The quirk factor in Miranda July's film work tends to be uncomfortably high; her celebrated 2005 feature debut, Me You and Everyone We Know, felt like it was written by high school sophomore with very little life experience but lots of eccentric imagination. There's a pretty high level of quirkiness here, too, but it's nicely balanced by Evan Rachel Wood's performance - one which I would not hesitate to call miraculous. She plays the daughter of two small-time grifters (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) who have dropped out of society and rejected the life of 'false fakey people' to eke out a meager living with low-paying scams and mail theft. Wood inadvertently gets a glimpse of what normal families and parental affection look like and comes to realize what her parents' choices have cost her. Her performance is strange and off-putting at first - she affects an unnaturally husky voice that sounds oddly like Mira Sorvino's in the Romy and Michelle movie. But her performance has a touching feral quality, and her awkward but deliberate grasping towards normalcy is at once heartbreaking and exhilarating to watch. Jenkins and Winger are no slouches, of course, but this is Wood's film to steal.
Our first cue that Jude Law's character isn't getting enough challenge or satisfaction in his career is his ridiculously over-the-top gloating after beating his young son in a backyard soccer game. That comes early on and The Nest continues to deliver odd, gut-punch cues to his toxic ambition and the toll it takes on his wife and children. Law takes a potentially high-earning position with a London brokerage firm and uproots his American family, moving them to a once-grand, now empty and creepy manor house he can ill afford. Things fall apart from there. The Nest has the unsettling vibe of a good horror film. Which, in a sense, it actually is - if you can consider rampant greed and materialism to be a kind of menacing monster. (Not a stretch for me, I'll admit). Carrie Coon is especially good as Law's down-to-earth wife, although with her blond locks and occasionally icy gaze, I more than once forgot I wasn't watching Cate Blanchett. The resemblance is eerie.
Just the latest testament to the first-rate "bad ass-ery" of Elizabeth Moss. (I think I just invented a word!) The film opens, thrillingly, with her escape from her controlling, abusive tech billionaire husband. Every time you think Moss has finally escaped his grasp, he shows up to sabotage her plans. Or rather, doesn't show up, as this tech genius has found a way to make himself invisible and uses that power to wreak all kinds of havoc. There are moments here which could easily have devolved into unintentional comedy, but Moss is so fully committed in every harrowing moment that they tend to work like gangbusters.
Riz Ahmed plays a rock drummer who realizes he is going deaf and who comes to terms with that loss in unexpected, unpredictable fits and starts. Ahmed's performance is unspectacular but all the more affecting for that. The sound design is particularly well-conceived, allowing the viewer to experience what Ahmed's character does as his hearing deteriorates - or is ineffectively improved with cochlear implants. I like that the film doesn't tell you what to feel or think about Ahmed's situation, but lets you take the emotional journey along with him. It's a small, unprepossessing film that winds up being immensely rewarding.
This is a drama about about a small-town teenage girl's grueling trip to New York City for an abortion. It is not polemical, it does not take sides. It is observational and restrained, but even so, it demolishes the notion that young women become sexually active because abortions are convenient.
No one ever says the name "Harvey Weinstein" in The Assistant, but he's an almost ghostly presence in the story, lingering around the edges, informing the drama. We never see the film executive for whom Julia Garner plays the long-suffering assistant, but we see her cleaning up after one of his trysts, returning lost earrings to the women he trifles with, lying to his wife about his whereabouts. Turns out what we don't actually see is creepier and more disturbing than if we'd witnessed it all.
This movie is many things - a love story, a feminist fable, a story about painters and their subjects and the fraught relationship between them. It has the grand sweep of an epic period piece, yet feels entirely contemporary. If it's the most ambitious film of the year, it's also the film that most perfectly achieves its lofty ambitions.