Besides Greta Gerwig’s history-making “Barbie,” which became both the highest-grossing film of the year as well as the highest-grossing film directed by a woman, another of the most pleasurable experiences I recently had in a movie theater was seeing Emma Seligman’s “Bottoms.” Every frame and line in that film is LOL. If you go with the ride, you will not be disappointed. Emma Seligman is a genius, and I’m now a life-long super-fan. From wrestlers in cages, fight clubs, 80s and 90s teen sex comedy throwbacks, to Rachel Sennott and Ayo Edebiri’s rapid-fire rapport, this film made my heart sing. It has been a while since I laughed until I cried in a theater. Like “Barbie,” it’s a religious type of viewing experience, and I’ve now seen both in the theater twice.
Beyond “Barbie” and “Bottoms,” I’ve lately been watching a lot of films through the Criterion Channel, Alamo’s Video Vortex rental store, and through my usual press screeners for upcoming films. Some of these films I feel may have been overlooked in the past, but they are a must-see for movie lovers. So I wanted to take a minute to elevate some films that may have gone under your radar. Check your local listings to see some of these in the theater, on VOD or a streaming platform. After my interview with Maggie Mackay from Vidiots, there is such a thirst for physical media, and I encourage you to go to your independent video stores and local movie theaters to seek out gems like these listed here. In addition, I wanted to highlight a few films that I’m very excited to see this fall (they are listed below with descriptions provided by Letterboxd). If you have any recommendations of your own, please email us at email@example.com.
1. “Waiting for the Light to Change,” directed by Linh Tran (coming to select theaters September 15 )
Winner of the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival’s ‘Grand Jury Prize’ for ‘Best Narrative Feature,’ “Waiting for the Light to Change” gets to the heart of what it’s like to be in your twenties again and at the crossroads perched between your childhood and adulthood. The film is beautifully shot with its creamy tones and soft-color lenses that are reminscent of a Romer or Ackerman film. The film is about two childhood friends, Kim and Amy, who’ve found themselves at a fork in the road in their friendship while on a getaway together with friends at a Michigan lake house. I love that this film is stripped down to one location, and it really brings you in close to these characters, along with their conflicting feelings regarding the friends they had grown up with. Needless to say, I got mega-“Big Chill” vibes with this film (you’ll see), but definitely in the Linh Tran style. Follow this film and seek it out in theaters.
I will be moderating a Q&A at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, September 23 at 6 PM, get your tickets here: https://www.siskelfilmcenter.org/waiting-light-change
2. “Joyce Carol Oates: A Body in the Service of Mind,” directed by Stig Björkman (in theaters September 8)
This film made me want more: more of Joyce, more of her literature. I do feel Joyce Carol Oates is like the Jane Campion of writers. She finds the prickly places that feel uncomfortable, and has you exist in them. And it makes you a better and more empathetic person in the process.
Before watching this film, I saw “Smooth Talk,” starring Laura Dern and directed by Joyce Chopra, on the Criterion Channel. The 1985 film is based on a short story by Oates about a teenage girl in a small farm town community who is exploring her sexuality, and catches the eye of a disturbing man played by Treat Williams. There is a long scene where the girl is in the house alone, her family is gone for the day, and the man stands at the doorway trying to coax her to come outside. This scene is not only prickly, but has some elements of horror.
In the documentary, directed by Stig Björkman, you learn that Joyce Carol Oates grew up in a poor farm town in New York, and was abused at a young age. She also had a grandmother who was very important to Oates growing up. Her grandmother was abused by her grandfather, and it was only later that Oates learned that she was Jewish and escaped from Nazi-controlled territories.
These circumstances in Joyce’s life gave her a passion and empathy for humanity that she explores through her beautiful words. She writes stories about underrepresented characters, and brings a different way of looking them by breaking through the stereotypes and stigmas, such as the caricature of Marilyn Monroe in her book Blonde, where you learn more about the icon’s real identity as Norma Jean. Among the book that I’m now going to seek out after watching this documentary are Them (1970), which explores social class and racial issues in America and the inner lives of young Americans, and the 1992 book Back Water that tells the story of the woman who was left to drown by Ted Kennedy after a car accident, a woman who could have been easily forgotten if it wasn’t for Joyce Carol Oates. This woman has written over a hundred novels, and all of her work is timely because it touches on the nerves of humanity.
3. “Piaffe,” directed by Ann Oren (now in select theaters)
Let your freak flag fly, that’s what I say, but in this case, let your freak flag wag. This film was very sensual by exploring the unnatural aspects of nature and sexuality. Sound plays an intimate role throughout and I feel like this film is a foley artist’s wet dream. The film is about a woman named Eva who fills in as a foley artist for a pharmaceutical commercial that features a lot of scenes with a horse. Eva has a connection to horses that is revealed in the film. She starts a steamy hook-up with a botanist who knows how to pleasure her animal side. This film is a delight for the ears and eyes. I found myself at certain parts of the film closing my eyes, and listening. It is rare that I do that during a film.
4. “Scrapper,” directed by Charlotte Regan (now in select theaters)
Charlotte Regan emerges as a director with her feature debut “Scrapper.” When I was screening films for Sundance, I’d seen a lot of darker emotional films. But like a breath of fresh air, this film came into my queue. It has shades of Arnold and Loach in how it elevates the working class community in the UK, but instead of lingering on the poverty, you see the quirkiness and the heart of the community. You can’t help but smile when you watch this film.
“Scrapper” shows a girl in the UK who’s trying to survive alone after her mother dies. She avoids getting placed by social services in a foster care system by creating a self-sufficient life for herself. Her dad, who she’s never met in all twelve years of her life, unexpectedly comes back into her life. The young actress Lola Campbell who plays the girl, Georgie, delivers a brilliant breakout performance in this film. I felt the film had beats of Taika’s films with the quirks of the people in the community, and the way that kids can be hilarious, like in “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” You see life through Georgie’s eyes as she talks to spiders, steals bikes to make a living, and makes up dances with her friends. When she starts to get to know her dad, they start with more of a playful relationship as buddies, and there is a scene that is a homage to the one between father and son in “Paris, Texas.” Regan is a masterful filmmaker who shows light in her work. And the rough-around-the-edges bits ground it, but you don’t leave it feeling the weight of the world, like you may in an Arnold or Loach film. You leave it with more of a kick in your step and a smile on your face.
My interview with Charlotte comes out next week prior to the Chicago release of the film on September 15 at the Music Box Theatre. Link to get tickets
5. “Amanda,” directed by Carolina Cavalli (now on VOD)
Like “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Ghost World,” the Italian gem “Amanda” is unconventionally funny and dark. As in these films, there is a longing from the protagonist for a friendship that can fill the lonely void in their life, and together, these companions add to each of their own fantastical realities. These are the onscreen worlds into which I like to immerse myself.
“Amanda,” directed by first-time filmmaker Carolina Cavalli, is about a 24-year-old girl who intensely wants a best friend, and when she finds it in Rebecca, she holds on tightly. Amanda is quirky, with her inner darkness and sadness, but she also has a sense of wonder. When she meets Rebecca, her new best friend, she is similar to Amanda, who lives life to her own beat, but in a more destructive way. Amanda also finds kinship with an old horse that shares a loner quality to herself. This film has surrealist touches, while its production design creates the mundane and boring world that Amanda exists in. Benedetta Porcaroli, who plays Amanda, was the perfect person to execute all of the witty deadpan dialogue that Cavalli wrote for this film.
6.”Fremont,” directed by Babak Jalali (opens in select theaters on September 8)
This gorgeous film stars an emerging actress named Anaita Wali Zada who plays an Afghan refugee named Donya. She comes to America for a new life after working as a translator for the US Army. She now works at a fortune cookie factory in San Francisco, but lives in the Afghan community in Fremont, California. Like a fortune cookie, there are some magical elements to the film, but it is grounded in Donya’s day-to-day life. It starts with her not being able to sleep, and she starts seeing a psychiatrist, who is a bit of a dope. Then when the writer of the fortune cookies dies unexpectedly, Donya starts to express herself through fortunes, which breaks something open in her. Carolina Cavalli, director of “Amanda,” co-wrote the script with Babak Jalali, and you can tell with the depth you feel through Donya’s voice. What entranced me the most about this film was the gorgeous black and white cinematography that brings a mysticalness to the world Donya finds herself in.
Stay tuned for my interview with Anaita next week!
7. “Diary of a Lost Girl” (1929) directed by G.W. Pabst
This was a film that had to be restored–a lot of it was edited out during the time of the code. You must watch the fully-restored film, which is about a woman named Thymian, played by the gorgeous Louise Brooks, who is coming into adulthood. Her father’s business partner sleeps with her and she becomes pregnant. When the father and his family find out who the father is, they send her to a reform school. On the surface, the film can seem old-fashioned, but sadly, it’s really not. The business partner goes on living his life, and Thymian must find a world where she fights for herself. And in the end, she fights for those who are not fought for. The film is almost a hundred years old and is more timely than ever.
Stream on Amazon or buy the DVD. Seek out video stores that may have a copy!
8. “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” (2015) directed by Chloé Zhao
Chloé Zhao is the master of bringing you to a community and a place not represented enough on the screen and connecting you with the beauty of it all. You see the familial relationships in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and the film is anchored by a brilliant performance from Jashaun St. John.
Stream on most platforms.
9. “Salaam Bombay!” (1989) directed by Mira Nair (DVD)
India is a place that I know little about, and I’ve never been attracted to Bollywood films. It is a misconception that all films from India are from Bollywood, and Mira Nair’s film “Salaam Bombay!” highlights a story that goes deeper, elevating the lost children in Bombay.
Seek out video rental stores that may have a DVD or buy the DVD.
10. “Losing Ground,” (1982) directed by Kathleen Collins (Streaming now on the Criterion Channel)
I wish Kathleen Collins did not die so young and had the opportunity to make more films, but I’m grateful to the Criterion Channel for showing me this almost-forgotten gem. Collins wets our intellect with Sara, a curious and introspective woman. She is a college English professor and her world is books, while her husband’s world is art. They have a different lens on life, though the passions in their lives are what brought the spark between them even as it widened the divide.
My most anticipated films of 2023
Summaries provided by Letterboxd
“Origin” directed by Ava DuVernay
The film examines the unspoken system that has shaped America and chronicles how our lives today are defined by a hierarchy of human divisions dating back generations.
Theater release TBA
“The Royal Hotel” directed by Kitty Green
After running out of money while backpacking in a tiny, male-dominated town in the Australian outback, two friends resort to a working holiday at the Royal Hotel. When the locals behavior starts crossing the line, the girls find themselves trapped in an unnerving situation that grows rapidly out of their control.
Coming to theaters October 6
“Priscilla” directed by Sofia Coppola
When teenage Priscilla Beaulieu meets Elvis Presley at a party, the man who is already a meteoric rock-and-roll superstar becomes someone entirely unexpected in private moments: a thrilling crush, an ally in loneliness, a vulnerable best friend.
Coming to theaters October 27
“Anatomy of a Fall,” directed by Justine Triet
Sandra, Samuel and their visually impaired son Daniel have been living in a remote mountain location for the past year. When Samuel is found dead outside the house, an investigation for death in suspicious circumstances is launched. Amidst the uncertainty, Sandra is indicted: was it suicide or homicide? A year later, Daniel attends his mother’s trial, a veritable dissection of his parents’ relationship.
Coming to select theaters October 13
“Saltburn,” directed by Emerald Fennell
Struggling to find his place at Oxford University, student Oliver Quick finds himself drawn into the world of the charming and aristocratic Felix Catton, who invites him to Saltburn, his eccentric family’s sprawling estate, for a summer never to be forgotten.
Coming to theaters November 24
“Fair Play,” directed by Chloe Domont
An unexpected promotion at a cutthroat hedge fund pushes a young couple’s relationship to the brink, threatening to unravel not only their recent engagement but their lives.
Coming to Netflix on October 13