This is a continuation of notes on films I’ve seen this year. For this batch, I’ve had a few sub-goals: five films by black directors to coincide with black history month, five films nominated for Critics Choice awards this year, and five films starring Viola Davis (there is some overlap).
Movie #26/ New Movie #15: Shadow in the Cloud (Redbox)
This movie varies a lot tonally, but I enjoyed it. For the first half, as the lead is stuck in a gun turret, there’s a great sense of claustrophobia and just how difficult it is to figure out what’s going on out of sight. There’s a twist through the film that reveals what she’s fighting for, and why things are so intense for her. The gremlin here is a decent horror-movie monster, although there is a sense of unreality to it all. But it is fun.
Movie #27/ New Movie #16: Sinister (Showtime)
Ethan Hawke is decent as a flawed true crime writer who moves his family to a haunted house. When he has an argument with his wife, it’s different from what you expect in a horror movie; it gets to more intense places. There are some really creepy scenes and a twisted backstory. It’s marred by some plot-induced stupidity like a boneheaded decision not to call the cops when suspicious evidence of cult-like activity arrives, and scenes where the audience is ahead of the characters during key twists.
Movie #28/ New Movie #17: Spies- A Small Film With Lots of Action (Kino Blu-Ray)
It’s a documentary about the making and response to a decent Fritz Lang film. It gets to some nuances about his lesser-known work, and the particular difficulties of restoration with a style of film production that resulted in multiple versions of the same films being released all over the world, some using different and inferior cuts.
Movie #29/ New Movie #18: Conan the Barbarian (Showtime)
The fantasy epic is sometimes entertaining in a WTF way, but sometimes kinda boring. Schwarzenegger is decent as Conan, which is what you expect from a movie that was the breakout role for one of the biggest stars of the planet. The world of the film is surprisingly bland.
Movie #30/ New Movie #19: Legacy of the Niebulgen (Kino Blu-Ray)
It’s a decent slightly unfocused look at the post-production of Fritz Lang’s Niebulgen epic, which had some complications. The movie was embraced by the Nazis as evidence of Germany’s glory days, but still respected later, which is an interesting analysis in its own right. It was released in two films, the first part Siegfried being much more popular, with the second part Kriemhild’s Revenge having a less commercial story and a rushed director, which makes restoration difficult.
Movie #31/ New Movie #20/ Black Director #1/ Viola Davis Film #1/ Critics Choice Nominee #1: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix)
It’s an excellent showcase for Viola Davis, playing a very different character than in her other August Wilson film adaptation, and Chadwick Boseman, whose horn player initially seems like an ambitious upstart, until some revelations about his past show that he’s much more deliberate, complex and damaged than we expected. It’s a great take on race, celebrity and ambition, with artists struggling against the limits of the time.
Movie #32/ New Movie #21/ Critics Choice Nominee #2: Malcolm & Marie (Netflix)
It’s more complex about what it says about film and storytelling than the backlash about how indulgent it is would suggest. The young director is pissed off about a critic, but the film doesn’t exclusively take his side. The characters sometimes come across more as vessels for ideas than people- it could’ve used a few rewrites/ more takes to get to a higher-level of emotional authenticity, even if Zendaya is often very good. The black & white cinematography is beautiful.
Movie #33/ New Movie #22/ Black Director #2/ Critics Choice Nominee #3: One Night in Miami (Amazon)
A scene where we see what a Sam Cooke performance looks like from the back row is one of my favorites this year, and a big part of why Regina King is in contention for Best Director. This is a movie about ideas and the best ways to make a difference featuring four famous young African-American men, two of whom are athletes and one of whom is a singer who just wants to party. It reveals complexities in the characters, and subverts expectations. If you think it’s about what inspires Sam Cooke to write “A Change is Gonna Come” it turns out that he already wrote it. Leslie Odom is exceptional as Cooke, seen as a sellout but navigating dangerous waters effectively to make things better.
Movie #34/ New Movie #23/ Viola Davis Film #2: Doubt (Blu-Ray)
An interesting pairing with One Night in Miami, as another theatrical adaptation set shortly after Kennedy’s assassination. It’s a showcase for four well-deserved Academy Award nominated performances: Amy Adams as a novice who gets swept into a power struggle and investigation into heinous crimes, Meryl Streep as a strict nun in changing times, Viola Davis as a mother in an absurd situation with limited options and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a flawed but compassionate priest who may have done something terrible. It gets into some serious questions about uncertainty; spiritually, politically and when it comes to the people around us.
Movie #35/ New Movie #24: Southland Tales (Cannes Cut) (Arrow Blu-Ray)
This is more of a rough cut than a directors cut, showing the unfinished version that had a mixed reaction in Cannes. I can certainly see why. Some ideas are modern, and if it seems dated, it’s because of references to things that happened a few years ago but still after the movie came out (a plot involving police body cameras, a porn star using her celebrity to create a Kardashian style brand) although the camerawork remains a product of the time. The mix of stars who broke out (Dwayne Johnson, Justin Timberlake, Mandy Moore, Amy Poehler) and hasbeens (Sean William Scott, Bai Ling) speaks to the mixed quality, how it gets some stuff right and some stuff just doesn’t work.
Movie #36/ New Movie #25: Bad Education (HBO Max)
It’s a decent take on an education finance scandal, which isn’t the most exciting topic, although the story is entertaining enough, but raises some meaningful questions. Hugh Jackman’s performance is a bit evasive, in that he has to hide major parts of himself (both in terms of crimes and his private life) from others around him.
Movie #37/ New Movie #26/ Black Director #3/ Critics Choice Nominee #4: Judas and the Black Messiah (HBO Max)
It gets to the messiness of a revolutionary moment. Daniel Kaluuya is exceptional as Fred Hampton, playing it with a sense of passion, purpose and regret. It does sometimes feel like a slow trudge to the inevitable conclusion, possibly because so much of the motives of the protagonist (the Judas of the film) are kept vague.
Movie #38: Warrior (DVD)
One of my favorite movies of the 21st Century. It’s got a winner take all tournament, but still does a great job of establishing the characters, and balancing competing characters arcs well. The fights are excellent, but they do seem different. It’s a movie where the underdog’s encounter against the undefeated celebrity isn’t even the final match. Nick Nolte is a standout as a recovering alcoholic who has burned all his bridges.
Movie #39: The Illusionist (DVD)
It’s a decent love story about a magician and the high-born girl he’s in love with, combining that with the nastiness of Austrian royalty revealed in the Mayerling Incident. The payoff to the master plan is predictable, but probably what the audience wants. It’s a fine enough film, even if it’s a little weird that all these American actors are playing with British accents.
Movie #40: Cabin in the Woods (Hulu)
It essentially creates a shared cinematic universe for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Ringu. It’s a good horror movie that works as a critique of a genre, and the story of survivors pushed to the limit by forces beyond their control.
Movie #41/ New Movie #27/ Critics Choice Nominee #5: Tenet (Blu-Ray)
It’s a movie about secret organizations and time manipulations, in which there are occasionally multiple versions of the same character, so it can be difficult to follow. The mechanisms for the time-manipulations are pretty cool, and lead to some great sequences. The film seems to spend way too much time on the saga of an arms dealer’s unhappy tall wife.
Movie #42/ New Movie #28/ Black Director #4/ Viola Davis Film #3: Widows (Amazon)
This is a complex crime plot with many different characters who have their own agendas and secrets, but McQueen makes it pretty easy to follow. It’s a well-made heist film with a great cast, and a focus on people who are usually in the background in crime movies. Viola Davis is excellent as a leader who has to be serious. Daniel Kaluuya is impressive as an especially vicious gangster who wants the money he’s owed. Elizabeth Debicki has a solid fish out of water arc. The political messaging isn’t subtle, and it is tonally all over the map.
Movie #43/ New Movie #29: Beauty and the Beast (1979) (DVD)
The Czech take on a familiar story (although the title translates to The Virgin and the Monster) is creepier than what we’re used to. Interesting sets (lovely is the wrong word as it showcases how decrepit things are in the beast’s lair) but sometimes a bit dull.
Movie #44/ New Movie #30: The Day the Earth Caught Fire (Kino Blu-Ray)
It’s a combination of a disaster movie that gets truly apocalyptic, and a journalism drama, where the reporters are starting to figure out just how bad things are, while stealing with the realities of the job (new special editions when a big event breaks, staff meetings, fact-checking, etc.) It uses a flashback structure really well, as we get to see how things get really bad. Some sequences and events are dated, but it is quite relevant with the concerns about global warming.
Movie #45/ New Movie #31/ Viola Davis Film #4: Beautiful Creatures (DVD)
This fantasy flop about a doomed magical teen romance has surprisingly impressive actors (Jeremy Irons, Margo Martindale, Viola Davis, Emma Thompson) doing okay with what they’re given. Some of the things that make this world unique are promising, but it’s a dull set-up to an underwhelming final showdown.
Movie #46: The Big Short (DVD)
It’s an excellent showcase for Steve Carrell as a moral blowhard, and Christian Bale as an awkward genius. It also has some of the best ever film exposition, as the story of how some people saw the great recession coming shows much of what went wrong.
Movie #47/ New Movie #32/ Viola Davis Film #5: The Help (Netflix)
The story of an unusual civil rights episode has an excellent cast. The criticism that the movie shouldn’t have been made is ironic as a major point of the film is how the stories of people who are often ignored are still worth telling. There’s a decent contrast between what freaks out white southerners (a prank involving commodes) and the legitimate concerns of the African-American help in 1960s Mississippi. Jessica Chastain is a standout as ditz with inner torments, while Octavia Spencer conveys her pride and pain well in her star-making Oscar winning role.
Movie #48/ New Movie #33/ Black Director #5: The 13th (Netflix)
It’s a decent take on the history of the prison industrial complex that has some clever choices in messaging (mixing conservative voices and regretful Democrats in favor of sentencing reforms) although it does get a little conspiratorial, and is similar to a lot of other recent projects.
Movie #49: Dracula (Blu-Ray)
It’s not the best film adaptation of Dracula: I personally prefer Murnau and Herzog’s versions of Nosferatu, but it is pretty quick, the set designs are nice, and Bela Legosi is one of the iconic film monsters. I keep forgetting that the point of view character in the opening goes on to become the madman Renfield, which speaks to Dwight Frye’s performance.
Movie #50: Hiroshima Mon Amour (Criterion Blu-Ray)
It might be the best version of the two ships passing in the night romance on film, conveying both how meaningful these brief relationships can be with the awareness that it will all be forgotten. It goes into some dark places as the leads have been hurt by the events of World War 2. Emmanuelle Riva is exceptional, recalling a doomed romance that suggests she may have had more pain than the man she meets from Hiroshima. Ahead of its time in terms of storytelling, and the maturity with which it handles really serious subject matter.