Jojo Rabbit, PG-13
This bold, ridiculous and controversial comedy, in the tradition of mock musical Springtime for Hitler, beat the Oscar-buzzed runners-up Marriage Story and Bong Joon-ho's Parasite to win the Toronto Film Festival's Grolsch People's Choice Award. Fatherless Berlin boy Jojo (the delightfully expressive Roman Griffin Davis) is in constant conversation with his imaginary friend Adolf, as in Hitler (a devilishly appealing Taika Waititi, who writes, directs and costars). Beloved by his stylish, mysterious mother (Scarlett Johansson in a free-spirited dance of a performance better than her role in Marriage Story), Jojo ultimately learns to overcome his blind worship of the Führer. Oscar winner Sam Rockwell, 50, lays down a brilliantly zany and sweet supporting performance as the perpetually demoted Captain Klenzendorf. —Thelma M. Adams
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The most artsy-fartsy movie of the year is also one of the best, a wildly hallucinatory, beautifully retro existential drama that comes off like The Odd Couple directed by David Lynch. Willem Dafoe, 64, plays a lighthouse keeper in 1890s New England who shows the ropes to a new assistant, Twilight's Robert Pattinson, because the last one went nuts. They both go crazy, drinking, quarreling, menacing symbolic seagulls and experiencing noisy digestive upsets while trying to out-howl the wind. It's a wild ride that puts both actors toward the front of the Oscar race. —Dana Kennedy FULL REVIEW
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Gemini Man, PG-13
There's about 45 minutes’ worth of pretty good entertainment in this 117-minute thriller by Ang Lee, 64 (Hulk, Life of Pi). As unconvincingly guilt-ridden government sniper Henry, Will Smith, 51, has an excellent motorcycle chase and fistfight with his nemesis — an ingeniously CG-created replica of himself at 23, though the effect would work better if the oddly age-resistant Smith had more visible wrinkles or jowls and didn't act like a half-witted zombie. Grownup Henry has good chemistry with his sidekicks, twinkly Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who helps grownup Henry stomp young Henry, and Benedict Wong, 48, as his old Army buddy. And it's great to see bad guy Clive Owen, 55, hold his own in combat. But the story is grossly predictable, the storytelling dull, and the dialogue dumb, even by action flick standards. —Tim Appelo (T.A.)
Bong Joon-ho, 50, is making the biggest imaginable comeback after a couple of commercial clinkers (Snowpiercer and Okja) with this darkly comic piece of social commentary in the form of a kickass home-invasion thriller. It won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival and is likely to win the Oscar for best foreign film and get nominated for best picture and best director. More than 130 critics rated it a perfect 100 percent on Rottentomatoes.com. Don't miss this one. —Thelma M. Adams (T.M.A.) FULL REVIEW
Dolemite Is My Name, R
Comeback king Eddie Murphy, 58, brings down the house — and courts an Oscar — in this funky biopic about the Ed Wood of blaxploitation, Rudy Ray Moore, aka Dolemite. With its danceable soundtrack, corny jokes, killer cast (Wesley Snipes, 57, Chris Rock, 54, Keegan-Michael Key, Snoop Dogg) and paunchy underdog hero who works in an L.A. record shop while dreaming of glory, this movie is as American as shrimp ‘n’ grits. The sexy songstress Lady Reed (Da'Vine Joy Randolph), whom Moore discovers in a backwater juke joint after she decks her cheating husband, gives Murphy his best foil in a groovy, entertaining film. —T.M.A.
Antonio Banderas, 59, stars as Salvador, a film director plagued with physical agony and midlife crisis — a character based on director Pedro Almodóvar, 70. The dazzlingly colorful compositions and vivid characters are like the movies that made Almodóvar famous, but this is a wiser, sadder tale than his ebullient 1980s classics. It's about a genius wrestling his demons to a draw and reconciling with old colleagues and loved ones, including Salvador's tough, loving mother (Penélope Cruz in flashbacks to Salvador's youth). A gorgeous, moving film with a career-capstone performance by Banderas, it makes you feel as if the pain and glory of a tempestuous, gay, mother-obsessed Spanish movie director were a universal experience every grownup must go through. —T.A. FULL REVIEW | READ ANTONIO BANDERAS' 'PAIN AND GLORY' INTERVIEW
In this addition to the Batman canon, the Joker is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix, 44), who trudges up a steep staircase daily to the dingy abode he shares with his mom (Six Feet Under's Frances Conroy, 65) after another rough day as a professional party clown and comic. Economically declining Gotham is slashing services. “How will I get my meds?” Arthur asks his social worker prior to erupting in violence. At the coal-black heart of the film is Phoenix's striking gem of a performance. He invites us into Arthur's delusions. He makes palpable the unfairness of being so overlooked, and mocked by a late-night TV host (Robert De Niro, 76) Arthur admires. Yet the willfully provocative fable feels empty and derivative. Arthur is like a combination of Taxi Driver's alienated killer and King of Comedy's kidnapper of a talk-show host (both played by De Niro). As well made as Joker is, there is little here to delight in beyond Phoenix's performance. —Lisa Kennedy (L.K.)
The Laundromat, R
The reason to see this seriocomic, fact-based, flawed financial corruption movie is the performance of Gary Oldman, 61, and Antonio Banderas, 59, as a pair of jolly, evil lawyers who callously victimize a stubborn widow, Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep, 70), who loses her husband (James Cromwell, 79) in a terrible accident on New York's Lake George. The attorneys address the camera directly, swilling cocktails and explaining in Mr. Wizard fashion how they bilk the unwary while living in luxury down Panama way. With their brio and deep connection, they could star in a spinoff movie. When the insurance company denies Granny Martin's claim, she becomes a terrier, sniffing out and pursuing the vast global insurance fraud the attorneys represent. The topic is fascinating, the cast top-flight, but it's a jumble — the narrative underdeveloped, sudsy and unsatisfying. Streep can be a gifted comedienne, but her material here is way too broad. The plot and the comic elements are like the whites and the reds carelessly tossed together in the laundry. Sorry, Mr. Soderbergh, 56, your movie doesn't wash. —T.M.A.
People worried that Renée Zellweger, 50, was the wrong actress to play Judy Garland in her last concert series in London months before her 1969 death. She turns out to be just perfect, a slam-dunk and probable Oscar winner. The movie isn't perfect — the flashback scenes to Judy's youth don't work — but Zellweger is riveting as the singer reaching the end of her rainbow, when she was broke and divorced, lost her home and beloved kids, and succumbed to her lifelong pill habit, yet still sang up a storm, earning ovations (and peltings by bread-throwing audiences), dancing and crying and wisecracking (Asked, “Do you take anything for depression?” she replies, “Four husbands."). A must-not-miss performance. —T.M.A. FULL REVIEW
Ad Astra, PG-13
This visually spectacular but dramatically inert sci-fi snoozer strands Brad Pitt, 55, as an emotionally alienated astronaut who journeys to Neptune in search of his long-lost father (Tommy Lee Jones, 73). Donald Sutherland, 84, and Liv Tyler, 42, fail to find signs of intelligent life in their bit parts as a colonel and the neglected wife Pitt leaves behind on Earth. When Jones finally shows up in something other than a grainy flashback 90 minutes in, he brings genuine poignance to his portrayal of the universe's worst dad. But you get the sense that if Stanley Kubrick had seen this, he would have told writer-director James Gray, “Lighten up, dude!” — B.F.
Practically the entire old Crawley gang and their servants are back for the film version of the series that made butlers fashionable again. The dowager countess (Dame Maggie Smith, 84) is still squabbling inseparably with Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton, 73), but now they're both up against yet another Crawley (Imelda Staunton, 63), the Queen's lady in waiting. And the Queen herself is coming to Downton for dinner! Lady Mary is now outranked in society by her former loser sister Lady Edith, but it's Mary to whom the dowager and her dad are entrusting Downton's future. And their eldest has big news about their future together — plus plenty of sage advice. If only this movie were longer, it would be ideal. —T.A. READ FULL REVIEW
Rambo: Last Blood, R
The fifth and final installment of Sylvester Stallone's action-jammed franchise (begun with the excellent 1982 First Blood) could have been a butt-kicker. No one can blame the 73-year-old (and still buff, if creaky) icon for thinking that playing John Rambo, traumatized Vietnam vet turned hero, was worth one more go. After all, Creed II, the eighth Rocky movie, grossed almost a quarter-billion. Sadly, Last Blood's plot is pure straight-to-video schlock: John, living in Arizona, hightails it to Mexico to rescue his abducted teenage niece (Yvette Monreal) from a sex-slave ring. Since he brings no PTSD meds, just his beloved special knife, heads roll — literally. The dialogue, cowritten by Stallone, is loaded with bewildering contrivances. The climax? Our hero lures baddies into his man cave turned booby-trapped tunnel of terror. Stallone comes alive when Rambo's eyes turn dead with grief and vengeance, but he mumbles through what aims to be a lump-in-the-throat ending for diehard fans. —John Griffiths
If only everything about this movie — based on the real story of New York strippers who drugged and robbed their amusingly disgusting, overpaid Wall Street clients after the 2008 market crash robbed the rest of us — were as good as the performance of Jennifer Lopez as the strippers’ ringleader. There’s serious Oscar talk inspired by her charismatic, emotionally shape-shifting character, sometimes like a doting den mother to her team, especially Constance Wu as Destiny, sometimes ruthless, cold and nasty for mysterious motives. But the film doesn’t know whether it’s a searing satire, a weepie tragedy or a sisterhood-is-powerful saga, and the writing and direction are wan and undistinguished. The plot is a foregone conclusion, but it’s still fun to see the jerks get fleeced and Lopez strut her acting stuff. —T.A.
The best thing about this adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning mystery concerning a famous painting stolen from the Metropolitan Museum of Art by a troubled young man after a bombing is Nicole Kidman’s performance as a wealthy socialite who takes the thief in after the explosion kills his mom. The storytelling is lumpy and confusing, but there’s some power in its themes of love and loss. —T.M.A. FULL REVIEW
A must-see documentary celebrates the genius and indomitable spirit of Ronstadt, 73, who sold over 100 million records and won 10 Grammys. The vocalist launched the Eagles, outshouted the Rolling Stones, dated George Lucas, Jim Carrey and Jerry Brown, and mastered more styles than any other superstar pop singer: barefoot-in-the-pigpen country (“Different Drum”), arena rock (“You’re No Good”), light opera (The Pirates of Penzance), American Songbook classics, and mariachi (Canciones de Mi Padre, the best-selling non-English album in U.S. history). Then Parkinson’s silenced her gift, though she still sings softly and sweetly with her family. —T.M.A. FULL REVIEW
Ms. Purple, Unrated
To support her beloved ailing father (James Kang), a young woman (Tiffany Chu) works at a seedy karaoke bar in L.A.’s Koreatown, getting plastered nightly with drunken businessmen whose hands she politely fends off, while cultivating one rich faux boyfriend (Ronnie Kim). But when her dad’s home-care nurse quits, she talks her estranged, AWOL brother (Teddy Lee) into coming home to help out. Beautifully shot and sensitively pensive, the film could use more skillful storytelling, and more plot. But its themes of family caregiving, vivid sense of place and resonant character study make you forgive most of its flaws. —T.A.
Official Secrets, R
Keira Knightley (Pride and Prejudice) is the best thing about this fact-based film about Katharine Gun (Knightley), a translator at Britain's Government Communications Headquarters outraged by a 2003 government attempt to spy on and blackmail diplomats who might oppose Tony Blair's advocacy of the Iraq War. So she leaked the news to a newspaper and got arrested under the Official Secrets Act. The storytelling is drab and scatterbrained, and cowriter-director Gavin Hood utterly fails to live up to the promise of his Oscar-winning 2005 debut Tsotsi. Even so, it's a fascinating, little-known episode, Knightley's magnetism nearly redeems her underwritten character, and Ralph Fiennes is good as her crusading attorney. —T.A.
Legendary liberal Texas gadfly reporter Molly Ivins was a force of nature, a scourge of scoundrels, a humorist on a par with Mark Twain, an out-of-control tobacco-and-alcohol addict, and one of the few journalists whose vivid presence can carry a movie. Though it won't persuade political opponents of her fairmindedness, this documentary sure reveals her outsize talent, stern conscience, stinging wit and cussed character. —T.A. FULL REVIEW
Secret Service agent Gerard Butler gets framed for the attempted assassination of the president (Morgan Freeman, who else?). He flees the dragnet of FBI sleuth Jada Pinkett-Smith and nerdy Vice President Tim Blake Nelson, with a lot of help from his irascible Vietnam-vet dad (Nick Nolte), a survivalist who just loves hating authority. Even though it’s a silly adventure full of things blowing up and stuntmen flying through the air, there’s real intergenerational chemistry between Butler and Nolte. Butler’s character is like a Bond who knows what it feels like to turn 50 but won’t let aches, pains, migraines, addiction and a nationwide manhunt stop him from saving the free world. –T.A. FULL REVIEW
Blinded by the Light, PG-13
The alienated teen son (Viveik Kalra) of a laid-off Pakistani immigrant in uncool Luton, England, in the depths of 1980s bad hair and worse pop music finds hope and purpose in the tunes of Bruce Springsteen, who inspires him to win love, happiness, the writing career of his dreams and the Boss's approbation. It's a high-concept premise that sounds ridiculous — but it pretty much happened to the film's writer. Sweetly exhilarating and winsomely innocent, it should make a star of Kalra, just as director Gurinder Chadha's comparably delightful Bend It Like Beckham made a star of Keira Knightley. —T.A. FULL REVIEW
The Art of Racing in the Rain, PG
Warning: You may get the sniffles from this shamelessly tearjerking adaptation of the best-selling novel about a dog, Enzo (voiced by Kevin Costner, 64), who bonds with his race car driver owner Denny (Milo Ventimiglia). Enzo senses that something is wrong with Denny’s wife (Amanda Seyfried) before she knows it – though not before we guess it, because we can see every plot point coming down the track for a country mile! If you've ever loved a dog and felt he knew you deeply, you'll forgive the simplistically manipulative script and direction, and the clunky subplot with Kathy Baker and Martin Donovan as Seyfried's meddlesome parents. Costner is a pro-dog activist and deeply in love with his own pooches, and he aces his first voiceover role. —T.A. READ KEVIN COSTNER INTERVIEW
Quentin Tarantino's eagerly awaited, Oscar-fated epic about the era of the Manson murders turns out to be more about life than death. It's a day in the life of a washed-up star of a ‘50s TV cowboy show (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman and best pal (Brad Pitt, 55). Their sinister encounters with the Manson family are, at first, just another part of the background of Hollywood back then. It's an incredibly, obsessively detailed portrait of pop culture in Tarantino's youth, with a tone that's comic, sad and as nostalgic as Alfonso Cuarón's Roma. The vast cast is great, DiCaprio is better, and Pitt steals the picture. — T.A. FULL REVIEW
The Lion King, PG
This innovative cinematic hybrid version of Disney's $8.1 billion blockbuster epic, using visual effects, live action and computer-generated images, definitely offers some dazzling moments, and fine performances by James Earl Jones, 88, as the elder royal lion Mufasa, Chiwetel Ejiofor as wicked Scar, and John Oliver as Mufasa's confidant, Zazu. But Beyoncé and Donald Glover are surprisingly meh, and grownups are likely to prefer the 1994 animated original or the Broadway version. However, if you take youngsters to see it, they're apt to just love it. This one's for the cubs. — Lisa Kennedy (L.K.) FULL REVIEW
The Farewell, PG
Awkwafina, the rapper and actress who struck comic gold in Crazy Rich Asians, breaks out as a dramatic actress in a more poignant story based on what really happened to director-writer Lulu Wang: When her grandmother in China got a cancer diagnosis, the family kept the news from her, and the clan flew in from America and Japan — ostensibly for a family wedding, but really to say goodbye while keeping Grandma (Shuzhen Zhao, 75) in the dark about her condition. The intergenerational bonding is beautifully moving. A tale as heartwarming as August: Osage County or The Wedding Banquet. — T.M.A. FULL REVIEW
What if suddenly everyone on earth forgot about the Beatles but you, a struggling singer-songwriter? Would you claim you wrote the Beatles’ songs and earn worldwide fame and the love of an adorable girl (Lily James, Downton Abbey's Lady Rose)? Find out what that would feel like by watching this rom-com wish-fulfillment fantasy by the makers of Love Actually and Slumdog Millionaire. —Bruce Fretts (B.F.) FULL REVIEW