The Movies That Got Away

Second Look: An Annual Survey of Overlooked Films

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Left to right: Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton as two aggrieved parents in drama “Mass.” Photo: Bleecker Street Pictures

With this column, I again highlight several “Movies That Got Away,” feature films (from 2021) less noticed or hyped upon release. This selection avoids mainstream Hollywood fare for movies which offered something distinctive, discriminating, or novel. 

As in all movie seasons, there are standout films that too few people saw and which were overlooked during awards season.  I start with four worthy English-language productions which Oscar mostly ignored: 

Mass — Modest in scope but large in heart is “Mass,” a four-hander wherein two grieving couples meet to try to cope with unimaginable loss. One pair (Martha Plimpton and Jason Isaacs) had, six years earlier, lost their teen-aged son in a school shooting, while the other couple, Reed Birney and Ann Dowd, are the parents of the teen-aged shooter who committed suicide after the act.  All four parents are splendid, utterly natural in delivering director Fran Kranz’s incisive script. Plimpton stands out as a woman struggling to contain inner turmoil, while agonized Ann Dowd delivers a soliloquy describing her fraught last evening with her son, a devastating reveal.  

Language Lessons — Perhaps the best movie of the COVID era, “Language Lessons” tells its story wholly through Zoom and cell phone exchanges, as its two leads never meet. A California man (Mark Duplass) has lost his partner, who has left him the gift of Spanish language lessons for a year. His teacher is a young Puerto-Rican woman (Natalie Morales) who instructs him virtually from Central America.  The lessons, seen solely through screens, might seem potentially boring but are anything but, as the simpatico actors gain a touching sense of each other. Off Zoom, we see other dimensions of their lives acted out on separate phone messages.  Conceived, written, and directed—and acted—by the precocious Morales.

Worth — “Worth” follows the horrific 9/11 attacks, after Congress has appointed mediator Kenneth Feinberg (Michael Keaton) to lead the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, aiming to allocate financial resources to the victims’ families, who had undergone unfathomable losses. A non-negotiable element of the settlements is that families will never file future suits against the airlines. Fund leaders have two years to come up with a viable plan. The film plays out this scenario in a no-nonsense manner, and Keaton and company are earnest and under-toned. Though the context of 9/11 and its victims creates enough built-in tension to keep the drama compelling, It produces its own kind of mournful momentum. 

Cyrano — This musical film version of the Rostand play offers a major change from the original plot: Cyrano’s physical defect is not a massive nose but his stunted stature. Peter Dinklage carries off the lead role with a touching yet forceful performance, exuding the piquant intelligence the character deserves. Haley Bennett makes for a charming co-star, she of innocent bearing yet real verve. English director Joe Wright has crafted lush period-pieces before and here he has the gorgeous backdrop of Sicily. Two prime locations are the southern Baroque town of Noto and the volcanic landscape around Mount Etna. The whole film resonates with exquisite settings, seconded by rich costuming bathed in glowing light.

Also worth catching up on were two (very different) foreign

language gems: 

Drive My Car — A quiet and complex tale of a renowned Japanese stage actor and director who gains a new lease on life after his wife, a serial adulteress, dies suddenly. He then receives a tempting offer to direct a new production of Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya” at a theater festival in Hiroshima. Once established in the city, he reluctantly agrees to accept a car and a local woman driver, who becomes an intriguing, unpredictable character in her own right. The production is singular in that the play attracts actors from all over the region (revealed in fascinating auditions), all of whom will play in their own language (including one deaf actor).

From right: Penelope Cruz and Milena Smit (back to camera) star in
“Parallel Mothers” by Almodovar. Photo: Sony Classic Pictures

Parallel Mothers — Pedro Almodovar, the Spanish writer-director, scores again with “Parallel Mothers,” a brilliantly realized film that finds two women—one mature, one a teen—giving birth simultaneously and becoming entangled in each other’s lives. With a DNA test, the story takes a sharp turn, and relationships shift, though the rapport between the two women remains. Almodovar, long known for his lavish use of color, again uses vibrant hues, especially on the scarlet-to-carmine spectrum, shown in the costuming, furnishings, and interior details.  It helps that the director again has Penelope Cruz as his muse. She is as terrific as ever, playing a heartfelt, if practical, character who knows her own mind: a kind of natural, hard-headed feminist. 

On the documentary
front, I particularly like these three:

Writing with Fire — Bravery comes in the form of smiling women brandishing smartphones in the Indian documentary “Writing with Fire.” A group of female journalists maintain India’s only female-led news outlet, working in a social environment that marginalizes them based on caste. The women, all from the Dalit caste (“untouchables”), are shown changing the nature of their newspaper from print to digital.  Chief Reporter Meera Devi and her team of investigative journalists do serious work on the fly but with a wondrous spirit of collaboration and humor. Indian co-directors Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas worked on the film for five years and pulled off a casting coup in finding its three stars. If I wanted to characterize this documentary with one word, I would say “heartening.” 

Summer of Soul — A wonderful historic vision of New York City reveals itself in this video resuscitation of long-forgotten music performances at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. The summer festival, featuring iconic Black performers from B.B. King to Sly and the Family Stone, lasted for six weeks and totaled an audience of 300,000. Now it can be joyfully witnessed 50 years after tapes were discovered stored in a basement. It is a heartfelt time capsule into Black consciousness in the late 1960’s, a period of burgeoning Black Power, flamboyant, African-inspired dress, and the opening of new avenues for Black expression. The crowd shots are vivid reminders of a high point in Black life, a whole people grooving to the rhythms of its diverse music. 

Storm Lake — A paean to classic journalism, this film is a near obituary for shoe leather journalism as it was practiced, especially in America’s small towns. It is also a chronicle of a close-knit family, the Cullens, who don’t want their lives’ work to die along with small newspapers. Told in the no-nonsense tones of Storm Lake, Iowa, the film mixes a bit of Lake Woebegone with “All the President’s Men.” Editor Art Cullen, with a mop of fly-away hair recalling the mature Mark Twain, is the unbidden star, the reasonable voice for an enterprise in crisis. He is also the voice of the Storm Lake Times, whose editorials, well-argued and amiable, won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize.