This is the year from movie hell. There are so many acclaimed films that I haven’t seen, and are unable to see. Because of Covid, they were in theaters only a short time, or not at all. Then streaming took over. I still learn of new titles every day that have Oscar-buzz, many of which I’ve never heard of before. I’ll do a recap now of nine that I’ve seen that got people talking. There are too many others I would love to see and write about – “Nomadland”, “One Night in Miami”, “Minori”, “Martin Eden” and “Bacurau”, to name a few – but I’ve gone too long without publishing, so I’ll go with what I’ve got.
Finally, you should know that although I’m listing them in a kind of “ascending order of preference”, you shouldn’t take that too literally. Except for the very first film, I felt that all of the others had good things to offer and were worth my time. That’s more important than a fluid, and therefore meaningless, ranking. Still, if I’d seen as many films as I do in a normal year, the last three would probably be on my ten best list.
The InvisibleMan: This odd mixture of science fiction and feminist power fable is hard to write about. It plays out like a cynical attempt to make something original by slapping together two box-office demographics and hoping both would be satisfied. It begins with Elizabeth Moss sneaking out of a mansion at night, in an effort to escape from her psychotic but brilliant boyfriend. A wealthy and renowned scientist, he had so totally taken control of her life that she barely maintained sanity. Once out of his clutches, she is jubilant and relieved. But not so fast! Why do objects seem to move by themselves? It must be…yes, just like the title says. Anyway, the script goes all-out for political correctness, sudden shocks, frantic fights between an actor and thin air and a bloody revenge ending. Plus the stupidest, most unconvincing “scientific” explanation in the history of movie invisible-ness.
Mank: Certainly the biggest disappointment of the year. David Fincher has been, and remains for me, alongside Scorsese, the dominant American auteur now working. Yet “Mank” was often a chore to sit through. Despite his lack of charm, Gary Oldman is a superior actor, as we’ve seen in multiple roles; especially “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”. And any film that focuses on the writing of “Citizen Kane” will get my avid attention. But Herman J. Mankiewics comes across – at least to me – as the kind of obnoxious, wearisome and insufferable character that I would ever hope to avoid meeting; or, in other words, like so many writers who have served as movie “heroes”. But that’s not a deal-breaker in itself. The basic problem here may have been that Mank’s antagonist is rarely given a real dramatic presence. And I never saw it as Hearst. Hearst remains a shadowy, vaguely sinister presence, and Charles Dance fails to impart a human dimension. No, the real story seems to involve Mank’s seething hostility to Louis Mayer, but the film keeps that in the background, which is frustrating. The flashes of brilliance in Arliss Howard’s performance are undercut by the unfocused screenplay (by Frank Fincher, the director’s late father). The one scene where Howard is allowed to dominate – when he confronts the entire MGM staff to tell them of the “only temporary” salary cut to one half (except for Mayer himself) – is by far the most memorable in the film.
Da 5 Bloods: This is a long film, but not a small one. Spike Lee has put a lot of himself into it, and his strengths are well in evidence. Performances are rich, usually extravagant but never strained. His characters are well-chosen to interact forcibly, as based on lifetimes seasoned by experience. And, another Lee characteristic, they never know when to shut up. The story is complicated, rather than complex, and frequently implausible. Four black Vietnam vets from the same platoon return to present-day Ho Chi Minh City to find a treasure they left there: a suitcase of solid gold bars that were on a plane that crashed in the jungle. As led by their charismatic platoon leader, Norm, played by Chadwick Boseman, they bury the loot, and vow to return for it. We see Norm only in flashback; he was killed, in Nam, and we don’t know the details until the end of the film. Only that one of the men, Paul, played by Delroy Lindo, is haunted by guilt for Norm’s death. Probably the film’s strongest element is Lindo’s riveting performance, a long-awaited leading role for this commanding actor. Well, it’s a mixed blessing. A tormented, unpredictable bully, Paul is loony as a jaybird, and his companions are constantly avoiding the suicidal traps he leaves behind him.
Joined by his son, David (Jonathan Majors), whom he resents for causing his wife’s death in childbirth, Paul and the team eventually reach their goal, but at a cost moviegoers are long familiar with. Lee gleefully quotes “The Treasure of Sierra Madre“, and other classics, which is OK by me; it’s his style. Paul is an outrageous parody of Humphrey Bogart in “Sierra”, and Lee gives Lindo thumbs-up to exploit the connection with juice and wit. And, again as expected, Lee way oversells the “deeper meaning” of this wacky tale to showcase white guilt for America’s history of black mistreatment.
To an extent, he achieves his purpose. Plot holes and all, the characters wind up where they’re supposed to, due to the vigorous performances. Also, I liked this touch. Spike Lee, as a political radical, has always been undercut by his consistent relish for capitalism. Fittingly, it’s the character who declares that “money is the root of all evil” who gets the most horrible punishment.
The Trial of the Chicago 7: This is a fairly absorbing docudrama, in spite of the fact that the story is well known. As director as well as writer, Aaron Sorkin makes no pretense to even-handedness; he regards the trial as an abuse of power, trumped up by John Mitchell and Nixon to exploit the public’s rejection of civil protest, especially by anti-war activists and black militants. The opening scene is brilliant, though, setting up the essential conflicts that will underscore the rest of the film. Attorney General Mitchell summons DOJ attorneys to his office to assign them the prosecution of the leaders of the protest outside the Democratic Convention in Chicago. One attorney, Tom Moran, tries to get out of the assignment because he knows the charge that they were promoting violence is without merit, but Mitchel is adamant.
The rest of the film juggles the trial itself with flashbacks of the protest and scenes of the defendants during the course of the trial, when they have to cope with the overwhelming stress, and their own ambivalent feelings about each other. What the film does successfully is show how unreal the situation is to them. They are being judged as a group of conspirators, but their backgrounds are diverse; they simply don’t know or trust each other very well. All the while, the attorney for six of the seven (Bobby Seale objects to being tried with the others), William Kunstler, played by Mark Rylance, has to stand between them in these flare-ups, and try to fashion an appearance, at least, of unity.
The scenes are well-conceived for dramatic effect, and Sorkin has cast every role well. The story is well enough known, and the “behind the scenes” details do not accumulate into greater insight or emotional involvement, Although I saw the film a little over a month ago, it has faded fast. Nothing really wrong, but it comes across as just a slightly above-average TV docudrama, not an Oscar winner.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: Under the direction of George C. Wolfe, August Wilson’s play has been filmed with attention to the playwright’s spirit, but with cinematic license. The structure is more linear than the play, as I remember it, and there are the usual gimmicks to “open it up”. Unfortunately, they don’t do much good. The drama is rich, the language dramatic and crackling with real-life believability, but it’s still a filmed play. And feels it. Still, Viola Davis’ performance is something to see. She is brilliantly hideous, or hideously brilliant, and pretty much overpowers the other actors. With one exception: the late Chadwick Boseman, who is the real protagonist of the story. He plays, Levee, a young trumpeter who chafes against Rainey’s all-powerful control. As one of the most popular black female singers, she is used to getting her way in how she does her show and how she’s recorded. The action of the play is a recording date, arranged by her obsequious white agent – cleverly played by Jeremy Shamos – who nervously tries to accommodate her often whimsical demands.
The repeated delays get on everyone’s nerves, especially the owner of the recording studio, who measures rehearsal time in pennies. But Levee is the most anxious. He has outsize ambitions to become a jazz superstar, and every attempt by Ma to showcase herself in recording “Black Bottom”, her most popular song, drives Levee to the brink of madness. And, as we will see, well over it. The tragic and violent denouement is almost anti-climactic. We can see it coming from a mile off, which the wordy screenplay only makes worse. While only an hour and a half, it plays longer because of the threadbare storyline. While not a failure – the writing and rich performances do keep you watching – the film is not the memorable experience it could have been.
First Cow: This is the third film of Kelly Reichardt’s that I’ve seen, but the first that proved a memorable experience. She adapted the script with Jonathan Raymond, from his novel. Her style is still a problem; often self-consciously muted and undramatic, with long silences between monosyllabic dialogue. But the central relationship is intriguing, and the story plays out with a clear-eyed, if slightly romanticized, cynicism. John Magaro, a charismatic actor I’d never seen before, plays Otis, a passive and timid cook for a team of gold-seekers in Oregon in the 1850s. He takes off on his own to get away from their abuse, eventually teaming up with King-Lu, a Chinese immigrant avoiding the police for killing a Russian. When they chance upon a lone cow, unattended, King-Lu hits upon the idea of milking it secretly so that Otis can make homemade biscuits, which they could sell to nearby laborers. Well, the biscuits really take off, and are eventually noticed by the cow’s owner, a prosperous factor played by Toby Jones. Unaware that his cow’s milk is the secret ingredient, he hires Otis to create a luxurious meal for a visiting sea captain.
It’s no spoiler alert to say that it doesn’t end well; as prefigured by the opening scene where a woman of today unearths two skeletons. Still, that opening scene is a deft touch, setting up a resolution that avoids unpleasant violence (watch the guy who never gets a biscuit). Magaro scores as an actor to watch. I’ll attribute his mumbling to Reichardt, who seems to believe it lends authenticity. The often underlit photography actually lends mystery to the story; Reichardt subtly injects genuine peril from the wilderness setting, comparable to Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man“. I genuinely cared what happened to these oddly appealing misfits.
Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always: This film succeeds in holding you just enough to keep you watching, which isn’t easy when the filmmaker is so committed to avoiding melodrama. Instead, director-writes Eliza Hittman keeps it linear and very intimate. She shows even more confidence than in her previous film, “Beach Rats“, which I reviewed favorably in 2017. The cinematography, nimble yet nuanced, is by Helene Louvart, who also did “Beach Rats”. The film concerns August, a seventeen year old high school student in a Pennsylvania city. It opens with her singing and playing guitar, solo, onstage at a school concert. She is softly intense and focused. Suddenly, a boy in the audience giggles loudly, and she casts a dagger-glance at him. Later, when having dinner with her family at a coffee shop, she walks over to the boy’s table and tosses water in his face.
We sense that she resents more than his giggling. Soon, we find out what else disturbs her: she is pregnant, and keeping it secret. The boy never appears again, but it’s no stretch that he’s responsible. Anyway, what follows is a very straightforward chronicle of a young girl’s ordeal in having an abortion. Hittman clearly supports August’s choice, but in an admirably restrained way. The woman worker at the reproduction clinic is polite, and patient. It is only when August asks about having the procedure that she plays her a video raising ethical issues; anyway, Pennsylvania requires parental consent, which convinces August that she has to go to New York. She tells her twenty-year old cousin, Skylar, played by Talia Ryder, of her decision, and the two girls take a bus to an abortion clinic near the Port Authority.
The film maintains suspense effectively. August is torn about having the abortion, sometimes close to tears. As played by Sidney Flanigan, her pain is expressed almost wordlessly. But you rarely get the feeling that the story is meant to be told in words. The settings, the editing and the actor’s faces seem all that is needed. Except in one powerful scene, which is the basis of the film’s title. A woman at the New York clinic needs August to answer some very specific questions. It is quickly apparent that they are meant to reveal August’s relationship with the boy who impregnated her. Is she in any danger from having the procedure? Has he been physically abusive, choose one: never, rarely, sometimes, always. August’s responses are so tortured and halting that the woman doesn’t know for sure, but doesn’t press her for clarity.
That scene so overpowers the rest of the film that I’m not sure that was intended. The story, such as it is, is satisfactorily resolved in narrative terms. But a secondary theme is left unresolved, and it disturbs me. The only male character shown to have a trace of human feeling is a boy they meet on the bus, who follows them because he is attracted to Skylar. She quietly responds to his attentions. August even gives them moments alone to make out behind a pillar in the Port Authority. But, even after he lends them money, the film suggests he is untrustworthy. That he is really out to get only one thing, which is what got August “in trouble”. Will he “never” treat Skylar abusively? Or only “sometimes” or worse. The film leaves the clear impression that men may only cause problems for women, but are of no use in solving them.
The Forty Year Old Version: This is a black woman’s take on mid-life crisis, and a welcome addition to the genre. Radha Blank, who also wrote and directed, stars as Radha; it is her debut feature. On the cusp of forty, Radha awakes one morning to realize that she may have wasted the past ten years. Before thirty, she was recognized as an emerging playwright to watch, but then life intervened. Her closest friend, Archie, a gay, Chinese theatrical agent, played by Peter Kim, has been trying to link her up with a producer, to no avail. Instead, she teaches theatre to Harlem high school students, and nurtures a sense of inferiority that cripples her writing. She has withdrawn from other relationships, too, and was estranged from her mother before her death. While we learn some things about her past, the film is mostly a chronicle of how she meets the challenge of reaching forty, in both her personal and professional goals. Its strongest element is Radha’s own performance. With disarming candor, she presents herself as confused and uncertain about the future, but willing to take major steps that are painful and exhilarating at the same time. The film is rich in the details about her life: her neighborhood, her work with her students, whose often raucous and rebellious behavior stand alongside an almost worshipful regard for her; her inner struggle to accept support from a white patron and a white woman director of her play, which threaten to compromise her vision. And most importantly, her immersion in hip hop culture, which involves a personal relationship with a younger producer. The film’s climax is, at the moment of her long-delayed success as a playwright, her public denunciation of her work as a “piece of shit” she is ashamed of.
Part of the problem with this is because it’s not clear just how she had compromised. We know she didn’t want a white person in the cast, and we can see how ridiculous it plays out from a brief scene at the premiere, but her rage at the gentrification of Harlem never becomes real to us, in dramatic turns; it is just mentioned, but not given thematic content. Also, the film could have lost a good fifteen minutes, especially from the hip hop performances where, like us, she is only a spectator. More seriously, the “white culture” she feels threatened by is annoyingly trite. Reed Birney, as her patron, comes across as a caricature, unlike all of the non-white actors in the cast.
But, as an actress, Blank held me to the end. It’s not easy for an actress to express frustration and indecision without getting tiresome. Blank made her inner struggle the story, and made it matter to us. She absolutely dominated every scene, even though up against some pretty strong performances. In particular, Imani Lewis, as Elaine, a rage-filled student, used stone-cold silence to great effect.
I’m Thinking Of Ending Things: In narrative terms, this is the riskiest on the list because it keeps shifting what we are expected to follow, with few clues about what is happening. But Charles Kaufman, who directed and adapted from a novel by Iain Reid, wanted to explore the limits of narrative cinema in ways he had not attempted before. He has playfully ignored audience expectations in order to make us reflect on universal issues. Specifically, what it means to choose a life partner, and when we know it’s the wrong choice.
The film concerns a young couple, Jake, played by Jesse Plemons, and Louisa (although Louisa is, unexplainably, addressed by different names throughout the film), played by Jesse Buckley. It opens with them driving to see Jake’s parents at their farm. There is a snowstorm developing, and by the time they get there, it is raging. Sitting in the passenger seat, Louisa is more concerned with her relationship to Jake, whom she’s known for only a few months. Her narration is interspersed with real-time action throughout the film. Reflecting the film’s title, she has “doubts” the relationship will last. Jake is a self-protective sort; behind his chatter, he reveals little about his feelings.
Once at the farm, the film proceeds to a series of discreet, surrealistic episodes that make us question what we are seeing: Jake shows her the farm’s penned animals, including a dead pig eaten by maggots, which both revolts and confuses Louisa; Jake’s parents, dazzlingly played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, seem normal enough during dinner, but keep reappearing to Louisa as either older or younger, sick or healthy, rational or zombie-like, seemingly at random, but which Jake treats as perfectly normal; venturing into the basement, which had been locked before, Louisa finds pictures of her own paintings, which she is certain she’d never shown before.
At the same time, interspersed throughout the film, we keep shifting to Jake’s nearby high school, focusing on an elderly janitor. He is never further identified, but seems aware that he is part of the film. We once see him watching Louisa and Jake on a television in the lounge. We also see scenes of a boy and girl rehearsing a dance scene from “Oklahoma”, which is meant to be in a school production that was put on when Jake was a student there.
After they leave the farm to return to the city, the snowstorm grows in intensity. Visibility seems almost impossible, yet the couple engage in a heated discussion of the film “A Woman Under The Influence”, which recalls a quick shot of Pauline Kael’s movie reviews in Jed’s room at the farm. Then, over Louisa’s near hysterical objections, Jake stops for ice cream at a roadside stand he went to as a teenager. A waitress warns Louisa of terrible future events, unspecified, that Jake just shrugs off. The film’s last sequence is at the high school. Jed disappears inside, and Louisa goes to look for him. She meets the janitor, and then stands watching the dance rehearsal. Jake appears and engages in a fight with a strange man, perhaps the janitor at a younger age. The final scene, and one that is totally unprepared for, has Jake being honored as a distinguished elderly writer in a packed auditorium. Louisa is sitting in the audience, and we see her applauding him.
This is no spoiler alert. The “meaning” of the film is not discoverable in plain narrative terms. But the experience of the film is curiously, and exhilaratingly, involving. As a couple, Jake and Louisa seem totally mismatched. Louise is more intellectual and introspective, yet her background and career are unclear, mysteriously fluid, and even her name keeps changing. Jake seems very grounded with a very ordinary, specifically American upbringing, yet he is the one shown as the passionate artist. And yet, because of the brilliance of both actors, their weirdness comes across as appealingly humanized and natural. The janitor is meant to be, perhaps, Kaufman himself, alternately observing and manipulating his characters. Yet, with so many questions remaining, the film seems satisfyingly complete. It ends with the elderly Jake singing the soliloquy from “Oklahoma” to rapturous applause from the audience. Louisa, among them, seems appreciative, yet with no emotional connection to him at all. The key may be in the title, in the word “thinking”. We only see them both “thinking” of ending “things” – obviously the relationship – but they never voice that thought to each other. But life will, on its own, make it happen anyway.