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Middleburg Film Fest Review Roundup

Mudbound, Call Me By Your Name, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Lady Bird are some of 2017’s best films:

On the weekend of October 20th, the 5th annual Middleburg Film Festival began at and around the Salamander Resort in the upscale, equestrian town, and as they have from its inception, they presented some of the most talked-about and awards-ready films of the year.  They showed a continued commitment to representation of female filmmakers, as well as some of the best in documentaries and foreign films.  If you are a film lover that lives in or around the Washington area, this festival is the best gift you can give yourself.  Not only did I see five of my favorite films of the year, but in between seeing no less than 9 films in four days, and heard Q&A’s with some of the most talented artists in film, I also walked through the beauty of nature, fall foliage, and gorgeous, peaceful Virginia landscape.

The winner of the Audience Award this year was a beautiful film, directed by an LGBTQ woman of color. Mudbound, from co-writer and director Dee Rees blew away its audience, as did her considered, thoughtful answers during her post-film Q&A, and the special panel moderated by Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday, who has a new book about film, which you can buy HERE. Rees, who is the director of the award winning films Pariah and Bessie, was also presented with the festival’s 2017 Visionary Award.

There are a number of films that were screened there coming out soon, in either limited or wide release, and to give you an advanced heads-up about what to see immediately, here are four of my favorite films of the year, all shown at the festival, all graded with an A.

MUDBOUND

Currently high on the awards buzz list,  Mudbound first got industry notice when it became the largest acquisition at Sundance this year. Netflix bought the film for 12.5 million without bidding competition, believing it worth the price.  A smart move, it turns out, since the film, which was co-written for the screen and directed by Dee Rees (Pariah, Bessie) has already won the Gotham Award for Best Ensemble Performance and the Audience Award at the Middleburg Film Festival.

In World War II era Mississippi, two poor families struggle with the challenges of farming. Hap and Florence Jackson (Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige) work as sharecroppers, and raise their children with love, as they spend endless hours working the land, all the while, dealing with 40s era racism. Their son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) goes to war, and returns changed by his experience of loss, and his greater acceptance in Europe as a man of color. Henry and Laura McAllan (Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan) have transplanted themselves from Memphis through Henry’s dreams of farming success, only to discover just how grueling day to day farming life can be. Henry’s brother Jamie also goes off and returns from the war a hero with PTSD, haunted by the deaths of his comrades. Ronsel and Jamie become confidants, much to the repulsion of Henry and Jamie’s father Pappy (Jonathan Banks), who holds steadfastly to iron-fist parenting and white supremacist beliefs.

There is a kitchen sinks-worth of misery and trouble thrown at the audience.  Loss, betrayal, hate, and the monotony of daily suffering inherent to living in the 40s South, surviving war, the plight of poor women trying to raise families, and the destructive power of racism are all shown, making the film relentless in its darkness.  However, as Rees herself said, speaking of both the film and where we are now, “As a country, we can’t look away. This is who we are.” Mudbound may portray some of our bleaker history, but our history makes us who we are, and there’s no better time to consider why we are where we are as Americans in 2017.

The film is visually stunning, even with its stripped, sepia palette, and the acting is exceptional. That the film was built by shooting both family storylines separately, before weaving them together as they intersect, speaks to the strength of both narratives.  It also aids in the connected performances and the believability of the relationships represented. The scenes between Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell are especially powerful.

Mudbound is certainly deserving of accolades, including multiple Oscar nominations. Having been burnt by the snubbing of Ava DuVernay’s film Selma being snubbed, I’m not holding my breath.  We might have to settle for universal praise and support from its audience, both at the theaters and when it is released on Netflix on November 17th. Of course, true film lovers believe an epic World War II era drama deserves to be seen on the big screen, and since Mudbound will be shown in select cinemas, I suggest you make the effort to see it there if you can.

*in theaters and on Netflix November 17th.

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

In 1983, 24 year old graduate student Oliver comes to the Italian countryside to work with a professor, Mr, Perlman, and slowly falls in love with his 17 year old son Elio.  That’s just about the entire plot of the transcendent coming-of-age film Call Me By Your Name.

Directed by Luca Guadagnino and written from the Andre Aciman novel by James Ivory, the film stars Armie Hammer as Oliver, relative newcomer Timothee Chalamet as Elio, and features Michael Stuhlbarg as Perlman.  Worth noting, and from my estimation, important to the validity of this artistic enterprise, is the fact that Guadagnino,  and Ivory are gay men. That’s not to say that it is essential, but as an important example of cinematic storytelling representing positive LGBTQ experience, i’m glad it is being told by members of that community.

Sporting shorts so short, apparently one scene required digital intervention by the director, and dancing with unabashed abandon to the Psychedelic Furs’ Love My Way, swoon-worthy Armie Hammer will likely attract a fair number of people into the theaters.  Once there, they should notice his economy of movement, and the subtlety with which he interacts with the other players.  We could stand to see him in a few more films that test his versatility.

Timothee Chalamet is all over 2017, with roles in the critical darling Lady Bird, and Hostiles, starring Christian Bale. He shows he is able to hold top billing here as Elio. He makes portraying the confusion and intense desire of a 17 year old falling in love for the first time look authentic, which is essential to the film working. He is especially impressive when sharing the screen with the far more experienced Stuhlbarg.  The highlight of the movie is a powerful scene between the two actors, that will resonate with anyone who ever looked for parental advice and approval.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was Elio’s age in 1983, lived in France and Italy, and fell in love for the first time with a 24 year old (in this case it was a Greek boy names Kostas).  It is very different, I know, than having a first love as a gay man, but I could absolutely relate to the romance, the lust, and the excitement, as well as the time period, atmosphere, and music.  The point is, this is not just a movie about being gay, it is equally about falling in love, identity, self-awareness and acceptance. Anyone who has ever had a first love will relate to it, and find it both poignant and affecting.

That being said, it is about two men. I spent a great deal of time, as I was absolutely loving the story, the characters, and the portrayals, hoping against hope they weren’t going to kill one of them off, or somehow make them pay for being in love in some way.  Would they getting arrested? Beaten up?  Would the film go the direction of Brokeback Mountain?  Suffice to say, in that way, it’s actually the anti-Brokeback Mountain.  It really is just a beautiful, tender story of first love between two men. Right about now, we can use all the stories of love we can get.

*In theaters November 24th.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

I can’t remember a film that better captures the dark humor served up by many people experiencing grief than the upcoming film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.  Written and directed by Oscar winner Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), it stars three of the best actors in or outside of Hollywood, Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, and Woody Harrelson.  The film is about Mildred Hayes, (McDormand) a mother frustrated by the continued unsolved case of her murdered teenage daughter. She pays to have a message put on 3 billboards on a remote stretch of road, that also happens to be exactly where her dead daughter was found. They say “RAPED WHILE DYING”, “STILL NO ARRESTS?” and “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY”.  So begins an ever-escalating battle of words and conflict between the grieving woman, the town’s police department, and the town itself, especially when additional elements to story and character make her quest for justice more and more complicated.

McDormand spends most of the movie unapologetically pissed off, which seems appropriate for a mother who lost a daughter to murder. As someone who is part of a family that has had a sudden loss, I can speak to the experience of living, for a time, in a place in between life and death. It is an in-between world, where courtesy, expected behavior, and indeed any socially constructed interactions are not followed, and are of little or no concern.  As Mildred, she stomps around, wearing what looks like a blue mechanic’s jumpsuit and bandana. Cursing and threatening everyone from the chief to the town priest, she somehow all the while builds sympathy from the audience. The character, and McDormand’s command of it, should place Mildred Hayes at the top of powerful women’s roles in the last 20 years of cinema.  As Willoughby, Woody Harrelson plays a great foil to her, being compassionate and patient, while not letting her disrespect of his office go too far. It’s a hard role to play, especially when things happening in his own life (that I won’t spoil here) add to how he deals with her situation. The best scenes are between various character pairings, especially one in particular between Willoughby and Hayes, where a small action makes her turn from angry to compassionate in the space of a few seconds.  It’s beautiful storytelling, and a great expression of humanity.

Sam Rockwell (Moon, Seven Psychopaths), wrings sympathy out of the powerful character arc of officer Dixon, a racist buffoon and momma’s boy. He says it’s like “Barney Fife turns into Travis Bickle”, although that isn’t the end of his story. Does his description make you curious about seeing the film? If not, I’m pretty sure Three Billboards is not for you…   

Are you firmly seated in the “Aaron Sorkin is a God” corner of screenwriter appreciation class? In that case, you’ll very much appreciate the script and dialogue in Three Billboards.  If you aren’t, or you prefer a mimic of everyday speech, you might find yourself removed from the character interaction in the film. I loved it.  In fact, I’d love to see the script nominated for an Oscar.  It has the rare quality of being excruciating and very funny at the same time.  McDonagh has already has a writing nomination for In Bruges, and is also known as writer/director of cult favorite Seven Psychopaths. He has a win for his short film Six Shooter, and is known for making strong, memorable characters interact in surprising, exciting ways.

One of the best films of the year, and a strong contender for several Oscars, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an intense, powerful, funny film filled with exceptional performances.  It will stay with you way beyond its two hour running time, reminding you there are still complicated, intricate stories and characters being written for film.

In theaters November 10th.

LADY BIRD

If I were making a movie with two women playing mother and daughter, Oscar nominated Saoirse Ronan of Atonement, and Brooklyn,  and Emmy and Tony Award winner Laurie Metcalf of Toy Story, Roseanne, the Steppenwolf Theater and at least 14 Broadway and off-Broadway plays, would be on my dream list.  Apparently Greta Gerwig agrees.

Before the beloved Indie actress, writer and now first time director Gerwig called her new movie Lady Bird, she dubbed it Mothers and Daughters.  That was back when her first draft was over 300 pages long.  The finished screenplay is blessedly shorter, and both it and the film as a whole is an unqualified delight.

Christine, (Ronan) is a 17 year old girl, going through her last year of high school, who calls herself Lady Bird.  She is straining against the confines of her middle class life going to Catholic school. She believes anything is better than Sacramento, especially the East Coast. She relates that to her mother repeatedly, along with all the other complaints about her life. Her mom Marion McPherson (Metcalf) only wants the best for her daughter, for whom both she and her husband have worked overtime to allow for her expensive Catholic education.

Christine spends her time with her best friend Julie (the awesome and luminous Beanie Feldstein) and the both of them are at best on the outskirts of popularity.  Christine tries in a variety of ways to break in to the popular cliques, first by dating buddy Danny in her drama group (Lucas Hedges) and then by dating mysterious musician Kyle (Timothy Chalamet).  Things work, or don’t work, exactly as you’d expect for a girl trying too hard to fit in. It is often as awkward as real life. Lady Bird, as it happens, is funnier, and the frequent interactions with her mom, for better or worse, allow for a familial authenticity many will recognize from their own lives.

The name harkens back to the nursery rhyme, “Lady bird, Lady bird, fly away home”. Audiences will be called to consider what home means for young people considering the bigger world and their place in it. For her own part, Gerwig says she didn’t realize she was pulling words from a popular children’s rhyme when she named the movie.  Still, the character of Lady Bird feels shame around her own class, as her family is struggling financially. She believes inhabiting a new name and going to a new place will fulfill her, or change her into who she wants to be. This film, and Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson’s progression, is about finding her way back to who she is, and where she comes from, including the shifting position she holds in her family. Taking the trip with her is a joy, and the cast and filmmaker taking us there create a singular, authentic experience that will place Lady Bird on the list of most memorable, enjoyable coming of age films.

In theaters November 3rd.