Monday, December 30, 2013

Race, History, and Revolution in the Year's Best Films

(A version of this article originally appeared in the New Orleans Data News Newspaper)

We live in the era of Hollywood mega-budget sequels, where theaters are filled with stories based on comic books, children’s books, or a line of toys. Originality is rarely rewarded: this year, the top five grossing films, taking in about a billion dollar each in ticket sales, were all sequels. Even among award fare, there were major disappointments. Of these, the worst was The Wolf of Wall Street. Director Martin Scorsese delivered a film that was promoted as a critique of Wall Street excesses, but ended up celebrating and glamorizing some of the world's worst people, as star Leonardo DiCaprio seemed dedicated to making rape, misogyny, greed, and robbery seem charming and humorous. 

But a few filmmakers still dared to fight the trends. The most powerful films of the year were personal visions that explored themes of racism, imperialism, prisons, and revolution. Below are ten films (and a few more) released this year that you should see if you’re sick of watching the same stories again and again.

10. The We and the I – French director Michel Gondry creats fantastical worlds that feel handmade, from the near-future of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to the love song to the end of the VHS era Be Kind Rewind. But for The We and The I, Gondry goes for realism. Working with a diverse group of New York City high school students recruited from a community center in the Bronx, the filmmaker follows a day in the life of working class youth, filled with bullying, friendships, love, and most importantly a real portrait of lives rarely seen on screen.

9. An Oversimplification of Her Beauty – In this beautiful experimental film that blends animation with fiction and documentary, director Terence Nance tells a love story between two young Black bohemian artists. Nance plays himself (or a version of himself) in the film, while the object of his affection plays herself. The two of them shape the story of a budding romance from their perspectives. Brought to theaters with the help of a-list celebrities including Jay-Z and dream hampton, the film shows that it’s still possible to tell a love story in a new way.

8. The Punk Singer – In telling the story of musician Kathleen Hanna, a founder of the Riot Grrrl movement and an important figure in 90s alternative music, director Sini Anderson captures a moment of feminist uprising and consciousness-raising. Told through archive footage, present-day interviews, and lots of music, the film captures the energy of a moment that changed popular culture.

7. Free Angela and All Political Prisoners – With stunning archival footage, filmmaker Shola Lynch brilliantly recreates the 1972 trial of Angela Davis and its context within the early Black power movement. Any audience, whether they lived through the era or were born decades later, will be gripped by this thrilling documentary. Lynch, who also directed the 2005 film Chisholm ‘72: Unbought & Unbossed, finds rare footage and photos of key moments from Angela Davis’ early lectures to Jonathan Jackson’s ill-fated attempt to free his brother George Jackson.

6. Dirty Wars – Every American should know the stories of civilians killed in our name. Filmmakers Rick Rowley, David Riker and Jeremy Scahill take audiences into the US’ hidden wars, from drone attacks to special forces operations in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and beyond. Combining investigative reporting with thrilling filmmaking, this may be the most politically important film of the year.

5. 12 Years a Slave – British/West Indian filmmaker Steve McQueen made history with the powerful story of Solomon Northup, a free Black man kidnapped from the north and sold into slavery in Louisiana in 1841. McQueen never shies away from showing the torture and cruelty of American slavery, and has created a modern classic that makes clear the legacy of white supremacy in this nation. Appearing in nearly every minute of the film, Chiwetel Ejiofor is riveting.

4. Her – Director Spike Jonze is the most original filmmaker in the US. Through his films, he creates worlds that are at once totally different from our world, and also deeply connected. With Her, the director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation brings us a world that seems five minutes in our future, and also deeply connected to fundamental human truths about love, jealousy, desire, polyamory, and trust.

3. Upstream Color – Multi-talented (and perhaps obsessive) filmmaker Shane Carruth wrote, directed, produced, cast the actors, filmed, acted, edited, composed the music, and distributed this film. While having a crew to collaborate with might help other filmmakers, Carruth seems to thrive on control. In his second film (after Primer, a 2004 low-budget science fiction mindbender), he creates a beautiful mystery about memory, love, madness, addiction and loss that demands to be seen multiple times to unravel its secrets.

2. Something in the Air  - 1968 was a time of global revolutionary uprising, and Olivier Assayas beautiful film captures the moment in the lives of a group of anarchic French youth living at the barricades, fighting authority while also deciding what direction their lives will take. Assayas, who also directed 2010’s Carlos, a recreation of the life of controversial armed fighter Carlos the Jackal, (a revolutionary-to-some and terrorist-to-others), has created a film that feels as fresh and alive as the protests still gripping the world, from Tunisia to Brazil.

1. Fruitvale Station –Henry Glover, James Brissette, Ronald Madison, Adolph Grimes III, Raymond Robair, Kim Groves, Justin Sipp, Wendell Allen…The names of the young Black men and women killed by police goes on and on. But Hollywood and our media rarely explore these lives cut short by violence. By telling the story of Oscar Grant, a young man killed by transit officers on New Year’s Day 2009, first-time filmmaker Ryan Coogler and rising star Michael B. Jordan give weight to a life that was brutally cut short.

Even in this new era of digital distribution, from Netflix to Amazon, it's still hard for truly independent voices to be heard. Two of the best films I saw this year haven’t yet gotten US distribution. When I Saw You is a brilliant film by director Annemarie Jacir about a young boy displaced along with his mother from Palestine in 1967. Capturing both the pain of refugees and the steadfastness of liberation fighters, the film is a stunning accomplishment and needs to be seen widely. It's the best film I saw in 2013. I'm hoping it will gain distribution in 2014, so I can add it to my official top ten list next year. 

Bayou Maharajah is filmmaker Lily Keber’s loving and thorough documentary about the man who has been called “the best Black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.” The film is a gift for those that love New Orleans music, and a revelation for those less familiar. A brilliant film that I hope will be seen in theaters across the US in the coming year.

Some other great films that nearly made the list: David Riker (co-writer of Dirty Wars) also released The Girl, a film about the relationship that develops between a white girl in her 20s from south Texas and a young Mexican girl who’s mother died while attempting to cross the border. Stephen Vittoria’s film Long Distance Revolutionary, about imprisoned freedom fighter Mumia Abu-Jamal, explores the context of Abu-Jamal’s life through an all-star cast of interviews that includes Ruby Dee, Dick Gregory, Giancarlo Esposito, Cornel West, Alice Walker, Pam Africa, and many others. Blackfish is a moving expose of animal cruelty at Sea World amusement parks. Act of Killing is a devastating documentary about Indonesian torturers and killers who remain free from consequences for their actions. Side Effects is a smart and original conspiracy-thriller from director Steven Soderbergh. Gimme the Loot is a disarmingly sweet tale of two youths and a dream involving the best graffiti tag a New York kid could imagine. Park Chan-wook's film Oldboy was faithfully remade by Spike Lee this year, but the Korean director also made his English language debut with the disturbing Stoker, a dark thriller about murder and sex. Park's new film is better than Lee's remake. Fans of Danai Gurira (who plays Michonne in the show The Walking Dead) saw a more vulnerable side to the actor in her starring role in Andrew Dosunmu's Mother of George, a heartbreaking and visually powerful drama about Nigerian immigrants living in Brooklyn. Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity melds great storytelling with the latest in filmmaking technology.

There were too many excellent performances to mention here - many already mentioned above, such as Chiwetel Ejiofor's powerful lead performance. Among the big Hollywood award winners, American Hustle featured some of the best acting and design of the year, as it vividly recreated its late 70s/early 80s era in director David O. Russel's based-on-truth story of small time hustlers becoming entangled in a involving with the FBI, the mafia and several high-ranking politicians. Christian Bale (who costarred with Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, and Bradley Cooper) once again proved he is one of the most versatile actors alive, bringing the scent of desperation and sleaze to his character. Bale also starred in Scott Cooper's Out of The Furnace, an under-recognized film about white working class despair in the Rust Belt. The film also features Casey Affleck, whose burning hopelessness gives the film its power. Affleck also brought this despair and sadness to another of the year's best performances, as a Clyde Barrow-type trying to reunite with a woman he loves in David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints. Director Denis Villeneuve, whose 2010 film Incendies was among my favorite films of the decade, brought to life a drama about violence and obsession n the film Prisoners. Hugh Jackman, Viola Davis, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano and Jake Gyllenhaal gave some of their best work in this brutal film.

Not enough international films see distribution in the US, but among those that did were several classics. Cristian Mungiu's Beyond The Hills is an immersive drama of two young women caught between desire and the lives forced on them by class, social pressure, and religion. Cannes award winner Blue Is the Warmest Color also explores a relationship between two young women, but in a graphic, intimate and intense form that divided critics and audiences. Angels’ Share is a working class Scottish comedy from socialist filmmaker Ken Loach. The Grandmaster, combines the stunningly beautiful imagery Honk Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai is known for with an epic action film. After years of exploring love and desire in his films, The Grandmaster in some ways is a more mature return to 1994's Ashes of Time, one of the director's first films.

Finally, this year saw two truly bizarre but unforgettable films see relatively wide release. Spring Breakers is a delirious and deranged exploitation film starring James Franco and former Disney starlets Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens and directed by experimental filmmaker Harmony Korine. Depending on your taste, it's either the year's strangest film or the worst. I choose strangest. Also deeply weird is cult filmmaker Don Coscarelli's John Dies At The End, a surreal supernatural horror comedy thriller that is never predictable and often hilarious.

The only way for these films to continue to get made and seen is for viewers to support them. For every Thor or Iron Man you see, make the time for films that challenge the status quo.