In addition to its commercial movie theaters, Martha’s Vineyard is lucky enough to host film series — festivals year-round at the M.V. Film Center; the M.V. Film Festival, with programs in March and during the summer; the M.V. African-American Film Festival in August, and the Hebrew Center’s Summer Institute Film Series.
This author’s Top 10 Films come primarily from the independent films shown by these four. That leaves out most of the big Hollywood films, even if they have played here. Like all Top 10 choices, it’s an idiosyncratic list, in this case drawn from my personal favorites shown this past year. My criteria range from topic and style to acting and uniqueness.
Because it operates year-round, the M.V. Film Center screens the most independent films, more than 100 when shorts are counted. A number of Film Center offerings are grouped into special series, including the Oscar-nominated program; the Filmusic Festival; Documentary Week; the Environmental Film Festival; Spectrum, the LGBTQ plus S Festival, and the weeklong International Film Festival. In no particular order, here are my picks.
“A Plastic Ocean” horrifies viewers with its account of the amount of plastic found in the world’s oceans, killing many fish and mammal species. “Awake, a Dream of Standing Rock” portrays the peaceful Native American protest of the Dakota access pipeline from the eyes of the abused protesters.
Famed documentarian Frederick Wiseman directed “Ex Libris,” a fascinating examination of the New York Public Library. Another well-known filmmaker, Agnès Varda, explores the countryside and towns of France with subtlety and complexity in “Faces Places.” My pick for an Oscar is “The Florida Project,” which narrates life for the marginal outside Orlando’s Disney World with humor and vitality.
“Hidden Figures” describes how three African American women, mostly ignored by NASA officials, helped launch astronaut John Glenn into orbit. Another powerful film about racism in America is “Detroit,” which is based on the Algiers Motel incident during the city’s 1967 riot.
The remarkable Sally Hawkins lights up the screen in “Maudie,” a tale about a housekeeper with rheumatoid arthritis that is based on real-life Canadian artist Maud Lewis. Coming in January will be this year’s other marvelous Hawkins film, “The Shape of Water.”
Frances McDormand gives a tour de force performance in the funky “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Last but far from least, “Paterson” tells the story with beautiful understatement of a bus driver who writes poetry in his spare time.
Finally, I would be remiss not to mention a number of this year’s films that didn’t make my list but could have. Another film this year about how African Americans have fared in this country’s racist world, “Passage at St. Augustine: The Black Lives Movement that Transformed America,” traces the Florida city’s black history. Although released in 2015, this haunting movie was first screened on-Island this summer, and one of its subjects is a longtime Vineyard resident, the late Esther Burgess.
In “A Quiet Passion,” Cynthia Nixon gives voice to all the intensity and originality of Emily Dickinson. “Mr. Gaga” offers a vivid picture of Israeli dancer and choreographer Ohad Naharin. The disturbing story of “I Am Jane Doe” is about middle-school teenagers caught up in the underworld of sex trafficking. It describes how their parents try to hold accountable organizations like the Village Voice that advertise for this heinous practice.
Another fascinating documentary, “Dateline: Saigon,” relies on interviews with five veteran journalists who tried to tell the truth about the war. “The Midwife” is a character study that matches a childbirth healthcare provider with her late father’s mistress, played by the inimitable Cathérine Deneuve.
“City of Ghosts” shows how a band of Syrian activists risk their lives to document the crimes committed by ISIS in Syria. And in “Margarita with a Straw,” a young woman with cerebral palsy leaves her home in India to study in New York and falls in love with another woman. Viewers who have missed any of these films should make a point of seeking them out.