Events leading to journalist Christine Chubbuck’s 1974 on-air suicide are recounted in Christine (2016), a bleak but potent film written by Craig Shilowich and directed by Antonio Campos. Strong performances by its lead actors and its visual authenticity make Christine the best overlooked film of 2016.
Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) is a sincere but troubled woman working as a reporter for a local news station in Sarasota, Florida. She lives with her mother, Peg (J. Smith-Cameron), and performs puppet shows at a children’s hospital on the weekends. Her life begins to spiral out of control when, approaching 30, she discovers she has a cyst on one of her ovaries and may never have children.
Her boss, Michael (Tracy Letts), is concerned about falling ratings and wants Christine to cover more sensational stories. This professional dilemma is compounded by the arrival of station owner Bob Andersen (John Cullum), who wants to move some personnel to Baltimore. Christine is passed over in favor of anchor George Peter Ryan (Michael C. Hall) and sports anchor Andrea Kirby (Kim Shaw). This is a double-blow because Christine had an unrequited crush on George.
I won’t reveal how the film ends, but you probably already guessed. Rebecca Hall, who also starred in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017) and The Dinner (2017), is outstanding as Christine Chubbuck, and won several awards for her effort. I’m not sure this film would have been nearly as good without her performance. She disappeared into the role, bringing her character to life with all the emotion and idiosyncrasies of a real person.
Turns out talent and hard work might not be enough to succeed in this faux-docudrama based on the life of former competitive figure skater Tonya Harding, I, Tonya (2017). Written by Steven Rogers and directed by Craig Gillespie, I, Tonya stars Margot Robbie in the titular role. The film re-creates interviews with the principal characters involved in a controversial attack on fellow figure skater Nancy Kerrigan in 1994.
Gillespie is a veteran director with several films and television episodes under his belt, so it comes as no surprise I, Tonya is competently handled. Rogers is mainly known for writing romantic comedies, so this film is quite a departure from his usual repertoire. Like the directing, the writing is solid but the fact it’s based on actual interviews and recordings probably made it easier.
Tonya Maxene Harding (Margot Robbie) grew up in poverty in Portland, Oregon. Her overbearing mother, LaVona (Allison Janney), pressured her into ice skating at a young age, eventually taking her out of school to pursue a career in the sport. In 1991, she became the first woman to successfully execute two triple axels in a single competition. She married Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) as a teen and their relationship quickly became abusive. Meanwhile, Gillooly’s friend, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), appointed himself as her unofficial body guard.
Harding finished fourth in the 1992 Winter Olympics and went home to be a waitress, where Coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) convinced her to begin training for the 1994 Winter Olympics. Gillooly, now her ex-husband, allegedly concocted a plan with Eckhardt to intimidate Harding’s rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver). Eckhardt hired two hapless thugs to smash Kerrigan’s knee. The event became a media sensation, resulting in Harding being banned from competitive ice skating.
James Franco directs and stars in this character study of filmmaker Tommy Wiseau, based on the book The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made (2014) by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell. There’s a tendency for biopics like this to pack all the entertaining content into the first half and then they drag on and on, struggling to tell the rest of the story. The Disaster Artist mostly avoids this pitfall.
The Disaster Artist (2017) traces the rise of mysterious and eccentric actor and filmmaker Tommy Wiseau and his tumultuous friendship with the much younger Greg Sestero. Wiseau and Greg meet in an acting class, where Greg is drawn to Wiseau’s fearlessness and determination.
The two decide to move to Los Angeles and pursue acting careers. While Greg is able to land a few bit roles, people are turned off by Wiseau’s strange behavior, accent, and overconfidence. Frustrated by lack of forward momentum, Wiseau decides to write, produce, and direct his own film starring Greg and himself.
The project begins with promise, but things quickly go south as it becomes apparent Wiseau has more confidence than skill or experience. He continually references Hollywood to justify his bizarre behavior (“we’re making real Hollywood movie!”) and refers back to other directors’ outrageous behavior to excuse his own. Ironically, what he produces is so bad it goes down in history as one of the worst films ever made.
I never watched The Room (2003), and I don’t understand people’s fascination with bad movies or why they become cult classics. I guess it’s a way to live vicariously or somehow feel attached to something unique, similar to why reality TV is so popular.
Based on a graphic novel of the same name by Derf (John) Backderf, My Friend Dahmer (2017) traces infamous Wisconsin serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer’s high school years, as chronicled by a former friend. Written and directed by Marc Meyers, this moody and hauntingly subtle film won best picture at Austin Fantastic Fest. Despite competent performances by its cast, My Friend Dahmer fails to leave a lasting impression. It lacked an over-all plot, and the poorly-mixed sound was barely audible.
Jeffrey Dahmer committed his first murder three weeks after graduating high school. As a teen, he coped with his parents’ failing marriage with alcohol abuse and acting out at school, and developed a fascination with death. He went on to kill sixteen people, preying mostly on young gay men in Milwaukee. He dismembered and ate some of his victims. He was finally caught in 1991, and a fellow inmate murdered him three years later.
Out of what I assume is a strict adherence to the source material, the film never goes below the surface or attempts to explain why Dahmer became a monster or what could have been done to stop him. It subtly hints at his aberrant sexuality without confronting it. What remains is a stark depiction of events without drama, tension, or conflict.
Ross Lynch gives an admirable performance as the wannabe serial killer (although the movie doesn’t give him much to do). This is certainly a departure from his other roles in Disney films and TV shows like Austin & Ally (2011-2016). His brooding, deadpan performance couldn’t contrast more with his usual upbeat, teen heartthrob characters. Such a dramatic acting range bodes well for his future career in film, and I’m looking forward to seeing him in more dramatic roles.
A young woman feels called to become a Catholic nun during the tumultuous period of Vatican II in Novitiate (2017). Written and directed by Margaret Betts, Novitiate is an intimate portrayal of the personal struggle and sacrifices these women made to pursue a religious calling, while others felt abandoned by the institution that gave their lives meaning. This was Margaret Betts’ first feature film, and is a genuine and heartfelt effort with outstanding performances by its cast.
The film opens in 1954. Though non-religious, Nora Harris (Julianne Nicholson) takes her young daughter Cathleen to church. Her marriage is falling apart and her abusive husband leaves. Later, religious sisters visit their home and offer Cathleen a scholarship to attend a newly-opened Catholic school, where she feels the presence of God. At 17, Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) believes she has been called to become a nun and enters a convent as a postulant, over her mother’s objections.
At the Order of the Sisters of Blessed Rose, Cathleen befriends her fellow postulants, Sissy (Maddie Hasson), Emily (Liana Liberato), Evelyn (Morgan Saylor), and others, and meets Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), a stern headmistress. As the girls progress towards becoming novitiates, Reverend Mother becomes alarmed with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. She believes the changes will destroy their way of life, and tries to resist them despite warnings from Archbishop McCarthy (Denis O’Hare).
Things get complicated when Cathleen feels an awakening sexuality, to which she responds by starving herself. This drives her into the arms of a newcomer, Sister Emanuel (Rebecca Dayan). Also starved for physical affection, the two share a forbidden moment of tenderness. Meanwhile, Reverend Mother grows despondent as she is powerless to stop Vatican II from liberalizing their religious order, undermining her authority and resulting in a mass exodus of nuns.
A female tennis star wrestles with the patriarchy and her own sexuality in the gyno-centric sports dramedy Battle of the Sexes (2017), written by Simon Beaufoy and directed by Jonathan Dayton. A retelling of the most-watched tennis match of all time, between ex-champion Bobby Riggs and top female player Billie Jean King, seemed promising, but something misfired along the way. It was partly billed as a comedy, and features both Sarah Silverman and Steve Carell, but ends up only being mildly amusing.
It’s the early 1970s. Tennis star Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and her manager Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) confront Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) about gross inequality in tennis prize money between male and female players. In outrage, they storm off to found their own women’s tennis association. Meanwhile, ex-tennis star Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) has hit a new low as his gambling addiction threatens to tear apart his family.
As her new league takes off, Billie Jean King’s behavior threatens her marriage as well, when she meets hairstylist Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) and discovers she is attracted to women. This affair seems to have little effect on her life, however, when her cuckolded husband, Larry King (Austin Stowell), shrugs it off and continues to faithfully dote on her.
Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs comes up with a way to exploit controversy over the women’s lib movement to make money and challenges top female tennis players to an exhibition bout. He handily defeats Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), who is portrayed as somehow flawed and weakened by her loving devotion to her husband and child. Billie Jean King finally accepts the challenge and ends up humiliating Riggs in a match dubbed “The Battle of the Sexes.”
A young woman comes to grips with her failing marriage and homosexual husband, and oh yeah there’s something about a tentacle sex alien too, in The Untamed (2016), a Mexican sci-fi horror film written and directed by Amat Escalante. Originally titled La region salvaje, it was released in the U.S. in 2017. The film gratuitously uses a provocative subtext to explore serious drama and sexual themes in small town Mexico.
Amat Escalante is a Spanish director known for his gritty portrayal of the Mexican experience. The Untamed paints an unvarnished portrait, and even the natural scenes are bleak and depressing. Its original title translates to “the wild region,” which I’m assuming refers both to untamed nature and female sexuality. There are several close up shots that reinforce that theme scattered throughout the film.
Alejandra (Ruth Ramos) and Ángel (Jesus Meza) are raising two children in an unhappy marriage. Alejandra’s brother, Fabian (Eden Villavicencio), is a nurse at a local hospital. Ángel and Fabian are having an affair. Things get weird when Fabian meets Veronica (Simone Bucio), who visits the hospital after being bitten by a lusty tentacle alien her parents (?) keep in their barn.
Veronica lures Fabian to the barn, where the creature brutalizes him into a coma. He is later found naked in a ditch and brought to the hospital, where Alejandra meets Veronica. Police arrest Ángel for Fabian’s injuries because a bystander saw the two men arguing in a parking lot before Fabian disappeared.