All of the films nominated for the Oscar in the live-action category this year moved me deeply. There are multiple instances among these nominees of chance encounters that result in unintended consequences that spin out of control; there multiple instances in these five movies of regular and repeated meetings that are very much characterized by deliberate micro- and macroaggressions. But one film ingeniously, and provocatively, manages to feature all of those things simultaneously.
That is the brilliant and unsettling “Two Distant Strangers” [IMDb], which is not only the most important of these five nominees (though they’re all absolutely essential viewing) but surely one of the movies of the year, of any length. It should — and, I think, will — win the Oscar. American comedian and writer Travon Free (he was on the Daily Show staff for five years) wrote the script and makes his debut as director here (Martin Desmond Roe offers a codirectorial assist) with a science-fiction-tinged tale of Carter (Joey Bada$$), a charming and insouciant comic-book artist who finds himself stuck in a time loop in which he keeps re-encountering the same NYPD beat cop, Merk (Andrew Howard: Songbird). It’s best to know as little as possible about this film before you see it, but it’s no spoiler to say that these encounters do not end well for Carter, because he’s a young Black man, and Merk is white. The influence of Groundhog Day is enormous here, of course, but Free gives it a wicked spin: Where Bill Murray’s asshole weatherman had to relive the same day over and over until he became a better person, what Carter learns is that the racist attitudes of others are nothing he has much control over, no matter what he says or does. The surprises and the zings here are more brutal than mere plot twists: Free has given us a deep dive into the realities of endemic bigotry, both institutional and personal, that stings hard and deep, certainly for someone like me, who isn’t Black but who considers themselves an antiracist ally. Dismantling American racism is going to be a bigger job than perhaps many of us have previously considered.
[stream globally on Netflix]
The profound beauty and wisdom of all of this year’s nominees in this category makes it really tough to single out a runner-up. But maybe it’s “The Present” [IMDb|official site], from British-Palestinian filmmaker Farah Nabulsi. This is more straightforward a narrative than “Two Distant Strangers,” but it confronts head-on an equally entrenched bigotry, that of Israelis toward Palestinians, and does so with an empathy for the oppressed that is shattering. It’s such a simple thing that Yusef (Saleh Bakri: The Band’s Visit) wants: to collect an anniversary present he has ordered for his wife (Mariam Basha). But it means navigating a military checkpoint to get out of the ghetto he lives in, to the freer Israeli side; he does this for work every day, and this should be a day off for him, a day on which he can avoid this regular indignity, but he is a kind and thoughtful man. (What he has to go through to complete this chore makes it churlish to lob any feminist objections to what he thinks is an appropriate romantic gift for his wife. But it’s very 1950s, LOL.) Yusef takes his very young daughter, Yasmine (Maryam Kanj), along on the trip, yet something that might be very mundane to us — a bit of shopping with the kid — becomes an exercise in forbearance: the Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint are sadistic because they can be, and wield the little bit of power they have cruelly. Nabulsi’s eye is delicate, but her gaze on reflexive hatred is skewering.
“Not all Israelis,” of course, as we see in “White Eye” [IMDb|official site], from Israeli filmmaker Tomer Shushan. Here, Omer (Daniel Gad), a young Israeli man, is out and about one evening when he spots the bike that was stolen from him a month ago chained up on a city sidewalk. His quest to retrieve his property — can he convince the cops that the bike is his? can he convince a local handyman to cut the chain? — spirals out of control into a situation that he never could have anticipated. The inescapable inevitability of the events that follow are mirrored in the unshowy single take that Shushan uses to tell Omer’s tale, as if there is simply no stopping what has been set in motion, no matter how unwanted it is on Omer’s part. This is an impressive example of craft informing narrative and supporting theme, both of which come together in a discomforting way to underscore how, when we are not aware of our privilege, we may end up using it to further ends we hadn’t imagined were possible.
[stream in the US on HBO Max]
The inevitability of “Feeling Through” [IMDb|official site], by American filmmaker Doug Roland, is one of kindness… and it’s a warmth that only gets stronger the longer the film goes on. Tereek (Steven Prescod) is a teenager scrambling to get by on the streets of New York City: he’s trying to score a place to sleep for the night when he runs into Artie (Robert Tarango), a disabled man who needs some help finding the bus that can get him home. Tereek’s better nature is instantly engaged, and the young man is sidetracked by compassion that at first disadvantages him — he misses out on a place to crash — but ultimately becomes enormously enlightening. And so this experience is for us, too. People with disabilities are hugely underrepresented onscreen, and this extraordinary film offers a groundbreaking first: Tarango is the first DeafBlind actor to appear in a starring film role. I mean, I don’t think I had ever even heard the term “DeafBlind” before; most likely any familiarity most of us have with the concept is historical, via Helen Keller. (If it’s almost overwhelmingly difficult for non-DeafBlind people to imagine such a complex disability, well, Tereek has a moment with that, too.) Affable Artie is unfazed by Tereek’s initial unease — probably Artie has learned this is the best way to deal with clueless folk — and Tereek quickly picks up ways to communicate with his new friend. As with the other nominees here, it’s the most routine of human exchanges that lead to achingly intense new kinds of connections.
[stream at the film’s official site]
Finally, we have “The Letter Room” [IMDb], by Danish filmmaker Elvira Lind, a sweetly comedic portrait of prison guard Richard (Oscar Isaac: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker), who is low-key desperate to Do Good in his work. He makes real human connections with the inmates he works with, and then he is thrilled to be promoted to working in the titular job, where he doesn’t seem to see anything invasive or creepy in vetting and censoring the mail that arrives for the prisoners. But getting such intimate insights into the men in his putative care leads him down a psychological and emotional rabbit hole that is tricky to extricate himself from. Isaac’s delicately balanced performance is subtle yet pointed, as is the underlying criticism of the barbarity of death row, and of carceral notions of justice on the whole. There are moments that cut deeply here, but this might be the gentlest indictment of the American criminal justice system that I’ve seen yet.