Call Me by Your Name

Timothée Chalamet is a name the mouth pulls on, like the sweet edge of a lollipop. In Call Me by Your Name, he is the beautifying mirror that reflects, in embarrassing detail, the savorings of everyone’s first lust. That first bite of the apple consumes him in a way that seems almost invisible to most of the adults; it visits him like an imaginary friend. But Elio has that luxury of youth: to be blinkered. Summer is in his eyes, and that is all he sees.

Luca Guadagnino, the director, coaxes us onto the chaise, and feeds us this summer the way a Roman sybarite was fed grapes. Though set in Northern Italy, in 1983, the film uses the recent past as a cover for timelessness. The neon era is honeyed, synthetic fashions brought back to earth. Guadagnino and the cinematographer, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, treat us to a rhapsody in green—a proscenium arch framing ancient passions. Through Elio, we are enticed to bask in the remote sunlight of our memories: The moisture in his eyes is reflective like morning dew. But I think his yearning is also a fig leaf over something these filmmakers value over experience.

The 17-year-old Elio is the wundertwink of Franco-Italo-American-Jewish polyglot polymaths; his father (Michael Stuhlbarg, never given a name to be called by other than Mr. Perlman) seems to be a professor of antiquities who works from home in their villa. Into this academic hen house struts a magnificent rooster, a graduate student whose own origins are similarly ethereal: Oliver (Armie Hammer), a Jewish WASP jock intellectual.

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The Disaster Artist

The second best decision that James Franco made for The Disaster Artist was casting himself as Tommy Wiseau; his best decision was casting his younger brother, Dave, as Greg Sestero. More than an imitation, the elder Franco hints at this slum-rat showbiz Frankenstein’s motivations, which is remarkable considering that these actor-filmmakers—both Wiseau and Franco—spray mace in the eyes of anyone who peers into their souls.

Greg, however, is an open book. No doubt this wide-eyed quality, which is stuck on him like a sheet of paper that says “Kick me, I’m gullible,” is what turned these strangers in a San Francisco acting class into collaborators in Hollywood. Acting is a dream for Greg, by which I mean it is an aspiration but also a fantasy; someone like Tommy, whose performance style brings to mind a James Dean that was raised by orangutans, might look, to virgin eyes, like an unsung master. Greg skips college and moves to L.A. with his indeterminately older and inexplicably wealthy friend. I’m tempted to call this dude Tommy’s “straight man,” but that’s not altogether clear.

As a love letter to playacting for its own sake, featuring theater people who are older, and presumably hungrier, versions of Lady Bird’s dorky friends, The Disaster Artist is very pleasing. Los Angeles, ever its own most ruthless villain, isn’t the soul-crusher or ball-buster it gets pigeonholed as, nor is it only worth the trouble if you make it big—like the darling dreamers in La La Land. As Jacki Weaver puts it, portraying one of the community-theater stalwarts who lands a role in Tommy’s 2003 cult classic The Room, “Even the worst day on a movie set is better than the best day in reality.” Issued from a working actress who’s no closer to the pearly gates of Beverly Hills than a kid growing up in Hell, Mich., it’s a touching sentiment.

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Lady Bird

Lady Bird is like an organic, non-G.M.O. version of Mean Girls. That may sound like a dig, but what I mean is that Greta Gerwig improves upon, and makes her own, a well-established but entirely respectable coming-of-age formula. Her movie is almost perfect for what it is, which happens to be a teenage girl’s journey to adult consciousness—but is really the shared story of every young person from “the provinces” with creative ambitions whose bubble gets pierced by that pin called life. Happily, this bubble is resilient, and the pin mercifully dull: all that leaks out is childish arrogance. I think the delight one takes in this movie is in watching Saoirse Ronan learn the lessons that you, as a creative person, and a lucky one at that, already know. There are keen, relatable observations, but few revelations.

Foremost among Gerwig’s life lessons is: call your mother. If Lady Bird’s incipient appreciation of home—podunk Sacramento—has a foundation, it’s the relationship between her and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf). One caught glimpses of an analogous parenting style in Room, where Joan Allen held Brie Larson’s family together with a minimum of fuss. That was in the thick of crisis, though. In the McPhersons’ world—the minefield of minor emergencies endemic to the working poor—Marion’s fuss is the bill everyone else pays for their (relative) stability. Lady Bird, afflicted with the brain chemistry of a 17-year-old, takes Mama Bird’s pecking for granted, unaware that in its absence she’d be sleeping on a dirt floor.

Metcalf has what might be called Resting Mom Face; her lower lip puffs out a bit because that’s where her next nag is queued up. But she pairs her deadpan to an extraordinary gift for timed releases of guilt or stress that were honed, perhaps, in front of live studio audiences on Roseanne. The biggest case in point is the way her pupils slide up when she knows she’s being evasive—I’m thinking of Marion’s response when the daughter asks if her mother likes her: Marion pouts for a second, and hedges.

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The Shape of Water

Although set in Baltimore, in 1962, The Shape of Water has a Continental feel. It has that specifically French sensibility that Up had, embracing the absurd with a spring in its step, savoring the abyss like a nice pâté. In my opinion, the director, Guillermo del Toro, spreads it on a little thick; some of the elements don’t mix well. But, by and large, it’s engrossing. The film rides out its flaws on a wave of whimsy. It runs on the goofball charm that only a kid who grew up shipping Fay Wray from the original King Kong with the creature from the black lagoon would ever dare to muster.

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) gets by in a demimonde of lost souls, a menagerie of otherness that consists of Giles (Richard Jenkins), her gay artist neighbor; Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her protective and opinionated black co-worker at a research institute, where they work the night shift as housekeepers; and Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Soviet spy. As an infant, Elisa’s voice box was torn out in an act of abuse; she acquires outcast status by being a mute. They’re all repressed, but only in the outside world: Elisa includes in her daily routine a little “self-care” in the tub. (As a period piece, Shape isn’t too credible, as this omen of sexual liberation adduces.) When the outside world barges in, it’s in the person of Col. Strickland (Michael Shannon). He delivers a captive to the institute: a merman played by Doug Jones.

Intellectually, it’s a clever idea to merge monster movies with fairy tales. In a sense, it was there all along: as early as King Kong’s obituary. But I think del Toro is juking social commentary out of drive-in pictures from the Nuclear Age, movies like Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). (These films channeled anxieties so bluntly that it was less like subtext and more like propaganda.) It doesn’t take any media-studies courses to glean that del Toro’s intention is to show that Strickland is the real monster, and the baddest monster of them all is America’s obsession with conformism and upward mobility. This, more than the film’s influences or poetic distance, justifies the retrograde timeframe: upward mobility, identity, and income inequality are rather sore subjects in the America of 2018.

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Baby Driver

On the topic of idealized Americana, courtesy of our European cousins, is Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, which takes the low road to pimped-up rides and cheap cafés. It lacks the sophistication of Breathless, the elegance of Tarantino’s second-run Death Proof, or the snarky dynamism of Wright’s own Cornetto trilogy—but that’s like asking a Buick to be a Bugatti.

There’s a sweet aftertaste of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost; the familiarity of their kinship, which complements Wright’s lucid exasperation, resides in the doe-eyed love affair between Ansel Elgort and Lily James (rather more in her than him). They play the sort of drifters that exist outside time and inside the old Warner Bros. vault. Baby fiddles with his iPods a little too much to make the car-chase scenes very memorable. At one point, there’s the promising suggestion of a getaway in a rain storm. When the clouds parted, however, my anticipation level slunk into the gutter.

Kevin Spacey is cool as the mob boss, but his change of heart doesn’t make much sense. (Perhaps it’s best to keep that guy away from jail-bait Baby.) In some ways, the final third is dramatically verklempt, but it’s engaging to watch how Wright, after a fling with the gruesome, snaps back with his moral compass. Hidden behind Baby’s badass shades is a sense of guilt and responsibility. Most of his peers, like Thelma and Louise, would sooner gun it off a cliff than get caught. Wright is a different kind of romantic.

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a deeply flawed, at times idiotic, movie, and I can appreciate the backlash against it. And yet, hidden beneath all the mistakes and poor judgment calls is an aspirational, romantic fantasy about America, which I respected, as much as I can understand why others might reject it. I don’t think one can carve Frances McDormand’s blistering performance, which has been universally praised, out of the framework the director has put her in. Those who have responded positively to her Mildred Hayes are probably also responding to McDonagh’s idealized America, at least on some level.

At heart, this is a story of grief. You can lash out at its proxies but never quite land a punch on your target. That is what Mildred is doing with the billboards she rents, which bait the local police—the cancer-ridden Chief Willougby (Woody Harrelson) in particular—for never finding and bringing to justice the man who raped and murdered her teenage daughter.

The backstory is muddy, as it gets tangled up in allegations that hayseed deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) beat up a black suspect in custody, and never suffered any consequences for it. However, despite it casting a pall over the police department, this incident seems to have nothing to do with their finding no leads in the Hayes case. The town’s sympathies are torn; people feel for Mildred because of her loss, but reproach her for casting aspersions on a dying, virtuous man. Harrelson, going back to territory he explored in The Messenger, is robust and reflective and unlikable-proof—though not to the degree that Willougby is an even remotely plausible husband for Abbie Cornish. Not only is she 20 years his junior, but we’re given no evidence that Ebbing would be a magnet for ravishing Welsh immigrants.

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The Square

I didn’t find The Square insufferable, exactly, but I read into its “awkward humor” style and “biting” satire an embittered cry for help. And, without sinking into my armchair too deeply, I think that much of its acclaim (it won the Palme d’Or) stems from elite circles’ sympathy with the director’s predicament. In other words, the call is coming from inside the house.

If Amour reflected the death of the haute bourgeoisie, The Square is its Night of the Living Dead. The tune of its dog whistle is the sadomasochistic tension that the cultural elite feels these days, a sense that their authority as “gate keepers” has been chipped away to the point of castration mingled with a contradictory pang of guilt over their status and privilege. This is a movie by a privileged white man about a privileged white man: the curator of a contemporary art museum, played by Claes Bang. (I don’t know if his name, Christian, has symbolic import or if that’s just what half of the men in Stockholm are named.) The theme of his story might be that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but that’s a trifle less damning when one considers that bad intentions are imputed to just about everyone else. Christian gets to be bonehead and egghead in one sleek package.

The art world provides such low-hanging fruit for satire that it’s faint praise to say that the director, Ruben Östlund, scores a few sour grapes. But the film makes no distinction between a Jeff Koons and a de Kooning, and assures us that the characters don’t either. The two artists who figure into the plot are foppishly detached and committed to the point of psychopathy, respectively; and it’s clear from the first five minutes, when Christian can’t articulate basic premises of art theory that have been ersatz since Warhol, that he doesn’t have much passion for his profession either—which leads one to wonder how and why he stumbled so far up the ladder.

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