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Strangers in a Strange Land – The Case for Loving and Midnight Special

Jeff Nichols quietly made two of the year’s best films with Midnight Special and Loving. Both films are about people who live somewhere that they aren’t welcome, where they don’t blend in or fit within societal norms. Both films star Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton and Bill Camp. Both films build slowly and never really succumb to melodrama or cheap sentiment. Both films are the work of a very talented writer/director who is really just getting started.

Joel Edgerton is one of the most underrated actors of his time. I don’t know how each and every one of his brilliant incarnations has slipped past critics and Academy voters. Is it because he really does disappear into his roles so people barely notice it’s him? either way, he’s magnificent in Loving playing a man who has trouble expressing himself and can’t really speak his mind. He loves his wife, that’s all he knows. It isn’t wrong to him but it is wrong to everyone else.  In that way, Richard and Mildred Loving seem to be modern day characters flung backwards in time to a place where they weren’t legally allowed to marry. Heading into Trump’s America where the sexists, bigots and racists are now in power, Loving feels all the more pressing.

Ruth Negga plays Mildred with skilled exactitude and heart. Her quiet strength and humility fills up every scene. She joins a series of female characters who save the day in films this year.  There isn’t a moment in the film, or in Midnight Special, that rings false.  You can almost smell the food Mildred is cooking and smell the grass.

Though subtle, the message of Loving comes through loudly and clearly at the end. We all should have equal rights to marry whom we love. I can promise you that with the new supreme court and congress, rights to marry, to use gender-specific bathrooms, whatever they can do they will do. Loving, therefore, will be among those movies that celebrate the Obama era when so many of us were given an open door to fight for equal rights.

Loving is the film that has the best shot in the Oscar race, but Midnight Special should not be forgotten just because it doesn’t. Midnight Special partners nicely with Arrival this year in the way it imagines how we might communicate with creatures from another world. In Midnight Special, alien life is all around us at all times but exists in a dimension we can’t see. One of the best scenes in the film is when that world is revealed, how it looms so large around us. There is a book by Barbara Ehrenreich called Living with a Wild God wherein a former biologists sees a dimension to other living things that most of us don’t. In fact, we really only can see what we need to see, colors wise. It’s possible there are many things around us that we don’t see. That is what I most loved about Midnight Special, in addition to the way Nichols’ tells it, sticking closer to realism than to fantasy.

Nichols put so much careful consideration into the story of a boy who is being misinterpreted as some kind of messiah but who is being taken to the place he belongs. Nichols doesn’t spend much time over-explaining it. You’re expected to bring some of your own interpretation of what might be happening but there is no denying the emotional relationship between Michael Shannon and the kid. Also great in Midnight Special is Adam Driver who has a short but pivotal role as someone who has the opportunity to see what the kid can do, and then help the kid escape.

Midnight Special is a lot like E.T. the same way that Arrival is a lot like Contact – yet both movies are different enough that they can exist as great separate from those comparisons.

Of all of the films I’ve seen this year that I loved, the shorter list is the films I will watch over and over again in the years to come. I can count the Best Picture winners and nominees on one hand that make that very short list. Midnight Special is one that will be on it. Loving, however, should not be dismissed as one of 2016’s most important films, especially now that we’re about to enter the darkest period of recent American history.