Blame our neighbor Harvey Weinstein for the grand deluge of quality films that will fall almost daily from the sky between September 1st and December 31st. Harvey invented the now standard template for influencing the Oscars, Golden Globes, Spirit, and Screen Actors Guild awards. Since narrative films must run one week in both LA and NYC to be considered for nomination, we will have this wealth of films on screen in NYC. Some will sneak into town and some will be splashed all over the media. It may take months for them to return, so be prepared. Given that we are a monthly newspaper, I will highlight smaller films of merit that you should be aware of this time of year.
Let’s Go To The Movies
Blue Jasminedir Woody Allen
It’s true what you may have heard this is the best Woody Allen film in decades. There is nothing fluffy or light about this very 2013 look into the world of hedge funds, greed, and power, rather than how we see it romanticized and lionized in mass media. Cate Blanchett has everyone buzzing. This beautifully cast film, certain to be nominated in the new Oscar category for Best Casting, is almost a perfect example of ensemble work. Sally Hawkins is a standout. All I could think about after watching was, where was Ruth Madoff and how much of other people’s money does she really have?
Fruitvale Station dir Ryan Coogler
This Sundance Grand Jury prize winner should certainly be a contender this year. First time director Coogler, who went through all the Sundance mentoring workshops, could not have made a more contemporary observation on how race and digital technology intersect today. Based on a real New Year’s Eve incident that took place at a Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, California, where a young black man returning from celebrating New Year’s Eve with friends is subjected to a group stop and frisk by the police in a moment that went terribly wrong but was recorded on the smartphones of his friends and passengers at Fruitvale Station. Octavia Spencer,Oscar winner from The Help, is given a multi-dimensional character to play. She makes universal the trauma of a mother who finds that what she had asked her son to do, be safe, has turned into a race-bias nightmare. It still reverberates in my memory as we talk about stop and frisk in the city.
A Teacher dir Hannah Fidell
A searing depiction of a woman who loses all sense of control and propriety when she lusts after a student and falls into obsession. We have met this kind of woman before, usually through the eyes of a male director e.g. Gus Van Sant’s vivid To Die For. Yet here we have a female director/writer who positions herself into the psychic of a woman whose intentions were to risk acting on inappropriate sexual desires and stay on top of it. She does not. Fidell shows insight into the young male student on the verge of manhood who sees their trysts as his sexual prowess and conquest.The Teacher finds herself falling into a sinkhole of possessiveness and jealousy that blinds her to the reality of what she has initiated. For a first time director, Fidell has accomplished almost a Bergman-es portrait of a woman whose emotions overcome her ability to stay in charge of her emotions as if she were speeding car out of control – disruptive, passionate, and challenging. Both Lindsay Burdge and Will Brittain bring a depth of complexity to their characters that in the hands of less skilled actors would have almost verged on a soft-core sex film. The actors and the writer/ director should, in a just world, be very much in the Spirit Awards spotlight.
Mother Of George dir Andrew Dosunmu
You will not find on any screen big or small this fall, a more ravishingly to watch. The film shows an almost traditional look at the clash between immigrant country of origin and American values and feminist gains. It is set and actually filmed in Crown Heights and parts of Bed-Sty the close-knit community of Nigerian immigrants. Mother Of George authentically explores how African culture, with its patriarchal values, conflicts with new world culture. We see how the value of a wife is reduced to her ability to make babies; a newlywed couple are having a hard time producing a family and it seems everyone is watching, not the least the mother-in-law. When the young wife, fully dimensioned by Danai Gurira, is on a verge of a nervous breakdown, a more assimilated female friend suggests she might not be the one responsible for the fertility problem and suggests she and her husband seek out medical consultation. However, her mother-in-law will not accept her son might be responsible. She suggests an old world secret solution and demands the wife agree. Mother Of George could have been a black kitchen sink feminist drama. Yet thanks to the sensitivity of Darci Picoult’s script to Yoruban culture, the film becomes much more a story of how culture, community, and values clash, set in the neighborhood of hard working people determined to become successful in the promised land without losing their identity. Prepare yourself to see a story visually landscaped through the artistic vision of a director who comes to film making from the world of fine art photography. His wise choice to work with Bradford Young, one of the best new cinematographers to emerge on the festival scene in years, arcs the film visually in a non-traditional way that seduces the viewer in sumptuous detail. Both choose never to let the eye rest on the expected, but from a point of view that grabs attention.
Someone please give award to costume designer Mobolaji Dawodu and production designer Lucio Seixas. It would be a cinema crime if anyone but Danai Gurira is offered the role of Nina Simone.
After Tiller dir Martha Shane and Lana Wilson
A more provocative or challenging documentary you will not find anywhere this year. Not as masterfully done as The Act of Killing, yet as riveting. Third trimester abortions and the women who want them and the doctors who might provide them are the subjects. Ever since the Tea Party and the religious Right hijacked a woman’s right to control her body, men have led the discourse in Congress, in tabloid media and on talk radio has been extremely difficult for most people to have an open mind on the subject.
We are able to listen to the women in need and the doctors who might help. Dr. George Tiller, who performed third trimester abortions, was murdered in 2009 by a religious nutcase as he came out of church one Sunday in a small town in Kansas. The filmmakers wanted to take the politics out of this controversial procedure and have the audience meet women and sometimes couples in need and the four doctors brave enough to still perform these medical procedures.
What we learn from the doctors is why they provide this service to women despite the danger and how they decide who should actually get the procedure. Their answers will probably surprise most people. Gaining the trust of subjects is always a documentary filmmaker’s challenge and with this subject even more so, given the shaming and danger that swirls around this issue. Yet both provider and seeker open their hearts and practice to Martha Shane and Lana Wilson.