Posted by Susan Doll on December 16, 2013
I should start calling my annual compilation of neglected indies, unknown documentaries, and mishandled and mistreated Hollywood films the “Lost Cause List.” Not only are these films hampered by the inequality and inadequacies of contemporary distribution and exhibition, but most lack the millions of marketing dollars routinely spent by the studios on the most mediocre of releases. Others suffered from the Monday morning quarter-backing by media pundits too eager to declare a film a failure if it does not live up to their box-office projections.
In his top ten list for Variety, critic Scott Foundas pondered how the best films of 2013 “managed to get made at all in a climate that has rarely been less hospitable to mid-budget, non-franchise movies by personal-minded auteurs. . . .” Each year, I am more disappointed by the output of the Hollywood studios and more fearful that the movies—once the art of the people—have been reduced to eye candy for adolescents. Here’s hoping that some of you will take the time to seek out some of the films on my list, or others like them.
The Go For Sisters. Director John Sayles, “the father of independent filmmakers,” is trying a different approach to reach potential audiences with this film. Interested viewers can pre-order the film now for streaming in April. Click here for information on how to pre-order the film.
It is no secret that the major studios either ignore the interests of women viewers or insult them by depicting female characters in shallow and sexist ways. Not only does The Go For Sisters star two women in the lead roles, but the women are played by African Americans, who are rarely offered a chance to headline a film. Lisa Gay Hamilton and Yolonda Ross star as two women who grew up as friends but chose different paths as adults. Ross plays a recovering addict who is surprised when her new parole officer turns out to be Hamilton. Hamilton enlists her former friend to help track down her wayward son, who has gone missing along the Mexican border. Edward James Olmos makes the most of his secondary role as a retired cop who remains a skilled investigator of the streets despite advanced macular degeneration. The studios would never cast two black women and a Hispanic senior citizen to star in a crime drama, though that is the not the main reason the film made my list. Sayles uses the crime genre to offer insights into the lives of the urban working class who struggle in this economy, while crafting a suspenseful drama with a strong sense of location.
Renoir. In art history classes, the work of painter Auguste Renoir is generally represented by his early work from the 1870s when the Impressionists scandalized the art world by defying painting conventions that had been in place since the Renaissance. But, Renoir continued to paint long after the Impressionists became accepted, right up until his death in 1919. By that time, he had returned to more conventional thinking regarding painting, including a renewed interest in the nude. Set in the Cote d’Azur in 1915, Renoir covers the end of the artist’s life when arthritis and old age made holding a paint brush so difficult that the brushes were tied to his hands. The story finds the Renoir household shaken up by the arrival of a new model named Andree. She not only inspires the elder Renoir to continue painting, but she helps son Jean to overcome his physical wounds and spiritual malaise, the result of his service in WWI. Impressionism and filmmaking are about the depiction and understanding of light. Director Gilles Bourdos used cinematic light in a way that reminds the viewer why the Impressionists were so fascinated with light and color. Available on Netflix.
Out of the Furnace. A couple of years ago, indie writer-director Scott Cooper attracted mainstream attention with Crazy Heart, starring Jeff Bridges as a washed-up country-western singer. The recently released Out of the Furnace, which stars Christian Bale and Casey Affleck, is his second feature film. Because this crime drama was given a wide release, it may seem like an odd inclusion on a list of overlooked movies. However, I don’t feel the film was given a fair chance. It lacked the marketing budget of Bale’s American Hustle, which is receiving more than its share of attention. Plus, Out of the Furnace was released between two publicity-hogging family blockbusters, Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Hobbit: Part 24; oh, sorry, Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug. On the Monday morning after it opened, Out of the Furnace was already declared a flop, which will dampen its box office potential. Urgh!
Set in a dying steel town in eastern Pennsylvania, Out of the Furnace reveals the impact of the 2008 economic collapse on the American working class. Already suffering because the steel industry and other manufacturing businesses have moved to foreign soil, blue-collar workers have become marginalized, living in dying towns with crumbling infrastructures, rampant unemployment, growing crime, and a dangerous drug culture centered around meth. Near the beginning of the film, a television blares Obama’s “change” speech from 2008, which convinced so many middle class and young voters that the future would be better and brighter. Cooper’s inclusion of this detail is a pointed reminder that blue-collar America has been abandoned by both political parties: There is no change coming for them. Out of the Furnace is a well-acted ensemble piece with an excellent use of location. Bale and Affleck sink so far into their roles that viewers will forget they are watching Batman and Ben Affleck’s little brother. But, it is Woody Harrelson’s wicked performance as a meth drug lord that will chill you to the bone. Still in theaters, though not for long.
The Forgotten Kingdom. Set in Africa, this terrific little film tells the story of Atang Zenzo, a street-smart punk from Johannesburg, South Africa who returns to tiny Lesotho to bury his father. Over the years, Atang has forgotten his roots as he and his father drifted apart. Once back in his home village, he can’t escape the traditions and memories, especially after reconnecting with a childhood sweetheart. When she inexplicably disappears, he journeys across Lesotho with an enterprising boy who is as affable and kindhearted as Atang is self-absorbed and reserved. Though set in Africa, the story of finding strength and identification in one’s roots is universal. The poignancy of the central idea should resonate with anyone who has ever returned home after too long a time. For more on this movie, visit the website.
Free Ride. This very low-budget indie isn’t scheduled for wide release until early 2014, but it has already played a couple of film festivals. I saw it when star Anna Paquin and director Shana Betz brought it to Ringling College for a preview for residents of Sarasota, Florida, where most of it was shot. Betz based this story about a single mother who gets caught up in the Florida drug trade in the 1970s on the experiences of her mother, who worked as a mule for a major drug lord in Ft. Lauderdale. Betz’s mother did not take drugs; she was one of a small group who picked up the product coming by boat from Columbia. Her reasons were financial; the drug runners paid a decent wage compared to the low-paying jobs available to women not lucky enough to go to college. While not romanticizing the drug trade, the film does not pass judgment on Paquin’s character, allowing viewers to make up their own minds about her. Free Ride was shot in 20 days on the proverbial shoestring budget, proving once again that good films are the result of story, direction, and performance—not the bells and whistles of special effects and CGI.
Casting By. This HBO documentary tells the story of Hollywood’s first independent casting director, Marion Dougherty, whose approach to casting shaped the position as it exists today. Picking up after the studio system fell apart in the 1950s, Dougherty is responsible for discovering many actors that were made famous in the movies of the Film School Generation—Jon Voight, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, Warren Beatty, and many others. Movie fans will love hearing Dougherty’s stories about actors we now consider stars and icons. The film is listed on Netflix but is not yet available. Save it in your queue to indicate interest.
The Hunt. Danish actor Mads Mikkelson, who recently starred in the title role of the NBC series Hannibal, plays a small-town everyman in this harrowing drama. His life is destroyed when he is falsely accused of molesting a neglected little girl, who makes a misleading statement in anger and confusion. The adults jump to conclusions out of guilt and fear and badger the girl with leading questions until she confirms their suspicions, even though she is lying. Director Thomas Vinterberg makes great use of the simple close-up to reveal what characters are thinking or feeling, allowing the gifted actors to do their jobs. Mikkelson won the Best Actor Award for his efforts at the 2012 Cannes International Film Festival. Available on Netflix.
Kill Your Darlings. If Miley Cyrus really wants to make audiences forget her past as Hannah Montana, she should forget twerking and take her cue from Daniel Radcliff. Radcliff shakes off Harry Potter with his impressive performance as young Allen Ginsburg. Based on the true story of murder among the beat generation before they became symbols of rebellion and nonconformity, Kill Your Darlings stars some of today’s most gifted actors—which is the main reason the film made my list. In addition to Radcliff, Jack Huston plays Kerouac; Ben Foster is William Burroughs; Michael C. Hall is David Kammerer; and Dane DeHaan is riveting as Lucien Carr, whose charisma and bohemian charm lead young Ginsburg down a dark, destructive path. I just saw this well-received indie, which took months to reach my neck of the woods; it could still be playing in art theaters around the country.
We Always Lie to Strangers. This crowd-pleasing documentary by young filmmakers AJ Schnack and David Wilson chronicles the lives of several families in Branson, Missouri, who are involved in the city’s prominent entertainment industry. Given the emphasis on the wholesome entertainment that is a hallmark of the area’s theaters, as well as the town’s location in the Bible Belt, Branson is an easy target for ridicule by outsiders and urbanites. But, the title is a clue to one of the key points of the film. Taken from a book of the same name by folklorist Vance Randolph, the title refers to the way Ozark residents used to exaggerate their accents and embellish their stories in order to play into the stereotype of the backwoods hillbilly. When Randolph asked about this, an old-timer noted they always lied to strangers who didn’t know any better, turning the tables on just who is ignorant of whom. So, those who approach this film with preconceived ideas of Branson as a town full of conservative hicks with unsophisticated viewpoints will be surprised. This is another film listed on Netflix as not yet available; save it in your queues to generate interest.
The Grandmaster. My favorite Asian filmmaker Wong Kar Wei directed this visually stunning biographical film about Ip Man, a legendary martial arts master of days gone by. The narrative is structured around Ip Man’s reflections about his unique life during some of China’s most turbulent times. Tony Leung, who has starred in some of Wong’s best films (Chungking Express, Happy Together, In The Mood For Love), smartly underplays as Ip Man, whose life changes when he is challenged by Grandmaster Gong Yutian of Northern China. During this encounter, Ip meets Gong’s skilled daughter, played by Zhang Ziyi, and the two develop a connection that transcends their separation by larger-than-life historical events.
Wong’s films often evoke a haunting nostalgia for the past. In The Grandmaster, Ip recalls his rich past life in pre-communist China that can never be the same, though parts of it is preserved through the passing down of martial arts to new generations. While the choreography by master Yuen Wo Ping will please fans of the genre, the breathtaking visuals by French cinematographer Phillipe Le Sourd makes The Grandmaster more than a martial arts movie. It’s a meditation on finding personal identity by preserving cultural identity. Available soon on Netflix.
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