It’s not always about the Oscar-caliber biopics and the all-star franchise films. Sometimes it’s rewarding to check out the smaller, more dangerous and often more-inspired works.
I’ll name 10 petite but potentially potent flicks from this very year that you should probably chase down. Some of them are in theaters right now, while others have been released via other forms, but whatever the case, it’s heartening to know that they’re out there for some esoteric enjoyment.
Marion Cotillard’s face always had a sort of Lillian Gish-like poignant glow to it, so it made sense that she was cast in this 1921 lady-in-peril story, which was underrated when it came out earlier this year. She plays Ewa, a Polish immigrant who comes to America, becomes separated from her sick sister (who’s quarantined) and ends up being lured by pimp Joaquin Phoenix into a life of whoring, only to have his decent cousin (Jeremy Renner) cleverly try to save her. James Gray’s film may well be the stuff of Saturday-morning serials, but it’s absorbing and well played.
“The Skeleton Twins”
When former “Saturday Night Live” stars try to stretch, it can be painful, but not in this dramedy, in which Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig played twins who come back together after attempting suicide on the same day. They’re both superb, Hader particularly good as a messy gay trying to gain some self respect as he prances back into the world. The scene where he and Wiig impulsively lip-sync Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us” together is a scream — like an old sketch, but totally in character.
Sidney Lumet’s 1975 film “Dog Day Afternoon” had Al Pacino as the real-life Brooklyn guy who in ’72, tried to rob a bank to pay for his girlfriend’s sex change. The real story is even better. The actual man, John Wojtowicz, turns out to have bravado, charm, a doting mother and a loving side to match the awful one. (He brags about forcing sex on one of his fellow bank robbers, to name one repellent incident.) Filled with archival gems, this doc is a surprising look at the way LGBT issues were forced onto the world thanks to a disturbed yet sometimes appealing figure.
Matthew Warchus directed this true story of a gay activist group that organized to support striking miners during Margaret Thatcher’s England, and he gave it a rather likeable glow. Yes, it’s a bit formula, as the gays and the miners circle each other warily before realizing they’re brothers and sisters under the skin, but it’s done with a lovely lilt to it, and it all reeks of feel-good, but not at all in a bad way. It was all way too obscure for the public, but that doesn’t mean you should join in their nonchalance.
“Love is Strange”
How often do you see mature gay characters onscreen — being sensual yet? Ira Sachs gets mega points for concocting this sexagenarian love story with John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as long-partnered, highly cultured men who get married, then have to settle into temporary housing while planning their future. The film’s intimate focus on human joys and foibles struck me as reminiscent of the ’70s golden age of humanistic films.
Lenny Abrahamson’s black comedy is one of the weirdest things I’ve seen in ages. As an enigmatic musical figure in a band, Michael Fassbender wears a fake head and announces his facial expressions (“Welcoming smile”) so you won’t be missing anything. I am speechless.
In this Swedish film, a family vacations in the French Alps only to find their happiness ruptured when an avalanche threatens to happen. It doesn’t — only a powdery after-smoke hits them — but the damage has been done because while the wife was desperately trying to lift the kids to safety, she couldn’t find her husband, who’d run away to protect himself! When they rejoin, things are tense, and the ramifications are profound. An instant classic — like an Antonioni film, but far more entertaining.
Roger Ebert loved movies, and I’m sure he would have adored this one — a warts-and-all but pretty loving look at America’s favorite critic. We learn of his combative but ultimately appreciative relationship with fellow critic Gene Siskel, and how Ebert was hurt when Siskel didn’t tell him he was sick. As a result, when Ebert developed cancer — the treatment of which led to some facial disfigurement — he decided to tell everyone and became a very brave poster boy for what he was going through. There’s a lot of that in the film, and a whole lot of Ebert, and by the end, you want to give the man two thumbs up.
Gillian Robespierre’s film has another former “SNL” star, Jenny Slate, going for broke and doing very well at it. She’s very appealing as a standup comic who gets drunk, has a one-night stand and finds herself preggers. It’s “Knocked Up” meets “Juno,” but original. My only problem was that the male romantic figure is so perfect and pliable and willing and forgiving and sweet. What a freakin’ fantasy!
This is the one I’d probably tell you to run the slowest to, but I still wanted to include it because Michael Gondry’s quirky vision still has clout to some people. The ultra-surreal story has Audrey Tautou as a woman with a flower growing in her lungs — you heard me — and Romain Duris as the guy wanting to cure it. Along the way, there are eccentric dances, bizarre gadgets, Duke Ellington music, a ride in an aerial bubble and flowers, lots of flowers. Retching yet? Well, one man’s “precious” is another man’s “genius.” At times.