Monday, February 20, 2023

Ten Recent-ish Movies You Need to See but Haven't

This is sort of an installment in my "Catch-Up" series of short reviews, but rather than filtering by genre, I'm highlighting some of the best movies of the past five or six years I suspect slipped under your radar. That means, I'm intentionally leaving off anything that did remotely well in theaters - to be eligible a movie basically needs to either have bombed, been released to a hilariously small number of screens, or gone right to streaming. And if it's the latter, it better not have been a major cultural milestone (e.g., Happiest Season isn't on this list, because everyone knows about it and most everyone's seen it). Likewise, no movies that already won dozens of major awards or franchise installments appear below. The point of this is to gather up the stuff I suspect you either haven't heard of or skipped and forgot about.

A few of these are movies I've discussed here in the past. They're not in any particular order - they're not ranked or anything - but all are worth checking out.

Vesper (2022)

Technically, Vesper is a Lithuanian science-fiction film from last year, but it's difficult to convey how little that actually communicates about the experience of watching this fascinating, unique film. Imagine a live-action Miyazaki movie, fused with Terry Gilliam, centered around something from Grimm's Fairy Tales, and set in post-apocalyptic medieval Europe. Now picture that getting shipped into Area X from Annihilation. Vesper is basically the movie you'd expect to emerge a few weeks later.

Sounds pretty damn good, right? Yeah, well, it is.

Throw in some innovative visual effects (mostly practical) that are evocative, creepy, and hauntingly beautiful, and you've got something extraordinary. The setting and tone are so good, I barely even cared that the story was effective, the theme timely, the cast really good, and the characters all interesting: that stuff felt like icing. I'd be recommending this even if it weren't smart and well constructed, but as a nice bonus, it's both those things.

I should mention there's some disturbing imagery in here. Nothing too bad; just be aware there's some gnarly R-rated stuff in this that might make you squirm. And, for what it's worth, it belongs here. The freaky stuff enhances the world, and is eerily beautiful, like everything else in this film.

I didn't watch and review this in time to make my 2022 ranking, but if I had it would be in either the 2nd or 1st place. I really love this one, and strongly encourage fans of science-fiction or fantasy to check it out. It's truly special.

Cyrano (2022)

I never know whether to date these by technical release dates or US openings. If you prefer the former, than this was 2021, not 2022. But - despite being an absolutely fantastic musical reimagining of the classic story - Cyrano's release didn't really make much of a dent in either year. Pity. I really like this one.

I hardly know what to highlight. Everything from the costumes to the cinematography to the cast (Dinklage, in particular) is fantastic. But maybe the most memorable aspect is the music: I'd listen to these songs on their own. Stylistically, they lean towards pop/rock, and they're well written, well sung, and cleverly shot in ways blending the period of the setting with musical videos from eras being referenced. Think MTV meets Shakespeare in Love: it's a blast to watch and hear.

The closest thing I have to a criticism is the movie feels like it's being held back by the simplicity of the story it's telling. The psychology just doesn't hit as hard as the music, acting, or directing. But if the biggest problem I have with your adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac is that it's still "just" Cyrano de Bergerac... well... that's not actually a shortcoming.

This is absolutely worth seeing if you haven't already. I wish a few of these fantastic musicals would make money - we're living through a renaissance in the genre, but it seems unlikely to last if these keep bombing at the box office. 

The Little Hours (2017)

I watched this having no idea what it was, when it took place, or what the tone was going to be. If you, too, don't know what "The Little Hours" is, go to Amazon (it's playing on Prime) and start watching (assuming there are no young children around). Do it now. Don't read the rest of this review, don't look at the synopsis, and FOR THE LOVE OF GOD do not watch the trailer.

Seriously. Avoid the trailer like the plague until you see the movie. Feel free to check it out after - it works well as a fun recap - but the real joy of The Little Hours comes from experiencing its surprises as they're offered. There are moments in the movie that had me howling with laughter in absolute delight - they wouldn't have had anywhere near the same impact if I'd been anticipating them. And the trailer gives them all away.

I'm going to avoid spoiling as much as possible, but - again - I highly recommend you watch this knowing as little as possible. I already feel bad revealing it's a comedy: the movie is built out of surprises, and that extends to the genre.

A big part of what makes this work for me is the style. It's a comedy, but it isn't at all filmed like one. Everything in this, from the color palette to the lettering in the credits, evokes period dramas made in the 1960s and 70s, and - despite a cast of legendary comedians - this doesn't really wink or acknowledge that. It's shot very seriously and edited with straightforward music choices, and all of that highlights the absolute joyful absurdity of the film itself.

Only in some ways that description isn't doing the movie justice. The movie's comical approach hides the fact that, at least on occasion, it's absurd recreation of the past is likely more historically accurate than many of the self-serious dramas out there. One scene in particular (again, I'm really trying not to give anything away) had me in awe at how much more believable the characters' behavior was than perhaps any other movie I've seen set in a similar time.

I hope you stopped reading this a paragraph or two in and rushed to check it out. The Little Hours slipped under the radar in 2017 and seems to have largely disappeared since, and that's a tragedy. I'd easily rank this within the top 5 best comedies of the past decade I've seen, at least in terms of the overall joy I experienced watching it. Please, do yourself a favor and give this a chance.

The House (2022)

Further eroding the line between movies and miniseries, I suspect Netflix's release, The House, was conceived as the latter but presented as the former. But the sake of simplicity, this was released as a single, movie-length anthology, so I'm going to take it as such. 

Complicating issues around classification, this is officially a "dark comedy," but I don't see that at all. The first two stories are horror, while the third is sort of a surreal post-apocalyptic yarn. Sure, there are some comedic moments tossed in, but no more than you'd expect from the average horror flick (quite a bit less, in my opinion). I'm assuming this got labeled as comedy because two of the three parts feature anthropomorphic animals. But that's a feature of style, not of genre, and in this case it's liable to be misleading.

I should also note this one isn't for kids. The stories are actually kind of scary, and - while it pulls a few punches - things don't end particularly well for most of the main characters. Also, if you give a fuck about naughty words, this has a few. If you're looking to calibrate, I'd say you'd want to wait a few years for this after your kid's old enough to watch something like Coraline without nightmares. It's creepy, disturbing, and more mature than most people are used to seeing in this medium.

Whatever this is, it's absolutely breathtaking, a gorgeously animated stop-motion production exploring some very dark concepts. This explores the dangers of materialism, capitalism, and obsession. But at the same time, it's beautiful. Each of the three stories looks and feels unique. The first features characters and objects made of felt, similar to what Robin Robin used but to quite literally the opposite effect. The second looks the most like something Laika might do if they wanted to traumatize their younger viewers (more than usual, I mean). And the third almost feels like it's channeling Wes Anderson via The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

I loved them all. The artistry on display is really incredible, and the tone is a good reminder that stop motion has applications beyond "kid's stuff." For those of you familiar with the 1988 Czech film, Něco z Alenky (you might know this as the adaptation of Alice in Wonderland with stop-motion taxidermy), this has a similar vibe. I'm really happy to see something this weird and pretty popping up on Netflix. What a treat.

See You Yesterday (2019)

While it could have used a bit more money, time, and maybe an additional draft to punch up a few key scenes, See You Yesterday is still a fascinating entry in the time-travel subgenre. It uses the concept of fate vs. will as a metaphor that's both effective and original, which is alone enough of a reason to check this out on Netflix. On top of that, it's well made and engaging as a genre flick, even setting aside the larger questions it's asking.

It's worth noting this is a bit deceptive. The movie begins as a sort of silly adventure, before ultimately veering into darker, heavier territory. I don't think this is a problem, but I suspect the tonal shift will be off-putting to audiences looking for easy answers and happy endings.

Which brings us into spoiler territory, because I don't think any discussion of See You Yesterday can proceed without touching on the resolution. Or perhaps lack thereof? I go back and forth on whether the last shot is tragic, optimistic, or ambiguous, which is likely the point. This is a movie about the sense of vertigo communities feel reliving what must feel like the same tragedies again and again. Structurally, the movie tells us Claudette's refusal to accept this is a tragic flaw. One interpretation of the ending is that she'll inevitably destroy herself trying to stop inevitable tragedy. In a sense, this is the easiest interpretation, as it adheres to traditional tropes and character archetypes. In a "normal" time travel story, a character who behaves as the protagonist does and ignores the warnings she refuses to accept is typically doomed.

But this isn't just a time travel story, and the thing Claudette trying to change isn't trivial or selfishly motivated. If anything, it feels like the movie is setting up the idea that fate should be accepted in order to dare us to confront the ramifications of apathy. In context, Claudette's response is the noble one, despite going against the conventional moral of the genre.

But the movie doesn't ultimately reward this with a happy ending. Instead, it closes with her continuing her mission, very possibly indefinitely or until it destroys her. Or, perhaps, until her refusal to accept the world as is overcomes the forces of inertia opposing her. In a sense, the movie is asking us which will win in the end: is the will to change greater than the cycle of loss?

And I wish I could say I found that ending uplifting. Perhaps it was supposed to be, but watching this four years later, I feel like the intervening time provided an answer. It's heartbreaking in retrospect, whether that was intended or not.

Barb and Star go to Vista del Mar (2021)

I was completely unprepared for this movie.

I'm not sure where I got the idea that this was a light comedy with some drama, but that's what I was expecting: a conventional comedy. A simple movie built on tone. Nothing too extreme.

Imagine my surprise three minutes in when the supervillain showed up. This is a completely absurd, over-the-top farce. Imagine a middle-aged women's answer to Harold and Kumar, Bill and Ted, or... whatever the names of the characters were in Dude, Where's My Car.

Only those comparisons aren't exact. All of those movies are centered around young men and have fairly similar tones. Barb and Star are in their forties. That alone is game-changing, but this also looks and feels completely different. It's cartoonishly bright, with elaborate musical numbers. There are sequences that almost look like Wes Anderson with the saturation turned up. 

All of which is to say that while this feels like a spiritual cousin to the films listed above, it's not really in the same genre. If those are essentially stoner comedies, maybe this is a mimosa farce. Call it whatever you want, it feels fresh and new, which is extraordinarily rare. On its own, that's already enough a reason to recommend it.

But also... it's completely hilarious. Just a riot, start to finish. I loved it.

The one caveat I might offer is that it's a lot to take in. I ended up watching this in two parts, which was a good way to experience it: at almost two hours, it's a bit overwhelming without a break. I wouldn't call that a flaw - the movie never stops being funny - but I'm glad I saw this at home rather than in a theater.

To be clear, if the biggest issue with your comedy is it's too much fun for one sitting... that's a pretty good sign. Definitely check this one out.

Pig (2021)

It's admittedly a stretch including this here, as it picked up a fair number of awards and has been widely promoted by movie fans online. But it was snubbed at the Oscars, and it made virtually nothing in theaters (though, to be fair, it cost almost nothing to make, too).

And it is really fantastic. If you haven't seen it and know nothing about it, just stop reading now. The less you know, the better: this plays with your expectations and subverts your genre expectations in ways I never imagined.

Even aside from that, it's fantastic. This is one of Nicholas Cage's best performances, right up with Mandy (side note: I'm assuming you've all seen Mandy - otherwise, consider that an eleventh row on this list). Pig is an emotionally complex, philosophically moving film everyone should see.  

Petite Maman (2021)

I'm going to stagger how I describe this in the hopes anyone reading this review will stop as soon as possible then watch the movie before I even touch on the premise or genre. Let's start with the three pieces of information that convinced me to watch this the same day I heard it existed. First, it's written and directed by Céline Sciamma, the visionary who made Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which if you somehow haven't seen it... go watch that now, because it raises the bar for how good movies can look and be. Second, it's 72 minutes long, so it's not going to eat up your evening. Third, it's streaming on Kanopy, a service you most likely have free access to if you have a library card in your wallet.

If that's enough, great, we're done here, at least until you've seen it, which - again - will only take an hour and change. It's not so much that I think knowing details about the movie will spoil it (this isn't that kind of movie), but there's no reason to rob yourself of the enjoyment of allowing the story to unfold in its own time. Because pacing and tone are major components in what makes this special. But you probably already figured that out from the "written and directed by Céline Sciamma" part.

I'll also add, for those still around, this one's appropriate for kids, provided they're old enough to manage the subtitles. Actually, a more accurate description would be "appropriate for adults," because (surprise) this is a kid's movie. As in, told from a child's point of view in ways that will resonate with a child and doesn't include objectionable material. Petite Maman is more or less G-rated.

But it's a kid's movie with depth, sincerity, and nuance. Think Prancer, as a reference point, or just go with the movies the director herself cited as inspiration: the works of Miyazaki.

Okay, see, now we're drifting dangerously close to revealing the genre, because this isn't just a beautifully told drama about a young girl coping with a difficult time and struggling to understand her mother. I mean, it's also that, and that'd be enough in the hands of a director like Sciamma, but...

It's also a time-travel story. Tonally, more fantasy time-travel than science-fiction, in that it doesn't care how or why it's occurring, doesn't contend with the usual tropes, and is instead only interested in the way the kids react to the magic around them. Which in this case can more or less be summed up as quiet amusement. She understands what's happening, appreciates the opportunity, and eventually discusses it with her mother's younger self, but neither express amazement or wonder at what's going on. It's just another thing they don't really understand in a world that's already more complicated than adults admit. So they do what kids do: they become friends, play, and talk.

Of course there are themes of growing up, of exploring the past, of coming to understand your parents as changing beings... and all that's really great. But what I found the most refreshing was a live-action movie with a realistic tone where kids just kind of casually explore a classic genre trope as if it's just another interesting path in the woods.

Blow the Man Down (2020)

This does for my home state of Maine what I imagine the Coen Brothers did for the Midwest: remind me why I left.

Okay, that's at least half a joke (I still love you, Maine), but this captures something about my home state in the months tourists stay away. It's a Maine of old buildings and towns built around industries that have been gone a generation. It's a ghost story where the ghost is the entire setting, where the people inhabit a spirit rather than the other way around.

This one came and went without garnering much attention, but it stayed with me.

Shadow in the Cloud (2020)

Yeah, I'm recommending this again. Probably not for the last time, either: I just love the hell out of this movie. It's weird and fascinating in ways horror and action movies never are. It pivots between genres brilliantly, exploiting a change in tone to enhance its story rather than break it. And the entire last act is just perfection, culminating in a final fight that breaks every rule in every book, delivering something that surprised and delighted me.

Be aware the credited writer is a horrible human being, but don't hold this against the movie. Based on some interviews I've read, it sounds like Director Roseanne Liang more or less rewrote the entire thing anyway.

Please, track this down. It's amazing.

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