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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Get Out – for the right reasons

At the theater after my initial reflections on the immensely important work of Get Out, directed and written by Jordan Peele, my first thought was that I hope it is popular for the right reasons. While clearly there are people who are aware of what this film means and knowledgeable about why it is–again I use the word “important”–after my friend and film scholar Mary Dalton (I always rise up and listen closer when she uses that word), I also know that it is making a lot of money and a lot of people are seeing it, especially young people. So my hope is that it is popular for the right reasons with every single person who views it.

This is a movie from the perspective of a young African American man. And it is about how we experience life in a white world–in other words, how we experience everyday life in America. The film portrays the strangeness of the experience of feeling like you are on display. Being asked to speak on behalf of “all African Americans,” dealing with life as an African American football player who your “fans” see as not human but as an animal they would deem useless if you could no longer entertain with beyond-human physical talent (listen to this story from Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger), and otherwise having people treat you as an exotic when you are simply living your life are not even reaching half the iceberg. This strangeness of navigating life in America is exactly what Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) experiences. The outer layer of forced attempts at false normalcy that cannot be contained for very long is what gaslights so many of us into believing that we are the ones who are misconstruing situations when we are not and have never been the problem.

The world of Get Out is the result of the inability of many white people to deal with their deep-rooted feelings of uneasiness around us, and the racist leanings they cannot or do not acknowledge. The longer those notions go unchecked the worse they become. Do not ignore the extremity of the plot line and dismiss it as fiction. What happens is more real than most are willing to admit. Because it can be dismissed as “mere fiction,” what happens takes forms that seem less treacherous and less dangerous, but it is treacherous and dangerous. There are events in the film that are symbolic but also very literal in the mind games and the gaslighting and the devaluing and underestimation of the abilities, hopes, aspirations, and very humanity of African Americans. And it is all rooted in what is termed the original sin of this country. We see the teachery and danger in American life in the ways African American people and immigrants and anyone deemed the “other” are treated. But those not directly affected (and many who are affected) must open their eyes to see it. I hope Get Out is popular for the right reasons for every single person who sees it. If it is, it has opened many, many eyes. It is a masterful film, and its existence makes the landscape so much better and more real.

I feel as I did when I saw Moonlight in the respect that this is a story and a concept that was so overdue. We need to see life from the eyes of African Americans, and the stories need to be truthful.

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director Jordan Peele with artwork inspired by the motion picture http://www.getoutfilm.com/gallery/

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)

 

The Sense of an Ending–I can see my future. 

 

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CBS Films

 

I can feel myself becoming more like Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) each day. I hope I am only becoming him in the best ways, but no one is perfect. There are weeks when you are simply done by Thursday, and the sight of people demanding your attention over frivolous matters makes you so exasperated you want to get in your car, come home, and go to bed as early as 8 a.m. And dealing with “walking cliché people” who talk like they’ve swallowed 300 of the most generic greeting cards is increasingly unbearable. Incidentally these are the same people who don’t seem to be aware that they’re on earth with other human beings who can see their litter, hear their loud children, inhale their cigarette smoke, and see them taking up the entire sidewalk with their obnoxious friends.

However, I’d like to think that my hypothetical daughter–Michelle Dockery plays Susie Webster, Tony and his ex-wife Harriet’s (Harriet Walter) actual daughter in the film–would not hesitate to call on me in the most serious, intimate matters in the midst of which a child would need a parent. But again, life is not always so simple, and The Sense of an Ending (directed by Ritesh Batra, written by Nick Payne, and based on the novel by Julian Barnes) reminds us that our idea of ourselves is not always in sync with how others perceive us. We can change before we are aware of it–or we can simply be without knowing how we are. The past and how we make sense of it–and how we can live in our own heads–make up the multiple realities in which we live.

I often think that it is “a lot of work” to maintain relationships and my own interests, not to mention focus on the future I want to have. But we try, make mistakes, and try again. And occasionally we have breakthroughs that put us in a better place. The Sense of an Ending is my kind of film. It is about people and memory–and yes, the relationships that make up our lives and make memories what they are.

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CBS Films

 

 

Top Films of 2016

Here goes. As indicated in my collage below, this has been a wonderful year. If you have not seen the movies I have placed in my top 10 list for 2016, run and go see them. Later I will be adding the other films I saw and indicating which ones come highly recommended (and which ones come just plain recommended). For now, see my top 10 and predictions.

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My Top 10

1. MOONLIGHT
2. JACKIE
3. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
4. HIDDEN FIGURES
5. LA LA LAND
6. THINGS TO COME
7. 20th CENTURY WOMEN
8. AMERICAN HONEY
9. THE INNOCENTS
10. LOVING

Predictions . . .

PICTURE
Will Win: La La Land
Should Win: Moonlight

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Will Win: Viola Davis, Fences
Should Win: Viola Davis

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Will Win: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Should Win: Mahershala Ali

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
Will Most Likely Win: Emma Stone, La La Land
Should Win: Natalie Portman, Jackie

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
Will Win: Denzel Washington, Fences
Should Win: Denzel Washington
Could Win: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION)
My Top 3 (from the nominees)
1. SING
2. SILENT NIGHTS
3. TIMECODE
I recommend the other nominees, THE RAILROAD LADY and ENEMIES WITHIN

SHORT FILM (ANIMATED)
My Top 3 (from the nominees)
1. BORROWED TIME
2. PEAR CIDER AND CIGARETTES
3. PEARL

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
THE INNOCENTS and THINGS TO COME are in my top 10 list for the year. I did not see all five nominees, but I highly recommend A MAN CALLED OVE and THE SALESMAN. I recommend TONI ERDMANN. I also highly recommend (in random order) ELLE, THE WAIT (starring Juliette Binoche), THE HANDMAIDEN, MY GOLDEN DAYS, and A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS (written and directed by Natalie Portman). You’ll see these again when I update this post.

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
I have not yet seen nominees O.J.: Made in America or Fire at Sea. I do, however, highly recommend (in random order) 13th (nominee), Maya Angelou and Still I Rise; Tickled; Life, Animated (nominee);  Cameraperson; The First Monday in May; Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World; Unlocking the Cage; and I Am Not Your Negro (nominee). I recommend Weiner, The Last Man on the Moon, and The Witness.

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DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT
My Top 3 (from the nominees)
1. THE WHITE HELMETS
2. 4.1 MILES
3. EXTREMIS
I highly recommend the other nominees, WATANI: MY HOMELAND and JOE’S VIOLIN

Be sure to check back for a list of recommendations including every feature film I saw for 2016. Enjoy the Oscars!