With its robust lineup of star vehicles, the latest by auteur directors, important documentaries, and some of 2017’s most beloved, Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings (December 19–30) offers plenty of great reasons for getting off the couch and out to the movies this holiday.
As the revelations of #MeToo join #OscarsSoWhite to reset the dialogue and provide bracing correctives to an entrenched industry, film critics’ awards and year-end lists spotlight another story: many of the year’s finest movies transpire in surprising places, far from the studio back lot. For decades, Hollywood, old and new, fiercely dominated and guarded the parameters of storytelling. Steadily, those constraints are evaporating as filmmakers demonstrate remarkable fluidity, crossing borders (literal and figurative) to chase their stories.
The Academy Screenings’ 26th edition reflects this cinematic wandering. Angelina Jolie shoots in the language and landscape of Cambodia (First They Killed My Father) while Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei (Human Flow) travels to European refugee camps, among others. An Irish animator sets her tale in Afghanistan (The Bread Winner), while two Americans choose Mexico for theirs (CoCo). Irish director-playwright Martin McDonagh drops into a fly-over state (Three Billboards Near Ebbing, Missouri) and American comedian-turned-director Jordan Peele ventures into the manicured suburban horror of the white liberal elite (Get Out).
In a season teeming with strong female performances, another highlight is the work by tiny leading ladies. Not since Quvenzhané Wallis’s breakout in Beasts of the Southern Wild has the screen hosted such a dazzling array of resilient real girls. Those grand dames of cinema, Judy Dench (Victoria and Abdul) and Meryl Streep (The Post) must surely be rooting for the young talent breathing vibrant life into First They Killed My Father, The Florida Project, Summer 1993, and Wonderstruck.
Richard Linklater, a master of American naturalism, anchors his stories in character to uncover the rich seams of humanism that flow through ordinary lives. Last Flag Flying is his showcase for Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, and especially Steve Carell as a bereaved father who reaches out to his former Vietnam War buddies to accompany him on a journey. With humor and pathos, Linklater transforms this road movie into a moving, bittersweet tale of comradeship in the aftermath of war. Admission to this screening is free for veterans.
Also noteworthy: Jordan Peele’s smart Get Out blends social critique, thriller/horror tropes, and dashes of satirical humor to potent effect. A stellar cast (Mary J. Bilge, Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, and Jason Mitchell) and Rachel Morrison’s vivid cinematography bring texture and dimension to Dee Rees’s Mudbound, an involving WWII-era epic that explores the intertwined lives of two Southern farming families, one white, one black, swept up in the changing tides of history.
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The explosion in non-fiction filmmaking is one of the most significant and thrilling developments of the past decade. From 170 submissions, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’s documentary branch has shortlisted 15 titles for nomination consideration. Some of those hopefuls will be screened.
On the front lines of heroic reportage stands a band of extraordinary Syrian civilian journalists who, starting in 2014, sought to bring the horrors of the ISIS caliphate to international attention. Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts is one of the year’s best. Devastating and compassionate in equal measures, it offers an intimate inside view of courageous activists willing risk everything to expose the truth. Harrowing (not for the faint of heart) but essential viewing.
Also noteworthy: At a time when cat videos rule as the ubiquitous digital cup of cocoa, Ceyda’s Torun’s Kedi offers a lovely balm for all that ails you. This charming symphony of a city, Istanbul, is experienced through its street felines and their abiding bonds with the people who love and care for them. Strong Island, veteran PBS producer Yance Ford’s directorial debut, delves into the ramifications one man’s death—his brother’s. Where headlines shock only to dissolve over time, Ford’s deeply personal approach traces how immutable threads of loss, grief, and injustice stitch through the lives of one middle class family turned upside down.
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With submissions from a record 92 countries, nomination for Best Foreign Language Film is the most competitive field ever. Here are some of our picks from other shores.
Spanish entry Summer 1993, Catalonian filmmaker Carla Simón’s first feature, is drawn from her own early childhood. Simón affectingly recounts the experiences of six-year-old Frida, who, following her parents’ death, is sent to live with an uncle’s family in the country. Eliciting amazingly unaffected performances from her two young leads and fluidly evoking the episodic quality of childhood memory, Simón has fashioned a delicate, poignantly rendered remembrance of a young girl’s passage from loss to acceptance.
Also noteworthy: France’s submission is BPM (Beats Per Minute), Robin Campillo’s much-lauded historic panorama about young AIDS activists in 80s Paris. From Germany comes Fatih Akin’s very fine In the Fade. Awarded Best Actress at Cannes, Diane Kruger is raw brilliance as a woman shattered by an act of terrorism. Like the mother in Three Billboards…, personal loss propels her quest for justice; but the journey she embarks upon is more complex, making this one of the year’s most thought-provoking features. Just as Get Out plays with a perennial trope of psychological drama, Fear of the Other, Joachim Trier’s Thelma (Norway) makes masterful use of another, Fear of Repressed Desire, in his emotionally restrained, austerely beautiful tale of a young college student’s mysterious, increasingly disturbing, experiences.
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The 26th Aspen Film Academy Screenings runs December 19-30, 2017 at Paepcke Auditorium and the Wheeler Opera House. Find the full program including age appropriateness at aspenfilm.org. For tickets, visit aspenshowtix.com.