Good with crayons? Enter Auralia's Coloring Contest.

Do you have kids who like to work with crayons?

Are you still a kid who likes crayons?

If so, I've got a challenge for your imagination. And I might even have a prize for you.

Since the release of my first novel — Auralia's Colors — I have been surprised, delighted, even awestruck by the expressions of creativity that the stories have inspired in others.

During the book's initial run, my friend Adrienne Kerrigan designed a limited-edition collection of recipes for the various foods I'd invented for the characters of the Expanse. Readers have posted videos in which they perform the songs sung in the stories; they've composed original music for the lyrics they found in the pages of the series, and others wrote new songs entirely.

And, of course, there have been visual artists, composing images that the stories have inspired in their own imaginations. I am so grateful for Kristopher Orr's awe-inspiring cover art for the gifts he gave to all four books...

The Auralia Thread books covers, by Kristopher Orr

... and yet it seems that readers felt free to go on reimagining things on their own terms.

I've found images in the online galleries of art students — like Kristine Macasieb's impressive character studies and scenes from the series. I've reached out to the artists to thank them, and met some remarkable people. I'm particularly fond of the original work of Karen Renee, whose Auralia's Colors image hangs on the wall of my office.

Auralia's Colors, by Karen Renee

That's right in keeping with the series' celebration of creativity.

My friend Jon Volck imagined the faces of the fearsome beastmen from Cyndere's Midnight, like this one...

Jordam the Beastman – by John Volck

And author/animator/illustrator extraordinaire Ken Priebe imagined the dangerous monsters called viscorclaws like this...

A viscorclaw — one of the creepiest critters you'll encounter in The Ale Boy's Feast. Illustration by animator Ken Priebe.

A few summers ago, I chatted with an illustrator named Daniel Sorenson, one of the creative geniuses I've come to know at The Glen WorkshopImage's annual arts gathering in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (You can explore Daniel's vivid illustrations of dragons, mermaids, and devious squids, and more, at his website.) After he designed an extravagant coloring book in collaboration with my friend Tara Owens, a spiritual director, we started talking about how much fun it would be to bring an Auralia's Colors coloring book for kids into the world.

Alas, we don't have the resources to publish such a whole coloring book, but Daniel did compose an anniversary image that we are happy to share with the world.

In fact...

I'm offering signed copies of two books from the series — Auralia's Colors, Cyndere's Midnight, Raven's Ladder, or The Ale Boy's Feast — to the winner of an all-ages Auralia's Colors coloring context. 

So, get out your crayons... or challenge your kids to use theirs. Maybe you prefer watercolors or colored pencils or a digital art program. Your method doesn't matter — your imagination does. Find some time to play with the image posted below, and I'll post the winning entry (with the artist's permission, of course).

It's easy to enter this contest. 

  1. Download and print this image at 8 1/2" x 11" or larger.
  2. Color it with any art supplies you like.
  3. Email your accomplishment to with the subject line "Auralia's Coloring Contest" before June 1, 2019.
"Auralia and Dukas in the Cragavar Forest" — Illustration by Daniel Sorenson, 2018.

Many thanks to Daniel Sorenson for bringing yet another version of Auralia to life!

Soon, there will be another celebration of Auralia coming your way — this time, for your ears. I've embarked upon the production of an audiobook — a homemade production you can play on your commute, your road trips, or wherever you listen to audiobooks.

And hey, if you get inspired to illustrate your own visions of the characters, share them with me, and I'll share them with the rest of Auralia's readers!

Favorite Films of 2018: The Top Ten

As I declare my gratitude for my favorite films of 2018, I'm thinking of Sister Sarah Joan.

Think back to 2017, to that endearing coming-of-age movie called Lady Bird. Think back to that short, sweet scene: Eager to escape the hometown she hates, Christine, a mercurial young high-school senior, is summoned to the principal’s office where Sister Sarah Joan (played by the inimitable Lois Smith) startles her by praising her college essay about Sacramento.

Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird.

“You clearly love Sacramento,” says the nun.

Having made a habit of condemning the place, Christine is flummoxed. “I do?”

“You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care. ... It comes across as love.”

Christine shrugs. “I guess I pay attention.”

Sister Sarah Joan’s reply comes as soft as a whisper, but it lands in the movie like a precision missile made of wisdom:

“Don't you think maybe they are the same thing — love and attention?”

In time, we will see Christine’s exasperation with Sacramento soften.

More importantly, we will see her rage against her meddling mother melt away as she comes to appreciate how love has been manifested not as cheerleading or even as tenderness, but as attention. Her friendships, too — the substantial and the shallow — will be exposed for what they are, in time, as she comes to consider a quality of attention.

Lois Smith in Lady Bird.

What is more — Sister Sarah Joan's question, expanding like a ripple on a pond, will eventually alter my interpretation of Greta Gerwig's film. I’ll see it as an expression of love from the artist to the community and family in which she grew up and from which she moved on. It will become an inspiration for my own film criticism, as I seek to strike a tone of both critique and celebration, of fulfilling the Apostle Paul's exhortation for us to “speak the truth in love.”

The tiny puff of an airborne seed can catch, settle, drop anchor, grow roots, and then transform a backyard or a field. Likewise, a good line from a poem, a song, or an image can alight on our minds, catch us unaware, and begin a transforming work. It can alter how we see the world. It can revise our vocabularies.

And when our language changes, our thinking changes.

This post is made possible by the generous readers
I call the Looking Closer Specialists.
Do you know any of them? Read their names.

After all of the reviews and the list-making, I have no doubt now which scene in all the movies of 2017 has most influenced my thinking and my conversations in 2018.

After hearing Sister Sarah Joan’s insight — thank you, Greta Gerwig — I’ve come to notice how the details that students give attention in their writing shows me something about what they love. I’ve come to see how their insufficient attention to other aspects of their work reveals a lack of love where love is needed. I’ve come to understand my own strengths and weaknesses better by reviewing the subjects of my attention during the day, as well as the duration and quality of that attention.

As a film enthusiast and critic, I find Sister Sarah Joan’s observation informing my appreciation for the movies I see. This is now the question I ask first as I emerge from a crowded movie theater, and the first question I pose to my students after a screening:

What does this movie love?

The answer might be clear from the beginning, or it might emerge slowly. It might even contradict the movie's apparent 'message.'

A movie with a rotten screenplay can still earn my respect and even my enthusiasm if I sense love in some other aspect: cinematography, editing, costumes, special effects. A film with phenomenal, award-worthy acting can turn me off if I sense that the director has more contempt for his characters than love for them. Some movies are promoted as truthful visions of human depravity — and that can be meaningful if they increase our appreciation for goodness by paining us with hard truth.

But if I feel that the movie revels in the darkness of its subject, showing more of an appetite for depictions of suffering than love for those who suffer, then I’m out. Disordered loves do harm to the bodies and spirits of those who indulge them. I’ve seen movies — and a lot of prime-time TV shows, frankly—that loudly condemn criminal activity, but that simultaneously lavish 'loving' attention on the carnage of crime scenes, vivid with shock-value particularity. They glorify the gore over the hard work of justice and redemption, revealing the artists’ disingenuousness.

I enjoyed Mary Poppins Returns for its love of color and childlike imagination. But I didn't find enough love for imaginative storytelling there; it felt like expensive nostalgia. It was fun, but it doesn't make my list of 2018 favorites.

In my recent film courses, I have challenged students to ask Sister Sarah Joan's question of every movie they watch. This can lead to other provocative questions, this one most important of all: What, then, is the movie asking us to love? The ensuing discussions have been revealing.

After we watched Babette’s Feast, we agreed that director Gabriel Axel’s camera loves the faces of his actors and celebrates them with patient, observant, up-close attention. And so we realized that this sullen and contentious community that gives the film’s hero a challenge ends up beloved both to her and to us, all by the attention given to specificity in scowls, silences, consternation, smiles, and, eventually, radiance.

We agreed that Do the Right Thing loves the rhythms, colors, flavors, and smells of Brooklyn, and that Spike Lee crafted his movie as a celebration of differences and distinctions in a multi-ethnic community. Most of all, Lee served up a celebration of blackness, giving attention—that is to say, love—to black bodies, voices, expressions, personalities, attitudes, aggravations, angers, and creativity.

Do the Right Thing, for example, loves its colors, its characters, its compositions, its language.

We agreed that The New World and The Tree of Life are testimonies of the artists’ love for the suggestive power of nature. By training us in attention, Terrence Malick and his cinematographers are teaching us to learn and to love the created world’s capacity for speech. Looking closely at the science-fiction thriller Prospect, a 2018 film by Zeek Earl and Chris Caldwell that appears on my 2018 Honorable Mentions list, we can see how Malick’s love for the natural world influenced these young filmmakers into cultivating one of the most immersive alien-world environments that the genre has seen.

You can learn to recognize it: that rare occasion when an artist, in a fit of inspiration, is caught up in a subject, their attention so fully attuned that they have to stretch themselves to capture in their work the enormity and profundity of a revelation. If you want to reflect light powerfully, you must draw near to it and turn — so that your attention is given more to your subject than your audience.

We prefer the sense that the artist is inspired... to the sense that the artist is insisting we be inspired.

Filmmakers who concern themselves too much with their viewers end up seeming like attention-seekers, crowd-pleasers. And what they give us feels forced, feeble, even frivolous. A filmmaker can drone on self-importantly in interviews about the message of his movie, the ideas that inspired it, or the motivation to make it, but if the work doesn’t seem compelled by a deep love for the subject, it’s going to fall flat.

Alfonso Cuarón's Roma is an expression of deep love for its protagonist. She clearly reminds the director of the housekeeper in the home where he grew up. I admire much about this movie, but I couldn't shake the sense that this opportunity for an intimate portrait, one shaped by genuine gratitude, was disrupted by the artist's eagerness to amaze us with the technical extravagance of every sequence. Good movie — but I wish I could have been caught up in Cuarón's vision.

And this brings me to this year’s publication of my ten favorite films of 2018.

I’ve been wrestling with this year’s movies, trying to organize my favorites into the good, the great, and the transcendent. And, as usual, I’ve concluded that there are no absolutes about which films are “the best” and which fall short. Yes, we can make substantial observations about the quality of certain aspects in each film. But we must acknowledge that our experiences with art are powerfully influenced by our individual histories, beliefs, fears, passions, and questions.

I’ve found the most rewarding approach to expressing my gratitude in the concept of Sister Sarah Joan’s question. My love for certain 2018 films — those on my list of 29 Honorable Mentions and here on my Top Ten list — is inspired by the love I sense within them: the affection for details, the care taken in making something beautiful about something inspirational, upsetting, or enigmatic. The love I sensed on the screen and in the sound of these films made me glad to fall in love as well.


Private Life

written and directed by Tamara Jenkins

In which a middle-aged husband and wife
go to extremes to have a baby before it's too late,
making choices that cause a family crisis.

What does this movie love?

  • Three-dimensional, nuanced characters.
    Richard (Paul Giamatti, as good as he's ever been) and Rachel (Kathryn Hahn, a revelation) are completely convincing as a married couple who miss the glory days of their work in the theatre; as middle-aged dreamers who long to be parents; as human beings who struggle to support one another when they can barely stand up on their own. As they struggle to sustain any hope through wave after wave of disappointment and struggle, they're endearing. Funny. Vulnerable. Fiery. Intimate.  They have moments of tenderness in private, and they clash in public. And then there's Sadie (Kayli Carter), the undergraduate eager to apply herself to a meaningful purpose. The film could have treated Sadie as a sort of Mary-Poppins wish-fulfillment figure, but she, too, is remarkably complicated and empathetic.
  • Families.
    Movies that dinner-table disasters are a dime a dozen, but these scenes of family crisis ring true. And yet, it never feels cynical or bitter like the family dramas of Alexander Payne. In all of their glory and calamity, their tragedy and comedy, their rivalries and loyalties, this family makes me trust the filmmaker who wrote them into being.

Does it make you believe?

I believed in Richard and Rachel. I'm still believing in them. Hahn and Giamatti are so good that I might find myself, going forward, occasionally thinking of them as a real-world couple I know rather than characters I saw in a movie. Nothing they do comes across as emotional acting; nothing feels like an Oscar moment. These performances are grounded in enough context and character to be convincing.

What will you remember most when you think back on this movie?

I'll remember how this movie tied me up in knots as I watched it. The last minute of the movie is almost unbearably suspenseful. I'm sure it was the timing—but watching this film in 2018, on the night of the primaries, I found it especially affecting. Richard and Rachel's relentless pursuit of a dream — constantly frustrated by insensitivities, failures, disappointments, and misunderstandings among loved ones — was often excruciating to watch. I think that, in my subconscious, their increasingly fierce surges of yearning for a child fused with my own sense of longing — that desperate grasping at failing sparks of hope for a nation that believes in liberty and justice for all. My heart feels like Paul Giamatti looks in this movie — like someone beaten down by betrayals and disappointments, but somehow refusing to despair.

Are you likely to watch it again?

Yes, and I'll go back to revisit The Savages, a movie I greatly admired when it was first released. I suspect, based on how much I loved Private Life, that I will like it even more. Tamara Jenkins is an excellent director and we need more from her than one movie each decade.


The Rider

written and directed by Chloé Zhao

In which a former rodeo rider, wrestling with
the lingering consequences of an injury is torn
between the compulsion to return to the arena
and a harder, humbler path.

I reviewed The Rider when I caught up with it in June. Here's what I wrote at the time.


Isle of Dogs

written and directed by Wes Anderson

from a story written by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola,
Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura

In which a pack of dogs, living in exile on an island,
help a young boy search for his lost dog Spots,
while the circumstances that brought about the banishment of dogs
from Japan are called into question by scientists and student protestors.

Here's my original review of the film, posted way back in March.

What does this movie love?

  • Dogs.
    It loves the relationships between dogs and masters—a relationship that, at its best, is not a hierarchy, but consensual partnership of service, humility, and mutual delight.
  • The art of stop-animation...
    exquisitely crafting distinct characters among humans and dogs. It loves Japanese cinema, particularly Kurosawa, but also the possibilities in its unusual genre of dystopic tales about animals that end up speaking of human nature in a contemporary context.
  • Richard Adams, novelist.
    Wes Anderson has testified about his love for Watership Down and The Plague Dogs before. You can sense elements of both at work here, particularly the latter.
  • Symmetry and variation in the creative composition of images.
    (In other words, it's a Wes Anderson film.)
  • The power of carefully and deliberately paced dialogue.
    This film's conversations develop a kind of cumulative power that comes more from timing and restraint than from volume or expression.
  • Freedom...
    particularly freedom of the press, freedom of information, and the freedom to protest.
  • Reconciliation.

Does it make you believe?

Somewhat. The film takes on too many characters and storylines for any one of them to inspire my emotional investment. One comes close: The cynicism of a dog named Chief who is reluctant to help out his Trash Island pack as they help young Atari search for his lost dog Spots. Will his hardened heart soften so that he will care? I’ve seen the film twice, and it hasn’t opened up the way other Anderson films have for me with repeated visits. Still, an Anderson film is still a celebration of cinema worth revisiting.

What will you remember most when you think back on this movie?

The most affecting sequence, in which the boy Atari tries to bring Chief into obedience. It’s about a boy and a dog finding a begrudging respect.

I’ll also remember the arguments about disrespectful Japanese stereotypes that simmered just below the surface of positive reviews. It was led by Justin Chang, for whom I have immense respect. I have mixed feelings about this debate; in some ways, this film like the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, cannot avoid stereotypes and conventions because it is imitating an era and genre of filmmaking, and if it sought to boldly revise them it would end up being about something altogether different. However, that doesn't mean artists shouldn't be ruthlessly conscientious about such matters.  

Are you likely to watch it again?

Definitely, to appreciate excellence in animation. Also... dogs! I've already picked up a blu-ray for the home library.



written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

In which a gracious and loving 'family' strives to survive,
relying heavily on petty crime, while tiptoeing around secrets
that established them as a community in the first place...
until one of their most generous acts threatens to expose them.

What does this movie love?

  • The patient revelation of family secrets folded within a mysterious, near-silent contract. First, we're drawn in close to marvel at the fascinating origami sculpture that is the movie's quirky family of characters. Living in close quarters at the corner of Poor & Destitute, they are funny, mysterious, unpredictable, and dangerous in their generosity. They are the mystery at the movie's center.Then, the origami begins to unfold, revealing one big secret after another — some of them lovely, some of them deeply disturbing — so that we marvel... and eventually care to the point of heartbreak. We want them to be together forever. But we know that nothing built on a foundation of secrets like these is likely to last.
  • The 'family' at its center. I love these characters, and I feel genuine gratitude to the actors for making them so three-dimensionally human. Scene by scene, they bring complexity, humor, pain, creativity, and surprise, saving this storyline from what could easily have become a lesson in crowd-pleasing sentimentality. It's a relief that Kore-eda resists the temptation to indulge in the tear-jerking potential of his narrative, because it would be an injustice to these actors to have their efforts dissolve in the lukewarm broth of a conventional conclusion or Christmas-miracle simplicity.While Kore-eda is more active with his camera than Ozu, he is still patient and observant enough that his actors actually get to act, making characters that could have been simple develop into complex, intelligent, emotional individuals who intrigue us with their secrets and changes. Viewers will differ over which character is most interesting, which cast member most impressive. Me, I was most moved by Sakura Ando as the mother figure of this makeshift family.
  • The poor. While Kore-eda does not let his characters off the hook for criminal endeavors, he understands that there are more important things to consider than the Rights and Wrongs of the law. No human system of law and order can protect everyone, and any system will end up obstructing certain kinds of justice. In this case, our small cast of characters break laws in order to rescue each other from greater crimes that the law is not managing. Most people aren't comfortable with these gray areas of compromise. Kore-eda values justice, but he loves mercy.

Does it make you believe?

Yes. I completely believed in this family and their world, from their overcrowded ramshackle home to their ocean-shores getaway. The only times I felt a bit of a strain on my suspension of disbelief came when Kore-eda's child actors were portrayed with maximum cuteness to break our hearts open. While Shoplifters doesn't beat up my heart as severely as Nobody Knows did (which I'm tempted to call a masterpiece), it is much more enthrallingly complicated and interesting, and it never drags the way I felt Still Walking did. Maybe I need to prioritize seeing more of the Kore-eda films I've missed.

What will you remember most when you think back on this movie?

I will never look at a melting snowman again without feeling the ache of a wound inflicted by this film. As a filmmaker, Kore-eda works more confidently in prose than in poetry, but when his camera goes for something suggestive, it works.

Also, this film has one of the most beautiful, specific, and essential-to-character scenes of sexual intimacy I've ever witnessed.

Are you likely to watch it again?

I'd be happy to — especially if I could introduce it to friends. I also suspect that this could serve as an excellent "gateway film" to a love of foreign film for students who have an aversion to subtitles.


24 Frames

directed by Abbas Kiarostami

In which one of the world's greatest filmmakers stuns audiences
with an unconventional final film... a collection of meditative images
that come to life through the subtle tinkering of special effects artists.

Note: This film arguably belongs on a list of 2017 films, but it did not get substantial distribution or attention in the U.S. until 2018.

What does this movie love?

  • The poetic suggestiveness possible in the juxtaposition of images.
  • The freedom of the imagination.
  • Mystery. Beauty. Silences.
  • The natural world—specifically, the landscapes of Iran.
  • Snow. Crows and ravens. Cattle. More snow. Prey. Predators.
  • Patience.

Does it make you believe?

Yes — in that it invites me to look closely, to ask questions in an unhurried manner, to meditate, to slow down for the rare pleasure of being surprised.

What will you remember most when you think back on this movie?

A sense of being mesmerized. The luxury of entertaining possible connections and interpretations. The pleasure of experiencing Iran outside the context of breaking news, religious tensions, and political debate, to see that it is God’s country. A chance to remember that God is at play in vast realms beyond the scope of almost all cinema: in the world beyond human activity. In fact, when human activity does encroach upon these scenes, it seems as likely to be disruptive and damaging as fruitful.

Are you likely to watch it again?

I’d have to find just the right circumstances: An undisturbed quiet. A big screen. An excellent sound system. And just enough light to allow note-taking... or spontaneous poetry.


The Favourite

directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

written by Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara

In which Queen Anne's closest adviser, the Duchess of Marlborough,
is threatened by her ambitious young cousin Abigail,
who is a quick study in power plays, deceit, and betrayal.

What does this movie love?

  • Olivia Colman. Emma Stone. And Rachel Weisz.
    Three great actors working at the height of their powers. If there must be contests, Colman, as England’s Queen Anne, should be crowned the queen of 2018. But Weisz and Stone do some of the finest work of their careers here. If Stone hadn’t won an Oscar for La La Land, I’d expect her to have an easy road to a Best Supporting Actress win for her performance as Abigail: it’s the stronger performance.
  • Barbed-wire lines of dialogue...
    that can scratch, tear—or even loop, tighten, and ensnare. They’re also laugh-out-loud funny.
  • Power plays and subversive strategies...
    but, even more than that, the irony of self-defeating quests for privilege: these power-hungry players are designing a living 18th-century hell for themselves as they ascend into isolation and infamy.
  • Shadows and candlelight.
    Face paint and wigs (especially in men of the court). The seeming absurdity of courtly manners. The distortions that result when sexuality’s many and varied impulses are bound up in oppressive and exploitative cultural constraints.
  • Exposing the illusions of superiority that men use to flatter themselves...
    but that ultimately embarrass them.

Does it make you believe?

Definitely. It’s clear that this is a fantasyland, history through a distorted lens—but Lanthimos’s exaggerations serve to expose tragic truths about the corrupting and ultimately dehumanizing nature of power. At the beginning of the movie, I was hoping to see the nation saved from such misguided control freaks. By the end of the movie, Lanthimos had found ways to make me pity the power-mad themselves and wonder how they could be rescued. Camels, here are your needles — and good luck!

What will you remember most when you think back on this movie?

A certain delight in snarky sparring matches like nothing I’ve experienced since Dangerous Liaisons. Hushed late-night sneaking in candlelit corridors. Emma Stone’s punch-throwing seduction of a man she sees as essential to her plot. And one extraordinary feat of editing early in the film when two sequences are juxtaposed, back and forth, for a long time. The rabbits, all seventeen of them—which really are the key to understanding the queen’s madness.

Are you likely to watch it again?

Definitely, although in select company. The frankness of its depiction of sexual manipulation earns the R-rating and would turn away many who prefer their historical epics to be sanitized, simplified, and sentimental.


Won't You Be My Neighbor?

directed by Morgan Neville

In which the life, imagination, family, community, faith,
and backstage behaviors of Fred Rogers are revealed
to moviegoers to remind us that love is a power
unlike anything money can buy.

If I could take the whole world to see one movie from 2018, I would take them to see Won't You Be My Neighbor? — not as an exhibition of art at its finest, but as an urgent and affecting reminder of what the world needs so badly.

Do your heart some good. Do your family and community some good. Sit down and watch this movie together. Talk it over. Then, go and live likewise.

I wrote my reflections on this when it opened in July. I couldn't just review it — I had to write some personal reflections on all that it made me think and feel. Here it is.

What does this movie love?

  • Love.
  • Children.
  • Creativity
  • Fred Rogers.

Does it make you believe?

It's a rather conventional documentary in form, but it's extraordinary in its function. It captivates me with its subject, its surprises, its compelling interviews, and its conclusions.

What will you remember most when you think back on this movie?

I will remember the surprise of discovering the theme and subject matter of that very first episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. That's when I realized just how (for lack of a better phrase) timely and relevant this movie was going to be. And that was just the beginning. I will remember how it dismantled me emotionally, reminding me of what human beings can be and sharpening my longing to see more of Rogers' spirit of grace and generosity and empathy in the world. I will remember how so many in the theater around me were weeping for similar reasons, even those who had never watched Rogers' television series.

Are you likely to watch it again?



Eighth Grade

written and directed by Bo Burnham

In which a middle-school girl with her very own YouTube channel
counsels her viewers — primarily, herself —
in how to survive adolescence, while her father
struggles to understand what she needs from him.

I reviewed this film here at Looking Closer back in August. And, for the record, my original headline for the review was "It's a Beautiful Day in Eighth Grader-hood." You're welcome. Here it is.


Paddington 2

directed by Paul King

written by Paul King and Simon Farnaby

In which a London immigrant is framed for a crime, arrested,
separated from the family and community that love him,
and yet finds a way, through kindness and generosity,
to change each one of his worlds.

I reviewed this film for Good Letters, the Image blog way back in February of this year. Check out that review here.


Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman

written by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman

In which a villain breaks down the walls between worlds,
and ends up bringing all of those worlds' Spider-People together,
which gives them a chance to fight evil together as superfriends,
and mentor young Miles Morales—the newest Spider-Man—
in how to wear the mask.

What does this movie love?

  • Animation.
    This is innovative stuff. It doesn't remind me of anything I've seen on a big screen before. I didn’t want to blink, from beginning to end, because these lines and colors and edits and backgrounds were so wildly, kaleidoscopically surprising.
  • Actual comic books.
    Visually, this is a two-hour celebration of the paper, the printing, the format, the variety of artists’ renditions of its heroes, the interplay of text and image. I’ve never seen a more joyous cinematic celebration of printed matter.
  • The marriage of innovative imagery with innovative soundtracking.
    The music throughout this movie coheres beautifully even though it represents a collage of genres. Similarly, the visual style keeps changing and surprising us without ever feeling schizophrenic or inconsistent. I can’t point to any particular sequence as a favorite because each one is so consistently surprising and interesting.
  • New York.
    This deserves to be in any conversation about the best movies that capture what New York looks, sounds, and smells like.
  • Spider-man.
    Just as Raiders of the Lost Ark was the ideal celebration of a larger-than-life character, so Spider-Verse leaves all previous Spider-man movies — yes, even Spider-Man 2 — in its dust. Miles Morales is more interesting than Peter Parker; his origin story is surprisingly unconventional; his personality is strong and his character arc clear; his family is interesting and they matter; and Miles remains, by far, the most interesting character in the movie without being upstaged by the villain.
  • The idea of busting open a superhero’s definition...
    so that those who want to be that hero can take a swing at it. Superheroes make terrible idols, but if they become invitations to do our best for the greater good, bring ‘em on.
  • Family. Freedom. Diversity. Justice...
    and, thank goodness, the kind of justice that doesn't require killing anyone.
  • Cliché-busting.
    No, Spider-Man doesn't need a girlfriend (even if he wants one). No, he doesn't need dead parents; he can have them both. No, he doesn't need to destroy his enemy, or even to stand by while his enemy is destroyed.

Does it make you believe?

Against all odds—yes.

Not only that, it makes me want to write, to draw, to participate in this kind of boundless and joyous creativity.

I’m so weary of comic-book superhero movies; I didn’t think they could surprise me anymore. I believed in Miles Morales from this movie’s opening moments when we find him doing homework in his memorable bedroom to the closing moments when he has fully inhabited the spider-suit and closed the story-arc circle with his father. And even though this movie is about several alternate realities colliding, I bought the premise. And I loved how creatively these wildly disparate Spider-people interacted. I enjoyed this animated world so much that I couldn’t wait to go back to it, convinced that I would make a lot of new discoveries. And I did.

I haven’t felt this particular giddiness, this sense of seeing something that renews my sense of what is possible in animation, since The Secret of Kells.

Nor have I felt, for many years, like I was watching a movie that lived up to the ideal of what I wanted movies to be when I was a kid. After seeing The Muppet Movie, Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark when I was a pre-teen, I longed to see something that would be that excitingly captivating again. Since then, the kind of art that enchants me has changed because I’ve changed; I don’t need action or non-stop jokes or brain-bedazzling special-effects to be engrossed in a movie. But there is a particular childlike joy at the movies I haven’t felt for a long time, and this movie unexpectedly brought it back to me. It made me as happy as my eight-year-old self could ever have been, and achieved that while giving my 48-year-old self a great deal to think about and admire. I’m grateful.

What will you remember most when you think back on this movie?

That dawning sense, over the first 20 minutes, that this was going to wildly surpass — was already exceeding — my expectations. Also: The moment I recognized Noir Spider-Man.

Are you likely to watch it again?

Again and again and again — but I will always wish I was engulfed in an IMAX-level experience.

Overstreet's Favorite Films of 2018: Intro & 29 Honorable Mentions

This list is a work in progress. I suspect it might expand further over the next month, as certain celebrated films from 2018—Cold War, for example—still haven't opened in Seattle yet, and I'm playing catch-up on some important titles. But now... let's get this party started.

Twenty Nine Honorable Mentions

Ask me about my Top 10 of 2018, and I'm likely to name any of these movies, depending on the moment. I found much to admire and enjoy in all of them. But, at this moment, these movies fall just short of my top ten — which means it was a fantastic year at the movies. [UPDATE: Want to skip right to the Top Ten? Here they are.]

Two Films That Celebrate
the Careers of Iconic Legends
Without Being Merely Hagiographic

The Old Man and the Gun

written and directed by David Lowery

Nothing Like a Dame

directed by Roger Michell

Two Coming-of-Age Movies
That Are Strong Where
Most Coming-of-Age Movies
Are Weak

The Hate U Give

directed by George Tillman Jr.

written by Audrey Wells

Check out these reviews by Scott Renshaw and Steven Greydanus.

To All the Boys I've Loved Before

directed by Susan Johnson

written by Sofia Alvarez

Read these reviews by Joel Mayward and Linda Holmes (a big fan of the genre).

Two Action-Packed,
Adrenaline-Rushing Sequels

Mission: Impossible — Fallout

written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie

Read these reviews by Steven Greydanus, Ann Hornaday, and Anthony Lane.

Incredibles 2

written and directed by Brad Bird

Here's a review by Steven Greydanus.

Three Films About Boys
Becoming Men Without
Strong Parental Guidance

Three Identical Strangers

directed by Tim Wardle

Here's my review.

Minding the Gap

directed by Bing Liu

Here's an article and interview with Bing Liu by Alissa Wilkinson, and here are reviews by Josh Larsen and Kevin McLenithan.

Lean on Pete

written and directed by Andrew Haigh

based on a novel by Willy Vlautin

Here are reviews by Joel Mayward, Josh Larsen, and Alissa Wilkinson.

Four Intimate and Empathetic Portraits
of Women Struggling in a World
Designed By (and For) Men

Let the Sunshine In

directed by Claire Denis

Here are reviews by Ann Hornaday and Glenn Heath Jr., Richard Brody, Anthony Lane, and Glenn Kenny.


written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Here are reviews by Richard Brody, Joel Mayward, Glenn Heath Jr., A.A. DowdAnthony Lane, and Josh Larsen.

Support the Girls

written and directed by Andrew Bujalski

Here are reviews by Mike D'Angelo, Richard Brody and Justin Chang.


directed by Marc Turtletaub

written by Oren Moverman and Polly Mann

Here's my review.

Three Films in Which
Men Journey to Other Worlds
and It Costs Them, But Women
— Some Following, Some Staying Behind — See Things Clearly... and Suffer


written and directed by Alex Garland

First Man

directed by Damien Chazelle

written by Josh Singer

Here's my review.


written and directed by Zeek Earl and Chris Caldwell

Here's my review.

Two Ambitious Theological Films
That Have Unforgettable Scenes
Largely Due to Bold Formal Decisions
But That Lose Something (for me)
in Their Last Act

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc

written and directed by Bruno Dumont

Here are my first impressions at Letterboxd, and here's a review by Steven Greydanus.

First Reformed

written and directed by Paul Schrader

Here's my review.

Three Movies That Expose
White Supremacy With Imagination,
Personal Passion, and Humor

Black Panther

directed by Ryan Coogler

written by Ryan Coogler and John Robert Cole

Here's my review.


directed by Spike Lee

written by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee

Here are my first impressions at Letterboxd, and here's a review by Ann Hornaday.

Sorry to Bother You

written and directed by Boots Riley

Here are my first impressions at Letterboxd, and here are reviews by Josh Larsen and Brian Tallerico.

...and One That Does So With
Long, Color-Saturated Close-Ups

If Beale Street Could Talk

written and directed by Barry Jenkins

based on the book by James Baldwin

Two Brilliant Contemporary Westerns
That Deliver the Goods
While Also Questioning the Goods

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Here reviews by Josh Larsen, Glenn Kenny, A.A. Dowd, and Richard Brody.

The Sisters Brothers

directed by Jacques Audiard

written and directed by Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain

Here are reviews by Ann Hornaday, A.A. Dowd, Justin Chang, Anthony Lane,

The Smartest Comedy of the Year
Which is Also the Best Movie About the Current U.S. Presidency

The Death of Stalin

directed by Armando Iannucci

written by Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, Peter Fellows

Here are reviews by Anthony Lane, Glenn Kenny, Bilge EbiriIgnatiy Vishnevetsky, and A.A. Dowd.

The Comedy I Will Revisit Most Often
Because It's Hilarious and
Because It Riffs Brilliantly
On a Cult Classic: The 'Burbs

Game Night

directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein

written by Mark Perez

Here's my review.

Best Black-and-White Cinematography
of the Year


Best Fantasy Movie of the Year


directed by Rainer Sarnet

written by Rainer Sarnet, based on the novel by Andrus Kivirähk

Here's a review by Glenn Kenny.

Two Movies I Am Most Regretful
About Not Rating in My Top Ten
(and I May Yet Change My Mind)

— Also —

Two Movies Directed by Women
About Men Deeply Wounded By Violence
Who Misjudge the Capabilities
of the Young Women
They Are Trying to Rescue

Leave No Trace

directed by Debra Granik

Here's my review.

You Were Never Really Here

directed by Lynne Ramsay

Here's a review by Melissa Tamminga.

Widows (2018)

Heists are more fun to watch if the heisters are plotting because they want to, not because they have to... apparently.

Earlier this year, we watched glamorous crooks — played by Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter, and more — conspire to pull off a seemingly impossible robbery. The movie didn't take itself seriously, so neither did the audience. But as a genre exercise, it was an unremarkable two hours of fun. Our enjoyment was enhanced by the opportunity to see girls having fun in a game usually played by boys. Ocean's 8 was as impressive as an extravagantly decorated ice cream cake — and just about as nutritious. In other words, one slice was plenty. No need to go back for more.

And thus, if you're like me, you probably got excited by the trailer for Widows. 

The grim widows team up — reluctantly — for a high-stakes heist. Their lives are at stake and tensions are high.

Here's another movie about women conspiring to commit a robbery, women who have such compelling reasons that anybody with a heart will hope that they succeed. It would come from the director of the heavy Oscar-winner 12 Years a Slave. It would star award-caliber actors — a lot of them — including Viola Davis, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, Daniel Kaluuya. It would feature Liam Neeson as someone whose daughter hasn't been taken. It promised to pull back the curtain on corrupt Chicago politics, and deliver cathartic retaliatory blows to abusive husbands.

It looked like a full meal deal.

But, alas, while Widows is certainly a more ambitious film than Ocean's 8, it left me feeling like I'd done two hours of film-critic homework when I thought I'd bought a ticket to see pros play a great game. It wasn't cake; it was a difficult, overcooked steak. It wasn't much fun at all.

Liam Neeson plays Harry, the driver in a heist that takes an ugly turn.

Director Steve McQueen and his cowriter Gillian Flynn (author of Gone Girl, the book and the movie) are unlikely but talented collaborators. But it's easy to sense how they struggled to boil their source material — a British TV series — down into a concentrate. They can't decide what they want to deliver: Is this movie about knuckle-biting suspense, shout-out-loud twists, and the cathartic retaliation of mistreated women against monstrous men? Is it a commentary on how women are trapped in a world where even their struggle for freedom and dignity must be fought with methods made by men? Is it a grim social studies lesson, meant to furrow our brows over corrupt political campaigns, toxic masculinity, and urban poverty?

I suspect it's possible for a production to succeed at all of these things... as a miniseries. (Maybe the source material worked — I haven't seen it.) This thing doesn't have the luxury of time; it can't develop the characters or complexity it needs. As political commentary, Widows' barely leaves a scratch on Chicago's rough surface. And as thrillers go, its surprises... well, they aren't, really.

Not all of the news here is bad. McQueen, who knows the value of first-class acting, gets strong performances from almost everyone involved. And he can cook up memorable moments. My favorite in this film is the first one: a close-up of Veronica (Viola Davis) and her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) kissing. For a reason I won't spoil here, it's a kiss that leaves us unsettled.

Then, in a heartbeat, McQueen cuts immediately to a high-speed, high-stakes car chase through Chicago, during which the trouble with Harry becomes clear: he's part of a heist crew, and this is a robbery gone wrong. Before long, he and his team have been erased in a fiery cataclysm. The money they've lifted is gone.

Veronica finds it's tough to grieve when you can't trust anybody.

And the villains — corrupt politicians with an army of crooks to do their dirty deeds behind the scenes — aim their attention, anger, and intimidation tactics at the rattled wives and girlfriends, demanding that the money (which turns out to be corrupt campaign funding) be recovered.

More good news: Veronica's team is just as compellingly watchable as the fashion-ready cast of Ocean's Eight, as severe and scowl-prone as as the Ocean's gang was sexy and smug. Davis applies the same emotional intensity she brought to Denzel Washington's arthouse adaptation of Fences. And she's given formidable support by Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), a righteously angry single mother in danger of losing her business; Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), whose wicked-witch mother (Jackie Weaver) wants her to become a high-end escort to rich movers and shakers (like the one played with a Big Bad Wolf grin by Lukas Haas — and, wow, I remember him in Witness, so I am officially Very Very Old); and Belle (Cynthia Erivo), who turns out to be much more than a reliable nanny.

Perhaps the most refreshingly unconventional aspect of this movie is the way in which these women take little to no pleasure in their mission and partnership. They are doing this because they have to. Their lives are at stake. And they barely have time to comprehend their mutual awakening: The men they loved and lost were far, far more wicked than they'd suspected. And in order to save themselves from men who are even more monstrous, they'll have to play the same dirty game like professionals.

Colin Farrell plays a shifty politician uncomfortable with his father's political legacy.

Perhaps the most boringly and poorly staged aspect is the film's subplots about the candidates fighting for election as a Chicago alderman: Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a crime lord trying to put the local megachurch pastor in his pocket, and Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the prince of a royal Chicago family and disgruntled son of an Angry Old Man (Robert Duvall). We're living in times in which politicians commit shocking evils right out in the open, but it's still hard to believe Manning threatening housepets to get what he wants, and harder still to bear Mulligan Senior's shouting matches with his son.

The film has that signature McQueen look, thanks to his go-to cinematographer. Sean Bobbitt loves to capture the surface tension of stress on the human body, and here he revels in the dilapidated textures of those off-the-map garages where crooks cook up heists. He also makes more of slick car windshield reflections than anyone has since Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight, 

Linda (Michelle Rodriguez, right) and Belle (Cynthia Erivo) need more than thoughts and prayers to escape this mess.

But that's part of the problem: McQueen makes meditative pictures. He's earned his place among A-list directors for artful, solemn portraits of men oppressed by society, imprisoned by the law, or dragged down by their own worst impulses. He hasn't given us any evidence that he has much tonal range. And, sure enough, this movie is so saturated with angst that it feels downright awkward when things shift into action mode. A little levity would have helped. It's too busy feigning relevance.

(Come to think of it, the only director I know who can sustain my suspension of disbelief while combining such heavy solemnity, cultural commentary, and edge-of-your-seat action is, ironically, Michael Mann, whose primary and ongoing weakness has been his disinterest in female characters and actresses.)

Another problem: Three of the actors I was eager to see in Widows are poorly employed here.

If Kaluuya stares at ya, you'll want to get out.

I've already mentioned that Duvall's sparring matches with Farrell are cringe-worthy, but he's barely onscreen enough to qualify as a Supporting Actor.

Daniel Kaluuya, on the other hand, is in it too much. I heard some popular podcast personalities gushing about how his eyes are the scariest thing in the movie. He does make an impression as the villains' blunt instrument, but I felt like his heavy-lidded killer glare became a sort of shtick that got older every time he shoved his face into someone else's. Kaluuya's eyes are his most arresting aspect, but if he does this one more time, it's going to be too easy to parody his performances.

Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) isn't experienced in gun shopping.

Finally — Elizabeth Debicki. I've loved her since Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, but I really want to see her shine in a role that isn't so... Deb-icky. Seriously — 1980s Crime Thrillers called and want their gratuitous nudity back.

I note with some concern that, out of all of the film's fine performances, it's Debicki who is earning serious awards buzz: Isn't that joke old by now — the one about the surest way to earn an Oscar being a role as a "hooker with a heart of gold"? Is this going to be another case of an award going to the one who was willing to go "all the way"? (Think about how that worked out for Halle Berry.)

The film's biggest problem, though, isn't its cast or its ambitions. It's the writers' failure to reckon with the 'Ends Justify the Means' messiness of this affair. You can't have it both ways: you can't make us nod solemnly as corrupt politicians effectively describe America's moral vacuousness and then ask us to cheer as those who have been done wrong smash their way to payback. Ultimately, the film writes itself to a dead end, with a face-off that falls flat and an epilogue that embarrasses itself trying to squeeze a happy ending from a community fractured beyond repair.

So, alas, I can't join the chorus of praise for this one, except to say that the opening shot is almost worth the price of admission. It startled me and made me brace for two hours of unexpected jolts and delights. Which never came.

Madeline's Madeline (2018)

To shout or not to shout? That is the question. The answer? It depends.

If you're playing Hamlet onstage, you may need to project your voice to the audience in the back row. But if you're playing him in a movie, you probably want to dial that dialogue down to a whisper at times, drawing viewers in close to share the Dane's subterranean struggle.

Any experienced actor knows this. And, along similar lines, the chasm between the science of improvisational theater and the art of motion pictures is vast. It's one thing to take experimental risks in front of a live audience: Your audience is ready for on-the-spot surprises. But in art films, we're looking for visual poetry and listening for smart writing. It's hard to capture a sense of transcendence and timelessness in the incidental and immediate.

But that's what filmmaker Josephine Decker is going for in her daring and experimental new film Madeline's Madeline.

She's not the first to find inspiration for a film within an improv community. 2016's Don't Think Twice found an affecting drama behind the scenes of an improv sketch-comedy show.

The radiant Helena Howard plays Madeline in one of 2018's most intriguing performances.

But this movie is an altogether different endeavor: It's hard to tell if this was a scripted story or one that emerged in the telling, moment by moment, because the scenes seem improvised but so does every other aspect of the film: the cinematography, the editing, even the sound design. As a result, we feel like the movie is being born of a fever dream right before our eyes.

There is a story told here — one about young Madeline (Helen Howard), an adolescent with an uncanny knack for acting, whose participation in an improvisational acting workshop becomes a sort of therapy. As workshoppers participate in various laboratory exercises, their director — Evangeline (Molly Parker) — seeks inspirational discoveries that she can build upon with the aim to produce a major project. It doesn't take long for Madeline to emerge as a promising talent, and for her storm of emotional turmoil to become the cyclone that draws them all into her orbit.

In some ways, the film becomes a cautionary tale about visionaries who see everything, including the sufferings of others, as "material" — and who forget the importance of telling the truth in love. Madeline is the knot in the rope in a tug of war between two mothers. One wants to save her with a straitjacket of rules and warnings. The other has no boundaries at all; while at first she seems benevolent, eager to embrace all outcasts, her discernment eventually dissolves under the force of a kind of vampiric zeal. Evangeline drills straight down into the oil well of Madeline's troubles, pumping them up into a geyser of theatrical energy.

It gets worse: And before it's over, Madeline's high-anxiety, control-freak mother (Miranda July) is drawn into Evangeline's exploitative, almost predatory sights.

So far, so intriguing.

Let's just say that I doubt this movie will make anybody want to sign up for improv class.

But buckle up: This is a high-speed journey of hairpin turns, on-the-spot inventions, and a point of view can that can shift from deep within Madeline's fragile emotions to the whirligig energy of dance-like exercises. Your mileage may vary, and what's more, you might need to pull the car over for a breather now and then.

Early in the film, its relentlessness is exhilarating. I found myself rooting for Decker and her cast, wanting to see how long they could sustain this high-wire juggling act. It's rare enough to see a film so focused on female characters that passes the Bechdel Test, caught up in questions more interesting than "Who belongs with whom?" It's also rare enough to see a movie that asks so much openness, agility, and interpretive participation from its audience.

As Evangeline, Molly Parker is fantastic and, ultimately, terrifying in this, an artist who prioritizes art as an end in itself. Is she a manifestation of Decker's fears about who she might, in a worst-case-scenario, become? This question reminds me of how Darren Aronofsky's film made me wonder how autobiographical his movie mother! might be, with its story of the destruction wrought by an artist with a God complex.

Miranda July as Regina, Madeline's maddening mother.

Miranda July is equally and oppositely intense as someone painfully fearful of openness. The film's primary thread of suspense is strung between Regina's worries about, well, everything and Madeline's inclination to impersonate her mother's anxieties in the lab: We know that things will go badly when Regina encounters a mirroring of her madness in art.

And Howard is wild and enchanting as (if you will) Madeline in the Middle. She makes the mercurial young actress's struggle to find a sense of herself and hold it, without surrendering it to a Svengali, compelling. She's caught between someone who wants to insulate her and someone who wants to take her apart and use everything that is rightfully hers for some contrary purpose.

As the relentlessness of the film's flamboyance goes on, it releases a sense of frighteningly volcanic potential I remember sensing in certain improv and acting workshops, those that did not care to cultivate a sense of conscience and responsibility alongside a sense of courage.

Molly Parker as Evangeline: inspired visionary or dangerous opportunist?

I remember seeing young acting students around me urged to "tap into their darknesses" and "open themselves" to any kind of spirit, and I saw some of them deeply wounded by the forces that overcame them. One suffered a kind of seizure mid-improv, and I lost a friend; his precarious capacity to cope with the world was upset by his irresistible attraction to "going there" in extreme immersive theater. I often wonder what happened to him after his breakdown. Sometimes, the energy that has been bound up within us in restrictive households will, when finally given an opening, explode us into an equal and opposite extreme of boundlessness, where we lose the selves that self-control and caution can coax into being.

For all of its ambitions and energy, Madeline's Madeline feels like a film made by Evangeline — one that blasts off in an attempt to escape the gravity of dramatic convention, but that, due to its lack of restraint, cannot hold together. Every time Madeline's Madeline starts to cast its nets around something beautiful, it has to turn and spin flamboyantly away on some other current of inspiration, accommodating some new rush. Energy overpowers the substance. It breaks apart before it can make a landing. Perhaps its zeal for transcendence is just too much within such a fragile dramatic construction.

Film critic David Ehrlich, one of the movie's most enthusiastic champions, admires how the film's ambitious structure allows it "to not only question if it’s right to tell someone else’s story, but also to ask if it’s even possible." And that's true. But I'm so busy following Decker's prompts to interpret its heavy symbolism, to follow its shifting modes, to understand its enigmatic characters who are always in motion, that I can't stick with its storyline. And this meta-script keeps flat-out reminding us that "It's a metaphor." Come on: Allow us, please, to suspend our disbelief.

What's with the pig masks? "It's a metaphor!" shouts the movie.

I was a singer in an improv comedy band for a long time, and I learned to love the rewards and surprises that can happen in a pressure-cooker of experimentation. It's a practice of discovery. And I love to watch filmmakers try to harness spontaneity to meaningful effect. We've seen magic from Terrence Malick's army of exploratory cinematographers. We've visited a map of unforgettable subcultures spun into life by Christopher Guest and his try-anything actors guild. Half of the laughs in Anchorman and other SNL-alumni comedies seem to come from inspired moments of ad-lib banter.

But this film reminds me, ultimately, of some of my creative writing students who are so focused on expressing emotional extremes, or trying some wildly experimental concept, that they can't concentrate on the fundamentals enough to suspend their readers' disbelief for one simple scene.

One of the few quiet, meditative moments in the film — one of many stories teased and tossed aside.

By contrast, Aronofsky's mother! had a similar energy and ambition, but it had a strong line of narrative coherence throughout, and characters who were complex and believable. For all of its conceptual ambitions, it kept me anchored to the sufferings of Jennifer Lawrence's character through every surrealistic flourish. I believed in her from beginning to end. Madeline's Madeline is just too eager to chase every big idea; it never quite transcends a sense of brainstorming to become a world I believe in. Perhaps the embrace-everything ethic of "Yes, and..." isn't the best strategy for a final draft of a work.

Nevertheless, I admire this film for its ambitions, and I can't wait to see what Decker does next.

First Man (2018)

I rarely look up at the big screen during the 25 minutes of advertising before the movie starts. Call it my form of non-violent protest. Once the movie starts, though, I rarely look away.

But reader, I confess: I looked away during a scene in director Damien Chazelle’s new film First Man.

It happened during a grueling sequence: Astronauts Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and Dave Scott (Christopher Abbott) lose control of their space capsule high above the earth and spin out of control. For a long, long time. Imagine being locked into the world’s maddest tumble-dry-cycle. Dizzy from the kaleidoscopic strobing, buffeted by the roiling noise, I had to manually override my suspension of disbelief and come "back down" to the tactile details of my vinyl recliner for relief.

Though I didn’t realize this until later, the scene was calling back the sense of helplessness and panic I'd experienced not so long ago when someone I love suffered a grand mal seizure. No wonder I couldn’t bear it. Car accidents, violence, job loss: We can be deeply scarred when our circumstances are overturned by forces beyond our control. Time doesn't heal those wounds; we may bury them, but they stay open.

Armstrong, according to this film’s subtle logic, might have found the willpower to recover control of that capsule precisely because of a traumatic experience he had suffered years earlier, losing his daughter to a terminal illness. Was that what drove him to make it through that vertiginous zero-gravity trouble, and then later complete a circuit to the moon and back? Was it a refusal to accept defeat? A drive to meet the laws of nature head-on and show them who was boss?

Maybe. First Man is not the kind of movie that offers easy insights or neatly packaged answers for anything.

Nor is it the first movie to vividly capture the fragility of space travel. We’ve seen The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, Gravity — we know the drill. We know that unnerving sensation of being catapulted beyond the reach of any gravity or help, and that ironic claustrophobia of floating through the vastness of space strapped into a tin can that rattles like a 40-year-old Volkswagen Bug.

We shouldn't worry, though: We have history’s assurance that Armstrong and Scott don’t end up lost in space. So we know where this is going: a successful moon landing, a triumphant return of our heroes. At least, we think so.

But Chazelle doesn't seem particularly interested in that familiar story arc. While he manages to make those scenes of gyroscopic chaos more rattling than any big-screen amusement park ride I can remember, he's aiming for something more substantial than a "ride." This feels weightier. It feels like there's much more at stake than national pride, macho accomplishment, beating the Russians, or any of your typical space-movie motivations.

Sticking respectfully enough to historical details, Chazelle attends to much more than the vainglorious aim of being “the first.” As he was when he directed Whiplash and La La Landhe’s interested in what compels human beings to reach for the stars — and perhaps even more interested in what it costs those who do.

The Whiplash drummer Andrew makes a Faustian bargain, alienating his loved ones in his quest to overcome obstacles and achieve one taskmaster's definition of excellence. In La La Land, Mia makes a "Mia-first" commitment, losing love in pursuit of success. In First Man, the stakes are just that high, but the motivations are more mysterious.

Gosling's Easter Island mug is ideal here: Armstrong’s inexpressive face remains as enigmatic and inscrutable as the moon's. Just as he did playing the stoic control-freak in Drive, Gosling defies us to discern Armstrong’s reasons for sticking to NASA's mission through one calamity after another. Drive worshipped the man who keeps his cool at the wheel through terror and carnage; by contrast, First Man inspires skepticism about the priorities of an American icon.

And that makes for some tangible tension. This might seem like a vision of courage, of humble service, of hope. It might seem like he’s just "doing what it takes" to "be all that he can be." And some of the bold, brave, ambitious candidates around him who dream of being the "first man" seem to fit the mold. But — as this film powerfully reminds us — Armstrong isn't free to act as a solitary agent. He's married with children. And every time he takes these risks, he endangers his family's heads, hearts, and futures.

Making very much of a severely underwritten role, Claire Foy makes Janet Armstrong far more accessible and empathetic than Armstrong. For her, the family home can feel like a capsule spinning out of control, throwing her and her children against the walls while one would-be astronaut after another is lost to accidents. Alone with Neil, she rages against the "protocols and procedures" that "make it seem like you have it under control. But you're a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood! You don't have anything under control!" Characterized by subtlety, toughness, and no-filter emotions, Mrs. Armstrong clearly loves her husband, is proud of him, has high expectations of him, and yet is also disappointed in him, afraid of what he is becoming, and yearning to keep him safely tethered to home. She seems almost maternal in the end, a guardian angel to a lost boy rather than a kindred spirit.

Most movies of this kind aim to inspire us to become astronauts. And the most likely treatment of this story would cast Armstrong as taking that small but historic step because he dreamed bigger than anyone else or fought hardest or earned it in some way. But that narrative breaks apart in turbulence here. Instead, Armstrong is the “first man” because other candidates died in horrific experiments gone wrong.

No, this movie finds its center point not in Armstrong's strength but in Janet’s conscience — in her clear understanding of what matters most. Those moments of off-world uncertainty are excruciating precisely because we can trace the spaceship's kite string all the way back to the family dinner table. (Chazelle stages scenes of domestic ritual and tension that may as well have asterisks on them: They were clearly inspired by similar scenes in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.)

Yet, Neil Armstrong continues, driven by... what? Curiosity? A desire to glimpse some transcendent glory to quiet his troubled heart? He makes a good speech in front of NASA bigwigs to prove his qualifications for leading a mission. Perhaps our best clue is in his assertion that space travel "changes your perspective." What kind of change is he looking for?

One reading of Armstrong’s ambitions which might be tempting is that he loved his daughter so much that he wants to do this to honor her. But the accumulation of deaths over the course of the film argues against that — with each loss, he seems more madly determined (emphasis on madly). I’m tempted to read the film’s closing image — due to its provocative composition and complex reflections in glass — as a picture of permanent fracture, of alienation, of loss. Janet is unable to touch her husband through the quarantine glass. Like the husband returned from an anomalous and alien zone in Annihilation, here is Neil’s body, but he is someone else now. He may have drifted too far from himself and lost himself. For now, anyway, he is enclosed, insular, bound.

She, by contrast, seems otherworldly, ethereal. Her face appears twice in that closing image, once looking up in to Neil's solemn silence, and again reflected as an inverse duplicate, floating like a Chagall angel, on the other side of the frame, behind Neil. It suggests some kind of "giant leap" of her own. She surrounds him, gazing at him from both sides. It's a picture of earnest empathy, that uniquely human superpower. She looks at him with all of the warmth and love and intimacy that he could never receive from the moon.

As the end credits rolled, I kept thinking about Dave in the finale of 2001: A Space Odyssey. You probably remember that astronaut, and how, when the systems he thought he understood betrayed him, he was sealed outside of the world that could support him, the world in which he could play a meaningful role. Dave was left drifting off into cold isolation, his doom illuminated by distant and indifferent stars. Armstrong — this movie's Armstrong, anyway — may have, in his anguish over loss and his determination to transcend the limitations of human experience, lost his access to the human experience he once knew. Something has sailed off into the void, unlikely to return, even as a starchild. His wounds are still wide open. The question remains: Can love reel him back in?

It’s become the focus of Chazelle’s oeuvre — a cautionary correction to that perennial American mantra: "Shoot for the stars!" It's a variation on that beloved poetry in First Corinthians 13: If you have the gift of jazz, if you've earned the spotlight of stars, or if you've tracked moon dust in on your boots, but you do not have love, you are nothing. So, go on — dream. But dream carefully.

The Hate U Give (2018)

The fight for the soul of America is well underway on the big screen.

One of the consequences of Trump's election, I cynically predicted, would be that we would soon see theaters flooded with a sort of cinematic shock therapy: Artists would take extreme measures in an effort to revive the American conscience. They would strive to save us from fascism; embarrass us with how easily we embrace lies and become pawns for villains; and remind us of a vision that we can make "liberty and justice for all" a reality. And we the moviegoers would suffer through bleak and despairing prophecies, endure heavy-handed history lessons on foundational American ideals, and hear angry sermons about Civil Rights and equality shouted through megaphones.

Lo, my prediction is coming true. The cineplexes are saturated with dystopic fantasies and near-hysterical lessons in all caps. And I could respond to these trends with a high-minded speech about how movies that preach are doomed to mediocrity, and about how I'd much prefer to see beauty and imagination and subtlety and poetry and, well... art. I would mean every word of it.

But I would also be guilty of hypocrisy. Film criticism is an art, too, when it's done well. And here I am, ranting about politics, contradicting my own standards. Perhaps I'm feeling some panic. Perhaps I'm realizing that I'd rather do what I can to help those who are immediately threatened by a rising tide of hatred than withdraw and savor my favorite Subtlety Cinema.

A family finds itself caught between a corrupt police force and drug dealers in The Hate U Give.

Having said that, I'd like to turn my attention to The Hate U Give, a hastily produced adaptation of a celebrated Young Adult novel by Angie Thomas. Directed by George Tillman Jr, this feels more like a blockbuster After-School Special than an event of literary significance. I hadn't planned on seeing it because I could pick up its urgent messages a mile away. But the buzz about the movie's performances has been strong. And as I frequently preach to my film classes about America's need for greater diversity in mainstream movies, I want to support occasions like this that set new standards.

I am pleased to report that the buzz about lead actress Amandla Stenberg is absolutely legit.

Playing sixteen-year-old Starr, she convinces us of a young woman's harrowing metamorphosis from a code-switching private school student to an inspirational "Black Lives Matter" protestor. The opening scenes effectively illustrate her double life: In her mostly white private school, she downplays anything that could be perceived as "ghetto," while at home she has to face the low-income hardships of being black in America, mentored by a father determined to save his children from the cycle of disadvantage, crime, and incarceration that he knows all too well.

Starr and Kahlil: a reunion goes wrong.

When a typical neighborhood party goes gunshot-wrong, and her charismatic friend Kahlil (Algee Smith) puts some distance between them and the scene of shots fired, it's easy to guess what the major turn will be. Sure enough, a white cop finds them. Sure enough, the stuff of daily headlines in America goes down.

Traumatized, Starr is launched into brutal awakenings to the extremes of white privilege; to the exploitative nature of the news media during such events; to the way that a truth-teller's moral courage can make hard times much, much worse. And Stenberg nails every scene. I believed in her character. I believed in her family, particularly her father, played with soft-spoken authority by Russell Hornsby.

But my belief — or, rather, my suspension of disbelief — was frequently disrupted. This is a cast of characters in wildly inconsistent stages of development. Some are more than halfway convincing; others aren't even substantial enough to deserve names. For example, 'Neighborhood Drug Lord' would've served Anthony Mackie just fine. Chris (K.J. Apa) isn't much more than 'Starr's White Boyfriend Who Doesn't See Color.' And Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter), whose friendship with Starr rapidly devolves, seems to exist only so Starr has a chance to smack down the "All Lives Matter" attitude — and makeup artists seem to have gone to distracting extremes to make her look like the whitest white girl on the planet.

Starr begins to wonder who her real friends are.

What's more — every chapter here is calculated to teach. I developed an allergy to evangelical entertainment at an early age, and while I'm impressed with most of the performances here, I got twitchy during the sermons. They kept jarring me out of scenes that had begun to spark with life and nuance. The movie tries to stuff so many lessons into is final chapters that I lost my grip on belief and started checking my watch. It runs about fifteen minutes too long, concluding with a climactic showdown that I'd be surprised to find in the novel; it feels like a focus-grouped finale.

And yet, for all of its troubles, I don't really mind the movie's mediocrity. America needs raised voices and simple illustrations on matters regarding equality, civil rights, white privilege, the influence of racism on law enforcement, and the prevalence of police officers who shoot first and don't ask any questions at all. This might be an important formative experience for young moviegoers. There's a purpose and a place for After-School Special entertainment. Let's just acknowledge that its relevance doesn't make it great art.

Starr and Chris face more tests than most high school couples ever experience.

In a way, The Hate U Give reminds me most of my experience with Ava DuVernay's take on A Wrinkle in Time: It's an entertaining two hours, remarkable in its focus on a compelling young African American girl, elevated by an admirable cast, but compromised by the motivational-speech quality of the dialogue. Its eagerness to educate and inspire keeps breaking the spell of story.

But the fact is that America is the kind of crisis that W.B. Yeats had in mind when he wrote those famous concluding lines in "The Second Coming." It does seem, alas, that we find ourselves in a world where "the best lack all conviction" and that "the worst are full of passionate intensity." The passengers of our American ship have invited pirates to become both captain and crew, and now they're feigning ignorance and looking for someone else to blame as those pirates do what pirates do: rip off the valuables, prepare their escape, and dismantle the ship mid-voyage. The destruction is accelerating as the pirates fan flames of hatred and throw the passengers into chaos. That flag that says "freedom, equality, democracy" is quickly becoming anachronistic, the lie of it exposed. So, maybe we need both right now: artists who give us a vision of beauty that transcends the moment and artists who scramble to save the ship from sinking by picking up a megaphone and shouting instructions. We need poetry and beauty and profundity and we need some lesson-heavy entertainment, some megaphone movies that represent the protest, that shout — as so many have become hard of hearing — that we should stop killing our brothers and sisters.

I'm glad that both movies — A Wrinkle in Time and The Hate U Give — are out in the world right now, flaws and all. As preachy productions go, this movie is a stirring sermon that has me saying "Amen! Lord, hear our prayer."

A Star is Born (2018)

Rocket Raccoon has a reputation as the Guardian of the Galaxy who machine-guns equal measures of bullets and bad language. In that sense, he's like a fusion of two more characters played by Bradley Cooper: He's a gunner like American Sniper's Chris Kyle and he's a snarling cuss monster like, well, the latest Cooper character — Jackson Maine in the latest remake of A Star is Born.

And that comes as a surprise.

I walked into what I believed to be a sort of prestige picture, a remake of a melodramatic musical so classic that it can be rightfully credited with establishing certain silver-screen cliches, and I was ready for it to feel formulaic. I was also prepared for this to feel like the coronation of Lady Gaga as a Grade-A movie star: As Ally, a made-to-order pop starlet, she's playing a role far less distinctive than the one she actually inhabits in today's musical cast of characters.

But I wasn't prepared for this to feel more like a Bradley Cooper vanity project — one in which he orchestrates every gaze — from the camera's adoringly upturned angles to the hero-worship wetness of the leading lady's eyes — in a clear attempt to announce himself as The Sexiest Man Alive.

Cooper sets himself in all kinds of spotlights.

Add to that the bizarro-choice of replacing his voice with a Sam Elliott impression so overbearing that I found myself straining to endure. But we'll get back to that later.

You don't need a plot synopsis from me on this film: You already know it's a rags-to-riches story of a down-on-her-luck Ordinary Girl who works as an [Insert Difficult Job She Can Flamboyantly Quit] and who still lives with her dad. You already know she'll be discovered in an unlikely [Insert Sexy Meet-Cute Here] by a Drug-Addicted Superstar. You know they'll have the slo-mo Love-at-First-Sight necessary for us to want his worldly success to save her... and her conscience to save him.

Lady Gaga plays Ally, a performer far more familiar and formulaic than the one she actually is.

You can sense it coming if you haven't seen the trailer: the glorious moment when he thrusts her into the spotlight and the world loses its mind in the first flush of her irrepressible onstage passion. You can just as easily sense the trouble coming: If the extreme close-ups of Jackson Maine taking drugs, Jackson Maine taking swigs, Jackson Maine taking more drugs, Jackson Maine drinking everything in sight don't tell you what's coming, neither would reading a Wikipedia synopsis before the movie.

To be fair, Cooper the Director has put together a convincing-enough world of arena-rock shows, big audiences that worship his character, backstage road-crew expertise (featuring a Designed-for-Oscar Supporting Role for an almost-always-crying Sam Elliott), and flashy imitations of the Grammies and Saturday Night Live that complete his representation of the "Riches" after the rags.

Things get weird when, after Cooper's Sam Elliott impression starts getting old, Elliott himself shows up demanding his voice back.

But the inevitability of Cooper's storytelling is amplified by the haste with which he moves through its pop-song routine. After the first 45 minutes that do a halfway-decent job of developing Ally's character as a spirited singer who's as likely to throw the first punch in a barfight as she is to confess her insecurities about her looks to a drunken Casanova on their first grocery-store date, Cooper leaps from one All Caps Scene to another. It's like we're watching a lengthy, spoiler-packed trailer of a longer movie's major moments: the Big Rock Numbers, the Substance Abuse, the collaboration montages, the Bathtub Intimacy, the Jealousy of the Success Story He's Launched, the Further Substance Abuse, and the Pending Crisis.  I haven't seen the original or the other remakes, but this sure doesn't make that prospect palatable. (I can only hope that earlier versions don't have this Edited for ADD pace.)

Cooper gives Ally a lesson in how to make hit songs and get the big spot on SNL almost overnight.

Melodrama, as a genre, eschews subtlety. But the way some of these scenes play big basic chords as if they've just invented them, it feels like watching a great pianist try to hit the highs of a Chopin piano concerto on a five-button Baby's First Keyboard. That big scene set at the Grammies, which may as well have a chapter title "Calamity!", is downright embarrassing — and not in the way it intends to be. ("Far from the shallow," my eyebrows.)

And all along the way, Cooper carpet-bombs his scenes with f-bombs as if it's possible to cuss your way to an Oscar. The aggravation of this is exacerbated by the Rock God posturing, the fake accent, and the generic early-'90s Seattle rock vocals. I mean, come on, Cooper: As an actor you can be pretty good... but Eddie is Vedder.

Who knew there were so many American Sniper fans eager to serve as extras in an arena?

As a result, Cooper is to this movie what Jack is to Ally's career: He's the thing that makes the beginning possible and the thing that nearly spoils everything for her. She's too good for him. She's too good for this movie.

It might be worth some chuckles to see a supercut of Cooper's curses from A Star is Born re-dubbed with an impression of his Rocket Raccoon voice. Outside of that, I doubt I can stomach revisiting anything from this movie.

But judging from the sniffles I heard all around me during the steroidal moments of angst and crisis, A Star is Born might be just the kind of Super-Sized Escapism that could win an Oscar. Maybe in these times of unfathomable violence and destruction in the world around us, moviegoers are so desperate for escapism that they need heavier doses of the same old illusions. Maybe they need to believe, if only for 145 minutes, that what matters most are the sufferings of a white male celebrity who can't properly enjoy his success, and a pop goddess whose rise to glory is interrupted by harsh realization that alcoholics make terrible boyfriends.

Turns out it's a bad idea to hitch your dreams to someone who almost always reeks of alcohol.

To steal a line from the movie: Lady Gaga, "it wasn't your fault." You're a star. No argument there.

Join me for two special screenings of Prospect in Seattle

Here’s your chance to meet filmmakers Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl, the makers of the new science-fiction thriller Prospect.

Caldwell and Earl (Seattle Pacific University graduates in 2009 and 2010) have earned extraordinary opportunities in making high-profile commercials and acclaimed short films under the banner of their commercial production company, Shep Films. I wrote about these two for SPU back in 2013. But I'd been following their pursuit of filmmaking success long before that, acting as an advisor for Earl was writing a screenplay as an English major.

Their first feature film, Prospect, opens in theaters in November. They will make special appearances at two of those opening-weekend screenings in Seattle, and they’ve invited me to host an interview and Q&A after the movie.

We’re hoping to see SPU moviegoers — faculty, staff, and students — in the audience to enjoy the movie, ask questions, and cheer them on.

Join me either Thursday, November 8, at 6:45 p.m., or Friday, November 9, at 7:30 p.m., at Regal Meridian 16 Cinemas downtown. 

Puzzle (2018)

As Puzzle begins, we see Agnes vacuuming her house. She looks as dull and as dimly lit and as dusty as the house she's vacuuming.

This is how you might expect a movie to begin if it's going to be about the drudgery of being a neglected housewife. You might also anticipate a great deal of what's ahead. You'll brace yourself for scenes of domestic tensions; of a belligerent husband; of a concerned friend raising questions that Agnes brushes off in her fear, shame, and humility; of Agnes resisting temptations to pursue something—or someone—representing her own desires and potential.

Kelly Macdonald gives her finest performance yet in Puzzle.

The fact that I'd heard the premise — "This is the story of a neglected housewife who discovers a passion for jigsaw puzzles and secretly slips away to pursue competitive puzzling" — did not help matters. I was ready for a whole lot of "been there, done that":

  • the woman's secretive training behind the backs of her disapproving husband and children;
  • the conventional development of a Mr. Miyagi/Karate Kid relationship with a genius;
  • a training-for-competition montage;
  • her family's inevitable discovery of her secret life and passion;
  • a sudden turn that threatens her ability to participate in the competition;
  • a joyful rush when she finally breaks free of her family, or when they finally come around to supporting her, and she gets to compete anyway; and, of course,
  • the suspenseful (but inevitable) tournament victory.

And, of course, the 'Plain Jane' appearance of our hero would dissolve so that she looks like a glamorous celebrity at the end — thank God!

I admit that I smelled these maddening cliches right away. These are tried-and-true crowdpleasing paces, but I've seen too many movies to find them interesting anymore. I started fast-forwarding through the movie in my mind.

But, fortunately, I was sitting in a theater and did not have a remote in my hand.

Puzzle may begin in a way that feels familiar and formulaic. And it does, in fact, include some of those unsurprising turns. But it is a much, much more rewarding experience than I expected.

Can a movie about jigsaw puzzles be a meditation on marriage, family, and the meaning of life? It can indeed.

Heed this warning: Avoid the trailer at all costs. I can think of few previews that spoil more of a movie's important turns than this one. Suffice it to say that, after that worrying start, almost every scene of Puzzle comes alive with small pleasures, big surprises, and exquisite subtleties of storytelling, performance, and cinematography.

Much of the credit is due, I suspect, to the writers.

IMDB lists Puzzle as Polly Mann's first screenplay, but her co-writer Oren Moverman worked on such outstanding indie hits as Love & MercyThe Messenger, and I'm Not There (with Todd Haynes). They've made Agnes and her jigsaw-genius mentor Robert into nuanced, believable, and complicated characters.

David Denham as Louie in Puzzle.

Perhaps most importantly, they've made her husband Louie into someone who is simultaneously overbearing, loving, naive, sympathetic, and frightening. It should have been easy to cheer for Agnes and to root for her to abandon her horrible husband for a romance with someone who really sees her. But Puzzle is not that movie. Mann and Overman chart a course that risks alienating the audience by committing to the complex humanity of its characters, and by refusing to support the lie that difficult marriages can be happily and blissfully abandoned.

That's just one of the ways that Mann and Overment cleverly avoid the pitfalls of genre cliches. Most impressively, they devote very little time at all to puzzle competition events. Yes, we're on our way toward heated puzzle matches. But get this: Agnes has no rival. We're not given a villain to root against. In fact, we don't even witness any culmination to an edge-of-your-seat championship round!

No country for poor puzzlers.

Instead, the film focuses on a tangle of messy relationships. I believe in Agnes, Louie, and their two sons—one of whom is escaping by way of college, the other hanging around home with clear eyes and, yes, a big heart. This family, flawed as it is, is a loving family. They disappoint each other. They give each other second and third chances. And they soldier on as a family even after explosive clashes. What a rare and marvelous thing to witness.

Don't overlook the film's treatment of the family's faith, either. Louie and Agnes are Catholics, and that becomes an influential factor in Agnes's moral struggles when her husband takes a harsh stand between her and meaningful engagement with the world beyond housework. Is her faith an avenue of freedom and salvation, or is it just one more cultural pressure restricting her to frustration?

Even more impressive, the film refuses to give the audience a clear conclusion of tragedy or triumph. It arrives at a messy but meaningful conclusion that is open to interpretation. For me, this was even more satisfying and thrilling than the summer's stunt-driven Mission: Impossible movie.

Christopher Norrs cinematography is a highlight of a surprising, subtle film.

I also commend cinematographer Christopher Norr, who filmed Scott Derrickson's masterful horror film Sinister, for infusing this film in sumptuous color and light. While it's a script-based film, with most scenes being filmed matter-of-factly, it offers moments I wanted to live in for a while, radiant in ways that reminded me of Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy.

But I must, above all, celebrate what Puzzle's three leads achieve: an exquisite, discomforting, and fully human chemistry. As Agnes, Kelly Macdonald—an actress I would happily watch on a far more regular basis, worthy to be remembered for so much more than No Country for Old Men, Brave, and Gosford Park—shines in the lead. Her face is a powerfully expressive text conveying complicated emotions and thoughts, and representing hairpin turns of understanding and decision that are always convincing.

Agnes is a Catholic, but her crisis at home leads to a crisis regarding confession.

Irfan Khan (The Namesake, The Darjeeling Limited)—an actor who deserves so much more praise and glory than American audiences give him—turns unremarkable lines into surprising moments. I'd call this Oscar-worthy work in a supporting role.

David Denham has, in some respects, the most difficult job here. I've only known him as Pam's aggravating boyfriend on The Office, but he makes Louie one of the most memorable big-screen fathers and husbands I've seen in recent years. Late in the film, I found myself rooting for him to make the right movies, change his heart, and redeem himself from past mistakes.

Irfan Khan is Robert: jigsaw-puzzle champion and mentor to Agnes.

Puzzle, directed by Mark Turtletaub (a producer on that indie landmark Little Miss Sunshine), brings so many three-dimensional pieces together into a small, substantial, and intricate surprise — one that has stayed with me since I got more than I bargained for on an occasion of spur-of-the-moment, late-night moviegoing. (It makes me curious about Rompecabezas, the 2010 Argentine movie on which this film is based.)

So if you're worried about being bored by a movie about jigsaw puzzles, or weary of films about the living hells experienced by housewives — I mean, come on, I know so many extraordinary stay-at-home moms who live rich and rewarding lives — let me encourage you to give Puzzle a try anyway.

I almost heeded my concerns and skipped it. And I'm so glad I didn't.