The studios continue to save their best offerings for last. So many good movies have come out in these last few weeks, that I’ve decided to stuff them into holiday grab bags and tell you what I think beginning with the following group of three with more soon to come!
JACKIE: Herewith Natalie Portman’s stunning, eery portrait of a traumatized and chain smoking Jackie Kennedy in the days following the assassination of her husband JFK. It took me about 10 minutes to tune to her performance–and then I was all in. Portman’s widowed First Lady relives the bloody moments of the murder, then follows its surreal fall-out as she orchestrates the funeral to end all funerals and her three-year-old’s birthday party, prepares to leave her home, shapes her husband’s legacy, and tries to come to grips with the meaning of it all. The otherworldly score puts us in an existential frame of mind as we watch Jackie jockey with a journalist (Billy Crudup). As he’s trying to see through the smoke and mirrors, she appears to be navigating an out-of-body experience in slow motion. Look for Portman to be Oscar-nominated for this singular performance.
ELLE: France’s freckled and flame-haired cinematic dominatrix Isabelle Huppert here puts the “froid” in sangfroid. The opening scene is SUCH a shocker, I thought that the film had somehow lurched ahead — but no! We discover her eye level with the cat, mid-assault on her elegant dining room floor. When it’s all over, she barely appears to notice, but proceeds to track the perpetrator with the stealth and elan of same cat. Director Paul Verhoeven (“Basic Instinct”) once again empowers the woman and provocatively brushes up against our pre-conceptions of what separates sex, violence, romance, fetish, betrayal, and revenge. Huppert reigns supreme as the chill magistrate of all she surveys, including the company she heads which creates violent video games, and which is manned by any one of a number of gamers who might have crossed the line between fantasy and reality. There is no doubt, however, that no matter the outcome Huppert will not be outplayed. Her signature role at age 63.
MOONLIGHT: This is quite simply the best film I’ve seen all year. It traces the evolution of a young gay black man from childhood to adulthood as he grows up in poverty in Miami. Three sublime actors portray Chiron at three different stages of his life: a childhood (Alex R. Hibbert) fraught with crime, bullies, and a crack addicted mom (Naomie Harris), his explosive, teen years (Ashton Sanders) as he discovers his sexuality, and his adulthood (Trevante Rhodes) circumscribed by a shell of protection that may yet give way. What’s extraordinary about the film is how intimate but universal, how moving but unsentimental, and how three actors so physically different could together convey the same whole human being.
Director and co-writer Barry Jenkins gives us a screenplay that claims us completely with few but essential words, few showy dramatic episodes, but sacrifices none of the complexity of Chiron’s circumstances. These include a drug dealer who becomes a pivotal force in Chiron’s life (Mahershala Ali). Jenkins also knows where to put the camera so that we are inside Chiron’s emotional, psychological experience and always on the brink of his evolution. The film is as incandescent as moonlight and glows with the raw poetry of a human being’s unruly truth. A masterpiece.