Nine Days (copy)

Winston Duke is Will and Zazie Beetz is Emma in “Nine Days.”

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A man sits alone in a house, watching TV. From this ordinary image springs “Nine Days,” one of the most extraordinary and moving films of the year.

The man is named Will (Winston Duke), and he is actually watching dozens of ‘80s-era television sets. Each one is a sort of live feed of a person’s life, and Will watches and takes notes.

We learn that Will is something like an angel, and each of the people on the TVs contains a soul he selected to be born into the world. Will, along with his friend and adviser Kyo (Benedict Wong) watch over the souls like proud parents, even getting dressed up to watch major life events like weddings.

Then one of the screens goes dark. The life of one of the souls, a prominent concert violinist, ends in tragedy, and Will must submerge his grief and hire a replacement.

In the rules of this world, he invites five “pre-souls” to the house, entities who, like the blobs in Pixar's "Soul," have not yet been born. They spend nine days observing human life through the TVs and answering questions from Will. Each candidate is sort of a stereotype, from the tough guy (Bill Sarsgaard) to the life of the party (a very funny Tony Hale) to the teacher’s pet (Arianna Ortiz). At the end of the nine days, Will will select one of them to be born.

Debut writer-director Edson Oda grounds his movie’s big existential questions and flights of metaphysical fancy in a world of human moments and mundane objects. Will’s farmhouse is crammed with file cabinets overflowing with papers, chunky VCRs and thrift-store furniture. It’s perhaps a sly joke that this threadbare existence is shot in gorgeous widescreen imagery, while Oda shows us the beautiful images of real life through blurry television screens.

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That visual contrast also suggests Will’s emotional remove. He was alive once too, but life was a disappointment to him, and he doesn’t want to remind himself of the chances he missed. In his questioning of the candidates, he seems to be pushing them to be tougher than he was, armored against life.

But he is thrown off-balance by one candidate, Emma (Zazie Beetz), who refuses to answer his questions or play by his rules. She suggests that the toughest way to live life is, paradoxically, to be open and vulnerable to it.

The performers are uniformly terrific, and Oda makes sure to give each of them a moment to shine and show the inner humanity of their characters (even though none of them are technically “human.”) Duke and Wong, who I best know from Marvel movies, convince us that they are both otherworldly beings and ordinary guys at the same time, caring middle managers (“a cog in the wheel,” as Will describes himself) doing their best. And when Emma finally gets under Will’s armor and breaks him open, it leads to a gloriously moving finale.

“Nine Days” feels like it had to be a filmmaker’s debut, the kind of swing-for-the-fences movie a person makes when they aren’t sure if they’ll ever get a second chance. It makes you want to carry its gentle and thoughtful spirit into your own world for as long as you can.