1 A Prophet (Un Prophète)
“A Prophet” (2009) is a harsh yet wryly poetic story of an illiterate young French Algerian named Malik (Tahar Rahim) incarcerated in a French prison and quickly caught up between rival Arab and Corsican factions. Without religious allegiance, Malik is forced to prove his worth to the Corsican brotherhood, thereafter finding himself under the protection of the Corsicans and their fierce leader, Luciani (Niels Arestrup). Much of the story involves the push-and-pull Malik experiences between the disparate clans, as he slowly gains power and influence within his prison confines as well as the larger criminal community beyond. Winner of the Grand Prix Prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, “A Prophet” is as much a galvanizing prison drama as it is an existential odyssey for one young man in search of purpose and identity, Overall a starkly visceral experience that paints a thrillingly portrait of human reclamation.
2. James White
“James White” (2015) is an intense semi-autobiographical drama from writer/director Josh Mond about a young New Yorker (Christopher Abbott) confronted by both the death of his estranged father and his mother’s physical decline due to cancer over a several-month period. Abbott is mind-blowingly good as the volatile, self-destructive tough guy whose profound love for his mother pours out as he nurses her through her suffering, all the while desperately clinging to alcohol and escapism as emotional crutches. As the mother, Gail, Cynthia Nixon is mesmerizing in her depiction of the confusion and heartbreaking physical decline brought upon by disease. “James White” is up-close-and-personal in its depiction of pain and sorrow, and it certainly never serves the viewer as a feel-good experience. Yet as far as achingly real human drama and profound expression of emotion goes, very few films even come close.
“’71” (2014) is an immersive historical thriller set in 1971, focused on a young English soldier named Hook (Jack O’Connell) who is inadvertently abandoned on the streets of Belfast after a violent clash with Loyalist dissidents. Desperately scrapping to stay alive, Hook scrambles and claws his way through the dangerous streets of Belfast while being pursued by Irish Republican Army members as well as the covert Military Reaction Force of the British Army. The green young infantryman ultimately finds unlikely support from various local citizens with varying allegiances, even as the ominous brew of hostility and fear continues to enshroud him. Serving as both an exciting action film and an insightful historical depiction of Belfast at the height of “The Troubles:, “’71” is a dynamite debut from first-time director Yann Demange. Few films in recent years have captured a key moment in history with such immediacy and excitement.
4. The Wolfpack
“The Wolfpack” (2015) is an unusual and fascinating documentary about six teenage brothers (and one younger sister) locked away in a small apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for most of their lives, rarely allowed to visit the outside world by their hyper-protective father (a Peruvian Hare Krishna). The boys have spent their many years of imprisonment delving into cinematic escapism, transcribing and memorizing film scripts verbatim, and recreating the films at home using props and costumes fashioned (impressively) from household items. The film ultimately finds the brothers at a stage of burgeoning rebellion against their incarceration as they yearn to explore the outside world. Really one-of-a-kind stuff that’s so strange it’s hard to believe it’s actually true. Wonderful work by director Crystal Moselle, who does an exceptional job of remaining respectful and unobtrusive throughout.
“Frank” (2014) is an undeniably strange yet highly enjoyable dark comedy about a struggling singer/songwriter (Domhnall Gleeson) who joins an eccentric band lead by the enigmatic “Frank” (Michael Fassbender), an absurd persona prone to wildly outlandish behavior and abstract creativity—who never shows his face beyond the enormous papier-mâché mask he wears religiously. Frank evolves from a highly quirky depiction of the band’s creative process to a wry satire on the social media world, and ultimately ends up in place of melancholy and heart that touches an unexpected emotional nerve. Gleeson plays the lead role to perfection, full of discomfort and blind ambition, while Fassbender is simply superb as Frank, the wildly idiosyncratic leader of “The Soronprfbs”. You’ll spend the entire film wondering if you’ll ever actually see Fassbender’s face behind the large mask…you’ll have to watch it to find out.
6. Take Shelter
“Take Shelter" (2011) is an urgent psychological thriller from writer/director Jeff Nichols (Mud, Midnight Special) about Curtis (Michael Shannon) a rural family man beset by disturbing apocalyptic visions that increasingly impair relations with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain), his deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) and surrounding friends and neighbors. Driven by his escalating fear that some sort of catastrophic event is soon to come, Curtis pours himself into building and fortifying a storm shelter in his backyard—causing increased tension with the hesitant Samantha in particular. “Take Shelter” ultimately boils down to an alarming “is-he-crazy-or-is-the-world-gonna-end” scenario that is taken to an entirely new level by Shannon and Chastain’s stunning, utterly riveting performances. Nichols’ ability to slowly increase the tension until it reaches full-tilt crescendo is truly impressive. One hell of an experience…I needed a drink immediately afterward.
“Safety Not Guaranteed” (2012) stars Aubrey Plaza as Darius, a young journalist in the Pacific-Northwest in search of the individual responsible for posting a classified advertisement in search of a companion for time travel. Teamed with a boisterous fellow writer (Jake Johnson) and intern named Arnau (Karan Soni), Darius sets out to identify the mysterious companion-seeker—soon identifying him as the enigmatic Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass), a peculiar militant who may or may not have intentions of traveling against the clock. Light-hearted and highly enjoyable, featuring a hilarious performance by Duplass in particular, “Safety Not Guaranteed” is a winning combination of comedy and science-fiction bound to entertain and amuse. It’s the kind of film that grows better and better as it moves along, especially once you've grown accustomed to the eccentric sensibilities of its various disparate characters.
“Paterson” (2016) is a light-hearted, idiosyncratic story about a bus driver and amateur poet named Paterson (Adam Driver), residing quietly with his young wife in the city of Paterson, New Jersey. It’s a slice-of-life depiction of one man’s daily routines over the course of a single week, as he drives his bus along his route, observing the world, listening in on quaint (and often humorous) conversations and quietly drafting poetry in homage to his poet hero, William Carlos Williams. Written and directed by indie stalwart Jim Jarmusch, Paterson is relatively light on plot and the pacing is gradual, yet the poetic theme of the story slowly grows under your skin as it ebbs along, finding moments of insight, humor and inspiration within the grind of day-to-day existence. A nice addition to Jarmusch’s oeuvre, “Paterson” is the type of film that’s just right when you’re in just the right mood for it.
“Morris From America” (2016) is a coming-of-age comedy/drama about 13-year old Morris (Markees Christmas) recently relocated from New York to Germany with his widower father Curtis (Craig Robinson). Constrained by cultural and language barriers, young Morris finds little success socially amongst his German classmates and spends most of his days immersed in rap music, dreaming of one day becoming a hip-hop star. Unexpectedly befriended by an attractive young German girl, Morris is soon rebelling against his father’s rule and absconding into the nighttime to pursue romance, even as her intentions remain ambiguous. "Morris From America" is a fun, funny and extremely touching portrayal of a young man at a difficult turning point in life, caught up in an unfamiliar culture and yearning to feel validated. Christmas and Robinson are both wonderful in their roles. A hidden gem not to be missed.
“The Skeleton Twins” (2014) is a touching drama that begins with the depressed and despondent Milo (Bill Hader) attempting to end his own life, while his estranged twin sister Maggie (Kristen Wiig) attempts to the same thousands of miles away—before receiving an emergency call about her brother’s abortive attempt. Soon reuniting after many years, Maggie persuades Milo to return home with her to Upstate New York in order to rest and recuperate. Despite their individual misgivings, the two slowly come together as they reminisce, divulge confessions and hash out old animosities, all the while battling various personal demons. “The Skeleton Twins” is a lively and poignant film, with the two leads showing impressive range as they rediscover the friendship and camaraderie they had lost many years earlier. A wonderfully affective and winning depiction of sibling relationships and compassionate understanding.