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Sam’s Top 5 New Watches of March

In our first monthly column, Sam discusses his top 5 favorite first-time watches from the month of March.

It’s exhausting to love cinema. I already can’t keep up with new releases, let alone the hundreds of movies on streaming services or the thousands upon thousands of films released in the hundred-plus years of cinematic production. On top of all that, with social media like Twitter and Letterboxd making the logging of films into a competitive sport, it sometimes feels depressing if I “only” watch a few new films each month. Sometimes I just want to watch Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again for the seventh time!

But there is something special about discovering a new film, whether it’s a widely-acclaimed classic I’m finally watching or a little-known gem I stumble across and immediately love. We love cinema because it inspires us and it gives us joy, and no experience quite captures these pleasures that like the first viewing of an instant favorite. The first time we laugh, gasp or cry will forever inflect our repeat viewings or make up the descriptions we tell our friends.

I was inspired to start tracking my favorite new watches of each month by the Letterboxd user Kiki, whose list of her favorites inspired me to make my own. But, as a staff writer at The Simple Cinephile, I also wanted to offer some longer thoughts on my favorite new discoveries of the month. There won’t be any new releases on this list; it’s all about discovering the films from years past that have since become timeless, whether they’re from 2018 or well before I was born. This will be the first of a monthly series, so if you have any suggestions for April, let me know in the comments or on Twitter.

Weekend

Weekend (2011) – source: Sundance Selects

Director: Andrew Haigh
Released: 2011
Where I Found It:
Criterion Blu-Ray

I grabbed this disc during Criterion’s half-off sale knowing nothing about the film except that it was a gay version of Before Sunset and was written and directed by the same filmmaker as Lean On Pete, which was one of my underrated favorites from last year. I was completely shocked to discover that Weekend is absolutely, utterly perfect, a tightly wound crystal of a film that immediately vaulted into the top ranks of my all-time favorites. This is possibly one of the best queer films ever made, although this distinction perhaps belies its universal, incandescent beauty.

Weekend is the story of two men, Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New) who wake up in the same bed after a Friday night drunken hookup. The film follows them over the rest of the weekend that they end up spending together, exploring their fears and desires through brilliantly written and performed dialogue. Gorgeous cinematography makes every scene simultaneously vibrant and dreamy, particularly the steamy sex scenes that are both the most erotic and accurate depictions of gay sex I’ve ever seen in cinema. This film revels in the quotidian beauty Russel and Glen experience together in a perfectly packaged film I cannot recommend highly enough.

Ida

Ida (2013) – source: Solopan

Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Released:
2013
Where I Found It:
Kanopy

I know, I just wrote a longer piece about this film. But don’t read my spoiler-ridden article yet if you haven’t yet caught this stunning Oscar winner from Cold War director Pawel Pawlikowski. This film took my breath away and never gave it back, its short run time and formally restrained appearance doing nothing to halt its sheer emotional power. 

Ida is about a young novitiate in 1960’s Poland named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) who discovers that she is actually Jewish and the child of parents who were killed during the Holocaust. Accompanied by her aunt (Agata Kulesza), Anna/Ida travels the Polish countryside in search of answers about what happened to her family, a search that ultimately becomes an inspection into her own identity. Both lead actresses give powerhouse performances, but it’s the direction, cinematography and editing that make this film a masterpiece. The same team that made Cold War demonstrates their prowess throughout every moment of screen time, from quiet beginning to heartbreaking conclusion.

Faces Places

Faces Places (2017) – source: Le Pacte

Directors: Agnès Varda & JR
Released:
2017
Where I Found It:
Netflix

I watched this film for the first time just hours after learning that Agnes Varda had died. I had previously loved her films Cleo from 5 to 7 and The Beaches of Agnes, but Faces Places, her final film, is probably my favorite one yet. While it’s perhaps more poignant after Varda’s passing, this film is a prime example not just of her film-making talent, but of her immense capacity for compassion and self-reflection that made her an icon to a new generation of film lovers born long after the French New Wave.

Faces Places is ostensibly a collaboration between Varda and the French artist known only as JR that combines photography, public art, and documentary film-making in an utterly unique project. The film follows Varda and JR’s trips throughout the French countryside, where they photograph ordinary people in order to turn them into massive murals. While this project makes up the majority of the film’s run time, it’s also a deeply moving meditation on the meaning of life and how one might approach the end of their time on Earth. The film’s conclusion, in which they attempt to visit New Wave legend Jean-Luc Godard, offers a singularly effective moment that is an essential viewing for any fan of New Wave films.

Short Term 12

Short Term 12 (2013) – source: Cinedigm

Director: Destin Cretton
Released:
2013
Where I Found It:
Amazon Prime Video

This film was a quiet indie hit in 2013, but the success of the film’s cast in the following years speaks volumes about the incredible amount of talent packed into it. Brie Larson and Rami Malek have both picked up Oscars since their appearances in Short Term 12, while Lakeith Stanfield and Kaitlyn Dever shine in roles presaging their star turns in Sorry to Bother You and Booksmart. Director Dustin Cretton has also been tapped to helm a Marvel film in a move that will hopefully bring his sensitive, personal approach to a mainstream franchise that desperately needs it. Although it’s impossible to divorce the film from this context, Short Term 12 also more than stands on its own as a tender study of the exchange between trauma and kindness.

Larson stars as Grace, the director of a short-term foster care facility housing a number of children who are each bearing their own physical and emotional scars. While the film features some of the best young acting of the century, the film focuses on Grace, both in her heartrending moments with the children as well as her complicated personal life. It’s a tough balance between sincerity and saccharine, but the film nimbly navigates its complex subject matter without being trite or pitying.

Gravity

Gravity (2013) – source: Warner Brothers Pictures

Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Released:
2013
Where I Found It:
Blu-Ray

We can all just pretend that Sandra Bullock’s The Blind Side Oscar is actually for this film, right? That’s what I’m doing, anyway, after finally watching this multiple Oscar winning film from one of my favorite directors. It’s not my favorite Cuarón film by any stretch, but this film is remarkable for both its technical achievement and deft storytelling. I’m generally not a fan of hard sci-fi CGI flicks–sorry, Interstellar die-hards – but Cuarón’s script and Bullock’s performance sold me on this extraterrestrial thriller.

The film opens with Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone spacewalking alongside astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). An inciting incident rapidly arrives in the form of orbital debris that shreds their space shuttle and sends Stone and Kowalski spinning into deep space. While the film’s plot occasionally leans a little too hard into action-adventure tropes, stunning Emmanuel Lubezki cinematography and a flawless soundscape elevate Gravity above typical pulp fare. Bullock’s performance also anchors the film throughout, her incredible range bringing undeniable vigor to the computer-generated imagery.

Honorable Mention:

Birdman (2014, Alejandro Iñarittu); Ivan’s Childhood (1962, Andrei Tarkovsky); My Beautiful Laundrette (1985, Stephen Frears)

Stay tuned to read about Sam’s top 5 new watches of April next month!

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