A Fantastic Woman (Sebastián Lelio, 2017). Marina (Daniela Vega) is Chilean who works as a waitress and sometimes moonlights as a singer. She’s engaged in a romance with an older gentleman named Orlando (Francisco Reyes), who dies of a brain aneurysm on a night when he and Daniela were together. Because Daniela is a transgender woman, Orlando’s family, including his ex-wife (Aline Küppenheim), view her with an attitude that is a thin layer above contempt. There’s not much plot to A Fantastic Woman, but there’s an abundance of empathy, as Lelio trains his attention on the ache felt by Marina and all the ways those around her target her with callous disregard for her identity. Vega is quietly marvelous in the role, opting for tender restraint at all the right moments. The film’s occasional trafficking in magical realism is too halfhearted to make the proper impact. The simpler Lelio keeps his storytelling, the better it is.
The Quiet Man (John Ford, 1952). The movie John Ford spent almost twenty years trying to make is an absolute charmer. The director’s regular collaborator John Wayne stars as Sean Thornton, a strapping fellow who returns from the U.S.A. to the small Irish town where he was born, quickly achieving his goal of reacquiring the family homestead. Before long, his to do list expands to include courting Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara), to the consternation of her bull-headed brother (Victor McLaglen). The film is strongest across the first half, as Ford takes obvious pleasure in depicting the scrappy charms of the Irish community, especially tippling matchmaker Óge Flynn (Barry Fitzgerland). The storytelling beats become a bit too familiar in the second half — and the retrograde gender norms of the era drain the entertaining verve out O’Hara’s character and performance — and least until the beating becomes quite literal in an extended brawl that is a feat of comic excess.
Blow the Man Down (Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, 2020). With a wryly bleak attitude, a shrugging-shoulder assessment of humanity’s worst instincts, and a confident inventiveness, Blow the Man Down recalls Blood Simple, the blazing beacon of a debut from the Coen Brothers. Co-directors Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy (who also share credit on the original screenplay) add tremor of feminist empowerment that deepens the story. Sisters Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) and Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) are in mourning after the death of their mother, and collectively uncertain about the future. When Mary Beth’s barroom pick-up takes an ill turn, the young woman are struggle to clean up the resulting mess, unearthing some of the darker secrets of the town in the process. Both Saylor and Lowe are terrific, and Margo Martindale is given the welcome opportunity to revisit her capacity for menace first exhibited, to great effect, in the best season of Justified. Mostly, though, Blow the Man Down is notable as an assertion of talent by exciting new filmmakers.