In Tara Westover’s bestselling 2018 memoir, Educated, a wildly intelligent young woman finds herself stuck working in her family’s junkyard, unable to leave her isolated Idaho town even as she longs to go to college. Public school is forbidden by her fundamentalist Mormon father, so she is homeschooled with her siblings and forced to scrap metal in illegal and unsafe conditions. Westover’s gripping story of escape captivated readers across the country, and I found myself thinking of it as I watched Nicole Riegel’s directorial debut, Holler, which concerns a young woman facing similar challenges.
Robin Wright’s directorial debut, Land, is interesting for the way it seems to be in conversation with several recent films that explore the urge to isolate in the wake of trauma. Land follows Edee, played by Wright, a middle-aged professional-seeming woman who abandons civilization to live off the grid in Wyoming. She finds a spartan hunting cabin to rent, and stockpiles it with canned goods and survival gear. Her goal is to learn to live off the land by hunting, fishing, and growing her own food. It’s a lofty ambition for someone who appears to have very little experience in the wild, but she’s determined, going so far as to hire someone to drive her car away so that she doesn’t have the option to leave except by her own two feet.
I will forever associate this movie with my vaccine convalescence, that brief period after your booster shot when it feels like you’re coming down with the flu. Yesterday morning, I got my second Moderna vaccine and I felt fine until around dinnertime. Then I got hit by a wave of fatigue that reminded me of the first trimester of pregnancy. I knew I had to get in a supine position immediately so I retired to my bed with the ipad. I was too tired to even read. I chose By the Sea mainly because I knew my husband had no interest in ever watching it. It got fairly withering reviews when it came out in 2015, and I had pretty much written it off, too, until a couple of weeks ago, when some scenes from it were included in the first episode of the Criterion Channel’s miniseries Women Make Film. I was dazzled by the location and the glamour in those images. I wanted to see more. How bad could it possibly be with Jolie and Pitt starring?
I’d heard about this movie’s status as an under-seen classic but now, after seeing it, I have to believe it is one of the most influential movies of the 1970s. With its quirky, artsy, twenty-something female lead and documentary-style camerawork, it is strongly reminiscent of early-aughts mumblecore, even down to the set design. I can’t imagine Joe Swanberg’s films without Girlfriends, and I’m sure it informed TV shows like Sex & The City, Girls, and Fleabag. Its theme is female friendship, and it follows two roommates, Susan and Annie, whose lives go in different directions when Annie decides to get married and moves out to live with her husband. Meanwhile, Annie has to find a way to cover the rent while also pursuing a career in art photography. Frances Ha clearly borrows from its structure, so much so that I now see Frances Ha as something close to a remake of it, but that just goes to show how universal this story is. In an interview at filmmaker magazine, director Claudia Weill said she wrote it (with screenwriter Vicki Polon) because she didn’t see herself in movies, and apparently Weill had to carry around rolls of the film from studio to studio in order to sell it — just as Susan, a photographer, lugs around her portfolio from gallery to gallery.
Never Gonna Snow Again (2020) Directors: Malgorzata Szumowska and Michal Englert
This haunting, meditative movie got under my skin even as I wasn’t totally sure what it was trying to say, and sometimes felt that the filmmakers were also unsure. More often than not, scenes seemed to exist to establish a certain mood rather than to advance a story. But I didn’t care. The images were strange and beautiful, tinged with magic and sci-fi, and posing questions about life after death, the nature of healing, and climate change. Written and directed by Malgorzata Szumowska and her long-time DP Michal Englert, the film was Poland’s entry for the Oscars for Best Foreign Picture. The story centers on a masseuse, Zhenia (Alec Utgoff), a Ukranian immigrant whose work takes him to a gated suburb on the outskirts of a large city. Zhenia goes from house to house carrying his folding massage table and getting an intimate look into the houses that all look the same from the outside, but whose occupants each carry their own specific pain. In its simplest telling, it’s a story about upper-middle class suburban life, with Zhenia as the all-seeing narrator who draws connections between the families’ shared spiritual malaise. But beneath that structure is a darker and more mysterious tale about humanity’s relationship to a dying planet.
E.T. (1982) Director: Steven Spielburg Writer: Melissa Mathieson
Last night I watched E.T. with my two children, aged 3 and 8, for family movie night. I watched this movie a lot as a kid, but I don’t think I ever saw it in the theater. Instead I had a VHS tape of it, recorded from when it was on TV. There are certain scenes from E.T. that are like my own childhood memories — like in the still above, when Gertie dresses E.T. in her clothes. And there’s another scene when E.T. hides in the closet full of stuffed animals, because he’s scared. I loved that. The set design in this movie is impressively detailed and gives the sense of what it’s like to be in a house full of kids. Everything is messy but the objects are also very beloved and special. The house also helps to tell the story: you get the sense that everything is a bit more chaotic than normal because the parents have just separated. The mother is barely holding it together as she works full time and parents three children, and her housekeeping is a place where she has decided to let things go. That’s how E.T. manages to live there without her noticing.
All the Light in the Sky (2013) Director: Joe Swanberg Writers: Jane Adams & Joe Swanberg
I watched this mellow movie a few weeks ago and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It’s a showcase for Jane Adams, an actor who often seems like the most fully realized character in any scene, even when she’s on for just a minute or two. I think she first caught my eye in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where she plays the beleaguered wife of the protagonist’s friend. She only has a couple lines but she suggests an entire life and marriage. She’s one of those character actors who, once you become aware of her, you begin to see everywhere. She’s been working steadily since the late 1980s, when she was a student at Juilliard. Looking at her IMDB, it looks like she supplemented a theater career with bit parts in film and TV, appearing in shows like Family Ties and Frasier. I associate her most with indie directors, especially Joe Swanberg, who directed this movie and is a frequent collaborator.
Little Joe (2019) Writer & Director: Jessica Hausner
I was initially turned off of this movie –and maybe you were, too — when it first appeared in the U.S. in late 2019. It got mixed reviews, including a lot of pans, and I lost track of it in the rush of end-of-the-year releases. I was reminded of when it turned up on Pedro Almodovar’s list of the best movies of 2020 and then, when I saw that it was streaming on Hulu, I decided to give it a try, and I’m so glad I did. It’s an eerie story about the ways humans try to control the natural world, and at first it seems like it’s going to be a high-concept commentary on the danger of GMOS. But then it turns into a kind of meditation on the nature of perception and reality. I can see why a lot of viewers would find it frustrating, but I would have watched it for the color scheme alone.
The Dig (2021) Director: Simon Stone Writer: Moira Buffini, based on a novel by John Preston
With its dramatic cinematography, starry cast, and subtle art direction, The Dig is so smooth and elegant that it sometimes feels lightweight, despite its heavy themes. Set in 1939 in the English countryside, it tells the story of a remarkable archeological discovery on private land. It’s also a portrait of a grieving widow and a country on the verge of war. While this isn’t the most suspenseful movie you’ll ever see, its themes deepen as the story unfolds. In the final act, there was some Malick-like camerawork that had me thinking about the desperate sadness of war, but in general, I was reminded of high-production television shows like The Crown. The truth is, I watched this over two nights, stopping it halfway through, as if it were a television show, and while I try to avoid doing that, I thought that viewing method suited this movie just fine, and maybe even enhanced it. If I’d seen The Dig on the big screen, I think it would have been a disappointment. As a Netflix movie, it’s a pleasant weeknight diversion.
I’m calling it: Herself is the first movie of the Biden Era. It’s empathetic, kind, and emotionally direct. It’s the kind of movie where characters say things like, “you impress me so much.” It would not have been out of place for anyone to remark, “Here’s the thing about life: there are some days when we need a hand and there are other days when we’re called upon to lend one.” Set in Ireland, Herself centers on a single mother, Sandra, who needs help starting over after leaving an abusive marriage. Her employer, friends, and acquaintances quickly come to her aid, volunteering to help her build a house for her and her two young children. It sounds corny, but isn’t in the least, because director Phyllida Lloyd makes room for the complexity of abusive relationships, as well as the lingering psychological and physical trauma. This isn’t a story where everything is okay in the end, but it is one where people are decent and kind to one another, and do their best to fix what is broken and heal one another.