Overlooked Gems from the Last Few Years (Part 2)

As I did before, I just want to give some quick shout-outs to some movies that came and went, without much recognition, that deserved a little more attention. They could be great movies or just ones that have more to chew on than the world realized at the time.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

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From the directors of Crazy, Stupid Love, writer Robert Carlock (showrunner of 30 Rock), and starring Tina Fey, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is an unexpectedly tense movie that was sold as something else. Understandably, the studio didn’t know how to market this movie; with such a high caliber, comedy background, it seemed to make sense to advertise it as a goofy satire of the war against terrorism in the Middle East. Yes, there are plenty of comedic flares to this movie but it certainly isn’t a comedy.

WTF is far more of a tense meditation on how journalists cope with the stress of living in a war-zone for the once in a lifetime opportunity to make a name for themselves (I majored in journalism in college and jumped ship at the last second… you spend your entire career trying to establish yourself in an overcrowded, dying medium; I totally get why a journalist would take this opportunity). Tina Fey gives far and away her best film performance here and that is obviously aided by the script from her longtime collaborator, Carlock, who knows exactly what her strengths are. The movie is a little wobbly and probably could have used a little more time in the oven but if you were turned off but the goofy trailers, try giving it a shot, you will likely be surprised by the final product.

Midnight Special

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Following up 2013’s nearly-perfect, Mud, would be an impossible task for director Jeff Nichols… and it was. Nichols came back in 2016 with two films: Midnight Special and Loving. Both deserve a larger conversation than they were given at their time of release, even though neither of them quite live up the powerhouse film that Mud was.

Midnight Special paints a very tense and mysterious picture for the viewer and is a promising look at what Nichols can do with an expanded budget (mind you, it only cost $18 million, but that’s the biggest budget he’s ever worked with). It feeds you lots of breadcrumbs and gives you half ideas that you expect to pay off later. Without spoiling anything, it doesn’t quite pay off in the satisfactory manner that we have become accustomed to. I applaud Nichols for giving us as little exposition as possible; he trusts that the viewer is intelligent enough to piece things together or at least get a general concept of what’s going on. Because of this, we don’t have to deal with too much awkward dialogue where characters state things that all the other characters already know, just to fill us in.

Michael Shannon works well with Nichols, as always, and does a great job as the rock of the movie, portraying Roy Tomlin, the weary father of a boy with vaguely-defined supernatural abilities. Joel Edgerton (who seems to be working as often as James Franco these days) is a solid addition to the cast as the muscle of the getaway operation. For most of the movie, we’re served a long-term chase where we learn bits and pieces of what this mysterious boy is capable of. He can mentally tune into the radio, he can hypnotize people with his eyes, although we are never quite sure what this does, and in one scene, he is able to telepathically pull a satellite from space and crash it down to earth (we never see him use any abilities this powerful again in the film which is strange because if he has that kind of power, he could probably use it to take down some faceless henchmen with ease). Overall, we are treated to a kind of movie that we rarely ever see: fully realized to the creator but almost intentionally hidden from the audience to create an air of mystique.

Again, it does not provide the most satisfying conclusion in the world but damn is it creative. This is one you can definitely revisit on multiple occasions to find new hidden secrets.

Loving

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If Midnight Special is Nichols at his most mysterious (and he’s been plenty mysterious in the past), Loving is him at his most straightforward. It’s unfortunate that I have to admit this but I didn’t know anything about this story before I saw this movie and I honestly cannot believe this story, about how an interracial married couple, was breaking the law, simply by being married, isn’t something more people talk about.

This could, perhaps, be called Nichols’ attempt at Oscar glory but I don’t think it comes off that way. In the end, the film received a Best Actress nomination for Ruth Negga (who is undeniably great), but it really doesn’t play as Oscar-bait. Don’t get me wrong, the elements are all there but Nichols never goes for the sweeping “Oscar Moments.” He simply tells the story; he lets the material speak for itself and it’s an honorable notion, even if it did leave this film as an afterthought to most people.

The performances between Negga and Joel Edgerton as the titular Loving family are pitch perfect. They don’t seem like two people whose personalities would click, what with Mildred (Negga) being so soft and warm while Richard (Edgerton) is the epitome of a gruff, “rough around the edges” kind of guy but ultimately just wants to do right by his wife and kids.

What speaks volumes about this movie is how well it all works without it trying to entertain. It also doesn’t go bleak; it gets depressing and at time feels hopeless but (at the risk of sounding too cliché for my own good) there is a pervading sense of love throughout that really holds it all together. The moment where Loving’s attorney, Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) asks “Is there anything you’d like me to say to the supreme court justices of the United States?” and Richard responds, simply “Yeah. Tell the judge I love my wife.” Is a chillingly beautiful moment that reminds us of the importance of this movie better than almost anything that was rewarded at the Academy Awards that year.

Overlooked Gems from the Last Few Years

Most people like to discuss their top ten favorite or least favorite movies of the year and that’s fine; I’ll fall for that clickbait every single time. But the real reason we click on those is because we know we’re gonna be pissed off by it and work ourselves into a fury about how stupid the writer is and that they have no taste. It’s great. It’s the journalistic version of Chipotle: you have a great, delicious experience but by the end, you’re burning out of your ass.

While I like to read those pieces, I find it more interesting to look at movies that maybe weren’t that great or no one really saw but had an undeniable charm or personality to them. Those are the ones I find myself reflecting on more often than others. I’m not going to confine these next examples to a particular year… these are just movies that came out in the last few years that you may want to take a second look at.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

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This movie is legitimately great. There hasn’t been a funnier movie since it came out. I honestly do believe if this movie had a little more of a marketing push, word of mouth would have carried it to the finish line. It is literally built for millennials and not just because it essentially works as “The Lonely Island Movie” but it is so representative of the popular music scene right now. The music industry is and always has been a bloated, self-aggrandizing world, so satirizing it is as easy as doing a slam dunk with the hoop on the lowest height. For some reason, audiences do not turn out to see comedies about the music industry; if you want an audience for your music movie, it needs to be as straightforward and unflinchingly self-serious like “Ray” or “Walk the Line.”

Popstar isn’t just a string of new music videos from The Lonely Island, it does have a legitimate story to tell about friendship and success. Of course, beyond all of this… it’s insanely hilarious and its true feat is that it isn’t just one kind of comedy. When you watch a Will Ferrell or Seth Rogen movie, you get the exact same tone and style of comedy all throughout. Popstar looks for comedy down all sorts of different avenues. It manages to make excessive cameos funny. 99 times out of 100, when a movie relies heavily on cameos (Zoolander 2), it means the script sucks. In Popstar, the cameos help build the reality of the movie; it helps to have A$AP Rocky, Carrie Underwood, Ringo and many more discuss the fictional band in the movie… it feels real.

Out of the Furnace

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I get why this one never permeated the culture. Out of the Furnace is bleak. It meanders quite a bit in the first half and even when it sets the final plot in motion, it is still very patient to move. Having said all that, this movie is great. I don’t always love Christian Bale, especially when he uses his monotone American accent; everything he says sounds like he’s carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. But here it seems like he’s comfortable enough to get a little rangey with his accent; he puts on more of a small-town twinge to it and somehow that allows him to emote a bit more.

The rest of the cast is great as well –it’s probably the best thing I’ve seen Forest Whitaker do in years. What really sells the movie though, is the non-stop rising of tension. It’s remarkable how tense it gets despite how quiet the whole thing is. It lets you agonize over every crunch, bullet and punch you see as it all crescendos to the finale.

A friend of mine said a few weeks ago that director Scott Cooper is a master “at taking scripts with lots of potential and making them as mediocre as possible.” I would agree with that for films like Crazy Heart and Black Mass but I believe he’s tapped into some kind of beautiful, soaring brutality with Out of the Furnace. This movie doesn’t care if you think it’s slow; if you tried to cut it down then you’d all complain that it was too rushed. Take some time with this one; it’s worth the wait.

The Judge

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I imagine I’m really the only big fan of this movie (I’m well aware it isn’t that great) but I seriously love it and I know exactly why. This movie came out right around the time when I was moving out of my parents’ house in suburbia, where I had lived my whole life (other than my college years), to New York City. Of course, on some level, I was proud of myself; many people from my life were staying in the area we grew up in, but I was moving on to BIG things down in the city and one day I could come back as a big city hotshot and look down on everyone still living their quaint little lives… that’s the fantasy anyway.

The Judge has some key elements of that plot: Hank (Robert Downey Jr.) moves away from his little town as soon as he can and becomes a bigshot lawyer in Chicago. He’s forced to return to his hometown for his mother’s funeral but it takes a huge turn when a legal issue regarding his estranged father arises, and he is forced to spend weeks back home to defend him in court, oh and his dad is the TOWN’S JUDGE! While he stays there, he is forced to reconcile with his own past in the fictional town of Carlinville, Indiana, as well as make amends with those he’s left behind, all while desperately trying to get back to his old life in Chicago. “You’re just a boy from Indiana, trying to do whatever it takes to pretend that’s not true,” his old high school girlfriend tells him in a very on-the-nose sequence.

I get it. This one plays into my own personal fantasy more so than it does for others. That’s fine, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing of worth here. We get legitimately great performances out of Robert Duvall (who was nominated for an Oscar) and Robert Downey Jr. Watching them go back and forth throughout the movie is an absolute delight to see. There’s even a solid Vincent D’Onofrio performance in there, along with delightful offerings from Dax Shepard and Vera Farmiga. This movie is long and it probably doesn’t earn its runtime but I love spending time in this fictional town; it feels very real. Robert Downey Jr. aside, the people look like normal people rather than a town of gorgeous movie stars. The setting feels authentic and it overall is just a nice place to live for the entire run of the movie. I’m always down to go back.