If Beale Street Could Talk – 6

Beale Street is a long, slow street we’re asked to walk, without a happy end in sight. There is one scene that crackles, when the future in-laws come over to hear the news, but if that record plays at 78, the rest is 33-1/3. The two lead actors are bland in their goodness, and the camera keeps lingering. I know we’re supposed to just accept the premise that a random black man can be jailed for rape for no good reason, but the lack of an accuser, witnesses, forensic evidence, motive or opportunity makes this crucial aspect of the plot a troubling hole, rather than a cause for sympathy. And contrary to the title, New Orleans and jazz don’t play much of a role.

Vice – 7.8

Watching this, I was two-thirds ashamed to be an American, with our recent history running from Richard Nixon through the phony justifications of the Iraq invasion, but one-third proud to live in a culture that could produce such a clever, popular takedown of a living public figure. Some caricatures misfired – especially Steve Carrell’s Donald Rumsfeld – but I appreciated the effort to match actor with historical figure, like Eddie Marsan for Paul Wolfowitz. Most of the plot was familiar, but the light it concentrated on certain facts, such as Cheney’s sweetheart deals with Halliburton and the lack of a background check when he selected himself for the vice-presidency, still made me cringe. Christian Bale was amazing, but I doubt his Oscar chances: some voters must be Republicans; some will say it was impersonation, not acting; and others will just be so repulsed that they won’t want to see Cheney/Bale get any awards. I can see why this movie is not for everyone: it is tendentious, flip – one reviewer called in “meanspirited” – and treats very serious matters like a Doonesbury cartoon; but director Adam McKay’s storytelling style was original and consistent, and I laughed when I wasn’t cringing.

Shoplifters – 8

A meditation on family, Shoplifters also hits home as a reflection on what counts as progress in Japanese society since Yasujiro Ozu’s very similar films in the 1950s. Most obvious is the style of filmmaker Kore-eda, shooting from tatami-level. Then there is the plot of everyday family matters, one vignette of daily life after another – no guns, no violence, no sex, no action. Driving home the comparison is the one bird’s-eye shot of the traditional wooden house, surrounded by concrete apartment buildings. It takes awhile to figure out who is who, and longer to figure out how they are related, or not. And then the meditation continues after the film ends, as you contemplate why this family seems to get along better than any other family you’ve seen in a movie for ages. Maybe it’s the food?

Vox Pop – 3.5

The opening ten minutes was a bracingly, convincingly staged school shooting and aftermath that gave me hope for an original, relevant film. The pre-Natalie Portman Celeste character then sings her original song in response to the terror, it goes You-Tube viral and the film collapses into cliche and the movie version of life. Her song is about one-quarter as good as the equivalent moment in A Star Is Born. Worse, however, is Natalie Portman, who takes over the character 15(?) years later. She not only sings songs as bad as the later music in A Star, but she is the most unattractive figure I can remember seeing in a movie: her looks, her hairstyles, her mannerisms, her actions, her interpersonal relations, her public persona are all painful to sit through. Willem Dafoe, fresh off At Eternity’s Gate, narrates.

The Favourite – 7

A hysterical drama of little historical import, featuring lush scenery, gorgeous costumes and three actors at the top of their games: Emma Stone, Olivia Coleman and Rachel Weisz. Unfortunately, the characters they play aren’t very nice and they get progressively more unpleasant as the story unfolds, leaving one with no one to root for or particularly enjoy. (Cf., e.g., “Downton Abbey,” where so many of the characters worm their way into viewers’ hearts.) And as I mentioned, there isn’t much to the story beyond the interplay of the three women. (Note: Emma Stone is the principal catalyst as well as eponymous character; why she is award-nominated as “featured” while Coleman is “leading” may not be a mystery but is hard to accept.)

Widows – 5

Better than Ocean’s Eight, but not by much, this female heist movie had improbabilities piled on implausibilities, with enough loose threads to make a mitten. Viola Davis and Liam Neeson seemed an unlikely pair from the get-go (with Neeson overexposed in the trailers before the show), but the idea that the other widows would go along with her was topped only by their instantaneous competence, which in turn was superseded by plot twists from out of the blue, thanks perhaps to screenwriter Gillian Flynn. The movie’s saving grace was the supporting performances of Michelle Rodriguez and the gorgeous Elizabeth Debicki. Perhaps to appease the unwritten rules governing Hollywood, there were gratuitous shots of cigarette smoking and female nudity.

At Eternity’s Gate – 3

Unwatchable. Director Julian Schnabel gives us a portrait not of an artist, always hard to do, but of a tortured soul. In the name of art, his art not van Gogh’s, he uses a hand-held camera, bounces between French and English, repeats voice-over dialogue and shoots a lot of scenes ostensibly through Vincent’s eyes. But he tells us nothing about Vincent’s background, perhaps assuming we all know the man from prior movies, books and exhibitions. Everything comes across as amateurish, even the paintings. Willem Dafoe is miscast by 30 years, and Oscar Isaac’s Paul Gauguin made me ask, “Are you serious?” We left after an hour.

Green Book – 8

The “feel-good” movie of the year, with scene after scene of the good guys standing up to the bigots, one great song after another filling the soundtrack, and an almost entire cast of characters the modern, educated audience could feel superior to. Danish-American Viggo Mortenson was splendid as the minor Mafioso Tony Lip and Linda Cardellini as his adorable wife was the cherry on top. Her role was small, but she got the last and best line. There was nothing subtle or unpredictable about the dialogue or plot except for Mahershala Ali’s portrayal of the musician Don Shirley as a black man in a white world with a lot of issues, which I never really figured out.

Roma – 7

Alfonso Cuaron’s paean to his childhood nanny in 1971 black-and-white made me think, for different reasons, of The Bicycle Thief and Proust’s Francoise, but it clearly meant more to him than to me. I kept waiting for something to happen, and when I realized that wasn’t the point, it was too late. I was more emotionally involved in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. It’s hard to give a low score to a film that is so perfectly realized, and there were touches, like the plane flying overhead, that piqued the imagination. But then there were scenes, like the student demonstration and shooting in the furniture store, that, rather than adding context and complexity, merely baffled. I didn’t detect the three layers of storytelling that Roger Durling advertised, nor do I think it will be “the best movie of the year.”

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – 7.9

There’s only one Coen Brothers – well, actually, there are two of them, but their vision is singular and unique. They are also masters of the craft of filmmaking; you feel they can do whatever they want, and you luxuriate in the experience. For the Coens, violence is an art, genres are meant to be played with, and laughter and terror are constant and uneasy bedfellows. If No Country for Old Men was a Dostoevsky novel, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a collection of Chekhov short stories, with allusions to Shakespeare, Chagall, Twain, Tarantino, Huston, and hundreds of Westerns before Indians became Native-Americans. Uniting the disparate stories was precise dialogue, erudite and literary, taken from a volume that looked like my Dodd, Mead Classics. My favorite was “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” for its sheer beauty, the complexity of its story and the acting of Zoe Kazan, although “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” set the table perfectly, was laugh-out-loud funny and merited its eponimity. Least favorite: “Meal Ticket.” Definitely on the plus side of the Coen Bros. ledger.