If you are a film lover, this is your season. Both the Independent Spirit Awards and the Oscars are this weekend. And while people will undoubtedly talk about the big movies, I love this time because we joyfully discover new filmmakers who are so inspiring that we get a creative burst from them.
We try to see every nominated film. Alas, the Oscars are so early this year, we aren’t going to quite make it. However, we are going to get really close, and we may keep going even after the show airs.
Yes, I hear the arguments about the rehashes and representation of “Hollywood,” as though Hollywood was a monolith. It’s not. The blockbuster movies are a very small sample of the creative work being done. And thanks to streaming networks, you can see movies that were made for under $500,000, first features and international films that might not make it to the big cineplexes.
You already know the big movies (and many of those, like “Parasite,” “The Farewell,” “Jojo Rabbit” and “1917,” we also thoroughly enjoyed), so sit back to hear a little bit about our favorite movies up for awards this weekend that you may have missed. For us, these are “must sees” if you love films.
Independent Spirit Awards Favorites
Up as one of the John Cassavetes Award contenders, “Burning Cane” was made for under $500,000 by Phillip Youmans. He was 17 when he made this movie, and it was his directorial debut. It reveals a life of struggle, alcoholism and domestic abuse in rural Louisiana. You feel very much like you are a fly on the wall because the movie’s filmmakers want you there. They want you to feel the struggle, and it is done brilliantly. Ava DuVernay has championed this film, and you can see it now on Netflix.
Give Me Liberty
This is a comedy, one of the few in the bunch, and the cast of characters feel real because there is true representation here – and the writing comes alive because of it. This is also a John Cassavetes Award contender. It follows a medical transport driver who tries to help his Russian grandfather get to a funeral. What that description doesn’t tell you is the world that is revealed during an average day. Immigration, the Black Lives Matter movement, building community for those who have physical and mental challenges are all part of the narrative. It never feels exploitative, and we get the absolute revelation of Lauren “Lolo” Spencer in her role as Tracy. It’s on Prime.
I’m not sure I can explain this one. Essentially, you are following a woman in rural Macedonia who raises bees for their honey using ancient techniques. But that doesn’t come close to revealing why this documentary is so wonderful – in fact, it’s so delightful that not only is it up for Best Documentary in the Spirit Awards, but it is up for Best Documentary AND best International Feature Film at the Oscars. From the challenges she faces with unruly neighbors to issues of aging and sustainability, this film covers a lot of ground. Loved it! We need a category just for this film. It’s on Hulu right now.
This documentary was tough. It takes you inside Aleppo. And you feel like you are inside Aleppo, both when the uprising begins and during the brutal Russian bombing campaigns in Syria. You spend a lot of time in a hospital, but what was particularly interesting to us is that you also saw life there. Actual life. You saw families making dinner during airstrikes. You saw people fall in love. You saw babies being born. Make no mistake, this is real horror, and it’s a story that people don’t really know because it has gotten so mired in politics. This doc is about the people. Originally a Frontline doc for PBS, you can see it there or grab it on Amazon.
“Diane” features an incredible turn by Mary Kay Place. It takes an unflinching look at addiction, depression and aging. You see a lot of tough choices, pain and progress. But it’s also a reminder that nobody gets out of this life alive. It’s up for the Best First Feature award, and Ms. Place is up for Best Female Lead. You can catch it on Hulu and Prime.
“The Climb” was such a surprise for me. It was also up for Best First Feature, and we’re looking forward to the follow-up already. This takes bromance to the next level. It’s funny, it’s subversive, and it’s challenging. You don’t always like one of these guys, and that’s okay. It feels real, the dialogue draws you in, and we were glad we made the journey. It doesn’t get released until the spring, but keep it on your radar.
Up for Best First Screenplay and Best Female Lead for Hong Chau, this film is about a young, shy Asian-American kid who befriends a recently widowed Korean War vet. The young boy and his mom have temporarily moved in next door to clean out the house of her sister who has recently died (and suffered from hoarding). This is another one that takes a look at aging and family. It hit me particularly hard because Brian Dennehy’s performance is powerfully understated. The young boy struggles with finding friends he can relate to, and Dennehy’s character struggles with the loss of his wife and dramatic changes that are occurring with his friends. This isn’t out yet, but I’ll give you guys a shout when it is.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to see “Honey Boy” given the subject matter, but I’m glad I did. It’s difficult. It hits poverty, addiction, family and abuse topics square on the nose. But it’s that unflinching look and the knowledge that this is at least a partial reflection of Shia LaBeouf’s own experience, that make this film work. The fantastic performances don’t hurt. I believe it is coming soon to Prime.
Alfre Woodard hits this role out of the park. As you may have guessed from the title, it is about a warden working with death row inmates as they await clemency – and, often, don’t get it. It’s a grim look at executions in America, and Woodard’s inner turmoil makes this one unforgettable. It’s not a fun night of viewing, but it is important and powerful. Check your movie theaters for “Clemency,” but as it was released at the end of December, it may be heading to streamers soon.
Oscars 2020 Favorites (not also nominated at the Spirit Awards)
All 5 of the Live Action Short Films
We were lucky enough to see these at a screening at the ArcLight. We came away absolutely in awe of how much of an impact a short movie with a limited budget can make. We couldn’t choose our favorites. From a disaster-waiting-to-happen orphanage in Guatemala to a harrowing drive in France, these movies instantly engaged with incredible storytelling, difficult topics and dazzling (and, often, understated) performances. They felt real, challenging, and like films I hope to get made. Let’s raise a glass to Live Action Short Films!!
All 5 of the Documentary Short Subjects
Again, all of these films are worth seeing. Much like the longer docs, the short documentaries shed light on situations around the world that I’m grateful to discover. As with the Live Action Shorts, some of these tackle difficult subjects. Be prepared for that. And go anyway. As for favorites, we had a tough time choosing our faves, but we give a slight edge to “Learning to Skateboard in a War Zone if You’re a Girl” (which you can see on Hulu) and “St. Louis Superman.” But if you can watch them all in a block screening at the ArcLight (or your local theater), do it!
DANG! We almost didn’t get to this, but I’m so glad we were able to screen it. It’s a Polish film, and like last year’s Cold War, it will stay with you. Pitch perfect performances, an engaging storyline about redemption, forgiveness, community and change. It’s difficult, there is some violence in the juvenile detention facility, but it is mostly contained and not gratuitous. When the film is in release at the end of February and beginning of March in the US, check it out.
Late Entry: The Cave
As we continue to pursue our quest to see all of the live action movies and documentaries before Oscar Sunday, we watched “The Cave” last night. This documentary also takes place in Syria (specifically Eastern Ghouta), but largely follows the work of the women in a hospital that must move underground in order to survive the regime and the Russian bombing campaign. It’s astonishing to see people mad that the manager of the hospital and prominent doctor is a woman when she is saving lives — but it’s a reality that all of the women there face as they race to save those trapped there, including those who face a terrifying chemical attack.