Whisper of the Heart (1995)
Written by Hayao Miyazaki
Directed by Yoshifumi Kondo
Despite the marketing art, Whisper of the Heart is not a movie about a young girl and a magical talking cat. Instead, it is a very grounded coming of age movie about the transition from childhood into young adulthood. It was also one of the rare Studio Ghibli films not directed by Hayao Miyazaki. That honor went to Yoshifumi Kondo, who was seen as the natural successor to Miyazaki and was groomed to take over Ghibli when the founder eventually receded into a different role or retired. But that wasn’t to be, and in 1998, Kondo died suddenly from an aneurysm, which led to Miyazaki retiring temporarily from filmmaking. Such tragedy surrounding Whisper of the Heart makes is an even more bittersweet meditation on fragile our lives can be.
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I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)
Written & Directed by Charlie Kaufman
Ending things can have many different meanings. At first, we assume our main character’s internal monologue is referring to breaking up with her boyfriend. For most of the movie, that appears to be the intent of the phrase. However, as the walls of reality melt away, and our perspective begins to shift, we start to think about how much more fatal “”ending things”” can be. Does anything end or, when we think life has ended, do we fall into a jumbled void of memories and imagined experiences, drowning in our own confusion? Charlie Kaufman never gives us something easy to decipher, and he desires to challenge our mindset.
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Written & Directed by Anne Bancroft
In 1980, Mel Brooks started his own production company, Brooksfilm. Under this umbrella, he would produce pictures like The Elephant Man, The Fly, and many of his own films like Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. The very first movie released from Brooksfilm would be Fatso, the directorial debut of Brooks’s wife, Anne Bancroft. Despite her very Anglo sounding name, Bancroft was really Anna Maria Louisa Italiano, and so her film is reflective of her very traditional Italian upbringing in New York City. Accurately, we see the toxic effect of a culture so centered around consumption using food to soothe anxiety and stress, while never tackling the underlying issues. The result is an incredibly mixed bag of tonal inconsistency and a lack of a clear point of view on the characters and themes.
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Ordinary People (1980)
Written by Alvin Sargent
Directed by Robert Redford
American culture still has problems talking about mental health, but it was considerably more complicated when Ordinary People came out. This was also the directorial debut of actor Robert Redford, who founded the Sundance Institute, a non-profit dedicated to helping independent filmmakers create their work. Redford always stood out as an actor who physically appeared as the atypical Hollywood glamor star but who chose work that didn’t always focus on his looks. Throughout the 1970s, he picked smartly written work closely tied to his political and philosophical views. With his first gig as a director, he managed to make a film that would never be a crowd-pleaser but focused on essential issues that movies often sidestepped.
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Little Woods (2018)
Written & Directed by Nia DaCosta
Some people live on the fringes, always one lay off, or one missed payment away from complete devastation. They can live anywhere, big cities, or barren rural landscapes, a forgotten class perpetually kept in poverty because the system demands someone to populate the very bottom. For these people, affordable health care and full stomachs are about as real as the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. Those luxuries are something other people have, the forgotten bottom sit in waiting rooms for eight-plus hours only to be handed a bottle of opioids and told to move on.
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Flowers Season 2 (Netflix)
Written & Directed by Will Sharpe
Flowers is such a difficult show to explain if you haven’t seen it. While watching the second season, I thought it’s like The Addams Family but grounded and about mental health. The tone and characters are realistically macabre, a tormented family of creative types whose communication has broken down so badly they just simply can’t communicate with each other any longer. Creator Will Sharpe has given us a second beautiful season that goes even more in-depth with the Flowers’ history and works to heal the damage.
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Last Night (1998)
Written & Directed by Don McKellar
What would you do if you knew it was the final day of the Earth’s existence? Much like the Last Man on Earth trope, this is another one that comes up often when you explore Apocalyptic fiction. Here we have Canadian filmmaker Don McKellar’s distinct take on the end of the world, which balances both the darker aspects of humanity that would crop up and the way other people would cling to the norms and routines of decorum and civilization even as the end approached. It’s very different from the other films in this series, which is precisely why I wanted to watch it.
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George Washington (2000)
Written & Directed by David Gordon Green
I have noticed in these reviews for the Visions of the American South series that few of the directors are actually from the region. Only Billy Bob Thornton and David Gordon Green are actually from the areas where their films take place. Because of that, I think these are the most naturalistic movies. That doesn’t mean they aren’t made with a stylistic flourish. In the case of George Washington, the film is almost like a visual poem. George Washington is also the first film in our series to prominently feature Black characters.
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The Apostle (1997)
Written & Directed by Robert Duvall
I first saw The Apostle approximately twenty-two years ago. I checked it out from the local public library, where I was working at the time and absolutely loved from the first viewing. I mentioned earlier in this series how author Flannery O’Connor referred to the South as a “Christ-haunted landscape.” Robert Duvall furthers this by exploring a character who lives in seeming constant open dialogue with God. He implores the deity for guidance as often as he rages at him for life events the man cannot understand.
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Doesn’t the world feel exceptionally shitty these days? Would you like to watch a movie that will lift your spirits? Well, that’s not this list. When I originally planned this list, COVID-19 cases were going down, and it seemed like the BLM uprisings were pushing back at power semi-successfully. As I publish this, we have soaring case numbers and now federal stormtroopers acting in outright violation of the Constitution in Portland, Oregon. Just yesterday, political commentator Michael Brooks passed away suddenly at the age of 37. Brooks was in my home every day through his work on The Majority Report and his own podcast. Add to this anxiety surrounding schools opening back up soon while the virus rages, and I can safely say my head is not in a good space these days. Seems like the perfect time for such a list.
Continue reading “The Cinema of Misery”