Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land

Damien Chazelle’s musical romance La La Land is a grand, lush, candy-colored dream of a movie, and I’d mean that as even higher praise if the lingering effects of dreams lasted longer than they actually do. Don’t get me wrong: I devoured this movie so hungrily and happily that I half-wished my admission ticket came with complimentary silverware and a napkin. Yet as of this writing, four days have passed since I saw it, and I find the film’s delirious charms and plaintive melancholy slowly but surely evaporating, only resurfacing when I play one of its tunes on YouTube, or enjoy a millionth viewing of the trailer. Writer/director Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash is a great time, but I’m not altogether convinced it’s a great movie, despite knowing that I’ll likely, eventually, watch it 20 or 30 more times in an attempt to decide.

Ten years ago, you could’ve called Passengers a “Sandra Bullock in space” flick, before Bullock went and ruined the gag by starring in Gravity.

Felicity Jones and Diego Luna in <em>Rogue One: A Star Wars Story</em>

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story takes place after the events of Revenge of the Sith and before the events of the original Star Wars (which I steadfastly refuse to call A New Hope), and it concerns the Rebel Alliance’s plans to destroy the Death Star. I think that’s about as much detail as I can get into without traumatizing the spoiler-averse, unless “... and I didn’t care for it” counts as a spoiler.

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck in <em>Manchester by the Sea</em>

Before its narrative gets underway, Manchester by the Sea opens with a title card presenting “A Picture by Kenneth Lonergan.” That unusual phrasing is more formal than we’re accustomed to. But it proves not to be inaccurate, as this picture is indeed a picture, and an intensely specific one, of life continuing in the wake of insurmountable tragedy. Given its reams of brilliantly crafted, oftentimes dryly hilarious conversation and its transcendent performances, you’d never mistake Lonergan’s third feature for a documentary. You’d still be hard-pressed, though, to find one scene, one moment, that doesn’t feel unerringly real. The film is as heartbreaking as actual life can be, but also as funny and startling and, above all, surprising – a profoundly human work that’s also a hell of a satisfying entertainment.

T.J. Miller, Courtney B. Vance, and Rob Corddry in Office Christmas Party

Is any movie sight more incongruously dull than that of amped-to-11 crowds drinking and dancing and losing their minds at a raucous on-screen party? I ponder this every time I yawn during a teen-centric Project X or a “We’re still vital, damn it!” slapstick lament such as the Tina Fey/Amy Poehler Sisters; characters may be having an inhibition-busting ball, but watching them from the immobility of a cineplex seat is a strange and alienating affair. Exactly how are we supposed to react to all these happy lunatics enjoying the techno-thumping, strobe-flashing times of their lives? By punching our fists in the air and shouting, “F--- yeah!!!”? By whipping out our own Jell-O shots and Slip N Slides? By smiling politely, chuckling occasionally, and kind of wishing we were anywhere else instead?

Wild horse races at the Oglala Lakota Nation Pow Wow, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota. (2010) -- photo by Danny Wilcox Frazier

A few years ago, while in the South Dakota Badlands, still photographer, photojournalist, filmmaker, LeClaire native, and current Iowa City resident Danny Wilcox Frazier met John and Julie – married ranchers whose daily lives he wanted to document in photographs. Frazier explained his intentions to the couple, and they agreed to take part. But as Frazier says during our recent phone interview, there was a caveat.

“I said, ‘There’s one thing you need to know before we start: How I work is I move in.’ And Julie was like, ‘Uh-h-h-h ... oka-a-a-ay ... . Are you saying you need somewhere to sleep tonight?’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, that’d be great!’ Because at that point, I was sleeping in the back of my truck. I’d find a place, get a few hours sleep, wake up with the sun, and start shooting again.

“But more importantly,” he continues, “I wanted them to understand how I work – how I wanted to be there for everything.”

Ryan O&#39;Quinn in Believe

BELIEVE and INCARNATE

As the first weekend in December has traditionally been one of the sleepiest in terms of movie attendance, this used to be the period in which studios would debut one or two releases that presumably few would bother seeing. But for two years running, that hasn’t been the case. Nowadays, it seems, the first December weekend brings with it very specific releases that few will bother seeing: a faith-based drama to make us conscious of miracles, and an evil-spirits chiller to make us fear the unknown. In 2015, it was the deadening Mother Teresa bio-pic The Letters and the yuletide creep-out Krampus. This year, it’s Believe and Incarnate. Can someone please nip this trend in the bud before we’re saddled with the two-fer of God’s Really Most Sincerely Not Dead and Annabelle IV: Porcelain Revenge?

Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard in Allied

ALLIED

Robert Zemeckis’ World War II thriller Allied is a movie teeming with pleasures, from Steven Knight’s deft and ingenious screenplay to the flawless production design to the visual effects that are employed so seamlessly they barely register as effects. Somehow, they all emerge as afterthoughts compared to the consistent, devastating pleasure that is Marion Cotillard. Over the years, the Oscar winner has had better roles and has delivered finer portrayals, although maybe no more than two or three of them. But Cotillard’s radiant charisma and performance gifts are employed so stunningly well in Allied that the film, quite early on, begins to feel unimaginable without her – at least barring a miraculous hole in the space-time continuum that would allow a 1940s Ingrid Bergman to take her place.

Moana

MOANA

There’s a throwaway joke in Disney’s Moana that comes right after the titular Polynesian is referred to as “Princess,” and the headstrong girl – soon to be her tribe’s first female chief – bristles at the chauvinistic comment. “If you wear a dress and you have an animal sidekick,” explains the chauvinist, “you’re a princess.” A bit later, this guy, a heavily tattooed demigod named Maui, notices Moana looking wistfully at the sea and grumbles, “If you start singing, I’m going to throw up.” These laugh lines are amusing and all, but have Disney’s animated musicals finally become so oppressively clichéd that even their own characters are tired of them?

Alex Hibbert in Moonlight

MOONLIGHT

Writer/director Barry Jenkins’ coming-of-age drama Moonlight feels so personal, so revealing, that it sometimes seems as though you shouldn’t even be watching it. Yet you might also find it impossible to look away; Jenkins’ cinematic triptych on the experiences of a young, gay, black male growing up in lower-middle-class Miami elicits the kind of empathetic fascination you occasionally derive from a first-rate memoir, and only rarely from a movie. Given how thrillingly, unusually specific its point-of-view is, Moonlight’s also being extraordinarily well-acted, -written, and -produced is practically a bonus.

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