I Do . . . Until I Don’t (Lake Bell, 2017)

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Lake Bell’s comedy I Do . . . Until I Don’t opens with a God’s eye view of a funeral. Mourners hold oddly colorful umbrellas while a drizzle falls and, in voice-over, a woman with an English accent intones a jeremiad against the “‘til death do us part” prison of marriage. There are several visual and thematic cinematic nods here, from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to Four Weddings and a Funeral to, winkingly, Bell’s own In a World . . . (2013), a film about a woman breaking into the male-dominated world of voice-over narration. The tone of I Do . . ., however, is different from any of these—at least at first. Among the funeral-goers are Cybil (Mary Steenburgen) and Harvey (Paul Reiser), a married couple who spend most of their time sniping at each other about petty grievances. They are soon to be among the subjects of a documentary by filmmaker Vivian Prudeck (Dolly Wells), whose voice we heard over the opening shot. Prudeck is determined to expose what she sees as the bankruptcy of the institution of marriage by filming unhappy married couples and contrasting them with one happy unmarried couple in an open relationship. And so, as the film gets underway, we watch married people take potshots at each other, make brittle wisecracks at each other’s expense, lie to each other, and generally prove Prudeck’s thesis. We will have to wait for anything like the joy, warmth, or melancholy of Cherbourg or Four Weddings—or even the oddball wit of In a World . . .—until after Vivian’s monomania has nearly wrecked several relationships. Fortunately, the payoff is worth the wait.

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But I’m a Cheerleader (Jamie Babbit, 1999)

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Equal parts love story, social satire, and broad teen sex comedy, But I’m a Cheerleader has had an enthusiastic following among the LGBTQ+ set (and others) for almost two decades. It’s easy to see why: the actors are full of sweetly winning charm, the satire (of “reparative therapy” camps) is pointed and richly earned, and the story arc is mercifully non-tragic—a rarity for the longest time in queer cinema. For those of us who came of age with mopey, lugubrious lesbian love stories like Desert Hearts (1985), Claire of the Moon (1992), and High Art (1998), it’s impossible to overstate what a blast of fresh air this film was when it first arrived in theaters. (Even today, in fact, a quick Google search of “lesbian movies” gets you hits like “Why are all lesbian movies sad?” and “17 Awesome Lesbian Movies Where No One Dies at the End.”) As we revisit But I’m a Cheerleader well into the new millennium, the film feels every bit as fresh, funny, fun, and necessary as it did when it first came out.

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Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1991)

Before Ava DuVernay, before Dee Rees, before Gina Prince-Bythewood, before Kasi Lemmons, there was Julie Dash. Dash’s Daughters of the Dust earned its place in the history of film by becoming the first feature film directed by an African-American woman to gain general theatrical release and distribution—and it earned that place in the shockingly recent year of 1991. It is a remarkable piece of work not only for its place in cultural history but also for its distinctive aesthetics and for the story it tells: a story of hope, grief, and transition set among the Gullah people, a group of African Americans living on the islands off the South Carolina and Georgia coast. Somewhat isolated from the continental United States, as the film’s prologue tells us, the Gullah retained elements of their original African languages, values, and ways of life long after African culture was violently suppressed in the lives of mainland African Americans. Dash tells a graceful, dreamlike story of one Gullah family reuniting in 1902 before departing for life on the mainland—and for a nation on the brink of modernity.

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Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013)

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Now that Tom Hiddleston is (thank you, Jesus!) single again, it’s as good a time as any to gaze at him, the thinking cinephile’s dreamboat, in Jim Jarmusch’s excellent 2013 vampire dramedy. Hiddleston emotes broodily as a depressed Detroit musician named Adam, opposite the always-brilliant Tilda Swinton as Eve, his beloved who lives across the globe from him yet is still profoundly connected to him. When Adam plunges into suicidal despair in the film’s early scenes, Eve rushes to his rescue. The two lovers are a gorgeous, if possibly doomed, pair who complement one another in virtually every way. Though the film leaves much unspoken about the exact nature of their relationship (how did they meet? why were they living separately? are they even the same sort of creature?), it nevertheless makes us feel the intensity of their bond and the inevitability of their mutual entanglement in every shot. This is partly due to the deft performances of the leads, and partly due to Jarmusch’s famous attentiveness to evocative detail. Low on incident but high on atmospherics, the film creates a slyly seductive mood with exactly the right music, the right images, and the right words.

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Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson, 2016)

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Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson provides an extraordinary experience for viewers—those already familiar with her body of work and those new to it alike. Johnson is a documentary cinematographer best known to most for her work on Fahrenheit 9/11 (dir. Michael Moore, 2004), Pray the Devil Back to Hell (dir. Gini Reticker, 2008), and the Oscar-winning Citizenfour (dir. Laura Poitras, 2014). Those who have seen these films will know to expect bracing, sometimes unsettling, sometimes even devastating images, but they might not be as aware of Johnson’s eye for scenes of almost unbearable beauty and joy. The images Johnson assembles in Cameraperson reveal the full range of her remarkable gifts, in all their weight and force and radiance.

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Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden, 1983)

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Everything you’ve heard is true. Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames is, in many ways, a really terrible movie. Performances by the mostly amateur cast are stiff and awkward, the editing is clumsy, the script consists entirely of polemic and exposition, and the soundtrack ranges from being simply unlistenable to becoming a source of torment of the kind expressly prohibited by the Geneva Convention. Some of the film’s flaws can be excused as being the result of its ultra-low budget, but others are inherent in its project, which is almost entirely political and only incidentally artistic. Continue reading

Requiem for the American Dream (Peter Hutchison, Kelly Nyks, Jared Scott, 2016)

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Requiem for the American Dream should be required viewing on every college campus in the nation. This is not just because of the film’s concise and lucid overview of the thinking of its interview subject, American intellectual Noam Chomsky, on a critically important topic, the erosion of American democracy and the subsequent rise of income inequality and decline of individual and communal rights and freedoms. This overview is of enormous value, but the film’s other gift to its audience is a model of what political discourse can sound like. At the present moment of rage politics and deafeningly loud appeals to the lizard-brain of the American voter, Chomsky’s quiet, humane voice and deeply informed, thoughtful perspectives provide a badly needed antidote to the prevailing culture of dumbed-down, amped-up public speech. Continue reading

Do I Sound Gay? (David Thorpe, 2014)

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Director David Thorpe’s genial, absorbing documentary Do I Sound Gay? delves into the personal and political implications of the stereotypical “gay voice,” using the director’s worries about his own voice as a launch pad into questions of shame, desire, masculinity, and self-acceptance. In it, Thorpe strikes a fine balance between telling a personal story and exploring the topic analytically as he lets us eavesdrop on funny, thoughtful conversations between him and his friends, turns the lens on his efforts to change his own voice, interviews academics and speech therapists, solicits the insights of gay celebrities, and presents some revealing (and occasionally dismaying) clips from television and cinema from the last hundred years. While not quite as probing as I would have liked it to be, the film nevertheless is a smart and appealing look at an under-examined facet of gay life and culture.

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