youthI rarely mention movies on this website, but, recently, I saw two very powerful movies that I heartily recommend: 

“Youth” is an amazing, somewhat surreal movie set at a health spa for wealthy people. Jane Fonda, Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and Paul Dano give wonderful performances. Sandy Cohen of the Associated Press puts it better than I could:

Original and unpredictable, “Youth” trusts its audience’s curiosity and powers of perception. Sorrentino doesn’t over-explain his story or characters — they simply stand as written, awaiting discovery. “Youth” is almost the antithesis of the Hollywood blockbuster, and not just because of its non-linear narrative.

Despite its title, the film centers on a relationship between two octogenarians, and presents people of all ages, sizes and appearances as worthy of interest and love.

The men connect over questions of creativity: Fred and Mick struggle with the idea of legacy and continuing self-expression into old age; Jimmy wonders about the best use of his creative skills and what makes them meaningful.

Every performance from the outstanding ensemble cast rings true. Even the supporting players and silent performers are superb.

The music itself is a character, from Fred’s original compositions to the songs by the eclectic entertainers who appear at the hotel. Sorrentino tapped Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang to create Fred’s music and the film’s score (his first), and crafted a varied soundtrack with such artists as Mark Kozelek, David Byrne and Grammy-winning Korean soprano Sumi Jo.

“Youth” might have alternately been called “Us” for its loving perspective on people — how peculiar we can be and how comforting it is to recognize that in one another. It’s about how we relate to each other broadly through art and intimately through words and actions. More than anything, it’s a loving portrait of friendship, one that Sorrentino dedicates to his friend and mentor Francisco Rosi, the Italian director who died in January.

With its artful soundtrack, excellent performances and big questions about life, fear and creativity, the musical and narrative themes of “Youth” play on long after the film ends.

“Spotlight” is a movie that just works on every level: pacing, cast, plot. There is nothing false about it, and, given it’s subject – priests molesting children – it could have easily become too dramatic. As someone who was molested as a child, I was a bit hesitant to see it. But, I’m so glad I did. Here is a review from A.O. Scott of The New York Times:

Directed by Tom McCarthy from a script he wrote with Josh Singer and based closely on recent history, “Spotlight” is a gripping detective story and a superlative newsroom drama, a solid procedural that tries to confront evil without sensationalism. Taking its name from the investigative team that began pursuing the sex-abuse story in 2001, the film focuses on both the human particulars and the larger political contours of the scandal and its uncovering.

We spend most of our time with the Spotlight staff. Their supervising editor, Walter Robinson (known as Robby and played by an extra-flinty Michael Keaton), has a classically blunt, skeptical newsman style, but he’s also part of Boston’s mostly Roman Catholic establishment. He rubs shoulders with an unctuous church P.R. guy (Paul Guilfoyle) and plays golf with a well-connected lawyer (Jamey Sheridan) who handled some of the archdiocese’s unsavory business. The reporters working for Robby — Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) — come from Catholic backgrounds, and have their own mixed feelings about what they’re doing.

 From left, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo and Brian d’Arcy James as reporters for The Boston Globe in “Spotlight.” CreditKerry Hayes/Open Road Films 

It captures the finer grain of newsroom life in the early years of this century almost perfectly, starting with a scene in which a retiring veteran is sent off with awkward speeches, forced laughter and dry cake. As the story unfolds, there are scenes of pale-skinned guys in pleated khakis and button-down oxfords gathering under fluorescent lights and ugly drop ceilings, spasms of frantic phone-calling and stretches of fidgety downtime. Not even the raffish presence of “Mad Men” bad-boy John Slattery can impart much glamour to these drab surroundings. Visually, the movie is about as compelling as a day-old coffee stain. As I said: almost perfect.

Mr. McCarthy is a solid craftsman. The actors are disciplined and serious, forgoing the table-pounding and speechifying that might more readily win them prizes from their peers. Everything in this movie works, which is only fitting, since its vision of heroism involves showing up in the morning and — whether inspired by bosses or in spite of them — doing the job.

I highly recommend these two movies: they are thought-provoking and extremely well-executed.