The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

I’m trying not to tear my hair out; any description I give of this film will unfairly reduce it. It’s neither a schmaltzy story about finding a place to belong (a sentimental man takes great pains to save an historic family home from disrepair in a gentrified neighborhood) nor a quirky art piece (poetry reciting urban minorities framed by antique architecture). Even to consider it as much of a representation of Black culture as Smoke Signals is of Native American Indians would be too simplistic. So, I’ll simply list everything I love about it: intriguing buildup that didn’t over-explain the premise or present a confusing introduction; subtle yet intricate character development; no screamed tear-streaming performances wrought from melodramatic angst; dignity through a spectrum of characters who all represent a larger demographic without watering down their collective experience; a lyrical script that enhanced the theatrical tone given by an often stylized visual perspective; skillful cinematography that complemented rather than distracted from the flow of such a tender story; attention to detail in both set and props, which are accurate/ appropriate to time, place and situation.

Please note this isn’t for viewers with thin walls or in a setting (e.g. classroom) that may be sensitive to authentic urban language, including controversial but realistic terms.

Wildlife (2018)

This movie typifies why I decided to compile a catalog rather than a list: sometimes I can’t make a blanket recommendation because movies such as this take just the right audience in a certain mood to enjoy them. (Recall the pacing of Leave No Trace.) The reputation of both the talent assembled for this collaboration and natural beauty of the setting (Montana, USA) proceed them. In fact, the natural landscape is a character in itself.

Despite my initial disappointment with the simplistic plot and sparse dialogue, I found myself still thinking about this film days later. (Similar to Melancholia in that regard.) What struck me were the parallels. The stark, clean, perfectly symmetrical sets embodied the innocence and idealism of both the family portrayed and the time period in which they were living, which faded and tarnished over time. Moreover, the scenery– particularly the wildfire smoke– is simultaneously literal and symbolic of a seemingly inevitable catalyst.

Charged: The Eduardo Garcia Story (2017)

“Everyone that has held me accountable and supported me and forgiven me and held me accountable has brought me to today.” Eduardo Garcio, whom you may know as The Bionic Chef or The Emperor of Flavor, was hiking in Montana, USA when he came across a dead bear, which he poked with his knife. He was then charged with 2400 volts of electricity. Although he now has a food company that makes sauces and seasonings, there was a long, tedious and painful road to recovery. He lost muscle from his torso, legs, arms, and scalp after about two dozen surgeries. By now, he’s a successful businessman and motivational speaker but Garcio’s journey included facing his troubled childhood, estrangement from his father and his cheating on the girlfriend, who ended up caring for him. It’s worth noting that while this is an extraordinary story, it’s both sad and inspirational. It’s truly fascinating but not necessarily suited for a family, church, or classroom setting due to graphic footage of injuries, significant usage of the “f-bomb” and nudity in artistic photos.

Leave No Trace (2018)

Appropriate to the title, little– other than award nominations and wins– was left in its wake. I can see why. The premise of a military vet raising his daughter in isolation from Society seems to promise a survivalist thriller. Though there is adventure, to expect heart-pounding chases through the woods and rural shootouts will only disappoint; this is purely a psychological exploration of PTSD, familial bonding, parenting and identity. Accordingly, the characters say little out loud; the communication and emotion is almost entirely visual. There is love and care and trust but as much as a daughter loves her father, she can’t hide from the world forever. I won’t wax poetic about the plethora of additional themes; you’ll explore them if you’re so inclined.

The Upside (2017)

Bryan Cranston’s talent is a given. However, though this a different Kevin Hart than audiences have previously seen (as of this post), he strikes just the right comedic note without endangering the story’s tone. Hiring a self- sabotaging deadbeat with a criminal record to be a quadriplegic’s live-in caretaker was meant to stick it to his secretary, who ignored his “Do Not Resuscitate” directive. Funny enough, they turned out to be just what the other needed. While such an unlikely friendship did exist, “based” on a true story is a bit of an exaggeration; it’s more like a biopic twice removed. But make no mistake: it’s still entertaining and poignant.

Hiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)

I only watched this film on recommendation but ended up loving it! From what could easily be the new, “Fish! Philosophy,” we could all learn a thing or two from fascinating 85 year old sushi master, Jiro Ono. His restaurant was the first in the world to earn 3– the maximum possible– Michelin stars. (See Burnt to understand the prestige.) He shares his secrets for success and we also get to see what big shoes his sons have to fill should they ever hope to achieve the same level of success. Like Jiro’s sushi, this was truly a delightful surprise.

Muriel’s Wedding (1994)

Beware: studio marketing set you up for disappointment! Despite their emphasis on ABBA music, the premise has satirical underpinnings.

To characterize Muriel as a “lovable loser” would be a gross oversimplification. As only Toni Collette can do (seriously– you have to like a character to root for them), an insecure girl escapes her family’s psychological abuse by emersing herself in pop music and living vicariously through other people’s success.

On an impromptu vacation, on which she tries to keep up with the popular crowd, she thinks she’s found a quick fix for happiness: marriage to a celebrity. Despite growing up in the shadow of her politican father, she believes the superficial fairytale will turn the tables on everyone who previously snubbed her. Along the way she discovers a new and different form of beauty.

Though there is humor, don’t expect slapstick. A tranformation in the same vein as Strictly Ballroom and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion is more realistic (i.e. frequently cringeworthy) than the poster/ cover would lead you to believe but it’s worth every moment.

Love and Mercy (2015)

What Ingrid Bergman portrayed in Gaslight, Brian Wilson of “The Beach Boys” lived in real life. Exploiting anyone’s insecurity is the key to controlling them, especially in the aftermath of a perfect storm: trauma, pressure to succeed, unappreciated genius and professional relationships with family.

I didn’t watch this as a fan (per se) but by the end was inspired to listen to the work of such an historically influential musician, whose greatest career achievement was considered an absolute flop by critics at the time. Though rumors abound, Wilson himself considers this film to be accurate. His only complaint seems to be the generous depictions of sinister individuals, who were painted too broadly. (Dare I consider it ironic that the biopic’s non-linear structure seems to invoke just as much criticism as the subject’s music?)

Weaving triumph and tragedy through his early career and later involuntary isolation, along with his family life and personal creative process, the movie is a celebration of how a kind and brave wonan came into his life just in the nick of time. I was relieved this didn’t turn out to be a salacious melodrama; horrific suffering took place at the hands of a professional, who took advantage of the fragile mind he was supposed to help heal. Yet love and mercy (as per Wilson’s subsequent song) won. Anything less than an attempt to honor that would disrespect his journey to healing.

Brittany Runs a Marathon (2019)

Anyone who’s struggled to reboot their life will find this story engaging. Even the real-life Brittany thought so! Based on a friend of the filmmaker, we see a real person depicted in all her gloriously awkward growth. It’s rare for a story to be motivating without schmaltz or condescension; to call this one “inspirational” could suggest it isn’t ever painful or disappointing. FYI: Life’s like that. The triumph is in Brittany’s perseverance– including setting boundaries and making amends– despite embarrassing missteps, which would make anyone hesitant to press on. But she does and never loses her sense of humor developed over years filled with shame and self-doubt.

Liar Liar (1997)

“My dad? He’s… a liar.” “A liar? I’m sure you don’t mean a liar.” “Well, he wears a suit and goes to court and talks to the judge.” “Oh, you mean he’s a lawyer.” In this case, same difference: “Great news! Both my legs are broken so they can’t take me right to jail.”

Max Reede misses his dad, Fletcher even though his mother threw him out for being a self-centered, philandering liar. Max makes a birthday wish that– just for one day– his dad wouldn’t be able to tell a lie. So imagine Fletcher’s surprise when he wakes up one day blurting out even the most uncomfortable truth. “My teacher tells me beauty is on the inside.” “That’s just something ugly people say.” Of course, everything works itself out in the end but not before wreaking havoc on Fletcher’s life, both in and out of court. “Mr. Reede, one more word out of you, and I will hold you in contempt!” “I hold MYSELF in contempt! Why should you be any different?”