The Beguiled (2017)

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The unexpected arrival of a wounded Union soldier at a girls school in Virginia during the American Civil War leads to jealousy and betrayal. (IMDb)
The slow first two acts are a fairly bland main course (colourless cinematography and a lack of music don’t help) but in hindsight they do well in setting up the thrilling third act dessert with its deliciously sinister climax and brilliant cherry-on-top final shot (with ominous score icing): the women played with the polite man until his destructive patriarchal power emerged and threatened, and now the understanding of the titular character(s) is subverted. Kidman’s turn is a chilling standout.
7/10 (Good)

 

Wildlife (2018)

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A teenage boy must deal with his mother’s complicated response after his father temporarily abandons them to take a menial and dangerous job. (IMDb)
Beautifully made, from haunting score to poignant cinematography, impeccable turns to superb script that always knows when to talk and when to not, with a great three-act story shifting through a poor kid lens the focus from volatile dad to selfish mom to post-fire aftermath (the lack of repercussions for the porch incident is the only flaw here). Its picture-near-perfection actually holds it back a bit though; the aching drama of the narrative could’ve benefited from a bit more grit and shake.
8/10 (Great)

 

Kaze no tani no Naushika [Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind] (1984)

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Warrior and pacifist Princess Nausicaä desperately struggles to prevent two warring nations from destroying themselves and their dying planet. (IMDb)
Crossing bleak deserts, cozy windswept valleys, and brooding dark forests is this grand fantasy war epic and mystical 80s eco-sci-fi all in one, led by the best hero I’ve ever seen in cinema; gimme Nausicaä flying in the face of danger with her arms outstretched over ____man any damn day. Beautifully designed (in sound and picture) and written with poignancy (the pacifist/environmentalist messages are occasionally heavy-handed but always powerful) and nuance (see the lack of clear villains).
9/10 (Amazing)

 

Hot Rod (2007)

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Self-proclaimed stuntman Rod Kimble is preparing for the jump of his life – to clear fifteen buses to raise money for his abusive stepfather Frank’s life-saving heart operation. (IMDb)
Yeah, I get it, comedy can be subjective, but with the way this film in particular is so endlessly creative and colourful and full of child-like wonder and fun in its quest for the laugh (which maybe could’ve been put on brief pause in Rod’s rock bottoms), I feel particularly called to shield it from from any big ol’ meanies who don’t like it. You do you, Hot Rod. Keep ringin’ those bells, jumpin’ those ramps, coolin’ those beans, singin’ those songs, and kickin’ that ass. You’re funny AF.
8/10 (Great)

 

The Italian Job (2003)

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After being betrayed and left for dead in Italy, Charlie Croker and his team plan an elaborate gold heist against their former ally. (IMDb)
The first two acts hit all the right beats for a fun heist plot, including a couple well-timed “wrench-in-the-plan” twists, keeping it engaging through some less-than-stellar humour and characterization (Theron’s Stella is tragically reduced to nothing more than a “got girl” by movie’s end in a vomit-inducing end credits scene). The great car-chase action of the third act, meanwhile, leads to a less than satisfying deus-ex-machina ending courtesy of some unnecessary side characters.
6/10 (Mediocre)

 

Hauru no ugoku shiro [Howl’s Moving Castle] (2004)

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When Sophie, a shy young woman, is cursed with an old body by a spiteful witch, her only chance of breaking the spell lies with a self-indulgent yet insecure young wizard and his companions in his legged, walking castle. (Letterboxd)
Ramshackle in its construction but endlessly interesting. Just like its titular house, it’s a little hard to follow but there’s so much to explore and enjoy here, from the intriguing anti-nationalist themes (see the contrasting flag bookends) to the characters both nuanced (see Howl’s noble but immature hero; Sophie’s unique coming-of-age arc) and quirky (I heart Calcifer and Turnip-Head). Beautifully animated (every one of the numerous settings is stunning) and rich in both drama and humour.
8.5/10 (Amazing)

 

Neko no ongaeshi [The Cat Returns] (2002)

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After helping a cat, a seventeen-year-old girl finds herself involuntarily engaged to a cat Prince in a magical world where her only hope of freedom lies with a dapper cat statuette come to life. (IMDb)
“It’s tough to survive in this world.” In a film filled with magic and whimsy, this early line from kitten to kid stands out and foreshadows a unique undercurrent of poignant coming-of-age fare (“Where do I belong?”) that comes to an excellent resolve (“It doesn’t matter anymore”) in an overall bizarre and marvelous fantasy adventure plot that enchants (see the mesmerizing midnight cat walk) and charms (Baron’s a babe, obvs) and tickles your funny bone (see the kooky King practicing his swing).
8/10 (Great)

 

The Old Guard (2020)

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A covert team of immortal mercenaries are suddenly exposed and must now fight to keep their identity a secret just as an unexpected new member is discovered. (IMDb)
Gets a (barely) passing grade for its diverse cast and millennia-worth of potential (gimme more of the emotion found in Joe’s boyfriend speech and those witch-trial flashbacks). The plotting is a mess and the central thread just doesn’t click–we’re supposed to root for this superhero team against the people trying to control them but we never actually see them being superheroes, just murdering the people trying to control them. Terrible dialogue and bland cinematography don’t help matters.
5/10 (Poor)

 

Nadie Sabe Que Estoy Aquí [Nobody Knows I’m Here] (2020)

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Memo lives on a remote Chilean sheep farm, hiding a beautiful singing voice from the outside world. A recluse with a glittery flair, he can’t stop dwelling on the past, but what will happen once someone finally listens? (Letterboxd)
The quiet visual storytelling is done with the utmost artistry and intentionality as gorgeous cinematography, subtly powerful symbolism, and striking cuts slowly but steadily drive the narrative and keep it consistently compelling (the solid, understated turns by all fit in perfectly). A tad more exposition would’ve given the rising tension in the third act a little more edge though; as it was, it was a bit muddled. The musical climax, meanwhile, lacked the “wow” factor it was banking on.
7.5/10 (Really Good)

 

Lady and the Tramp (1955)

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The romantic tale of a sheltered uptown Cocker Spaniel dog and a streetwise downtown Mutt. (IMDb)
“Okay, how many cultural stereotypes and fake accents can we cram into this kids’ movie about dogs? Also, can we possibly give the central romance a creepy ‘grizzled playboy+young innocent girl’ vibe? Oh, and rats sneaking into babies’ rooms and attacking them is a thing right?” This has most of the lovely animation and charm of its Disney siblings (see the constant dog POV) but its discomforting and/or puzzling elements (see the abrupt shift to happy epilogue) are too many to let slide.
6/10 (Mediocre)