Spielberg’s latest is the best of the year

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The best film of the year so far is the extraordinary “The Fabelmans” by Steven Spielberg.

It’s captivating, visually mesmerizing, has an exceptional, grounded screenplay by Tony Kushner, and is played to the end. A boundless Michelle Williams soars to the top of the Oscar race with an unforgettable performance.

Spielberg’s deeply personal project, which had its world premiere Saturday night at the Toronto International Film Festival, remained under wraps for months. Pretty much all we knew was that the film is based on the famed director’s own life and stars Williams, Paul Dano, and Seth Rogen.

Film critic

Duration: 151 minutes. Rated PG-13 (foul language, thematic elements, brief violence, and drug use.)

But “The Fabelmans” is so much richer and less predictable than any regular A-to-B biopic, even though we know the ending is, well, “Jaws.”

There’s a palpable feeling throughout that unlike the director’s recent, capable films like “West Side Story” or “The Post,” Spielberg needed to make this one. That he had this idea and these raw feelings that have been dormant for decades. Otherwise, it could explode.

The thrilling result of his behind-the-camera therapy is one of the director’s best works in years and a film that feels, for the first time ever, like a real Spielberg movie.

The searing image of a dumbfounded little boy projecting a first short film onto his hand is one I won’t soon forget.

Dad Burt (Paul Dano) and mom Mitzi (Michelle Williams) take young Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) to his first movie.
Universal images

That small-screen Spielberg replacement is Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord), whose mother Mitzi (Williams) and father Burt (Dano) attend his first film, Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show On Earth.” Astonished, Sammy recreates the accident scene from the movie with his own train in his New Jersey home and his mother encourages him to film it, sparking an obsession with Hollywood and movies.

It is not, however, a narcissistic film. As the title suggests, the story is very much about the whole family. The Fabelmans move for Burt’s quiet job as a computer programmer, and first they head to Arizona. They are joined, somewhat oddly, by Burt’s best friend, Benny (Rogen).

Despite childhood difficulty changing towns, the dust and rocks of the desert provide the now-teenaged Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) with a playground to shoot ambitious westerns and battle scenes.

There is also a battle raging at home. Mitzi feels restless and out of place, and while making one of her shorts, Sammy sees something disturbing in the editing room that changes her life. It reminded me, without murder, of Brian DePalma’s “Blow Out”.

Sammy films the seniors of his Californian high school.
Sammy films the seniors of his Californian high school.
Paps4Real / BENS / BACKGRID

What’s striking about Spielberg’s memoir film is that, unlike Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” everyone is treated with such warmth and compassion. The director has empathy for his whole character. The only villain, per se, is an anti-Semitic classmate from Sammy’s later high school in California. (All coming-of-age business, John Hughes-y, is a shoutout.)

LaBelle, who has mostly played small roles so far, is an amazing find with a big future. He so tenderly embodies this quirky introvert who channels his anxiety into his art, until it overflows. Spielberg is known for the very real performances he can pull off youngsters. So you can imagine the magic he can do with a version from his teenage years.

There’s also a thunderous appearance from Judd Hirsch as a visiting Uncle Boris, who over the course of a night teaches Sammy about the sacrifices he’ll have to make to score a life in showbiz. He is hysterical.

The other quick hello that will get people talking is David Lynch. I won’t say what he does. But holy moly. Twitter will tell you soon enough.

But the film belongs to Williams, who brings the same “what will she do next?!” an energy that set the screen on fire in “Manchester By The Sea” and “Fosse/Verdon”. It’s a great performance in a film that, while simple, is undoubtedly stylized. Williams transforms domestic struggles into something big and universal.

It’s fashionable lately for directors to make self-reflective films. Alfonso Cuaron had “Roma”, Kenneth Branagh did “Belfast” and Alejandro Inarritu has just created his “Bardo” in Venice. However, it was Spielberg’s that struck me the most.

How profound to say that the road to killer sharks, alien guests, T-Rexes and the epics of World War II begins and ends with mom and dad.

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