather than simply revisit the same terrain over and over again. There's something I admire about this film's premise, which centers on the idea of people being physically "downsized" for environmental reasons. The idea seems to change tonally when the miniature community is examined more closely through the life of the rich lay-a-bout character played by Christoph Waltz. Is there Utopia in the small? It's an intriguing idea, and I give him credit for tackling it.

5. A Few More Favorites

One of my favorite films at Cannes this year was Ruben Östlund's Palme d'Or winner, "The Square," which was recently confirmed as Sweden's Oscar entry. The picture is a galvanizing satire centering on the existential crisis of a museum curator (Claes Bang). It co-stars Elisabeth Moss, whose equally timely Hulu series, "The Handmaid's Tale," recently swept the Emmys. It ponders many social and moral issues including how far society will allow a bully to go before intervening to save a victim. It also acts as a send-up to the curator's armchair ideas of justice and equality. Another favorite was Andrey Zvyagintsev's "Loveless," about a divorcing couple in Russia searching for their missing son against a backdrop of unfolding negative power politics. This film surprisingly is Russia's entry for the Academy Awards, even though it doesn't always show the country in the most positive light. This film drills deep. Zvyagintsev's previous film was "Leviathan."

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Yorgos Lanthimos' "The Killing of a Sacred Deer," on the surface is more straightforward and less surreal than his last film,"The Lobster," but this chilling revenge tale starring Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman is deadly in its subtle cruelty. Last but not least is another soon-to-be-released film, Sean Baker's "The Florida Project," a touching and naturalistically shot portrait of latchkey kids living in an impoverished motel community outside Disney World. Their world, though physically close to the Magic Kingdom, is far far apart. Willem Dafoe gives a compassionate performance as the manager of the motel residence. It's yet another picture well worth seeking out in the months ahead.

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