A Voyage Into Sight, Sound And Surf: An Interview Of Filmmaker Chris Gentile

Interview done for Autre.love

Surf Discovery for Social Survival is the surf/music feature film born from the collaboration of Chris Gentile from New York-based surf brand Pilgrim Surf + Supply and Keith Abrahmsson from the record label Mexican Summer. Together they started this ambitious project to connect surf, sound and sight and make a film that would satisfy most senses. World-renowned surfers including Stephanie Gilmore, Ryan Burch, Creed McTaggart and Ellis Ericson joined musicians Allah-Las, Peaking Lights, Connan Mockasin and MGMT ’s Andrew VanWyngarden on this surf journey starting from a secret spot in Mexico, to the southern atolls of the Maldive Islands, and ending in the cold waters of Iceland. The film is narrated by a man who is often referenced as the godfather of American avant-garde, the late Jonas Mekas. I had the chance to talk to the artist, photographer and film director Chris Gentile about the making of his first feature-length film, bringing together artists and surfers, and working with Jonas Mekas.

AGATHE PINARD: I wanted to start by asking about the meaning behind the title, Self Discovery for Social Survival, can you explain it?

CHRIS GENTILE: When we started to conceptualize the film, myself and Keith Abrahamsson from Mexican Summer, we were thinking a lot about music and its relationship to surfing. Surfing is this activity, this pursuit that people engage in and that kind of helps people detach from what they’re do day-to-day, give them some contemplative time to sort of go inward and we were trying to come up with this name, and along the way I came across an old book that was written for climbing, for people who would free climb and climb up mountains. It was basically a book that gave people a pathway to overcome fear. The book was titled Self Discovery for Social Survival. Keith and I both felt like that really resonated with the spirit of what this film was about. Surfers are constantly looking for that open and free space to have a moment in nature, where two forces are meeting each other and the surfers are in the space where the energy that’s coming from nature is dying and being born at the same time. We felt like this title had a lot of metaphoric possibilities and decided to go for it. It’s a mouthful, it’s a big title.

PINARD: This is an ambitious project that mixes surfing, music and animation done by the in house designer of Mexican Summer…

GENTILE: Yes, Bailey Elder but also Robert Beatty, who’s an independent artist and illustrator.

PINARD: How did the idea/project come together ?

It was evolving the whole time we were making the film, it was a very open-ended and experimental process. The one thing that I really wanted to maintain was an open-endedness with everybody involved. So there are multiple points of influence that went into the filmmaking. I didn’t give the surfers any directions while they surfed. We travelled together, we picked these particular places, and they were reacting to the waves that were there for a two-week period of time, and the cinematographers were reacting to the way the surfers were surfing, positioning themselves to get the shot that felt right. I really left a lot of that control up to them. The musicians who were involved were on these trips and they were in the water and surfing the same waves that the professional surfers we travelled with were surfing. They have a first experience and perspective on what was going on. The idea was to let them go back into the studio and have complete creative freedom over the music that they wrote in reaction.

PINARD: What about the animation?

GENTILE: When that came into play, we showed a rough cut to Bailey and Robert. Then Keith Abrahamsson picked a couple of songs that he felt were appropriate to transition from one location like Mexico to the Maldives. To put a song and an animation that would kind of be like a mental palette cleanser, Keith came up with these two fantastic songs. One was an archival song from the seventies, “Void Spirit,” and the other one was a song that was made by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma for the film. Jefre isn’t a surfer, he wasn’t on the trip but he made these beautiful compositions inspired by the idea of being under water, being under the ocean. So, those tracks were given to Bailey and Robert along with the access to this footage, and they reacted and created these animations. Everything was very independent to one another, every aspect of the film. I kind of kept everything on track and helped people when they need my help, but really it was exercise––relinquishing ego and control, and letting everybody’s influence come in and affect the overall project.

PINARD: That’s funny, last week I interviewed Connan Mockasin and we talked about the trip he made to Iceland for the movie, and how he was impressed at the beginning to be around these professional surfers like Stephanie Gilmore who’s a seven-time world champion.

GENTILE: One of the things that I had to do was to think deeply about the personalities that we were going to introduce to one another on these adventures because most of the people didn’t know each other. And taking a surf trip, you don’t know what you’re going to get. There’s no guarantee that the waves are going to be good, or that the weather is going to be good, or a tire may go flat. You may miss opportunities or you may get opportunities that you would never expect. When we went on these trips I had to think about how the group would feel and I was just going off my own instincts and my own guts. The trip to Iceland was really special because it was a group of really different people. They all had a sincere admiration and appreciation for one another. Everyone became fast friends. Iceland was interesting because we were traveling all over that country chasing these storms and these waves. Sometimes getting them and sometimes missing them, but we spent so much time in these vans just traveling across this incredible landscape. Everyone got a lot of time to know each other, more so than on the other trips because on the other trips it was a lot more surfing, people were getting tired, it was different. Iceland was the one where I think the actual chase for the waves was the beauty in that trip, more so than the wave riding.

PINARD: For the movie you took some surfers and went on a trip to Mexico, the Maldives and Iceland, which one was your favorite ?

GENTILE: That’s a great question. I mean, I’ve been to that spot in Mexico so many times and it’s one of my favorite places on the planet. I loved the opportunity to go down there with that group of people, but I have to say the Maldives was really unique and special, because we had this group of Australian surfers together that were kind of like a brotherhood. That trip, we were on a boat, the whole entire time, on an old, old boat. It travels really slowly, had a lot of character and a great captain and a great crew. It was not posh by any means, it was kind of a busted boat. But it was so fun because everybody was just excited to be around each other, find waves, fish. The kind of boredom that you experience on these boats, these guys were wild and doing the most hilarious stuff. Some of it we couldn’t put in the movie it was crazy, drunken backflips off of the boat completely nude at like 3 o’clock in the morning. It was incredible, very memorable.

PINARD: The film is narrated by the late, legendary Jonas Mekas, it might have been the last project he worked on…

GENTILE: I know that Jonas filmed his life every day, so I’m sure that that footage is truly his last work. On this project we were so fortunate to have him agree to come and narrate. The words are Jamie Brisick and Jonas read them. It was so special to get to meet him and experience his humility and his generosity, it was fantastic. If it weren’t for Jonas, I don’t think we could have made a film like this. He’s had so much influence on me as a young artist throughout my life. He gave us, me and the rest of the people at Mexican Summer, everyone, he truly gave us the license to make the film. So, to have him narrate it was an honor, it was so special.

PINARD: How did you get him to work on the project?

GENTILE:Keith Abrahamsson is really responsible for that. Keith presented him with this idea and had already been working with Jonas on a couple of other things, helping him with his archives. They had a working relationship together. Keith asked him if he would be up for narrating the film, and explained to him what it was, and I think it was so strange that he thought it was worth doing. It wasn’t very difficult. He got in a recording studio with him, drank a couple glasses of wine, and I think in one or two takes he nailed the narration. It was great.

PINARD: The movie will premiere in LA this Saturday, are you excited? How do you feel about it ?

GENTILE: I’m a little nervous, I’ve never directed a film before. I’ve made a lot of short films, experimental films, but nothing that’s feature-length, and at this scale, and this level of production. I’m so grateful to have the experience. I’ve learned a lot from it. I’m really excited to see it in front of an audience, see the reaction, see the bands perform live to it, it’s going to be so special.

Self Discovery For Social Survival will premiere in Los Angeles this Saturday June 15 at The Palace Theatre with a live score by Connan Mockasin, Andrew VanWyngarden of MGMT and Allah-Las.

The film is out digitally on June 18 and available to pre-order now at https://geni.us/SDSS .

Inherent Vice: Review Of Paul Thomas Anderson’s And Joaquin Phoenix’s Hazy Investigation

Paul Thomas Anderson did not need Joaquin Phoenix to be brilliant, but he films Phoenix brilliantly.

After the evident success of Phantom Thread, nominated Best Picture, and before the release of the next movie starring Joaquin Phoenix – You Were Never Really Here, directed by Lynne Ramsay -, I thought it would be nice to take a look at the earlier association between director Paul Thomas Anderson and Joaquin Phoenix. The duo’s first project was the sublime The Master in 2012 – also starring the excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman. The movie might be the best work of both Anderson as a director and Phoenix as an actor, and Anderson says it’s his favorite work.

For Inherent Vice (2014), the second Paul Thomas Anderson/Joaquin Phoenix movie association, Anderson is highly unpredictable, alway going where we don’t expect him to. Boogie Nights (1997), The Will Be Blood (2007), Phantom Thread (2017), it is hard to find any stylistic or other correlation, beside the fact that they were all Oscar nominated.

“He’s the greatest screen actor of his generation, but also a reluctant celebrity,” wrote Bret Easton Ellis about Phoenix for the New York Times in a article titled “The Weird Brilliance of Joaquin Phoenix.” This is one of the rare interviews that seems to have truly captured Joaquin Phoenix’s personality. The actor reveals the fragile soul of the characters he embodies; poor guys, thugs, cops. He gives them all a tragic grace and a melancholic side. But what he is, above all, is fair. He plays fair, he is in tune with his characters; he’s not doing too much, or to the contrary, too little; he is simply fair. But then we encounter a second dimension of Phoenix: the madness. We leave the fairness for the incredibly twisted, the tense. The scene of the prison in The Master where he smashed the toilets, and when he ends up tearing the sink off the wall in Walk The Line, neither was scripted, it was all Phoenix.

The authenticity of his performances is probably enhanced by the fact that the actor stays very private about his personal life, and maintains his mystery. We wonder who is really Joaquin Phoenix, which leaves more room for his characters. He is famously known for being hard to interview, constantly lying, making things up when he is not interested, and clearly demonstrating that he would rather be anywhere else than there doing a promotional appearance. His reluctance for celebrity and his attitude, the way he plays with media, could well be perceived as arrogance; he is in fact the contrary. Phoenix, during the rare times when he opened up, revealed himself as more of an insecure artist. He is, for example, unable to watch his own performances because he is too self-aware. He is the anti-hero of Hollywood.

Inherent Vice is a drug infused, LA neo-noir, mystery film taking place in 1970 and adapted from the novel of the same name by Thomas Pynchon. Pynchon is considered an “LA writer” and Anderson did succeed in reflecting LA’s early seventies atmosphere. It is the kind of movie you either really like or really don’t due to its format. In an effort to preserve the nature of the book while translating it to the screen, Joanna Newsom is narrating all along the movie as Sortilège. The beginning of the movie is indeed word-for-word straight from the book, and then some details get lost in the way – but we all know how hazardous a task adapting books into film can be.

Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a private investigator who lives in a fictional California coastal town, Gordita Beach (which bears a striking resemblance with Manhattan Beach, where Pynchon lived in the late sixties). Doc is the kind of loser-stoner we’ve already seen and liked in The Big Lebowski. The story begins when Doc is being involved, against his will, in a series of mysterious disappearances. And, Inherent Vice is a world where “disappear” means either possibly dead, or hiding somewhere. The movie revolves around this plot; Doc in what seems like a permanent state of confusion and paranoia tries to solve a conspiracy involving local real estate baron Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), surf-rock saxophonist Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson) and ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston).

Inherent Vice, as much in the movie as in the book, is a “classic illustration of the principle that if you can remember the sixties, you weren’t there” (this sentence is written on the back cover of the book). The movie explores LA’s late sixties and its hippie “groovy” culture, the surging drugs consumption, Californian beaches and surf-rock bands, Topanga Canyon, cult and post-Manson era but also politics, Nixon, the Vietnam War, and the early stages of LA’s gentrification history (Wolfmann bulldozered a whole black neighborhood in South LA to build his Channel View Estates). It also features the eternal war between cops (Lieutenant Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, played by Josh Brolin) and hippies (“Doc” Sportello), counterculture and capitalism.

Doc shares his confusion with us; we start losing track of what’s happening when something named the Golden Fang might as well be referring to: a boat, a rehab center, an Indochinese heroin cartel or a syndicate of dentists. The film runs out of steam midway, and the two and a half hours feel longer than they should. Inherent Vice might be quite dysfunctional sometimes, but the acting is great, the cinematography so neat and eye-pleasing that every shot is worth saving, and the late sixties atmosphere so well depicted you’ll want to watch it twice. Maybe a second viewing is necessary to fully comprehend the movie – and it is quite possible that Inherent Vice only makes total sense after a lighting up a joint.

“Lady Bird”: Can It Win The Oscar For Best Picture?

Written for a UCLA class.

Greta Gerwig positioned herself behind the camera this time to realize a near-perfect, modern coming of age film. After acting in several mumblecore films and movies like Jackie (2016) or To Rome With Love (2012), the 34-year-old has chosen to make her solo directorial debut surrounding herself with a golden cast. First, Laurie Metcalf, who plays the mother (and is nominated for Best Supporting Actress), but also young, promising talents that  without a doubt represent the next generation in  Hollywood.

Saoirse Ronan, who plays the main character Christine, is too keep an eye on. At only 23,  she features in Forbes’s  “30 Under 30” list and in Time’s “Next Generation Leaders” list and is currently contending for Best Actress in a Leading Role at the Oscars. Earlier this year Ronan won the Golden Globes for her role in Lady Bird, which was also awarded Best Motion Picture. Along with Ronan, comes more young and talented actors who will make tomorrow’s headlines.

This is likely not the last time you will hear about Thimothée Chalamet, who plays young student Kyle Scheible. The 22-year-old New Yorker is part American (on his mother’s side) and part French. Fluent in French, he also learnt Italian for his role in Call Me By Your Name, also nominated for Best Picture.

Lucas Hedges plays Danny, the boy Christine becomes involved with when they meet in the school’s theater program. You may remember him from Manchester by the Sea, another Oscar nominee in 2017.

Lady Bird is a comedy-drama, largely inspired by Gerwig’s personal life and own experiences. We follow the story of Christine, who dubs herself  “Lady Bird,” and her complex journey from youth to adulthood. Christine is 17, a senior in a Sacramento high school in the 2000s, just as Gerwig was. Christine’s parents insisted she go to a Catholic school for her own safety, but she hardly fits in with her pink-colored hair. Her daily life revolves around her interest in theater, her first experiences with boys and her daily struggles with love, friendship, student life.

The scenario is simple, on paper it’s just another teen’s story. But what the movie is really about is the relationship between a daughter and her mother. Marion McPherson (Metcalf) is a struggling mother who strives to do her best to her kids but fails to convey her true feelings toward them, especially her daughter Christine. Christine tries to distance herself from her mom, from her origins, adopting the name “Lady Bird” and cherishes the idea to pursue her studies on the East Coast.

Her father has recently been put out of work, but her mother tries to keep their financial problems hidden. Christine, who is hanging out more with the popular, richer teens, self-consciously says she lives “on the wrong side of the railroad track.” Her mother’s attitude seems very unsupportive and critical toward her daughter though she insists she only wants her “to be her best self.”

The movie actually possesses more emotional depth than it first appears. On a soft, light note, Gerwig examines the tough love at the heart of a mother/daughter relationship. As she said at the Nominees’ night “Stop any woman on the street and ask her what her relationship is like with her mother. You won’t get a one word answer.” And that is where the movie hits the mark, sending us all  back to our own relationships with our mothers. Most women will recognize themselves in the young Christine, in the constant conflict that separate her and her mother, but also in the love that keeps them linked forever.

When Christine finally moves to the East Coast after being accepted in a New York university, she takes back the name her mother originally gave her, Christine. Somehow, it’s only in a new setting that she reconnects with her origins and that finally able to see the love through her mother’s eyes. It is when we are physically distanced from our mothers the most that we learn how to appreciate and understand one another. By the end of the film, you may well want to pick up your own phone and call your mother just to tell her how much you love her.

As we approach the 90th Academy Awards Ceremony, now less than a month away, there is no doubt that Lady Bird and Greta Gerwig have earned their place among the other nominees. Indeed, this year is a grand cru for the seventh art; other nominees include Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, written and directed by Martin Mcdonagh.

Lady Bird and Gerwig have already won, in a sense, earning 5 Oscars nominations on a relatively low budget film, (only $10 million compared to Dunkirk’s $100 million) and on Gerwig’s first solo outing as a director. And, let’s not overlook the fact that Gerwig is only the fifth woman to be Oscar-nominated for Best Director in 90 years. Were she to win, it could signal a major change within the filmmaking community. As stated by the Academy president, John Bailey, at the Nominees Luncheon, the awards are indeed at “the crossroads of change and tradition.”

Lady Bird is a strong contender, but it will be hard for it to overshadow the other movies in race. As of February 5th, Goldderby, the website where experts and amateurs predict all of Hollywood’s award races, say The Shape of Water is likely to win the 2018 Oscar for Best Picture.. If this seems indeed like the most possible outcome, Lady Bird is still a movie to watch.

“Princess Cyd”: Girls On Film

How Princess Cyd succeeded in reflecting today’s society, gender fluidity and representing the new generation of movies by portraying empowered, independent and sexually liberated female characters.

Written for a UCLA class.

Writer/Director Stephen Cone has accomplished a movie free of clichés about women, and has instead given them back their true colors. Princess Cyd is the portrait of two very different women, from different generations and with diverse interests, who end up learning from each other, growing together. The movie depicts what is often missed by others; strong female characters. It is remarkable how it is accurate in its depiction of modern women, not only the ones that exist in movies but the ones you meet in your everyday life, that’s how authentic the characters appear on screen.

Princess Cyd now hits Netflix after being critically acclaimed at film festivals. Cone previously directed and wrote The Wise Kids (2011) and Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party (2015) which both received a generally positive response from film critics. It follows the lead of a new generation of movies, tinted by, at last, the appearance of LGBTQ characters and minorities in leading roles. Box office giants like Black Panther and Wonder Woman are the confirmation that those who were previously left out on the screen, limited to background characters or clichés portrayals, now also get to enjoy the central place on the poster. While Black Panther hopefully opens the door to more black-led movies, Wonder Woman is the first LGBTQ superhero icon.

Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) is a teenage girl who lost her mother at a young age, and lives alone with her father in South Carolina. As father-daughter relationships are complicated, they both thought it would be for the best if Cyd was spending her summer at her aunt’s in Chicago. The move-in is a bit laborious; Miranda Ruth (Rebecca Spence) is a successful writer and Cyd doesn’t “really read books.” Eventually they both learn to appreciate each other’s personal traits and learn from each other. Miranda gives Cyd a taste for reading and Cyd reminds her of and letting go and enjoying life’s simple pleasure, like lying in the sun.

In Chicago, Cyd meets Katie a local barista who will eventually become more than a friend. Cyd finds a mentor in Miranda as she goes through her journey of self-discovery, and begins to question her sexuality. In the meantime, her aunt is having her own struggles, managing her love life along with her professional life. Her personal quest for joy, it turns out, resides in literature, friendship and…cake.

Setting up unachievable standards for women is an issue in cinema that can prevent viewers from relating to characters. People, as we see them in movies – and especially women – are not real. They are characters, products of fiction. A movie character, as we are so often used to, is flawless, too good looking to be real, always wake up with perfectly neat hair, never sweats or turns red when going for a run, or even has pores.

But what strikes us in Princess Cyd is the authenticity and the accuracy in the women’s portrayal. We finally see real people on screen. And yes, they sweat when they run. Nor are the characters extraterrestrial beauties; they look like everyone who crosses your path everyday. Miranda could very well be an aunt living next door and Cyd just a teenage girl. This is what we need: an healthy and accurate representation of women in films. We need portrays and stories of strong women, queer women, tomboys, girly women, scientists, athletes, nurses, we need them all. We need a more fair, diverse, closer to reality, representation of women. It’s time for movies to reflect the reality of today. Gender roles are being totally exploded and gender fluidity is far from uncommon. It is important that movies give a voice, a story to everyone.

Cone did well in his portrayal of modern women. Female characters are often forsaken, caricatured, lost in the shadow of the leading man or serving the sole purpose of being the love interest of the hero, or his mother. Women are that, but they are also so much more; there is so much ground left to cover in movies. In Princess Cyd, women have complex personalities of their own and a male character is not needed to get the plot started.

Princess Cyd plays with the conventional notions of gender roles and the preconceived ideas we have of people. Cyd likes girls and boys, she plays soccer, wears a tuxedo. Miranda has not been in a single relationship in 5 years but that doesn’t prevent her from experiencing joys on her own. Katie is hard to identify either as a girl or a boy at first look and knows a lot about books whereas Cyd thought she “doesn’t really seem like a reader.” to which Katie answers “what a reader even looks like?” This rings true with the message that the movie conveys. We are not binary people, girls play soccer, some others prefer the company of a book more than the one of a man, some people fall in love with others regardless of their genders. “We are different shapes and ways and our happiness is unique.” says Miranda. This is a story about growing up, feminine solidarity and finding your own joy.

5 Award-Winning Impressive Performances In Biopics

Written for my Entertainment Journalism class taught by Adam B. Vary,  senior film reporter for BuzzFeed News.

There is a theory going on that if you really want to win an Oscar, you should play a real-life person. Rare are the years where no biopic was nominated by the Award Academy, there was two actually, 1976 and 1979. This year though won’t escape the rule, there is already some promising biopics that are most likely to compete in the Oscar race. Among those, I, Tonya portrayed by Margot Robbie recalls the story of the female ice skater Tonya Harding. Robbie is already predicted to be nominated for Best Actress, as many says this is her best work yet. The movie will be out in selected theaters in New York and Los Angeles on December 8 and will get a wide release in January

The list below proves the theory to be true.

Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, in Milk (2008)

Milk is an historical biopic mixing archival footage and Gus Van Sant’s direction. The movie recalls the struggles of gay activist Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), the first openly gay elected official in California, who was shot at age 48 by another city supervisor, Dan White (Josh Brolin). Milk was an activist in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s, at a time when Christians involved in politics tried to deny LGBT people legal rights. He fought against Proposition Six, an initiative that would have banned gays and lesbians, and everybody suspected of supporting them, from working in schools. The movie addresses the issue of police recurring attacks against the gay community and teens who’d rather commit suicide than face their judgmental parents and be sent to hospitals to “get fixed.” As Milk says in the movie, “This is not just jobs or issues, this is our lives we’re fighting for.”. Milk gave hope to a lot of people and his assassination led to the most violent uprising in the history of gay movements known as the “White Night Riots.”

Sean Penn is one of those actors who can take on many roles and succeed when many others would have failed. Penn went through cosmetic transformation for the movie, he had a prosthetic nose and teeth, contact lenses and a redesigned hairline. He is brilliant in managing to erase every inch of his own personality to fit Milk’s inherent kindness and goodwill. In 2009, he won the Oscar for Best Performance in a Leading Role.

Where to watch it: Netflix.

Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash, in Walk The Line (2005)

Walk the Line explores the struggles in the career and life of Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix), but it’s really more about the back-and-forth love relationship between Johnny and his wife June (Reese Witherspoon). Even though Phoenix did a fantastic job portraying the country music icon, winning the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy, it is indeed Witherspoon who won the Oscar for Best Performance in a Leading Role.

The performance is particularly impressive because both Phoenix and Witherspoon sang themselves, raising the bar for actors singing on screen. To train for the role, Witherspoon went through six months of intense vocal lessons and learned to play the autoharp. Growing up in Nashville, Witherspoon said she knew more about the Carter family than she actually knew about Cash.

June Carter Cash is lesser known than her husband but not less worthy of attention. She was a modern woman of the 1950s. She got divorced twice, and had two children by two different husbands, going against the mores of the very Christian mindset of the time. She was independent and spent a lot of time touring on the road in a car full of very famous musicians all by herself, which earned her a bad reputation among the Southerners, as depicted in the movie. In the way she lived her life, she contributed to the emancipation and independence of women.

Where to watch it: stream with Amazon’s starz, or rent on YouTube.

Pierre Niney in Yves Saint Laurent (2014)

Yves Saint Laurent is a biopic in honor of the world famous French couturier. Saint Laurent changed the world of women’s fashion forever, introducing the tuxedo for women in a desire to elevate women to the same status of men — challenging them, even. It is said about the fashion designer (played by Pierre Niney) that his only fight in life was to dress women. Yet, the movie shows that he also struggled with depression, drug addiction, a restless love life with his business partner, Pierre Bergé (Guillame Gallienne). He lost his ultimate battle against brain cancer in 2008.

Niney is one of the rising stars of French cinema, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d already heard of him — if not, you will soon. Niney had to lose about 26 pounds for the role, along with following an intense training in order to achieve the unique way of Saint Laurent of expressing himself.

However, he wasn’t the only one taking on the hard task of portraying France’s most iconic fashion designer of the 20th century. Indeed, the movie competed for the 2015 César race (i.e., the French Oscars) against another Saint Laurent biopic, starring Gaspard Ulliel (Hannibal Rising). Following a suspenseful ceremony in which not even the experts could predict who was going to win, Niney was awarded the César for Best Actor.

You will have to get adjusted to the slower pace of French cinema to go through the entire movie, but it’s worth it.

Where to watch it: Netflix.

Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking, in The Theory of Everything (2014)

The Theory of Everything is the life story of the most famous physicist of our time, Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne). He was a very bright Cambridge student in the 1960s when he was diagnosed with a degenerative disease at 21 that would later affect his whole life. At the time, the doctors gave him two years to live, but Hawking is still alive, now fully paralyzed and communicating with people through a machine. The movie focuses on the relationship he has with his wife, Jane (Felicity Jones), and how they both cope with the deterioration of his physical abilities over time. However, Hawking didn’t loose any mental capacity and is even compared to Einstein.

Redmayne received unanimous recognition and multiple awards for his performance, from the Golden Globes, the BAFTAS, and an Oscar. To prepare for his role, he met Hawking and studied pictures of the physicist at diverse periods of his life to be able to physically portray what motor neuron disease looks like. The result is impressive; even Hawking confessed to the director that while watching the movie, there were certain points when he thought he was watching himself. It is yet the actor who describes Hawking’s personality best: “Although he can move only a few muscles, he sort of emanates this vitality and humor, this wit and flirtatiousness,” Redmayne said. The movie draws more respect to the scientist — it’s not strictly reserved to science nerds.

Where to watch it: YouTube.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave (2013)

12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northup’s based on his book published in 1853. Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free-born African-American musician who was offered a job in Washington, D.C. where he was drugged and sold as a slave. Those kinds of kidnapping were not rare at the time and Northup was one of the few victims to regain freedom from slavery. He had to work as a slave for different “owners” on plantations and erase every trace of his previous life as a free man, husband and father.

Through the movie we also meet Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) whose owner, Master Epps (Michael Fassbender) is incredibly violent, alcohol dependent and believes he has every right on her, or his slaves, his “property”. Images are difficult to watch and handle yet they portray nothing but the truth. The movie works great as an historical reminder.

In 2014, the movie was awarded the Oscar for Best Motion Picture of the Year becoming the first movie directed and produced by a Black filmmaker (Steve McQueen) to win in this category but also the first to be written by an African-American (John Ridley). Nyong’o won the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role and also became the first Kenyan and the first Mexican actress to win an Academy Award. The movie succeeded in bringing Black excellence to the front of the stage of the ceremony known for being “so White”. As of Ejiofor, he won the Best Leading Actor award at the British ceremony of the BAFTA.

Where to watch it: rent on YouTube or Amazon