Love where it’s due — Most underrated/underappreciated films and performances of 2017

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Salma Hayek (with Jay Duplass and Connie Britton), Beatriz at Dinner

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 hereThe 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
Brad’s Status
A Ghost Story
The Glass Castle
The Lovers
My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea
Personal Shopper
Sage Femme (The Midwife)
Song to Song
Strange Weather

6 That You Should See
Beach Rats
The Beguiled
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
Frantz
Obit.
The Pulitzer at 100. Read what I wrote here.

 

 

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The Pulitzer at 100 / Score: A Film Music Documentary

Awards and film scores can be elusive. With any prestigious award steeped in tradition, there is a discussion about the greats who never won. Timing is also tricky. If only that movie or that novel had not been released in such a “strong year.” But wouldn’t one want to be included as a peer in a strong year as opposed to a weak one? Winners of these awards sometimes live in disbelief that they reached the pinnacle because it still does not seem real or because they reached it while others have not.

Film scores are elusive because, as Score: A Film Music Documentary (official site) reminds us, while we may notice they are there, we do not notice just how powerful they are in shaping our movie experiences. We are unaware of how they creep in and come at us from all sides and angles and predict our reactions before even we know what we will think or feel. Scoring a film is an art with so much to it than we realize, and first-time documentary film director Matt Schrader takes us behind the scenes to give us a glimpse at how it is done. Actors, directors, and screenwriters are not the only ones who anxiously watch moviegoers’ expressions as they sit in theaters and experience movies. Musicians who work at matching the action with the score are, again, so vitally influential that we do not even realize the extent of their impact. Score: A Film Music Documentary goes a long way in encouraging an understanding of this work, yet it will also leave you with a reminder that there will always be that element that can only be described as the magic of film.

Official Poster  https://www.facebook.com/ScoreMovie/

As a student of Academy Awards history, I was excited to see The Pulitzer at 100 to learn about the history of another award of the highest level. But even more precious was hearing the winners themselves–winners from the various fields the Pulitzer recognizes–talk about their work and also what it meant and still means to have received the honor (sometimes more than once).

I must say my favorite interview was Paula Vogel (How I Learned To Drive, Pulitzer Prize for Drama, 1998). The way she described writing and her experience of winning intrigued me; her passion and, well, her way with words made me want to keep writing. Michael Cunningham, oh yes. He won the fiction award in 1998 for The Hours. (Read this novel immediately.) I also highly recommend his novel A Home at the End of the World (1990). The movie adaptation of The Hours (2002) is my favorite film, and you should listen to Cunningham’s commentary on the DVD. (The movie adaptation of A Home at the End of the World [2004] leaves too much to be desired for me to suggest it for viewing. The film goes off track at what I think is too powerful a place to be ignored.)

Released at the 100th anniversary of the award, The Pulitzer at 100′s timing is impeccable, and during the question and answer period after the screening, director (Academy Award® winner for Strangers No More [2010]) Kirk Simon reminded me why I admire documentary filmmakers so much. They have an idea, they have passion for that idea, they pull all the pieces together, and they work hard, many times with just themselves–the filmmaker–and a small crew. They get in and educate us and bring us their careful consideration of a subject, and we are better for it. Paula Vogel made me want to keep writing, and seeing the diversity of extraordinary talent from journalism (the Joseph Pulitzer biographical narrative is top-notch in the film), letters, drama, and music made me proud to be a writer and a person who values the art of storytelling.

I love documentaries. They bring the elusive to the forefront–but I still marvel at the magic of film.

Kedi – love and care without expectation

 

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director Ceyda Torun (hurriyetdailynews via kedifilm.com)

I have an aunt and a grandmother who feed stray cats who come and go as they please. Does it take a special empathy to take care of an animal? I think it takes a special empathy and a special love to take care of anyone or anything when there is no benefit of a return, whether that be some sort of pay back in terms of credit for good works or guaranteed companionship–when there is no point at which the caregiver demands a certain sustained, prescribed thankfulness or compensation.

Kedi, from first-time feature film director Ceyda Torun, gives us the picture of street cats who make their lives in the city of Istanbul and shows us the people who take care of them. Cameras follow the cats on their level as the felines go about their daily tasks while going on adventures, protecting their young, guarding their territory, and spending a little time with the various caregivers who protect them whenever they come around, feed them, and love them no matter where they are. Seeing Istanbul from the cats’ perspectives is satisfying, as is hearing the featured Istanbulites describe their feelings for the cats and the importance the animals embody in the communities they inhabit.

I was fascinated by everything short of anthropomorphism (by which I am not amused) in how the film shows us the cats’ individual personalities in close-up. A man in the film remarks, “People who don’t love animals can’t love people either.” There is a lot to be said about love between people and between people and animals in terms of culture, environment, and identity, but I tend to agree, in general, with that sentiment. While my interest waned a little more than halfway through this documentary feature, I am glad I saw and learned about an aspect of a culture that might have otherwise gone unhighlighted.

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official poster (kedifilm.com)

 

Amy – Love really is a “losing game.”

I know I am behind with posting, but I will just keep plugging along. Time to go back to July with Amy.


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I knew it would be painful to watch Asif Kapadia’s documentary, Amy. I knew it would also be hard to write about it. I first listened to the Terry Gross Fresh Air interview (transcript here) with Kapadia and Winehouse’s former manager, Nick Shymansky. The saddest part of that Fresh Air show for me was learning that when a teenage Amy told her mother about her new discovery of bulimia, her mother, whose non-assertive personality prevented her from parenting her daughter, did nothing.

In the documentary, I learned how her father’s affair and her parents’ divorce was the turning point in Winehouse’s life that was the beginning of her downward spiral that resulted in her death at 27. I learned how her father exploited her. I began to see her as a girl and then a woman who never had a chance. As someone who has been truly touched by her music, I cannot help but wish that she had not had the pain that inspired so many of her songs. Because Amy brilliantly shows us the path that Ms. Winehouse took from life as a happy child with beyond-extraordinary talent to one as a star haunted by demons and hounded by the press (and the general, insensitive public), I could see clearly her spiral that seemed inevitable because those she loved the most were not there in meaningful ways. She was doomed. She deserved to have a better life. I do not believe everything happens for a reason. I do not believe a 27-year-old should be sacrificed for some “greater” cause.

The home videos, the interviews, the behind-the-scenes expressions of emotions, and the very well-placed Winehouse songs (with lyrics on the screen for us to follow) make the structure of the film create an impact that is that much more powerful. I found myself wondering, “When will it get to the part when she becomes world famous?” But I was glad that I was seeing so much of the journey. And ultimately that world fame was, as it often is, destructive.

Amy is a success because of the care taken to make sure we understand Winehouse’s humanity and her sincerity. She is a hero to me. She had everyone around her, but she actually had no one and held on for as long as she could. She gave us her art that she could never quite do the way she wanted. What she wanted for her career she never realized, but I take away her genius. I also take away the peace and self-image that she should have had; instead, those gifts and that security were selfishly and brutally taken away from her. If you are a fan of genius and true sensitivity and true art, see Amy.

What Happened, Miss Simone?–“How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”

“How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”


“I want to shake people up so bad that when they leave a nightclub where I performed, I just want them to be to pieces.”

What Happened, Miss Simone? Title

It isn’t hard to figure out “what happened” to Nina Simone. She was born in North Carolina in 1933 and was not allowed to talk about race in her home. Racial terrorism during the 1960s spurred her on to use her art, unapologetically, to speak out—and to figure out who she was and encourage all African Americans to do the same.

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When she was a child named Eunice Waymon, white teachers noticed her extraordinary talent and taught her classical piano. In order to get to her lessons, she —a girl who, for purposes of survival, was taught not to question racism and segregation—had to cross the railroad tracks that divided black and white worlds.

After a traumatic end to her dreams of becoming a classical pianist, she found herself a singer. When she chose to use her career as a platform for her activism (see her song “Mississippi Goddam“), her lack of concern for commercial appeal caused people to ask, “What happened?” Life-long demons and increasing frustration about Civil Rights led to abusive relationships; the unrelenting rigor of performing, traveling, and attempting to live up to expectations resulted in health struggles.  

Liz Garbus’s documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? (Netflix), is a wonderfully unflinching look at Simone. The strength of the film is the use of rare, archival footage of her performances and recordings of and interviews with Ms. Simone and those who worked with her and loved her. It was clear to me what happened to her, and I was touched by how she so willingly gave of herself to inspire people and bring attention to the race problem. She used her art, which was what she had to express herself. “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” she famously said. In order to achieve what she believed to be the true artistic task, she allowed herself to feel intensely.

Her problems nearly destroyed her, but she had the gift of loving friends who came to help save her.

So when people ask, “What happened?” I hope they also ask themselves how brave they themselves are. In Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin in the Sun, Lena Younger (Mama) says to her daughter, Beneatha, at probably the second-most emotional moment of the play, “Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well, then, you ain’t through learning—because that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ’cause the world done whipped him so! When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.”

What Happened, Miss Simone? tells us what happened but leaves it to us to decide whether or not to consider those “hills and valleys.” I don’t see how anyone could not.

The Wolfpack – The Outside World of Movies

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When Mukunda Angulo gets a job as a production assistant and displays in-depth knowledge about filmmaking in that setting, I had the thought that he and his brothers possess more skill than many young people I know who leave their homes every day. The situation in Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack and in the outside world is, of course, more complicated than that, but it is worth noting the roles of curiosity, enthusiasm, outlook, companionship, and imagination when it comes to facing life’s opportunities and restrictions. The six Angulo (two brothers have since changed their names) grew up with parents who wanted a different, freer life for them. Unfortunately, the inability to get out of Manhattan and a distrust of the city and the people in it (essentially, “the world”) caused the father to restrict them to the walls of their apartment where they stayed locked in. He had the only key to the front door and controlled entry and exit.

The boys watched movies—thousands of them. They watched with the creativity and the drive to absorb, appreciate, and reenact the scripts with a seriousness that has them, as we see in the film, watching and rewatching in order to hand-copy entire scripts in order to play the roles among themselves. They create their own costumes, create their own sets, and inhabit roles with deep understanding of the process they learn so much about from their keen powers of observation and from the sheer amount of time they spend with films. They create a (literal) interior world (the rooms of their home turned movie sets) that grew from the interior world of their creative minds spurred on by their love of cinema.

They began to venture outside to explore New York. Moselle discovered them one day on the street early on. When watching the film, I was most saddened when watching interviews with their mother, Susanne. It seemed that she was always negotiating in the gulf between her husband and her children. She says “there were more rules” (set by her husband) for her “than there were for them.” What of her life and her own self-expression? I was struck by how she shows her deep love for her sons while balancing her relationship with her husband, who is estranged from most of them. Their lives have affected each brother in different ways, but that they have each other is what I took from the film—and what I mentioned earlier—the roles of curiosity, enthusiasm, outlook, companionship, and imagination when it comes to facing life’s opportunities and restrictions—is definitely something to think about.

For updates, see this New York Times piece (June 10, 2015) from Cara Buckley.