For my annual film guide series Eyes Wide Open — and yes, the 2015 edition is now on sale, thanks for asking — I try to narrow down the list of best films of the year to 25. Some years are easier than others. But pretty much every time there are movies that don’t quite make the cut but still seem worth calling out as worthy of people’s attention.
Book remainders and throwaways are a boon for readers. They lead not just to new discoveries but also access sometimes to desired purchases that are now suddenly available, whether marked down to $5.98 on a bookstore table or sitting out on a Brooklyn stoop for free.
Where I live in Brooklyn, there’re always a lot of books being set out on the sidewalk, and there’re also a lot of authors walking around the neighborhood … I’ve had the experience of seeing stacks of New Yorkers with my cover out on the street, though I haven’t seen my books put out—but then, I also don’t have a giant photo of myself on the back cover.
Dan Lauria (Dinner with the Boys) — “All the rewrites on my play were done sitting at the Westway Diner in a booth late at night. It’s 24 hours. I get all the coffee I want.”
Michael Weller (Doctor Zhivago) — “I tend to write on subways.”
Laura Eason (The Undeniable Sound of Right Now) — “… the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza. The third floor has a music and art room where there are these great tables … You’re surrounded by humanity that I find inspirational and beautiful and sad and complicated.”
With a screenplay by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Shutter Island), an Oscar-nominated director (Michaël R. Roskam, for Bullhead), and an Oscar-worthy turn by Tom Hardy, The Drop would seem to have plenty of ability to overcome its status as a run-of-the-mill crime drama about a mob-linked bar in Brooklyn. Whether it does or doesn’t is up for debate; the genius of Hardy’s performance shouldn’t be.
The Drop is playing in most markets around the country now. My review is at PopMatters:
The response of your average cineaste, upon hearing the words “In Brooklyn…” in a film’s opening narration, is to look for the nearest exit. What follows is too frequently more mythologizing than storytelling. The borough is transformed from specific place to psychic landscape, full of tribal loyalties and tight bonds, where the begrimed and as-yet ungentrified street scene indicates bootstrapping and self-policing pride. Cops not needed here.
However, if you follow your instincts and bolt at the start of Michael R. Roskam’s sturdy and bleak noir The Drop, you miss Tom Hardy creating a thing of beauty yet again…
In yet another attempt to subvert the romantic comedy—a genre that remains essentially dead despite all Cameron Diaz’s efforts—Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child throws a lot into the mix: pregnancy, awkward relationships, and millennial insecurity.
Obvious Child opens in limited release tomorrow. My review is at Film Racket:
A fresh-faced, faux-messy romantic comedy with a refreshingly economic take on the usual meet-cute / separation crisis / resolution arc, Obvious Child is like many tales birthed in purportedly edgy Brooklyn. Yes, it spends its time mostly in Williamsburg’s creative demimonde and the operative comedic style is layered in irony like so many smothering quilts. But the story itself, once you get past the frank talk about abortion and bodily functions, is just as much love at first sight as a pastel-colored confection starring Katherine Heigl and set across the river in a midtown fashion magazine. Only the soundtrack is better, there’s three times as many solid laughs, and it’s about 20 blessed minutes shorter….
The fresh new documentary Brooklyn Castle has an unlikely band of protagonists—a record-breaking and mostly minority chess team from an unassuming Brooklyn neighborhood—and a welcome, optimistic take on the modern school. My full review is at Film Journal International:
When documentaries take on schools as a subject, the film is either a lament for a nation’s crumbling educational edifice or a feel-good film about a band of plucky upstarts defying the odds. In either event, the assumption is generally that things are fairly horrendous, school-wise, and that only particularly lucky or unique groups can hope to win out. What makes Katie Dellamaggiore’s Brooklyn Castle so wonderful and fresh-feeling in many ways is how it neatly skirts those preassigned roles for the students, parents and teachers it follows around…
Brooklyn Castle is playing now in very limited release.
In Red Hook Summer, star Clarke Peters spends a lot of time moping his brow. Theoretically, that’s because the film is set in the middle of a hot Brooklyn summer. It soon becomes difficult, though, to imagine Peters is sweating for any reason besides the fact that he’s working overtime trying to breathe some life and purpose into this directionless work from the possibly past-his-prime Spike Lee. In the grace and power of Peters’ performance, Lee has created one of his most memorable characters. Sadly, it’s nearly all for naught…
Red Hook Summer — Spike Lee’s first narrative film since 2008’s Miracle at St. Anna — opened in limited release on Friday. My review is at Film Journal International.
Trailer is here, and is worth checking out for Peters’ singing alone: