Dec 14, 2021

 Best Quest Films of 2021

 

 A still of Nelly and Marion, portrayed by Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, from Céline Sciamma's Petite Maman.

My criteria for choosing these movies is derived from my latest book Cinematic Quests for Identity: The Hero’s Encounter with the Beast (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). An essential component of my theory about cinematic quests is that heroes do not have a “coming of age” or a “middle-age crisis”—these patriarchal ideas are derived from Western literary tradition and so reflect the experience of men. Cinematic heroes embark on quests many times in their lives in a courageous desire to live a conscious and meaningful existence. They do so at great peril because the quest requires a return to childhood wounds or profound losses; always there is the Beast of individuation, the equivocal figure in the life of the hero that can lead her to madness or to individuation.

This year, there are five outstanding films, four of which are appropriate for adults and children, and some, like Slalom and Little Girl, that are quite topical. All feature a female quest for identity, and with the exception of Little Girl, a documentary, are directed, or written and directed, by women. The order for these entries is random, and does not reflect any effort at ranking.

Petite Maman (subtitled, appropriate for young audiences and adults)

                                      
One of the most striking qualities of cinematic quests for identity is the suspension of time. All heroes, even very young protagonists, are compelled, through a current crisis, to revisit a profound loss or an unhealed wound. It is for the purpose of healing that the hero embarks on the path to individuation. For children, as for nine year-old Nelly in Petite Maman, the quest is sometimes an origin story. Céline Sciamma’s sublime film opens shortly after the death of Nelly’s grandmother. Nelly's mother Marion is distraught and rather distant; because of Nelly’s hyper-awareness of her mother’s moods, it appears at the start of the film that the role of mother and daughter are reversed. 

In the manner of fairy tales, Sciamma makes that manifest. In probing her mother’s grief, and her own loss, Nelly returns to Marion’s past that hints at a difficult mother-daughter relationship. This of course leads, as all fairy tales do, to a jaunt into the woods, in this case to the forest of Marion's childhood. There Nelly finds a kindred spirit. Like Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bête, and akin to the work of Miyazaki Hayao, who Sciamma credits as an inspiration, Petite Maman is a terrific movie for the girl in all of us, with outstanding performances by twin sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz.  
                                        
Land


Perhaps one of the most underrated of American actresses, Robin Wright’s breakthrough performance in State of Grace (1990) should have made her a Hollywood star, and while she went on to a dozen credible performances, mostly in forgettable roles, it is in Land, at age 55, that she again realizes her potential. Wright’s debut feature as a director is about Edee (Wright), a deeply troubled, middle-aged woman who buys a cabin, sight unseen, on a plot of mountain-top wilderness.

Rather improbably, she immediately sells the equally expensive SUV that got her there. The screenplay never recovers from that blunder that suggests Edee is hellbent on suicide, a narrative dead-end. The source of Edee’s wish for isolation is also withheld far too long, and while viewers will guess that she has suffered a profound loss, it is actually an outsized ego that led her to winter in that cabin, sans electricity and running water. Arrogance is rarely an attribute of female heroes in cinematic quests, but Wright’s performance makes it believable. The Beast of Edee’s individuation, the character that propels the hero to destruction or redemption, is Miguel (Demián Bichir), a fellow hermit. He confronts Edee with her penchant for self-absorption that has long kept her from appreciating the beauty that surrounds her.

Slalom (appropriate for adolescents and adults)

Sep 25, 2021

59th New York Film Festival

 


For the press, the New York Film Festival began on September 20th. It opened to the public this weekend. My first festival review, the "Currents" documentary Prism, was just posted on Awards Watch. (The link is on the left, under "Recent and Selected Film Reviews.") Like all journalists who attend festivals, I find it stressful to balance the films I want to screen, and carving out time to write and file assignments. The upsides this year are the in-person screenings, and catching up with colleagues, after a year of watching movies on a computer screen. 

The image above is a still from one of my favorite films at this year's festival, Michelangelo Frammartino's il Buco or The Hole (https://www.filmlinc.org/nyff2021/films/il-buco/). It is ostensibly about the exploration of underground caves. One of my friends and a fellow critic once said that watching the Italian filmmaker's work, one could walk away from the screen, hard boil an egg, and go back to it, knowing you have not missed anything. Maybe Frammartino's work is slow but it is also exacting and subtle. He is a master at composition, too. This one is about the upper world where time moves on, people die and cows calf, and the underworld that has not changed since the beginning of time. The film is scheduled for theatrical release in 2022.

Aug 23, 2021

Interview with Liesl Tommy for "Respect"

 

                                Jennifer Hudson and Liesl Tommy in the recording studio for "Respect."

Read my interview with the director of "Respect," the new biopic about the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin: https://awardswatch.com/interview-respect-director-liesl-tommy-on-aretha-celebrating-black-women-and-her-hitchcock-moment/

Jul 20, 2021

A New Website

Chances are you have not seen one of the best films of 2018. It was not released until May of this year. The film, Dead Pigs, is written and directed by an Asian woman, Cathy Yan. 


 The truth is that far less verbiage is devoted to films made by women, and as a result, audiences miss some outstanding work. Ask any female film critic who wants to write about these movies how difficult it is to place an interview. Read the reports of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative (https://annenberg.usc.edu/research/aii). Its research found a direct correlation between the dearth of female critics and the coverage of movies made by women. Even more egregious is the lack of coverage devoted to female directors of color. 

After pitching a review of a female-directed film earlier this year, to two different venues, and being told by both editors that the movie was not widely distributed, and that they would be skipping coverage, I felt angry. The writer-director, a woman from an underrepresented group, made a very popular art house film just five years ago. Her next movie did not do well, but she had not written the script. If she were a male director, these venues would have reviewed her film based on her initial success. 

I decided to begin a website that would feature one long-form review a month of a film made by a female writer-director. My next review, which will publish this weekend, is about Dead Pigs. Last month's review was of Haifaa Al Mansour's A Perfect Candidate

I hope you will visit the website soon: https://www.awomanspicture.com/

May 30, 2021

Tulsa Massacre 100th Anniversary

A still shown in Tulsa Burning, Stanley Nelson's new documentary, of the Greenwood section of Tulsa.

African-American filmmaker Stanley Nelson has dedicated his career to documenting the history of Black Americans (and Native Americans) in such films as Freedom Riders (2010), the story of Black men and women, accompanied by whites, who boarded buses together in order to desegregate interstate transport, and Freedom Summer (2014), about the Mississippi voter registration drive in the summer of 1964. Most recently, his Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015) chronicled the formation and history of that political party, including its continued influence on the radical left. 

 In Tulsa Burning, Nelson depicts the present search for the bodies of Black men and women killed during that Oklahoma massacre in 1921, who were buried in mass graves, and the circumstances that led to the white mob violence that leveled the Greenwood section of Tulsa. Dubbed "Black Wall Street," it was one of many all-Black communities that were founded when African-Americans migrated north during Reconstruction. 

With a brilliant score by Branford Marsalis, scores of archival photographs, and interviews with the family members of those murdered at Greenwood, and other family members of Blacks who survived, Nelson provides a comprehensive picture of the massacre, its cover-up in the white press (the Black press reported it), and the lingering effects of the seizure of Black land after the massacre. The latter has led to a demand for reparations in Tulsa, as it has across the United States, in Black communities and among Native Americans. 

"In the News" (to the right of this column) provides links to Part I of my past on-camera interview with Stanley Nelson, and my print interview with Marco Williams, a Black filmmaker who executive produced Tulsa Burning.

May 5, 2021

Just Updated


                A still from Stanley Nelson's documentary, The Black Panthers, Vanguard of the Revolution (2016).

I have just updated a few non-working links, added to "The Craft of Filmmaking" and to "Recent Features." I hope readers will appreciate my new Biden-era "Save Us From the Centrists" list.

Jan 4, 2021

Best Quest Films of 2020

 

A still from Miss Juneteenth of mom and daughter, Turquoise and Kai.

 My list is quite short this year (fewer films got release dates), but these five depictions of the quest for identity are all outstanding. My criteria for choosing these movies is derived from my latest book Cinematic Quests for Identity: The Hero’s Encounter with the Beast (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). A key point in my theory is that heroes do not have a “coming of age” or a “middle-age crisis”—these patriarchal ideas are derived from Western literary tradition and so reflect the experience of men. Cinematic heroes embark on quests many times in their lives in order to search for meaning and live a conscious existence. 

Several of the films are proof of that lifelong search for meaning, and chronicle the childhood wounds that so often form the heroic character; these often inform the classic tales of the hero’s journey, in literature and at the movies. We are reminded this year that survival itself is an heroic task: in the wake of 300,000 souls in the U.S. and millions worldwide who have perished in the pandemic, is an ocean of sorrow and longing. Three filmmakers on the list this year, veterans Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne and relative newcomer Chloe Zhao are returnees; their work is consistently focused on the quest undertaken by largely uncelebrated heroes, disenfranchised by poverty, ageism or racism, or cultures marked by institutionalized violence. 

(Please note that the movies are listed in alphabetical order by title. I try to resist ranking beyond the compilation of this list. Excessive ranking is counter to the aim of film criticism, the purpose of which is to further an appreciation of the art form through a consideration of all movies.) 

House of Hummingbird, Kim Bora (Subtitled) 

This accomplished debut feature set in South Korea centers on Eun-hee, a young woman who confronts class discrimination, an abusive family and other more ordinary teenage woes. Then she suffers the sudden loss of the only person who understands her predicament. The film is not only a beautifully rendered quest film, it is a reminder of the terrifying fragility of youthful individuation. Excellent performances anchor what some may feel is a slow-moving story. Ozu fans will love it. (Scroll down for a longer review on Facebook.) 

Miss Juneteenth, Channing Godfrey Peoples (Appropriate for young audiences) 

The Beast of individuation, the equivocal figure in every hero’s journey, is sometimes a relative or guardian, and in the young, female quest, it is often a loving but overbearing mother. In this unusual film, both mother and daughter are grappling with their identity. Turquoise, the youthful mother, was almost a beauty queen and the recipient of a college scholarship, but now she ekes out a living as a waitress, worried about paying for Kai’s education. Under the delightful female gaze of this African-American writer-director, what emerges is a cinematic quest story in which a girl, on the verge of adulthood, sends her mom on a path to individuation. “Miss Juneteenth” is significant for other reasons, not the least of which is that the characters are Black—and that Turquoise’s nostalgia for her storied girlhood is so often portrayed as the sole province of white women. 

Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Liza Hittman (Appropriate for teens; family viewing to discuss matters of abortion, rape, male aggression) 

This film is ostensibly the story of a 17 year-old girl unable to get a legal abortion in her own state, and the journey she and her friend embark upon to get her to New York City—but Autumn’s tale is centuries’ old. Instead of a single Beast of individuation, Hittman substitutes a hostile environment rife with male aggression, turning Autumn’s rape and her subsequent individuation into an archetypal female quest. The silent acknowledgment that Skylar and Autumn share of the necessity to endure is devastating, and further proof, as if women needed any, of the neverending story of our loss of innocence. Hittman even touches upon the delicate matter of how mothers are sometimes complicit in crimes committed against their daughters. 

Nomadland, Chloe Zhao 

 Like Zhao’s first two films, this one is a conflation of documentary and narrative film, the title and the characters derived from Jessica Bruder’s eponymous book. The underlying political and social commentary in this movie informs all of the young filmmaker’s work, but here there is a certain severity that undermines the narrative. It is somewhat overcome by Zhao’s celebration of an uncommonly old female hero who leaves nothing behind when she embarks on her last adventure. Fern’s late-in-life search for meaning has been a long time in coming; all heroes harbor one terrible childhood wound that is revisited over the years so that they may continue to live consciously. Fern has always lived by her own rules, and now only one path allows her to maintain that independence. The individuation is bittersweet, but then so is senescence. 

Young Ahmed, Dardenne Brothers (Appropriate for teens; subtitled) 

These Belgian filmmakers have been writing and directing quest films for over 20 years; among their most memorable are “la Promesse” (1996) and “Rosetta” (1999) that feature young, working class heroes. “Young Ahmed” follows that tradition, portraying a 13 year-old boy who comes under the influence of an extremist imam. Ahmed goes on to taunt his family with his sudden misogyny and his strict adherence to the imam’s beliefs. When he must pass certain barbarous rights of passage, it becomes apparent that Ahmed is on the path to self-destruction. Male quests for identity are marked by violent transformation because under patriarchy men and boys, unlike women and girls, must prove themselves physically, in playground battles and fields of battle. This film, anchored by a terrific performance, is a potent warning to adults about how easily children are influenced, and often harmed, because their passions are as great as their potential for self-sacrifice.