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Must-see movies of 2016

Top ten of the last year

Remember Remember? Marx (left) shows Lickona (right) his Top 10 list for 2016, and there it is, right at the top!
Remember Remember? Marx (left) shows Lickona (right) his Top 10 list for 2016, and there it is, right at the top!
Movie

Our Little Sister <em>(Umimachi Diary)</em> ****

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At their estranged father’s funeral, the oldest of three sisters takes it upon herself to ask her little-known teenage half-sister — the product of an adulterous relationship that “crushed their family” — to join her siblings and make it a quartet. Was the invite extended simply to spite their almost equally disunified mother? Audiences softened by Hollywood cynicism are bound to be confounded by filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda’s (<em>After Life, Like Father, Like Son</em>) gentle, upbeat tone. The director’s prime influence Yasujiro Ozu notwithstanding, it clearly doesn’t take a superhero to resolve life’s endless flow of contradictions, nor does our titular outcast in the sailor’s suit transform into a stringy-haired Japanese demon. Koreeda instead looks at what holds a family together long after the sands of time have filled in the emotional crater left by a messy divorce. And don’t expect a conventional sappy ending. If anything, the poster should read, “See it without Kleenex!”

Find showtimes

10) Hirokazu Koreeda’s Our Little Sister

At their estranged father’s funeral, the oldest of three sisters takes it upon herself to ask her little-known teenage half-sister — the product of an adulterous relationship that “crushed their family” — to join her siblings and make it a quartet. Koreeda’s gentle, upbeat approach turns this examination of what holds a family together long after the sands of time have filled in the emotional crater left by a messy divorce into something wonderful.

Movie

American Honey ****

thumbnail

…needs lots of American worker bees to make it, a roving swarm that labors for the sake of preserving the hive and comforting the queen, and thinks of nothing else. (If that analogy seems a bit much, just take note of the preponderance of bugs through this captivating film’s generous but well-considered runtime.) In this case, that means a van full of Lost Boys and Girls, roaming the heartland and selling magazines door to door under the stern care of their ladyboss Crystal. Except, of course, the grime of commerce has a way of getting under your fingernails (and your clothes, and your skin…), and super-seller Jake (a revelatory Shia LaBeouf) quickly makes it clear to our runaway heroine Star (a mesmerizing Sasha Lane) that what you’re selling isn’t magazines, it’s you. Writer-director Andrea Arnold artfully sets love against money and manages one of the best endings in recent memory. She does a lot of other things right as well, using the kids' use of sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll (well, hip-hop) to illustrate both the nightmare and promise of being young and alarmingly free in America.

Find showtimes

9) Andrea Arnold’s American Honey

A teenager free of life’s commitments takes up with a band of fellow hard-partying outcasts to travel the Midwest selling magazine subscriptions. 163 minutes is a lot to ask of an audience, but Arnold’s unpretentious approach never caused me to regret the fact that I don’t own a watch. And here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: Shia Labeouf gives a terrific performance.

Movie

Invitation ****

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Too long since your gut’s had a good churning? <em>The Invitation</em> was sent out for a tight-knit group of friends (and a couple of hand-picked interlopers) to gather at a dinner party that initially had all the makings of a crisis intervention. Crisis, indeed! Arbitration? Not likely. It takes about 15 minutes to figure out the “why,” but hats off to director Karyn Kusama and screenwriting/marriage partner Phil Hay (he shares credit with Matt Manfredi) for encouraging me to want to stick around and see just how they were going to pull it off. At any moment, this one-location shoot could have swerved in the direction of canned theatre. Rely on Kusama’s telling arrangement of actors in the frame (particularly the background movements of John Carroll Lynch) to establish a character hierarchy. After that, the tension is all uphill until an unforeseen curtain shock slaps an extra coat of chills on all that’s come before. Lynch shares credit with a superb ensemble, but it’s his halcyon turn as a pitiable demon that unifies the action. In the shot or out of it, once onscreen, his presence permeates every ensuing frame. With Logan Marshall-Green and Tammy Blanchard.

Find showtimes

8) Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation

Nothing in 2016 creeped me out quite like this. It takes about 15 minutes to figure out the “why,” but hats off to director Karyn Kusama and screenwriting/marriage partner Phil Hay (he shares credit with Matt Manfredi) for encouraging audiences to want to stick around and see just how they were going to pull it off.

Movie

Jackie ****

thumbnail

Were it not for the giant blood stain on the lower-half of her fabled pink dress – a moment director Pablo Larraín takes his sweet time revealing in a startling pullback – and constant juxtaposition next to her husband’s casket, Jackie Kennedy could have just as easily been mistaken for a stewardess aboard Air Force One. Imagine a documentary portrait of a passive character set during the four most intensely intolerable days of her life and you’ll get an idea of the kind of emotional (and cinematic) wallop Jackie packs. Larraín places his subject center frame – she’s present in just about every shot in the film – while his star, Natalie Portman, takes us through a cauterized grieving process that at times borders on the surreal. Together they trap the character on film, like a rose frozen in a block of ice. Quite unlike any biopic that’s come before, but that’s no big shock given the director’s proven track record of originality.

Find showtimes

7) Pablo Larrain’s Jackie

Like watching a bug trapped in a specimen-jar, Jackie posits a documentary portrait of a passive character set during the four most intensely intolerable days of her life. One can’t recall the last time two films by the same director cracked the top ten. It’s Pablo Larrain’s year.

Movie

Little Men ****

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The vested proprietor of a dress shop (a slow-burning Paulina Garcia) whose decision it is to steadfastly use family secrets as a cudgel against the son (Greg Kinnear) of her recently deceased landlord and confidant — she insists it was his father’s desire that she stay there — makes it impossible for her little man (Michael Barbieri) to maintain a friendship with the new owner’s kid (Theo Taplitz). The teenagers, both newcomers to film, find their characters and never falter, but it’s Barbieri’s liberated exchange with an acting teacher that leaves an indelible impression. Shoring together small moments from the lives of believable characters, in a manner free of special effects and fluky plotting, and with the same dramatic and visual gusto one would apply to an epic is what independent filmmaking should be all about but seldom is. Directed by Ira Sachs.

Find showtimes

6) Ira Sachs’s Little Men

Shoring together small moments from the lives of believable characters, in a manner free of special effects and fluky plotting, and with the same dramatic and visual gusto one would apply to an epic, is what independent filmmaking should be all about but seldom is.

Movie

Paterson *****

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The title refers both to the film’s New Jersey locale and lead character (Adam Driver), a married bus driver who fancies himself a poet. We spend a week in the company of Driver’s driver and his onscreen wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). The couple starts in love and stays in love with little more than an occasional bruised ego to set them at odds. This time, Jarmusch’s desire for abstraction finds its roots (and beauty) through recurring displays of mundanity. Life surrounds us with poetry, a fact Jarmusch and cinematographer Frederick Elmes (Blue Velvet) vivaciously bring attention to with every move of the camera. There’s not much in the way of action or negative emotions to drive the narrative, something bound to force off the mainstream. So what’s it all about? A filmmaker telling his story in pictures and the limitlessness of control he brings to his art. What more can one ask of cinema?

Find showtimes

5) Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson

Seven days in the life of an unwearied Jersey bus driver and his capricious bride. Those looking for a story to latch onto would be better off consulting reruns of The Honeymooners. This baby’s all about style as subject, with Jarmusch’s doubling gaze never failing to fascinate. I didn’t want it to end.

Movie

Sully ****

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The title’s a two-edged nod to both titular pilot and what the NTSB wanted to do to his reputation. Considering the guaranteed happy ending, it’s amazing how much suspense director Clint Eastwood is able to mine. A huge “what if?” opens the show as the Captain, experiencing a form of pilot PTSD, dreams what might have happened had a decision to reroute to Laguardia ended in disaster. It’s a question that haunts our hero and drives what Harry Callahan would have called “the pencil-pushing sons-of-bitches” at the NTSB. Sully is as much a sock on the nose that big government insists on sticking where it doesn’t belong as <em>American Sniper</em> was a negative appraisal of the American military. No actor currently at work is better suited to play this type of hero than Tom Hanks, and it’s been ages since a director put his congeniality to the test the way Eastwood does here. Hank’s Sullenberger is by far Eastwood’s most untarnished standard-bearer to date. Not even Nelson Mandela came off looking this good.

Find showtimes

4) Clint Eastwood’s Sully

Whereas American Sniper was a negative appraisal of the American military, Sully connects like a sock on the nose to big government that insists on sticking it where it doesn’t belong. Let’s pray the Trump-hating Academy voters don’t use Clint’s political views as an excuse to rob him of a nomination.

3) Pablo Larrain’s Neruda

Egos clash between a Nobel Prize–winning Chilean poet with nothing to lose and a fictionalized gumshoe with everything to gain. Told in the manner of a ’40s film noir, Neruda is the dark comedic capper to the director’s so-called “Pinochet-era” trilogy. Mixing fact and fiction, writer Guillermo Calderón mines the fugitive poet’s voice and political identity to produce this year’s most faultless script.

Movie

Cemetery of Splendor <em>(Rak ti Khon Kaen)</em> *****

thumbnail

The opening shot from writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is packed so full of visual information that it would take a mausoleum to house it all. From the distanced perspective of a front porch, we watch as soldiers oversee a pair of earth-grinding steam shovels. The veranda is attached to a small elementary school — temporarily transformed into a military hospital — that houses a group of vets felled by a bafflingly incurable sleeping sickness. Outside, the mechanical claws devour dirt in search of the “cemetery of kings,” a mythic graveyard buried beneath the schoolyard that could house a cure for the sudden somnolence. An odd alliance is struck between patriotic volunteer Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), a local psychic and/or FBI mole who is down on her luck and temporarily employed by the government to aid with the investigation. The deliberate pace, unostentatious camera placement, and refusal to cut in for a closeup add a surreal serenity; Weerasethakul never once forces his character’s emotions down our throat. Given the cultural boundaries, there is much in the film that we may never fully grasp, but the less we’re told, the more were sucked in by the film’s hypnotic, ever-expanding aura of mystery. In Thai with English subtitles.

Find showtimes

2) Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor

A small elementary school is temporarily transformed into a military hospital to house a group of vets felled by a bafflingly incurable sleeping sickness. The deliberate pace, unostentatious camera placement, and refusal to cut in for a closeup add a surreal serenity; the less we’re told, the more were sucked in by the film’s hypnotic, ever-expanding aura of mystery.

Movie

Remember *****

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A genre mashup of four of contemporary cinema’s least desirable storylines — the Holocaust, old folks, and dementia. This should represent everything we’ve spent the past three decades at the movies trying to forget. But all is forgiven the moment the director’s credit hits the screen. Atom Egoyan is one of the few working today of whom it can be said has never made a bad movie. Christopher Plummer stars as Zev, an Auschwitz survivor in the early stages of dementia who’s recruited by his retirement village neighbor (Martin Landau) to undertake a perilous journey in search of the Nazi responsible for exterminating his family. There is no actor currently at work capable of embodying the complexity of this character like Plummer. Zev is not to be pitied, nor scorned, nor stopped. The energy Plummer brings to every scene of this film — and there aren’t many without him — is enough to still any costumed vigilante one-third his age. And in many ways, the role offers pleasant payback for all those years he’s spent trying to fog the memory of Captain Von Trapp.

Find showtimes

1) Atom Egoyan’s Remember

Egoyan’s exceptionally resourceful contemporary Holocaust drama finds part of its brilliance in the director’s blessed refusal to scuff his narrative with maudlinness or guilt-inducing flashback memorials to the camps. Add to this a crackerjack suspense yarn and Christopher Plummer’s unforgettable performance, easily the best acting job this year. What should have been everything I loathe turns out to be a masterpiece with which I fell in love.

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Moved to tears by Dave’s Hot Chicken

Nashville hot chicken ranges from no spice, to hot, to the indemnified “reaper”
Remember Remember? Marx (left) shows Lickona (right) his Top 10 list for 2016, and there it is, right at the top!
Remember Remember? Marx (left) shows Lickona (right) his Top 10 list for 2016, and there it is, right at the top!
Movie

Our Little Sister <em>(Umimachi Diary)</em> ****

thumbnail

At their estranged father’s funeral, the oldest of three sisters takes it upon herself to ask her little-known teenage half-sister — the product of an adulterous relationship that “crushed their family” — to join her siblings and make it a quartet. Was the invite extended simply to spite their almost equally disunified mother? Audiences softened by Hollywood cynicism are bound to be confounded by filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda’s (<em>After Life, Like Father, Like Son</em>) gentle, upbeat tone. The director’s prime influence Yasujiro Ozu notwithstanding, it clearly doesn’t take a superhero to resolve life’s endless flow of contradictions, nor does our titular outcast in the sailor’s suit transform into a stringy-haired Japanese demon. Koreeda instead looks at what holds a family together long after the sands of time have filled in the emotional crater left by a messy divorce. And don’t expect a conventional sappy ending. If anything, the poster should read, “See it without Kleenex!”

Find showtimes

10) Hirokazu Koreeda’s Our Little Sister

At their estranged father’s funeral, the oldest of three sisters takes it upon herself to ask her little-known teenage half-sister — the product of an adulterous relationship that “crushed their family” — to join her siblings and make it a quartet. Koreeda’s gentle, upbeat approach turns this examination of what holds a family together long after the sands of time have filled in the emotional crater left by a messy divorce into something wonderful.

Movie

American Honey ****

thumbnail

…needs lots of American worker bees to make it, a roving swarm that labors for the sake of preserving the hive and comforting the queen, and thinks of nothing else. (If that analogy seems a bit much, just take note of the preponderance of bugs through this captivating film’s generous but well-considered runtime.) In this case, that means a van full of Lost Boys and Girls, roaming the heartland and selling magazines door to door under the stern care of their ladyboss Crystal. Except, of course, the grime of commerce has a way of getting under your fingernails (and your clothes, and your skin…), and super-seller Jake (a revelatory Shia LaBeouf) quickly makes it clear to our runaway heroine Star (a mesmerizing Sasha Lane) that what you’re selling isn’t magazines, it’s you. Writer-director Andrea Arnold artfully sets love against money and manages one of the best endings in recent memory. She does a lot of other things right as well, using the kids' use of sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll (well, hip-hop) to illustrate both the nightmare and promise of being young and alarmingly free in America.

Find showtimes

9) Andrea Arnold’s American Honey

A teenager free of life’s commitments takes up with a band of fellow hard-partying outcasts to travel the Midwest selling magazine subscriptions. 163 minutes is a lot to ask of an audience, but Arnold’s unpretentious approach never caused me to regret the fact that I don’t own a watch. And here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: Shia Labeouf gives a terrific performance.

Movie

Invitation ****

thumbnail

Too long since your gut’s had a good churning? <em>The Invitation</em> was sent out for a tight-knit group of friends (and a couple of hand-picked interlopers) to gather at a dinner party that initially had all the makings of a crisis intervention. Crisis, indeed! Arbitration? Not likely. It takes about 15 minutes to figure out the “why,” but hats off to director Karyn Kusama and screenwriting/marriage partner Phil Hay (he shares credit with Matt Manfredi) for encouraging me to want to stick around and see just how they were going to pull it off. At any moment, this one-location shoot could have swerved in the direction of canned theatre. Rely on Kusama’s telling arrangement of actors in the frame (particularly the background movements of John Carroll Lynch) to establish a character hierarchy. After that, the tension is all uphill until an unforeseen curtain shock slaps an extra coat of chills on all that’s come before. Lynch shares credit with a superb ensemble, but it’s his halcyon turn as a pitiable demon that unifies the action. In the shot or out of it, once onscreen, his presence permeates every ensuing frame. With Logan Marshall-Green and Tammy Blanchard.

Find showtimes

8) Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation

Nothing in 2016 creeped me out quite like this. It takes about 15 minutes to figure out the “why,” but hats off to director Karyn Kusama and screenwriting/marriage partner Phil Hay (he shares credit with Matt Manfredi) for encouraging audiences to want to stick around and see just how they were going to pull it off.

Movie

Jackie ****

thumbnail

Were it not for the giant blood stain on the lower-half of her fabled pink dress – a moment director Pablo Larraín takes his sweet time revealing in a startling pullback – and constant juxtaposition next to her husband’s casket, Jackie Kennedy could have just as easily been mistaken for a stewardess aboard Air Force One. Imagine a documentary portrait of a passive character set during the four most intensely intolerable days of her life and you’ll get an idea of the kind of emotional (and cinematic) wallop Jackie packs. Larraín places his subject center frame – she’s present in just about every shot in the film – while his star, Natalie Portman, takes us through a cauterized grieving process that at times borders on the surreal. Together they trap the character on film, like a rose frozen in a block of ice. Quite unlike any biopic that’s come before, but that’s no big shock given the director’s proven track record of originality.

Find showtimes

7) Pablo Larrain’s Jackie

Like watching a bug trapped in a specimen-jar, Jackie posits a documentary portrait of a passive character set during the four most intensely intolerable days of her life. One can’t recall the last time two films by the same director cracked the top ten. It’s Pablo Larrain’s year.

Movie

Little Men ****

thumbnail

The vested proprietor of a dress shop (a slow-burning Paulina Garcia) whose decision it is to steadfastly use family secrets as a cudgel against the son (Greg Kinnear) of her recently deceased landlord and confidant — she insists it was his father’s desire that she stay there — makes it impossible for her little man (Michael Barbieri) to maintain a friendship with the new owner’s kid (Theo Taplitz). The teenagers, both newcomers to film, find their characters and never falter, but it’s Barbieri’s liberated exchange with an acting teacher that leaves an indelible impression. Shoring together small moments from the lives of believable characters, in a manner free of special effects and fluky plotting, and with the same dramatic and visual gusto one would apply to an epic is what independent filmmaking should be all about but seldom is. Directed by Ira Sachs.

Find showtimes

6) Ira Sachs’s Little Men

Shoring together small moments from the lives of believable characters, in a manner free of special effects and fluky plotting, and with the same dramatic and visual gusto one would apply to an epic, is what independent filmmaking should be all about but seldom is.

Movie

Paterson *****

thumbnail

The title refers both to the film’s New Jersey locale and lead character (Adam Driver), a married bus driver who fancies himself a poet. We spend a week in the company of Driver’s driver and his onscreen wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). The couple starts in love and stays in love with little more than an occasional bruised ego to set them at odds. This time, Jarmusch’s desire for abstraction finds its roots (and beauty) through recurring displays of mundanity. Life surrounds us with poetry, a fact Jarmusch and cinematographer Frederick Elmes (Blue Velvet) vivaciously bring attention to with every move of the camera. There’s not much in the way of action or negative emotions to drive the narrative, something bound to force off the mainstream. So what’s it all about? A filmmaker telling his story in pictures and the limitlessness of control he brings to his art. What more can one ask of cinema?

Find showtimes

5) Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson

Seven days in the life of an unwearied Jersey bus driver and his capricious bride. Those looking for a story to latch onto would be better off consulting reruns of The Honeymooners. This baby’s all about style as subject, with Jarmusch’s doubling gaze never failing to fascinate. I didn’t want it to end.

Movie

Sully ****

thumbnail

The title’s a two-edged nod to both titular pilot and what the NTSB wanted to do to his reputation. Considering the guaranteed happy ending, it’s amazing how much suspense director Clint Eastwood is able to mine. A huge “what if?” opens the show as the Captain, experiencing a form of pilot PTSD, dreams what might have happened had a decision to reroute to Laguardia ended in disaster. It’s a question that haunts our hero and drives what Harry Callahan would have called “the pencil-pushing sons-of-bitches” at the NTSB. Sully is as much a sock on the nose that big government insists on sticking where it doesn’t belong as <em>American Sniper</em> was a negative appraisal of the American military. No actor currently at work is better suited to play this type of hero than Tom Hanks, and it’s been ages since a director put his congeniality to the test the way Eastwood does here. Hank’s Sullenberger is by far Eastwood’s most untarnished standard-bearer to date. Not even Nelson Mandela came off looking this good.

Find showtimes

4) Clint Eastwood’s Sully

Whereas American Sniper was a negative appraisal of the American military, Sully connects like a sock on the nose to big government that insists on sticking it where it doesn’t belong. Let’s pray the Trump-hating Academy voters don’t use Clint’s political views as an excuse to rob him of a nomination.

3) Pablo Larrain’s Neruda

Egos clash between a Nobel Prize–winning Chilean poet with nothing to lose and a fictionalized gumshoe with everything to gain. Told in the manner of a ’40s film noir, Neruda is the dark comedic capper to the director’s so-called “Pinochet-era” trilogy. Mixing fact and fiction, writer Guillermo Calderón mines the fugitive poet’s voice and political identity to produce this year’s most faultless script.

Movie

Cemetery of Splendor <em>(Rak ti Khon Kaen)</em> *****

thumbnail

The opening shot from writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is packed so full of visual information that it would take a mausoleum to house it all. From the distanced perspective of a front porch, we watch as soldiers oversee a pair of earth-grinding steam shovels. The veranda is attached to a small elementary school — temporarily transformed into a military hospital — that houses a group of vets felled by a bafflingly incurable sleeping sickness. Outside, the mechanical claws devour dirt in search of the “cemetery of kings,” a mythic graveyard buried beneath the schoolyard that could house a cure for the sudden somnolence. An odd alliance is struck between patriotic volunteer Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), a local psychic and/or FBI mole who is down on her luck and temporarily employed by the government to aid with the investigation. The deliberate pace, unostentatious camera placement, and refusal to cut in for a closeup add a surreal serenity; Weerasethakul never once forces his character’s emotions down our throat. Given the cultural boundaries, there is much in the film that we may never fully grasp, but the less we’re told, the more were sucked in by the film’s hypnotic, ever-expanding aura of mystery. In Thai with English subtitles.

Find showtimes

2) Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor

A small elementary school is temporarily transformed into a military hospital to house a group of vets felled by a bafflingly incurable sleeping sickness. The deliberate pace, unostentatious camera placement, and refusal to cut in for a closeup add a surreal serenity; the less we’re told, the more were sucked in by the film’s hypnotic, ever-expanding aura of mystery.

Movie

Remember *****

thumbnail

A genre mashup of four of contemporary cinema’s least desirable storylines — the Holocaust, old folks, and dementia. This should represent everything we’ve spent the past three decades at the movies trying to forget. But all is forgiven the moment the director’s credit hits the screen. Atom Egoyan is one of the few working today of whom it can be said has never made a bad movie. Christopher Plummer stars as Zev, an Auschwitz survivor in the early stages of dementia who’s recruited by his retirement village neighbor (Martin Landau) to undertake a perilous journey in search of the Nazi responsible for exterminating his family. There is no actor currently at work capable of embodying the complexity of this character like Plummer. Zev is not to be pitied, nor scorned, nor stopped. The energy Plummer brings to every scene of this film — and there aren’t many without him — is enough to still any costumed vigilante one-third his age. And in many ways, the role offers pleasant payback for all those years he’s spent trying to fog the memory of Captain Von Trapp.

Find showtimes

1) Atom Egoyan’s Remember

Egoyan’s exceptionally resourceful contemporary Holocaust drama finds part of its brilliance in the director’s blessed refusal to scuff his narrative with maudlinness or guilt-inducing flashback memorials to the camps. Add to this a crackerjack suspense yarn and Christopher Plummer’s unforgettable performance, easily the best acting job this year. What should have been everything I loathe turns out to be a masterpiece with which I fell in love.

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Comments
3

Surprised to recognize the titles and and actually have seen more of Scott's favorite movies than Lickona's. ( Hmmm, I wonder what could that mean, since I see a lot of movies, but never at the Digital Gym.) Also, I thought "Neruda" hadn't opened yet in San Diego.

Dec. 28, 2016

Sit tight, Monaghan. It's coming in January!

Dec. 28, 2016

JACKIE hasn't been released here either.

Jan. 5, 2017

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