The Road (Netflix)
Adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Road (2009) can’t quite compare to the spare, powerful majesty of the book, but it’s still an emotional powerhouse, a dark father-son story to end them all. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic future, where electricity is gone, food and water are scarce, and everything is covered by gray ash; even the sun is blocked out and the weather has turned cold. A man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travel the dangerous road toward the coast, hoping to find something, anything, there.
They encounter some nasty cannibals and some nice people along the way. Their fragile hope is kept alive by some occasional, small wins. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the heartbreaking beauty in the moment when the man fishes a single, last Coca-Cola from deep inside a vending machine and gives his thin, starving son his first-ever sip. “It’s good,” he says, with a flicker of excitement. It’s directed by Australian genre expert John Hillcoat (The Proposition, Triple 9), lending a serious toughness that feels right, even if it’s difficult. Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Molly Parker, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Charlize Theron appear in small roles.
35 Shots of Rum (Fandor)
The France-based filmmaker Claire Denis was raised in Colonial French Africa, and worked as an assistant director under Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch before making her own mark as a director; she’s now one of the finest in the world. Her 35 Shots of Rum (2009) is one of her simplest and loveliest movies, possibly inspired by the serene Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu. It focuses on a community of mostly non-white Parisians. They are friends, former lovers, current lovers, and colleagues. The focus is on a train engineer Lionel (Alex Descas); Ozu was fond of trains and uses them to cushion his shots in many films. Lionel lives with his beautiful, grown daughter Jo (Mati Diop).
Father and daughter don’t speak much throughout the course of the film, but their actions tell all. There are many tender hugs and kisses on the cheek. When both father and daughter unexpectedly arrive home the same evening with new rice cookers, Jo chooses the one her father bought to make dinner. Relationships with others are never outright explained, and Denis simply gives us gestures and little clues with which to piece them together. Ultimately it comes down to Denis paying tribute to one of Ozu’s favorite conundrums: when should a daughter leave her father for a relationship of her own?
Former music video maker and recent Oscar nominee Mike Mills (20th Century Women) wrote and directed this comedy-drama based on his own relationship with his father. Beginners (2011) is highly fictionalized, but it works beautifully. In 2003, Oliver (Ewan McGregor) meets a beautiful girl, Anna (Mélanie Laurent), at a costume party. Even though he believes the relationship is doomed, he begins to fall for her anyway. He flashes back to the story of his father (Christopher Plummer), who, at age 75, came out of the closet, began dating a younger man (Goran Visnjic), and was diagnosed with cancer.
In essence, the movie is about Oliver learning to deal with loss and accept the idea of love. But because of the movie’s playfully messy structure, it somehow manages to mirror the jumbled emotions of its character, making him universally appealing. One of the movie’s devices is a “talking” dog—the dog merely looks at a person and subtitles reveal his thoughts—could have been annoying, but seems just right. The movie establishes strong emotional connections between characters, and is unafraid to move in close to the heart. Plummer won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his exuberant work.
The Judge (Rental, Amazon Prime, Vudu, or iTunes)
With The Judge (2014), Robert Downey Jr. took a brief break from superhero movies and flexed his acting chops once again; but, perhaps upset by this change of pace, critics and audiences didn’t really take to it. Admittedly, it does have something of a squishy, goopy plot, but I like it very much for two reasons. The first is that Downey and Robert Duvall, regardless of whatever kind of movie they’re in, are heavyweights in their field, and watching them together is pure pleasure. The second is that director David Dobkin lets non-essential moments creep in, allowing the cast moments to breathe, cry, scream, laugh, hug, or whatever else strikes them.
Downey’s slick, cynical, big-city lawyer Hank hates his small-town home, but reluctantly returns—leaving behind his own loving daughter—when he learns his mother has died. Before he can leave, his father, a hard-as-nails small-town judge (Duvall), becomes involved in an auto accident that resulted in a death. And he finds he’s the only one that can defend his father. Of course, the two men have a strained relationship, and most scenes involve them chipping away at one another, but it’s pure poetry. Just as good is the supporting cast, from Vera Farmiga as an old flame, to Vincent D’Onofrio as one of Hank’s brothers. Jeremy Strong plays another brother, the developmentally disabled Dale, who films everything with an old camera. Hanks reunion with Dale is one of the film’s smallest, sweetest moments.
Blood Father (Rental, Amazon Prime, Vudu or iTunes)
It has been quite some time since Mel Gibson landed a movie role that seemed to fit him, and here comes Blood Father; it’s perhaps his most entertaining work since the Lethal Weapon movies wrapped up. He plays a grizzled tattoo artist out on parole and trying to stay sober. He lives in a trailer, not far from his sponsor (William H. Macy), and has so far managed to keep it together. Unfortunately, his runaway daughter Lydia (Erin Moriarty) turns up, having been responsible for accidentally killing her criminal boyfriend (Diego Luna). Now she has all kinds of bad guys after her, and John must be a good father and do what he can to protect her and end the assault.
Their journey, via cars and motorcycles, takes them to a motel with a helpful desk clerk (Thomas Mann), and to a weird desert ranch populated by motorcycle-riding war veterans led by the sinister Preacher (Michael Parks). It’s vaguely similar in plot to the awful Term Life, but Blood Father does everything right, creating characters with history and personality, and focusing on their relationships, all of which makes the action much more powerful. The movie is directed by Frenchman Jean-François Richet, of the French-language gangster movie Mesrine and the American remake of Assault on Precinct 13.
Toni Erdmann (Rental, Amazon Prime, Vudu, or iTunes)
Written and directed by Maren Ade (Everyone Else), the very odd German film Toni Erdmann (2016) snagged the #1 spot on Cahiers du Cinema’s annual top ten list, placed on just about every other critics’ top-ten list, and received an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. “Toni Erdmann” is actually the fake alter-ego of main character Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek). Somewhere in his sixties, he likes to put on disguises and tell humorous lies to strangers. When his dog dies, and nearing the time of his adult daughter’s birthday, he suddenly decides to drop in on her where she works in Bucharest.
Ines (Sandra Hüller) is pretty and put-together while at her job, but her father makes her come apart at the seams, especially when he brings awkwardness to several crucial business get-togethers. After a while, Ines decides to go along with one of his jokes, and then spontaneously decides to throw a naked birthday party for herself (her father attends, dressed as a big, furry beast with a tall head). I don’t seem to like this movie as much as everyone else does; for me the 162-minute running time is too excessive and the ending is too arbitrary. But I liked a great many scenes in the middle; it’s made with immersion into life, and intense focus on character and behavior, and it’s one of the strangest and most revealing father-daughter relationships on film.
Train to Busan (Netflix)
Often it’s the simplest ideas that are the most ingenious. Get this one: zombies—on a train. That’s it. Ingenious. And, amazingly, the South Korean film (presented with English subtitles) Train to Busan (2016) gets just about everything right with this scenario. It begins with a busy businessman (Gong Yoo), who reluctantly takes time from work to take his daughter (Kim Su-an) to see her mother on her birthday. The train ride starts weirdly when people are attacked just outside the windows on the platform. Eventually zombies take over the train, and it’s up to a cross section of people—a tough guy, his pregnant wife, a crazy homeless guy, a baseball player, and a cheerleader—to help each other survive.
Director Yeon Sang-ho—a veteran of animated films—makes the most of his scenario, using the speed of the train, its long, cramped corridors, and a clever sound design, to hugely entertaining effect. There are tunnels that plunge everything into darkness, train crashes, and tons of other nifty moments, such as hordes of attacking zombies tumbling over each other like frantic beetles. Sure, the movie borrows from tons of other films, notably Snowpiercer, made by another South Korean director, and there’s even a nasty Karl Hardman-type businessman character (whose extreme selfishness leads to the deaths of others), borrowed from the original Night of the Living Dead. But many great genre films stand on the shoulders of giants, so long as, like this one, they add something to the pile.