'Tis the (Awards) Season

My belated thoughts on some of 2020's buzziest films.

You: Glenn, what the hell have you been doing? No new Afterglow for nearly a month? What gives?

Me: Life. The Holidays. Oh, and awards season.

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You’ve really made it as a film critic when November/December (and now January) become stressful not only because of the holidays, but for all the awards season screeners that need to be viewed. It’s a truly harassing time of year when publicists and distributors begin their annual email onslaught trying to persuade critics far and wide to deem a certain film award worthy. This can be a fun and exciting process at first, but I’d liken it an all you can eat ice cream buffet. It doesn’t take long to realize that there can be too much of a good thing. So thank you for bearing with me for this period of newsletter silence. I’ll try to make it up to you by unpacking my whirlwind viewing schedule this past month.

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I’m Your Woman (Julia Hart): A must see. This excellent, effortless 70s-era crime drama refuses to indulge in the masculine fantasies of 70s-era crime dramas. It’s fleet setup - the naive wife (Rachel Brosnahan) of a gangster flees with her newborn after he makes a power play that goes sideways - parlays the omniscient threat of violence into a sobering (and triggering for me!) exploration of first time parenthood. The sleepless nights, endless dirty diapers, and crippling helplessness of raising an infant becomes even more overwhelming with violent killers on your tail. After upending the superhero genre with Fast Color, this gem further solidifies co-writer/director Julia Hart as one of the most exciting American filmmakers working today. Available on Amazon Prime.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George C. Wolf): In what would be his final performance, Chadwick Boseman plays an ambitious young musician and shows us what could have been with two riveting, urgent monologues that define this adaptation of August Wilson’s play. Viola Davis, sweating and swearing with the ferocity of a tiger, embodies the iconic blues singer with the perfect combination of cynical rage and seductive forcefulness. Worth seeing for the ensemble alone. Available on Netflix.

Nomadland (Chloé Zhao): True grit Americana put to the test. A mostly interior performance from the great Francis McDormand. She plays Fern, a widow who experiences a late-stage restlessness that’s a kind of rebellion against the jobs and houses and marriages society expects women to embrace. Zhao’s film is experimentally patient, replacing the expectations of family and love with the rhythms of quiet isolation and momentary, memorable camaraderie. So many films try to place the viewer in a box to entertain or challenge us, but Zhao gives us an open world America where the road and terrain do all the talking. Fern refuses to accept standard definitions of home, especially when this construct has always been defined by someone else, their vision, their bed, their desires. Often, western (and Western) cinema conflates the death of a town and husband with tragedy, but here it means an opening for one woman to see the country, and in turn, see herself. Set for release Feb. 2021.

Minari (Lee Isaac Chung) - As American as apple pie (screw you Golden Globes). The breeze. The crickets. The embers and snakes. A red hat and flannel shirt. New things growing in foreign places - ideas, childlike wonder, disappointment, a sense of self. This story of a first generation Korean family trying to put down roots in 1970s rural Arkansas is a labor of love for Chung, who based the script on his own upbringing. And every frame feels personal, lived. More importantly, it doesn’t try to do too much with staging unnecessary plot conflict. Tensions rise naturally when people are trying to adapt to harsh new environments, begging the question, can we ever really endure the failures of our closest loved ones? Available for viewing early 2021.

One Night in Miami… (Regina King): I typically hate film adaptations of plays, but this one really sings. Four icons (Sam Cooke, Cassius Clay, Malcom X, and Jim Brown) hang out and end up discussing the cross-section between art and social justice, the weight and responsibility of celebrity, and the many potential new paths for Black America. Each man feels both of piece with their legendary stature and their own individual human being grappling with what it means to be making history in each and every moment. Available on Amazon Jan. 15.

Time (Garrett Bradley): Two decades gone, but not a second wasted or forgotten. It’s not just about the years, but the toll and the work. An all timer that gracefully confronts the unimaginable pain of prolonged separation at the hands of a compromised justice system. Endurance, belief, anger all channelled into the pursuit of freedom. The last ten minutes had me crying hysterically. On Amazon Prime.

Sound of Metal (Darius Marder): Here’s my official position on this one: good performance, mediocre film. Anyone who’s seen Four Lions or Nightcrawler or The Night Of knows that Riz Ahmed can do anything. The guy resonates energy. And he carries this leaden film about a drummer who suddenly experiences extreme hearing loss and must deal with the crippling aftermath to his career and love life. I can totally see why most people are loving this one since it both respects the deaf community and never panders to stereotype. And not surprisingly, the middle section set at the camp for hearing impaired addicts is really strong. But whenever Marder tries to make the film about its central romantic relationship, Sound of Metal is just far too obvious and derivative. Available now on Amazon.

Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell): A strange mix of tones and plot turns ultimately make this dark comedy starring a God-level Carey Mulligan something of a mixed bag for me. Every time her seething character takes the reigns on this revenge saga there’s so much enjoyment to be had in the little cruelties she delivers on those who are most deserving. But ultimately Mulligan seems to be operating on a different wavelength than the filmmakers, who really want this to be candy colored greatest hits reel of independent film’s worst stylistic impulses. Opens Christmas Day.

Happiest Season (Clea DuVall): Absolute rubbish. Don’t believe me? Go ahead and watch it. Available now on Hulu.

Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg): A champagne acid bath. Really fun, and really sad, and really drunk off the possibility that one can both tank their personal life and be redeemed enough to start the bender all over again. As a prep school teacher who decides to experiment with some sustained inebriation in order to spice up his life, Mads Mikkelsen gives one the year’s finest performances, tip toeing on the razor’s edge of alcoholism in order to find that sweet spot where life is once again enjoyable. Available now on Amazon VOD.

Lovers Rock + Mangrove (Steve McQueen): Two parts of the epic fiver Small Axe. Both are really strong, as advertised, but not in the ways I expected. Lovers Rock somehow taps into the unseen flow of a party, seeing it as a collective orchestral performance with different movements, sensing the vibrations of moods as they pass from person to person. Flirtations, aggressions, song choices, all have elements of the political and personal. A stunning portrait of human and artistic momentum.

Mangrove is more schematic, but is also history rewritten with lightning to reflect the vantage points of those who were actually affected by it. A courtroom drama about disruption and resistance rather than procedure. I’m looking forward to watching the other three segments, especially Red, White, and Blue. Available to watch on Amazon.

Finally, I recently reviewed six new releases for The Film Stage, including the most excellent News of the World, if you want to read something more formal.

Happy Holidays everyone. Top 10 essay coming soon!

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