January is a great month for fans of art films and indie films of all types, as even more movies with Academy Awards hopes come to local screens. Here are some that you can expect to see at the Esquire and Mariemont specialty theaters and often at regional multiplexes as well. Check out my December column for more info about a few films that opened at Christmas, including Ferrari and Maestro.
I saw this in New York recently, and it’s a wonderful film—lowkey and offbeat in the way it balances both deadpan humor and carefully controlled pathos. Finland has submitted it as its entry for the Best Foreign Feature Film Oscar, and it’s one of 15 finalists for that prize. It won the Jury Prize at Cannes last year. The director, Finland’s Auki Kaurismäki, has been building an international reputation for his quirkily humane films since at least the 1989 release of Leningrad Cowboys Go America, about a Siberian rock band touring the U.S.
You can draw a comparison between Kaurismäki and the hipster American director Jim Jarmusch—black humor mixed with melancholy, absurdity that’s unexpectedly touching. Fallen Leaves even includes an excerpt from Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die (a funny zombie movie that admittedly isn’t his subtlest). Kaurismäki is working with self-assuredness here, mixing quixotic timing and odd turns in narrative, yet the story resonates with feeling and soulfulness.
The story centers on a man and a woman getting older and lonelier. Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) is a fed-up laborer who’s also alcoholic; Ansa (Alma Pöysti) sorts recyclable plastic in a grocery. They meet one night at karaoke and struggle—really struggle—to become a couple despite serious differences. In a quote cited by Wikipedia, Pöysti says, “The film is about lonely people with baggage, who meet later in life. It takes courage to fall in love later in life.” Kaurismäki explores that beautifully in his distinctive way.
The superlative African-American character/supporting actor Jeffrey Wright enjoys a breakthrough starring role under first-time director Cord Jefferson, who has put together a caustic and funny satire of racial attitudes and the publishing industry by adapting the novel Erasure by Percival Everett. The film has turned up on lots of 2023 Best of Lists and is a strong candidate for Oscar nominations.
The story follows Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, an author frustrated with the publishing industry’s interest in “Black pain,” writes Bria McNeal in Esquire. “After he’s asked to write something ‘Black,’ Monk creates a story about a convict on the run that’s steeped in harmful stereotypes. It’s meant to be a joke, poking fun at the media’s ignorance—but it quickly becomes a bestseller. With a whip-smart concept and hilarious commentary on race, American Fiction pushes the viewer to confront their prejudices while making them laugh along the way.”
Oddly but deservedly, two veteran actors long known primarily for their supporting roles (Wright and Paul Giamatti in The Holdovers) now find themselves favorites for a Best Actor nomination.
The Zone of Interest
Made by the daringly conceptual British director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Under the Skin), who adapts Martin Amis’ novel of the same name, this is a Holocaust movie that aims to be different. It concerns the “ordinary” life of the Auschwitz concentration camp commandant Rudolph Höss (Christian Friedel), who quietly tends with his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) to their home and children without seeming to care or even notice the horrors occurring just over their high walls.
“The Höss family live next door to ongoing genocide yet never comment on the horrific screams or the smell of death nearby,” Robert Daniels writes in praise of the film at rogerebert.com. “Thus, there is an expected coldness which seeps into the film’s lack of sentimentality. They raise their children under a pretense of normalcy—Rudolf tells them late-night bedtime stories, takes them horseback riding, and participates in other pastoral pursuits. Because of the emotional blankness, a burden falls on Friedel and Hüller to chart a tricky course: How human can you make someone who is clearly inhuman?”
There is a contrary opinion about the movie. In The New York Times, Manohla Dargis criticizes the artistic decisions made in Glazer’s approach to his subject. “They signal that the film you’re watching is different from popular ones made for a mass audience. These conventions are markers of distinction, of quality, which flatter filmmakers and viewers alike, and which finally seem to me to be the biggest point of this vacuous movie.”
When opinions on a serious art movie differ so dramatically, the result often is to make people want to see it to decide for themselves. Watch for that to happen with The Zone of Interest, which made the shortlist of finalists for the Best International Feature Film Oscar and also was chosen Best Film and Best International Film by the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Hüller, who plays Hedwig, has been mentioned as a Best Actress Oscar nominee for her work in the recent French film Anatomy of a Fall, which had a successful run here several months ago.
All of Us Strangers
British director Andrew Haigh mixes ghostly fantasy with modern love in this screenplay adapted from the 1987 novel, Strangers, by Taichi Yamada. Andrew Scott plays lonely London screenwriter Adam, having a relationship with a new boyfriend (the young Irish actor Paul Mescal, nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for 2022’s Aftersun). Adam goes for a visit to his old family home and unexpectedly meets his father (Jamie Bell) and mother (Claire Foy), who died in 1987 when Adam was just a boy. In this alternative fantasy, however, they’re alive and unaged from when they actually passed away in real life.
“When it comes to Mum and Dad, he’s stuck in the boy stage, as anyone would be in these circumstances,” says San Francisco Chronicle critic Nick LaSalle of Adam. “His parents may be chronologically younger than he is, but he hasn’t seen them since he was 12, and, of course, they look upon him as their child. In one of the better scenes in the movie, he tells his mother that he’s gay, and she reacts not like it’s 2023 but like it’s 1987. She’s not horrified, but she’s definitely taken aback, because this is outside her experience. She’s also concerned about a disease she’s heard about on the television.”
The Unknown Country
The Cincinnati chapter of Women in Film is presenting this road-trip movie, directed and co-written by Morrisa Maltz, especially notable for starring Lily Gladstone as a woman driving across the visually extraordinary American West in a time of political tension following Donald Trump’s 2016 election. Gladstone has recently become a breakthrough star and Oscar contender for playing Leonardo DiCaprio’s suffering wife in Killers of the Flower Moon. At The Unknown Country presentation, the film’s composer, Alexis Marsh, will participate in a post-screening Q&A.
My Own Private Idaho
Personally, I find Covington’s Conveyor Belt Books to be the best second-hand book store in Cincinnati, with a pleasing emphasis on arts and cultural literature. It’s truly a bibliophile’s delight. So it’s nice to see the shop appeal to cinephiles, too, by sponsoring a screening of Gus Van Sant’s 1991 cult classic starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves as young men traveling from Portland to Idaho and beyond in search of Phoenix’s mother. Both deeply countercultural and also based on Shakespeare, it helped create Van Sant’s auteur reputation—a few years later, he made the huge hit Good Will Hunting.
Menus-Plaisirs: Les Troisgros
For Frederick Wiseman’s 44th film, the 93-year-old documentarian concentrates on the Michelin 3-star restaurant Les Troisgros in rural France, which has been owned by the same family for four generations. As the Speed Museum notes, Weisman takes his camera not just to the restaurant but also to the farms, vineyards, and even a cheese cavern that all play a role in the gathering and serving of sublime food with a worldwide reputation.
How I Learned to Fly
The Woodward’s ongoing presentation of overlooked indie films continues with director/writer Simon Steuri’s story of African-American teenage brothers (Marcus Scribner from TV’s Black-ish and Lonnie Chavis from This Is Us) who suddenly find themselves alone when their parents mysteriously disappear. They’re forced to fend for themselves. Also featured are Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man (Cliff Smith) and Cedric the Entertainer. The Woodward website describes How I Learned to Fly as “a poignant story of determination and resilience in the face of profound adversity.”
Is That Black Enough for You?!?
I know this event is technically next month, but you should grab your tickets now for film critic and filmmaker Elvis Mitchell, who will present his documentary film at the Freedom Center’s Harriet Tubman Theater. The screening will be followed by a roundtable discussion featuring Mitchell, actor Emilio Estevez, and tt stern-enzi, artistic director for the Over-the-Rhine International Film Festival, a co-sponsor of the event. The film looks at Black representation in the movies, with a special focus on the Blaxploitation movies of 1970s.