Ella Taylor

Ella Taylor is a freelance film critic, book reviewer and feature writer living in Los Angeles.

Born in Israel and raised in London, Taylor taught media studies at the University of Washington in Seattle; her book Prime Time Families: Television Culture in Post-War America was published by the University of California Press.

Taylor has written for Village Voice Media, the LA Weekly, The New York Times, Elle magazine and other publications, and was a regular contributor to KPCC-Los Angeles' weekly film-review show FilmWeek.

In the opening scenes of Athina Rachel Tsangari's Chevalier, six well-heeled Greek men on a fishing trip pose with the massive bream they've just caught in a scenic cove off the Aegean sea. We see them help each other out of their wetsuits while amiably joshing about who has the biggest this, that and the other. Affability soon fades, and once the luxury boat weighs anchor and sets out on the return trip to Athens, the men will enter into a bizarre and increasingly hostile competition that will strip them of much more than their rubber gear.

In an achingly lovely scene in Terence Davies' 1992 film The Long Day Closes, a little boy rests his elbows on a windowsill and gazes out at the rain slanting past his cramped tenement house in England's industrial North. It's the 1950s, and on the soundtrack is Debbie Reynolds' honeyed "Tammy." To those of us who grew up in dreary post-War Britain (I remember that time in monochrome), the relentless grey of that scene, set off by the pop promise of a Golden Elsewhere, takes the measure of both our days and our yearnings for relief.

Inspiration in Hollywood movies is often a matter of one plucky individual taking on a "system" and winning. For the Brits, such triumphs come deeply embedded in class, region, and national pride, and winning is neither guaranteed nor especially prized. The wonderful 2014 drama Pride re-enacted a gratifyingly improbable, real-life alliance between gay Londoners and displaced Welsh miners during the bruising national strike of 1984.

Clocking in at a hefty 155 minutes, a film about Bulgaria's transition from Communism to capitalist democracy might in principle be a tough sell outside the former Soviet Union. But Maya Vitkova's Viktoria, a handsome, formally adventurous family saga, tells that tale through a powerful maternal melodrama spanning three generations of implacable women bound by blood, spilled milk and the tumult of a world in transition.

In Lorene Scafaria's The Meddler, Susan Sarandon plays Marnie Minervini, a recent widow who moves from the East Coast to Los Angeles to "be near" (read, boss around) her daughter Lori (a very good, if underused Rose Byrne), a depressed screenwriter who's just broken up with her boyfriend. We meet Marnie lying in bed gazing up at the ceiling, and that's more or less the last wordless time we spend with her.

You can spend perfectly lovely time with Our Last Tango purely as a dance movie, with all the sexy pleasures that tango delivers. But for Maria Nieves Rego, one half of Argentina's premier tango couple, the dance of love in her 50-year partnership with choreographer Juan Carlos Copes curdled into a long-running duet of hate.

Time was when every other drama about troubled youth came packaged with evil, inept or uncomprehending government functionaries itching to make matters worse. In Emmanuelle Bercot's sympathetic Standing Tall, one sorely lacking caseworker shows up briefly to rub salt in the prior wounds of a damaged youngster. He is quickly dispatched though, and from then on the film tags along with a team of dedicated workers trying to rescue the teenager from a rotten past, a lousy future, and his own hair-trigger temper. There's not a saint among them, but their devotion rarely flags.

There's little reason to believe that Julie Delpy saw, let alone lifted the premise of, the Duplass brothers' 2010 black comedy Cyrus before she made Lolo, a pert little number about a Parisian teenager pulling out the stops to pry his doting single mother loose from a promising new boyfriend who's ready to move in. For all the similarities of premise and plot, Lolo is as breezily French in execution as Cyrus is deadpan Amer-indie. And anyway, the oedipal drama, however bent out of shape, never goes out of style.

Home for the holidays: An aging prodigal child approaches, swearing like a trooper and dragging all manner of other baggage behind her battered wheelie. Once she finds the right front door — it's been a while, with ample reason, since last she visited — a warm, if nervous, welcome awaits from an extended family of noisy Texans gathered for Thanksgiving. In another kind of movie, tears and laughter will follow as a family closes ranks to heal its black sheep, and thereby itself.

Chances are, if you've seen a Kelly Reichardt film, it would be Wendy and Lucy, a small, languorous, utterly heartbreaking 2008 drama with a big star, Michelle Williams, as a young homeless woman trying to make her way to the Pacific Northwest with her beloved dog. Wendy and Lucy is an art film with a delirious sense of place, but it's also a road movie, and far from Reichardt's first. One way or another, every extreme indie she makes pays sly, ardent homage to genre.

In Cemetery of Splendor, a new film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, an older Thai woman, Jen, is led around the grounds of a ramshackle building in provincial Thailand by an ecstatic young psychic named Keng. As they move about, we see only piles of dead leaves and old or broken statues, the detritus of a hospital that was once a school attended by the older woman, which she remembers fondly. The psychic, however, sees a former palace that, it seems, is buried beneath the building. She describes it in such opulent detail that even her somewhat skeptical companion is won over.

For a while Race, a handsomely mounted drama about a pivotal moment in the life of track star Jesse Owens, bowls along as a crisp, if conventional, account of a black athlete who triumphs over poverty and racism to get the gold. An unprecedented four gold medals to be precise, at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. But that's getting ahead of ourselves. In Cleveland, there are angry, red-faced bigots to get in the way, and the statutory tough-love coach, serviceably rendered by Jason Sudeikis, to smooth the path to glory.

In one of several lovely grace notes in Glassland, a domestic drama from Irish writer-director Gerard Barrett, a handsome young man hands his pretty mother a glass of white wine. They clink, they chug, he watches fondly as she dances alone, they slow-dance together. The sequence is touching rather than erotic, and it repeats later in the film with another kind of poignancy.

The Icelandic film Rams is about two grizzled farmers who enjoy unusually warm relationships with their sheep. Expect no nudges or winks: Though it's amply salted with dry wit, the movie is a heartfelt inquiry into why two brothers who live side by side have not spoken in 40 years.

In the insufferably arch neo-noir Western Mojave, Garrett Hedlund — a vision in sexy boots, artfully disheveled tresses and a morose green gaze — ventures into the desert, there to brood on his depraved, deprived life as a Hollywood director of note. Having crashed his car, Thomas lights a fire, but further brooding is interrupted by the arrival of a stranger named Jack. We know Jack does not mean well because he is unwashed, hirsute, sorely in need of cosmetic dentistry and played in overdrive by Oscar Isaac.

If nothing else The Benefactor, an absorbing if uneven psychological drama from writer-director Andrew Renzi, provides Richard Gere with a liberating opportunity to come on like Al Pacino. As Franny, a wealthy Philadelphia philanthropist without boundaries who gets his way through hysterical giving, Gere throws himself around with overbearing flamboyance, clearly relishing the chance to inhabit a man who's always on but understands nothing.

In 2011, the British director Andrew Haigh made Weekend, an achingly wistful chamber piece about a lifetime of unfulfilled longing poured into a brief encounter between two very different gay men. Weekend comes highly recommended, as does Haigh's new film, 45 Years, which also spans a few days, here slogged through by an aging couple forced by startling news to reassess their long marriage. Neither film has a plot in the received sense, nor does either lead us to a foregone conclusion.

The lively little fellow we meet in the Brazilian film Boy and the World has a circle for a head topped with three goofy hairs, two vertical slits for eyes, a striped tee-shirt and black shorts. That's it, but he contains multitudes, and this lovely animated poem to migrant labor will show you them all. Together with his loving parents, who are drawn with equal economy, Boy lives poor but happy in a rural idyll depicted in slashes of brilliant color, much like the free drawing of a child. The wind rustles; cobalt butterflies hover; he plants a seed; he's happy.

In the early 1970s, an elderly homeless woman who called herself Miss Shepherd parked her decrepit van in the London driveway of British playwright Alan Bennett. Bennett had invited her, ambivalently and with every expectation she'd leave before long. She stayed for 15 years, and The Lady in the Van, Bennett's hilarious, self-lacerating, and wistful account of her sojourn among the trendy liberals of Camden Town, became first an article and then a stage play starring — who else? — Maggie Smith.

Rocker docs lie thick on the ground these days, most of them landlocked in a tired arc of childhood stress, rapid rise to stardom filled with drugs and debauchery, followed by decline and, for those who survive, extravagant rue-ing the day. And given the short, sharp life of Janis Joplin, any account of her has to spend time in that terrain. But though Janis: Little Girl Blue — Amy J. Berg's loving, exhaustively researched documentary about the whiskey-voiced blues interpreter — gives Joplin's dark side its due, the film rarely succumbs to mawkish wallowing.

Like his 2002 melodrama Far from Heaven, which it resembles in all sorts of good ways, Todd Haynes' Carol opens onto a busy city street scene in full 1950s dress. The camera quickly settles on a young man in a fedora as he rounds a corner and enters a plush eating establishment. A story is brewing there, but one in which Fedora Man will turn out to be no more than a peripheral player, our guide to two elegantly clad women apparently enjoying a gossipy afternoon tea.

Angelina Jolie Pitt's By the Sea opens with a long shot over a sharp precipice that fairly screams upcoming crisis for the handsome couple driving along its scenic edge. That's about as lively as things get in this undercooked mood piece about a disintegrating marriage between a stalled writer and his glum wreck of a wife. It helps not one whit that the two are played by Hollywood's starriest couple, who radiate about as much onscreen chemistry here as Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman did in Eyes Wide Shut.

Some day soon after a brisk run in theaters and, with luck, a clutch of well-deserved Oscars, John Crowley's Brooklyn may find its sweet hereafter as a Turner Classic Movies selection of the month on endless repeat. I mean this as the highest compliment: Though it's set in 1950s coastal Ireland and New York, from soup to nuts Brooklyn comes as close as any contemporary drama I can think of (other than Todd Haynes' breathily semiotic Far From Heaven) to the finest women's movies of the 1930s and 1940s.

The terrific Italian film The Wonders gives a starring role to bees — great swarms of real bees, not CGI killer bees. They sting on demand, but it's not that kind of movie. The bees make honey under conditions well below health and safety code, and along with some home-grown produce and a few sheep, their output just about sustains a quasi-hippie family living in an isolated rural spot on the border between Umbria and Tuscany.

"You should learn how to feel sad without actually being sad," Laurie Anderson's Buddhist teacher told the performance artist after the loss of her beloved rat terrier, Lolabelle.

Anderson's new film, Heart of a Dog, is in part a personal essay that tries to figure out what that injunction means, and how to live up to it in the wake of multiple losses. You don't have to be a Tibetan Buddhist or a pet lover, though, to spend 75 enthralling minutes with the endlessly associative contents of Anderson's head and heart.

The Assassin, a gorgeous new work by Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien, is a martial arts film influenced by Hong Kong wu xia films and short novels based on early Chinese legend. The movie, which won Best Director at this year's Cannes Film Festival, has a few short, sharp fight sequences involving knives with a vicious curve to them. But it won't surprise anyone familiar with Hou's oeuvre that he invites us to slow down, to watch and listen to what goes on, and doesn't, in between.

Early on in Davis Guggenheim's tender celebration of women's education activist Malala Yousafzai, we see the bright-eyed Pakistani teenager working her laptop in her family's new home in Birmingham, England. Fending off accusations of bossiness and "violence" from her younger brothers, the Muslim girl who stood up to the Taliban giggles as she dials up web photos of her crushes Brad Pitt, Roger Federer, and a hunky cricketer whose name I didn't catch.

In the unnervingly bleak, marvelous new film Time Out of Mind, Richard Gere plays a homeless man trying to survive on the streets of New York City. Though he doesn't — not now, at least — think of himself as homeless, George comes to us fast asleep in a bath in an apartment not his own. Thrown out without ceremony by a landlord's enforcer (Steve Buscemi), George keeps trying to weasel his way back into the building, insisting that someone called Sheila ("my lady") would be back soon to support his claim to residence, he insists.

Slight and familiar but sweet enough for Saturday night, Before We Go is the umpteenth re-up of Brief Encounter, not that there's anything wrong with that. It's also the directing debut of Chris Evans, and quite possibly an effort to run as far from Captain America as he can, into a chatty two-hander whose only action is a late-night ramble around New York City.

If you want to measure a society's political health, two films from Latin America slyly suggest, look at how it treats the help. Sebastian Silva's gleeful 2009 black comedy, The Maid, drew on his own experience as the cosseted son of a well-to-do Chilean family propped up by its housekeeper. Brazilian filmmaker Anna Muylaert began writing her new film, The Second Mother, two decades ago, when she hired a nanny to care for her first child.

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