These picks embody everything awards season isn’t.
It’s early March and the engines of awards season have finally come to a grinding halt. If you pay any kind of attention to the Golden Globes, the Oscars, and the rest of their ilk, you’re probably feeling a little exhausted right now — in fact, even if you don’t intentionally follow them, it’s likely you feel the same way if you’ve spent any time at all on the internet, watching TV, or otherwise engaging with the media in the last few months. During this period, the cinematic conversation has steadily risen to a peak congestion point with the growing buzz of frontrunner/dark horse chatter and a relentless onslaught of aggressive PR campaigns. The customary glut of December releases hasn’t helped either.
Awards season isn’t exactly conducive to a healthy movie-going diet, as the race to see as many nominees as possible will have you stuffing yourself with whatever mixed bag the Oscars have put on the menu this year. Movies, like all art, are subjective, it’s true, but there’s no denying that the films that dominate the conversation during awards season tend to fit a certain loose archetype: aside from rare indie gems like Moonlight, awards season favorites aren’t exactly low-key affairs, whether due to the attachment of blockbuster directors and A-list casts, or because they’re snazzy productions of lofty dramatic premise.
As ever, a balanced diet is key, so we’ve compiled a selection of movies from the past year or so that are, generally speaking, the antithesis to the type of movies that tend to be paraded through awards season. Rest assured that the following recommendations – introspective, thoughtful, and therapeutic as they are – all come with the promise of quality, despite not being recognised by the Oscars. Let them be the antidote to the cinematic bloating that this time of year brings:
This quiet gem – South Korean director Kogonada’s debut – is a love letter to the Midwest’s architectural jewel, Columbus, Indiana, as much as it is an ode to the close bonds that can spring up miraculously between total strangers. Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho play the latter pair, who initially find kinship in their mutual love of architecture before forming a closeness of the kind that’s deeply intimate without ever contriving to be a romance. There’s a sense of mindfulness to Kogonada’s direction that encourages you to sit, look and feel; to treat the movie as a naturalistic experience rather than as an explicitly dramatic structure. Columbus is something like Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy in this respect, although it’s less reliant on conversation as fuel thanks to a constant stream of beautifully crafted frames by cinematographer Elisha Christian.
Directed by John Carroll Lynch of Norm Gunderson (Fargo) fame, Lucky stars the late, great Harry Dean Stanton as an aged confirmed bachelor grappling with both the fading health that comes with your twilight years and the kind of philosophical crises that usually hit in your twenties. There’s not a mawkish note to be found in Lucky, and still it’s impossible not to be endeared towards Stanton’s titular character, as the actor plays him with such affection-inducing nuance: Lucky is as crabby as he is genial, and as comically dry as he is compassionate. Wizened as he is, a deep, wide-eyed spirituality is betrayed in his interactions with the rest of the movie’s stellar cast – Beth Grant, Tom Skerritt, and the David Lynch included – as they discuss subjectivity, souls, and “the end.” It’s not just because Lucky is one of Stanton’s final films that you’ll wish it was longer; it’s a genuine pleasure to be held in the palm of a movie as contemplative and as warm as this.
A Quiet Passion
At the heart of Terence Davies’ compassionate biopic about Emily Dickinson is a sense that the English director feels a strong sense of affinity with the reclusive poet, despite their temporal and geographical distance. But Davies never glosses over the specificities of Dickinson’s life to make her time and place-specific story relatable to him or to modern audiences; the duties of the historical biopic are never shirked, and as such the gendered nature of Dickinson’s life in mid-19th century America is treated with due rigor (incidentally, a word Dickinson skewers in one notable scene). The film shows us that her passion isn’t so much “quiet” as it is straitjacketed by the decorum of the day in both senses of the word (Emily’s father only allows her to write late at night). Watching A Quiet Passion does require viewers to be prepped and receptive to its literary approach – something I wasn’t on first watch – but there’s considerable payoff in being open to its early wordier scenes. In a standout performance in the lead role, Cynthia Nixon is the engine that ensures A Quiet Passion is, despite its lack of “action”, always locomotive, never static.
God’s Own Country
Yorkshire, the setting of God’s Own Country, is cinematically synonymous with a wild un-tameness; just think of the tousled, brutal landscapes of The Secret Garden, Wuthering Heights or any other Brontë adaptation. In this film, the debut from writer-director Francis Lee, the rural county seems to have imbued one of its sons, Johnny (the BAFTA-nominated Josh O’Connor), with a similar resistance to being tamed, as he drunkenly lurches from one one-night-stand to the next. When family tragedy places the burden of the family farm on Johnny’s shoulders, however, he comes into contact with a Romanian migrant worker who has as calming an influence on him as he does on the farm’s unruly sheep. Theirs is a fraught romance, but understatedly so, with a lot of the dramatic work here being done in silence by O’Connor and Alec Secareanu (as Johnny’s lover Gheorghe). For its central romance and rural setting, God’s Own Country has been dubbed Yorkshire’s answer to Brokeback Mountain, but such a comparison is too easy to make to be of any real worth. Better to let God’s Own Country speak for itself.
This is another addition to the remarkable post-Twilight career path chosen by Kristen Stewart (last year’s Certain Women being another standout). A beguiling genre hybrid of murder mystery, ghostly horror, and slow thriller, Personal Shopper sees the ever-understated Stewart play Maureen, an American in Paris whose job it is to source couture pieces for a supermodel client. Maureen possesses an ear for psychic activity on top of her eye for fashion, and it’s the spirit of her recently deceased twin brother, Lewis, that she thinks is behind all those smashed glasses and running faucets. Speaking of auras, there’s an atmosphere to this movie that will delight fans of Hitchcock, especially when Maureen starts receiving menacing texts from a sender whose identity we’re never quite sure of. Curiously, grief is something of an otherworldly phantom instead of a sober reminder of the limits of life in this film (from writer-director Olivier Assayas), which ends on a note that would surely have pleased Freud.
I Am Not a Witch
This BAFTA-nominated feature debut from Welsh-Zambian director Rungano Nyoni strikes notes both farcical and grim. Set in a village in Zambia, I Am Not a Witch is a tragicomic look at the phenomena of witch camps, exile sites for those accused of witchcraft. One such resident is Shula (Maggie Mulubwa), an eight-year-old girl whose reticent introversion condemns her to a life in the company of other convicted witches, all of whom are senior women. Cast out of normal society, she becomes both an oracle and an oddity: there to be gawped at by Western tourists during her downtime from performing official duties for a comically unsavory state official, who forces Shula onto chat shows and has her magically “discern” the guilty party from police lineups. While magic plays a role in modern culture across the African continent, the sorcery Shula is being accused of isn’t that sort of witchcraft. Nyoni’s movie shines a light on the arbitrary practice of pronouncing people (mostly women) as “evil” witches, and as such, its fusion of opposite genres is apt for capturing people’s conflicting responses to the film’s reality. There are magical realist delights to be had here, and visual ones, too: cinematography by David Gallego, who shot Embrace of the Serpent, is stunning and ruminative, in keeping with the tone of the movie’s inscrutable protagonist.
Beach Rats has much in common with Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight: both feature young men as protagonists, both explore the tension between performative hyper-masculinity and semi-closeted homosexuality, and both set critical scenes on beaches. Despite these thematic and surface-level similarities, though, Beach Rats provides an assuredly different viewing experience. In a standout debut performance, British actor Harris Dickinson plays Frankie, a Brooklyn boy who ogles girls by day and hooks up with older men in the late hours of the night. There’s great sensitivity in the way Eliza Hittman directs Beach Rats, allowing Frankie to earnestly follow his own impulses without judging the way he follows them. Cinematographer Hélène Louvart beautifully lenses the whole thing in keeping with the naturalistic, quasi-erotic tone of the narrative, while Dickinson makes the movie with a mellowly dramatic performance that earned him a place on our list of 2017’s best breakout performances.
Like Lucky, Princess Cyd doesn’t subscribe to the idea that your interior journey ends at a certain age. Stephen Cone’s movie is ostensibly a coming-of-age story, although it could be just as much about thirty-something novelist Miranda (Rebecca Spence) as her teenage niece Cyd (Jessie Pinnick). Cyd, whose mother passed away years ago, joins Miranda at her house one summer, after having never really spent much time with her before. Prizing true-to-life complexity, Cone sensitively explores the muted tensions between the women, the older of which is confidently celibate, while the younger is just as breezily assured in her own burgeoning queer sexuality. Neither of their preferences is given special weight over the other. It is in this sense that Princess Cyd is more enlightened than most: it espouses an all-embracing philosophy that sells us on the harmony-producing power of developing a sense of comfort within one’s own self, instead of looking for inner peace in the conformity of everyone else.
Movies that star non-professional actors possess a special allure: they promise an un-fake-able air of naturalism that comes from the new actors not being exposed to received wisdom about their craft. Brooklynite grocery store worker Menashe Lustig brings that kind of unencumbered confidence to Menashe, in which he plays the eponymous lead. The realism of his performance is undoubtedly also due in part to the fact that the plot is loosely based on his own life: like screen Menashe, the actor is a widower who lost custody of his young son because of a Hasidic interpretation of a verse from the Torah. It’s hard not to draw parallels here between Menashe and One of Us, Netflix’s recent documentary exploring similar family crises in Brooklyn’s Hasidic community, especially since both treat their subject matters with great tact. Appropriately, director Joshua Z. Weinstein (who usually helms documentaries) keeps the camera in strictly observational mode. Whether by force of habit or intentional creative decision, it’s the right style for this subtle story, as it allows Menashe and newbie child actor Ruben Niborski (as Menashe’s son Rieven) to flourish without obstruction in comic and mournful scenes alike. If you’re the type of movie-goer swayed by an A24 credit, then you have one more reason to see Menashe.
Our Souls at Night
By definition, movies about older people aren’t going to feature a lot of physical action, so the responsibility for making films like Our Souls at Night captivate its audience shifts to other departments. Thankfully, there are no worries here, both because of a wisely sober script from the writing team behind romances The Fault in Our Stars and (500) Days of Summer that instils the movie with cross-generational appeal, and because Jane Fonda and Robert Redford are totally enthralling as two widowed neighbors who yearn for the simple comforts of companionship again. It’s not just the extensive careers of both veteran leads that make their performances so riveting, either – it’s that Fonda and Redford have the kind of magically genuine rapport you just can’t invent (the two co-starred in three movies prior to this, most notably in ‘60s flicks The Chase and Barefoot in the Park). It’s a real joy to witness chemistry this natural.