Friday, April 16, 2021
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Thursday, March 18, 2021
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Monday, February 8, 2021
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Thursday, January 7, 2021
Wednesday, December 16, 2020
Saturday, December 12, 2020
Friday, December 11, 2020
Thursday, December 10, 2020
Friday, August 21, 2020
1. Boyhood (2014)
2. Parasite (2019)
3. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
4. Gravity (2013)
5. Manchester By the Sea (2016)
6. The Social Network (2010)
7. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
8. La La Land (2016)
9. Marriage Story (2019)
10. Lady Bird (2017)
11. Inside Out (2015)
12. Carol (2015)
13. The Irishman (2019)
14. Dunkirk (2017)
15. 45 Years (2015)
16. Spotlight (2015)
17. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
18. Toy Story 3 (2010)
19. The Rider (2018)
20. Little Women (2019)
21. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
22. Her (2013)
23. American Hustle (2013)
24. Winter’s Bone (2010)
25. Uncut Gems (2019)
26. Paterson (2016)
27. The Artist (2011)
28. Elle (2016)
29. Eighth Grade (2018)
30. Phoenix (2015)
31. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
32. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
33. The King’s Speech (2010)
34. Whiplash (2014)
35. Hell or High Water (2016)
36. Brooklyn (2015)
37. Leave No Trace (2018)
38. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence) (2014)
39. The Shape of Water (2-17)
40. If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
41. Can You Ever Forgive Me (2018)
42. Moneyball (2011)
43. Nebraska (2013)
44. All Is Lost (2013)
45. Lincoln (2012)
46. Room (2015)
47. Argo (2012)
48. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
49. The Master (2012)
50. Baby Driver (2017)
51. The Kid’s Are All Right (2010)
52. The Big Sick (2017)
53. Rolling Thunder Review: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese (2019)
54. Get Out (2017)
55. First Reformed (2018)
56. Won’t You Be My Neighbor (2018)
57. Take Shelter (2011)
58. Fruitvale Station (2013)
59. The Descendants (2011)
60. Toy Story 4 (2019)
61. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
62. Snowpiercer (2014)
63. Booksmart (2019)
64. Widows (2018)
65. Looper (2012)
66. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
67. Hugo (2011)
68. Blackkklansman (2018)
69. The Guilty (2018)
70. 20 Feet From Stardom (2013)
71. The Post (2017)
72. 20th Century Women (2016)
73. Creed (2015)
74. Knives Out (2019)
75. A Quiet Place (2018)
76. War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)
77. 127 Hours (2010)
78. Captain Phillips (2013)
79. Sicario (2015)
80. The Spectacular Now (2013)
81. Maiden (2019)
82. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
83. Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
84. Skyfall (2012)
85. Selma (2014)
86. Django Unchained (2012)
87. The Big Short (2015)
88. Bridge of Spies (2015)
89. Midnight in Paris (2011)
90. Ford v Ferrari (2019)
91. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)
92. Inherent Vice (2014)
93. Foxcatcher (2014)
94. Locke (2014)
95. Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)
96. Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
97. The Martian (2015)
98. True Grit (2010)
99. Love & Mercy (2015)
100. Wild Rose (2019)
Tuesday, August 14, 2018
There’s something very wrong with Thelma, though we’re not quite sure what it is. We first meet her when she’s just a child, living with her devoutly religious family in a remote town on the coast of Norway. The girl’s father, Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen), takes her hunting on the shores of the frozen lake next to their house. Thelma walks ahead of her dad, entranced by the sight of a deer. Standing behind his daughter, Trond silently points his rifle at her head. He doesn’t pull the trigger, but the temptation is there.
Thelma — an ominous, unnerving, and strangely powerful thriller about the most devious of human desires — might appear to be a change of pace for Oslo, August 31st writer-director Joachim Trier, but the story tenses and frets with the same melancholy glimmer that courses through his dramas. Here, the Norwegian’s filmmaker’s signature brand of existential dread (always coupled with and complicated by a youthful sense of becoming), is expressed through style more than action. This isn’t a movie where all that much happens, but every decision ripples with darkness.
The brunt of the action takes place more than a decade after that disconcerting prologue, when Thelma acts against her parents’ wishes and enrolls as a freshman at a university in Oslo. Played as an adult by the entrancingly blank Eili Harboe, she’s an isolated misfit (pretty but self-contained), unequipped with the social skills that seem to come so easily to the kids who grew up in secular homes. She’s shy, and tends to tremble, but Thelma doesn’t appear to be afraid of other people; if anything, she’s afraid of herself. It’s not much of a spoiler to suggest that she has good reason to be scared. There’s something inside of her, and it starts to shake its way out one gray afternoon in the university library. Only moments after sparking a conversation with a beautiful fellow student named Anja (musician Kaya Wilkins), the electricity proves to be too much, and Thelma starts to violently convulse on the floor. This will not be the last of her seizures.
A new friendship is waiting for our heroine when she wakes up: Anja is as warm and outgoing as Thelma is cold and enclosed, but there’s an immediate attraction between the two girls, and neither one of them is able to control it. Trier endows the intractable compulsions of self-discovery with a supernatural charge, as animals start to follow Thelma wherever she goes, slithering even into her dreams. One night, Anja appears out of the black forest that surrounds Thelma’s dorm, unsure of how she got there. Later, the two girls enjoy a brilliant night at the symphony, only for the slightest flirtation to threaten the lives of everyone in attendance. Thelma begs God to rid her of lesbian thoughts, yet God seems to have other ideas in mind. Trier’s protagonist may think that she’s in a sweet coming-out story that uses genre elements to express the sheer force of finding oneself, but this young woman is about to learn that she’s in a very different kind of movie.
It would be potentially ruinous to discuss how Thelma develops from there, but rest assured that Trier ramps up the strangeness with every new scene, this frigid little fairy tale eventually coming to feel like an adaptation of Carrie as directed by Ingmar Bergman. Shot in cinemascope and shivering with elemental imagery (the thick ice that stretches across the surface of her parents’ lake doubles as an effective expression of Thelma’s isolation from the rest of the world), Trier’s film slowly mutates universal growing pains into specific ingredients for existential horror. Lust is just the tip of the iceberg, though Thelma is consistently keyed in to the persuasive power of the female body, and how the strength of physical attraction can sometimes be complicated by its shallowness.
The longer the movie goes, the more that sex just becomes a means to an end. As Thelma’s physical state worsens and she’s diagnosed with psychogenic non-epileptic seizures (an affliction that once led to women being labeled as witches), Trier begins to leverage her bizarre condition into a smirking commentary on the human id. Diving into Thelma’s sordid past — why is her mom in a wheelchair, anyway? — Trier increasingly forgoes the loquaciousness of his previous Norwegian-language films in favor of natural imagery that says things his characters can’t even admit to themselves. Over time, the sight gags of a relatively standard psychological thriller (e.g. Thelma being trapped underwater in her university swimming pool) are replaced by visuals that seethe with biblical fury.
The more disturbing the set pieces get, the more fundamental the questions they ask us become. If the first half of the film contemplates how difficult it can be for teenagers to come into their own power and outgrow their parents, the second half interrogates the basic value of unconditional love, and whether people really need each other at all. As compulsively watchable as Harboe can be, Thelma is too much of an empty vessel to eclipse the beguiling madness that Trier invents for her; she’s reserved to the point that she borders on a non-character, and there are moments when the freaky circumstances of her freshman year feel interesting in spite of her. As a result, the movie sometimes strains to get where it’s going, and its sillier moments have a way of diluting the impact of its more serious ones. And yet, Thelma’s story sticks to your bones like a shiver, and sinks deeper for days after the credits have rolled. Her hollowness gets filled in as the body count starts to rise, Trier revealing her dormant power, scooping out her purpose, and inviting each viewer to fill it in with their most uncomfortable impulses.
When Thelma stares into the abyss, the abyss stares back, and both sides like what they see. It’s almost calming. The stillness of this unassuming film ultimately becomes the scariest thing about it, as Trier reconciles his protagonist’s inner and outer desires, her faith and her feelings, and leaves us wondering how terrible it would be — how terrible we would be — if everyone always got exactly what they wanted.
Drama, Fantasy, Horror. Directed by Joachim Trier. Starring Eili Harboe, Kaya Wilkins, Henrik Rafaelsen. MPAA Rating: Not Rated. Running Time: 1:56. Theatrical Release: Nov. 10, 2017
Saturday, August 11, 2018
Biographical documentaries of famous people are typically dull affairs, the kind of thing that falls into hagiography or the kind of talking-head, then-this-happened adoration more at home in the 60-minute television format on PBS than in a feature film. There are very few filmmakers who have defied this trend as completely as Brett Morgen, the director of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and The Kid Stays in the Picture (about producer Robert Evans). He makes films that feel like extensions of his subject matters, channeling their creative spirit in the form of his filmmaking more than just detailing what happened in their lives. So it’s cinematic justice that over a hundred hours of footage of Jane Goodall crossed paths with Morgen, as both are pioneers in their field, and only Morgen seems capable of shaping that footage in such a unique, captivating, inspiring way as in Jane, one of the best documentaries available for home viewing so far this year.
Jane is that rare documentary that works in equal measure for those who know a great deal about Goodall and those people who don’t know a thing. Most people probably think they know all they need to know about Goodall. She watched chimps, right? Her research was essential to understanding not only the way we interact with the natural world but our place in it, but hers is not a name like Kurt Cobain that gets thrown around in conversations much in 2018. Jane fully elevates the scientific pedestal on which Goodall should be placed but it does so in part by humanizing her, revealing the challenges she faced and discoveries she made as more than mere National Geographic footage you might see in a science class.
Morgen structures his film relatively chronologically, allowing Goodall to tell her own story as we see footage of her in the wild. There’s a fascinating structural element of Jane in that the footage doesn’t contain interviews or dialogue, and so we’re watching Jane, the chimps, and the other humans who would come to Gambe, in a way that’s not dissimilar from the way Goodall observed her subjects. And there’s the added sense of disconnected observation that comes with time, and in the manner that Goodall herself is analyzing her own story in the way that someone might analyze the actions of a family of chimps. The parallel is clearly intentional, especially as Jane becomes more and more about how the lessons that Goodall learned in the wild informed her entire life, including even teaching her lessons about motherhood.
That’s a theme of Jane as we’re introduced to Goodall’s supportive mother in the opening scenes, see how Jane observes the motherhood of the chimps she’s studying, and then see her maternal instincts on display with her own child. Morgen very subtly does this in his films — drawing thematic undercurrents that move through the work without overriding the informative chronology of it all. There’s a fluidity that can be breathtaking to watch, especially as that motion is accompanied by Philip Glass’ best film score in years. You should be warned that it’s "very Glass," and I found it somewhat overwhelming at first, but I quickly couldn’t imagine the film working without it. It becomes an essential part of the film because of the aforementioned lack of an abundance of archival interviews, meaning that Goodall’s modern voice and Glass’ compositions become our primary sources for information and inspiration.
Jane is filled with fascinating anecdotes and insights, such as the fact that Goodall was never nervous about going to the wild to observe chimps because we didn’t really know about the aggression of the species when she chose to do so. She didn’t know to be scared (but would learn about the violence inherent in the chimp population). Goodall made headlines around the world when she filmed a chimp using a branch to obtain termites from a hole for nourishment. It may not seem like a big deal now, but it was once thought that humans were the only species to use tools, and the fact that a chimp used a branch as a tool shook the world, especially in the offices of religious leaders. The footage around the first time that Goodall really made contact with the chimps — when they trusted her enough to get close — is still breathtaking. It’s incredible to consider that footage this old of a chimp taking a banana from a woman for the first time ever would make for one of the most unforgettable scenes of 2018. A baby chimp learning how to walk is on that list of this year’s images I won’t forget as well.
Goodall herself is a forthcoming and fascinating interview subject — another testament to Morgen’s work as a narrator. Jane feels like a film that couldn’t have been made without the valuable insight gained through time. We see so many documentaries that want to be current and timely that they don’t realize the value of chronological distance from a subject. In a sense, we’re watching the impact of Goodall’s evolution from a young adventurer to a groundbreaking scientist to a wife and mother. And it’s through her self-analysis of that evolution that Morgen draws a line through 50 years of research and an entirely different species. As he has in his other films, he’s saying to us that it is through these pioneers that we can see the best in ourselves and the potential of the human intellect and desire to learn. But he never loses his filmmaker’s desire to entertain at the same time. It’s that balance of both — the genius of both the subject and the filmmaker — that make Jane such a rewarding experience.
Documentary, Biography. Directed by Brett Morgan. MPAA Rating: PG. Running Time: 1:30. Theatrical Release: Oct. 20, 2017
Friday, August 10, 2018
In an alternate, less uptight version of our reality, 1980s TV detective series knew no censors. They were seedier in their homage to pulp novels, and more willing to show the deadly consequences of their action. In that universe, Ian and Eshom Nelms' Small Town Crime is the special, feature-length premiere of a series worth watching every Friday night. Starring John Hawkes as a booze-addicted former cop who stumbles across a mystery he can't stand to leave unsolved, the scuzzy-looking movie is a boon to the actor's fans even if it lacks qualities that might broaden its appeal to at-home film viewers.
Hawkes' Mike Kendall ends every night in a blackout; starts every morning (around noon, presumably) trying to get back on the police force ("It'll take a miracle," a former colleague says); and in between, does just enough job-hunting to keep the unemployment checks coming. But when he finds a woman left for dead by the side of the road, his sense of duty kicks in: He races with her to the hospital, and when she dies, he decides to find her killer.
Passing himself off as a private detective to the girl's family (Robert Forster plays the wealthy grandfather), he learns that she was a "troubled" girl. In fact, she was a prostitute, and her colorful business manager (a man calling himself Mood, played by Clifton Collins, Jr. with characteristic flair) had a deal with one of Mike's bartender acquaintances. Several hookers are in danger, he learns, and Mike might be just the person to rescue them without involving the cops.
Hawkes' take on the P.I. archetype is not the slightly-tarnished knight of Chandler or the tough guy of Spillane. Jim Rockford would brush his lapel and quickly excuse himself if the two met. But the Nelms brothers put his character through the same kind of wringer those guys regularly endured (the blackjack-to-cranium ambush, for instance), and Hawkes makes it credible that he'd stay on the job instead of retiring to a barstool. Mike does have one reason to regain his self-respect: His adoptive sister (Octavia Spencer) and her husband (Anthony Anderson), upstanding citizens who've been paying his mortgage through these lean times, are nearing the end of their patience with him. When his new gumshoe hobby endangers them, it's a foregone conclusion that Mike will rise to the occasion.
Only one small sore-thumb scene, in which a barmaid delivers a clever little speech too indebted to Tarantino, ever suggests that Small Town Crime has ambitions above its modest station. But that's a blip for a satisfying, stale-beer crime flick that would rather get its kicks from Mike's muscle car and, eventually, from a classic railyard shoot-'em-up climax. Mike doesn't make everything right in an evening, and the screenplay nods knowingly toward the future in just the way an old NBC pilot would have. Hell, maybe some present-day cable network could pick up the ball, convincing Hawkes to return to the small screen, this time as star. Assuming, that is, that the Amazon pilot in which he plays a superhero (!?) doesn't take off first.
Crime, Mystery, Thriller. Directed by Eshom and Ian Nelms. Starring. John Hawkes, Anthony Anderson, Octavia Spencer, Robert Forster, Clifton Collins, Jr. MPAA Rating: R. Running Time: 1:31. Theatrical Release: Jan. 19, 2018.
Thursday, August 9, 2018
In case Gary "What Is Aleppo?" Johnson is still wondering why it is important that (potential) world leaders and the world at large pay attention to what is happening in the city, the documentary Last Men in Aleppo would be a good starting point. Directed by Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad and co-directed and co-edited by Danish cutter Steen Johannessen, this harrowingly immediate feature follows two Syrian members of the White Helmets, the organization that goes in after each bombing from the air to try and rescue victims from under the resulting rubble and ruins.
Frequently heartbreaking and hard to watch — "Watch out for torn limbs," one of the protagonists tells his colleagues matter-of-factly at one point — the film demands to be reckoned with as a testament to the selflessness and courage of these literal life savers, though the constant preference for a purely human approach over even basic contextual information might rub some viewers the wrong way.
The White Helmets have been receiving quite some attention lately, with Orlando von Einsiedel’s short Netflix documentary about them and with George Clooney reportedly working on a feature version. Fayyad’s film, among this year's Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature, was shot between the fall of 2015 and the fall of 2016, while barrel bombs from Russian planes rained on Aleppo, restricting the movement of the volunteers and about 250,000 civilians (left from a population of over 2 million) to an ever-smaller part of the city. Whenever a bomb reduces a building to ruins, the White Helmets try to arrive as quickly as possible to see if there might human victims that need to be rescued. At the start of the film, Fayyad and co-director Johannessen give only the barest of outlines about the conflict and even less information about the White Helmets themselves, omitting, for example, that the organization is financed from abroad and mostly ignoring its political dimensions.
Instead, the documentary focuses on the grueling day-to-day of two White Helmet workers. Khaled and Mahmoud are both around 30 and they tirelessly hurry to wherever a new bomb has hit and destroyed a building, potentially trapping living souls underneath the rubble. With danger for their own lives, they dig and move tons of debris until they can either reach survivors or recuperate the corpses of those that have died. It is, of course, a thankless task in which a moment of ecstasy over finding a living child can tip over into tragedy mere seconds later when their mother or one of their siblings turns out to be dead.
Johannessen and co-editor Michael Bauer carefully modulate the contrasts of the men’s daily highs and lows in the film’s first half, with grave moments alternating with light banter between the men or moments of Khaled with his two young daughters (his wife is conspicuous by her absence). There is a sense that they try to continue life as normal for as much as possible, buying goldfish — earlier spied in the initially rather enigmatic opening sequence — for a fountain or taking advantage of a cease-fire to let the children play outside. The question of whether they should leave is constantly on Khaled’s mind, as ever more buildings are razed to the ground, people die and the unmentioned question arises of what and who is left to stay behind for?
Similarly, Mahmoud struggles with more existential questions as well as those arising directly from his job. After a visit to a family of whom he saved a son, he feels guilty because it felt like he was "showing off". But it is impossible to reconcile this with an earlier image of the boy, with his hair still missing where he had head wounds, as he sat with Mahmoud’s arm around him, quizzing him about his rescue. Mahmoud’s warm embrace and kind gestures suggest exactly why he digs into each new pile of rubble, hoping to rescue another child like that kid.
Mahmoud also worries about his younger brother Ahmed, who wants to help him, and about his parents, who think the siblings are working in Turkey. In one of the film’s most intense scenes, the brothers are almost hit by a missile and then shot at just after having arrived at a car wrecked by a missile. They were there to get the corpses out of the burning vehicle but for wanting to look after the dead, they almost ended up dead themselves.
Director of photography Fadi al Halabi had a crew of several cameramen who followed Khaled and Mahmoud over the course of a year. Their images are often stunning, not only for what they show but also how they showcase it. Despite the fact they are working in a war zone, there is practically none of the bad-quality shaky-cam footage that we’ve come to expect from those places. Instead, many of the shots have a kind of incongruous and surreal beauty about them, imbuing the film with a certain majesty. And except for a few grainier nighttime and interior sequences, the images are of exceptional clarity.
The editing in the film’s second half is slightly baggier than necessary, while Karsten Fundal’s heavy and heterogeneous score is often less a harmonizing factor than a distraction. The final sequences also feel a little too much like a calculated, fiction-type arrangement of the available footage. Still, there is no denying the cumulative power of the material, in large part due the protagonists’ endless reservoirs of humanity, dignity and selflessness in the face of one of the world’s biggest and most incomprehensible tragedies. Light on background and contextual facts, Last Men in Aleppo speaks very loudly from the heart.
Documentary, War. Directed by Feras Fayyad, Steen Johannessen. MPAA Rating: Not Rated. Running Time: 1:48. Theatrical Release: May 3, 2017
Tuesday, August 7, 2018
In 1959, the writer and philosopher Guy Debord, best known for his work on what he called "the society of the spectacle," made a short film called On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time. A simple title, but one with a lot of implications. It could serve as an alternate title for the French film BPM (Beats Per Minute). Known as battements par minute in French, the phrase that initially referred to the human heart, was then applied to modern dance music.
The way this movie relates to the Debord title is in the fictionalized story it tells, about the Paris branch of the AIDS activism group ACT UP in the 1990s. Directed by Robin Campillo from a script by Campillo and Philippe Mangeot, the movie opens with a few members of the group storming the stage during a government presentation on their handling of the AIDS crisis. Their shock tactics get a little out of hand, and the movie cuts to a meeting of the group after the fact, comparing notes, admitting fault, expressing humorous confusion at the contradictions between individual accounts, and discussing what to do next. The movie makes canny use of non-linear editing, moving backwards and forwards with engaging fluidity, and it keeps this up throughout. But the movie, in its 140-minute or so running time, sets itself down purposefully enough to give the audience a good look at several characters sharing a "unity of time" in different ways.
There’s Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), the pragmatic head of the group, who’s always looking to achieve a balance between the eye-opening protests of the group and a kind of constructive engagement with the government officials and big pharma reps who are slow to respond to the crisis. Sophie (Adèle Haenel) is one of the relatively few women in the group, an eloquent and energetic front-of-the-line type. The group’s makeup is mostly of gay men, but it’s hardly exclusive. The teen Max (Felix Maritaud) got the HIV virus by transfusion, and both he and his single mom Hélène (Catherine Vinatier) are passionate factors in the group. Max mixes up, in his apartment bathtub, the fake blood that the group uses to decorate the office of one pharma company at which it stages an intervention.
None of these characters come across as a "type" during the scenes in which we get to know them. The actors delineate them as strong individuals. The film’s sharpest focus is often trained on Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a pint-sized provocateur whose passion is matched by fierce logic and charismatic eloquence. He forms what seems an unlikely romance with Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a hunky, quiet newbie whose negative HIV status arouses initial suspicion when he joins the group. Their love story is frank, sometimes funny, and eventually heart-rending.
What the movie does, beautifully, and unfortunately, necessarily, is remind the viewer that the axiom "the political is personal" is not a fluffball bromide to be set aside in the postmodern world. BPM recounts with precision an era in which people died in part because governments tacitly (and sometimes not tacitly) agreed worldwide that a particular virus was punishment for deviant behavior and thus not something that deserved urgent attention. The tactics of ACT UP were deemed "extremist" by many. This movie demonstrates the humanity of these activists, people whose backs were against a wall. It does so with humor, compassion, affinity, and no condescension. Even if you consider yourself reasonably well-versed in the history, BPM is a kind of wake-up call, a cinematic alarm against complacency.
Drama. Directed by Robin Campillo. Starring Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, Adèle Haenel, Antoine Reinartz, Catherine Vinatier, Felix Maritaud MPAA Rating: Not Rated. Running Time: 2:23. Theatrical Release Oct. 20, 2017
Saturday, August 4, 2018
More imaginative than Coco, more soulful than Moana, more everything than Despicable Me 3, Nora Twomey’s The Breadwinner cements Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon as an animation powerhouse worth mentioning alongside the likes of Pixar, Laika, and the great Studio Ghibli. A deeply anguished story that’s told with the same vivid style as Cartoon Saloon’s two previous features, The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, The Breadwinner triumphs with a sense of emotional sobriety that strikes far deeper than anything that passes for children’s entertainment in this part of the world — it may be aimed at (older) kids, but it’s certain to hit their parents twice as hard.
Adapted from Deborah Ellis’ 2000 novel of the same name, The Breadwinner is immediately set apart by its setting. The film begins in Taliban-controlled Kabul, where an 11-year-old girl named Parvana (stoic newcomer Saara Chaudry) sits on the dirt with her father as he sells his wares. Although women are prohibited to be in public without being covered, Parvana is still young and invisible enough to avoid the ire of the increasingly fundamentalist male population. Be that as it may, every new customer presents a new opportunity for oppression, as the city’s gun-toting men are always eager to assert their dominance. They eye Parvana like wolves in waiting, and intimidate her kind father for defending his daughter’s innocence; her father explains to some aggressive shopper that he lost his leg while trying to defend their country in the war against the Russians, but the Taliban men don’t understand history, only erasure.
Parvana, on the other hand, is steeped in her family’s rich history of storytelling; she may still be a child, but she understands the nature of violence, how it visits history in terrible cycles, taking so much from her people that they’re left with no choice but to start over. "Stories remain in our hearts even after all else is gone, her father tells Parvana, and she takes those words to heart; her father hasn’t given her much, but he’s given her this. And when the Taliban arrest him without cause, it is all that he is able to leave behind.
Without a man to go into the market for them, Parvana, her older sister, her toddler brother, and their heartsick mom are left to starve. But these are resourceful, iron-willed women. There’s a profound scene in which Parvana’s mother wordlessly cuts the girl’s hair, shearing her daughter of her identity so that she can pass as a boy and buy them the naan they need to survive. The Breadwinner may be drawn with the softness of a coloring book, but its characters are hardened to the hilt and blessed with wills of iron. They know what has to be done.
The film mines its significant power from that relationship between beauty and terror, Twomey using animation to redeem a story that would have been unbearably sad in live-action. Created with a program called TVPaint, The Breadwinner adds a sober dose of reality to Cartoon Saloon’s vibrant house style; the hand-drawn characters are coated with a digital sheen, resulting in an aesthetic that marries the lushness of Disney classics with the modernity of flash animation. The computer-generated elements allow the story to unfold against nearly photo-realistic backdrops, suspending the movie between fantasy and reality in much the same way its heroine is caught between two worlds.
Or three worlds, as Twomey reserves yet another look for the long passages in which Parvana tries to buoy her brother’s spirits by telling him a story about a boy who’s tormented by an evil elephant king who has spikes for tusks. For these sequences, Twomey spirits us into a splendid world full of paper cut-outs, Parvana doing her best to preserve some vital family history in a place where photographs are forbidden. These bits tend to dilute the power of a film that already gets a touch scattered once Parvana assumes her disguise, and they take us away from the film’s true protagonist for far too long, but they’re so fetching and full of life that the distraction is easy to forgive. Most importantly, this sub-plot manages to save the story from itself, arriving at its point just in time to make sense of the exasperatingly hectic finale that Twomey has invented for her adaptation.
So urgent and far-reaching that it never settles into the comforts of a coming-of-age story, The Breadwinner is a small film about the biggest things. It’s engaging from start to finish, but Twomey — to her great credit — prioritizes stoicism over sentimentality. Parvana’s story will pull at your heart, but its beauty is evenly matched with its despair; she may triumph in one small victory over systemic misogyny, but the war is hardly won. The film can’t leave us with happiness, so it opts instead to leave us with hope, hope as stubborn as the shock of yellow flowers that grow out of the stones outside of Parvana’s home.
Animation, Drama, Family. Directed by Nora Twomey. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running Time: 1:34. Theatrical Release: Nov. 17, 2017