Juneteenth Films

In honor of Juneteenth, I’ve put together a list of ten extraordinary films dealing with racism that are free to stream this month. Each is powerful, a cinematic achievement in its own right, and conveys important views about race in this country. Celebrate this weekend by continuing to learn about the Black experience.

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Somehow I hadn’t watched Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay (who also directed 13th and When They See Us on Netflix), until two weeks ago. Truly inspiring dramatization of the protest marches that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This movie is a good example of how art can be used to give the audience a new perspective. You can read about all of the events that occurred in this movie, but it’s hard to imagine much more than the result. Seeing those events acted out really emphasizes the endless cruelty and setbacks Black people had to endure at the time, which provides a better reflection on what Black people still experience today. I liked how MLK was portrayed as not just the hero he is, but as a regular human who had faults, doubts, and fears. This movie was another reminder of the importance of voting. People actually died fighting for that right. (And some continue to do so.) Free to rent on Amazon Prime through June 30.

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The Last Black Man in San Francisco follows a Black man reclaiming his childhood home, a now expensive Victorian house in a gentrified neighborhood of San Francisco. Gorgeous cinematography and powerful storytelling. Difficult to compare it to other movies. Gentrification has been increasing at such a high rate that many of us probably don’t think about it that much. But this movie forces us to consider the real effects it has on Black communities. Streaming indefinitely on Amazon Prime.

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In the Heat of the Night was one of the first major Hollywood films to feature a Black hero. Sidney Poitier plays a detective who must solve a murder and overcome prejudice in rural Mississippi. The film won a bunch of Oscars and remains on the American Film Institute’s top 100 list. I have a soft spot for movies from the 60s, but they obviously show hardly any diversity, so this one definitely stands out. Though the hero is a detective, the plot treats law enforcement as the complicated system it still is today. Most millenials probably don’t know that the quote “they call me Mister Tibbs!” comes from this movie and not The Lion King. Streaming on Amazon Prime through June 30.

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I generally despise YA books, but I have to give credit to The Hate U Give for teaching me something new and not completely annoying me with the first person teenage narrative. The protagonist witnesses the death of her Black friend at the hands of a police officer, and the story follows her fight for justice and reexamination of her own place in life. It prompted me to watch the movie version, which also does a great job of conveying the grief and confusion. What makes this most unique is probably the fact that it features a young, black, female perspective, which unfortunately is still uncommon in mainstream literature and film. Free to rent on Amazon Prime through June 30.

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American Son was based on the Broadway play, featuring the same four-person cast. (Wish I’d gotten to see the show live, but unfortunately it ran before I moved to NYC… Otherwise you know I would’ve seen it!) Kerry Washington plays a mother waiting at a police station, trying to locate her missing son. The movie feels a lot like a play, with essentially only a single scene, allowing for a more nuanced perspective on the struggles involved in raising a half-Black son in the U.S. today. The tension builds to a predictable ending, but the frustration, regret, and helplessness she portrays are the movie’s biggest takeaway. Streaming indefinitely on Netflix.

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Moonlight, a coming-of-age story about a gay Black man growing up in Miami, was the first film with an all-Black cast to win the Oscar for Best Picture. (Remember the awkward mix-up with La La Land…) It’s a little more “indie” than most of the others on this list, but undoubtedly beautiful. And A24 has been killing it lately, both in the mainstream and independent crowds. Streaming indefinitely on Netflix.

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I almost didn’t watch Just Mercy because the trailers alone made me cry every time I came across one, and I felt like I already got the gist from Googling the true story. But I’m glad I did because it was extremely inspiring, though also completely heartbreaking. The plot follows a Black man on death row, who appeals his murder conviction with the help of a young defense attorney. Highly recommend for lawyers, but also everyone else. Michael B. Jordan stars (along with Jamie Foxx), and I want to mention another important movie he is in, Fruitvale Station, which I couldn’t find for free, but is honestly worth renting. I also want to mention that the death penalty still exists in some parts of the country, and that is absolutely barbaric. This movie confirms that. Free to rent on Amazon Prime through June 30.

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Mudbound follows a white family and a Black family living on the same land in the Mississippi Delta post-WWII. As you can imagine, racist drama ensues. In addition, the story challenges preconceived notions about race and our role in tolerating or even encouraging racism. Though all of the movies on this list contain some level of violence (no surprise, considering everything that Black people have suffered through in American history…), this one has the most explicit scene. I guess that is a warning, but we are now at the point where if you don’t like seeing or thinking about it, imagine having to live it. Streaming indefinitely on Netflix.

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Blindspotting is the funniest movie on this list. But still pretty intense, since the plot follows a Black parolee with three days left on his sentence, who witnesses a police shooting and also has to deal with his white friend who is out of control in every sense of the phrase. A unique take for those who are interested in thinking more about the relationship between law enforcement and Black America. Free to rent on Amazon Prime through June 30.

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Written and directed by Barry Jenkins (who also directed Moonlight), If Beale Street Could Talk is based on James Baldwin’s book about a young expectant woman who tries to prove her lover’s innocence when he is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. Another film with excellent cinematography. Really makes you wonder who the “American dream” was actually meant for… Streaming indefinitely on Hulu.

Notes from a Scream Queen

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Have you seen The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix yet? It was a pretty good show, except my roommate has been annoyed by my sleeping in the living room with the lights on and The Office playing in the background for the past two weeks… I wouldn’t say I love scary movies, but I definitely consider getting “scared” a good form of entertainment. Watching scary movies is a group activity (at least for me, since I would never EVER watch one alone, are you kidding me?!) that really brings people together. Some of my fondest college memories are of October in my sorority house, where there would be a huge group of girls watching a scary movie in the living room every single night of the month. Our collective screams were so loud that the neighbors probably thought there was an actual murder happening inside. More recent memories include staying in and watching Sinister on a laptop with some fellow travelers, and of course, my annual pre-Halloween movie marathon. In all of these situations, I am definitely that person who screams when nothing has even happened, which in turn makes everyone else jump. My friends love going to the movie theater with me… Anyway, here are five scary movies that I would like to highlight this Halloween:

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It Follows is an all-around brilliant movie in any genre. It leaves you thinking even after the end, and the more you think about it, the better it becomes. A supernatural, murderous entity, passed down from person to person via sex, follows its next victim, but it can only move at the speed of a walking human. The genius of this film is not only its portrayal of certain themes, but the way it maintains the most unsettling feeling the entire time. It’s impossible to tell which era the movie is set in. The characters watch shows on a TV from the 60’s, yet use electronic devices that don’t even exist. Very bizarre. Available to stream on Netflix.

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Hereditary is the most traditionally scary and scream-inducing out of all of these. It’s similar to other haunting, demonic coven movies, but this one connects those horrors with the real life scares of inherited mental illness. Still extremely terrifying, though. I can’t remember ever seeing a scary movie with such an unexpected moment as the one that occurs in this film (if you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I’m talking about). There truly is something for everyone. Also need to mention that Toni Colette is amazing at everything she does. Not yet available on Netflix, as it just released this summer.

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The Witch is a slow-burning candle of a film. A religious family in 17th-century New England settles into their new farm, after being banished from their former Puritan clan. Evil seems to lurk in the surrounding woods, but only becomes evident a little at a time, allowing paranoia and doubt to take hold of the family. Typical A24, there are a lot of shots of nature to build the suspense. Don’t remember screaming during this one, but I probably did at inappropriate times. Available to stream on Netflix.

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Raw is a French film (with subtitles) and is not scary per se, but definitely creepy and at times disgusting. A vegetarian tries meat for the first time during her first week of vet school, and it all goes downhill from there. It’s a coming-of-age story with social commentary and a lot of blood. The full package! If this movie is based on true events in their schools, then the French have even more intense hazing rituals than the American fraternities you read about in the news. Did not scream at all during this. Available to stream on Netflix.

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Creep is a fun one. A man posts an online ad with a request to be filmed at his house for a day, and guess what? He turns out to be a real creep! But I won’t spoil how, exactly. Do yourself a favor and watch. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll scream (if you’re me). Available to stream on Netflix. And there is already a sequel that is supposed to be good.

2017: The Year in Film

Admittedly, I was unable to see as many new movies this year as I would’ve liked. But of those I did see, here are the ones that stuck out:

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

This black comedy crime film, written and directed by the writer-director of In Bruges, is reminiscent of Fargo and other Coen Brothers movies, but with slightly less eccentricities. The plot follows a defiant mother who posts billboard ads outside her town that accuse the local police of not doing enough to solve her daughter’s rape and murder case. I wouldn’t research too much before seeing this movie because certain spoilers would definitely affect the experience. But I will say that the story ebbs and flows with seemingly more, then less, then more complications, and it ends up being an emotional roller coaster. Standout performance from Frances McDormand, who consistently walks that fine line between serious and funny.

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I, Tonya

One of the most engaging biopics I’ve seen in a while, which is no surprise, considering how wild Tonya Harding’s life was. Even before her involvement with the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, she had overcome an unstable family, poverty, and domestic abuse to become one of the world’s top figure skaters of the early 90’s. This documentary-style movie is darkly comedic, largely due to the sometimes unbelievable situations Tonya finds herself in, but I would consider the overall tone to be quirky, which makes the drama even more fun to watch.

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The Big Sick

This romantic comedy is based on the true story of how its writer, a Pakistani-American comedian, and his white-American wife fell in love and struggled with various family and culture clashes before a serious illness ultimately made them realize what was most important. But I hesitate to label this movie as a rom-com because it is actually funny, realistic, and raises awareness of important societal issues. A lot of the humor comes from the couple’s dialogue while they’re goofing around and acting silly, which is relatable. But then there are the scenes in which the comedian’s parents try to set him up with single women or casually assume that he’s going to law school, which are TOO relatable…

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Get Out

This timely comedy-thriller-horror is another film that is funny because it’s just too real. Scenes of racism are instantly recognizable within the satirical situations, and there is truly something for everyone to learn. All I will say about the plot, short of spoilers, is that when a black man meets his white girlfriend’s family for the first time, things take a very dark turn. Props to writer-director Jordan Peele for utilizing the horror genre in a way that can make audiences more uncomfortable and even fearful of systemic racism than of imaginary clowns.

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Lady Bird

Seriously one of the best movies I’ve seen in years. It was so delightful and moving to watch such a spot-on, accurate portrayal of what it feels like to transition from adolescence to womanhood and also the complicated relationship that daughters have with their mothers–we are often so close and have so much in common, that we sometimes forget that we are still immensely different people (yes, your mom is her own person, too!). The talented Saoirse Ronan plays a high school Senior in the early 2000’s, and her actions, dialogue, and mannerisms all build into this sense of nostalgia that is not simply used as a crutch for emotional reactions, but is warmly welcomed. Writer-director Greta Gerwig can do no wrong (I especially love her in Frances HaMistress America, and Damsels in Distress), and I only wish that this movie had been extended to 472 hours. You’ve probably heard by now the number of times Dave Matthews’ “Crash Into Me” is featured, but I was also pleasantly surprised by Stephen Sondheim’s role.

For more entertainment options, you can find my 2017 top picks for TV here.

Favorite Movies of 2013

Critics have been calling 2013 a “vintage year” for films, and judging by the number of remarkable new movies I saw this past year, I have to agree. Here are my favorites (again, in noncommittal alphabetical order):

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Loosely based on an FBI operation in the ‘70s, this film has a little bit of everything—outrageous, yet believable characters, dysfunctional relationships, and endless amounts of smart humor.

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Cate Blanchett impeccably plays an incorrigible snob who completely loses it after discovering that her privileged life and marriage were a sham. Her portrayal has even been compared to Blanche DuBois of A Streetcar Named Desire.

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Together, the ever-hilarious Julia Louis-Dreyfus and, in one of his final roles, James Gandolfini comprise the cutest “grown-up” couple I’ve ever observed. This movie is laugh-out-loud funny, which is quite rare for me.

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Hitting dangerously close to home, this black-and-white film follows a 20-something New Yorker, as she experiences a falling-out with her best friend, impersonates a Modern dancer, despite having no talent, and tries to figure out her life before it passes her by. Perfect for all fans of the TV show Girls.

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Based on the rivalry between two drivers in the 1976 Formula One season, this biographical film actually made me care about car racing. Captivating performances, thrilling race scenes, and, again, my favorite era. I’m still shocked by how much I liked this one, though Chris Hemsworth may be partially to blame…

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Based on the events that led to Mary Poppins becoming a book and, evenutally, a movie, this is the most simultaneously sad, yet uplifting story I’ve seen in recent memory. Everyone in my movie theater was in tears (of sorrow or joy or both) for the duration of the film.

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I don’t think I’ve ever felt so sympathetic towards a high-school couple (both in movies or in real life). The chemistry between Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller is so effortless that their characters’ relationship seems exceptionally real.

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This movie follows a family, each member of which is, in one way or another, stuck in love. Not a huge hit with the critics, but I personally connected with the soundtrack (Indie gems), the somewhat excessive literary-name-dropping (the family mostly consists of writers), and the brilliant individual performances by the cast.

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Based on the novel by Henry James, this heartbreaking story shows life through the eyes of a six-year-old, caught in the middle of her parents’ bitter custody battle. I’d say the girl who plays the young protagonist deserves an Oscar.

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This dramatization of the events that led to the elimination of Osama bin Laden is more intense and nerve-wracking than most horror films. Instead of bringing relief, the conclusion conveyed the haunting sense that the world was worse off than before.

Honorable mentions: 12 Years a Slave, About Time, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, All Is Lost, Before Midnight, The Bling Ring, Dallas Buyers Club, Fruitvale Station, Gravity, The Great Gatsby, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Monsters University, Mud, Now You See Me, The Way Way Back

Let me know if there are any great movies that I missed. And while this vintage year may be over, the 2014 lineup looks very promising!

Christmas Classics

I think we can all agree that winter weather calls for making tea, snuggling under a blanket, and, most importantly, watching Christmas movies. The older, the better! As much as I love The Santa Clause, Elf, and Home Alone (1 and 2), only the classics have the particular charm and innocence that epitomize the Christmas spirit. The following are my favorites:
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Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

A magazine writer must pretend to be the perfect housewife she claims to be in her articles, when her publisher and a war survivor visit her on Christmas. Highlight: Barbara Stanwyck’s character convincing her guests that a baby boy is her own, when the day before, her baby had been a girl.

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The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Two shop employees don’t get along, not realizing that they’ve been writing anonymous love letters to each other. Highlight: James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan’s characters meeting their matches in each other.

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The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

An angel helps a Bishop fund the building of his new church and resolve his familial problems. Highlight: Cary Grant as the angel.

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Scrooge (1951)

The best film adaptation of Charles Dickens’s classic story. Highlight: Alastair Sim as THE Ebenezer Scrooge that all subsequent Scrooges have aspired to be.

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It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947)

A homeless crowd moves into a mansion while its owners are away. The owners find out, but pretend to be fellow hobos in order to continue a romance between one of each group. Highlight: The cutest dog!

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Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

After boosting sales at Macy’s flagship store and spreading his joy, Santa Claus must prove to skeptics in court that he is, in fact, real. Highlight: Natalie Wood as an adorable child cynic.

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Holiday Inn (1942)

A performer opens an inn that puts on shows exclusively on holidays, but must compete with his old partner for the same female star. Highlight: Fred Astaire’s tap dance with fireworks.

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Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

A large family experiences good and bad moments, while living in St. Louis. Highlights: Judy Garland singing “The Trolley Song” and a tear-inducing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

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It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

A depressed man is shown by an angel what would’ve become of his family and friends had he never existed. Highlight: James Stewart’s character promising the moon to his sweetheart.

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White Christmas (1954)

This film has absolutely everything: singing, dancing, comedy, romance, generosity, irony, amazing outfits… It’s perfect for the holidays! Highlights: Too many to name, but every beautiful song, every phenomenal dance, and Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye actually losing it, as they pretend to perform as ladies.

Many of these films will be aired this month on TCM and AMC, while others can be viewed on Netflix or Amazon Instant Video. Should I add any other Christmas classics to this list?