7. Obvious Child (2014)
Many viewers of this film may be familiar with Jenny Slate’s work on Parks and Rec or The Kroll Show. Jenny Slate is one of the funnier comedic actresses out there and she knocks it out of the park in this role. The film deals with the decision to have an abortion after a one-night stand so there definitely is some gravity to the movie, but Jenny Slate’s brilliant observations and comic timing make this a memorable film.
Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is an aspiring comedian. Her everyday experiences as young woman serve up fare for her routines. No topics or off limits and Slate is a natural in this role. After a drunken one-night stand with a random guy at the bar (Max), Donna ends up pregnant and feeling ambivalent about how to handle it. She comes to the decision that she wants an abortion but still has to figure out how to deal with Max (Jake Lacy).
Jenny Slate is amazing in this movie. There’s a scene where she’s on stage talking about a recent break up that is so cringe worthy but exemplifies the level of talent and smart writing that this film has to offer. Gabby Hoffman and Richard Kind are great in the supporting cast. This is a rare film that takes such a sensitive subject matter and uses both humor and a delicate touch to examine what a person goes through while making this decision.
6. Wendy and Lucy (2008)
As the economic climate took a turn for the worse, Wendy and Lucy was one of the films along with Winter’s Bone and Frozen River that looked at American poverty in the realest sense. Michelle Williams gives a raw, stripped down performance as a woman down on her luck with only her dog to keep her company
Wendy (Michelle Williams) is on her way to Alaska for a summer job. Lucy, her dog, accompanies her. She is just barely making it financially when her raggedy car finally breaks down. Wendy can’t afford to get it fixed and at this point, the car was also serving as shelter in addition to transportation. She has to make some sacrifices on an already shoe string budget to make any progress.
Kelly Reichardt (Night Moves, Meek’s Cutoff) is one of the most important voices in cinema today. She has directed some powerful films. Wendy and Lucy has less dialogue than your typical Mumblecore film but the aesthetic is the same (low budget, personal filmmaking). Michelle Williams gives a standout performance in this movie and you will have a deeper appreciation for her after having seen it.
5. Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Many of us, given the opportunity, would love to have a moment back in time with a significant other. Just that brief, fleeting moment to say the right thing or make everything ok again. Safety Not Guaranteed gives us a glimpse as to what that process could look like. Starring Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass, this movie relies a lot more on dialogue and Plaza’s sardonic visage for laughs and pacing.
Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is an intern at a Seattle-based magazine. She has a chance to respond to an ad from someone who claims he has the ability to travel back in time. She travels to a small coastal town to meet with Kenneth (Mark Duplass) and is accompanied by Jeff, a staff writer and Arnau, another intern.
Jeff is more concerned with tracking down an old high school crush to try and revamp some romance and Arnau desperately wants to have his first romantic experience with a girl. Kenneth believes he has built a time machine and Darius is skeptical at first. As time goes on, it’s not clear whether Kenneth has really built a functional time machine or is completely bonkers.
This is a poignant film in its own way amidst the talk of time travel and other absurd moments. There’s always something that we wish we could do again but that doesn’t mean we can’t move forward in some kind of meaningful way. This movie offers up lots of laughs too, so the relationship aspect of it doesn’t get too heavy handed.
4. Half Nelson (2006)
Ryan Gosling has proven time and time again that he is more than just a pretty face. He is a tremendous actor and hasn’t shied away from challenging himself in some of the roles that he has taken (Drive, Only God Forgives). He does a great job in his performance as an inner city schoolteacher hiding his drug habit.
Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is teaches history and coaches girls’ basketball at a rough school in Brooklyn. He is a fantastic teacher and really challenges his students to go beyond rote memorization and think critically for themselves. In his personal life, Dan is a mess. He uses drugs and is sometimes high at work. One of his students, Drey. (Shareeka Epps) has formed a close relationship with him. She lives in a torn community though, and the lure of selling drugs will soon become hard to resist. Their relationship is less than conventional and the story that unfolds is one that you won’t forget.
This story is a scathing commentary on public schools in addition to the binary that human beings are either totally good or totally bad people. Dan is actually a brilliant teacher and potentially a positive force in Drey’s life if not for this character flaw. It is a gut-wrenching movie and one of Ryan Gosling’s finest performances. The soundtrack is done by Broken Social Scene and accompanies the movie in a tremendous way. This film is amazing.
3. Before Sunset (2004)
This is the second meeting between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). We first met the two nine years prior in Vienna. Jesse was a young writer who had a chance encounter with the young Parisienne Celine. Richard Linklater has demonstrated that he is the master of the long game (Boyhood, Before Midnight). Few other directors have been able to use actors throughout the course of decades and still have such continuity and depth.
Nine years after their first encounter in Vienna, Jesse is on the French leg of his book tour. He just happens to see Celine in the crowd at the tail end of the media frenzy at the bookstore. Celine just happened to see a photograph of him promoting the book for the tour.
This film is Mumblecore in the truest since as the entire story is about the relationship and dialogue between these two characters. The dialogue is scripted though but it has such a natural feel to it. The entire “Before” series has been such a wonderful effort from Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy. It would behoove the viewer to watch them in order but this movie stands great on its own.
2. Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)
This is a lyrical and wonderful effort by the always enigmatic Miranda July. Miranda July’s performance art project aesthetics are often featured in her films. The soundtrack is absolutely stunning and fits the film perfectly. This movie is filled with whimsy, absurdist comedy, and a raw, honest look at relationships.
Christine Jesperson (Miranda July) is an artist who believes her art project can attract what she desires most: love. Meanwhile, Richard Swersey (John Hawkes) a divorced shoe salesman and father of two fantastic sons, believes that he is ready for amazing things to happen to him. Richard’s youngest son is having an online romance with a grown woman while his older brother is figuring out how the birds and the bees work with some girls in the neighborhood. Everyone wants love and romance; they just go about it in unique ways.
The cinematography is great in this movie. There is a scene where Richard’s youngest son is explaining the way he believe love works that will leave you howling with laughter. John Hawkes has always been pretty solid in anything he’s been in and this is no different. Miranda July has a lot of projects going on in the past but hopefully we will see more full-length feature films from her in the future.
1. Frances Ha (2012)
Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig team up for one of the best films of 2013. Greta Gerwig (Hanna Takes the Stairs, Baghead) wrote and stars as the titular character in this film. She is a revelation. She plays the role of Frances with a lightness and gravity all at the same time and she is just phenomenal. Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) provides great direction but its Greta Gerwig who makes this film.
Frances (Greta Gerwig) is an apprentice for a prestigious dance company. She is debating about moving in with her boyfriend but has a much better relationship with her best friend and roommate, Sophie (Micky Sumner). When Sophie, who works for Random House, decides to move to Tribeca to further her career, Frances is left in a haze without a place to stay, no real relationship, and a middling career.
Frances is bereft in a sea of rich friends whose parents have made their way for them in Manhattan and she is painfully aware of this. Her friendship with Sophie is beginning to drift. Frances does what she can to make the best of a potentially dire situation. She moves in with Lev (Adam Driver), a mutual friend of Sophie and Frances. Once again, she finds herself occupying a space in which she doesn’t fit in fully but hangs on as best as she can.
This movie is almost like a revival of French New Wave but set in the states. It’s shot in black and white with a 1.85: 1 ratio. The black and white pallet almost seems to enhance the struggle that Frances goes through. The dialogue is about as organic as can be and the pacing is absolutely perfect. Nothing swoops in to save her. She has to figure this out on her own and that’s where Gerwig and Baumbach really pay careful attention to detail. They treat this character with the respect that she deserves by letting her make mistakes and put her self back together. This film is excellent.
Author Bio: Edwanike Harbour has a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is an avid film buff and currently writes for Madison Film Forum. When she’s not in front of a movie screen, she is usually listening to indie rock and reading Don Delillo novels.