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Sam’s Top 5 New Watches of April

In our second article of our column, Sam discusses his top 5 favorite first-time watches from the month of April.

It turns out that April showers lead to lots of nights sitting on my couch watching movies! I only made it to the theater once this month, and it was to see the movie that practically everyone else on the planet saw too: Avengers: Endgame. I might have made it out more if my local theater was screening High Life or Her Smell, but at least I had some extra time to spend tracking down some other films for home viewing.

April’s new watches include some typical modern indies, but I also made a concerted effort to seek out some older films. I’m definitely guilty of being a millennial cinephile at times; all of last month’s top 5 came from the 2010s. While I still have a soft spot in my heart for contemporary cinema, I spent some time this past month catching up on my film history and checked out a couple New Hollywood classics that absolutely blew me away. I’m still not sold on the “older automatically means better” argument, but it’s worth remembering that quite a few classics are actually worth the hype, even for the modern young film fanatic.

As always, make sure to let me know in the comments or on Twitter what you think I should check out in May. I’d love to know what twentieth century films you think have stood the test of time or what newer buried gems I should try and unearth.

River of Grass

River of Grass (1994) – source: Strand Releasing

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Released: 1994
Where I Found It: Kanopy

The road film and the crime thriller are both quintessentially American genres with long and storied legacies marked by dozens, if not hundreds of films. Kelly Reichardt’s debut sits at the intersection of both, cleverly drawing on the influence of films that come before it such as Drugstore Cowboy and Thelma & Louise, while remaining uniquely and perfectly its own. It’s undeniably Reichardt’s powerhouse directing that sells this film, equal parts black comedy, feminist statements and powerful class analysis that presage the career-to-come of one of America’s best independent filmmakers.

River of Grass begins with a frustrated Florida housewife caught in a dying marriage and seeking a way out. For Cozy (Lisa Bowman) escape comes with Lee (Larry Fessenden), a hard-drinking loser who convinces her to go for a night swim in his friend’s pool. A gun goes off and Cozy and Lee try to hit the road only to find themselves hamstrung by a lack of funds or meaningful sense of direction. Their attempts to raise money are alternately comic and pathetic, but over the course of the film we realize that the film isn’t as much about crime as it is about dissatisfaction and what it means to seize control of your own life.

The Graduate

The Graduate (1967) – source: Embassy Pictures

Director: Mike Nichols
Released: 1967
Where I Found It: Netflix

I almost didn’t watch this film. One of few twentieth-century releases on Netflix, I expected The Graduate to be a thoroughly mediocre slog through the overwritten libido of a horny straight boy, an all-too-common type of film I find thoroughly exhausting. But, while this film might be about the libido of a horny straight boy, it soars above and beyond the mediocrity of the dozens of imitations it inspired. Enclosed in the trappings of a romantic comedy is a radical portrayal of human sexuality, an erect middle finger to the chaste trappings of classic Hollywood. Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft offer two of the most precise, perfect performances ever captured on celluloid, while every move by director Mike Nichols, cinematographer Robert Surtees, and editor Sam O’Steen is a masterclass in the possibilities of visual storytelling.

Hoffman plays Benjamin Braddock, a recent college graduate who’s returned to his parents’ house in Los Angeles before attending grad school. A naive, nervous young man, Benjamin finds himself enthralled with Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson, an older woman whose seduction of Benjamin is one of the most electric sequences in the history of cinema. Although occasionally dated in its treatment of gender, particularly when Benjamin falls in love with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross), the sheer evident talent at work in The Graduate makes this landmark film essential viewing for anyone interested in American independent cinema. New Hollywood marked the beginning of a new sensibility in American film that would go on to produce a slew of filmmakers, film movements, and broader counter-cultural tendencies from which cinema would never return.

Timbuktu

Timbuktu (2014) – source: Cohen Media Group

Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
Released: 2014
Where I Found It: Kanopy

Most representations of Africa in Western cinema are absolutely reprehensible. The sensitive treatments of difference and otherness so often afforded to European nations or American sub-cultures are frequently discarded for a flat, often racist portrayal of an incredibly diverse, complicated and misunderstood continent that’s largely ignored on the international cinematic stage. Timbuktu was partially produced in France, but its deep grounding in a radically different understanding of Africa is evident in every frame. Although the film engages in complex considerations of violence and tragedy, Sissako’s commitment to representing Africa on its own terms makes this film a necessary counterpoint in a long history of cinematic malpractice.

Timbuktu‘s narrative is freewheeling – capturing the complicated and often intersecting lives of many of the inhabitants of the titular city in Mali while living under the brutal control of the ISIS-esque terrorist group Ansar Dine. Insofar as the film as a central character it’s Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino), a cattle herder whose commitment to his family runs afoul of Ansar Dine’s strict dictates. The terrorist’s extremist doctrine is considered with a depth and intelligence rarely seen in cinema, offering a far more compelling examination of extremism than American war flicks have ever accomplished.

Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie and Clyde (1967) – source: Warner Bros.

Director: Arthur Penn
Released: 1967
Where I Found It: Netflix

If The Graduate brought sexuality to New Hollywood, Bonnie and Clyde brought the guns. It might seem difficult to imagine in a time where mainstream cinema is increasingly dominated by action films, but there was a time when strict motion picture production codes carefully regulated not just what could be shown in films, but how it could be presented. Violence was frowned upon, but even implicit endorsement of criminal violence was absolutely forbidden. Bonnie and Clyde‘s gun-toting, cop-shooting, irrepressibly glamorous leading duo left these rules shattered in their wake, the film’s surprisingly nuanced treatment of masculine sexuality becoming almost a bonus in light of its monumental impact on the filming of bloodshed.

Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway bring titanic screen presence to the titular bank robbers, their perfectly calibrated performances belonging in the absolute top echelon of American acting. Beatty and Dunaway might be best known to a certain generation of film fans for botching Moonlight‘s Best Picture win, making it even more refreshing to see them bring incredible, vivid life to a well-known story. Most viewers will know the ending from before the first frame, but the ride to that inevitable conclusion is alternately raucous fun and a serious meditation on the effects of fame and criminality.

Good Time

Good Time (2017). Source: A24

Directors: Ben & Josh Safdie
Released: 2017
Where I Found It: Amazon Prime Video

A24 seems to have a bad habit of letting some truly astounding films slip through the cracks of their busy release schedule. Last year’s scintillating Never Goin’ Back was one such victim, and although this film has a cult following among a certain type of A24-devotee, Good Time is a movie that deserved far more attention than it received. There are a few rough moments scattered throughout this fast-moving, hard-hitting package, but an incredible soundtrack and a stellar performance from Robert Pattinson provide some much-needed anchoring that ultimately elevates the film above standard crime thriller fare.

Pattinson stars as Connie, a driven young man who opens the film by robbing a bank with his developmentally disabled brother, Nick (Ben Safdie). The flubbed robbery ends in Nick’s arrest, leading Connie to resort to increasingly desperate means to try and get his brother back. The film’s stylistic flair dominates the viewing experience, but it’s Connie’s character arc that defines the film as he grows increasingly depraved in his pursuit of what he believes to be right. Pattinson is nothing short of incredible in his nuanced portrayal of Connie, particularly when paired with a criminally underused Jennifer Jason Leigh, who might’ve scored an Oscar nod with a meatier part.

Honorable Mentions:

The Eyes of My Mother (2016, Nicolas Pesce), Shoplifters (2018, Hirokazu Kore-eda), A Quiet Place (2018, John Krasinski)

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