Big Eyes (2014)
Directed by Tim Burton, Big Eyes is a biopic about Margaret Keane, a painter known for creating somber portraits of children with haunting, oversized eyes. Keane’s work was mega popular in the ’60s. In fact, so popular that my grandmother, who definitely isn’t an art collector, purchased a reproduction of one of her paintings (the crying girl in the blue dress seen on the Big Eyes movie poster) that, to this day, is displayed prominently at the bottom of her stairs. In the movie, Keane, portrayed by Amy Adams, is a soft-spoken artist and single mother. She’s content doing illustrations for a furniture company and painting portraits of kids in the park. She starts a relationship with smooth talking Walter, played by Christoph Waltz, who is also painter but far more success-driven than her. He wants fame and fortune, he wants to be special, and so he convinces Keane to allow him to take credit for the “big eyes” portraits, saying that they’d have a better chance of selling them if people thought they were painted by a man.
This horrible dude is actually one of the most amazing things about this movie. Waltz is so perfect in this role, creating a character that is an infuriating mixture of charm, sleaze, and desperation. My reaction to all of his BS was visceral—I wanted to scream at him—and I love movies and characters that draw out that sort of passion. But the best thing about this movie is the story itself, which is outrageous and gripping and true. This account of Keane’s life offers a really thoughtful message about the importance of knowing your worth and not allowing anyone to tell you to tone down or hide the things that make you extraordinary. —Amber
Whiplash is a drama, but somehow it is scarier than any horror movie I’ve ever seen!? A college student named Andrew Neiman enters his school’s prestigious jazz band, hoping to become a successful drummer. Instead, he ends up facing off with his horrifyingly abusive conductor, Terence Fletcher. The pacing of this movie is incredible, but I cannot recommend this to anyone without making it clear that you’re going to need a really strong stomach; Whiplash is an actual emotional roller coaster. —Lucy
Ever After (1998)
In this contemporary take on the Cinderella story, Drew Barrymore stars as Danielle de Barbarac, an ordinary woman living in medieval France—but the loose allusion to the fairy tale is where that association ends. Ever After is a beautiful story of a strong-willed trauma survivor who fights the strict confines of her home and social standing. She is abused by her step-relatives, but seeks solace in the memories of her beloved father, and in her fellow servants. Danielle eventually meets Prince Henry and is reluctant to accept his arrogance, but slowly begins to fall for his charms—resulting in drama with her step-sister who is actively trying to court royalty. In Danielle, you’ll find a champion within yourself; her strength and courage in the face of danger is remarkable. But she also loves and cries and feels everything deeply. Ultimately, the story isn’t so much about upending the Cinderella story as it is about a woman who demands the respect she deserves. —Meagan
When I talk about Sparkle, I’m not talking about the joint starring Jordin Sparks, the late Whitney Houston, and Mike Epps. No, my loyalty lies with the Sparkle that came out in 1976: The OG, triple OG, Sparkle—the original that my mom made me watch. In 1950s Harlem three sisters—Sister, Dolores, and Sparkle—live with their mother, who works as a maid for a rich white family. The sisters have talent, so they form a group with their learning-on-the-job manager, Stix played by a young (and fine) Philip Michael Thomas. This movie is a gem for so many reasons. It doesn’t take the typical approach of a rags-to-riches story and there is zero voyeurism in the way it portrays poverty. The love Sparkle has for Sister is rendered so beautifully. Plus, I live for black girl glamour, and there is plenty in this movie. In one scene, the women eat popcorn and engage banter about about men and European beauty standards, all while Sister has her hair hot combed.
The film’s music is nothing short of excellent, with songs written by the legendary soul, R&B, and funk musician Curtis Mayfield. Back in the ’70s, record companies often got famous singers to sing the songs for the official movie soundtrack. For Sparkle, Aretha Franklin sang the songs written by Mayfield, although in the movie itself, Lonette McKee who plays Sister, and Irene Cara, who plays Sparkle, sing them. No disrespect to Queen Aretha, but the material is better sung by the cast, just listen to Sister and the Sisters performing “Giving Him Something He Can Feel,” (a song later covered by En Vogue). I could go on forever, but in short: Watch this movie! —Tayler
Tanner Hall (2009)
Tanner Hall is the story of four girls who attend an all-girls, private boarding school in New England. Rooney Mara’s character, Fernanda, never really takes any risks until she meets Georgia King’s character, Victoria, who becomes her friend. Unfortunately, the power dynamic between them is skewed and Georgia turns all of Fernanda’s friends against her out of boredom and vengefulness. I found this movie so raw. The character development is amazing and I related so much to the characters’ various struggles with their inner selves. —Dana
Claire’s Knee (1971)
I was 15 years old and on a Criterion Collection binge when I first watched Claire’s Knee. Jerome is on his last vacation alone before entering the world of matrimony, when he visits an old friend and meets her two teenage daughters, Laura and Claire. He becomes absolutely enthralled with Claire’s knee, an obsession which winds up evoking a major moral crisis in Jerome. Throughout my first viewing of this film, I veered back and forth between viewing Jerome’s fascination as sweet, and regarding it as deeply unsettling. There are way too many films that portray older men sexualizing women, focusing on body parts like breasts, and praising women for their physical attractiveness. Claire’s Knee caught me off guard by displaying a male character longing for a knee (a flippin’ knee!), without creepily fetishizing it to the extent that most films involving male attraction do. I really love how this film portrays Laura; her youthfulness isn’t depicted as overly naïve, in fact, she speaks some of the most potent lines in the film. I won’t ruin the ending for you, but I will say that this couldn’t conclude more brilliantly! You don’t have to agree with me on this, but after you’ve watched Claire’s Knee, I recommend reading as many online essays as you can to help think through your opinions of Jerome and the film. —Mads
Lost & Delirious (2001)
I have heard so many fun stories about boarding school from my mom—she boarded for half of her childhood—that I’ve always wished I could be sent away, too! Although I’m not quite sure I’d actually like boarding school, I would like to have the amazing adventures she did. Lost & Delirious is one of my favorite coming-of-age movies, in part because fulfils by boarding school dreams. It stars Mischa Barton as Mary, who is extremely nervous about being sent away to boarding school. She befriends her two roommates, who she soon discovers are secretly dating and the story unfolds from there. This was the first movie I watched that dealt with what it’s like to be bisexual in a way that felt honest and true. —Dana ♦