Scott Tobias

There are no sure things in the volatile world of indie film distribution, but food documentaries have become reliable winners — the amuse-bouche of dinner-and-a-movie date nights, the pornography of Netflix. Half of them warn of all the terrible things in food—genetically modified organisms! high-fructose corn syrup!

Tucked deep into the Bolivian jungle — through swarms of disease-carrying mosquitoes, a river flush with voracious piranha, and hidden gauntlets of hostile natives — the elusive civilization in The Lost City of Z sounds like El Dorado or The Fountain of Youth, one of those mythical paradises that conquistadors slaughtered many to seek.

Among its many virtues, the bittersweet 1979 caper comedy Going in Style has a distinct tone, located at the obscure intersection of irreverence and melancholy. As three retirees from Queens who rob a bank in Groucho Marx masks, George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg are both figures of fun and men who can't bear the thought of drearily cashing Social Security checks and feeding the pigeons until the sun finally sinks under the horizon.

Knives are the weapon of choice in the dread-soaked horror film The Blackcoat's Daughter, and for debut director Osgood Perkins, that's a prime example of steering into the skid. Perkins' father is the late Anthony Perkins, who wielded the most famous knife in film history as Norman Bates in Psycho, and he seems determined to carry that same horror classicism into the 21st century.

To fully understand the dollar-store appeal of Power Rangers, the first big-screen iteration of the media and action-figure line in two decades, one must sit through at least one or two of the five Michael Bay-directed Transformers movies, which is by no means an advisable experience. The two franchises are more or less the same — a busy assemblage of thinly wrought characters, unforgivably dense mythology, and barely comprehensible action sequences, all in service of gleaming battlebots for kids to smash together in the sandbox.

The opening minutes of Danny Boyle's Trainspotting stand as a defining pop salvo in the movies, akin to The Beatles dashing away from screaming fans in A Hard Day's Night or Rosie Perez shadow-boxing her way through Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" in the opening credits of Do the Right Thing.

Fifteen years ago, director Jeffrey Blitz kicked off his career with the hit documentary Spellbound, which brought audiences into the high-stakes world of spelling bees, following eight competitors on the road to the 1999 National Spelling Bee. The kids were all outcasts, products of hard-driving parents who pushed them to memorize words like "hellebore" and "seguidilla" and study their lingual roots like thickly bespectacled Talmudic scholars.

The 1987 comedy Three O'Clock High, about the showdown between a nerdy school reporter and a bully who looked like a 30-year-old ex-con, has gained a cult reputation over the years for cutting against the grain of the typical '80s high school fare. Stylishly directed by first-timer Phil Joanou, who made a name for himself doing music videos for U2, the film worked as a teenage twist on Martin Scorsese's After Hours, another black comedy about a hapless weakling being put through the wringer.

Batman has been in need of a great unburdening. It became necessary after Christopher Nolan's trilogy posited the Caped Crusader as a hulking avatar of turn-of-the-millennium anxiety. And it grew even more urgent after the drudgery of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which was like chasing the heaviest meal of your life with a fully loaded, twice-baked potato. Over the last 50 years, Batman has crossed the spectrum from the campy, freewheeling POW! of the 1966 TV version to a grim-faced, gravel-voiced bulwark against festering corruption, urban blight, and existential malaise.

It's been nearly two decades since the Japanese horror movie Ringu introduced the world to a new kind of specter, a pale-grey ghost with stringy black hair and the hitch-like movements of a body that looked like its bones had been reversed and rearranged.

What is a dog's purpose?

This existential question haunts a canine as the pup takes several different forms in A Dog's Purpose, from Golden Retriever to German Shepherd to Corgi and other breeds throughout the years, starting in the 1960s and continuing to the present day. It arrives at an answer eventually, something in line with the sentimental bromides expressed throughout the movie, which showcases its playfulness, courage, and companionship astride many owners.

When Otto and Anna Quangel, a middle-aged couple in early '40s Berlin, receive a letter informing them their only son has died in the Battle of France, they take the news with curious resignation. Otto can't even bring himself to open the envelope, leaving his wife alone to process its contents. Their reaction is somewhere between shock and a grim acceptance of the inevitable, and it stands in sharp contrast to a city buoyed by Nazi victories and nationalist propaganda. They've lost their child and they've lost their country, perhaps long before.

Standing across from each other at City Hall, each wearing an outfit that barely passes for "dress casual," Dianne (Olivia Thirlby) and Henry (Ben Feldman) cannot make it through their wedding vows with giggling and rolling their eyes a little. It's not that they don't care for each other — though they're in a rough stretch — but for two people so allergic to convention, the institution of marriage is like a pollen bomb. Their instinct is to duck-and-cover when it detonates.

Based on Margot Lee Shetterly's book, Hidden Figures has a triple-meaning title. It is about the mathematics that served as a rationale and a backstop for manned space capsules launched into space and brought back safely to earth. It is about the African-American women who carried out these vital functions in Langley, VA, without the public acknowledgement granted astronauts like Alan Shepard or John Glenn, or even the buzzcut white men at Mission Control.

Back in 2008, it seemed entirely reasonable to expect that Will Smith's career would never get stranger than Seven Pounds, a film in which his character (spoiler) commits suicide-by-jellyfish as part of an elaborate Oprah-by-way-of-Oskar-Schindler redemption scheme. And yet here we are.

In the shambling ensemble comedy Office Christmas Party, Kate McKinnon plays the uptight Human Resources person at an unruly tech outfit, a job about as thankless as hall monitor in Rock 'n' Roll High School. Every boozy party movie needs its requisite prude, but McKinnon keeps adding new layers of eccentricity, from a data-driven approach to cheese platter arrangement to secret perversions that dangle like loose threads from her interdenominational holiday sweater.

The audacious biopic Jackie opens on the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts in 1963, merely a week after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Though she welcomes a journalist into one of the Kennedy residences along Cape Cod, the now-former First Lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, has no permanent home. History has shredded her lease at The White House, which she had controversially renovated during her husband's time in office, and her belongings had been hastily shuffled to storage, like a college kid taking a break between semesters.

For yuletide misanthropes nationwide, Bad Santa has become a kind of alternative holiday tradition, the shot of Wild Turkey spiking the eggnog. What's forgotten is that Terry Zwigoff's delectably nasty 2003 comedy was a hit despite a bitter post-production struggle between Zwigoff and the studio, Miramax, which decided the film needed "heart," did reshoots (some without Zwigoff's participation), and released the film as a parent might release a soiled diaper.

Like the most dreaded Secret Santa at the office holiday party, Hollywood is a shameless re-gifter, passing off the same ensemble comedy-drama every year or two in lieu of a more thoughtful present.

The mystical world of Doctor Strange, where sorcerers clash in an interstellar battle royale, unfolds in a shape-shifting, time-bending, mind-blowing flurry of special effects. The facades of buildings turn and flip like the rows of a giant Rubik's Cube. Whole cities are vacuumed into the sky like wispy clouds of lint. Temporal loops destroy and reconstitute entire neighborhoods, which are made to seem like life itself sits on tectonic plates that no one knew existed below their feet. Reality as we know it becomes as malleable as soft clay.

On July 15th, 1974, Christine Chubbuck, a field reporter for a small news station in Sarasota, Florida, requested and received a rare on-camera appearance during a live broadcast. She read a couple of stories, including a report about a shooting the previous day at a local restaurant, but the footage queued up for segment jammed, leaving Chubbuck to move on to the next page in the stack.

Based on the Paula Hawkins' bestselling novel, The Girl on the Train is a whodunit constructed through an ornate latticework of multiple narrators, temporal jumps, blackouts, constant misdirection, and out-and-out red herrings. There are a good four or five possible suspects, each waved at the audience like a red cape in front of a bull, with the lance awaiting on the other side.

When it was announced that Oliver Stone would be making a film about Sept. 11, the news alone felt like a startling provocation: Hollywood's most political director, a man known for upending assumptions about America's history and institutions, would be commenting on the formative tragedy of the early 21st century. Perhaps Stone would indulge in the type of leftist conspiracy theory that informed his JFK or, at a minimum, seize the opportunity to critique the drastic changes in domestic and foreign policy precipitated by the attacks.

Back in 1988, Indian-American director Mira Nair burst onto the scene with her debut feature Salaam Bombay!, a ground-level portrait of Bombay street kids that brought the qualities of Italian neorealism — and its key successors, like Satyajit Ray's "Apu Trilogy" — to a nascent American independent scene. With her new film Queen of Katwe, Nair comes full circle, at least in the sense that she's again addressing the perils of extreme poverty and the resilient children who withstand it.

A man, a plan, a canal — Panama! The classic palindrome also doubles as tidy descriptor for Hands of Stone, a shoddy biopic about Roberto Durán, a legendary Panamanian boxer whose identity, according to the film, is tied closely to the fate of the Panama Canal.

With dark bangs draped over an eyepatch, a stack of colorful origami paper, and a two-stringed, lute-like instrument called a shamisen strapped to his back, young Kubo heads into a seaside village to put on a street performance for spare change. As he rocks the shamisen like the Joe Satriani of ancient Japan, the origami paper dances to life around him, folding into sharply edged characters and objects, and occasionally bursting into ribbons of confetti.

The economics of remakes tend to run counter to creative value: Studios eager to cash in on existing properties choose to revive their most beloved titles, which generally condemns remakes to be a pale shadow of established classics. It also handcuffs filmmakers significantly, because they can't paint too far outside the lines or risk alienating fans of the original. The ideal remake would take a flawed film with a strong premise and build something completely new and inspired around it.

The grieving process resists dramatization because its mysteries are so internalized and particular, and not easily clarified through action. We can watch the bereaved shuffle through the scenery, reviving their long-dormant smoking habit, but all that moping around reveals nothing but the dull, persistent ache that trails them like a raincloud. Someone suffering loss may cut other people out of their lives, but filmmakers don't have the luxury of closing the blinds and locking the door, too. They have to crack the window open and give us a peek inside.

Halfway through Tallulah, an unwieldy but affecting showcase for Ellen Page and Allison Janney, Lu (Page), a drifter suddenly confronted by an enormous responsibility stares up at blue sky above Washington Square Park and muses about gravity. What if it just stopped? What if we left these earthly bounds and floated off into the ether? It's not a suicidal fantasy on Lu's part, though circumstances have landed her in a terrible spot. She just wants to be free.

Making an Absolutely Fabulous movie in 2016, over 20 years after the cheerfully vulgar British sitcom became a cult sensation, seems both absurdly late and entirely in keeping with the spirit of the show. After all, Edina "Eddy" Monsoon and Patricia "Patsy" Stone, a pair of unrepentant boozers on the fringes of the fashion world, have never known cultural cachet. It only follows, then, that a big-screen version of their exploits would not be particularly hip or in-demand, but a continuation of the bawdy obliviousness that have made them such a treasure over the years.

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