The Card Counter
Playing as mannered as one would expect from a Paul Schrader film about self-imposed loneliness and twisted redemption, "The Card Counter" hooked me from the beginning when it explains how counting cards works, and then spends the rest of the film with a gambler named William Tell (Oscar Issac) who fails to accurately read all the cards being turned up in front of him. When Tell meets a young man (Tye Sheridan in a role equally as elusive) bent on vengeance, he takes him under his wing. Along with an entrepreneur (Tiffany Haddish) who bankrolls Tell's entrance in the World Series of Poker, the trio form a kindred family against the nocturnal backdrop of casinos and gambling halls across the country. Rarely stepping into the real world where people have families, go to work or simply enjoy themselves, Schrader has crafted a hermetic universe just as enthralling as that of New York's Times Square in the 70's or the cloistered, hushed reverences of upstate east coast churches that have dotted his previous masterworks. Everything about this film has a purpose.... even the way Isaac tidies up his room with sheets or the way Haddish holds her various drinks. It all builds to a quietly devastating finale that, in typical Schrader fashion, denies the audience flash and gore of a climactic standoff, choosing instead to hold on fingers as they touch glass. Always the Bresson devotee, "The Card Counter" does right by him.
Director Justin Chon's films trade in high sentimentality. "Blue Bayou" is no exception, but his instincts as a filmmaker and the folds of humanity built into the margins of his sometimes stereotypical characters are what makes his films feel earnest but not forced. I loved his previous film, "Ms. Purple" for the way it etched survival and poignancy into the troubles of an immigrant family just trying to survive in the California wasteland. "Blue Bayou" shifts its perspective to the humidity of the Gulf Coast, but survival is still the goal as adopted Korean Antonio (Chon himself) tries to keep his head above water (literally) by outlasting his past and creating a thriving future for his family (played perfectly by Alicia Vikander and newcomer Sydney Kowalski). Pushing headlong into overtly melodramatic territory as deportation and echoes of his criminal past loom, "Blue Bayou" expertly weaves together a secondary narrative thread as Antonio meets a sickly Vietnamese woman (Linh Dam Pham) and forms a relationship that not only feels authentic, but gives its finale an extra amount of oomph. I've long been a fan of Chon's work since being introduced to "Gook" at the 2017 Dallas International Film Festival. "Blue Bayou" may be his most widely distributed work so far, but the heart-on-his-sleeves urgency of his preoccupation with the immigrant experience has never felt quite so electric.