Out of Hollywood this year has come The Big Sick, and the problem is you may not have heard about it. In this small, lovely film a young Muslim man stands up against his conservative Pakistani parents. He rejects their faith and its constraints, falls in love with a girl of a different ethnicity, and pursues his dreams, free of his family’s religious culture. In other words, he’s a young American seeking his way. It’s a hopeful movie.
The reach of Hollywood continues to be huge around the world, perhaps bigger than ever with the rise of streaming content and platforms. And, as The Big Sick shows, the world of film and television production — the industry — is actually a place to look for hope.
The critical success of the film is important, but so is the lack of recognition it has received. Unfortunately, The Big Sick, by writer and lead actor Kumail Nanjiani, shares a disheartening fate with some other productions of 2017: they combine quality, depth, wit, urgency and relevance with a shrug from Hollywood.
Many good movies and television shows need a little push by critics and award jurors, though not all (Wonder and Wonder Woman: see below). If they do get that push, they can break through to a wider audience, in the United States and around the world. Last year’s Globe-winning hiphop tv show Atlanta and Oscar and Globe winner Moonlight come to mind. It cannot be easy to be young, poor, black, gay and unseen, but Moonlight lifted the curtain and, with skill and love, showed the life of such a young man. When independent productions like that rise to the top from the hundreds of films and shows produced each year, they can have impact. Well-written movies and series about real life, without superheroes or Game of Thrones-ish dragons, may change minds. They can open up dialogues, inspire kids and adults, be it in Karachi, Kansas, or Kenya.
So as we close a good year in film and tv, I’d like to draw attention to The Big Sick and its fellow unjustly ignored productions. It’s my Too Good to Miss List: an incomplete overview of stuff to watch. The voters for Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards, Oscars and other prizes may miss them or have already missed them. That doesn’t mean you need to, too.
It has become a truism that Hollywood tends to award films (and shows) which no one sees, while everyone watches films (and shows) which Hollywood won’t award. Exhibit A, in my mind, is Deadpool — the brilliantly original smash hit which Oscar voters managed to pretend didn’t exist last year. Still, as someone writing and thinking about entertainment every day I will battle that truism like Superman fighting Lex Luthor. So here we go.
No writer or showrunner I know expects their series to make it. We who watch them for a living now deal with close to 500 original productions every year. Insider favorites like Veep (bland), Game of Thrones (over it) and Big Little Lies (sublime) are the exceptions. They have big names behind and in front of the camera. For a little Netflix show about an autistic teenage boy made by 40-something woman to succeed? The odds are minuscule, but Atypical beat them.
When that does happen, we need to support such a show. The Writers Guild did recognize the inspired creator Robia Rashid this fall, but the Globes passed on giving it a boost, when autism awareness could have benefited from a nomination for the comedy itself, lead actor Keir Gilchrist or any of the supporting cast.
It goes without saying the series needs to be excellently written and acted — which Atypical is. Rashid, whose parents immigrated from Pakistan, really found the voice of Sam, an autistic kid played with conviction by Gilchrist. He is the sun of the little American universe portrayed in this moving, funny coming-of-age sitcom.
Kids need to see themselves on the screen in order to imagine themselves in a future outside their immediate realm. My sense is that children, adults and families who know autism appreciate seeing Sam, his sister and parents live their lives together. They can laugh and cry like the rest of us about Sam’s limitations and his brilliant mind.
Speaking of autism, The Hollywood Foreign Press members who vote for the Globes did redeem themselves a bit by nominating the lead in The Good Doctor. This medical drama with a twist is a ratings juggernaut on ABC. Not since the early days of Grey’s Anatomy have we seen such a well-paced, joyful medical show. The British talent Freddie Highmore plays the autistic surgery resident, whose autism won’t stop him from applying his incredible mind. Watch it for his humor, intelligence, emotional clumsiness, and the beautiful backstory of his character.
Mary J. Blige is an incredible singer and a good actress. She is receiving solid reviews and justified award consideration. The Globes nominated her acting and singing in Mudbound. But what about Dee Rees?
Here is a young-ish, little-known, talented, black woman with a clear filmmaking vision who, until now, didn’t get the chance. When she did get it she grabbed the chance and made one of the best films of the year. But no Globe love was distributed for her directing or the film in the drama category. It’s true that Ridley Scott did a good job replacing Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer in All the Money in the World, a serviceable kidnapping heist. But did he really deserve a Globe nomination over Rees? Come on.
Mudbound debuted to raucous applause at the Sundance Film Festival last January, and with reason. It is a well-timed story of racism and reconciliation, a tale of black and white managing their shared land and shared life, and the lessons of this historical drama are legion in this hyper-divisive, racially-charged moment. More nominations would have drawn attention and viewers to Mudbound. Which might have led to more young black girls who dream of directing Hollywood movies realizing what Rees is doing. To see themselves do that in the future. Let us hope the Academy voters get it right. Because this is a compelling film, and because black girls needs to know about Dee Rees.
Please watch Queen Sugar. My argument for this powerful, at times overwhelming tv show on Oprah Winfrey’s network is similar. Its creator is better known: Ava Du Vernay made the Oscar-winning film Selma. But the story, set in present-day Louisiana, feels as relevant as Mudbound. Three siblings inherit their father’s farm and a tale of black family dynamics unfolds in gorgeous slow-motion in this series, now getting ready for its third season. Twice, Globe voters have ignored the strong acting, the lovely story-telling and the sense of urgency in this slice of black American life. Emmy voters looked the other way too. This is a bad snub from the voting industry insiders. Black organizations including the civil rights group NAACP have supported the show. But Queen Sugar is not an African-American series. It’s an American one, a great one. I dare the Emmys and the Globes to finally give Du Vernay her due in 2019. Wake up, guys.
I spend a lot of time in Los Angeles and Ventura County, north of L.A. Recently the fire came close to our homes from different directions. We were worried. We had to-go bags ready. But crews of firefighters, clad in bright yellow suits and masks to keep the smoke out, saved most properties in harm’s way. These guys (most are men) are the quiet heroes in Only the Brave, a film which taught those of us in wildfire country a lot, while making us cry throughout the film, too.
Hardly a film is more relevant to Californians, but Hollywood looked away. John Brolin and Miles Teller play two of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a real-life crew that battled a historic fire in 2013 in Arizona. Jennifer Connelly plays a firefighter’s girlfriend. For their artful, naturalistic way of portraying the life of those rugged men they and director Joseph Kosinski would have deserved some consideration. I think this is one of the most overlooked films about a subculture we rarely see but desperately need when the fire comes.
When I spoke to Alyssa Milano, the actress who popularized #metoo this fall, she called 2017 a good year for women. Of course, Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein happened, but it’s as if women stood up in response to these men rising and falling. Milano didn’t mention, but could have mentioned, Wonder Woman. This super hero film radiates talent. Patty Jenkins was the first woman to direct the first female super hero, played by Gal Gadot. Chris Pine smothered in the background, but his role was merely to support.
Globe voters come from all the countries where Gadot has inspired countless girls to stand up for themselves and for what is right. Do they realize what it means to snub Jenkins, Gadot, the film itself? Never mind. I trust that Academy voters will set this one straight. Okay, trust is not a currency much used in Hollywood. Still, knowing a few Oscar voters I do think the Academy will have the balls and good sense to give a serious look to this wonderful, new superhero film — so much more entertaining and intriguing than the recent mega-ensemble crap Marvel and DC Comics are putting out.
Christian Bale as a sullen soldier in the late 1800s on America’s western frontier. The great Wes Studi as his Indian captive chief. Rosamund Pike as a grieving widow. Haunting music by Max Richter. A script both tight and deep. What else do Globe voters want?
Hostiles is the best western since Unforgiven, and a contender for best film of this year. Yes, I said it. Name a great western since 1992. See? Critic Sandy Kenyon perfectly described it as “savage and soulful.” Bale said: “This is a Western that ain’t your Mum and Pop’s Western. It’s not a black hat/white hat, good cowboy/bad Indian propaganda Western.”
It was actually a good year for native-American stories and actors. Hostiles was excellently directed and acted, as was Wind River. This tense thriller with Jeremy Renner and Graham Greene is set in the present day on a reservation in snow-swept Montana. I loved how the very American film, written and directed by Taylor Sheridan — who is not American — explores tough issues like alcoholism and domestic violence on reservations, without getting preachy or melodramatic. The film is lean (my favorite adjective for any movie), as well as clear-eyed and quiet.
In other words, it and Hostiles belong on anyone’s top-10 list. Guess what? The Hollywood Foreign Press ignored both, missing the chance to shine some light on wonderful movies dealing with Native-American issues back in the day and today. It did find space for Helen Mirren in a gruesome failure called The Leisure Seeker. (I beg you not to watch it; you will not get those two hours back.) They nominated Denzel Washington for a mediocre movie, and I’m being generous, titled Roman J. Israel, Esq. But no Bale or Pike.
Publicists in Hollywood have real influence by setting the agenda. They decide which movies and shows to push to journalists and other award voters. One of the publicists working on Wonder dismissed it as a Hallmark movie, a Lifetime daytime special. For those living outside the Hollywood bubble: that’s not a compliment. This guy judged the film for those of us who had not yet seen it. We made clear this film wasn’t going anywhere close to the Beverly Hilton (Globes) or Dolby Theatre (Oscars).
I am pleased to report he was both clueless and wrong. Moviegoers have loved the story about Auggie, a boy with a deformed face, played with characteristic joy by Jacob Tremblay, known from the sublime film Room. With the ever witty Owen Wilson and the always lovely Julia Roberts playing his parents, it’s a sweet tale of struggle. Auggie is so different that he cannot believe he will ever fit in. I won’t tell you how it ends, but I will say that kids with different faces will feel seen and understood.
Of course, the Globes ignored it. The Oscars may too. Thankfully, in this case the excited critics got it right and so did audiences. The film has made back its budget many times over. Anyone loving a good story is seeing it, or so it seems. As award season takes off I fear that the old truism about Hollywood ignoring films that everyone wants to see while celebrating work no one watches may apply. In this case I can live with it, but only because Jacob, Roberts and Wilson are being appreciated all over the world.
Hollywood has power. And if you will pardon the cliché, with power comes responsibly. Having a coveted vote for the Globes, Emmys, Oscars and other awards mean you have an opportunity. You can open minds and worlds; the minds and worlds of a black kid, a Native-American kid, a child struggling with a handicap, a muslim kid, a girl dreaming big, a young person thinking about fighting the fires that ravage towns and lives in the American south-west. You can say: this movie, this show is not only really good according to anyone who knows film and tv, it is also made by someone like you.
May those with some of this power pay better attention in the year to come.
Where to Watch the Criminally Overlooked
THE BIG SICK: Amazon, iTunes, Google Play
THE GOOD DOCTOR: ABC.com, Hulu, YouTube, Google Play
QUEEN SUGAR: Amazon, Hulu, YouTube, Google Play
WONDER WOMAN: Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, iTunes, Playstation, Microsoft
HOSTILES: YouTube, Google Play, Amazon
WIND RIVER: Amazon, YouTube, Google Play
WONDER: YouTube (now), Amazon, Netflix (February)
ONLY THE BRAVE: YouTube, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, iTunes
Speaking as someone on the spectrum, Atypical was a by the numbers Rainman/Wonder Years clone and The Good Doctor seemed to have been assembled from a manual by someone who had never met an autistic. Freddie Highmore was far more of an autistic in the early episodes of Bates Motel.
Both shows sucked compared with the BBC’s The A-Word which managed to convey autism as an aspect of character, not the sole determinant. Autism isn’t a superpower and the constant representation of autistics as savants in US shows helps nobody.