6. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Interestingly enough, of all the films France could’ve selected for their International Feature nominee they chose “Les Misérables”. Another good film, but the best of France’s efforts this year was without a doubt “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” by director, Céline Sciamma. With this, Sciamma shows how she is the true master of relationship suspense. The story of “Forbidden Romance” is one that’s been told many times before. But very few films have managed to accomplish the restrained romance of two partners in the manner this does. The sexual tensions built between these two women in a period where their lesbian romance is unacceptable is unparalleled.
Much like the way in which Marianne (Noémie Merlant) delicately moves her brush to paint the portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the film too delicately places itself to slowly burn the feelings between the two and put everything into place in just the right order. There are not many romances as sensual as this, but it’s never done in the manner of overt sexuality like many other LGBTQ films have done. This is dealt with stunning maturity from the perspective of a woman director who knows how to handle this with grace, where the romance is built off of the artistic nature of breaking patriarchal traditions.
7. For Sama
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Documentaries are Pictures just as much as all the fictional films we get and should be nominated for the category. And yes, I know this is a likely winner for the Documentary category, but that branch is historically irrelevant and never does justice to these works. The greatest thing to come about with the invention of the camera is the ability to record history as its happening so that generations of people can watch and experience people, cultures, or even entire nations experienced that we weren’t there to experience ourselves. And that’s exactly what “For Sama” does.
For the lives of people like Waad al-Kateab, life is not so luxurious. In 2012, al-Kateab was studying at Aleppo University for a business degree. During this time was when her home country was in the midst of protests. Even when so many were leaving, al-Kateab stayed behind the fight for a better future for her country. The documentary is a stunningly intimate portrait of the causes and effects of these foreign regimes many of us have the privilege of not having to experience. This deserves to be recognized as one of the best films of the year.
8. Uncut Gems
I’ve often made the joke when talking about Adam Sandler’s films “Adam Sandler has had a very up and down career… well okay it’s been mostly down.” As hard as it’s been for me to say this over the years, I’ve always maintained that Sandler has a considerable amount of talent that needs the right vision and direction to sustain itself. Fortunately, he ran into Josh and Benny Safdie, the eccentric filmmakers of “Good Time”, and now we have something to behold.
Sandler plays Howard, a jeweler in New York who sells jewelry for thousands, gambles it away with bets he shouldn’t make, and gets in trouble because of money he owes to powerful big shots. The money he should be paying them he gambles away in his high-stake bets and everyone is sick of his s**t. He loses trust of everyone who surrounds him. His employees quit on him because of his recklessness, his family hates him because of how he’s abandoned them, and the big shots want him dead for being unreliable. Howard has no one to blame but himself, his addiction to gambling is what’s brought this upon him and now it’s all crashing down.
The feeling of watching “Uncut Gems” is frankly damn uncomfortable, you feel like you’re lost in a sea of low life with a massive headache. This is a film that’s excruciating to the senses, it’s loud, brash, and relentless. But it’s a spectacle to watch all the same. Addiction is a horrible thing that strips people’s humanity away from them as they become hopeless figures in a cruel world.
The film feels like something like a 70’s New York thriller where we’re dragged down into the streets of rough people and vulgar attitudes. And I welcome it, it’s been a while since I’ve seen New York depicted as the cesspool that it is so much of the time. And Sandler certainly earns his praise here, easily the performance of his career. The whole film is about value, whether it be the value of expensive jewelry, the value of money, the value of love and family, and where we place our values in these given areas. It’s not an easy watch, but if you’re going to subject yourself to the world these low life’s live in then you have to watch it and deal with it.
Jordan Peele is slowly becoming the new master of suspense and horror in the movie business while still maintaining the cunning humor of social satire he displayed so greatly previously. Much like his previous masterwork “Get Out”, he combines the realms of reality, absurdity, satire, and horror in “Us”. But in no way should this be roped into the comparison game with his previous film, this is a beast of a different nature. There’s much to be discussed for long afterwards with this film regarding race relations, the wealth divide, and concealing dark truths withing ourselves. All of which will certainly be discussed for some time to come. But even putting that aside, Peele shows his talent for ambition and taking daring risks most movies wouldn’t do
. This is the work of someone who has firm control over his vision, one that no one else can possibly replicate. Not to mention, Lupita Nyong’o gives a tour deforce performance that was shockingly snubbed. I guess this film suffered for being released in February, way too early for the Academy to remember or care with their short attention spans. But all of us are going to be remembering this for some time to come.
The comparisons to Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” were bound to happen with this film. But don’t be fooled, the story here couldn’t be any different. The themes of masculinity are in both, but “Waves” deals with masculinity of a different kind. The first portion of the film follows a young high school man named Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). He’s had the dream of being a wrestler since he was a child, being pushed by his father to achieve success and bulk up his physique to attain it. He’s put on pounds of muscle and has developed a brash attitude, fulfilling the role of a tough guy. This is shown even more when he’s practicing and roughs up his wrestling partner Luke (Lucas Hedges).
In a short amount of time he goes from a carefree boy, going out and partying till the early hours of the morning, to losing his wrestling career with an injury he suffers. It’s hard to take in, but even worse than this is the news of his girlfriend becoming pregnant. All of this is building up inside of him to a dangerous level. The pressure of his father, the loss of his aspirations, his already hot temper, and now the destruction of his relationship is forming into a hot mess of male insecurity. But then, the film pivots and becomes something else. We’ve seen a harrowing tale of self-destruction but now we see the aftermath where people heal from what has happened.
The focus is put on Tyler’s sister, Emily (Taylor Russell). The opening image we see in the film is that of Emily riding her bike in the autumn time with leaves falling around her, this sort of dreamlike look at young innocence. All of that is done away with by the time she takes over as the film’s central character, but we follow her as she reconnects that innocence she once had. Her father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), has to reconnect the relationship with his wife and family after failing his son.
Everyone is left to wonder what they could’ve done differently, it takes time, but pain is possible to overcome as we heal. “Waves” is a truly wonderful experience, much like how waves violently crash into the shore and then rolls back peacefully into the ocean, this film crashes with the worst of toxic behavior but soothes it over with rebuilding.