question of the weekend: What under-the-radar film from recent years would you recommend?

Mary Magdelene

This weekend’s conversation starter:

What under-the-radar film from recent years would you recommend? I’m thinking specifically about movies you wish more people had seen so that we — the big cultural We — could talk about it. Or even just so that you could talk to other movie fans about it.

My choice may be unexpected to longtime readers, who know I have little patience for religious movies: Mary Magdalene, released in the UK in 2018 and in the US in 2019. The film was delayed in the US because it was caught up in the collapse of The Weinstein Company, but I’m not sure it would have been widely welcomed anyway, because it is most definitely not like the sermonizing “faith-based” movies that tend to do well in America. As I said back in 2018, this film — starring Rooney Mara as the much maligned figure from the story of Jesus, and Joaquin Phoenix as the big guy himself — is a “fiercely feminist and proudly revisionist historical drama,” and:

a very humanist, very grounded take on [the Jesus story]… The script… lends no sense of grand portent to the story: no one here has any idea that the future is watching, which is as it should be yet isn’t a quality that most Bible movies embrace. (The name “Jesus” isn’t even mentioned at all until quite far into the film, long after we’ve actually met him, when Mary does. He’s merely “the healer” or “the rabbi.” We understand why so many people are in love with him, but it’s not because of the dogwhistle his name has become today.)

And why do I wish more people had seen it? Also from my review:

Mary Magdalene also offers a powerful and much-needed rebuke to how modern Christianity has strayed far from the messages of its roots. Whether you’re a believer or not — and I certainly am not — there is no denying that the story of Jesus is a foundational one for our culture, one that has had and continues to have an enormous impact on all of us, of all faiths and of none. And the way it is being used today, especially but not only in America, as a way to bully and shame, as a stamp of approval to get rich and ignore the poor– oof. It’s not only that the Jesus of this movie — a rabble-rousing, anti-establishment hippie — would not approve, though he wouldn’t. Mary Magdalene also suggests that because Mary’s gospel was sidelined — oh, how Peter here scoffs at her presence among the Apostles, at her influence on Jesus, on her audacity to contradict Peter’s way of carrying on Jesus’ teachings — Christianity went down a twisted path that Jesus absolutely did not intend, and would not like. Mary — a woman! — was a true prophet of Jesus, Mary Magdalene would like us to know. Maybe the only one.

So many people need to hear this message.

(I’m reviving my “questions” posts — just on a weekend basis — as an experiment, to see if there’s any interest in them. I’m also posting these as free posts at Substack or Patreon. You don’t need to be a paying subscriber at either service if you’d prefer to comment at either of them, but you will need to register with either site to comment.)

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Jan_Willem
Jan_Willem
Sun, Aug 15, 2021 12:34pm

I would recommend Terry Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quichote”. It didn’t exactly receive universal praise on release and probably didn’t do great business at the box office. However, it features a killer performance by Gilliam regular Jonathan Pryce as a deluded man who believes he is the Don, a committed turn from Adam Driver and a house of mirrors plot with some Russian mobsters and excursions into delusions or historical flashbacks that defies logic. It strongly reminded me of Gilliam’s imaginative Münchausen movie, and that’s not at all bad, in my humble opnion.

LaSargenta
LaSargenta
reply to  Jan_Willem
Sun, Aug 15, 2021 2:24pm

I loved Münchhausen. This has been on my list and I’ll make a point of it now.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Jan_Willem
Mon, Aug 16, 2021 12:26pm

That one has been on my to-watch list for a while now…

Danielm80
Danielm80
Sun, Aug 15, 2021 12:49pm

I love John Dies at the End so much that I’m afraid to watch it again, because it can’t possibly be as good as I remember.

https://youtu.be/KW2eLAvuGIk

Also this:

https://youtu.be/nfPxmnMAyZw

Which led to this:

https://www.gregthings.com/product-page/mondo-s-the-nightingale-ap-screenprint-1

And may also be my favorite film of the past five or ten years, because it sums up the past five or ten years without quite resembling any other film I’ve ever seen.

This is, by the way, a very different question than “What terrible movie do you love enthusiastically?”

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Danielm80
Mon, Aug 16, 2021 12:28pm

The Nightingale is amazing, and I never reviewed it.

Ack, I need more hours in the day.

This is, by the way, a very different question than “What terrible movie do you love enthusiastically?”

Consider yourself thanked for next weekend’s question, Daniel. :-) (I will of course thank you in that post too.)

LaSargenta
LaSargenta
Sun, Aug 15, 2021 12:52pm

My recommendation is a sort of frivolous movie and I feel like it is going to seem like it’s mocking your recommendation (which, btw, was off my radar despite your great review and now I am going to find it and watch).

But, here goes. The High Note with Tracee Ellis Ross and Dakota Johnson and Ice Cube (and a cameo by Eddie Izzard and a nice supporting and supportive role by Bill Pullman).

I have had a hard time with stories, fiction or nonfiction, during the pandemic. I have found I needed stories of personal success that weren’t too sappy. I have started lots of movies only to stop. Or to fast forward and only watch certain characters’ moments.

This isn’t deep. I think that at another time, I might even have found this too shallow. But, everyone in this gives it their best [Edited to add: And Ms. Ross’s voice is lovely, there should have been more music and I replayed the bits that there are over and over just because I enjoyed listening to her.] and there’s a story of people being underestimated who turn it around by themselves, not through an outside force.

Honorable Mention : Dumplin. But, I think that isn’t as much under the radar.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  LaSargenta
Mon, Aug 16, 2021 12:29pm

The High Note

This is a great suggestion. And it’s another one that I never reviewed but want to.

LaSargenta
LaSargenta
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Tue, Aug 17, 2021 5:50pm

It is still streaming in the US on HBO!

zak1
zak1
Sun, Aug 15, 2021 2:16pm

This is a great question – I think it’s worth asking on a regular basis –

The discussion in the article is also really nice – my favorite movie on that topic is Pasolini’s Gospel According to Matthew – another one that made an impact on me was Scorsese’s movie from the Kazantzakis novel (I seem to remember reading that Scorsese would have liked to do a fly on the wall, documentary approach to the Christ story, but couldn’t because Pasolini had already made that movie)

– another amazing movie that tackles that subject is Brand, from the Ibsen play, with Patrick MacGoohan – it’s not directly about Christ, but it really explores what it would mean to treat one’s own life and well being as totally irrelevant in the face of pursuing spiritual principles, and to demand the same of others – but it sounds like I really need to see this Rooney Mara film also – maybe someday they’ll make a movie about Rabia, the great Sufi mystic

SEAGULL
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56ZzadJU988
But the question here is about recent movies – just now I watched The Seagull, from 2018, with Annette Bening as Arkadina and Saiorse Ronan as Nina – since it had received so little attention, I’d procrastinated seeing it, and I expected to watch a bit here and there till I’d finished – but this movie was astonishing – I stared at it straight through with my mouth open – I’ve watched many versions of this play, and this is by far the best cinematizing of it that I’ve seen –

MACBETH
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YqHhKuCQmoY
Another watershed take on a familiar classic was Macbeth, from 2015, with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard – I couldn’t believe this didn’t get more attention – it was an audacious reading that framed the text in terms of the recent trend in grief-based horror – this worked very well – we see the Macbeths as grieving parents whose children have just died – and their subsequent descent into madness is framed in relation to this post-traumatic stress – and the hallucinatory visual language increasingly evokes Apocalypse Now, in a way I found more grounded and potent than Coppola’s

SHADOW
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zw3LjaZlSLM
This was Zhang Yimou’s latest, from 2018, and I’m surprised we heard so little about it, since his work is usually publicized more – his vintage work consists of psychological dramas, and about 20 years ago he got into the trend of wirework wuxia epics, making them more voluptuous than any we’d ever seen, using each of these films to visually mark a distinctive cultural and historical period

– after tackling the Warring States period and the Tang Dynasty, he now sets Shadow in the dissolute period after the Han Dynasty, when Daoism really took hold and began to interact with the newly arriving Buddhism – in this case, he immerses his film in a monochromatic look representing the interplay of Yin and Yang

– there is something a bit jarring about this film, which I think marks a continuing of some aspects of Curse of the Golden Flower which put some people off – I liked that film a lot, because it seemed to me that Yimou was combining his earlier psychosocial approach with the martial arts – plus it was great to see him working again with Gong Li – and I think it’s the best cinematizing of the Tang Renaissance

– this film has a similar strange edge, and some of the actors’ behavior looks almost over the top – it’s very large and exaggerated and different from what we’re used to from this filmmaker – it feels at times like 50s and 60s Japanese period films – but the actors always ground their work so that it feels like it’s arising out of real emotional impulses

– and the action setpieces are really spectacular and inventive – nobody makes more original action than Yimou – in terms of the concept, the choreography, the visual language – even the way the type of action ties into the themes – in this case the role of Yin

– we see Yin depicted here in various manifestations, saturating the film, including one incredible moment where we see a literal river of warriors flowing down the street using weaponized umbrellas as sleds – it feels like we’re seeing a new vocabulary of action being invented before our eyes

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  zak1
Mon, Aug 16, 2021 12:32pm

This is a great question – I think it’s worth asking on a regular basis

Indeed… and certainly as the zeitgeist gets more and more fractured.

Fassbender’s Macbeth is another one I adored — if that’s the right word for such a grim film — and never reviewed, and must.

zak1
zak1
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Tue, Aug 17, 2021 8:49pm

Just yesterday I stumbled across another movie that was beautiful that I’d never heard of – How to Build a Girl, starring Beanie Feldstein from Booksmart (another movie I adored – please Olivia Wilde make more like that)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LX6jal6-qu0

– in this new movie Feldstein plays a 16-year old in 90s UK who becomes a rock critic and embarks on a journey of self-discovery and self-creation – the whole cast is lovely, but I’m especially excited for Feldstein, to see lightning strike twice so early for such a dynamic actor –

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  zak1
Fri, Aug 20, 2021 12:44pm

Obviously you are not paying enough attention to me, because I reviewed it:

How to Build a Girl

:-)

zak1
zak1
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sat, Aug 21, 2021 11:54am

These are just some nice recent movies that I’ve seen that I haven’t heard discussed much. I guess you mean if I’d been keeping closer track of your reviews, I would have sought this one out sooner – in that case, touche :-)

RogerBW
RogerBW
Sun, Aug 15, 2021 1:17pm

I’m not sure what really counts as under the radar, because this place plus trailer feeds are my radar for the most part. But I’ve enjoyed:

Pulling Power from the Sky: (2020, free on YouTube) a documentary on the rise and fall of the Makani kite-based wind power project, but (I think without the intent of the filmmaker) also an excellent study on technological hubris and getting oneself locked into a particular way of thinking.

Fighting With My Family: (2019, reviewed by MaryAnn) really surprisingly solid. Tells a real story without breaking kayfabe, which is impressive in itself.

Charlie’s Angels: (2019) you what? No, really, someone forgot to tell the women that they were only supposed to be there for the enjoyment of the male audience, and this is an honest female-led action film (something I’m always looking for) that I suspect failed mostly because it made male audiences just a little bit uncomfortable. Also compare the male-gazey introductions of the characters in the 2000 version with what we get here.

“There was a gunfight at my wedding.”
“Wait, you’re married?”
“No, I was the better shot.”

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  RogerBW
Mon, Aug 16, 2021 12:30pm

this place plus trailer feeds are my radar for the most part

LOL, and also I’m flattered.

zak1
zak1
reply to  RogerBW
Wed, Aug 18, 2021 2:08pm

I really liked Fighting With My Family – but there was one scene where she thoughtfully bares her heart and then gets shot down by the trainer, Vince Vaughn – the moment was certainly plausible, but it sort of turned me off of this pro wrestling culture she’s trying so hard to break into –

Lennon
Lennon
Sun, Aug 15, 2021 4:04pm

Ooh, I have a few for this. Brooklyn is one of my all-time favorites and I thought it was criminally underrated. Saoirse Ronan is always such a delight.

Diary of a Teenage Girl and Edge of Seventeen were (very different) coming-of-age movies that were actually about (shock!) girls instead of boys, and I just want everyone to watch them.

Ingrid Goes West and The Skeleton Twins are just amazing movies with fantastic performances. They’re probably a little too dark for really big mainstream audiences, which is a shame, because my god I love those movies.

Ok, last one, Straight Up is a romantic comedy that is actually romantic and funny. It’s smart, and shows relationship types that are not just your typical mainstream stuff, and hooray for representation outside of the dominant heteronormative stuff! This movie was such a wonderful surprise for me.

David_Conner
David_Conner
Mon, Aug 16, 2021 1:58pm

Faith-Based comes to mind, perhaps because of the interesting number of religious-themed movies in the recommendations. I haven’t really heard any talk about it beyond MaryAnn’s review (which is why I sought it out myself), but it’s a fun little movie that deserves a larger audience.

https://www.flickfilosopher.com/2020/10/faith-based-movie-review-god-is-in-the-details.html

Oldwen1120
Oldwen1120
Tue, Aug 17, 2021 7:58pm

Two films from 2019 I loved: Woman at War, the Icelandic comedy-drama about climate change where the star plays a dual role as twins and a Greek chorus band interacts with the characters. It’s interesting!

Ready Or Not, which takes a silly premise of killer hide-and-seek (if they find you, they kill you) and turns it into a hilarious dark comedy with surprisingly layered characters. Samara Weaving is excellent as the lead, and the script doesn’t let her down: I love how it lets her be human amid the sea of caricatured monsters. Definitely fits the mold of class-struggle comedy inherent to Parasite and Knives Out, so I’m not sure why it wasn’t more in the conversation that year.

if you asked this question a few years from now my answer would definitely be Barb and Star.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Oldwen1120
Fri, Aug 20, 2021 12:41pm

Woman at War

Loved this one. Never reviewed it. Argh.

Still haven’t seen Barb and Star, either. Ack.

Shade_Jon
Shade_Jon
Wed, Aug 18, 2021 8:15am

Stuck in Love is one of my favorite movies of the last 10 years. Beautiful, literate, funny.

The Spectacular Now: Understated and surprising, very nice.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always: Is this under the radar? Absolute powerhouse. Arrival: Is this under the radar? Unbelievably great and thought-provoking.

Lennon
Lennon
reply to  Shade_Jon
Thu, Aug 19, 2021 3:45pm

Never Rarely Sometimes Always was indeed phenomenal. My favorite movie of 2020.

Arrival was nominated for an Oscar, so probably pretty hard to qualify that as “under the radar” 😉

Bluejay
Bluejay
Wed, Aug 18, 2021 5:34pm

Fred Wiseman is a critically acclaimed filmmaker, but I don’t know how many people actually watch his movies. They should. He makes long, immersive, fly-on-the-wall documentaries with no voiceover narration, no talking heads, no subtitles to identify the people onscreen—he just sets up shop in an institution or neighborhood and captures all of its rhythms and goings-on, from board meetings with high-ranking officials to janitors mopping the hallways, and everything and everyone in between. It can sound boring but I find it fascinating to look under the hood of social institutions and see what it takes to keep them running.

Wiseman has been at this for decades, but some of his recent films that I’ve enjoyed include National Gallery (including scenes of art restoration, and fascinating lectures by museum docents), At Berkeley (which juxtaposes students organizing a protest with university higher-ups discussing how to respond to it), and In Jackson Heights (highlighting the immigrants of that neighborhood, and featuring advocacy by Make the Road NY). My favorite, because I’m married to a librarian, is Ex Libris, about the New York Public Library system and all of its amazing services, beyond being just a warehouse for books:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YzKrlOFZBD8&ab_channel=ZipporahFilms

I recommend watching his films at home via streaming or DVD, because they’re EPICALLY long, clocking in at around 4 hours. I usually go in prepared to break up the viewing over several days. :-)