For a fact-based drama concerning an alcoholic paralyzed in a car wreck, Gus Van Sant’s biopic about cartoonist John Callahan (1951-2010) is rather cheeky and jaunty. But Joaquin Phoenix slam-dunks the role of an artist who navigates a 12-step program, finds relief in his controversially sardonic work (published in The New Yorker and 200 newspapers), and rages against physical and psychic limitations — all beneath a self-mockingly awful ginger wig. It's not Van Sant’s most tightly crafted story, but it's a compassionate saga of the Sisyphean task of sobriety. An unrecognizably slim Jonah Hill plays an eccentric AA sponsor and Jack Black the drunk driver who crashed Callahan’s VW at 90 mph, changing his fate. —Thelma Adams
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Photo by Linda Kallerus, courtesy of A24
Eighth Grade, R
Bo Burnham, whose homemade YouTube videos earned him 228 million viewers at 16, crafts a superb first film about a girl's last week in middle school. Elsie Fisher (Despicable Me) is wonderful as a YouTube motivational video maker who's bubbly and confident online but intensely shy in real life — especially when she, voted most quiet in her class, gets invited to the rich, cool kids' year-end pool party. Everything in her scary but exciting life rings true — the tyranny of social networks, boys good and bad, kids welcoming and menacing, big decisions you're not ready for. It's as good as a John Hughes movie but sweeter and infinitely more realistic. It will take you back, and to the eighth-grader in your life it will feel like a documentary. —Tim Appelo (TA) FULL REVIEW
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Won't You Be My Neighbor?, PG-13
The movie of the moment is this tear-inducing tribute to Fred Rogers, the late host of the children's TV show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, by Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville. The film, which particularly draws grownup viewers with its irresistible nostalgia, is powered by Rogers' world-class kindness, which inspires kindness in others. The film also depicts his fearlessness — he helped kids deal with issues as troubling as Bobby Kennedy's assassination and the 1986 Challenger explosion, and convinced President Nixon not to kill $20 million in PBS funding by defending public broadcasting in an eloquent six-minute U.S. Senate speech. When Tom Hanks plays Rogers in the forthcoming film You Are My Friend, he'll have a heck of a time topping the real man's performance. —T. A. SEE RELATED ARTICLE
Though it thrillingly captures the incandescent talent that propelled Whitney Houston to global success as the singer of "I Will Always Love You" and star of The Bodyguard, this highly intelligent documentary by Oscar winner Kevin Macdonald is most impressive as a cinematic inquest into the cause of her death, at 48, in a bathtub. Really, it's a portrait of her wildly talented, horribly tormented extended family and an object lesson in the perils of having one's dreams come true without confronting one's own demons (in Houston's case, drugs and childhood sexual assault). Her sad story is well known, but this film is packed with revelations, insight and skillful filmmaking.—T. A. FULL REVIEW
Richard Foreman, Jr./SMPSP
This sequel to the 2015 hit about a hitman (“sicario” in Spanish) has a mishmash plot that makes no sense, but it’s a sensational vehicle for two top late-blooming stars. Josh Brolin, 50, who became a star at 40, has 24-style charisma as CIA dirty trickster Matt Graver, grave maker. He hires a guy whose daughter was killed by narcos (Benicio Del Toro, 51) to kidnap a Mexican drug lord’s daughter, blame it on a rival cartel, and spark a war. Del Toro is as good, bad and ugly as Clint Eastwood ever was. If you like this kinetic, incoherent but great-looking flick, check out director Stefano Sollima’s superb Italian Mafia series Gomorrah on Sundance TV. —T. A.
Scott Green / Bleecker Street
Debra Granik, 55, who made Jennifer Lawrence famous in Winter’s Bone, has crafted another father-daughter drama about rural outcasts — this time a war vet (Ben Foster) whose soulful teen (Thomasin McKenzie) is tired of living off the grid with him, subsisting on rainwater, foraging and sales of PTSD meds the haunted dad clearly needs. Inspired by a real dad and teen who spent four years hiding in the 5,000-acre Forest Park in Portland, Ore., it’s a vividly realistic story about their bond, the power of nature (including human), and the kind city folk who try to save them. Winter’s Bone had a way more propulsive plot, but this sensitive, brooding drama is an Oscar magnet, too.—T.A.
The King, R
Prizewinning left-leaning documentarian Eugene Jarecki packs a bunch of celebrities into Elvis Presley’s 1963 Rolls-Royce Phantom V, retraces the singer’s steps from Tupelo to Vegas to immortality, and crafts a rambling, lively, high-IQ cinematic essay on what Elvis really means to America. There are archival shots and beautiful musical interludes by stunning singer EmiSunshine, recently deceased Elvis drummer D.J. Fontana, John Hiatt, who starts crying, and Elvis himself (in excepts from perhaps his greatest performance), but mostly it’s thought-provoking talk about his legacy and the current state of the nation by Ethan Hawke, The Wire creator David Simon, Alec Baldwin, Emmylou Harris, Mike Myers, Dan Rather and other celebrities you didn’t know were this smart. —T.A.
Even if you hate horror movies, you should see this runaway dark-horse hit because it’s actually an intensely emotional, Ordinary People-like study of family grief. Sure, there’s a possessed child, a kindly neighbor (ubiquitous Ann Dowd, 62) in a cult fond of lopped-off heads, and scary people crouched like spiders in the ceiling, but the violence isn’t gratuitous, and when someone bursts into flames, it’s a believable metaphor for the rage of the grieving mom (Toni Collette, 45). In fact, the whole movie may be the wife’s hallucination — see it and decide. Despite the Academy’s disdain for horror, Collette could win an Oscar for this incendiary performance. —T.A.
Inspired by the true Wall Street Journal story of guys from Gonzaga Prep in Spokane, Wash., who have been playing a game of tag for almost 30 years, invading each others’ homes and workplaces to shed the dread status of being “it,” this mild action comedy plays like a lighter version of The Hangover, with Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Hannibal Buress and Jake Johnson as the guys who ninja-ambush each other to express love and stay in touch as they grow up (or refuse to). A bromance as silly as it is heartwarming. —T.A. FULL REVIEW
Ocean’s 8, PG-13
If you liked George Clooney’s gang of wisecracking Vegas casino robbers, you’ll no doubt enjoy watching Sandra Bullock, 53, as his heist-planning sister, Debbie Ocean, who wrangles Cate Blanchett, Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter, Sarah Paulson and Mindy Kaling to steal a $150 million diamond necklace off Anne Hathaway’s neck at Manhattan’s glittery Met Gala. A caper flick with a touch light as a pickpocket's, targeting the heart of the over-50 moviegoer, it’s a fun, woman-centric movie that delivers the goods. —T.A. FULL REVIEW
Hearts Beat Loud, PG-13
Director Brett Haley, whose 2017 Sam Elliott film The Hero was a modest hit, charms again with this slightly High Fidelity-like drama about a widower dad (Nick Offerman, 47, Parks and Recreation) who writes a catchy indie tune with his daughter (Kiersey Clemons). She wants to go to med school; he tries to hang on to their togetherness, his youth and his record store. The landlady (Toni Collette, 45) wants to help him grow up — which sounds like a bad idea to his amusing, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing pothead bartender pal (Ted Danson, 70). As Offerman’s mom, Blythe Danner, 75, is underwritten but good. Like Lady Bird, this is a touching intergenerational flick with dark-horse Oscar potential. —T.A.
If you liked the grueling, God-and-sin-haunted Taxi Driver, you’ll probably like First Reformed, a searing art-film hit about a tormented clergyman (Ethan Hawke), the pregnant wife of his eco-terrorist parishioner, and the wicked polluter industrialists who finance his church. It’s the most grownup role yet for Hawke, 47, and a titanic comeback for Paul Schrader, 71, who wrote and directed this instant classic under the influence of his idols Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson, and also of Taxi Driver, which Schrader wrote at 26 when he was a broke, suicidal alcoholic living in his car, very like Robert De Niro’s character Travis Bickle. With its midlife hero, First Reformed is like Taxi Driver for grownups. —T.A. FULL REVIEW
Book Club, PG-13
A delightful comedy starring Jane Fonda, 80, Diane Keaton, 72, Candice Bergen, 71, and Mary Steenburgen, 65, as friends who read Fifty Shades of Grey in their book club, triggering earthquakes in their love lives, lots of laughs, and a moving lesson in how to refuse to be like, as one character puts it, “the people who stop living before they stop living.” It’s 50 times better than the Fifty Shades flicks, if so formulaic in its wish-fulfillment fantasy that cynics will hate it. —T.A. FULL REVIEW and FULL CANDICE BERGEN INTERVIEW
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 85, gets the star treatment in this charming documentary (though conservatives in the film who call her "vile" and "wicked" won't be applauding). We see her ascend from a ladylike, blue-eyed young beauty traumatized by Harvard Law School's sexism to a crusading attorney winning case after case for women's rights before the court, and finally joining it thanks in part to the superb lobbying of her husband, of whom their daughter said, "Daddy does the cooking and Mommy does the thinking." Warm and funny, the film also sheds substantive light on the collision of legal ideas and personalities that shape our nation. —T.A. FULL REVIEW