The Most Underrated Movies of 2013 IV: The Stragglers

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Good Ol’ Freda –  Ryan White (Available on Netflix)

The world is running out of original Beatles stories; in fact, this may be the last one, as the Beatles and their contemporaries enter their 70s and, as Freda Kelly notes at one point, many of them are already gone. The story is one of a young girl who won the social lottery, happening upon the Beatles in the Cavern Club before they made it big and becoming tight enough with the band that they eventually asked her to work for them as secretary. Kelly also served as president of the bands’ fan club, hounding each member for autographs and locks of hair for adoring fans who wrote in because she knew exactly what it was to be one. Kelly is remarkable for her service, but more still for not taking advantage of it, cashing in with a tell all book or selling any of her incredibly rare memorabilia picked up from her time with the band. It is at once frustrating and enamoring that Kelly still holds to her Beatles secrets to this day, even with a camera in her face.

No Place on Earth – Janet Tobias (Available on Netflix)

If it came to it, if Nazis were coming, could you survive in a cave for nearly two years? What a question, but that’s what it came to for a handful of Jewish families in rural Ukraine as the Nazis arrived during World War II. The film focuses on the Stermer family in particular in this recreation of the 511 days of fear, hunger and darkness the endured that was brought back to life after a man from New York came across shoes, keys and buttons while caving in the Ukraine. It took him a decade to suss out any part of the story before finally coming upon the diary of Esther Stermer, the matriarch of one of the families who survived life in the cave.

Ip Man: The Final Fight – Herman Yau (Available on Netfix)

By now, you must all know who Ip Man is, the legendary Chinese martial artist and teacher of the Wing Chung school whose most famous student was Bruce Lee. He is the new Wong Fei Hong right now, and your choices are almost limitless if you want to watch a movie about them. The Final Fight is more of a traditional biopic version of the story, condensing much of his life into two hours. There are plenty of fight scenes though, and the film won the Daniel A. Craft Award for Excellence in Action Cinema at the NY Asian Film Festival last year. This is the version of the story that brings its lunchpail to work with it.

Touchy Feely – Lynn Shelton (Available on Netflix)

It’s kind of hard to believe Josh Pais is the same actor who, vocally at least, brought the ball of rage that is Rafael to life in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the first and best one, not this new bullshit). In Touchy Feely he plays a timid, conservative dentist. He is a comic foil for his wild, hippy massage therapist sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) until their fates interchange: he finds that his hands can heal, while she loses the ability she’s been honing and comes to loath the touch of another person’s skin. The cast of this bright, unassuming comedy is filled out by Allison Janney and Ellen Page. Lynn Shelton continues to be a voice to pay attention to in independent film.

Which Way Is the Frontline From Here: The Life and Times of Tim Hetherington – Sebastian Junger (Available to stream on HBOGO)

Tim Hetherington, the photojournalist who came to wide prominence for the Oscar nominated documentary Restrepo, is lovingly profiled here by his friend (and fellow Oscar nominee) Sebastian Junger following his tragic death in Libya, where he was covering the uprising. Featuring interviews from family, friends and fellow journalists, it is a compelling, no bullshit account of Hetherington’s too-short life. He was a brilliant photographer, seemingly because he didn’t care about photography — he cared about the people he was photographing. Borrow someone’s HBOGO password if you have to, but see this.

Ashes of Time (Redux) – Wong Kar Wai (2009)

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It took 14 years, but Wong Kar-wai’s limp and enigmatic Ashes of Time finally has some life to it.

The new version of the 1994 film, now called Ashes of Time Redux (available this week on DVD), is a luscious visual poem set to the masterful images of Christopher Doyle, the graceful fight choreography of Sammo Hung and the unequaled cello of Yo-Yo Ma in a newly recorded score. The story, however, still falls flat.

Wong tells the tale of two swordsmen, Ou-yang Feng (Leslie Cheung) and Huang Yao-shi (Tony Leung Ka Fai), who will later (in Louis Cha’s 1957 novel, The Legend of the Condor Heroes) become bitter enemies, but for now are friends in love with the same woman (Maggie Cheung), whom neither can have.

Feng is estranged from his home and family when the woman he loves marries his brother. He’s set up shop in the middle of the desert, acting as a middleman for passing bounty hunters and killers, and those in need of such services. Yao-shi is just one of his many visitors, arriving once a year like clockwork to catch up, tell stories and, of course, share his bottle of magic wine.

In the jungle of a city, Wong can pull off this kind of small, intimate story of emotionally blocked characters trying to be set free with his eyes closed, but in the desert he’s lost. Weight and depth are sacrificed amid the jumbled story and those long, lingering shots of clouds passing. Wong meditates on every frame in order to extract every droplet of beauty, but it’s akin to grabbing our attention with a shiny object while the plot sneaks out the back door. It sure is pretty, though.

Redux clocks in at a slightly shorter running time than any of the previous versions Wong has offered. The tighter edit is a better fit, but ultimately, it’s not enough.

The Others: 2012’s Underrated Gems

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It’s that time of year again – every magazine you read proffers its version of the “best” stuff of the year, juggling the order of mostly the same 15 or so films. But what about all of thoseother films we loved this year? Don’t those deserve a list, too? We think they do, so here’s ours. Needless to say, you’ll find no Lincolns here, nor any queens of Versailles or Bagginses, precious. Instead, you’ll find subtitles (lots!), a feel-good beat to dance to, kids becoming adults, adults becoming kids and considerable doses of badassery from both Willem Dafoe and Donnie Yen. Here’s our selection of 2012’s most underrated films from around the world.

Dragon (directed by Peter Chan, available on video on demand) Dragon didn’t need any title at all for fans of the actors in this film – “The movie with Donnie Yen and Takeshi Kaneshiro” would have been enough to make some of us plunk down the VOD money and get watching this Chinese martial arts flick. I could watch Donnie Yen’s stoic, almost heartbroken, fighting all day long, and his moves are as brilliant and unassuming – and deadly – here as they’ve ever been.

Girl Walk // All Day (directed by Jacob Krupnick, girlwalkallday.com) Girl Walk wasn’t something I ever envisioned myself watching, never mind loving. Set to the 2010 Girl Talk album All Day, this strange dance opera straddles the five boroughs of New York. It’s a pure, fluffy dose of cultural confectioner’s sugar to balance out all of those cultural vegetables we’ve consumed this year. Anyone who can sit through this film without a grin may be irredeemable.

Holy Motors (directed by Leos Carax, coming soon) Nothing makes a bit of sense in Carax’s surrealist-absurdist masterpiece, but if it did, it would almost be a crime against cinema, so brilliant is its outcome. This French film works better the less you know going into it, but rest assured: You’ll either love it for its left-field inventiveness, or hate it for its strange, reckless meandering.

I Wish (directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, available on DVD, Netflix) Koreeda is one of the best working directors in the world right now, especially when it comes to working with kids. In I Wish, a film about a boy separated from his brother after his parents divorce, he creates a delicate, free-wheeling adventure based around the power of believing in wishes – or at least the silliness that comes with wanting something so badly that believing in wishes seems worth the risk.

The Kid With a Bike (directed by the Dardenne brothers, coming soon) This Belgian directing duo just doesn’t do it for me – usually, anyway. I went to see Kid out of a sense of obligation and walked out crushed and astonished by the heartbreaking yet oddly uplifting story of an abandoned kid who lands on the wrong track, even when he’s rescued from a youth home.

Safety Not Guaranteed (directed by Colin Trevorrow, available on DVD and video on demand) From the producers of Little Miss Sunshine, this movie follows a reporter who goes out to interview a man who takes out an odd classified ad, seeking a companion for time travel. The film surprises with its heart and its unexpected turns.

The Story of Film: An Odyssey (directed by Mark Cousins, available on DVD) The sheer size and scope of this collection, running over 15 hours from the birth of film until today, deserves shouting from the rooftops. Cousins is no timid observer, calling early films out for their racism, and he picks apart the radical social, religious and emotional tides captured by the likes of Pasolini and Bergman as well as directors you’ve never heard of before. The Story of Film is stark and declarative in a way that doesn’t force you to agree with its findings, but it’s also authoritative in its overwhelming research. No mere history, it takes a stand about what great cinema is while helping the viewer to do the same.

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As we get set for the new year, we looked back at some of the most underrated films that came out this year in the paper. Time and space (and shitty writing) only allowed for a few of the many to be noted, so we take to the blog to point out a few more worthy candidates we want to scream from the top of the mountain about.

2 Days in New York – Julie Delpy (DVD, Netflix)
2 Days in New York doesn’t exactly continue where 2 Days in Paris left off, but takes us to a whole new story in Marion’s life, where she has broken up with Jack and moved in with Mingus, a liberal blogger and radio show host played by a perfectly subdued Chris Rock. Much like the subdued Adam Sandler inPunch Drunk Love, Rock works better as a toned down everyday guy. Marion’s family (and ex, Manu) are the only real carry overs from the story, but the comedy is exactly the same, though it is more developed and carries more of an American edge to it this time. It’s the better film of the two, as Delpy’s instincts as a filmmaker have grown a great deal over the years.

Beloved – Christophe Honore (Netflix)
Honore has never quite got back to the greatness he showed in Love Songs, but Beloved doesn’t miss by that much. There is a little bit too much too it in terms of scope, with the film trying to hit some heavy themes — like the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, AIDs and 9/11 – by skirting around them and falling back into song. My lone wish for the film would be that it either go harder at the musical genre or skip the songs altogether. There aren’t enough of them strung together to really make a satisfying musical, but it’s a satisfying drama and then there is a strange singing break. Still, it continues to grow in my head the more I think about it. Milos Forman does an interesting turn as the father, and two of my favorites, Louis Garrel and Paul Schneider, are featured, but it’s all about the women: Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve and Ludivine Sagnier are divine, all of them.

Bleak Night – Yoon Sung-hyun (Netflix)
This tough South Korean drama is a clever, wrenching take on the coming of age high school bully drama. I fucking loathe the word bully — it’s an adult word, I never heard anyone use it as a kid. We just said “that asshole” or something along those lines — but it is in its proper usage here. It’s a devastating film if you’ve ever been fucked with, maybe even if you were the one fucking with people. The film runs in roughly 3 commingling threads that are a little difficult to place in a timeline at first, but once you put it together makes perfect sense and becomes an engrossing film. Like most non-linear films, it’s better on the second viewing when you have everything in order, but there is something inescapably great about a first viewing where you are just trying to get your footing and the film won’t let you.

Goodbye First Love – Mia Hansen-Love (VOD, Netflix)
Though she’s been around for a few years already, director Mia Hansen-Love announced herself as a director of serious note with this coming of age drama set in and around the aftermath of a first love affair gone wrong, which leaves a shattered Lola Creton trying to pick up the pieces of her life. It’s an emotional epic that leaves the perfect gaps between the chapters of her life for us to fill in the blanks. Boy or girl, Creton is east to empathize with unless you’re some kind of monster who has never had your heart broken.

Killer Joe – William Friedkin (Coming Soon)
I don’t really want to say too much because I think this is exactly the kind of film you should go into with as little information as possible and just let the psychosis of the story wash over you. McConaughey is a madman genius (who knew? but what a great run going back to last year’s Lincoln Lawyer), and its great to see Billy Freidkin make another great film.

Monsieur Lazhar – Philippe Falardeau (DVD, Netflix)
If this were my actual top 10 list, Monsieur Lazhar would likely be at the top of the pile this year. Indeed, this powerful film can boasts two 5-star reviews from this paper alone, something we don’t usually do. Mohamed Fellag and the young Sophie Nélisse take turns stealing scenes from the rest of the cast in this French-Canadian drama about the different forms being spiritually lost can take.

Oslo, August 31st – Joachim Trier (DVD, Netflix)
Originally, I thought this was a quickie film about Anders Brevik, but it very much isn’t. Loosely based off the same Pierre Drieu La Rochelle novel as Louis Malle’s The Fire Within, Oslo features a startling performance from Anders Danielsen Lie as a newly reformed junkie wading back into his old life, getting a withering taste of it from a new perspective, and finding out how difficult it is to change, especially to go back.

Red Hook Summer – Spike Lee (DVD, Netflix)
While I absolutely loved Red Hook Summer (as much as you can “love” something that contains as fucked up but kind of lame and expected a plot twist as this), it would be something I would hesitate to recommend to others. Nevermind all of the “Mookie is back” stuff — he’s barely in it — but this is the old, old school Spike Lee that’s come back. The film is shot quick and off the cuff, mixing various DV sources (like the Sony F3 and the iPad2) that really captures Brooklyn at its most colorful self, the spirit that exists in each neighborhood and the diversity within the similarity. Even though that spirit is different for each neighborhood, someone from Flatlands or Bensonhurst can still recognize it as being a smaller part of the whole. So it’s probably more of a birthplace pro bias working on me, which is why I’d hesitate to recommend it.

Your Sister’s Sister – Lynn Shelton (DVD, Amazon)
Everyone is calling it the year of Channing Tatum, and it’s hard to argue that, but just by sheer force and the number of projects he’s been involved with this year, it’s sort of the year of Mark Duplass too. He’s been everywhere this year, from the low-key Do-Deca-Pentathon through to the Oscar-favorite Zero Dark Thirty (which opens Orlando in mid-January). He’s a little more toned down in Your Sister’s Sister than he is in Saftey Not Guaranteed, but he’s the same charming, bumbling dude’s dude that steals your affection with his dopey smile. Lynn Shelton just keeps getting better with every film she makes, and it’s it’s kind of a shame that the success of Moonrise Kingdom knocked this out of Enzian’s schedule over the summer.

Turn Me On, Dammit! – Jannicke Systad Jacobsen (DVD)
It’s actually kind of an embarrassing blindspot in the film world that there are so few straight up sex comedies about girls, and while that isn’t totally remedied by this one film, it’s a great start. Half of me wants to call it brave, but its more that its just an honest film from an unfamiliar perspective. Honesty is bravery a lot of the time, but I’m not sure it applies here. It’s just that Jacobsen’s adaptation of Olaug Nilssen’s novel finally lets boys into the conversation that’s existed the whole time by a particularly smart move (from a boy’s point of view anyway), having a boy be the villain but not having boys in general be the enemy.

Isabella – Pang Cho-Cheung (2006)

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Early on in Isabella, we find thirtysomething Ma Chen-Shing (Chapman To), a moderately corrupt cop on the island of Macau, as he wakes up and finds the girl he slept with the night before, Cheung Bik-Yan (Isabella Leong), on his couch eating a bowl of instant Ramen.

In spite of her apparent young age, his hand slowly finds its way to the back of her head and begins to push downward, but she fights it with a frightened rabbit look in her eyes.

He paid good money for her time, so why was she so hesitant?

The answer, as we find out, is that she is his daughter.

It took me a little while to figure out how to put a defense of this film into words. At first glance — especially with the shoddy Media Asia subtitles (more on this later) — the film dips almost into the same territory as Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart (which, by the way, Wikipedia does not accurately describe the depth of the mother/son relationship in its synopsis). But Murmur of the Heart was nominated for an Academy Award, and it was an honestly deserved nomination, as it’s possibly Malle’s best film (certainly in his top three). So why should I have a hard time defending a movie where there wasn’t actually incest? Why should I even have to defend it at all?

Of course, Bik-Yan isn’t the girl that Chen went to bed with the night before. Taking the time to track him down following the death of her mother, she has sneaked into his apartment when the actual girl he slept with left in the morning. She had no where else to go. Unable to pay the rent any longer on the apartment she once shared with her mother, her landlord has padlocked it and she has come the Chen for help.

Chen, for his part, never knew he had a daughter. As a teenager he got a girl pregnant, but thought the girl, Isabella, had an abortion. Chen, though, ran away from the clinic before she’d done anything, and Isabella hid the truth from him despite seeing him often (and often with other women) on the small island.

It’s a piling up of misery for Chen at this point, who is about to be indicted for helping mobsters smuggle cigarettes into the country. The film takes place in the late 90s, as Macau was to be handed over to China much like Hong Kong had been handed back to China from Britain in 1997.

As an outsider, it’s difficult to say exactly what something like a handover means to people. Being ruled, or administrated, for better or worse is a part of your identity, so intensely for some in Macau that they identify as Macanese instead of Portugese or Chinese. It’s something that seeped through the action veneer of Hong Kong films in the run up to their handover by Britain as well, but was handled mostly in a flurry of gun violence and Kung Fu instead of honest drama, as is done here.

But with the handover rapidly approaching, officials are trying to sweep up the corruption and make everything as tidy as possible, which leaves Chen with few options. He can either kill the man who informed on him and risk life in jail, flee or Thailand or serve his sentence for corruption. The arrival of Bik-Yan does nothing to help him make a choice.

In Hong Kong, Chapman To is more known for comedies than dramas, but the movie he may be most known for in America is his dramatic co-starring turn in Infernal Affairs, the Andrew Lau/Alan Mok film that Martin Scorsese’s The Departed was based on. He’s always been charming, but hard to take seriously in most of his roles. He has a good comedic presence, but Isabella came as a shock to the system for people who didn’t realize he had some acting chops. He has a lot of acting chops, honestly. He ends up being almost a poor man’s Little Tony Leung, stretching his role into entirely vulnerable areas that you’d never expect of him. His character is all flaw and all vulnerability all of the time. He drinks too much, gambles, smokes, takes up with whores and, as mentioned earlier, is a corrupt cop, though mildly corrupt compared to what surrounds him. It is a snowball effect, it seems. One thing leads to the next and the next, and so on. Chapman To carries all of his on his small shoulders and delivers it right into our laps.

Isabella Leong is a mega-star in the Canto Pop scene, and even tried to break into the American market with a turn in one of the God awful Mummy movies. Needless to say that just like South Korean megastar Jun Ji-hyun before her, it didn’t work out as well as it did for Zhang Ziyi. Still, there is something about Isabella Leong’s performance here as a teenage in trouble that draws you into this picture fully. If she didn’t have that unexplainable “it” factor to her, Chapman To’s performance might not have been enough to make the film work. She too is vulnerable, which is nothing new for young girls to portray on screen, but beyond that there is a deepis fragility and naivety to her, but still she tries to make her new situation work. She does for herself what no one else will do any more. It’s one of those roles that will probably always be part of the definition of her career, especially in my eyes since I don’t listen to C-Pop. She will always be Bik-yan, no matter who she plays. While that might be a great thing for her career, it’s a great thing for this film.

Isabella is a beautiful film as much as it’s a beautiful story. Pang, his cinematographer and art director capture all of the lushness of the island’s Pacific greenery and it’s Portuguese architecture, creating a depth of stunning visual texture to lay over the emotional texture.  What might have felt like an awkward love story in less capable hands becomes a story of engage and retreat, connection and disconnection, of isolation and dependence, and of reliance and self reliance.