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He Sad, She Sad

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Wilson Webb/Netflix

MOVIE REVIEW
Marriage Story (2019)

For starters, the title is wrong. It’s a divorce story, specifically that of teen-sensation-actress-turned-arthouse-draw Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and self-made-theater-director Charlie (Adam Driver). The plot resembles so closely the outline of writer-director Noah Baumbach’s real-life marriage to his first wife that the gender of their actual child – onscreen, his name is Henry (Azhy Robertson) – hasn’t even been changed. As an audience, we are meant to be enthralled by this inside portrait of an artistic family’s disintegration. As people, watching this airing of some downright cruel dirty laundry, we really ought to look away.

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When the Rainbow's Over

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David Hindley/Roadside Attractions

MOVIE REVIEW
Judy (2019)

No amount of yellow bricks can hide the fact that we are on a familiar road with “Judy.” The film has a similar look and feel to 2018’s “Stan & Ollie,” with both movies following Hollywood legends experiencing hard times during the twilight of their careers. Where Laurel and Hardy battled changing audience tastes and deteriorating health, the trials faced by the late Judy Garland were partially self-inflicted. Where love and affection were absent in her life, the actress would often fill the void with pills and booze.

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Neighborhood Watch

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Lacey Terrell/TriStar Pictures

MOVIE REVIEW
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

This is Marielle Heller’s third movie, and with it she confirms her status as one of the finest directors now working. Her first movie, “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” told the difficult story of a clever 15-year-old who voluntarily begins sleeping with her mother’s boyfriend. Her second, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” showed how a writer who had lost her way was able to find herself again by co-opting other people’s voices. And now, with this movie that is not quite about beloved television host Fred Rogers, she gives us the road map to become better people. It’s an extraordinary achievement.

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Free Agent

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Glen Wilson/Focus Features

MOVIE REVIEW
Harriet (2019)

It is always wonderful to see a movie made by the right person at the right time. Kasi Lemmons has been one of the very few black female film directors working in Hollywood for the last quarter century, and Harriet Tubman is an American heroine. For her to tell the story of Tubman’s life is a marriage of subject and filmmaker such that we rarely get to see. And oh, it’s worth it.

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Souped Nazi

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Kimberley French/Fox Searchlight Pictures

MOVIE REVIEW
Jojo Rabbit (2019)

It’s not that we didn’t think he had it in him. But it’s a sad reality that not everyone can make the jump from the minors to the majors. There are plenty of movie directors who can handle $5 million brilliantly but who choke under the pressure of $10 million, or $100 million. Or they can handle the pressure but not the studio. Or they can handle the studio but not the actors. Or they can do it, but only as a controlled implosion. It’s very, very rare for someone to not only do it all, but to make it look easy.

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Baiting for Tonight

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STX Financing, LLC

MOVIE REVIEW
Hustlers (2019)

What an entrance. About 10 minutes into “Hustlers,” Jennifer Lopez does a pole-dance routine that will go down in cinematic history as one of the most unforgettable character introductions since Rita Hayworth in “Gilda.” And this time it’s to no less of a song than “Criminal” by Fiona Apple. Constance Wu has nothing to do but stare in shock, and man, do we agree with her. The next scene is of Ms. Lopez in that outfit and a fur coat on a rooftop, smoking and looking so unbelievably beautiful that you almost forget you’re watching a based-on-a-true-story movie about a gang of strippers who drug and rob a bunch of men. As bait to get us on a hook, “Hustlers” uses the power of Ms. Lopez’s body very, very effectively. But it doesn’t reel us in as far as we should.

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Fake It Till You Make It

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Allen Fraser/BFI Flare 2019

MOVIE REVIEW
J. T. LeRoy (2019)

Finally, Kristen Stewart gets a part that makes her happy. Ms. Stewart is notorious for her discomfort with the fame that has been the result of her acting talent – look at the photos of her barely hiding her misery on any red carpet. This feeling is the entire point of her character, Savannah, in “J. T. Leroy,” an inspired-by-true-events story of a famous literary hoax that captivated America last decade. The hoax is revealed right at the start. What the movie explores is why the characters needed to do it.

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Out, of Africa

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Film Movement

MOVIE REVIEW
Rafiki (2019)

In the apocryphal past, movies were made locally and shown locally, so the makers could make assumptions about what the audience would understand – or not. Cultural relevance was a given and issues of representation were not as fraught as they are currently becoming, so characters onscreen were designed to be coathangers for the audience to hang their own personalities onto. Smaller movies can be much more widely seen these days but now the marketplace is global, there are so many options it’s almost impossible to decide. Even as the market widens – and it’s possible to make a movie on your phone and upload it to the Internet for the world to enjoy – the stories which tend to achieve the greatest success tend to center the same pale, male and stale characters as ever. There’s backlash, of course. Marvel is finally being called out for making blockbusters for over a decade without yet acknowledging that gay people exist, for example. Luckily, in other parts of the cinematic galaxy, we still have movies about regular heroes, just about. “Rafiki” is about two of them. The incredible story of two Kenyan girls in love as a superhero film, I hear you say? That’s right. Being gay is illegal in Kenya, and therefore the mere idea of making a movie about a lesbian relationship is an impossible act. But director Wanuri Kahiu did it, and so we have to ask ourselves, was all this courage worth it?

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Lifting the Iron Curtain

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Sony Pictures Classics

MOVIE REVIEW
The White Crow (2019)

I blame John C. Reilly. “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” had such fun with the clichéd template of the artistic biopic that the genre still hasn’t recovered. Now biopics have to have an angle. For example, the Alberto Giacometti biopic, “Final Portrait,” focused on one specific sculpture of his. “The White Crow” similarly tries to have its cake and eat it: to focus both on the month Rudolf Nureyev spent in Paris before his famous defection in 1961, but also on the development of his talent as a child and as a young man. It doesn't quite succeed, but it’s such a Murderers’ Row of little known international dancing and acting talent that it's well worth seeing regardless.

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Little Trouble in Big China

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Berlin International Film Festival

MOVIE REVIEW
The Crossing (2019)

Peipei (Huang Yao) turns 16 the day “The Crossing” starts. She lives in Shenzhen, a port city in southern China, but goes to school in Hong Kong. This means morning and night she must cross – by herself - the international border. Her father (Liu Kai Chi) lives in the shipyard where he works, and her mother (Ni Hongjie) is a party girl who only pays attention to her hangovers and her friends. But, in spite of all that, Peipei is a good kid. Since this is the instant she’s old enough, after school she gets a job as a waitress; but when a customer complains that’s the end of that. She’s desperate for independence, not least because her wealthy best friend Jo (Carmen Soup) has been planning for them to take a trip to some hot springs in Japan for some time.

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