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OPINION | CRITICAL MASS: Best films since March cover multitude of humanity

by Philip Martin | August 1, 2021 at 2:57 a.m.
Brandy and Nicolas Cage in “Pig”

This is the first day of the eighth month of 2021.

Which means we are well past the halfway point of the year; which means that an essay about the best films of the first half of the year is overdue, right?

Well, sure, but this hasn't been a normal year. The pandemic, which we only thought was waning, caused the Academy Awards ceremony — which usually takes place in late February or early March — to be pushed to April 25. Films released as late as Feb. 28, 2021, were eligible for awards.

For the purposes of this piece, we're going to consider those movies — "Minari," "Nomadland," "The Father" — to be last year's films. This is about the best movies released since March.

With that qualification out of the way, let's get into the next one. I'm still behind on my movie watching. The rhythms of the movie year are such that I watch most movies in the year's last quarter, when the studios start to send out their "For Your Consideration" screeners. I don't much worry about keeping up on a week-to-week basis; it's impossible. And if I'm not specifically reviewing a film, I tend to watch what I want to watch until professional obligations demand otherwise.

This means I haven't seen "F9: The Fast Saga" yet (because of its two-hour, 23-minute running time), but probably will. I have seen "Black Widow," which was a minor disappointment.

With those caveats in place, here's the rundown on the best movies of 2021 so far, in the order in which they come to mind:

"PIG"

Delicate, beautiful and completely unexpected, Michael Sarnoski's debut feature is a showcase for a rehabilitated Nicolas Cage, who delivers an affecting and restrained performance as Robin, a former celebrity chef turned hermit.

Robin has been living in the Oregon wilderness foraging for truffles after retreating from the Portland restaurant scene. His only contact with the outside world is through Amir (Alex Wolff), a hustler on the periphery of culinary culture who arrives every week to collect Robin's harvest and deliver him supplies.

One night an armed gang breaks into Robin's cabin, knocks him unconscious and steals his prized truffle-sniffing pig. Rob and Amir then embark on a journey into the subterranean depths of Restaurant World in an attempt to recover the valuable animal, who is more than a business associate to Robin.

While the trailer might mislead you into thinking the film is an art-house variation of "John Wick," the truth is the movie is an alluring meditation on the things we could and ought to do without that owes more to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (for whom a critical location is named) than to any current movie franchise.

There is a visual poetry to "Pig," and while it's a film that many will perceive as slow and less than action-packed, it carries a potent charge. It's playing theatrically now.

"GUNDA"

The stars of “Gunda”
The stars of “Gunda”

Another movie about an extraordinarily charming pig on this list — the aforementioned "Black Widow" also features a clever pig — Russian filmmaker Viktor Kosakovskiy's documentary has been decried in certain circles as vegan propaganda. Yet it is undeniably true, unmarred by any voiceover, much less one re-created by artificial intelligence. Mostly it consists of gorgeous black-and-white footage of a massive Norwegian sow (the title character) as she goes about the business of tending to her impossibly cute piglets.

The film introduces a couple of U.K. cows and a squad of Spanish chickens (when I screened it for a class, one student accurately noted that the chicken footage looked eerily like the soldiers in Oliver Stone's "Platoon" gingerly exploring the jungle), before returning to the unmistakable star of the production, and ending with one of the most devastating final five minutes ever committed to film.

There is a luster and a gleam to the imagery, shot by its director and cinematographer Egil Haskjold Larsen, in a high-definition style that is at once hyper-realistic and a fantastic silver-toned dream.

"Gunda" was given a theatrical release earlier this year; it's available to rent and buy through iTunes.

"THE KILLING OF TWO LOVERS"

Sepideh Moafi and Clayne Crawford in “The Killing of Two Lovers”
Sepideh Moafi and Clayne Crawford in “The Killing of Two Lovers”

Clayne Crawford is in Ray McKinnon's exquisitely subtle TV series "Rectify" (2013-2016) playing Ted "Teddy" Talbot Jr., a small-town Georgia go-along-to-get-along good ol' boy who initially presents as the show's sole stereotype. But over the course of the show's four seasons, Crawford imbues a character who could have been taken for a hateful, ineffectual, misogynistic clown with genuine soul and the offbeat humor of a broken man rebuilding himself through applied decency and atonement. Rarely has comic relief been so affecting.

He manages a similar trick in Robert Machoian's "The Killing of Two Lovers," which begins with his character David, a gun in his hand, standing over the bed where his estranged wife (Sepideh Moafi) sleeps with her new boyfriend. There's a slender, fraying thread of sanity that connects him to the real world, and maybe it's only the thought of his four children sleeping elsewhere in the house that prevents him from making this a different kind of movie.

Marriages are strange compacts, and when you compound the situation with children and residual longings and resentments, the complications backlash. David is a throwback male trying to pick apart what most would regard as a hopelessly knotted relationship, and Crawford's tender-yet-jangly performance feels so real you worry he might hurt himself. And Machoian respects his audience, delivering a marriage story from the other side of the tracks with restraint and precision. This is how suspense is done.

"The Killing of Two Lovers" is available for rental on Apple iTunes, Google Play Movies, Amazon Prime Video and other streaming platforms.

"SUMMER OF SOUL (Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)"

Nina Simone in “Summer of Soul”
Nina Simone in “Summer of Soul”

This Hulu documentary by Roots drummer and renaissance man Questlove has been given plenty of attention, to the point that there's been a minor backlash from those who want more uninterrupted musical performance and less contexturization.

But with all due respect to the "more platter/less chatter" crowd, the result is less important as a concert film than it is as a reminder that even in 1969 there was a clear cultural apartheid at work in our society.

You've heard of Woodstock, but had it not been for the fortunate rediscovery of 40 hours of footage shot on spec by a three-camera crew headed by TV veteran Hal Tulchin — who had hopes of producing a broadcast special — the Harlem Cultural Festival, which Tulchin branded the "Black Woodstock," would have remained an obscure rumor.

But it did happen, Questlove's film insists, and the evidence is here in the form of a 19-year-old Stevie Wonder jabbing at Motown founder Berry Gordy with a version of the Isley Brothers' "It's Your Thing," their kiss-off song to the label, which had been a hit earlier that year. Here's Mavis Staples and the rest of her family, and Sly Stone and the rest of his. Here's an incandescent and clearly angry Sonny Sharrock strangling his guitar. (Jimi Hendrix was turned down by festival promoters.)

Tulchin couldn't get anyone interested in his project, so the tapes sat around for decades. They could have been exploited in any number of ways. There were hours of stand-up comedy by the likes of Moms Mabley, who appears briefly in this film, and each of the five free concerts that comprise the festival had a slightly different theme — it might be nice to present each of the shows verite-style in a deluxe DVD format.

But we review the movie that's made, not the ones that might have been. "Summer of Soul" is rousing and thought-provoking and a welcome jolt to the system. Bravo.

"Summer of Soul" is in theaters and streaming on Hulu.

"MOFFIE"

Nicholas Van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer) in “Moffie”
Nicholas Van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer) in “Moffie”

The title is an Afrikaans slur, used to describe a gay man. Like similar words deployed in English, it can be almost affectionate in some contexts, but in South African director Oliver Hermanus' dry and tempered story of a closeted 16-year-old drafted into his mandatory military service in South Africa in 1981, at the height of apartheid, it is flung with violence and fear.

Nicholas Van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer) is the gay conscript, undergoing the usual trials and tribulations of basic training, which allows for a natural and not entirely unreasonable comparison to Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" to be made. Nicholas is different from the other white male teenagers in his company in ways other than his sexuality; while his name is Afrikaans, his culture is British, a fact that opens him up to ridicule.

More dangerous, however, is his unacknowledged homosexuality, a crime for which he'd be lucky to get off with a beating. And as there might be in any random gathering of young men, there is one (Dylan Stassen, played by Ryan de Villiers) for whom the attraction is mutual.

Based on the autobiographical novel by Andre Carl van der Merwe, "Moffie" has a persistent feel of time and place, and the near total absence of Black characters suggests that for most white South Africans in 1981, Black people were pretty much invisible. A scene that does feature a Black man is demoralizing and likely accurate.

"Moffie" is streaming on Hulu.

"FINAL ACCOUNT"

Beginning in 2008, British documentarian Luke Holland began seeking out former Nazis and ordinary Germans old enough to remember the war and the Holocaust, capturing their reminiscences. He conducted and filmed more than 300 interviews for "Final Account: Third Reich Testimonies." He wanted to get this dying generation on the record, to have the bystanders and the clerks explain themselves in their own words.

This 94-minute film is an almost too-brisk theatrical distillation of the project that demonstrates that those explanations are simply inadequate. Again and again, you hear them deflect.

As one of the more thoughtful interviewees puts it, the responses break down into three basic categories: "I didn't know," "I didn't take part," and "If I had known, I'd have acted differently." They didn't know. They were only doing what they were told to do. They had no choice but to act as they did. They did nothing.

That there are no heroes here is not surprising. What is chilling is the scant shame some of these people seem to feel. It's hard not to wonder how different they are from ourselves — or how much like them we might at base be.

"Final Account" is available for rental on Apple iTunes, Google Play Movies, Amazon Prime Video and other streaming platforms.

"NO SUDDEN MOVE"

The other night we rewatched Peter Yates' underappreciated "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," a suspenseful 1973 movie about a low-level, mob-connected gun runner (Robert Mitchum) who's looking at going away for a stretch in a federal penitentiary and has to consider whether or not to cooperate with police and prosecutors to lessen his sentence.

It's a great film, filled with rich, understated performances, cool cars and a whiff of fatalism that might have drifted over from the French New Wave. It's the sort of movie over which people grow nostalgic, lamenting that they don't make them like that anymore.

Except sometimes they do. Witness Steven Soderbergh's period thriller "No Sudden Move," which is playing on HBO Max. Set in 1954, with a plot that feels like a bebop version of Elmore Leonard, the film follows a small-time ex-con named Curt (Don Cheadle) who takes on what he thinks will be a simple strong-arm job in exchange for a quick $5,000. But when he and the rather dim partner he's been saddled with (Benicio Del Toro) get their hands on a valuable document, they decide to jack up the price.

A political allegory disguised as a heist film, the film is clever in a lot of ways, some of them suspect. Soderbergh's use of a fish-eye lens is distractingly fascinating, and if you feel the need to keep a firm grip on the plot you should take notes, but the overall effect is exhilarating. And actor-director Bill Duke shows up, in a small role, to bless the confection.

"THE SPARKS BROTHERS"

Edgar Wright's loving documentary about the cult band Sparks (brothers Russell and Ron Mael and whomever they're collaborating with at the time) is both a brief for the importance of the band and a witty exploration of the sort of obsession that causes people to embark on dubious labors of love such as full-length documentaries on obscure bands.

Seen one way, it's a fairly straightforward chronological dive into the band's discography, a primer on Sparkian history, but it's enlivened by insightful and witty commentary by the brothers as well as starry-eyed testimonials from fans like Flea, Weird Al and Mike Myers.

What you will not learn from this film is much about the private lives of the Maels (though Russell apparently was at one time intimate with the Go-Go's Jane Wiedlin) and if you come in appalled by their weirdo music, there's not much here that's going to change your mind. It is difficult to imagine anyone, no matter their predisposition to the band and its music, coming away with anything but affection for the Maels as people and respect for them as artists.

"The Sparks Brothers" is available for rental on Apple iTunes, Google Play Movies, Amazon Prime Video and other streaming platforms.

If you insist of filling out a Top 10 list, I'd add the Netflix film "I Care a Lot," and Dutch horror satire "The Columnist," available for streaming through all the usual sources.

Email: pmartin@adgnewsroom.com

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