Two American movies got long awaited releases last week. One was a violent torture porn horror. The other was truly terrifying.
Eli Roth, the creator of modern horror heavyweights Cabin Fever and the Hostel series, channeled the classic cult film Cannibal Holocaust in his latest, The Green Inferno, about a group of idealistic college kids who travel to Peru to prevent the demolition of an ancient forest and its primitive inhabitants. If you are into seeing people decapitated, eaten alive, or eaten by ants, check it out. It is passable shock horror.
If you want to see what may be the best American movie of the year, and what may be the most important American feature film of the past five years, then see Ramin Bahrani's 99 Homes.
Bahrani, who has been crafting strong movies about the poor and working classes in America for the past ten years, was born to make a movie about collapse of the housing market at the end of the 21st century's first decade. His debut feature, Man Push Cart (2005), was a heartfelt cinema verite-style portrait of the working poor, and his follow-up Chop Shop (2007), about a homeless boy surviving the streets of Queens by any means possible, was one of the best movies of its year. Goodbye Solo (2008), based loosely on Abbas Kiarostami's groundbreaking Taste of Cherry capped a remarkable three-film start to Bahrani's career.
But no matter how much critical support an artist may receive, financiers seldom come knocking at the door of storytellers who want to chronicle the plight of the working poor. So filmmakers like Bahrani have to scratch and struggle and wait for the planets to align. Fortunately, it has happened with his latest movie.
99 Homes does not tell a scary story about aliens invading Earth or zombies or typhoons swallowing up major cities. To the best of my knowledge, aliens and zombies have never actually threatened us, and when Hollywood does examine environmental problems, it tends to exaggerate them for cautionary dramatic effect. Bahrani didn't have to do that in his movie. The economic collapse already has happened. Its impact is all too real and is still felt today.
The plot revolves around hard-working single dad Dennis Nash, who takes various construction jobs to support his mother and his son. But new home financing keeps falling through and nobody is hiring. Dennis loses the home that he and his son were born in. Dennis and his family being evicted makes for one of the most devastating sequences you will see on screen this year.
What happens next is even scarier.
Desperate to get his home back, and with nowhere else to turn, Dennis begins working for the man who evicted him, cutthroat real estate mogul Rick Carver. You see, Rick is hiring. He is hiring people with Dennis' skills to restore the houses he has been scooping up so that he can flip them. Rick sees a smart and ambitious young man in Dennis, and if Dennis truly wants to buy back his house, he must aim much higher than simply patching dry wall and installing appliances. Dennis begins studying under Rick. Dennis begins evicting families.
99 Homes is searing in its depiction of indifference to genuine human tragedy and suffering. But what it is best at is showing how easily the best-intentioned men - like Dennis - can be turned into the very thing that they most abhor. How compassion is subjugated in times of economic turmoil. How cold 21st century America can be to those who have had a little bad luck.
Some of us have an admittedly Pollyannaish desire for film to be a source for social change. A sounding board for the major issues of our times. I love various forms unchallenging entertainment as much as anyone - be it the latest Marvel redundancy, a pleasant romcom, or a gross-out splatterfest like The Green Inferno - but I wish we had more of a taste for movies that actually dramatize what is actually happening in our world today. Labor films have never been a big part of American cinema. Hollywood has always had this tricky split personality disorder in which the liberal impulses of many of its artists are counterbalanced by the reality of the fact that movies cost a hell of a lot of money, and the people that have that kind of money to invest are generally loathe to finance stories that are overly critical of the very system in which they have flourished.
England has had a better history of labor-friendly cinema, beginning with the seminal documentary work of John Grierson and following through to the fiction films of the recently-retired Ken Loach. But in the USA, you tend to find such movies only in the obscure, cult film section of your streaming service, or else amongst the documentaries. There have been exceptions, but it has been about 15 years since dramas like Erin Brockovich and comedies like Office Space put workers' stories into theaters in an entertaining fashion.
99 Homes does that, and it should be applauded and supported. Andrew Garfield, who is known to millions as the newest Amazing Spider-Man, gives a breakout performance as Dennis. And Michael Shannon, among the best actors in American film, should win awards for his portrayal of Rick.
I have no idea whether that will happen. Whether 99 Homes will catch a wave and flourish, or vanish under the onslaught of other prestige movies that come out every Fall. Whether Rain Bahrani will have to scratch and struggle and wait for the planets to align again, so that he can make his next movie.
I hope not. You should see 99 Homes because it is an important movie, and because it is an excellent movie, and because it deals in very real, compelling human drama. You should see it if you want to see more like it down the road. And you should see The Green Inferno if you want to see a guy get eaten alive by ants. Choice is yours.