Identifying Features (2020) Director: Fernanda Valadez Writers: Astrid Roundero & Fernanda Valdez
When two boys head out alone into the world, leaving their mothers behind, you know you’re in the realm of fairy tales. What makes Mexican filmmaker Fernanda Valadez’s new drama so powerful is that she marries the stark emotions and visual imagery of myth with the harsh reality of illegal border crossings between Mexico and the United States. The story centers on Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández), who searches for her teenage son, Jesús, who has gone missing after leaving his rural Mexican hometown with a friend to find work in the U.S. Within the film’s first five minutes, we learn a crucial piece of information that sets Magdalena on her journey. Normally I would feel fine about spoiling that plot development, but the opening scenes of Identifying Features were so immediately compelling that I don’t want to dilute their power.
Now that Biden is in office and there is an actual plan in place to tackle the pandemic, it feels like we can finally look forward to things again. I’m hoping we’ll be back in the theaters by this fall, and maybe we can see some of these upcoming movies on the big screen. But in the meantime there are plenty of small-screen debuts to enjoy . . .
Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar– Available for rental at a premium price Feb 12 Director: Josh Greenbaum Writers: Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig
Kristin Wiig is one of those people who can make me laugh with just a facial expression, so I’m in for this no matter what. As a bonus, it’s written by Wiig and her co-star, Annie Mumolo, who play middle-aged besties, Barb & Star. The two gals decide to leave their Midwest town for the first time to take a vacation in Florida. Hilarity ensues and there’s also an evil villain somehow? Whatever! It looks fun.
Pieces of a Woman (2020) Director: Kornél Mundruczó Writer: Kata Wéber
For the first half-hour of Netflix’s “Pieces of a Woman,” my husband and I were nervous wrecks, sitting on the sofa in our living room. It was the opposite of “Netflix and chill,” more like “Netflix and re-live traumatic experiences.” During the movie’s extended prologue, Vanessa Kirby and Shia LeBeouf play Martha and Sean, a young couple in the midst of a home birth, with Kirby convincingly going through labor, not just the terrified/ecstatic screams we’re used to seeing dramatized on screen, but the uncertain and confusing middle stages of labor, when unexpected physical sensations and emotions begin to arise. The entire birth sequence is shot in one unbroken take, which heightens the feeling of intimacy and vulnerability, especially as things begin to go wrong.
This is just a short post to say that I’m getting rid of star ratings on my reviews. I tried them for a year, and I don’t like them. They annoy me and give me stress and end up feeling kind of meaningless because so many movies end up with 3 or 3.5 stars. And then there’s the problem of the five-star rating. I can’t decide what it means to me–masterwork? One of the best movies of a particular year? A personal favorite? Clearly I overthink the stars. I use them on letterboxd and they can be useful when sorting through a big group of movies. If you really want to know my star rating, you can check it there.
I’m starting a monthly newsletter. Every month you’ll get 4-5 short and sweet film recommendations sent to your inbox. My goal is to pick movies for a variety of moods, whether you need a low-stakes weeknight watch, an escape to a beautiful landscape, or if you’re ready to dig into a complex historical issue. Movies will be a mix of new and old, with an emphasis on female creators. The idea is to help you sort through the endless streaming content to find the movies that you might not have noticed.
Please give it a try, and let me know what you think. This first newsletter will be sent this week. You can sign up by following the link below:
Beyond The Visible (2019) Director: Halina Dyrschka
In the winter of 2018, I was part of the record-breaking crowds that swarmed the Guggenheim Museum to see Hilma af Klint’s mystical and enigmatic paintings. Like most museum visitors, I had never heard of the Swedish artist before her retrospective at the Guggenheim. Although af Klint is one of modernism’s pioneers, with abstract works that predate Kandinsky and Mondrian, she barely exhibited her work in her lifetime. According to the instructions in her will, her artwork was to be kept out of the public eye until at least twenty year after her death. She also stipulated that they could never be sold. Af Klint died in 1944 at the age of 81, and when her paintings were finally examined in the 1960s, the art world didn’t know what to do with them. Stockholm’s Museum of Modern Art turned them down, not understanding their value. Beyond The Visible argues that the blindness has to do with the fact that af Klint was a woman making explicitly spiritual works. Her genius couldn’t be seen because it wasn’t male.
For the past couple of years I’ve compiled an anuual list of movies that are directed or written by women. This year is hard to predict, but here’s a preliminary list to get 2021 off to a good start. I’ll be updating every few weeks. Judging from how much the dates have changed in just the past few weeks I’m guessing these will move around a lot over the course of the year.
This was a good year for female directors. The cynical part of me wants to say that’s because the studios were more likely to release movies made by women in a year of cutting losses. But it may also be the result of efforts to boost equity in the wake of the Weinstein revelations, which occurred in late 2017. If a lot of female-directed/produced movies picked up for distribution after premiering at 2018 and 2019 film festivals, the majority of those titles would start coming out in 2020.
When I was writing this list, I wasn’t sure what should count as a 2020 movie, since the Academy Awards have been pushed back to April. Ultimately, I decided only to include movies that were available via VOD in 2020, so this list doesn’t include some big titles like Regina King’s One Night in Miami and Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, although I plan to catch up with them when they are released later this month and in February. This list is a reflection of my year, and what I was able to watch on streaming platforms, “virtual” cinemas,” and via screening links. It’s probably a little quirkier than my previous best of lists in 2018 and 2019, but this was an odd year, and I’d guess that the next couple of years are going to continue to be unpredictable as Hollywood figures out what movie-going looks like in a post-COVID world.
I finished revising my novel a few weeks ago and since then I’ve been catching up on 2020 releases. There are so many 2020 female-directed movies that I want to still want to watch that I divided the remaining titles into three categories: Must See, Should See, and If Time. Theoretically I was going to start with the Must See list but I ended up watching two from the If Time category, including Summerland (pictured above) and The Glorias, and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed them both. Below, you’ll find reviews of those two, as well as five other recent movies . . .
It’s A Wonderful Life is my favorite Christmas movie and possibly my favorite movie of all time. I never get tired of watching it. I love its weird structure, which has a big chunk of backstory at the beginning. I love the angel narrators, who are proxies for both the audience and the director. I love Jimmy Stewart. Once I went back and watched a bunch of Frank Capra movies and it was interesting to see elements of It’s A Wonderful Life in the other films –including Jimmy Stewart. It was as if he had all the ingredients but didn’t combine them in the right way until he made It’s A Wonderful Life.
I haven’t watched It’s A Wonderful Life yet this year, but earlier this month I checked out a few new Christmas movies and one old favorite . . .