Like the Stranger once said to the Dude, "Sometimes you eat the bear. And sometimes the bear eats you." Consumers of American film got to eat a lot of good bear meat back in 2015 (that is not in any way meant to be a reference to The Revenant.) But in 2016, damn, we've been served up to the bear on a big-ass platter.
There has been so much mediocrity coming from American filmmakers this year that it's hard to even get worked up about it. So much pleasant, competent, boring crap. Whether it's the latest Bridget Jones (and I know that's a British/American co-production directed by a Welsh woman) or the newest remake (that would be The Magnificent Seven), finding something original and engaging seems like a tougher and tougher mission in 2016.
I know that many times film-goers are just looking for a easy diversion for a few hours between dinner and - depending on your wont - sex, gaming, or a midnight sundae. No problem with that. Two of my favorite movies of the year, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, are satiric comedies which are by no means earth or soul-shattering. Two others, Don't Breathe and Green Room, are edge-of-your-seat suspense/horrors that will not challenge the way you see the world. They are all very good, very clever entertainment. But every once in a while, don't you want to be really moved by a movie? Challenged? Forced to feel?
Well, never fear. The bear may be feasting on our flesh, but there is some bear repellent lurking in the shadows of our theaters. Depending on where you live, they may be hard to track down. You may have to seek them out on NetFlix, or wherever else you turn. But they are there.
Here then, are six small American films that have been released in the last month or so that are worth your time and attention. They are not perfect gems, not by a long shot. But they are powerful and involving. A good deal more worthy than Blair Witch Revisited.
Imperium (Daniel Ragussis)
There are holes in the story here, but Ragussis makes a strong debut with this thriller about a bookish and energetic FBI agent who goes undercover to infiltrate a white supremacist organization. Daniel Radcliffe gives perhaps his best performance as Nate, who true to the genre, must constantly think on his feet to avoid detection. Great supporting work from Tracy Letts, who is having himself a nice year, as a minor league Limbaugh-like hate monger. One of Ragussis's underlying premises is that law enforcement seems to be far more interested in uncovering Islamic terrorists than in investigating the homegrown domestic brand of terror, which seems like a theme worthy of some examination.
Morris From America (Chad Hartigan)
Hartigan's follow-up to the melancholy portrait of age, This is Martin Bonner, is another melancholy portrait - this time of youth. And owing to that youth, and a killer soundtrack, Morris has more energy than Martin. For those of you tired of the same old rogue secret agent or independent modern woman wanting it all, here's a movie about an African American single dad raising his 13 year old son in Heidelberg, Germany, where he works as a soccer coach. How more off-the-beaten-path do you want? Markees Christmas makes for a real and intriguing kid in the title role, and as his father, Craig Robinson is excellent. His speech at the end to Morris about trying to be a good dad is among the year's best moments.
The Intervention (Clea Duvall)
It's The Big Chill for the 21st century. And if Duvall's comedy doesn't have quite the potency of Lawrence Kasdan, it's a pretty darned good debut as both writer and director. (Oh, she acts in it too.) Seven friends, plus one outsider, come together for a weekend away where most of them intend to confront one couple about their seemingly disastrous marriage. As you might guess, none will leave unscathed, with unpleasant truths being spread all over the place. But Duvall and her talented cast keep it mostly light. At the forefront, Melanie Lynskey, as the brittle leader of the gang, is a real stand-out.
White Girl (Elizabeth Wood)
This is brutal and sad. And one of the best movies of the year. As with Duvall above, this is Wood's debut as a director and writer and it instantly marks her as someone to watch. Leah is a privileged white college student who wants to live on the wild side a bit. So she moves into a rough Brooklyn neighborhood and begins an affair with local drug dealer, Blue. Wood never gives into cliché here. The love between Leah and Blue is real, but unequal. As Leah risks more and more to save her man, it becomes clear that underlying Wood's story is the implicit concept that white people of a certain class (especially white men) can take risks and make mistakes without any real consequences. People of color, like Blue, do not have the same luxury. Morgan Saylor in the title role, manages to be vulnerable and brave, naïve and wise, all at once. This is important film-making.
Other People (Chris Kelly)
Another debut from a writer/director. Sensing a pattern here? John Kasinski's The Hollars came out around the same time and got a little more attention, but if you had to see just one movie about a struggling artist returning home to re-connect with his family as his mother is dying, this is the one to see. That's partly because Jesse Plemons makes for a more believable struggling artist than does Kasinski. But it's more because this movie takes it time and builds its revelations about what it means to be family a little more carefully. This is actually more in the territory of Thomas McCarthy, and if you liked The Station Agent, I'd put Other People at the top of your list. Plus, Molly Shannon, as Plemons's mother, has never been better.
Kicks (Justin Tipping)
Kicks has a 4.9 rating on IMDB. For those of you who aren't familiar with that website, we're talking Zoolander 2 range. In other words, lots of people seem down on this movie. My biggest complaint about Justin Tipping's debut is that, like you are apt to find with a lot of new writer/directors, he falls in love with certain devices a bit too much. The over-reliance on some pretty bland voice over is a real problem, and some of his surrealistic imagery just seems unnecessary. All that said, this is a powerful movie that frames its issues very effectively. The story about a small, mostly silent boy growing up in a violent East Bay neighborhood explores the fetishizing of shoes but it could be about the way we elevate any product over person in a status-obsessed society. You may hear echoes of Todd Solendz when the hero Brandon bullies a younger, even weaker child who has unwittingly ended up with his coveted pair of Jordans. The casual entertainment of violent YouTube fights may remind you of the children in The Wild Bunch torturing insects for amusement. Flaws and influences aside, Tipping is creating something all his own here, and his young cast (with dynamite support from veteran Mahershala Ali) deliver the goods.
So there you have it. Six reasons to leave your living room (or stay in your living room and scour your streaming channels). Don't let their average 5.9 IMDB score scare you off. Cause you know what the Dude says, don't you?
"That's just, like, your opinion, man."