The Florida Project.

The Florida Project is the best movie I have seen so far in 2017. Granted, it’s December 3rd, and there are many movies left to be seen, but I will go out on a limb and guess that when I’ve seen all the likelies I will still end up with this bold, empathetic film at or very near the top of my list. The movie takes a look at a small bit of the American underclass, delivering a slice-of-life story that becomes so much more because of the living, breathing characters that populate it and the script’s obvious regard for its denizens.

The title is a play on words of sorts; it takes place in the Magic Castle, one of the welfare motels around Walt Disney World, a place where residents pay by the week and often must vacate the premises for one night, moving to a neighboring flophouse, because the apartment’s management won’t let anyone stay long enough to establish residency. (I presume Florida has a consecutive-days threshold where a transient guest becomes a tenant and acquires additional rights.) The property manager is Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who plays an important role in the lives of the two central characters, single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), as they live through a period of a few weeks at the start of Moonee’s summer break from school.

The movie shifts focus frequently, but the bulk of the story is told from the eyes of the kids, Moonee, her friend Scout, and new friend Jancy, with whom the first two get acquainted when they are caught spitting on Jancy’s mother’s car – because that’s the sort of thing you do all day when there’s no school, little money, and lots of time to fill. The three head off on daily adventures in the neighborhood, which is mostly filled with other low-end housing complexes and tacky stores selling Disney paraphernalia, finding trouble when it doesn’t find them first.

The struggles of the adults in their lives play out right in front of them, including the central struggle, paying the rent. Much of what happens in The Florida Project mirrors the problems Matthew Desmond covered in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted: paying the rent means working, which means someone has to watch the kids, which either costs money or means leaning on neighbors, friends, even strangers, so some people don’t work. Halley is an unemployed stripper whom we see selling knockoff perfumes to tourists for cash and who eventually (and inevitably) starts turning tricks to pay the rent, which precipitates the crisis that turns this movie into a routine slice-of-life piece into a story with an arc and a conclusion. Her background is never discussed, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume she’s a victim of something traumatic, especially given her disproportionate responses to even minor disappointments. Halley feels like a fictional incarnation of Sen. Orrin Hatch’s “people who won’t help themselves,” but while she’s unsympathetic on the screen, it’s also quite easy to see how she could feel thoroughly trapped by her environment. There’s no path for her out of poverty, and she’s basically one mistake away from losing her home and/or her kid.

Moonee is the real heart of this movie, and Prince, who was six at the time of filming, gives one of the best performances of the year. She’s mischievous, vivacious, and perceptive, adept at manipulating adults and navigating their world, often tumbling out adult words that you don’t expect to hear from a six-year-old’s mouth. She’s the ringleader of the three kids, and is almost totally unflappable, even when crises seem to unfold around her; when they cause real trouble, she’s the one trying to come up with the cover story. You can see glimpses of the impact this life is having on her, but she’s also still at an age where she’s resilient to setbacks, and her bond with Bobby, while seldom directly referenced, is one of the best emotional threads in the story. (Prince, who reminds me a bit of English actress Honeysuckle Weeks, and her two young co-stars did an adorable interview about making the film with Variety.)

Dafoe also delivers the best performance I’ve seen from him, even though Bobby is probably a bit too good to be true – he’s likely poorly paid, constantly dealing with tenants who are late on the rent or causing trouble, and often doesn’t have the money to undertake needed repairs, but he’s still got a heart of gold, especially where Moonee is concerned. The scene where he sees a non-resident adult talking to a group of the project’s kids as they play is one of the film’s most gripping moments, giving insight into Bobby’s character and setting his temperament apart from the more labile personalities living in the building.

Director/co-writer Sean Baker employs some subtle perspective shifts, some just varying the distance to the characters, but getting particular value from dropping the camera to the kids’ level even when the adults are the center of the scene. The Florida Project would be utterly joyless to watch without the kids – even though it would be true to life – and Baker uses the kids’ storyline both to provide some needed relief from the depressing reality of Halley’s life and to show how the wonder of childhood isn’t tied to wealth or possessions, but to time and that sense of adventure. That contrast between Moonee’s view of the world and Halley’s parallels the other, unspoken contrast between the story in this movie and the fantasy world in the shadow of which the film occurs. The Magic Castle may not quite be the Unhappiest Place on Earth, but it feels close when we see it through Halley’s eyes. The movie ends on a perfect note, as well, as the climax itself, which was not just inevitable but which I would say was the only possible outcome of what had come before in the script, gives way to an utterly priceless concluding sequence. Yes, we know it’s temporary, and we all know what will come afterward, but for that one last moment, we see the characters leave the world behind and run for joy.

Lady Bird.

Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird, has been in the news this week as it set a record on Rotten Tomatoes for the most positive (“fresh”) reviews received without a single negative (“rotten”) one, 184 such reviews and counting. It’s a coming-of-age story, incredibly well-acted throughout, with a number of truly hilarious moments in it, enough that I’d join the chorus (if my review counted) of positive reviews … but the movie has its flaws too, particularly in the way the adult characters are written, as if Gerwig, who also wrote the script, put her primary efforts in the teenagers at the heart of the film.

Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) is Christine McPherson, who has chosen “Lady Bird” as her nickname and repeatedly crosses out or corrects Christine whenever it’s used to refer to her, a high school senior in Sacramento who comes from “the wrong side of the tracks,” a family of four living in a somewhat run-down house and dealing with the economic insecurity of many Americans in the lower and lower middle classes. Her father’s company keeps laying people off; her mother is working double shifts as a psychiatric nurse; her brother and his wife live in the house as well, both working grocery store jobs despite their college degrees. Lady Bird yearns to break free of the social and financial constraints of her life, to go to college in the Northeast, to experience more than her small* town can give her, so she embarks on a number of small misadventures while also secretly applying to prestigious east coast schools. (*Small is her perception; the Sacramento MSA has 2.5 million people, and the scene near the end where a college student from the east coast has never heard of it is rather ridiculous.)

Ronan is marvelous in the title role, and I would be shocked if she weren’t nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars and just about every other awards ceremony for this year. The script gives her the best material by a wide margin, including the quick emotional shifts of adolescence, and Ronan manages to inhabit this volatile world completely. Lady Bird chafes under any restraints, whether it’s her Catholic high school, the social boundaries of teenaged life, or her domineering mother. Ronan manages to inform her character with the optimism that is part of Lady Bird’s nature and allows her to succeed in spite of all of these obstacles without turning the part into a saccharine caricature.

Her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf, is really problematic – and not because the character isn’t realistic. She’s controlling, narcissistic, overly critical, manipulative, even vindictive. She also reveals in a line that appears to be a throwaway that her own mother was “an abusive alcoholic.” She herself is clearly a victim of trauma, and tries to control her environment – including her daughter – as an ineffective coping mechanism. She obsesses over clothes being put away, over Lady Bird using a second towel after her shower, over her grammar or spelling in a handwritten note, over anything that threatens the precise calibration of her life. The writing and the performance are strong and consistent enough that it’s then hard to accept moments near the very end of the film where she tries to show her love for her daughter; they seem to come from a totally different character. Metcalf delivers the best performance of all of the actors playing adults in the film, but I found Tracy Letts, playing Lady Bird’s father, more compelling because his character doesn’t have the improbable personality split of the mother.

The adults, though, are the film’s biggest problem. Lady Bird has the Dawson’s Creek habit of reversing the kids and the grown-ups: The teenagers are the ones who have it all figured out and the adults are the ones still screwing things up or just generally not understanding. It’s truer of the side characters, but it doesn’t do the central character any favors to have her appear more insightful than every adult she encounters. The kids receive the best dialogue and the more accurate worldview – other than Kyle, one of the boys Lady Bird dates, who is busy fighting the battle of who could care less – and in many cases, like Lady Bird, her best friend Juliet, or Danny, another boy she dates, they’re truly three-dimensional and believable, to the point where you could build new stories around any of them (although Juliet does fall into the Fat Best Friend cliché).

The movie soars on the performance and writing of its lead, enough to overcome some of the more hackneyed elements of her environment, and I think that’s why it managed to set that Rotten Tomatoes record – even if you identify the flaws in the script, the core of the movie is so good that it more than mitigates the negatives. Watching this precocious but naïve character navigate her last year of high school and deal with an emotionally abusive mother while stretching for an unlikely escape across the country is more than enough to make Lady Bird worth recommending. I may just be outside the consensus that this is among the year’s very best films.

Get Out.

Get Out (amazoniTunes) remains one of the top-reviewed movies of the year seven months after its initial release, despite multiple factors working against it: It’s a horror film, it was released in a dead spot in the calendar, and it was written and directed by an African-American man. The film has been a critical and commercial success, and is now the highest-grossing movie with an African-American director, along with a hilarious 99% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (And even that might be misleading; one of the two “negative” reviews is a 3/5 rating from a non-professional critic, while the other is noted gadfly Armand White.)

I’ve said several times here that I avoid most entries in the horror genre, almost entirely out of a dislike of graphic violence. The modern trend of “torture porn” and body horror may have its audience – sociopaths and prospective serial killers, I ssume – but I am not of it. The handful of horror movies I’ve seen and liked have been psychological or gothic horror films; I often cite The Others as one of my favorites, because it’s creepy as hell, wonderfully acted, and free of violence.

Get Out does have some blood and a not insignificant body count, but it is very much a psychological horror movie, and even takes pains to keep the worst of the violence off-screen. The horror within the movie preys on our fear of mortality, our questions about identity, and racial guilt and animus, but not outright violence. There are unoriginal elements within the film, and one horror-movie cliché so pervasive I caught it despite limited experience with the genre, but the script as a whole is tight, unified, and clever, tackling subtle racism with a story that starts out equally subtle before it explodes into a paranoid and utterly bonkers physical manifestation of the problem.

Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose Armitage (Alison Williams) have been dating four months and are about to head to her family’s estate so he can meet her parents. He expresses reservations because she hasn’t told her parents that her boyfriend is black, but she assures him that they’re progressive, open-minded people who would have voted for Obama for a third term if they could have (a phrase her father, played by Bradley Whitford, repeats almost verbatim). When they do arrive there, Chris notices that the family employs a few black servants who speak and move with a strangely flat affect, while Rose’s mother (Catherine Keener) appears hellbent on hypnotizing Chris to cure him of his smoking habit. She later manages to do this, seemingly without his knowledge, in the middle of his first night there.

When the family hosts a big garden party the next day, the various older white guests make all manner of peculiar, racial (but not always overtly racist) comments towards Chris, while the one black guest, a young man named Logan who arrives with a much older white woman, is ‘off’ the way the servants are, and completely loses his composure when Chris takes his picture, as the flash triggers a total change in his demeanor and he attacks Chris while growling at him “get out!” Chris sends the picture to his friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), who is a combination of Smart Brother and Conspiracy Brother, and Rod informs him that Logan is actually Andre, who had gone missing from their neighborhood six months earlier. After that, the movie largely confirms that everything that looked amiss is very much so, and then some, with a quick transition from psychological suspense to outright horror that works because the story is so tightly written up to that point.

The script works as a straight story, with a few jump scares along the way, but succeeds more by taking the stereotype of the “post-racial” white progressive and turning it inside out, using metaphor to expose such people as fakes or flakes – people who don’t really believe what they spout, or who simply fail to back up what they say when real action is required. Rod is the most dependable person in Chris’s life, and is essential to Chris’ hopes of escape at the end of the film, while one by one the “nice” white people Chris has met end up betraying him. You could even take Peele’s example of Logan/Andre as a warning about assimilation, about losing one’s identity and culture in an effort to fit into “American” culture and society by conforming to white norms and standards.

The remainder of this review contains possible spoilers.

The escape sequence of Get Out is taut and surprisingly focused on Chris’s psychological state, and has him relying on his mental skills at least as much as his physical to try to get himself out of the house. The one cliché I mentioned earlier appears here – the person who was pretty definitely dead suddenly appearing, not dead, and at full strength, despite (in this case) suffering a rather traumatic head injury – as if Peele needed one more person for Chris to fight before he could get out of the building. That same scene ends with an off-screen death that recalled Chris Partlow’s murder of Bug’s father near the end of The Wire season 4, but with all of the violence here left off screen, whereas the HBO series made the killing more visible and graphic. Even when Chris does one of the dumb things that the protagonists in horror films do, a choice involving Georgina, it’s at least well-founded in his character’s history and further explained through flashbacks at the moment of the decision (which turns out to be the wrong one, of course).

The core conceit of the film also struck me as a direct allusion to (or lift from) Being John Malkovich, which made the casting of Keener, who earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her work in the earlier film. BJM is more of a clever idea than a fully-realized film, like a short story that couldn’t bear the weight of two hours of plot, while Get Out turns the story over and makes the Malkovich analogue the center of the film, while actually finishing the story off properly. So while the central gimmick is not original, Peele manages to do in his first produced script to what Charlie Kaufman (who wrote BJM) didn’t do until his third, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which won Kaufman the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The idea at the heart of Get Out may not have been Peele’s, but he turned it into a complete work with a clear resolution.

Peele has also spoken since the film was released about alternate endings he’d considered, one of which he filmed and most of which were darker than the one we get on screen, but I’ll stand up for the script as it was actually filmed. The film asks whether black Americans can depend on whites at all to help them achieve or move towards equality, and answers it with an unequivocal ‘no.’ The ending we get at least implies that black Americans can reach those goals, but only by helping themselves, and doing so in rather heroic fashion, relying on their wits more than they do the stereotyped physical qualities that the Armitages and their ilk ascribe to African-Americans.

After hearing multiple warnings about the nature of the end of the film, I thought Get Out chose the high road in presenting a horror-film sequence with more emphasis on what’s happening in Chris’s head than what’s happening to all the bodies, including his, and I enjoyed the movie far more than I expected. The film is also boosted by some strong performances, especially Kaluuya (born in England, but nailing the American accent), Williams, Keener, and especially Howery, whose role is largely comic but absolutely fills up the screen whenever he appears and delivers by far the movie’s funniest line near its end.

I imagine, given the critical acclaim for the film and the criticism of the 2014 and 2015 Oscar nominee slates for the lack of persons of color among major nominees, that this film will be the rare horror movie to find itself with an Academy Award nomination, perhaps for Best Original Screenplay, and likely a Best Original Score nod for Michael Abels. As far as I can tell, The Exorcist is the only straight horror movie to earn a Best Picture nod – even Rosemary’s Baby didn’t get one – so there’s an outside chance we’ll see some history made if Get Out does the same. It would be an incredible outcome for a movie that had so many factors working against it before its release.

Dunkirk.

Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan (Inception, Memento) and starring every good-looking British man under the age of 40, tells a fictionalized story of the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk, France, in 1940, after German forces routed the combined allied troops and pinned them in on a small section of France’s northwest coast. Ordinary British citizens sailed their small vessels, including fishing boats and other pleasure craft, across the English channel and rescued an entire army – over 800 such boats evacuating over 330,000 troops. It would seem an impossible tale had it not actually happened.

Nolan’s script contains very little dialogue – I’m hard-pressed to recall a live-action film with less – and lets the tripartite story drive the film, with intertwined narratives focused on land (the evacuating soldiers, especially one who’s late to the beach and trying any which way to get out), sea (a father and son plus the son’s friend, sailing across the Channel to try to aid the rescue), and air (three Spitfire pilots battling the Germans). The connections seem tenuous at first, but the narratives all collide as the film progresses and their separate timelines begin to converge with the arrival of the small boats at the mole (causeway) at Dunkirk beach.

The script thus gives us little about most of the characters, and many are left unnamed within the film itself. One pilot is only seen with his mask on until his final scene near the end of the film. Kenneth Branagh, a favorite actor of mine who isn’t afraid to chew a little scenery when given the chance, is marvelously understated throughout as Commander Bolton. Oscar winner and Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance plays the civilian sailor Mr. Dawson with similar restraint, the embodiment of British stiff-upper-lip-ness in repeated crises as they sail toward France. Harry Styles – yes, Harry Freaking Styles – is one of the few young soldiers to stand out in spite of the paucity of dialogue, even overshadowing Fionn Whitehead, another acting neophyte who plays the fleeing soldier in the “land” narrative.

The script may be subtle, but the film isn’t; watching this in a theater was an extremely loud and incredibly close experience, with perspective shifts and wobbly camera shots that immerse the viewer in the action, often to an uncomfortable extent. (If you’re claustrophobic and/or have a fear of drowning, you might give this film a miss.) War movies often break the tension by shifting to planning scenes, away from the action, where old men in brass buttons plan the deaths of thousands by moving miniatures on a tabletop map, but Dunkirk never leaves the corridor from England, which we only see from Mr. Dawson’s boat, across to France, moving us from sky to sea to land and back but never pulling us far from soldiers in peril.

Nolan skirts some dangerous lines in the script, giving us Chekhov’s gun in the form of airplane fuel tanks, but writing his way out of obvious endings in two of the three main strands. He doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the conflict, with German aircraft bombing beach and ships even though these are retreating forces with little to no ability to defend themselves, yet there’s a clear effort here to keep the blood offscreen – one assumes because that would detract from the story Nolan is trying to tell and appeal to the baser instincts of those in the audience who mistakenly wandered into the theater while looking for the next Saw installment. The body count is high, even if they’re mostly redshirts, but the horror here has to come from the actors’ expressions and the constant sense of confinement, in ships’ holds, in a tiny airplane cockpit, or even on a wide-open beach that is a perfect shooting gallery for German dive-bombers. The one slight misstep, the thread that leads the ending’s one real nod to sentiment, essentially sacrifices a side character for the plot value of his death, but it’s the only time Nolan submits to that impulse and it at least has the good grace to stay out of the way of the remainder of the plot.

There’s an organic nature to the script that ultimately takes Dunkirk from good movie to great, as Nolan thinks more like a novelist than a screenwriter here. Knowing the history of the evacuation, Nolan creates sets of circumstances for each character or group, and then sees how they react to the stresses under which he places them. We get three pilots who have three differing reactions to disasters in the air. We see a wide variety of soldiers reduced to scrapping for places on ships, refusing to rescue others, or threatening to turn a soldier over to the enemy to make room on a boat. Mr. Dawson and his crew are tested repeatedly, and he becomes the stoic heart of the film, standing in for the hundreds upon hundreds of British men of all ages who risked their own lives to bring the boys home.

It’s early to forecast honors for any film, but I will throw out there right now that I think Dunkirk has to be the favorite for that SAG “best ensemble cast” award, or whatever it’s called, given in lieu of a proper “best picture” honor. Also, I was sure I saw an uncredited Una Stubbs – that’s Mrs. Hudson from Sherlock – on one of the boats, but IMDB tells me it’s an actress named Kim Hartman. But there is an uncredited appearance via voice only that I won’t spoil beyond saying every film is better for having this actor say a few words in it.

La La Land.

My top 100 prospects ranking is rolling out this week, with prospects #40 to #21 in today’s post. Over at Paste, I reviewed the new edition of Citadels, a classic game from 2000 that plays 2-8, and comfortably plays five-plus – I’d say it’s best with at least four.

Imagine if Once were set in L.A., opened with a classic musical-film song and dance number, and starred two ridiculously beautiful people wearing nice clothes and singing happier songs?

Once didn’t get the love it deserved from the Oscars, although it later became a cult hit and a Tony Award-winning musical. La La Land is a lot more ambitious and bigger-budget than Once was, and it’s going to win a lot more Academy Awards, but at their hearts are quite similar stories about love affairs that just can’t last, set to music.

Of course, that’s a bit glib – La La Land is more than just that. It’s part homage to the bygone era of the big Hollywood musical. It’s a feast for the eyes, with vivid colors in the background and on Emma Stone. It’s a little bit parody, and then it folds a little back in on itself and plays along with its own gag. It’s also a really good time, which makes it a rarity among the Best Picture nominees this year. La La Land is an outright pleasure to watch, even with the half-and-half ending, and with so many movies draped in grief, regret, sorrow, and isolation this year, it stands out even more.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play Mia and Seb, two beautiful people struggling in their careers in LA – she an aspiring actress working in a coffee shop, he a jazz pianist playing Christmas music in a nightclub and then, in a sight gag that Stone turns into something much more, in a bad ’80s cover band. They meet more than once and don’t hit it off right away, but eventually the movie keeps pushing them together until there’s a spark, along with a song about how there’s no spark between them. Eventually, he gets a medium break, playing in a jazz-pop band led by his old frenemy Keith (played by John Legend), which forms the first wedge between the star-crossed lovers, although they manage to careen back and forth until the movie’s epilogue, five years later, where we see that, even in the movies, sometimes you just can’t have everything after all.

This is a musical, but not an old-time musical. If you just saw the opening scene, a huge ensemble dance number set in a traffic jam on a highway on-ramp, you’d expect something like the classics, where people just spontaneously start dancing while singing their dialogue. Instead, this is a regular movie with a handful of songs, and it isn’t until the end, when Emma Stone sings for her Oscar with “The Audition Song” (earning the movie one of its two Best Song nominations) near the very end, that we get another flashback to the halcyon days of Hollywood. Did critics who’ve said of La La Land that “they don’t make movies like this any more!” realize that Hollywood never made movies like this in the past?

Stone really owns this film in just about every way. Her character is better-developed, more three-dimensional, and shows real growth over the film. When Mia and Seb have their first quarrel as lovers, Mia holds her own in the argument, and Stone manages to portray inner turmoil on a face that’s outwardly composed until Seb finally insults her enough for her to leave. That’s Stone’s greatest achievement in the movie – her character is often put in situations where she’s turning from one emotion to another in a flash, and she can do this without making you aware that this is just someone acting.

The movie also uses her as a blank canvas of sorts, running her through an array of dresses in solid, vibrant colors that seemed to underscore the fact that, hey, we’re in California, where everything is sunny and bright and colorful all the time. It doesn’t hurt that she can get away with wearing all of those colors, or that her eyes seemed to be green in one scene and blue in another, but it ensures that your eyes are on her in nearly every scene.

Gosling, meanwhile, can turn on the charm when his character permits, but Seb is prone to this sort of insular, sulking behavior that I thought was as offputting as his strange amalgam of New York and Philly accents. And neither of these two is winning any awards for dancing, although, as always, we must give more credit to the woman for dancing backward and in heels.

Some of the L.A. jokes were a little too on the nose – the Prius gag, the gluten-free line – and the movie is funnier when it draws humor from situations rather than punchlines. When Seb is trying to explain jazz to Mia, and she answers with, “What about Kenny G?” it’s his reaction that drives the entire scene. He is totally beyond exasperated, like he wants to claw the skin off his face, yet is so passionate about the subject and obviously smitten with her that he tries to talk her down off the smooth-jazz ledge. It’s probably my favorite Gosling scene in the movie, especially since Seb’s ego returns to the center of his character towards the end of the film.

The movie ends with a dream sequence that shows an alternate reality five years on, what might have happened if things went … well, the other way, and I think here director and writer Damien Chazelle did two things: paid homage to classic musicals in more explicit fashion, and reminded the Academy just one more time to vote for him. I caught direct allusions to An American in Paris and Royal Wedding, and Funny Face, but I’m no expert on the genre and assume I missed many more. In that sense, it was the most engrossing part of the movie – you’re looking at the flip side of the movie’s internal reality, and also watching the two of them move through a rolling reference to Hollywood history.

I’ve seen four of the Best Picture nominees and hope to see as many as eight – I have zero interest in a Mel Gibson movie, and even less in that particular one – although I might only get Lion after the awards ceremony. Of the four I’ve seen, I think La La Land would get my vote. It just does more, and does more well, than Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea, both great movies but less ambitious than this one. I think any would be a worthy winner, but I rank things, and I currently have La La Land at #1.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011 film).

I rate John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy among the best suspense novels I have ever read, a wordy but incredibly tense spy novel from 1974 that borrows from the great detective novels of thirty to forty years prior. Hearing Gary Oldman was set to play the lead in the first adaptation for the theaters was exciting and worrying, not so much about Oldman but about how well such a dense book could be adapted to the two-hour constraints of the modern cinema. The worry was needless, as the adaptation, while dispensing with much of the detail of the book, is extremely faithful to the novel’s plot, and one of the most intense smart films I have ever seen.

(I have not seenthe six-hour BBC adaptation from 1979, starring Sir Alec Guinness as Smiley, so I can’t offer a comparison – and, given the differences in duration and thus most likely in pacing, perhaps I’m also not hampered by the comparison either.)

The four words in the film’s title refer to codenames for five* senior British intelligence officers, one of whom is a Soviet double agent, referred to as “Gerald” in the book but only as “the mole” in the movie. As the movie opens, we see a botched operation in Budapest that appears to leave another British agent mortally wounded, after which the head of the unit, known only as “Control,” and senior agent George Smiley (Oldman) are sacked. Several months later, after Control’s death, Smiley is approached by Oliver Lacon, the civil servant who oversees MI6, the domestic intelligence agency known colloquially as “the Circus” (for Cambridge Circus, where Le Carré has located MI6’s offices), to lead an off-the-books investigation to identify the mole. Officially retired, Smiley recruits the young Peter Guillam, still employed by MI6, and one other retired agent to find out how Budapest truly went awry, what happened in Istanbul with rogue agent Ricky Tarr, and to ultimately set the trap into which the mole will walk.

*The fifth is Smiley, who is absolved from guilt when the investigation begins, while the name “Poorman” is used for the remaining suspect.

Oldman plays Smiley with tremendous understatement, especially in comparison to roles like Stansfield or Sirius Black, very much in keeping with Le Carré’s Smiley, who, even when beset by inner turmoil, rarely lets it reach the surface, and prefers to conduct his interrogations as the facilitator rather than the aggressor. This is a film of absent looks and tense pauses, with Smiley setting up the pins for others to knock down. Whether this is Best Actor nomination material or not depends largely on performances I haven’t seen by other actors, but its subtlety might mask its degree of difficulty to the point where voters overlook how key Oldman’s performance was to the film; his one great scene, reimagining a conversation with a briefly captured Soviet agent in Delhi several years previously, nearly explodes with Smiley’s emotional turmoil (and the symbolism of the purloined lighter), yet never quite boils over. One can only imagine the American remake, what with smashed lamps or over-the-top profanity or whatnot.

Aside from Oldman, the cast reads like the leading British actors were all fighting each other to get parts in the film, resulting in some powerful performances by big names in modest roles. Colin Firth appears as the caddish Bill Haydon; Ciarán Hinds (perhaps known best as Albus Dumbledore’s brother in the last two Harry Potter films) is underused as Roy Bland; John Hurt, as Control, is apparently morphing into Ian McKellen; Stephen Graham (of Snatch and Boardwalk Empire) has a critical cameo; and Benedict Cumberbatch (who plays Sherlock Holmes in the current BBC series starring that character) is even more critical as Peter Guillam, as tied up by internal demons as Smiley yet less able to restrain them. Even Tom Hardy, as Ricky Tarr, the one character who shows substantial emotions in the film (crossing the line into the pathetic, a deviation from the literary Tarr), manages to avoid sliding into the melodramatic.

The pacing of Tinker Tailor is outstanding, a direction set in the opening sequence, where the screenwriters have heightened the tension by putting the blown operation first. I remembered just enough of the book to follow the story without trouble – I actually remembered the codename of the mole, but not his actual identity, so I wasn’t sure of the ending until the big reveal. However, if you haven’t read the book, the film doesn’t waste much time with explanatory material, and it might take you a few scenes to figure out who’s who and what exactly is under investigation. The flashback scenes aren’t that clearly delineated from the present-day investigation, since they only go back a year or so and can’t be distinguished with hair and makeup. Karla, the fanatical KGB super-agent who never appears in the film except in flashbacks where only his torso is visible, also never receives any sort of introduction before characters begin referring to his existence. We lose some of the backstory of the four suspects, but it’s less necessary in a film that revolves around Smiley and the unraveling of the intrigue, rather than, say, the psychological motivation of the traitor.

The upside of the lack of long-winded explanatory passages is that the film drops you right in the heart of the action, grabs you by the throat, and spends two hours daring you to breathe. And yet there are no cheap, mass-market gimmicks to turn a taut, intelligent spy novel into a mainstream action flick; the furthest it panders is the occasional bit of inserted humor, or the on-screen death of a character whom I think was merely presumed killed by the Russians in the book, but nothing that changes the plot itself, which is ideal as the plot is the book’s greatest strength. (Connie Sacks’ one laugh-inducing line, while funny, is hopelessly out of tune with the rest of the movie, unfortunately.) Deviate from the details if you must, but when the plot’s the thing, leave it be, and the screenwriters – one of whom died at age 49 of cancer before the film was released – did just that.

The only real issue I had with this adaptation is the ending, where the final exposure of the mole’s identity is cut quite short, replaced with a series of wordless scenes set to a recording of “La Mer,” a great song that seemed forced here in a film so reliant on silence through its first 120 minutes. I could have done with less of that, especially the final flashback to the agency holiday party, and more with Smiley confronting the turncoat. It was an average finish to an otherwise plus film, one I’d gladly see again to watch for details I missed because I was so engrossed in the plot.

Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a tense story of a woman who, after fleeing a cult-like commune, shows increasing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder as she attempts to reestablish her normal life and a relationship with her selfish sister and difficult brother-in-law. Based on the true story of a friend of writer/director Sean Durkin, the film is driven by two very strong performances and the use of both silence and background noise to allow the audience to feel the tension grow with the main character’s own mental troubles.

The film begins when Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, the younger sister of Mary Kate and Ashley) flees the commune where she has lived for two years and calls her sister to ask for help; the call is awkward and Martha nearly gives up, showing how far she had fallen into the clutches of the commune’s charismatic, depraved leader Patrick (John Hawkes). From there, we see parallel narratives, one tracking Martha’s first few days of freedom with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law ted (Hugh Dancy) who want to help her as long as it’s no real inconvenience to them, the other following her two years in the cult from her first day to the incident that triggered her decision to escape. Both narratives follow similar curves with an initial ascent followed by a long, gradual decline, a dichotomy where each storyline intensifies the other.

The commune’s true nature only becomes apparent through gradual glimpses through Martha’s memory – and it’s possible that Martha isn’t a reliable narrator, given what happens to her in the other narrative – that reveal the commune to us more or less as it was revealed to her. She’s taken in as a bit of a lost soul, charmed by Patrick, eventually drugged and raped by him (which is explained to her as a “special” event that begins the “cleansing”) as part of her initiation. Patrick exercises control over the commune’s members through very subtle psychological manipulation, although that turns darker as the story develops. Martha – whom Patrick has rechristened “Marcy May,” as he renames all of the members – drifts into the lifestyle of the commune, never questioning any of its practices because she’s pleased, or at least satisfied, to have something resembling a family.

That need for family is explained in part by Martha’s time with her sister and brother-in-law, both flawed themselves and particularly ill-equipped to deal with a woman who has just fled a cult but claims she simply left a boyfriend. Her problems in this timeline start out as mere distance, moodiness, and ignorance of some social customs, but degenerate into delusions and paranoia, and Lucy and Ted show very little compassion or even the ability to generate it – we go through more than 80% of the movie before Lucy finally confronts Martha directly with the question of what happened to her during her two years out of contact. Their parents gone, Lucy is Martha’s only family, but there’s little warmth between them and more obligation than outright love, which stands in the way of Martha’s recovery almost as much as her own unwillingness to discuss what happened does.

Olsen is superb in the film, her first screen role, particularly in the second half of the film when she’s required to show a broader range of emotions; in the first half, she’s emotionally vacant in both narratives, but gets to stretch out into two different faces of the same character as the narrative unfolds. But Hawkes dominates his half of the story by almost trying not to dominate it: There’s no showiness, no bravura, just small gestures, eye contact, a faint change in the tone of his voice to convey the power he has over his charges. Olsen’s growing fear is the primary driver of the tension in the commune storyline, but Hawkes’ magnetism manages to elevate it even when all we have is the threat of his entrance. He’s a monster despite never acting like one; she’s the victim but never acts victim-like, only showing it through a slow crescendo of confusion and fear.

Both leads will at least be in the running for Best Actor/Actress nominations, although those categories are incredibly competitive, and if nothing else I think Martha Marcy May Marlene – the reason for the fourth name is too good to spoil – will end up with a Best Original Screenplay nod. If you can find it and like a tense, psychological drama with the tension of a British thriller, it’s well worth seeing.

I’d like to discuss the meaning of the end of the film, but for those of you who haven’t seen it, you may want to skip ahead. This paragraph has no value other than providing a warning and a buffer.

And this is another buffer, in case you didn’t listen the first time. Spoilers ahead.

There are three ways to interpret the end of the film, two literal, one other metaphorical. Perhaps the man is from the cult and has come to capture, harm, or kill Martha, which is certainly what she’s fearing. Perhaps the man’s appearance is just a coincidence; he could even be a random stalker, but not from the cult. But I favor a third interpretation – that the man’s status is irrelevant; the point of the scene is that Martha isn’t free of the effects of her two years in the cult, and might never be free. She will assume any incident like this is about the cult, or she’ll even experience more delusions like the two she had at the house and will see someone from the cult where there’s no one. The idea that her ordeal isn’t over is paramount, which is why it’s unnecessary to show the viewer the outcome of the incident in the street.

Beginners.

Mike Mills’ 2011 film Beginners takes an event from his own life and turns it into the central plot point in a romantic drama about love, death, and depression. But it’s a much better and sweeter movie than that makes it sound.

As the film opens, we see the 38-year-old Oliver cleaning out a house, going through mementos and old papers, after which he explains (as narrator) that his father, Hal, has just died of cancer, four years after his mother died, which led Hal to reveal that he was gay and to embark on almost a second adolescence, finding new friends, a new love, and a happiness he’d never had during his four decades of marriage. That story, shown in retrospect, is cut in between shots of emotionally-stunted Oliver struggling to forge a new, and for him unusually happy, relationship with, Anna, a beautiful French actress who stumbles improbably into his life but is far from emotionally perfect herself. Oliver’s inability to be happy in love is only partially explained by what we learn about his family, but it’s too facile to say that he learns how to overcome that by watching his father – he learns how to start overcoming it, and to Mills’ credit, the film doesn’t make anything too easy on him or on us.

Nearly all of the dialogue – I’d be hard-pressed to call it action – in Beginners comes from the three central characters, with a few added lines from Hal’s younger boyfriend Andy (Goran Visnjic) and from the dog Arthur (via subtitles, if you were confused). Christopher Plummer is earning some justified Oscar buzz for his performance as the moribund Hal, whose mood is anything but as he finds himself liberated after 40-plus closeted years in an unfulfilled marriage that was, for him, more of a business arrangement; while I’d love to see him win Best Supporting Actor for sentimental reasons, it may also be that he wins for sentimental reasons, as he turns 82 in two weeks and has received just one nomination, in 2009 for The Last Station. It could be the Academy’s last chance to so honor Captain Von Trapp in a sort of lifetime achievement award.

But Plummer is truly the supporting actor to the two leads, Ewan Macgregor as Oliver and Mélanie Laurent as Anna, whose relationship we watch in tiny movements from inception to breakup (if you can call it that) to resolution, a path that seems painfully real in how precise some of those movements are. They meet at a costume party – one of those costume parties you only see on TV or in films, because all of the costumes are impeccable – where Anna has laryngitis and communicates via a tiny notepad, which still makes her louder than the grieving Oliver, just two months past the death of his father. From there, the film jumps around in time between their romance, often sweet but tinged with melancholy reflected in dim apartments and fall weather, and Hal’s last few years of personal freedom, exploring (his word) another side of himself while Oliver attempts to hold together a foundational element of his past. Discovering that his parents’ marriage was a sham – to him, fully, but to his father, only partly so – only cements his belief that relationships won’t work out, so why give them a chance to do so when you know you’ll fail?

We also see scenes from Hal’s marriage to Oliver’s mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller) in flashbacks in which Hal never appears: It’s always Oliver and his mother, and it becomes clear that while Hal viewed their marriage as an arrangement, she didn’t, and her growing alienation from her husband only compounded whatever issues she brought into the marriage in the first place. (This receives some explanation toward the end of the film, a mild spoiler I won’t reveal.) Witnessing his own parents’ loveless marriage, understanding that it was loveless with no understanding of why, warps Oliver’s own view of love and plants the seeds of an inability to build a lasting relationships that, with Anna, is exacerbated by his suffocating grief.

Laurent, meanwhile, could say virtually nothing and steal scenes just by virtue of being adorable, but Anna is battling a depression of her own, living an itinerant and ultimately lonesome lifestyle that may also reflect a reaction to a broken relationship between her still-living parents. It’s a hard trick to look sad without becoming pathetic when an actress and her character are both cute; while it took some time for Laurent to make Anna’s underlying sadness come through (the film is, after all, more focused on Oliver’s grief), the script turns enough to allow Laurent to stretch out beyond the façade of Anna’s playfulness. Her reunion with Oliver at the film’s end would have felt forced if he was the only one struggling emotionally, one of several small twists in the film that made it more effective and less sentimental than a standard girl-fixes-guy romantic drama.

Mills’ script succeeds when it’s subtle but veers off course when he veers outside the relationships at the film’s core. The conversations between Oliver and Anna are soft, short, understated – sometimes too much so, as in the breakup conversation that neither my wife nor I fully understood – contributing to a tentative feeling that conveys Oliver’s own uncertainty at entering a relationship that might not fail (and perhaps Anna’s uncertainty over the same). What I could have done without was Oliver’s inexplicable job – he’s some sort of artist or sketcher who ignores a rock band client’s request for an album cover, instead producing a series of badly-drawn sketches about the history of sadness that is far more about him (and emphasizing just how sad he is) than about the client, whose needs we never actually hear about anyway. Mills wants us to know just how Sad everyone is, but the dialogue and the tiny interactions between Oliver and Anna already provide that, leaving his sketches (e.g., “First couple too in love to be sad”) feeling extraneous. It was a heavy-handed flourish in a film that didn’t need it; Beginners wins you over with the delicate scenes between Oliver and Anna the contrast with the unfettered last few years for Hal.

* I don’t understand how this moved ended up with a rating of “R.” There’s no violence at all, and very little foul language. There’s no on-screen sex or even nudity – just a few shots of Melanie Laurent’s bare back, and if that merits an “R” rating, I must be one of the New Libertines or something. It seems to me that the ratings board members must have been watching the movie and saying, “Wow, what a nice film, we should make it PG or PG-13 since it’s so inoffe…oh my God there are two men kissing! Rate it R! RATE! IT! R!

* Ewan Macgregor was just as charming as a shy phone-company tech in Little Voice, a 1998 vehicle for singer Jane Horrocks, who plays a painfully shy woman with a hidden talent for impersonating great singers. (Those of you with young daughters know her as the voice of Fairy Mary in the Tinker Bell movies. Yes, you do, stop lying.) Horrocks owns the movie when she sings, but it’s a virtuoso performance from Michael Caine, who won a Golden Globe for the film, as the unscrupulous talent agent who sees one last chance to make a killing.