In Between tells three separate stories that unite in living space, in friendship, and in choice. For me, the ultimate question of the film is this: when you have the opportunity to exercise choice for yourself, do you support others in pursuing the same? If so, how? If not, why not? This is a question that writer/director Maysaloun Hamoud, in this glorious feature film debut, explores beyond her three main characters—Laila (Mouna Hawa), Salma (Sana Jammelieh), and Nour (Shaden Kanboura)—three women who are different yet the same in their day-to-day decision to take risks to embrace the freedom to choose how they live, something that should not be a risk but is one due to gender ideologies that exist to stifle their every move and thought. But in this film, the men, too, have to face the question of choice and cannot ignore their conscious and unconscious suffocation of women. In Between shows that there is no one-sided notion of choice and that freedom cannot exist where that fantasy resides.
I have gone through major changes in my life over the past year, but what has not changed is my love for the movies. Above are my Top 10 Films of 2017. With 30 minutes left until the Academy Awards, I prepare to celebrate film tonight. I will celebrate, especially Lady Bird, Call Me By Your Name, and Get Out, films that give me faith for excellence and strides in diverse representation in filmmaking. I will celebrate my picks, win or lose. My picks, those who I think should win and deserve to win, are not the “frontrunners,” but I salute them here: Timothée Chalamet for Actor in a Leading Role, Laurie Metcalf for Actress in a Supporting Role, Woody Harrelson for Actor in a Supporting Role, and Lady Bird for Best Picture of the Year. For Actress in a Leading Role, I have no issue with Frances McDormand (the strong frontrunner) winning, but I would love to see Saoirse Ronan, or even Sally Hawkins, win. In Best Picture, realistically speaking, I am hoping to see Get Out pull an “upset.”
To steal some of Oliver’s words from Call Me By Your Name: To Greta Gerwig, James Ivory, André Aciman, and Jordan Peele, I love the way you write things. To Greta Gerwig, Luca Guadagnino, and Jordan Peele, I love the way you direct things. And to Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, and Daniel Kaluuya, I love the way you say things.
It has been a while since I’ve posted, but I have still been going to the movies–a lot of them. Follow me on Letterboxd (click the green icon to the right). Before I finally compile my Top 10 of 2017 (I already know the top 2) and honorable mentions, of course, there is one last thing I must do: give credit to those films and performances that did not receive the love and recognition they should have. Maybe there was a performance in an otherwise mediocre movie, or for whatever reason, the film did not receive recognition in the midst of the year’s crop of notable achievements. Anyone who follows awards knows that there are all sorts of reasons why a movie might be underrated, and many of those reasons can be frustrating. But now, as I have all year, appreciate them.
I narrowed the list as much as I could, and there is still 33. I have put the films in three categories: Top 16 Absolute Must See, the second tier of 11 that are Must See, and the remaining 6 that you Should See. Each category is in alphabetical order.
Top 16 Absolute Must See (For the Top 10 of these, I offer more extensive thoughts)
Beatriz at Dinner (dir. Miguel Arteta; writ. Mike White; dir. of photography Wyatt Garfield; Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker, Cholë Sevigny). Salma Hayek is brilliant as Beatriz, a woman all about introspection and self-awareness who finds herself trapped with people who seem as shallow as they come. The action is more or less set in a confined space, which intensifies the ideological clash had over an evening of drinks and dinner. The clash is a joy to watch as art and rather devastating when you think about what Beatriz (and all who she represents) is up against. White has received an Independent Spirit Award nomination, and Hayek is nominated for female lead.
Colossal (dir. and writ. Nacho Vigalondo; dir. of photography Eric Kress; Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, Austin Stowell). A necessary film desperately needed. Read what I’ve written here.
Columbus (dir. and writ. Kogonada; dir. of photography Elisha Christian; John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Parker Posey, Michelle Forbes, Rory Culkin). A beautifully quiet film set in Columbus, Indiana, a city known for its modern architecture, Columbus, with the city as another character, includes beautiful portrayals of characters who have their own relationships to the architecture of the city as they live in the midst of various life changes. The responsibility a child has toward a parent is excellently explored by Richardson, and, well, basically the exact opposite is played by the satisfying Cho. Also, Rory Culkin’s performance as Gabriel will steal your heart away. Columbus has received 3 Independent Spirit Award nominations, for first screenplay, cinematography, and first feature (Kogonada, Danielle Renfrew Behrens, Aaron Boyd, Giulia Caruso, Ki Jin Kim, Andrew Miano, Chris Weitz).
Dayveon (dir. Amman Abbasi; writ. Abbasi, Steven Reneau; dir. of photography Dustin Lane; Devin Blackmon, Dontrell Bright, Lachion Buckingham, Kordell Johnson, Marquell Manning, Chasity Moore). I had the privilege of seeing this film at the RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem, NC, last spring. Dayveon is another film I describe as a quiet film. It’s about, among other things, what it means to struggle to find identity. The film, for me, is a wake-up call that reminds us that we have the power to shape the social world so that finding our identity isn’t such a struggle. Read what I wrote about it here. The film is nominated for the John Cassavetes Award (Buckingham, Alexander Uhlmann, Abbasi, Reneau) from the Independent Spirit Awards, and Abbasi is nominated for the Someone to Watch Award.
Detroit (dir. Kathryn Bigelow; writ. Mark Boal; dir. of photography Barry Ackroyd; John Boyega, Will Poulter, John Krasinski, Anthony Mackie, Algee Smith, Jason Mitchell, Hannah, Murray, Jack Reynor). I’m not sure about all the circumstances that prevented this film from garnering more recognition, but it seems that much has to do with criticism that I don’t really see handed out to films that do not tackle the type of subject matter Detroit tackles. This film is about the 1967 Detroit Riot and has images we all need to see, as they represent the ongoing racial injustice that is the state of this country.
The Florida Project (dir. Sean Baker; writ. Baker, Chris Bergoch; dir. of photography Alexis Zabe; Brooklyn Prince, Willem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Caleb Landry Jones, Christopher Rivera, Mela Murder). Dafoe did receive an Oscar nomination for supporting actor, but overall this film has not been appreciated as it should. The lives people have to endure should elicit empathy and change that would improve their lives. Instead, there is blame assigned to those who are suffering. Dafoe’s character is not just a man who continually saves his motel guests; he himself has his own history that is hinted at through his relationship with his son. That should show us how there are not as many fingers to point as we think. Sean Baker’s encouragement of improvisation and documentary-like look is on display here. So is the talent of Prince. Told largely through children’s eyes, The Florida Project is a necessary look at a way of life that you either know or are so removed from that you can’t even imagine. Watch to empathize and act. The film has 2 Independent Spirit Award nominations, for best feature (Baker, Bergoch, Kevin Chinoy, Andrew Duncan, Alex Saks, Francesca Silvestri, Shih-Ching Tsou) and director.
Good Time (dir. Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie; writ. Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie; dir. of photography Sean Price Williams; Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Buddy Duress, Taliah Webster, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Barkhad Abdi). Pattinson gives a stunning performance in this film about Connie (Pattinson), a man who involves his brother (Benny Safdie) with special needs in unlawful actions, continually puts him in danger, and then tries desperately and hopelessly to post his bail. Connie, unexpectedly even to him at times, endangers the lives of other unsuspecting people in order to excuse his plans that he must frequently revise. His refusal to realize he has hit rock bottom is remarkable as you as a viewer realize that by sheer will he has made his bottom even further down than you thought it was just minutes before. Good Time is the most exciting and gut-wrenching free fall from start to finish until an ending that is abrupt and calm on different sides. The film has received 5 Independent Spirit Award nominations, for director, male lead (Pattinson), supporting female (Webster), supporting male (Safdie), and editing (Benny Safdie, Bronstein).
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos; writ. Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou; dir. of photography Thimios Bakatakis; Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Alicia Silverstone, Bill Camp). 2 Independent Spirit Award nominations, for supporting male (Keoghan) and cinematography.
Lady Macbeth (dir. William Oldroyd; writ. Alice Birch, based on Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov; dir. of photography Ari Wegner; Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank, Golda Rosheuvel, Anton Palmer). When an arranged marriage on a rural English estate in 1865 involves a woman, Katherine (Pugh), who refuses to stay “in her place” as a wife to be seen and not heard, gender, race, and class become central several times over in directions unanticipated by those in power who carefully orchestrated what they thought would be a domestic arrangement that would cause the least disturbance. There is a motif involving Katherine performing one of her expected daily rituals. It creates, at the beginning, a stifling feeling. But by the end this same action is unnerving and downright bone-chilling. Lady Macbeth has received BAFA nominations for Outstanding British Film of the Year (Oldroyd, Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly, Birch) and Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director, or Producer (Birch, Oldroyd, O’Reilly) as well as an Independent Spirit Award nomination for international film (Oldroyd).
Landline (dir. Gillian Robespierre; writ. Elisabeth Holm, Robespierre, story by Holm, Robespierre, Tom Bean; dir. of photography Chris Teague; Jenny Slate, Abby Quinn, Edie Falco, Jay Duplass, John Turturro, Ali Ahn, Marquis Rodriguez, Jordan Carlos, Finn Wittrock). Also, if you haven’t seen Obvious Child, get on that, too.
Lucky (dir. John Carroll Lynch; writ. Logan Sparks, Drago Sumonja; dir. of photography Tim Suhrstedt; Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Ron Livingston, Ed Begley Jr., Tom Skerritt, Beth Grant, James Darren, Barry Shabaka Henley, Yvonne Huff). Every single performance is its own and powerful. Every single one.
mother! (dir. and writ. Darren Aronofsky; dir. of photography Matthew Libatique; Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Brian Gleeson, Domhnall Gleeson, Jovan Adepo, Amanda Chiu). This film is apparently polarizing, but I think it is outstanding in the way it shows us how destructive, dismissive, and ungrateful humanity is to “mother nature,” mothers, women, and, indeed, whatever is “feminized.” Humanity greedily takes advantage of what the earth naturally provides and exploits it only to give what is characterized as “male” the credit and praise for life and a sense of purpose. What “gives selflessly” is feminized as “weak” and as “mother,” and what is revered as “strong” and healing is “masculinized” as strong. This is also, of course, an indictment of religions, many of which take on this masculine/feminine hypocritical dichotomy. The way Aronofsky portrays this inundates us with everything from seemingly calm serenity to chaotic spectacle. The film reflects the pretense all around us. Added to all this is that the action takes place in a confined setting, making it, in my view, more spectacular in the feelings it creates. This film is a mirror that I think disturbs many because of the ugly truth it tells.
Novitiate (dir. and writ. Margaret Betts; dir. of photography Kat Westergaard; Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, Julianne Nicholson, Diana Agron, Morgan Saylor, Liana Liberato, Denis O’Hare). What I take away from Novitiate is not about why Reverend Mother (the incomparable Melissa Leo) is a “villain” and reacts the way she does in the wake of Vatican II. I come away asking even more strongly–why are women still relegated to subordinate roles in churches and religions? How can I take any religion seriously that is sexist? I couldn’t take Archbishop McCarthy (Denis O’Hare) seriously, but perhaps that is the point (it is certainly my point). How can I take hypocritical male officials seriously? I must also note that Nicholson is especially wonderful as the mother of a young woman (Margaret Qualley) who decides to leave her home to become a nun. Novitiate is meticulously marvelous in telling this story. I recommend these from Director Margaret Betts and Melissa Leo:
Novitiate director on transcending ‘tacky ass male fantasy’ of nuns’ sexuality
Melissa Leo Says Her ‘Novitiate’ Character Isn’t ‘Just One Thing’
Pushing Dead (dir. Tom E. Brown; writ. Brown; dir. of photography Frazer Bradshaw; James Roday, Robin Weigert, Danny Glover, Khandi Alexander, Tim Riley).
Score: A Film Music Documentary (dir. and writ. Matt Schrader; dir. of photography Nate Gold, Kenny Holmes). Read what I’ve written here.
Whose Streets? (dir. Sabaah Folayan, Damon Davis; writ. Folayan; dir. of photography Lucas Alvarado-Farrar). Important film.
11 Must See
After the Storm
Beats Per Minute
A Ghost Story
The Glass Castle
My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea
Sage Femme (The Midwife)
Song to Song
6 That You Should See
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
The Pulitzer at 100. Read what I wrote here.
The other day I looked at a high school social studies textbook that had the U.S. Capitol on the cover. The sight of the Capitol dome made my eyes well with tears. I know that America was not actually founded on the ideals highlighted in the Declaration of Independence, but that is why they’re ideals. But now, as I observe, at the highest levels of government, attacks against the civil liberties of those who are most vulnerable, the sight of a supposed symbol of freedom disappoints me. But the scariest reality is that a lot of people support this push backward in the name of their own “protection” (or what they perceive as protection), even if that idea of “protection” comes at the expense of minority groups and those with the least historical privilege. It seems that these people want a return to the times when those like them felt the most “comfort” in their feelings of superiority.
I know it sounds like a losing battle to wish so much based on representation in a film, but movies aren’t just movies. They tell us who we are, and they inform who we are. And they can seep into our consciousness when we do not notice.
I love that I live in a world in which Moonlight exists. The emergence of Moonlight (2016, dir. Barry Jenkins, Academy Award® winner for Best Motion Picture of the Year [Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner]; Best Adapted Screenplay [Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney]; and Best Supporting Actor [Mahershala Ali]) has brought me hope during a discouraging time. That a film so unprecedented exists shows me an example of a place where progress has not stopped, and I hope the film’s success continues to educate, open minds, and support not only full equality but also a change in attitudes between ordinary citizens because we need more than “tolerance.” Just look around. Tolerance doesn’t last. We need evolved open-mindedness. We need education.
Then with Get Out (2017, writ. and dir. Jordan Peele), I again felt seen and listened to. If you are used to seeing yourself reflected in the media in truthful ways, you cannot understand the feeling, at a time when you need it the most, although that time is well overdue, of seeing two monumental achievements virtually back to back that speak to your experiences and reach both popular and critical acclaim. I feel like I can breathe a bit easier and walk with a bit more assurance. There is absolutely no doubt that these films have started conversations, but those conversations need to explore the right questions and actually reach the right people.
If you are someone who doesn’t automatically understand what I mean when I say that Moonlight and Get Out actually help me breathe with more ease, try to imagine how I felt when I saw Colossal and realized that it is a film that I had been waiting for and a film that we as a culture are starving for. On the surface, it appears to include a story that we see in most films—the tired love triangle involving a woman who thinks she has to choose between two men, one from her past and one from her present. Both men promise her a future of “happiness.” But what actually happens in Colossal is what men (in real life and in movies) take for granted. To enjoy, free of projected guilt, the freedom to choose one of two love interests, to choose one other than the two vying for your attention, not to choose one at all, or simply to make the decision on your own time and not adhere to an ultimatum forced on you is to be, historically, in the male position. And it is certainly a freedom overwhelmingly enjoyed by men in movies. Colossal (2017, writ. and dir. Nacho Vigalondo) gives us a satisfying view of a woman who does not take on the burden of taking care of a man who seeks her to cover up his faults or use her as a punching bag. Even if the men (Jason Sudeikis and Dan Stevens) who want Gloria’s (Anne Hathaway) future were awesome people with no disturbing psychological hangups, that wouldn’t change the fact that we don’t deserve to give away our freedom of choice out of “obligation.” These “obligations” are disproportionately assigned to women to haul around (watch The Hours [2002, writ. David Hare; dir. Stephen Daldry; story by Michael Cunningham; Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Stephen Dillane]–have Kidman as Virginia Woolf spell it out for you).
As is true in reality, all three characters need saving. And—as in reality–people like to think that a relationship can “fix” them. A relationship entered into for that reason can’t be a healthy one. As Oprah always says—“Jerry Maguire was just a movie”—don’t look for someone to “complete” you. The choice Gloria makes is not a gimmick or a mere obstacle that will eventually bring us back to tired clichés we see all the time. It is an overdue call that I hope will help men wake up. Men who think they exist to validate women, or that their opinion matters more than women’s opinions, or that they can use the word “bitch” to “put a woman in her place” are, indeed, asleep. We cannot afford for them to stay asleep.
Despite so much that is wrong, I, someone who treasures the magic and power of movies, feel fortunate that we have these films that, taken together, separately, and in combinations, impart intersectional messages that we need—desperately.
I love movies that have a limited or confining setting–films that take place during a single day, more or less in or around a single house, in one room, or in one space, to name a few examples. Think August: Osage County or Carnage or, of course, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf–and yes, those were plays first. And no, I am not one of those people who criticizes films because the film sticks to that “confined” setting and complains that they are “a play filmed as a movie.”
I also have this same feeling for movies that are set in small towns. Both situations force me to focus on the “small” space (depth over breadth). This, consequently, allows me to focus more on the psychological realism of the characters. And often the physical space itself has a character of its own. Think about episode of The Twilight Zone with that town with only one inhabitant after everyone except one man disappears, or several other episodes of that series. Or, better yet, think of the emptied town in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
For Brave New Jersey, director Jody Lambert found a tiny, abandoned town in Tennessee and brings people to it; so, unlike in Keats’s frozen-in-time “cold pastoral,” Lambert accomplishes something unlikely but not impossible. His discovery had the ingredients to create a confined setting in which to put a typical, because so eccentric, group of townspeople, some of whom feel trapped in the word that I so enjoy watching from my seat. And because they are faced with once-in-a-lifetime, “life-threatening” circumstances (ones we know from actual history), emotions are heightened and people become more of who they are (because that is what happens in those situations). Tony Hale (2-time Emmy® winner for HBO’s Veep) is perfect as Clark Hill, a man trying to break out of an emotional entanglement of his own in addition to the more immediate crisis that comes up.
Brave New Jersey (writ. Michael Dowling and Jody Lambert, dir. of photography Corey Walter) is charming and funny, and it takes place within the small physical space I love to be placed into. There is even a literal path that leads into and out of it (but we don’t see what is on the other side). The film shows the absurdity of people (both in an amusing way and in a depressing way that frustrates me about life). Comparing who we were before to who we are after we calm down from whatever fear made our primal survival instincts come through is the real story. “Becoming more of who you are” means different things to different people, and you don’t necessarily want to be someone who is the most of who you are only during times when you are sensitized at a rare and unusually intense level.
Release dates beyond the film festivals that have provided screenings are currently up in the air, but you should definitely keep an eye out. Follow the film on Twitter.
In his 2010 TED talk, “A Call to Men” (also the name of the organization of which he is co-founder, A Call To Men), Tony Porter speaks about the dangerous “man box” that restricts boys and men from being fully human:
“I grew up in New York City, between Harlem and the Bronx. Growing up as a boy, we were taught that men had to be tough, had to be strong, had to be courageous, dominating — no pain, no emotions, with the exception of anger — and definitely no fear; that men are in charge, which means women are not; that men lead, and you should just follow and do what we say; that men are superior; women are inferior; that men are strong; women are weak; that women are of less value, property of men, and objects, particularly sexual objects. I’ve later come to know that to be the collective socialization of men, better known as the ‘man box.’ See this man box has in it all the ingredients of how we define what it means to be a man. Now I also want to say, without a doubt, there are some wonderful, wonderful, absolutely wonderful things about being a man. But at the same time, there’s some stuff that’s just straight up twisted, and we really need to begin to challenge, look at it and really get in the process of deconstructing, redefining, what we come to know as manhood.”
Just as we need voices like Tony Porter’s, we need a continuous stream of stories like Dayveon (first-time feat. film dir. Amman Abbasi; writ. Amman Abbasi and Steven Reneau). The film tells the story of Dayveon (Devin Blackmon), a young man struggling with the death of his older brother. The landscape is a poor, rural Arkansas. This is a quiet film, a type of film I love that allows me to focus on the characters and the setting in a deep, pointed way with no distractions. The quiet rural land in Dayveon reflects the lack of opportunity and the absence of hope that drive Dayveon into a gang and toward what, in his restrictive “man box,” would make him powerful and immune to the fate of victimhood. Symbols like a menacing swarm of bees are ominous like the continuous anxiety of falling deeper into poverty and the relentless grief that results from losing people to death and from losing dreams of financial, physical, emotional, or psychological security.
African American men make up the cast, along with Dayveon’s sister, Kim (Chasity Moore), who is raising him. She encourages her partner, Brian (Dontrell Bright), to spend time with Dayveon, and he attempts to take on the role of a caring male role model for Dayveon. Brian expresses tenderness toward Dayveon that beautifully blows apart the man box. Blackmon does an exceptional job in both his private moments and in his public moments. In both situations, even while not speaking, he expresses volumes with his face and in how he moves through his room, explores the areas surrounding where he lives, and engages in nonverbal communication with his friend, Brayden (Kordell Johnson). This brilliantly displays the strength of what can be expressed through quietness.
In terms of spoken lines, for me the best is a scene we need so much more of. Sitting in a living room, a group of men express their frustrations and disappointments with life–never being able to get ahead, not being able to pay the bills, always feeling the bitterest feeling of defeat because whenever there is a sense of progress there is a setback that knocks them back down as if to remind them that people like them are not allowed to have success that leads to any type of security. They smoke together and express their feelings. They are vulnerable in front of their male friends. The man box disappears in these moments, and they provide a perspective on the actions of those who we see engage in gang activity, violence, and crime.
How Dayveon himself survives involves a direct battle between the lure of the gang and the encouragement from his sister and Brian, who want a better life for him. I have seen boys and men transform before my eyes, and not in a way that has meant a safe, healthy life. There is a point at which those in that situation pick a road to take, and that choice influences everything from how they speak to how they dress to how they carry themselves to, of course, how they view the world. But we all have aspirations and emotions and the need to express and share what is inside of us. The man box prevents men and boys from engaging in those normal, human activities. Dayveon reminds those who may forget that men (and African American men, too) are included in “all of us.” This film can remind men who forget that they are included. We need to eliminate the man box because it is a human need to be fully human.
Watch Porter’s TED talk: