Award season is coming and most films have now been released. The March column will preview all of the films nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, so this month I give brief reviews of several films that may be nominated for other awards. There are many wonderful films out there for you—either in the theater or streaming—and I will continue to review them in the coming months. In my opinion, it was a great year for film and for film-going. The combination of Barbie and Oppenheimer—two films I believe will be nominated for Best Picture—brought people back to the movies in numbers we haven’t seen in years. It proves that great films will bring out huge crowds. We don’t need superheroes and CGI. We just need exceptional art. Here are some examples to watch and discuss: Enjoy them in the company of a good conversant.
The Mission (2023)
This is a fascinating and polemical documentary that tells the story of John Chau, a young missionary who traveled to a remote island off the coast of India. He wished to bring the teachings of Jesus to one of the world’s most isolated indigenous peoples, a society that is essentially closed off from the modern world. Directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine fashion a compelling story and dynamic visual structure around a tale about which we know the ending: Chau was shot and killed by arrows as he made his way onto the island.
Why is it polemical? That is for you to decide, but the film attempts to show all sides of the story—his father’s take, the views of his supportive friends and fellow church members, and detractors who believe Chau’s mission was foolhardy, narcissistic, and suicidal. The film works on several levels, and for this critic, the visual flourishes—such as animated interludes, dramatic voiceovers, and the inclusion of old footage—elevate the movie to a higher status. It is not just an interesting story, but a brilliantly crafted film. This one should propel a fascinating and wild conversation.
Now streaming on Nat Geo/Disney+/Hulu.
20 Days in Mariupol (2023)
I include this film because, along with The Mission, it is important; it is a great work of art on its own; and it should be nominated for an Oscar. February marks the (unfortunate) two-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The documentary gives us a slice of the war from 2022 as the invasion of Mariupol began. Warning: It is difficult to watch.
Still, the documentary is pure humanity. The images are horrifying and the story is heartbreaking, but we can neither look away nor sweep it under the rug. It is still happening there now, and people are still dying there every day. We owe it to Ukrainians to keep looking at the war and keep voicing our opinions about the genocide (among other conflicts in our current world). This film highlights some of these atrocities and brings them into our living rooms. The images won’t go away any time soon, and we have to keep discussing the issues and pressuring lawmakers to do the right thing. Watch, talk, and act.
In February, I will preview a Ukrainian Film Series we are hosting at The Cube in Northfield (8371 Northfield Blvd.)
Now Streaming on PBS.
May December (2023)
Creepy. That is exactly how this film makes you feel throughout. A take on the true-life Mary Kay Letourneau story, this Todd Haynes-directed Netflix production is bizarre and uncomfortable, to say the least. Haynes said that he did not intend it to be so camp, but this might be a case where we should trust our eyes and ears. What do we make of all this?
The plot: 20 years after their scandalous affair, a Hollywood actress (Natalie Portman) drops into the lives of Gracie (Julianne Moore), husband Joe (Charles Melton) and their kids, to study Gracie for a film adaptation of their past. The visit soon forces the family to revisit their trauma in many different ways, and of course, those ways are not necessarily good.
The acting is the allure here: Moore is phenomenal and convincing, and Portman has been receiving Oscar buzz (although count this critic as a skeptic) for their performances. Moore is flat brilliant, and we will certainly see her in the Oscar lineup. Beyond the acting, the film raises a bevy of pop culture issues that are worth a good chat afterwards.
Now streaming on Netflix.
All of Us Strangers (2023)
This is a small and interesting film that I highly recommend. It is very much Hitchcock with a dash of Fellini, and the story keeps you guessing until the end. That story centers on Adam (Andrew Scott), a screenwriter living in a mostly empty apartment building in London. He meets and has an affair with a mysterious man (Paul Mescal) from the building while also visiting his parents in his childhood home. The catch is that his parents died when Adam was young, but yet he still carries on conversations with them in the present day. We think.
Is it all a dream? A hallucination? A screenplay that Andrew is writing? Or is it a purgatorial stop where Adam has much to reconcile before moving on? Writer/Director Andrew Haigh fashions a taut, contemplative thriller, so watch this gem with someone else and then converse about it after. It is well-written, wonderfully acted, and studiously directed. The film begs to be discussed, and that is a beautiful thing. Have at it!
Opens Dec. 17 at the Sie Film Center.
Vincent Piturro, PhD, is a Professor of Film and Media Studies at MSU Denver. Contact him directly at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter. For more reviews, search The Indie Prof at FrontPorchNE.com.