Margaret DeRosia

movies and more

Some of My Favourite Things… of 2017

 


Instead of a top ten list of movies alone, here are 11 stories from this just-past year that I loved – in novels, television and film.


Fiction

Mohsin Hamid, Exit West

This love story, of two twentysomething refugees infused with magical realism, packs a punch. Saeed and Nadia join others in their (unnamed and newly-totalitarian) country to open a closet door and end up in a faraway country – where they are immediately reduced to mere enemy and economic burden. Hamid’s humanist parable and eloquent writing never let go of Saeed and Nadia’s complex personhood; as this NPR review shared, “there’s not a wasted word” in it. Its sentences and story will break your heart.

Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied Sing

This novel reminded me of the profundity and grace in Toni Morrison’s work. I couldn’t bear to start anything new after because I didn’t want to leave its people.

Ward’s prose shimmers and bites. Her lyricism wraps you in. Heat, hunger, hope and grief are palpable on every page. It un-buries deep pain, but also tenderness, among post-Katrina southern African-Americans. Sing, Unburied Sing oscillates between the divergent points of view of young mother Leonie and her teenage son Jojo. It eschews a Rashomon approach (retelling the same scene) in favour of something more fragmented by grief. The technique keeps its two narrators close in proximity but worlds apart emotionally, with ghosts haunting them up to that transcendent ending. Deserving of all the accolades it’s been getting and more.


Television

I’m bored by most TV dramas of “complex” people (i.e., facile narcissists). If I’d avoid them in real life, why would I spend time with them onscreen? Here are my alternates: two well-paced, witty, half-hour shows by smart female showrunners with warmly real women and equal parts funny and sad.


One Day at a Time (Netflix)

Sitcoms have resolvable conflicts, caricatured characters and canned laughtracks, right? Not in Norman Lear’s hands. They’re a Trojan horse, using humour to ask tough questions.

Lear rebooted his original 1970’s hit, One Day at a Time, with hit showrunner Gloria Calderon-Kellet. Today, we get a Los Angeles-based, Cuban-American family: divorced mom Penelope, her feisty feminist teenage daughter Elena, suave seventh-grader Alex and Penelope’s mother Lydia (the glorious Rita Moreno!).

Last January, I took in the show’s warm, forthright take on tough issues. Immigration. Queer female youth and coming out. Sexism and unequal pay. Inadequate support for PTSD-stricken vets. The series wove it all so well, culminating in a bittersweet finale that high-fived hardworking single moms. Season two drops January 26; catch up now.

Insecure (HBO)

The popular web series Awkward Black Girl‘s creator, writer and executive producer, Issa Rae, is brilliant and funny on HBO’s Insecure as Issa, a 29 year-old Black woman in a not-great relationship with a nice guy. She works at “We Got Y’all,” a non-profit for kids in inner-city LA, one run by un-woke white liberals.


Insecure focuses on Issa’s rich inner life. She’s juggling romantic prospects, her best friend, Molly, and lots of questions of career versus creativity. Often, Issa’s coworkers’ show their racism not in dramatic moments, but in ordinary, daily exchanges. We see these moments from Issa’s perspective with her curtailed fantasy replies, and then we see what happens when these untellable replies go underground. Ultimately, though, this is a love letter to Black female friendship. Issa and Molly are fun, funny, sad, smart and, in a landscape intent on erasing them, absolutely vital.


Movies

My top seven (with one tie) has four films directed by women. Here’s to #MeToo transforming the industry and beyond in 2018!


6. Window Horses: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming (dir. Ann-Marie Fleming)


I saw this film outdoors at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre on an unseasonably cool, rainy summer night. Planes flew noisily overhead, and loud sheets of rain drowned out the sound at times. Yet these distractions faded as I watched this love letter to Rosie the poet; to those who are culturally and racially mixed; to Canada and Iran; to those who break walls with words. Come for the hand-drawn animation, stay for the poetry and heart.

5. Mudbound (dir. Dee Rees)


I’ve been a fan since I saw Rees’ short, Pariah, and her talent shines strong here. Her adaptation has Steinbeckian overtones. Yet she updates Steinbeck to grasp the racist violence structuring the American nation and imagination. I saw Mudbound at TIFF and hope Netflix’s smaller screens don’t hide Rachel Morrison’s cinematography, which evokes a landscape of dread and hope. Kudos to Mary J. Blige, who knows much more than she says, weighing her words with her eyes.

4. Wonder Woman (dir. Patty Jenkins)


Such thrilling fight sequences helmed and embodied by strong – in all senses of the word – female leads! I loved this blockbuster’s Nazi smackdown, a plot full of new urgency given real-life American fascism’s rise. I adore star-powered Gal Gadot as hero and heroine, equal parts charming and earnest. My only complaint: I wanted more Robin Wright. Here’s hoping for a prequel.

3. The Big Sick (dir. Michael Showalter)


I only love 1930’s romantic comedies. Give me His Girl Friday’s breezy feminine independence over contemporary women kicking their careers to the curb for a man. The Big Sick freshened up the genre and gave me joy. Funny and moving, it featured stellar performances by Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter and the dark horse, Ray Romano. I love a movie that makes me laugh and cry equally. A satisfying treat.

2. The Shape of Water (dir. Guillermo del Toro)


Like Moonlight last year, The Shape of Water morphed into something greater that the sum of its parts. An interspecies fairy tale/love story? Sounds weird, and it is. That’s what makes it so good.

Sixties’ Baltimore shows that the mythical “make America great again” era wasn’t even good. A militaristic, racist, ultraviolent masculinity is in charge, one that creates and controls any “others” (racial, sexual and/or female) in its midst – all while perusing The Power of Positive Thinking.

But this film’s merry band of outsiders is not having it. Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins and sinewy monster Doug Jones exhibit great friendship chemistry. Alexander Desplat’s score buoys them along. So does Dan Laustsen’s oceanic cinematography, which does more nuanced heavy lifting than anything in the strangely flat spectacle of Dunkirk. Finally, there’s a touching meta-commentary on the complex psychological work movies do. We don’t merely view them to escape. They help us understand ourselves. Guillermo del Toro, you love the movies and monsters, and we love you back.

1. Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele) and Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig)

Each of these two films is so distinct, memorable and smart, as a revision of the coming of age story (Lady Bird) or the thriller/horror genre (Get Out), that I can’t rank or compare them. They’re both ingenious on their own terms.


Get Out reveals racism’s complicated American core in brand new ways. It eschews cheap targets like southern rednecks to challenge wealthy white Yankees. Peele called his film, provocatively, a “documentary.” Like the magical door of Exit West, Get Out’s “sunken place” offers a horrifying allegory of all-too-real Black pain. That pain is not for white consumption. The mirror spins ‘round to challenge white audiences and validate Black ones. Two small moments I loved: the revelatory Bettie Gabriel-as-Georgina’s pained face saying all those “No’s,” and Daniel Kaluuya-as-Chris’ panic rising while he asks where those damn keys are. So many layers that the film not only holds up, but gets even better on repeat views.



Lady Bird, like The Shape of Water, was deeply infused with empathy. It made me realize how rare this is onscreen (and why I skip so many hyped movies: their people are too simple). Every character in Lady Bird has rich inner lives – or a sense of them. I’ve loved Gerwig’s work as an actress and writer, but her own vision has more breadth and depth than any of her other collaborations. How refreshing to see the complicated lives and loves of white working-class women realized onscreen, both mother-daughter ones and those of best friends. My one caution: I very nearly ugly-cried in parts, including the end, leaving me hiding my face when the lights sprang up. So if you tear up easily, bring Kleenex. Be ready.


Authentic empathy. Keen politics. Intellectual verve. The wisdom of humour. Exceptional screenplays, expertly directed. They’re why I watch, and love, movies. Happy New Year, indeed.


 

TIFF 2017 Picks

We change the world, one story at a time – Richard Wagamese


The Toronto International Film Festival starts this week. What a line-up. Artistic Director Cameron Bailey at this year’s press conference promised a “leaner” festival, but I only see an embarrassment of riches.

Below are my picks. These are films I look forward to, based on who’s behind or in them.  It’s an eclectic set of blockbusters, indies and crowd-pleasers from East, West, North and South.

Here they are, in alphabetical order, including my predictions for this year’s People’s Choice award prospects.


A Fantastic Woman

Close-up of a woman's face.


Chilean director Sebastián Lelio has two strong contenders in the festival: my pick, A Fantastic Woman, and Disobedience, which I look forward to as well. The latter will get a wider release,  though, so I’m advocating for the one that’s more under the radar.

A Fantastic Woman features the transgender actress and discovery Danielle Vega (seen above). Marina is a young transgender woman who struggles with her own grief and larger societal prejudices after her middle-aged male lover dies. It blends shades of Boys Don’t Cry with Almodovar and Fassbinder. I’ve wanted to see it ever since I read a review in Variety last February.


Darkest Hour


Both this trailer and Gary Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill give me chills.  Oldman is virtually unrecognizable as Churchill, in a film that perfectly complements Christopher Nolan’ s epic Dunkirk.

I predict The Darkest Hour, if it’s as good as it looks, has a shot at this year’s coveted and hotly contested audience award. Sadly, it’s all too timely, which makes the horrors of the past not very past at all. Amid an actual, ongoing resurgence in fascism, the need to fight fiercely against it once more grows pressing. We are learning, like England and Churchill knew,  that you cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth.


Don’t Talk to Irene

A close-up of a young woman with a big gulp soda in hand, standing behind a chain-link fence.


This Canadian comedy not only features dance and cheerleading in its plot (two of my fave topics onscreen). It also boasts Geena Davis as a costar cheering on the winsome, titular Irene (Michelle McLeod) – as a voice from a bedroom poster of A League of Our Own. Canadian writer-director Pat Mills has a deft comedic eye, all the more so in a plot in which Irene courts a group of elderly retirement home members for her dance troupe. For all of the above reasons, I’m hooked.


Faces Places


Who doesn’t want to on a road trip with the fantastic icon of cinema, Agnès Varda, and make art in France?  I’m ready. Can’t. Wait.


Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

A man and woman sitting in a booth by a window.


I am confident that I am one of the world’s biggest and most devoted Gloria Grahame fans. So I’m thrilled to see a film about her. Bonus: it stars the transcendent Annette Bening as Grahame. Pitch-perfect.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool sketches a tender, melancholic portrait of the eccentric, older and vulnerable Grahame, who shared a relationship with a much younger man (a grown-up Jamie Bell of Billy Elliot) near her death. Bening may get an Oscar (finally), and I hope the film incites a new generation to discover Grahame.

Check out her work in one of my favourite noirs by director Fritz Lang, The Big Heat:


Indian Horse


Earlier this year, I picked up the novel, Indian Horse, by Richard Wagamese, an Indigenous author in Canada who recently died. I couldn’t put it down.

Reading Indian Horse transformed my relationship to the “Canada 150” celebrations by bringing home the horrors of Canada’s residential school system and ongoing impact of colonial violence on Canada’s Indigenous peoples. This deeply personal, tragic tale rings all too true, with crisp and moving writing. I couldn’t imagine ever loving a book about, in large part, hockey. Yet Wagamese was such a good writer, he made me, the least sporty person around, love hockey, too.

So I am excited, if apprehensive, to see this film do justice to its source. Wagamese was an executive producer, and director Stephen Campanelli is a celebrated camera operator (including on one of my other picks, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri).

And if the film drives people to buy and read this novel, more power to it.


Mudbound


Ever since I saw American director Dee Rees’ revelatory short film, Pariah (which went on to became a stunning first feature), I’ve been a fan. Mudbound, like Darkest Hour, could also not be more timely, given its attention to the foundational, structuring racism that haunts and defines the United States, past into present.

This tragic, epic saga is set in the Mississippi Delta in the aftermath of World War II. Based on award-winning Hillary Jordan’s novel, the film chronicles three main characters (seen above): a young white woman, Laura (Carey Mulligan), displaced from her home in Memphis to live on her husband’s rural cotton farm; and two soldiers who return to the same town, her white brother-in-law, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), and an African-American man,  Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), a war hero who meets harsh, racist realities in the America to which he comes home. Sundance audiences and critics raved about it. I can’t wait to see what Rees accomplishes with a much larger budget and scale. A visionary.


Sheikh Jackson


As may be obvious from my selections, I love films that challenge notions of purity. Whether purity is based on keeping races, genders, sex and sexualities, politics, nations or religions distinct, I love films that mix things up – including a mix of tones in a story.

Ever since I caught a glimpse of one still and the film title of Sheikh Jackson, I wanted to see it. The trailer suggests a hybrid of much more than East meets West, right down to its main character’s name and sense of himself. And of course, I share the film and lead’s love of Michael Jackson. Like him, I can remember exactly where I was when Jackson died. It was like running your car into a tree in disbelief that such a talent was gone. I’m looking forward to seeing this Egyptian gem bring Jackson back to life.


The Breadwinner


One of the truly exciting and commendable aspects of TIFF this year is its obvious, clear commitment to including and celebrating the work of female directors – including those making their debut as feature film directors. Unlike Venice, which has a shameful ONE (!) film made by a female film director in competition out of 21, TIFF has a full one third of its films directed by women. Bravo!

The Breadwinner is based on Canadian author Deborah Ellis’ novel, directed by Irish filmmaker Nora Twomey and executive-produced by the celebrated Angelina Jolie. It represents a festival flick that adults and children alike will love. Besides, it’s never too early to start them on attending this festival.

When her father is imprisoned and family left imperiled by his absence, a brave 11-year-old Afghan girl, Parvana, disguises herself as a boy to support her family while seeking her father’s freedom. Here, a humanitarian crisis takes human shape through an innovative mix of 2-D animation with acrylic and digitally painted environments. See it on the big screen.


The Shape of Water


The buzz about this film since its gorgeous trailer went viral appears well deserved. The Shape of Water, directed by Toronto transplant and hometown fave Guillermo del Toro is shaping up to be a strong contender for this year’s audience award.

Profound and moving, The Shape of Water traverses familiar del Toro territory: the magic of a fairy tale crosses with a repressive political allegory in a revamped, sensitive version of monster-driven horror. Like the misunderstood monsters of classical Hollywood’s Universal horror films of the 1930s, The Shape of Water explores how monsters become more human than the people who surround, curtail, study and torture them.

Sally Hawkins leads a stellar cast. As a mute cleaning woman in a Cold War-1960’s laboratory, her world transforms through the tender bond she develops with a myserious creature being held in captivity. My heart breaks when I see these images and I don’t even know how it will all play out. Bring kleenex.


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


Frances McDormand could walk around onscreen for two hours and I’d probably find it, and her, riveting.

I’m thrilled to see her get to once more lead a story as its protagonist in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, rather than just take a turn as a character actress supporting others.

Here, McDormand plays strong-willed grieving mother Mildred Hayes. When her daughter is murdered and the local police come up empty-handed, Mildred gets truly fed up – and has nothing left to lose. She antagonizes the local police force, especially its revered chief Officer Dixon (Woody Harrelson), by placing the titular three billboards up, which sets off a chain reaction that only In Bruges director Martin McDonagh’s imagination could create. Either it or Alexander Payne’s Downsizing could be this year’s dark horse for an audience award.


What are you excited to see this year? Tell me in the comments below.

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