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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Moonlight, Get Out, & Colossal back to back help me breathe a bit easier; or, Colossal – A woman makes a decision that does not involve choosing which man will “save” her

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.