It’s our mission to help people find movies they love. We’re so bombarded with advertising and compelled by the ‘new’ yet there are a huge range of films released each year that don’t get the audiences they deserve. In this guest post from Michael Glass, co-host of the wonderful Eavesdropping at the Movies podcast, he’s chosen some of the best underseen movies from the past 5 years.
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After making the Oscars their own with The Hurt Locker and dramatising the decade-long hunt for America’s most wanted terrorist in Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal collaborated once more to tell the true story of a lesser-known event. During the 1967 Detroit Riot, police and national guardsmen held ten black men and two white women hostage in the Algiers Motel, interrogating and torturing them throughout the night in their search for a supposed sniper. It’s terrifying film. Will Poulter’s truly chilling performance as the power-tripping cop conducting the brutality stands out, and certain scenes are extremely difficult to watch for the tension created. The film juggles multiple plot strands and focuses on orchestrating intense, escalating set-pieces, and it’s not common to see a film this big make such bold condemnations of the society and institutions it depicts, even through telling a story of events from fifty years ago, rather than today. (Arguably, the condemnation is greater for the stark way it shows an institution’s failure to improve over those fifty years.) Detroit was rich with contemporary relevance upon its release in 2017 and remains so. But it grossed only $26m, some $8m less than its budget, and simply slunk away despite good reviews. Why? Perhaps it was too tough an ordeal to endure. Perhaps audiences already subjected to racist police brutality on a regular basis, or learning of it through its increased visibility on social media, didn’t want to pay for the privilege of experiencing more of it at the cinema. But watching Detroit was and is an experience worth having, the story it tells worth hearing, and the film remains one of the best of 2017.
Some of the most beautiful cinematography of the natural world you’re likely to see accompanies this South American story. Directed by Alejandro Landes, a group of child soldiers occupying a mountaintop fortress aretasked with keeping an American prisoner in custody and ensuring the wellbeing of their milch cow. Monos wears its influences on its sleeve—Lord of the Flies and Apocalypse Now are the most obvious—but creates an identity of its own. It’s in the children’s play and developing relationships which express a youth that their way of life hasn’t managed to punish out of them; the diminutive but seriously buff adult leader who oversees them; and the unsparing jungle into which they’re cast while struggling for supremacy amongst themselves. We never learn the kids’ real names but Landes never loses sight of their humanity, tested though it is; the world in which they live is harsh and challenging but Landes never loses sight of its beauty. It’s a film that sees contradictions, then, within which humanity has to seek to at best flourish. But first it has to survive.
It won the 2020 Oscar for Best Documentary, so it’s hardly a hidden gem, but that’s no reason to let this economical, complex fly-on-the-wall documentary pass by without recommendation. It’s a story of clashes between cultures and classes that begins when a recently closed General Motors factory in Ohio is acquired and reopened by a Chinese company; many of the former GM employees, out of work since GM shut down, return to work there under Chinese supervisors flown in to oversee them. While there’s some tension between the workers of different nationalities, the film doesn’t accept any indulgence in xenophobia. The primary focus is on the dynamic between employers and employees, different attitudes to work, safety and rights between the two countries, and the growing talk of a vote to unionise. The future for these workers is uncertain—frankly, so’s the present—but American Factory finds plenty of humour in the culture clashes, and weaves a tapestry of relationships between the people it shows, who, although they all represent types and classes from the beginning, are depicted with humanity and understanding.
Annihilation is a seriously brave sci-fi horror that I just didn’t get the first time. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one, the film flopping at the North American box office and given a release on Netflix internationally, with only isolated cinema screenings available. Caused by a meteorite impact, a massive refractive dome in the countryside is expanding; known as the “Shimmer”, it can be entered, but whatever it envelops undergoes unpredictable mutations. The film follows a team of four women who embark on an expedition towards the centre of the Shimmer, hoping to discover its cause—and of course, each of them has her own reasons for being there. We’ve all seen horror films about groups of people being killed off one by one by sinister adversaries, but there’s a different feel to Annihilation. Its overall structure, perhaps, is foreseeable, but the forms it will take along the way are not, and it shifts effortlessly between tones of threat and wonder at what confronts the characters. Those characters are imbued with appealing intelligence and resourcefulness, each relating to the Shimmer differently, like Predator if brains were muscles, and the unsettling, eldritch score is unlike anything you’ve ever heard. But most impressive of all is the courage it has to let its ambiguity breathe. It’s a film about changes, and how and why those changes occur is up to us to interpret. Exactly what the Shimmer is, how it works, what the truth of the final scene is, are all burning, lingering questions; key to appreciating the pleasures of Annihilation is realising that the point isn’t to answer them, but to experience the poetic, intriguing journey that raises them.
Set in the North London Jewish community, Disobedience tells the story of two women whose love for each other is reignited when one returns home following her father’s death. It’s a delicate, passionate, complex drama of social pressures and forbidden love, in which Rachels Weisz and McAdams soar. Every part of this drama is made complex. Nothing is one-sided. Weisz’s anger at having been cast out of the community, McAdams’ subjugation and repression through marriage into a way of life she doesn’t desire, and the denial and ambition of her husband, played by Alessandro Nivola, are richly expressed. It’s magical to see what these actors can do with nothing more than a glance. The film treats its setting with seriousness, depicting Jewish customs and rituals without condescension, and it’s a joy to see particularly English Judaism authentically portrayed, with all its nuances—there’s a subtlety to getting that right that elevates the entire film. Disobedience finds room for every one of its characters’ feelings to be expressed and understood, and it’s deeply moving.
The BBC anthology series Small Axe, directed by Steve McQueen, told stories of black British history and the experience of West Indian immigrants in the 1970s and 80s. It was one of the highlights of 2020, and what a privilege for it to be available for free*! (*If you pay your licence fee.) It began with the longest of its five films, Mangrove, a legal drama about the historic Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill, a hub for the local Caribbean community, which is regularly raided by the police. When the area’s residents march on the local police station in protest, a riot ensues and the so-called Mangrove Nine are put on trial. The defendants make race an issue in the trial, aware of the long-term implications it could have in raising the nation’s consciousness about institutional racism, and they’re not shy about discussing it. Mangrove is a more accessible film than we’re used to from McQueen, surely owing to the medium for which it’s made, and it’s all the better for it. He renders its discussions legible and gives space to justified and welcome exposition, without dulling his ability to find beautiful, meaningful imagery. Just seeing the Old Bailey, an icon of power and law and order in Britain, confronted and commanded by the forthright presence of the black defendants, many of them immigrants, is incredibly captivating. The rest of Small Axe is also great, particularly Lovers Rock, the second film, and one that’s all about sensuality, mood, and joy.
Bisexual Jewish women, a shiva, a love triangle… didn’t I do Disobedience already? Shiva Baby might share those similarities, but instead mines its situation for comic farce, building a chamber piece that asks what happens when your life of carefully constructed lies is exposed. Its protagonist, Danielle, is a young woman at a funeral, that most aggravating of situations in which you have to endure judgement of your life by lots of people you’d rather avoid. Writer-director Emma Seligman handles the story’s shifts in tone elegantly—it’s not a straightforward comedy, at times intensely eking out tension—and understands the double-edged sword that technology is to Danielle. She seeks to use it to gain social power, but is threatened by the secrets she’s poured into it that it could spill to the world. Indeed, the film broadly understands the anxieties and nuances of millennial existence, the difference between the images we present and the real people we’re covering up, and finds room amongst the sarcasm and barbs to express the awkwardness between two people who know what they truly desire but can’t, or won’t, admit it.
Anna Seghers’ 1944 novel, also titled Transit, is a historical narrative of a German’s escape from fascist-occupied Paris to Marseille, and his encounters with refugees there while attempting to obtain visas and forge a route onwards. Writer-director Christian Petzold takes her work and subtly updates the setting to the modern day. It’s a simple and brilliant conceit that brings the terror of fascism, and the refugee crisis of today, close to home. He powerfully renders the fears and humanity of Transit’s victims more legible than we normally find them, kept from identification with them by time, culture, and pure wilful blindness. The film focuses on the refugees, and the details of day-to-day life in a city only threatened by occupation, not undergoing it—the fact that the occupation merely looms in Marseille is enough, for the most part. The film is curiously narrated by its protagonist, whose telling of the story sometimes disagrees with what we’re shown. Can we really know what’s going on? Has he forgotten? Is he lying? And to whom? Being able to tell your story, and having it heard, is central to Transit, as well as the ways in which we change or misremember those stories to our benefit. The uncomfortable dissonance this creates reflects the characters’ existence between countries, uncertain of their fate. But what are never in doubt are the characters’ fears and motivations, the deepening relationships that make a lone escape a difficult prospect, and the fact that across different times, countries and cultures, displaced peoples have always shared the same plight.