By Pete Barell
Arts and Entertainment Editor
We are now in the thick of awards season, with the Golden Globes already behind us and the Academy Awards coming up on Feb. 22. Bradley Cooper, Steve Carrell, Reese Witherspoon and Meryl Streep are just a few of the familiar faces one can easily spot on magazine covers, as wild predictions are made about just who may win that coveted Oscar.
Yet, there are always films and actors that receive much less press attention, at least to the casual viewer. Foreign and independent films often deal with themes and stories that don’t typically fit the mainstream palette, but deserve attention just as much as their big studio film competitors. Here are four (hopefully) worthy films that may not have shown up on the radar of the average filmgoer in 2014.
“Force Majeure” is perhaps the most sociological comedy flick of the year. This Swedish film chronicles the weeklong stay of a family who take a skiing trip in the French Alps. They are, by all means, regular people. Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) is a businessman, taking some time off from work with his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their young children. Tomas’ masculinity is plunged into question when his survival instincts get the better of him – he runs away from a controlled avalanche that seems like it may overtake a mountainside café, leaving his family to fend for themselves. He returns soon after, but denies his actions.
This is a film of questions. What defines manhood? What defines parenthood? These concepts may seem heavy, but “Force Majeure” plays them out in a subtle, comedic way; compounding the humor in awkward and tense situations, driven by a choice lingering within the frame of the cinematography. The film was snubbed for an Oscar nomination, but received attention at the Golden Globes. “Force Majeure” can be viewed on iTunes and Amazon Prime.
“Ida” is a Polish drama, nominated for both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography at the Academy Awards. The film, set in the 1960s, tells the story of a young nun named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), who is tasked by her superiors to visit an estranged relative before taking her vows. This story has the complexities allowed by simplicity: the lead character sets out on a clear objective, but weaved into her innocent interactions with a somewhat foreign world are rich insights into her religion, family, sexuality, and the looming presence of the Stalinist regime of the time.
While shot in black in white, “Ida” seems to suppress the innate colorful peppiness of 60’s culture – one scene involving a band that plays in a bar is exciting, but demands color and is never given it. Perhaps this all works to the effect of creating a sketch of post-war Poland filled with uncertainty as well as change. “Ida” can be viewed on Netflix, iTunes, and Amazon Prime.
“Virunga” is an Academy-Award nominated documentary that first appeared at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. Director Orlando Von Einsiedel weaves the stories of four characters, all of whom struggle to protect the Virunga National Park – a region of the Democratic Republic of Congo that has highly sought after oil beneath it, but is home to a family of endangered mountain gorilla, as well as other wildlife, and a fishing village. Opening with the funeral of a park ranger, the doc centers on the ongoing involvement of European interest groups with African countries with precious resources, and their dealings with the violent and constantly changing political groups taking power.
Tensions escalate as armed conflict approaches the park borders. Gorilla caretaker André Bauma displays the very human qualities of the animals that face the threat of poachers and the incoming militants. The park is spearheaded by chief-warden Emmanuel de Merode and head park-ranger Rodrigue Mugraka Katembo; the pair work tirelessly with their men to protect the park from the involvement of the British Company Soco International, a group that appears to be capitalizing on conflict. Mélanie Gouby, a French journalist, unearths evidence of corruption. Her investigation leads to conversations with representatives from Soco. The film is, above all, a story of how nature in the Congo is at risk, and yet still being protected by a select few despite harsh adversity and turmoil in the country. “Virunga” is now streaming on Netflix.
“The Babadook” is an Australian psychological horror film unlike the majority of scare fare that has come out in the last few years. The film focuses intensely on the relationship between a very troubled young boy named Samuel (Noah Wiseman) and his single mother Amelia (Essie Davis). After the imaginary creature from a bedtime story seemingly becomes too real, the duo spiral down into a world of isolation and disbelief. The titular villain is the epitome of childhood nightmares, the type of thing that you thought you saw in the dark corners of your room in the middle of the night.
Where many horror films rely on cheap pop-out thrills, “The Babadook” anchors the fear in its main characters, and has more than one deep moment of sadness that ups the stakes and tension. “The Babadook” is available on Amazon Prime and iTunes.