Sunday 23 September 2018

A Big Year In Small-Budget Cinema

Part 2 of 2 on Best Dramatic Presentation 2019. Part 1 is at this link

With only a quarter of 2018 ahead of us, we feel confident with the claim that this year has been quietly terrific for dramatic presentations. 

While run-of-the-mill sci-fi action-adventures like Avengers, Jurassic Park and Ready Player One
Sorry To Bother You is exactly the type
of science fiction movie that the world
needs right now. Smart, relevant,
irreverent and timely.
(Image via
may have topped the box office charts, there have been many spectacular smaller releases that have shown how smart scripts and thoughtful directing mean more than massive budgets.

Worth The Bother

Almost certainly at the top of our ballots this year will be Boots Riley’s directorial debut Sorry To Bother You. The movie is a richly comedic fantasy about labour organizing, capital overreach, systemic racism, code switching, and the silent complicity society forces on well-intentioned individuals.

While the science fiction and fantasy elements of Sorry To Bother You are not front-and-centre in the movie’s advertising campaigns, they are integral to the plot and are part of what makes the movie work so well. Interestingly, most reviews of the movie have honoured Riley’s request to abstain from spoiling the – completely bonkers – third act in which the science fictional elements come to a head (literally and figuratively).

There’s so much to love in this movie – superb casting, smart set decoration, believable relationship tensions, laugh-out-loud humour. Balanced on a razor’s edge of surrealism and believability for much of the movie, there are details in the background and subtexts to explore on repeat viewings. Riley even works in a delicious subversion of Kylie Jenner’s infamous Pepsi-at-a-protest commercial.

Sorry To Bother You offers an intellectual richness that is worth mining. But don’t take our word for it. This film received significant praise from relatively prominent writers and critics including Evan Narcisse, Tanaritive Due, and Patrick Nielsen Hayden. We hope that Hugo nominators will take the time to see it at least once, despite the fact that is was only ever released on 1,050 screens across North America (fewer than a quarter the number of screens that movies like MI:6 and The Meg were released on), and earned a modest $16 million (less than half as much as Sherlock Gnomes did).

Area X

Another excellent sci-fi movie that largely flew under the radar was Annihilation, based on Jeff
Annihilation is visually arresting, moody
and evocative.
(Image via
VanderMeer’s book of the same name. Although it was a flop in the box office in April, earning back just $43 million of its $45 million production budget, Annihilation is an elegant and movingly weird movie about loss, both of loved ones and one’s self.

With deep intellectual debts to Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, Annihilation concerns a scouting party sent into a ‘zone’ that has been rendered uninhabitable through unknowable alien forces. As the protagonists delve deeper into this zone – known as the Shimmer – they are confronted by their own unreliable memories as well as visually arresting mutated biology.

Moody and evocative, Annihilation makes the most of its desolate setting, allowing tensions to rise gradually as the Shimmer takes its toll on the psyches of the protagonists. Special effects, while omnipresent in this movie, are well thought out and rarely over-the top.

While Annihilation did not connect with mainstream audiences, neither did director Alex Garland’s previous film Ex Machina, which did make it onto the Hugo shortlist. We hope this bodes well for Annihilation – especially considering the number of people who nominated Vandermeer’s last novel for a Hugo.

Endlessly Entertaining

The most obscure movie that is likely to make our Hugo nomination ballots is Justin Benson’s indie
How did a movie as good as The Endless
get made on such a small budget?
Turns out the trick is to start with
a really good script.
(Image via
horror flick The Endless. It’s understandable if you haven’t seen it, given that it was released on a total of 20 screens in April. Despite the fact that it earned a paltry $272,020 at the box office, it has been consistently praised by critics for effective storytelling, gripping drama, and artistic sensibility.

The film tells a story about a pair of brothers who decide to revisit the compound of a cult they fled from ten years earlier. While one of the brothers is drawn in by the positive elements of the community, the other recognizes that there is something dark and foreboding under the surface.

The supernatural elements — and allusions to Lovecraftian mythology — are introduced slowly and subtly and effectively, offering an interesting paralel for the lives the brothers had led since escaping to the ‘real world.’ Writer-director Justin Benson also alludes to the nearly universal human drive to avoid self-destructive patterns and build a better life.

Lovecraft is notoriously difficult to bring to the cinema, but Benson has a deft touch and never overplays his hand. It might even be that the low budget allowed him to build tension instead of relying on special effects.

Giant Heart

Based on Joe Kelly’s award-winning comic book of the same name, I Kill Giants had all the makings
I Kill Giants has an all-star pedigree
but ended up on Netflix before you
ever heard about it.
(Image via
of a blockbuster movie: big-name movie star Zoe Saldana, an Academy Award-winner in the director’s chair, flashy special effects. But somehow, it was released with almost no promotion on a handful of screens, earned a measly $183,754, and ended up in the Netflix back catalogue before anyone noticed.

That’s possibly because nobody understood quite what to make of this ponderous and surreal movie about children’s imaginations, about how we deal with trauma, about dealing with bullies, and about asserting one’s place in the world.

I Kill Giants is the sort of movie that will appeal more to Worldcon attendees than it would to the general public, as it is generally fannish in a way that mainstream science fiction films are not. The main character — a withdrawn kid with a big imagination who struggles to fit in — seems like the sort of person who would seek out fandom. Conveying this character’s rich inner life would be a challenge for any actor, but 14-year-old Madison Wolfe pulls it off admirably.

Although slow, the movie is compelling. The visuals are stunning and the meticulous planning of some of the shots will make cinephiles pause the movie to revel in the framing, the design, and the special effects.

Top Prospect

For its sheer science fictional scope and vision, Prospect belongs on our Hugo nominating ballots, even if few people have heard of it.

The movie — based on a short film from 2014 — offers viewers an engaging parable about greed and survival.

Directors Chris Caldwell and Zeek Earl use a forest moon as a backdrop for a story about a prospector and his daughter trying to strike it rich. The pacing is excellent, the dialogue is taut, and the tension builds as you realize that one man’s foolishness and greed might spell disaster for everyone.

It’s a character-driven movie that is held together by a terrific performance by Sophie Thatcher,
A critical darling of the festival circuit,
Prospect might be getting a wider
release this November. Make a point
of seeing it — you won't be disappointed.
(Image via
playing the prospector’s daughter. The subtropical rainforests of the pacific northwest have never looked as alien to me as they did in Prospect.

Given how difficult it will be for most Hugo nominators to see Prospect this year, I hope that its eligibility might be held over an additional year, as they did for Predestination a few years back. This is a movie that deserves a wider audience.

In most other years, we might have considered nominating ultraviolent cyborg revenge-fantasy Upgrade, but we just don’t have room on the ballot this year.

The movie hit cinemas this summer, and grossed slightly less than $16 million. It’s a linear narrative about a mechanic who is paralyzed during an attack that claims the life of his wife. When new technology gives him the ability to walk again, he goes on a bloody rampage in pursuit of the people who killed his wife.

Such a premise could easily have produced banal Death Wish-style trash, somehow Upgrade ends up being something smarter and more engaging. Director Leigh Wannell, who’s mostly known for writing several installments of the Saw and Insidious franchizes, uses her knowledge of gore and blood effectively. There’s a sense of body horror about what has happened to the protagonist, and some interesting surveillance aspects to the future the movie depicts.

Looking back over the past 20 years of science fiction movies, there have been few as fecund as 2018. There are only a limited number of spots on a Hugo nominating ballot, and this is a year where it will be very difficult to winnow the movie choices down to just five.

We would urge Hugo voters to seek out some of the less obvious choices, and join us in celebrating works that could use more exposure.

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