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lion

Half of ‘Lion’ would have been better than the whole show

Recently, there was a full-page ad for “Lion” in the Sunday New York Times. Given that the film has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress, this isn’t especially surprising.

What is surprising is, instead of the usual critics’ quotes, the ad features ringing endorsements from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and UNICEF.

elle

‘Elle’ impossible without Isabelle Huppert, who propels provocateur Paul Verhoeven

If her recent win at the Golden Globes – beating the likes of Natalie Portman and Amy Adams – hinted at how amazing Isabelle Huppert is, wait until you see “Elle.”

It begins with off-screen sounds: Breaking glass, a female voice in some sort of distress. Then we see a cat, its eyes passive and opaque. And then we see what’s happening. A woman (Huppert) is being raped by a masked intruder. In her own home. In broad daylight.

hidden figures

‘Hidden Figures’ shows women tapping on racial, gender ceilings in John Glenn’s orbit

Despite all the bad stuff we experienced (reel and real), 2016 deserves respect for bringing so many important – and often little-known – true stories to the screen. Among them, “Free State of Jones,” “Jackie,” “Loving,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” “Sully,” “Snowden,” “Masterminds,” and “The Birth of a Nation.”

Now add to that list the very affecting (and effective) “Hidden Figures,” about some African-American math whizzes who were crucial to NASA in the early ‘60s. Given that NASA was still stationed in Langley, Va., and Virginia still had strictly enforced segregation laws, this was not business as usual.

fences

‘Fences’ not cinematic, but film version of August Wilson’s play a sure-footed shot at truth-telling

As both director and star of “Fences,” Denzel Washington, well, swings for the fences. And while he doesn’t quite hit a home run, he does manage a solid triple. And, almost as importantly, he brilliantly eases himself through the transition from leading man to character actor/star.

“Fences” is based on August Wilson’s masterful 1983 play which starred a galvanizing bigger-than-life James Earl Jones as Troy Maxson, a garbage worker in late 1950s Pittsburgh. Jones won a Tony for his portrayal, as did Washington for the 2010 revival.

jackie

‘Jackie’ captures quintessence of the widow in the days after Camelot ended

Here’s how you know the new film “Jackie” is working: You move from trying to decide just how credible Natalie Portman’s impersonation is to thinking about anything and everything except that.

Portman, who won a much-deserved Oscar for 2010’s “Black Swan,” doesn’t look in the least like Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (the Onassis connection is still in the future). Portman’s face is more oval, her nose is stronger.

Miss Sloane

Jessica Chastain dazzles in ‘Miss Sloane,’ a woman who burns through glass ceiling

Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), the protagonist of the lively political thriller, “Miss Sloane,” is one tough cookie. Some might even say of her, “Such a nasty woman.”

No, Sloane isn’t running for president. She’s a high-powered Washington lobbyist, whip-smart and utterly ruthless. And her tactics are as amoral as they are inventive.

manchester by the sea

‘Manchester By the Sea’ a heartbreaking exploration of grief

“Manchester By the Sea” is the reason people keep going to the movies. Because, despite all the crummy ones, there’s always the chance you’ll stumble across one like this – a movie so powerful, so beautifully done on just about every level, that it’s instantly etched in your memory. And your heart.

Few movies can handle that delicate juggling act in which profound grief alternates with wickedly well-observed humor. Don’t get me wrong. “Manchester” is, ultimately, a picture riddled with sorrow and unspeakable tragedy. Yet it is also oddly optimistic. A newborn cries at a funeral service – a birth astride a grave, as Beckett would’ve said.

loving, ruth nigga

‘Loving’ a perceptive, if somewhat plodding, view of Jim Crow South

Not even Hollywood could have trumped up a better double-entendre title than “Loving.” The word is both the name of the movie and the name of the couple at its center.

“Loving” is based on the true story of Mildred and Richard Loving. In 1958, they married – and in doing so, broke the law. You see, she (Ruth Negga) was African-American and he (Joel Edgerton) was white. And though they exchanged vows in Washington, D.C., they wanted to live in their home state of Virginia. Which, at that time, forbid interracial marriages.

Hacksaw Ridge

‘Hacksaw Ridge’ satisfying, perhaps Gibson’s remorseful apology

“Hacksaw Ridge” lets us know what we’re in for with its opening shot: a montage of soldiers in flames, caught in a slo-mo inferno.

Then it’s back stateside – rural Virginia where Desmond Doss lives with his brother, his beaten-down mom (Rachel Griffiths) and his dad (Hugo Weaving), a raging alcoholic who does the beating. His constant fury is an unwelcome residual of his service in World War I.

Denial

‘Denial’ avoids fireworks in portraying legal case against Holocaust revisionism

“Denial” is respectful, respectable and precisely the sort of film Stanley Kramer might’ve made. Trouble is, Kramer’s heyday was in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Meaning that, while exceptionally well-intentioned, “Denial” is also a bit dull.

Fortunately, dull isn’t always synonymous with boring. “Denial” certainly holds your interest. Plus, it offers a performance by Rachel Weisz that’s anything but dull.

Birth of a Nation

‘The Birth of a Nation’ a chilling view of rebellion against slavery

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

Arriving amid a swirl of controversy, rumors and standing ovations at the Sundance Film Festival, “The Birth of a Nation” is a powerhouse of a picture.

Writer/director/star Nate Parker has taken a little-known moment in American history and slammed it home with extraordinary force. In 1831, a Virginia slave named Nat Turner led a bloody revolt against the white plantation owners and their families (Yes, he murdered women and children). The rebellion was brief – only 48 hours – but around 60 people were killed. The uprising was subsequently used to justify harsher laws against African-Americans.