Writer/director Colette Burson working with actress Patricia Arquette on the set of Permanent, 2016.
Here are eighteen new movies due to be released in theaters or via other viewing platforms this December, all of which have been directed and/or photographed by women. These titles are sure to intrigue cinephiles and also provoke meaningful discussions on the film world, as well as the world in general.
DECEMBER 1: The Dancer (dir. Stéphanie Di Giusto) – City Cinemas Village East Cinema synopsis: “A young woman from the American Midwest, Loïe Fuller (Soko) became the toast of the Folies Bergère at the turn of the 20th century and an icon of the Belle Epoque. Inventor of the breathtaking Serpentine Dance, she was a pioneer of modern dance and lighting techniques. It was her complicated relationship to her protégé – Isadora Duncan (Lily-Rose Depp) – that precipitated the downfall of this early 20th century icon.”
DECEMBER 1 (streaming on Netflix): My Happy Family (dirs. Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß) – Village Voice review by Bilge Ebiri: “There are few things more terrifying than being asked, ‘How have you lived your life?’ while in the midst of living one’s life. In the new Georgian film My Happy Family, that question is asked, implicitly and explicitly, of a number of characters. The story focuses largely on one woman’s attempt to free herself of the shackles of a stultifying marriage, but a subdued sense of panic courses throughout, infecting everyone else: This is a movie about obligations, and about what-might-have-beens and what-could-still-bes. Directed by Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross — who work together as Nana & Simon, and who directed the lovely coming-of-age film In Bloom a couple of years ago — My Happy Family is coming out on Netflix, but don’t let its lack of a theatrical release fool you. This picture has been ringing in my mind ever since I saw it at Sundance; it may well be the best film I’ve seen this year.
“It opens on 52-year-old literature teacher Manana (Ia Shugliashvili) checking out a rental apartment in a working-class corner of Tbilisi. We soon learn that she has decided to leave her husband, her two grown kids, and her mom and dad — all of whom live crammed under the same roof — to go find a quiet place for herself, a space where she can sit by a window, relax, read a book, and eat some cake, free of the responsibilities and sacrifices of being a wife and mother and daughter. Manana refuses to explain herself to anybody, even as her decision causes shockwaves across her family and friends. She doesn’t have a lover, or an ulterior motive, or dreams of starting some crazy new endeavor. There was no big falling out with her husband. After living for everyone else, now, in her fifties, she wants just to be by herself.
“But My Happy Family isn’t a simple tale of one woman’s liberation. Nana and Simon astutely follow the ripples and counter-ripples of Manana’s decision in the lives of those who know her, and one of the great delights of this film is the way it charts the shifting waves of allegiances that can occur in a family that loves and argues with equal ferocity. Her kids and husband may be shocked, but they suddenly take her side when their extended family tries to intervene. And Manana, as decisive as she is in pursuing this new life, still keeps being pulled back into the tumult of her family’s many disputes and heartbreaks. She’s still a mom and a daughter. She’s still, on some level, a wife.
“The film unfolds as a series of long takes, as we follow characters in and out of rooms, staying close enough to register individual experiences while always making sure to keep the rest of the world in focus. But the camerawork isn’t that rough, handheld, vérité style we’ve become so used to; it’s fluid without being showy, immediate without being unbalanced. The urgency and tension of each scene emerges organically. I was also mesmerized by the intimate detail with which this world was rendered — everything from the particular way a cheese seller holds out her hands while giving an old friend a hug, to the subtle ways that men and women reorganize themselves when in large groups. There isn’t a single second that doesn’t ring as achingly true.
“My Happy Family grows more complex as it unfolds, as Manana learns more and more about her world and her family by her decision to separate from them. Nothing is, ultimately, as it seems. In that opening scene, the woman renting the apartment out to Manana tells her about the good luck the flat brings; a gas company employee visiting later in the film reveals that the previous tenant tried to kill themselves. Meanwhile, Manana’s distant, rarely happy husband, Soso (Merab Ninidze), turns out to have had secrets of his own. Usually in movies, these sorts of revelations help clarify matters, further establishing key themes and helping lead to narrative resolutions. But here, the more we learn, the less we know. One person’s betrayal turns out to be another’s sacrifice. Protective impulses become threats. Heartbreak becomes possibility. It all goes on and on until you realize that what you’re watching isn’t a movie anymore. It is life itself, in all its messiness and horror and glory.”
DECEMBER 1: Slumber (dir. Jonathan Hopkins) (DP: Polly Morgan) – Goldcrest Films synopsis: “Slumber tells the story of Alice (Maggie Q), a rationally minded sleep doctor, who is forced to abandon scientific reason and accept a family is being terrorised by a parasitic demon which has existed in every human culture since records began. Paralysing victims as they sleep, the ‘Night Hag’ is the original Nightmare.”
DECEMBER 1: 32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide (dir. Hope Litoff) – The Hollywood Reporter’s Hot Docs review by Frank Scheck: “More and more documentaries seem to be made as much for self-therapeutic as informational purposes. Such is certainly the case with Hope Litoff’s deeply personal effort about coping with her sister’s suicide. Rough-hewn stylistically and occasionally bordering on self-indulgence, 32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide nonetheless packs a powerful emotional punch with its unflinching portrait of two siblings dealing with past and present demons. The HBO Documentary Films production recently received its world premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs.
“Hope recounts the story of her older sister Ruth, an accomplished photographer who suffered from mental illness and had attempted to kill herself multiple times, starting when she was a teenager, before finally completing the task in December 2008 via an overdose of prescription drugs. The police on the scene told Hope that they had never seen anything like it, with Ruth having meticulously prepared individual notes and gifts for numerous family members and friends. She added a postscript to her note to Hope: ‘I know you know.’ Hope confesses that she has no idea exactly what her sister meant.
“Hope, who has a long history of drug and alcohol abuse herself, put her sister’s belongings in storage. Six years later, finally feeling emotionally equipped, she rented a large Brooklyn loft for the purpose of systematically combing through Ruth’s things in an effort to better understand why her sister did what she did. She begins the daunting task with trepidation. ‘I don’t like to remember things, and I feel like all the memories are in there,’ she says, peering into the packed storage locker.
“The resulting process becomes obsessive, as Hope devotes herself to her task at the expense of spending time with her husband and two young children. The emotionally draining proceedings also threaten her longtime sobriety. She films herself downing a double shot of vodka, her first drink in 16 years. While the film’s producer looks on in horror, Hope samples several pills from Ruth’s large stash of prescription meds (there were actually hundreds of bottles). She posts hundreds of pages from Ruth’s diaries up on the wall, and even goes to the medical examiner’s office to examine the crime scene photos.
“Just as you begin to think that Hope has descended into an irreversible downward spiral, more positive elements emerge. They include her organizing an elaborate installation of Ruth’s photographs in the lobby of Bellevue Hospital, a project begun by Ruth years earlier because she had frequently committed herself there.
“The film benefits by including perspectives of people other than Hope, such as several of Ruth’s former friends who attest to her magnetism, beauty and talent. ‘She could have been a cult leader, she was so charismatic,’ one of them declares. There’s also striking video footage of Ruth as a teenager, excerpted from an episode of ABC’s 20/20 in which she was profiled.
“32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide is a difficult film to watch, for myriad reasons. But it will certainly resonate deeply with anyone who has struggled with depression or addiction or loved anyone who has. It’s no doubt been cathartic for its first-time filmmaker, and will likely prove the same for many viewers as well.”
DECEMBER 5 (on VOD): Fits and Starts (dir. Laura Terruso) – The Hollywood Reporter’s AFI Fest review by Sheri Linden: “The complicated matters of marital friction and literary striving share center stage with the easy target of artistic pretension in Laura Terruso’s Fits and Starts, a low-key comedy of errors whose leads’ underplayed oomph bolsters the uneven scenario.
“Terruso, taking her bow as a feature director, is best known as the co-writer of Hello, My Name Is Doris, which was based on a short film she made. As with that 2015 Sally Field vehicle, Fit and Starts substitutes quirkiness for convincing narrative drive, relying on a couple of nuanced central performances to make its cutely pained developments matter.
“Playing married writers on very different rungs of the success ladder, Wyatt Cenac and Greta Lee deliver the necessary X factor with effortless, angstful charm, even as the narrative devolves into a collection of clichés and predictable developments. The winningly droll Cenac, formerly of The Daily Show, will be the chief draw when the film follows its AFI Fest showcase with a Dec. 5 VOD release by The Orchard.
“The movie’s mildly absurdist tone is set by the panic dream that opens the story. The dreamer is David Warwik (Cenac), a struggling writer whose wife, Jennifer (Lee), is known to the world as J. M. Lee, author of two best-selling novels. Once pegged for a promising writerly trajectory, David is given to mumbling apologetically about ‘making the transition from short stories.’ Jennifer, a hot commodity who’s sought out for media interviews, does what she can to push him into the spotlight. She seizes on an invitation to an artists’ salon held by her publisher (Buzz Bovshow) and his wife (Diane Ciesla), seeing an opportunity for David to read from his work in progress.
“The gathering, in tony Greenwich, Connecticut, is the setting for most of the action. Through a series of blatant contrivances involving New England blue laws as well as digital devices and the lack thereof, David and Jennifer are separated on the way to the soiree and he winds up there alone. Terruso deftly captures his fish-out-of-water anxiety as he steps into the poseur-thick atmosphere of a living room where opera singing and modernist dance mix with literary drivel, conceptual artists (Jenn Harris, Matt Wilkas) in search of a concept, and a self-satisfied book critic (indie filmmaker Onur Tukel) who spouts ridiculous career advice.
“That the patron-of-the-arts hosts would be so dismayed by David’s awkwardness is as hard to buy as his trust in the goofy cops (Larry Murphy, Sam Seder) who pretend to be looking for Jennifer. But with his deadpan knack for weary disgust, Cenac makes David a strong viewer surrogate as he endures the salon’s assortment of types — characters who sometimes hit the mark but are mainly a matter of diminishing returns. Case in point is Alex Karpovsky’s brief turn as a successful editor. His politely barbed exchange with David heavily underscores the setup’s motif of toxic posturing, adding nothing to the proceedings except the actor’s familiar face.
“The typically compelling Maria Dizzia, on the other hand, lends a jolt of imperious looniness and danger as a big-time lit agent with at least one personality disorder. But while the encounter between her and David has an arresting dark energy, it finally falls into the movie’s overall scheme of broad comic swipes rather than finely honed satire.
“Touching on the intrinsically thorny and fascinating art-vs.-hype question, Terruso’s screenplay acknowledges that creativity and self-promotion are an easier combo for some than for others. ‘Networking is part of the work,’ Jennifer insists to the schmoozing-averse David. It’s a crucial observation that gets lost amid the pileup of caricatures, just as the film’s well-directed moments give way to a less-than-satisfying whole.
“Throughout this mixed bag of an escapade, Cenac’s hangdog exasperation is pitch-perfect, and although Lee is sidelined for much of the action, their scenes together have a sure chemistry. The two actors make their characters’ mutual affection and respect as persuasive as their unexpressed rivalry. In this slight but strained diversion, their wit and subtlety never waver.”
DECEMBER 5 (on DVD and digital): The White King (dirs. Alex Helfrecht and Jörg Tittel) – PopMatters review by Paul Risker: “Jörg Tittel and Alex Helfrecht’s directorial feature debut, The White King, an adaptation of György Dragomán’s dystopian novel of the same name, is the story of 12-year-old Djata (Lorenzo Allchurch). The arrest of his father by the totalitarian state is the catalyst for his own coming of age, and the ostracisation of he and his mother, Hannah (Agyness Deyn).
“‘I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.’ These words of Thomas Jefferson resonate with Tittel and Helfrecht’s dystopian vision. Told through the eyes of its young protagonist, The White King sows the seed that one hopes will grow into a dream for a future that is preferable to ‘the history of the past.’ Yet if Djata, like an earlier youthful heroine in Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) of The Hunger Games trilogy, are the heroes upon which ‘the dreams of the future’ rest, then the wisdom of the Buddha — ‘Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment’ — is ingrained in a story told with pragmatic patience.
“Unlike other dystopian tales, amongst them Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962), Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006), Tittel and Helfrecht show little interest in a self-contained story. The choice is one that risks provoking a backlash, but the emphasis on a moment, the chapter between the rise and fall of a regime, strikes up the most unusual or rather unexpected of acquaintances with Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016). An adaptation of author Maile Meloy’s collection of stories, Reichardt’s film is a celebration of the small moments in the lives of the characters. Although one film is set in Montana, the other in a fictitious dystopian country in the future, Reichardt, Tittel and Helfrecht show storytelling as a communal language, or one of close association in spite of seemingly deep contrasts.
“The White King is a bold and brave piece of filmmaking that embraces film as an incomplete form. The ideas are presented in such a way that they require the engagement of the audience. While it’s true that any film is fundamentally an incomplete object until it’s experienced by a single spectator, here are two storytellers that seemingly trust and embrace the ciné-literate audience to extrapolate, to understand, of their own volition.
“During my interview with writer-director Nicolas Pesce for the FrightFest blog, I asked him about the striking omission of a key scene from The Eyes of My Mother (2016). He explained: ‘Part of the speed and tone of the movie was giving the audience places to answer for themselves… By letting the audience do the work, whether it’s the dramatic work or the scares, it will be more relatable to them if they are the ones answering the questions.’ Tittel and Helfrecht’s brand of creating space for the audience is perhaps less overt, presenting a tapestry of ideas or images that requires us to build outward from, to intellectualise those seeds sown in the emotional experience of the film.
“As an Orwellian inspired adaptation, the voyeuristic state whose presence is noted through shots of cameras is also sparingly incorporated. These are interwoven with the coming of age narrative, the violent tussles with bullies to discovering the reality in the stories that lend the world a mysterious, strange and fantastical aura.
“Told through the eyes of an adolescent, the film looks to the replacement of the old by the young, and the attempts of the established order to safeguard tradition. The filmmakers understand there’s a process of shedding the childlike perspective for the adult world view. While our adult perspective sees revolution and the collapse of the state, Djata’s are more humanly simple: he wants to be reunited with his father.
“This speaks to the difficulty of following the wisdom of The Buddha, because as humans the struggle to not dwell on the past or to look to the future is a constant challenge. This is attributable to the simple fact that making peace with or resolving the past forms the future dream or hope we are striving for. While Djata’s simple hope captures a snapshot of the past, present and future coinciding within the folds of the drama, adulthood is exposed as a contradiction. This revelation looks to the work of C.G Jung, specifically the inherent pull between the desire to be an individual with the desire to assimilate ourselves into our immediate society.
“Djata’s grandfather (Jonathan Pryce) is a representation of internal and external conflict. The character is initially simple; he’s revealed to be an individual suffering complex feelings, and damaged by the contradiction of his outward projection versus his inward feelings. Pryce’s character throws up the question of how impermanent our identity is. In the same way as the state creates a version of history, through this single character we see the contradiction of identities that are created for purposes of social belonging versus who we are in our isolation, or with those we place trust to reveal our inner most feelings.
“If The a White King is told through the perspective of an adolescent, Djata’s interactions with his elders echoes Jung’s observation that we learn about our world in our formative years, while our post-adolescence is spent understanding ourselves. Yet this understanding is one convoluted by acts of contradictory self-authorship.
“Interviewing Tittel and Helfrecht for the Aesthetica Short Film Festival blog for the UK theatrical release of the film, they described the purpose of any dystopian novel or piece of fiction as being: ‘To hold a mirror to where we are today.’ From within the oppressive folds of a future dystopia emerges a stark presential warning. While numerous documentaries, amongst them The Square (2008) and Silvered Water, Syria Self Portrait (2014) have been produced looking to the struggle against totalitarian regimes in the Middle East, Tittel and Helfrecht’s dystopian and fictional future is not far removed from our present. The White King is a bold vision crafted with conviction, whose youthful hero is destined to escape his own transformative brawl, and forges a powerful and evocative tale of adolescence mortally wounded.”
DECEMBER 6: Bill Frisell: A Portrait (dir./DP: Emma Franz) – IFC Center synopsis: “This look at the anti-archetype guitar hero traces the ideas that shaped Frisell’s music, offering rare insight into one of the most influential musicians working today. Full of live music, revealing stories, and intimate access to the normally reclusive artist, the film includes the final performance of the Paul Motian Trio with Frisell and Joe Lovano. Featuring Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon, Ron Carter, and many more.”
DECEMBER 8: Arthur Miller: Writer (dir. Rebecca Miller) – New York Film Festival synopsis: “Rebecca Miller’s film is a portrait of her father, his times and insights, built around impromptu interviews shot over many years in the family home. This celebration of the great American playwright is quite different from what the public has ever seen. It is a close consideration of a singular life shadowed by the tragedies of the Red Scare and the death of Marilyn Monroe; a bracing look at success and failure in the public eye; an honest accounting of human frailty; a tribute to one artist by another. Arthur Miller: Writer invites you to see how one of America’s sharpest social commentators formed his ideologies, how his life reflected his work, and, even in some small part, shaped the culture of our country in the twentieth century.”
DECEMBER 8: I Am Evidence (dirs. Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir) – Cinema Village synopsis: “I Am Evidence exposes the alarming number of untested rape kits in the United States through a character–driven narrative, bringing much needed attention to the disturbing pattern of how the criminal justice system has historically treated sexual assault survivors.
“Why is there a rape kit backlog? What can we do to fix the problem? This film explores these questions through survivors’ experiences as they trace the fates of their kits and re-engage in the criminal justice process. I Am Evidence illuminates how the system has impeded justice while also highlighting those who are leading the charge to work through the backlog and pursue long-awaited justice in these cases.
“In this film, we seek to send a clear message to survivors that they matter, that we as a nation will do everything possible to bring them a path to healing and justice, and that their perpetrators will be held accountable for their crimes.”
DECEMBER 8 (Palm Springs & NYC) and DECEMBER 10 (Providence, RI): Mansfield 66/67 (dirs. P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes) (DPs: Larra Anderson and John Tanzer) – Vanity Fair review by Jordan Hoffman: “Apart from being an amusing and entertaining affair, the documentary Mansfield 66/67 breaks new ground by embedding a pun in its title—so long as you aren’t color blind. This look at classic Hollywood’s second-most famous blonde bombshell, Jayne Mansfield, focuses on the end of her life. When the title hits the screen, the three sixes dissolve to red, emerging as the Number of the Beast as some canned, demonic go-go rock plays. (Think karaoke ‘In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida.’) This is the very real and absolutely serious story of how the Devil killed Jayne Mansfield.
“Our first talking-head commentator is John Waters, Grand Mufti of Trash—so that ought to tell you the vibe directors P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes are going for. They do, by and large, succeed.
“There is no shortage of footage-dependent documentaries about 20th-century actors and artists. Many are interesting, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily deserve to be more than glorified DVD extras. But Mansfield 66/67 ups the game in two key ways. Whenever things get boring, it cuts to scenes of men and women in period outfits and blond wigs doing interpretive dance. Also, it regularly and giddily embraces what is most certainly a load of bull, but digests it as if it were fact anyway. ‘Print the legend’ is a cop-out in most cases—but when your subject is someone whose entire career was scaffolded by cheap gossip rags and absurd rumor, you almost have to take myth at face value.
“Jayne Mansfield was the greatest of all Marilyn Monroe copycats. (The runner-up, Mamie Van Doren, makes an appearance here, and in good spirits.) She may have had an ignoble calling, but she did it well. Waters and an array of commentators, including Ph.D. media scholars, feminist authors, nonagenarian filmmaker Kenneth Anger, and drag performer Peaches Christ, isolate moments from her best films, like Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? to prove her natural comic timing. The film also features factoids about her trained musical ability, and that she could speak five languages.
“Still, Mansfield’s essence was Hollywood excess in human form; she had multiple husbands and an enormous pink palace. And just a decade after the Tashlin pictures, Mansfield was working bottom-market nightclubs, supermarket ribbon-cuttings and a disastrous U.S.O. tour in Vietnam. Then, in an attempt to keep her name in the papers (or was it the magnetism of dark forces?), she met Anton LaVey during an drug-and-drink fueled visit to San Francisco.
“Anton Szandor LaVey (real name: Howard Levey) was a camera-ready huckster and one of the great characters of the late 1960s scene. He painted his row house in San Francisco black, and wore a high-thread-count Halloween costume. With his ankhs, altars, pet lion, and home full of topless women, he was like a Hugh Hefner for proto-goth kids. He got great press and, later, wrote a few popular books, making decent money as a consultant on Hollywood productions as well. Some say he actually appeared in Rosemary’s Baby, but this is probably untrue. What is true is that he had a relationship with Jayne Mansfield—and the two of them weren’t shy about letting photographers know.
“As Mansfield’s personal life was at its most complicated—she was dating her married attorney Sam Brody while fighting for custody of her fifth child with her third husband—she took help wherever she could find it. Did she really believe that LaVey’s spells would bring her good fortune? Hard to say. But when LaVey and Brody locked horns, LaVey allegedly hexed him, and warned Mansfield that he’d die in a car crash.
“There were six automobile accidents before the fatal seventh, the one that many believe decapitated Mansfield. (It didn’t, but truck manufacturers did install a safety feature colloquially called the Mansfield Bar soon thereafter.) Mansfield 66/67 weaves in clips of Mansfield’s films and appearances to make insinuating commentary about the influence of black magic toward the end of her life. There are also animated sequences showing scenes that are, to quote, ‘rumored to have happened.’ Among them: LaVey climbing a hill to petition higher powers to spare Mansfield’s son’s life after he was attacked by a lion. (Lions figure into this story quite a bit. The one LaVey owned in San Fransisco eventually co-starred with Melanie Griffith in the bonkers cult film Roar.)
“Mansfield 66/67 is one of the least peer-reviewed documentaries I’ve ever seen—and no one from Mansfield’s family, like her daughter Mariska Hargitay, is anywhere to be found. I’m not even sure the film could be said to exist ‘in the spirit’ of Mansfield. What it evokes instead is a different era in gossip, one that cared less about catching celebrities being real but reveled in their authentic or imagined absurdity.
“Still, the film does take Mansfield’s work seriously. Only someone like John Waters can get away with cheering Mansfield’s death ‘with blood and guts and a headline on the front page and a dead chihuahua,’ and only a certain kind of film can include that line without coming off gross. Strange and unbelievable as it may be, this one deserves a little shelf space in the memorabilia shop inside your mind.
DECEMBER 12 (DVD) [also available on VOD as of 11/28]: Love Is Thicker Than Water (dirs. Emily Harris and Ate de Jong) – The Independent review by Geoffrey Macnab: “This likeable and charming romantic comedy tells the story of a love affair between a young Londoner from an affluent Jewish background and her working-class, Welsh boyfriend from Port Talbot.
“Vida (Lydia Wilson) is a cellist whose ambition, pushed by her mother (Juliet Stevenson), is to play for an orchestra. Arthur (Johnny Flynn) is a cycle courier who is also a talented animator. They’re besotted with one another. At first, as they roam around London together, going to gigs, drinking champagne at dawn, playing childish games and making love, they manage to keep the outside world at bay. Then comes the inevitable conflict as they have to deal with each others’ families and they realise how different their backgrounds are.
“The film is shot in freewheeling, very fluid fashion, with handheld camera work, animation and lots of music all used to convey the young lovers’ carefree obsession with one another. Directors Ate de Jong and Emily Harris also detail the growing tensions between the lovers in a subtle and comic way.
“Arthur is ill at ease with the pretentiousness and cultural snobbery of Vida’s parents. Vida struggles to deal with Arthur’s pigeon-fancying, fish-and-chip-eating, beer-quaffing relatives. Soon, cracks in the relationship appear. When the two families come together for an engagement party, the gulf between them begins to appear unbridgeable.
“We can guess exactly how the story will unfold but that doesn’t lessen the humour or the gentle pathos. Lydia Wilson and Johnny Flynn have an obvious rapport and there are nicely judged character turns too from Stevenson as Vida’s haughty and mysterious mother, Henry Goodman as her easygoing father and from Sharon Morgan as Arthur’s kindly but indiscreet mother.”
DECEMBER 13: Miss Kiet’s Children (dirs. Peter Lataster and Petra Lataster-Czisch) – Film Forum synopsis: “The international press calls Miss Kiet’s Children: ‘a jewel,’ ‘subtle but powerful,’ and ‘tender and shrewdly observed.’ In the Dutch countryside, a gaggle of refugee children, mostly from Syria, are students in Miss Kiet’s classroom. Smart, compassionate, keenly aware of the problems they’ve already lived through – she teaches them to speak Dutch, to talk the talk — but more importantly, to walk the walk. Trust, patience, compassion, and humor are part of the lesson plan. For a refugee child anywhere in the world, Miss Kiet’s class must be the closest thing to dying and going to heaven. The movie is a revelation to anyone who reads the headlines but has no idea how delightful, confounding, and thoroughly surprising ‘refugees’ can be.”
DECEMBER 15 (in theaters and on VOD): Killing for Love (dir. Marcus Vetter with co-dir. Karin Steinberger) – IFC Center synopsis: “In 1985, Derek and Nancy Haysom were brutally murdered in Virginia. The arrest of their college-student daughter and her boyfriend set off a media frenzy, and their trial and conviction were broadcast nationally. But what if the system got it wrong? This gripping true-crime tale examines the romantic obsession and betrayal that may have led an innocent man to take the fall for murder.”
DECEMBER 15 (in theaters and on VOD, including Amazon Video and iTunes): Permanent (dir. Colette Burson) (DP: Paula Huidobro) – Magnolia Pictures International synopsis: “It’s the early 80’s in small town Virginia and ‘Perms’ are all the rage. 13-year Aurelie (Kira McLean) dreams about getting one to finally fit in at her new school but when her clueless parents (Patricia Arquette, Rainn Wilson) bring her to a hairdressing academy to save a few bucks, things go incredibly wrong. This is the story about adolescence, socially awkward family members and bad hair.”
DECEMBER 15: The Rape of Recy Taylor (dir. Nancy Buirski) (DPs: Blaire Johnson, Rex Miller and Steve Pearce) – Eye for Film review by Jennie Kermode: “Recy Taylor was a quiet woman, a committed Christian, married with a daughter and resident in the small Alabama town of Abbeville in 1944. Although society’s attitude to the colour of her skin meant she was never likely to have good opportunities in life, she might have lived in quiet contentment throughout her life, were it not for what happened to her on the night of the third of September of that year. Walking back home from church along streets generally considered to be safe, she was abducted by six white men who raped and abused her so severely that she barely survived and was never able to have another child. But this wasn’t just another addition to the lengthy list of such incidents in American history. Recy’s experience and the courage with which she spoke up about it signalled a tipping point. It would have a significant effect on the shape of the developing civil rights movement.
“Responding to the attack, Recy did everything by the book. She reported it to the police. She provided a detailed account of what happened and described the perpetrators. Her manifest injuries made it clear that something violent had happened to her, and in fact no attempt was made to deny that the rape had happened. But could a black woman living under Jim Crow laws really expect justice when accusing popular young white men and placing their promising futures in jeopardy?
“Despite plentiful records pertaining to the case, little visual material survives, so Nancy Buirski has used a variety of methods to keep the film visually interesting, including footage from the race films of the period. Made for black audiences, these films make an interesting counterpart to the melodramas made for the white population at the same time, in that the extreme situations they depict are more deeply rooted in reality. Numerous studies have shown that the rape of black women was endemic in the period and almost considered as a right of passage for white men, perhaps a consequence of their failure to consider black people as fully human. Like the heroines of these films, ordinary black women knew that they could be attacked at any time, with a not insignificant chance of being murdered, and that they were vanishingly unlikely ever to see justice. The films set the tone very effectively as, on more familiar documentary territory, a local white, male historian expresses his sympathy for Recy but suggests things couldn’t really have been as bad as they seemed.
“As many of those wielding power in such regimes have ultimately learned, the trouble with keeping people in such an intense climate of fear is that they may eventually decide they have little to lose. Far more than just the story of one injustice, this film examines the way that black women drove forward the civil rights movement with their very survival on the line. With women’s contributions routinely overlooked in both documentaries and dramas on the subject, it is a film of vital importance.
“The figure whom viewers are likely to be most familiar with here is Rosa Parks, who, long before reusing to sit at the back of a bus, travelled to Abbeville to support Recy and demand that she receive justice. Manhandled and imprisoned for her trouble, she proceded to tell Recy’s story to the press in other parts of the country, eventually helping it to spread internationally and shaming the Abbeville authorities. The movement that emerged from this would go on to support other women in similar positions.
“But what of Recy? It’s all most of us could do to survive such an assault, let alone to cope with the publicity that followed and the political attention turned to what was really a very simple request. Buirski’s film reveals its quality in staying with Recy to tell the story of what happened to her after all the fuss subsided. In doing so it gets past all the outrage and reminds us that this is a story about a real woman’s life, about the impact on her and her family across the years that followed. We see the big picture but Buirski never allows us to forget that individuals matter. This also helps to bring into focus the ongoing impact of racism and the compound injustices it creates.
“An intelligent, incisive documentary that illustrates how events in that small town in 1944 still matter today, The Rape of Recy Taylor deserves a wide audience.”
DECEMBER 22: Pitch Perfect 3 (dir. Trish Sie) – Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Now graduated from college and out in the real world where it takes more than a cappella to get by, the Bellas return in Pitch Perfect 3, the next chapter in the beloved series that has taken in more than $400 million at the global box office.
“After the highs of winning the World Championships, the Bellas find themselves split apart and discovering there aren’t job prospects for making music with your mouth. But when they get the chance to reunite for an overseas USO tour, this group of awesome nerds will come together to make some music, and some questionable decisions, one last time.”
DECEMBER 25 (limited release), JANUARY 5 (wide release): Molly’s Game (dir. Aaron Sorkin) (DP: Charlotte Bruus Christensen) – Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Molly’s Game is based on the true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), an Olympic-class skier who ran the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game for a decade before being arrested in the middle of the night by 17 FBI agents wielding automatic weapons. Her players included Hollywood royalty, sports stars, business titans and finally, unbeknownst to her, the Russian mob. Her only ally was her criminal defense lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who learned that there was much more to Molly than the tabloids led us to believe.”
DECEMBER 29: Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (dir. Paul McGuigan) (DP: Urszula Pontikos) – Screen Daily’s Toronto International Film Festival review by Wendy Ide: “This sympathetic adaptation of a memoir by Peter Turner (played here by Jamie Bell, at one point parlaying his Billy Elliot hoofing skills into an exuberant disco hustle sequence) tells of the late-blooming romance between Oscar-winning movie star Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) (then in her mid-fifties) and Turner, then a hungry, sporadically employed, young actor in his twenties.
“The film covers a period from their initial meeting in 1979 to her death from cancer in 1981 and while their real-life May-December relationship is persuasively full-blooded and vital, the terminal disease narrative is — perhaps appropriately in this case — given a flattering Hollywood gloss. While the balance between the two sections might have benefitted from being skewed slightly more to the former than the latter, first rate performances from the two leads, and a fine supporting cast, confirms this as an awards season contender.
“We are introduced to Gloria in 1981 as she pieces together, with the ease of practise, her now somewhat tattered Hollywood persona. She’s backstage at a provincial British theatre, minutes away from her entrance in a production of The Glass Menagerie. She sips milk from a champagne glass, and chirrups her way through a set of vocal exercises. From a cassette player next to her mirror, a tinny approximation of Elton John’s ‘Funeral for a Friend’ – a recurring musical motif in the film – plays out.
“The song fleshes out onto the score proper at the same moment when, lashes glued and lipstick applied, the careworn middle-aged lady vanishes, and Gloria Graham, movie star, delivers a screen-melting pout to the mirror. But the star power flickers, and she collapses. Discharging herself from hospital, her best chance for recuperation, she decides, will be at the terraced Liverpool home of her former lover Peter, submitting to the no-nonsense ministrations of Peter’s straight-talking mum (a cherishable, irascible turn from Julie Waters).
“Gloria’s affliction is rather more serious than the ‘gas’ she admits to, although, aside from a dry, papery cough, unbrushed hair and the occasional wince, it’s a relatively benign version of stage four cancer. The timeline of her decline is elegantly woven, through edits laced into 360 panning shots, with the start of her relationship with Peter in 1979.
“It’s in the flashbacks that the fun is to be found. In the forthright physicality of Bell’s performance (a well-toned torso is deployed, perhaps more frequently than is strictly necessary); in Bening’s crackling sass and sizzle – it’s abundantly clear that these are lovers who enjoy each other. A couple of scenes stand out: an early date watching Alien is a joy, with Gloria cackling appreciatively and Peter flinching in fear. And there’s a caustic, all too brief scene which introduces Peter to Gloria’s family, and the skeletons in her closet, over one abortive dinner. Vanessa Redgrave’s lavish theatricality as Gloria’s mother would steal the whole sequence, were it not for Frances Barber, playing Gloria’s sister, stewing poisonously at the edge of the frame.
“The production design is the kind that declaims itself through wallpaper which is every bit as dramatic as the temperamental movie star it surrounds. The cinematography, with its snaking pans, and the sensuous caress of the cherished mementos of the relationship – shoes, a locket – also tends towards showy flourishes.
“But although there’s certainly a lot going on on screen, our attention is focused on Bening’s central performance. The pout and the poise, not to mention the Mae West-style one-liners (‘I love habits, especially bad ones’) charge the earlier scenes with unpredictable energy. But even when the character is bed bound and failing, there are a couple knock out moments when Gloria, through sheer force of will, tries to muster what remains of her faltering star wattage.”