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Unforgettable Drama: 99 Homes

Electrifying: that’s the word that comes to mind to describe Ramin Bahrani’s latest feature, 99 Homes. The opening sequence, in which a family is evicted from their home, is not just relatable but so intensely real that it made me cringe with discomfort. But writer-director Bahrani isn’t out to punish us: he simply wants us to feel what his main character (Andrew Garfield) is experiencing…and we do. What’s more, Garfield is so desperate that he accepts a spur-of-the-moment job offer from the very man (Michael Shannon) who threw him out of his house. This is no time for pride: he needs the money.

That’s what makes 99 Homes so compelling: it’s about real people who make a series of hard choices. And, as the filmmaker shows us all too clearly, the current climate of mass foreclosures has created a playing field where there are no clear-cut heroes or villains. Shannon’s character isn’t so much a bad guy as an opportunist who’s learned how to game the system. Garfield isn’t really a hero, either; he’s just doing what he can to avoid being a full-time victim.

The stakes are high in virtually every sequence of 99 Homes because we’re dealing with people being displaced from their homes: for each of the people we meet, these represent more than mere living quarters. Being evicted threatens their physical and emotional stability as they tumble through our society’s safety net.

If this sounds like a “message movie,” it is, but unlike Bahrani’s previous film,At Any Price, his agenda is seamlessly absorbed into the dramatic narrative. You can’t take your eyes off the screen.

Laura  Dern-99 Homes

Photo by Hooman Bahrani – Courtesy of Broad Green Pictures

Bahrani rose to prominence with a remarkable series of films that brought to mind the glory days of neorealism: Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, and Goodbye Solo. Having established his bona fides, he then tackled his first project with a professional cast, led by Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron, but despite its topical subject matter—the plight of the American farmer—At Any Price seemed hopelessly contrived.99 Homes takes the best qualities of his early efforts and channels them through a well-crafted screenplay, brought to life by top-flight actors. Garfield and Shannon do exemplary work, joined by such experienced colleagues as Laura Dern and Tim Guinee.

Unless you have a heart of stone, 99 Homes will affect you as few movies have this year.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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