****BEFORE I GO INTO THIS, I SUPPOSE I WILL WARN YOU THAT I AM VERY CANDID ABOUT CERTAIN PLOTPOINTS BUT CONSIDERING THIS IS A TRUE STORY, I DON’T THINK A SPOILER WARNING IS REALLY NECESSARY****
In 2017, we had a rather interesting occurrence with two of the movies competing for Best Picture. DUNKIRK revolved around the titular evacuation of Allied Forces from the North of France while DARKEST HOUR featured a lot of that same storyline but from the side of then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
This past year, we saw Aaron Sorkin’s THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 which focused on…well…the trial of those people (haha…) and how they crossed state lines with the supposed intention of inciting violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In that movie, we hear of the murder of Illinois Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton via fellow Black Panther member Bobby Seale who is, briefly, the 8th member of the charges in that film until he ends up getting dismissed as a mistrial (after Judge Hoffman bounds and gags him for being in contempt of court…which, for the record, went on for DAYS and not just a few minutes like that film depicted).
So, in a way, you could argue that JUDAS & THE BLACK MESSIAH is something of a companion piece to THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 due to how it goes into the Black Panthers and how a man by the name of William O’Neill became an informant for the FBI in their quest to end Fred Hampton.
However…there is a major difference between the two films.
CHICAGO 7 obviously has a script that can be attributed to Sorkin: the crackling dialogue, the wit, the sort of sanctimonious tone…and there is no doubt that it is a fairly well made and solid film with solid acting.
JUDAS, on the other hand, is bolder and more brash. It is relentless and unforgiving and holds no punches with how it presents the true villains of the piece: the FBI. A film like CHICAGO 7 felt very milquetoast by comparison with its more centrist/liberal leanings whereas JUDAS goes into the leftist/socialist world of the Black Panther Party…and to top it all off, it is was directed and co-written by Shaka King.
Don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard of Shaka King; I also hadn’t heard of him. This is essentially his big break after making a little seen film called NEWLYWEDS back in 2013 and some short films. After seeing JUDAS, I really hope we haven’t seen the last of him. He shows such confidence and flair as a director and also managed to write a truly great script with his co-writer Will Berson who, also for the record, is getting his first writing credit with this film. It is simply remarkable and it goes to show you that some people just have the ability to wow you right off the bat.
So to briefly go into the synopsis, as I mentioned above, a grifter by the name of William O’Neill (Lakeith Stanfield) is using a fake badge to pose a cop to con people and steal their cars. When he is caught by an actual cop after something of a botched attempt, he is then accosted by FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) who tells him that he is facing close to 7 years in prison for his crimes but offers him a proposition to avoid jail: act as an informant for the FBI and infiltrate the Black Panther Party with the goal of taking down Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and fulfill the hopes of the lecherous FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen).
With this all in place, we watch O’Neill slowly morph into this world and thanks to the work of Stanfield, there are times where we aren’t quite sure if his loyalties are beginning to lie with Hampton or if he is simply a good actor. In a cheeky bit of symmetry, Plemons’ character of Roy even states that he is unsure of whether O’Neill is changing sides or if he is simply worthy of an Academy Award. I do think Stanfield does a great job with a truly difficult role and that he would be worthy of recognition but sadly the Lead Actor lineup is incredibly stacked this year and the precursor awards haven’t been going his way even in terms of just nominations so I don’t suspect that will happen for him.
Nevertheless, I do want to stress that Stanfield’s success in the role is crucial to the film. There were even moments where I got so caught up in various moments that I would forget that he wasn’t truly a part of this group because he was simply that good at playing up that he was more than just “a rat”…and he even manages to sneak his way out of a potentially deadly moment when other members of the Black Panther party corner him at one point thanks to pure dumb luck.
Stanfield does share a lot of scenes with Jesse Plemons, whom I do want to take a moment to discuss.
Plemons has to be one of the most interesting actors working today. I appreciate him so much because he has no fear or reservations about the roles he takes. A lot of his success first began when he played the vile and evil Todd during the final season of BREAKING BAD. It was a performance, if I may stretch for a moment, that made me think of Ralph Fiennes in SCHINDLER’S LIST if only for the fact that the character he played was so disgusting that it is crazy to think one could see him as anything else beyond that.
Plemons loves playing off-beat and rather immoral characters and also managed to take that kind of character to a comedic level in a movie like GAME NIGHT in which he stole every scene he was in. He does very well with this role as the kind of guy who will claim he isn’t racist but is so eager to label the Black Panther Party is equals to the Ku Klux Klan. There are shimmers in him that he may not be ALL bad…but in the end, he is still one of “the pigs”.
There is a strong chance that we might be witnessing this year’s Supporting Actor winner within this film…and that brings me to the fellow pictured below: Daniel Kaluuya, whom most will probably remember from Marvel’s BLACK PANTHER and particularly his stellar work in his breakthrough role in GET OUT.
From the moment that the first trailer was released, most of the Film Twitter-verse exploded with immense excitement over Kaluuya as Fred Hampton and he does greatly live up to the hype. You could even argue that he is co-lead with Stanfield but in the end, it wouldn’t be the most egregious form of category fraud. Stanfield is definitely the driving force and despite Kaluuya having scenes on his own, the film certainly keeps him somewhat at a distance at times (and he is missing for certain portions, including for a period where they send him to prison on a trumped up charge). You could even argue that the distance aspect is crucial because it gives Kaluuya more of a vibe as if he could even be some sort of barely attainable God…which could tie into the whole concept of the Messiah and the Judas that betrays him.
Kaluuya gives a performance that might not unexpected in terms of Oscar contenders. Voters often love big and bold performances and Kaluuya gets to deliver passionate and heated speeches….and damn, he does a fantastic job with them. He does have a lot of wonderful subtle moments, too…particularly the scenes he shares with his love interest Deb, played by Dominique Fishback.
I wasn’t as familiar with Fishback but I realized when researching her that she had appeared in the very good but little seen HBO miniseries SHOW ME A HERO that was written by THE WIRE’s David Simon. She has acted in a few projects over the last few years but I think this role could be another breakthrough for her. She was receiving Oscar buzz but so far it hasn’t translated to any nominations at other precursors. Truthfully, her role isn’t that big but she has a lot of wonderful moments and frankly, her presence in this film is truly wonderful. I would gladly support a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her and I hope that we see more from her very soon.
So with getting the synopsis and key performances out of the way, I want to try to express what the film made me feel and why I think it is incredibly important viewing for everyone.
2020 had been a truly horrible year in many, many ways. With the protests/riots that began after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and COUNTLESS others at the hands of police officers, there is no denying that JUDAS taps into this and it feels sadly relevant. The problem with a movie like TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 was it didn’t feel bold enough plus:
**SPOILER ALERT for CHICAGO 7**
-The ending in the courtroom where Tom Hayden begins reading off the list of people who died in Vietnam while the music swells and people cheer and Judge Hoffman is banging his gavel in overdramatic defiance leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It was mawkish and hokey and sort of felt forced and oddly pitched…nor did it happen in that way in real life. It was simply a Hollywood ending at the most cliched extreme.
**END OF CHICAGO 7 SPOILER**
I felt like JUDAS didn’t want to hold our hands in any way. I also appreciated that it made it abundantly clear that the cops/FBI are the problem and that it had no issue with putting forth a leftist/socialist message which is obviously not something that a lot of Hollywood ever latches onto.
JUDAS made me feel uncomfortable towards the end when we watch the raid occur and we know that Hampton’s life is about to come to an end….and that uncomfortable feeling was soon matched with anger. The fact that this even occurred is appalling but this kind of thing has happened time and time again and we’ve all watched it happen in such brutal ways this past year while those cops treat it as if these people’s lives are nothing.
I have been livid and angry…and then the response by the various police unions and also those who latch onto fighting the entire meaning of the BLACK LIVES MATTER movement shows that we still have a long way to go and, unfortunately, we haven’t truly moved much for the past 50 years.
JUDAS & THE BLACK MESSIAH is not here to play around. It tells the story it wants to tell without succumbing to any of the truly insufferable Hollywood tropes and still manages to enthrall and captivate.
It is easily one of the top 3 films of the year that I have seen thus far…and frankly, it might even be THE best for me as of this moment.
There are movies that feel slow and plodding and you sit there wondering when the hell something is going to happen.
Then you have the movies that are slow and plodding but somehow manage to pull you in. Maybe you don’t LOVE the movie but you admire and respect it immensely for what it is trying to do.
So, that brings me to NOMADLAND: the new movie written and directed by Chloe Zhao.
When one often thinks of the Oscars as an award ceremony over the years, there is often a sense that people feel they honor films that the general public doesn’t like or manage to ride a middle ground between being too safe or too boring.
They also love their epics which used to sweep various ceremonies with such ease that many people instantly grew to hate these films for beating out more popular films in the process such as:
GANDHI beating E.T. and TOOTSIE
OUT OF AFRICA beating THE COLOR PURPLE and WITNESS
THE LAST EMPEROR beating MOONSTRUCK and BROADCAST NEWS
DANCES WITH WOLVES beating GOODFELLAS
BRAVEHEART beating any movie (fuck BRAVHEART)
THE ENGLISH PATIENT beating FARGO and SECRETS & LIES
TITANIC beating L.A. CONFIDENTIAL
Yeah, you get the idea.
When looking at this list, you notice these films are not only epic in scope but have rather long run times. The Academy built up a reputation for honoring overly long epics that ranged from being stuffy to sanctimonious to overwrought.
NOMADLAND is fascinating in that it is only an hour and 40 minutes long and yet it feels just as epic in some ways if not more so strictly due to the topic it tackles and how beautifully it is helmed/shot. If NOMADLAND were to win the Oscar, it would be the 11th shortest Best Picture winner…but it would also feel like an extremely unique winner as well.
Chloe Zhao’s movie is inspired by the non-fiction book NOMADLAND: SURVIVING AMERICA IN THE 21ST CENTURY by Jessica Bruder and in the film, we see this world through the eyes of the character of Fern, played by Frances McDormand who also co-produces the film.
As the film begins, we get a caption that lets gives us a brief backstory. We learn that in 2011, a sheet rock plant in Empire, NV is forced to shut down following the residual effects of the 2008 recession. Fern, along with her now deceased husband, worked at the plant for years.
Instead of looking to retire early or maintain any kind of stability that would seem normal to most people, she sells all of her belongings and abandons most of her regular life to be a nomad/van-dweller. She lives out of her van and works odd jobs around the west coast, primarily doing seasonal work at an Amazon plant which provides her with her biggest paychecks all year.
New to the scene, we basically watch Fern interact with people in the community while she learns the ropes…and this is where the film is quite remarkable because you could say the movie feels incredibly real. At moments, it does feel like you are watching a documentary that happens to have extraordinary cinematography and a lot of that feeling comes from the fact that Zhao cast real-life nomads playing fictionalized versions of themselves.
Characters like Linda May, Bob Wells, and Swankie are actual people who live this lifestyle and it gives the movie a special feeling that I don’t think it would’ve had if they hired professional actors. The film does have one other well known actor in the mix though, which is David Strathairn, who plays a character named Dave….and to further add to what I mentioned earlier, the nomads all keep their real-life names….only McDormand gets a completely new name.
Strathairn’s Dave is the closest thing this movie has to what could be considered a typical movie trope: a potential love interest. However, how the movie ends up handling him is pretty appropriate to the kind of film that Zhao wants to make.
For a movie like this, I feel like McDormand was the only real choice (of known actresses) to play Fern. With her history as being one of the finest character actresses in Theatre and Film and, to a lesser extent, Television, McDormand has always been attracted to roles of strong but vulnerable women with a working class background such as NORTH COUNTRY, her Oscar winning role in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MISSOURI, or her Tony Award winning role in David Lindsay-Abaire’s GOOD PEOPLE.
People tend to forget that McDormand came from a classically trained acting background at Yale where she received her MFA and she began her career in the theatre playing everything from Shakespeare to Odets to Tennessee Williams. With films, she found her niche when she got drawn into the world of the Coen Brothers (soon after marrying Joel) who gave her fantastic roles in BLOOD SIMPLE, RAISING ARIZONA, and the piece de resistance, FARGO. She even now has been lumped into the ensemble of actors frequently cast by Wes Anderson which is a great company to be in for sure.
McDormand is not a “loud” actress. She has always been pretty restrained and keeps a certain top on her emotional outbursts in films. Even in THREE BILLBOARDS, she expertly only uses one key moment to go bold and yet, it makes her seem all the more powerful.
Her take on Fern is no surprise. This is a deceptively brilliant performance because it is so real and honest…just like Paul Raci in this year’s SOUND OF METAL. McDormand is simply living this role and she gives it a subtle passion that is nothing short of beautiful. While my personal vote for Actress would still go to Carey Mulligan for PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (as of now at least), I can’t deny that I would also fully support McDormand winning her THIRD Oscar for this role. Such a win would put her into a small group of actors who managed to win three acting Oscars: Walter Brennan, Ingrid Bergman, Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, and Daniel Day-Lewis (Katharine Hepburn has four which still remains the record to date). To add the accomplishment, she would have three Leading wins which would set her apart from Bergman and Streep (who each had a single Supporting win) and put her on a path to catch up to Hepburn. She may not pull it off this year but I could see her winning another Oscar before her career is over.
When I posted on Facebook that I watched NOMADLAND last night, I said the following:
“I feel like it’s hard to say anything about NOMADLAND. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but it is simply one of those movies that needs to be experienced”.
I have said more about it now, of course, but I do feel that it is a film that will end up potentially alienating some due to its rather meandering nature or due to the fact that it doesn’t even really have much of a plot…and yet, that is sort of what makes it work. The movie feels so real and it is destined to speak to many…and for some to doubt its potential appeal to a bigger audience despite its slower nature, it DID win the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival which is a major win on the film’s part in solidifying it as a serious Oscar contender.
Do I love NOMADLAND? At this very exact moment, I can’t really say I do. It is like I said at the beginning of this review…I respect and admire the movie for everything it does and how it does but I also don’t see myself returning to it anytime soon. Who knows though….maybe in a few years, I will look back on this and think I was crazy for not saying I “love” it but I simply cannot fault the praise that the film is getting.
I am going to start right off the bat by saying that I want to discuss this movie in more detail than I normally do with movies…but I will refrain from doing so.
I am someone who feels it is best to go into most movies as blind as possible, especially if I feel the experience would benefit more if you go into something cold rather than with the prior knowledge of eventual twists and turns in the plot.
Unfortunately, I had a lot of PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN spoiled for me prior to seeing it thanks to coming across a small review someone wrote without warning that they were going to discuss spoilers. The good news is there was a certain key moment that didn’t get spoiled for me and I am very glad that was the case.
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN seems to be a film that is going to divide people whether that be its subject matter, how chooses to paint the content in terms of genre-bending, and also how it chooses to wrap up the story in the final third of the film.
I think it is going to be very interesting how this film performs during the award season this year. It is already doing fairly well with the regional critics awards but will a black comedy thriller with a candy pastel aesthetic end up translating to major Oscar buzz?
I think it can do it.
I also feel like the win by PARASITE last year opened up so many doors for the kinds of films that can pull off a Best Picture win, but PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN feels even more radical in some ways despite the fact PARASITE was a foreign film.
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN was written and directed by Emerald Fennell, who was recently the showrunner for season 2 of KILLING EVE while also being a frequently popular actor in the UK on such programs as CALL THE MIDWIFE and even more recently portraying Camilla Parker-Bowles in season 4 of THE CROWN.
Fennell’s film debut is bold and distinctive and it will polarize many….
It pretty much won me over.
The film follows Cassandra ‘Cassie’ Thomas (the truly underrated Carey Mulligan), a 30 year old who works at a coffee shop and still lives at her parents’ home. We soon discover that she once attended medical school and had promise (wink wink) in her quest to become a doctor. Things took a rather tragic turn when one of her friends faced a rather brutal sexual assault and no one believed her…and this led Cassie down a darker path emotionally. After dropping out of medical school, she seems to devote her life more to luring men into her life only to demean them when they try to take advantage of her sexually. Her hook? She acts like she is on the verge of blacking out from drinking which only causes “nice guys” to swoop in with ulterior motives. Things get a little more complicated for her when a former medical school classmate of hers randomly enters her life again and shows a genuine romantic interest in her which she isn’t sure how to take at first.
My admiration for this film comes with a certain caveat because I can easily see why some might be turned off by it or why they may not connect to it on an emotional level. I found myself very intrigued by Cassie and it goes without saying that Fennell deserves a lot of the credit, but Carey Mulligan is a revelation here.
I have been a big fan of Mulligan’s ever since I saw her in 2009’s AN EDUCATION in which she was robbed of an Oscar due to the extremely bizarre push that season where Hollywood seemed overly desperate to reward Sandra Bullock for that pathetic and mawkish white savior movie in which she didn’t really do anything.
She has extreme versatility in all of her performances but I do feel like her work as Cassie could be a career best. Her energy in this movie is something of a steady rumble and while it may be a cliche to say, I do feel like she disappears into this role. It is truly hard to believe this was the same woman who played Jenny in AN EDUCATION or that I saw live as Kyla in David Hare’s SKYLIGHT. Also, I feel like her look in the picture below in which she is posing as a stripper named Candy is on par with becoming iconic.
Surrounding Mulligan is a solid ensemble but I wouldn’t say that any of them quite match Mulligan’s intensity or bravado. Bo Burnham plays Ryan, her doctor love interest and he does a good job at balancing what could be considered a “Rom-com” character that ends up getting placed into a darker orbit than he expected to be.
A lot of the other performances are relatively brief but still make solid impressions such as the hilarious Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown who play Cassie’s parents; Molly Shannon, in a very subdued role, as the mother of Cassie’s abused friend (while it is never explicitly stated, it is assumed her friend Nina committed suicide); and also Alfred Molina appears in a small but pivotal role as the lawyer who actively sought to destroy Nina’s life but now feels immense guilt over the matter.
So, having said all of this, I do have to address one major factor that this film ties into:
The #metoo Movement.
A lot of the anger that Cassie has still lingers due to the fact that it seemed like the medical school in which she and Nina were attending were trying to essentially cover up the assault (or in their words more or less: “give the guy the benefit of the doubt” despite solid evidence).
The movie also does a good job at not always making us sympathize with Cassie because it is obvious that Ryan has nothing but good intentions for her and you wish that she would just open up to him….however….you GET her. She is fed up with the idea that men can get away with everything and it has seriously damaged her psyche…and in a key moment relatively late into the film, she discovers something that devastates her and for one of the first times, you see that under the immense anger and bitterness, there is a young woman who is simply devastated and destroyed because her friend was raped and she wants justice.
The movie will divide people, no question. Its tone is irreverent and dark while also being simultaneously bright and colorful, which I do feel it is always very interesting to have that kind of contrast.
And lastly, the ending was highly successful in my opinion for managing to achieve me to feel so many multiple emotions…and truthfully, the fact is despite what some of these emotions were, I still think the fact that I felt so incredibly satisfied was the most impressive. It has been a while that a movie left me just feeling so satisfied and yet still so cynical all at once.
Bravo, Emerald Fennell. May you please get Directing and Screenplay nominations.
Imagine you are sitting down to watch a movie and within minutes, you are marveling at the value of work that is being put forth by everyone involved. Great acting, solid writing, and impressive direction…particularly considering that we are watching a 20+ minute one shot take of an at-home birth.
Once the moment ends nearly a half hour into the film, you are left rather tense and on edge. There is no question that this sequence sent you on a roller coaster ride of emotions and you applaud the actors and director for pulling it off so well.
And yet…PIECES OF A WOMAN was mostly a failure.
It is hard to think of many other films that started off with such immense promise only to fall apart in such a horrific way so quickly.
So, let’s dive into this. What is PIECES OF A WOMAN about?
A young couple named Martha & Sean (Vanessa Kirby and Shia LeBeouf) are on the verge of having their first child but tragedy strikes when Martha’s desire to have an at-home birth leads to their baby going into cardiac arrest and dying before the paramedics can arrive. We then follow the decline of Martha and Sean’s relationship while Martha’s elderly mother tries to intervene.
This is a very bare bones description of the film’s plot, but there is a reason that I don’t really want to go into it with more detail. It isn’t because I am trying to avoid spoiling anything for the sake of saving the experience for you should you choose to watch it…but rather that I feel the film tries to tackle a few different ideas over the course of an hour and a half without much emphasis or care. I found myself not really caring about any of these people, although I will say that this movie has one real saving grace: Vanessa Kirby.
To audiences here in the states, Vanessa Kirby is best known for playing Princess Margaret opposite Claire Foy’s Queen Eizabeth II on the first two seasons of THE CROWN. Here, she drops her British accent to play a young Boston wife and she does very well with the American accent. The big thing about Kirby is her performance is both restrained and volcanic. I have read some criticisms from people that they felt she was trying to hard to ACT and that the final results felt strained. While I can sort of see why some might think that, I thought she did a fantastic job…and this is especially true in the first half hour when we get to watch her go into labor and she navigates the pain and the nausea and the fear with such amazing conviction.
While Kirby’s Martha may not be someone I ended up loving per se as a character, I felt Kirby gave the role the dimensions it needed to be a pretty solid success. It’s just a shame that the script she has to work with is rather overwrought.
It is kind of a bizarre phenomenon really that the script, through the dialogue rather than the concept necessarily, is overwrought while also seeming to be so empty and docile.
The movie tries to tackle spousal abuse along with adultery and emotional instability while barely even giving us time to process any of it or making us care. The movie also utilizes time jumps to aid in this line of storytelling which at first makes sense but ends up becoming a crutch that seemed entirely unnecessary.
The other leads of the film are acting legend Ellen Burstyn as Martha’s mother Elizabeth and Molly Parker as Eva, the midwife who ends up finding herself in truly unfortunate situation that was out of her control.
It goes without saying that Burstyn is a truly remarkable actress and she does have a monologue in this movie that she sells very well…for the most part. Burstyn has said in interviews that she added some improvisations to her monologue in which she discusses being a child that was born during the Holocaust. I am not sure if she should be proud of the improvisations because the actual text of the scene itself comes off as incredibly brash and almost unnecessary. It is the stereotypical “Oscar clip” but it comes off as uneven thanks to the dialogue.
Molly Parker as Eva is actually quite refreshing in this film. While she only real appears during the birthing scene at the beginning, her presence feels so natural and real….it doesn’t seem like she is trying to act. She is simply living as the character and it is almost as strong a reaction that I had to Paul Raci’s work in SOUND OF METAL.
However, I can’t go any further without addressing the other major white elephant in the room: Shia LeBeouf. It is unfortunate to have to deal with watching Shia LeBeouf in this film in light of the recent allegations that he was abusive to his girlfriend, the singer FKA Twigs….especially considering that his character Sean is essentially an abusive and inconsiderate prick to Martha when she responds to the baby’s death by shutting down emotionally rather than constantly sobbing. I can’t blame the movie for this aspect but it was definitely an unfortunate addition.
As I wrap up, I do want to give an indirect credit to a reviewer on Letterboxd who described PIECES OF A WOMAN as “an American film trying to pose as a European art film”.
I would say this is apt….very, very apt.
Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo is certainly very talented…and he did a marvelous job on his 2014 film WHITE GOD. I also have to give him credit for on the stellar job he did for the opening scenes of this film despite how much the film suffers after. I do blame a lot of that on the script rather than him so I would say keep an eye on this guy and hope that he will have a better script to work with next time.
RATING (out of 5 stars):
P.S.: I boosted it up a little thanks to Kirby and the first half hour of the film.
In the 1980s, there seemed to be a rather odd surge in a particular sub-genre of films: families dealing with problems while living on a farm. Even more bizarre, 1984 was when this big surge in films took place with COUNTRY starring Jessica Lange, THE RIVER starring Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek, and PLACES OF THE HEART starring Sally Field (for which she won her 2nd Oscar and gave her infamous “YOU LIKE ME!” speech).
The truth is…I don’t like these movies. PLACES OF THE HEART was probably the best of the three but none of them hold up (though the actresses did solid work). I just feel that I tend to not get drawn into these films for one reason or another…although I think I finally found such a film that exceeded far beyond the expectation of those 80s efforts.
MINARI revolves around a South Korean family who immigrates to rural Arkansas in 1986 with the hope of starting their own farm…although I should say its the father Jacob (Steven Yeun) who wants the farm; his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) and children David & Anne (Alan Kim & Noel Kate Cho) are less thrilled at the prospect.
The film is actually semi-autobiographical as writer/director Lee Isaac Chung did indeed have his family move to rural Arkansas in the 1980s…though he was already an American citizen having been born in Denver. You could almost think of MINARI as not just part of the 80s FAMILY ON A FARM sub-genre but also part of the slow-burn character pieces that have come out in recent years like ROMA or going back a little further to Edward Yang’s YI YI.
I would say MINARI falls a little behind YI YI in terms of greatness. ROMA was, to me, a rather boring and meandering film that was only buoyed up by its gorgeous cinematography, interesting locales, and occasional sparks in the performances while YI YI was an absolute masterpiece.
MINARI did have moments where I felt it was perhaps a tad too slow but honestly, I think the film was quite lovely and I did care deeply about these characters. I viewed the film a couple of days ago prior to this writing and I do feel somewhat compelled to revisit the film again which is certainly a good sign for its longevity.
Steven Yeun as the father Jacob gives a very nice performance (he is considered on the cusp of potentially receiving an Oscar nomination) and I love that he is getting more attention especially since he was last overlooked (as was the film) for his great work in 2018’s best film: Lee Chang dong’s BURNING. I was sadly not familiar with Han Ye-ri prior to this film but she does an absolutely lovely job as the mother Monica. She is strong and often reserved but she gets to show moments of great compassion and she holds her own against Yeun.
Both of the kids do a nice job and particularly Lee’s counterpart David is adorable and his screen presence is quite warm and infectious.
However…if anyone steals this movie, it is South Korean film legend Youn Yuh-jung, who plays Monica’s mother Soon-ja, who ends up coming to live with the family once they are more settled into their home.
Last year, a lot was said about Chinese actress Zhou Shuzhen who played Awkwafina’s grandmother in the truly beautiful Lulu Wang film THE FAREWELL. It was a performance that was truly the heart of the film and a lot of film fanatics ranted and raved that the mainstream awards circuit snubbed her and the film constantly (though a lot of that could also be blamed on distributor A24 for botching its campaign which frankly is a whole other thing to complain about sometime).
Having said that, Youn Yuh-jung is in a position right now where she is actually a frontrunner to WIN Best Supporting Actress but I know that she has a lot to overcome. To put it into perspective, no Asian-language performance has ever been nominated for an Oscar and only two Asian actors have even won an Oscar for a performance. If you lump in all of the foreign language performances that HAVE won, that number only reaches FIVE: Sophia Loren for TWO WOMEN, Robert De Niro for THE GODFATHER PART II, Roberto Benigni for LA VITA E BELLA, Benicio del Toro for TRAFFIC, and Marion Cotillard for LA VIE EN ROSE.
The list is a tad more promising when you look at those who received nominations but there still seems to be a negative bias towards actors east of Europe.
Anyways…getting off of THAT soapbox for now…
Youn Yuh-jung is what brings this movie to another level in my book. Within seconds of her being onscreen, I wanted to give her a big hug. She is a grandmother who is sly, foul-mouthed, and ready to play….and at a church service, she steals $100 from the collection plate which is quite hysterical (though I am sure the Evangelicals would flip if they ever actually viewed the movie…not that they would). Young David views his grandma as not being a “real grandma” due to her rather bombastic behavior but the truth is this woman exudes so much warmth and love along with her zest. Whenever she is onscreen, my attention was primarily drawn squarely to her and if there is any justice in this world, she will get nominated and she should probably win the damn thing.
Beyond the performances, the film does a wonderful job at establishing themes of culture shock and acceptance among their neighbors. In fact, the film actually does something remarkable in that they don’t really face much, if any, real discrimination from people that would today be in the heart of Trump country. You could argue that maybe it is something of a fantasy world but you could also argue that perhaps maybe not everyone who lives in middle America is bad….because that is the truth.
A movie like MINARI was what I needed right now. It had enough warmth to go with the pathos to make it seem engaging and important and it also was a story I was interested in watching.
Filmmaker Darius Marder hasn’t done much. He received the biggest amount of exposure back in 2012 as a writer on the well received film THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES. Prior to that, he made a little seen film called LOOT back in 2008.
Following his 2020 offering, I would like to think we will see more of him in the years to come.
SOUND OF METAL was a movie in which I went into it knowing the basic premise but I wasn’t quite sure where it was going to go. I hadn’t seen a trailer and I didn’t really read any reviews that went into detail with the plot. All I kept hearing was that it was a pretty strong film with a great performance by Riz Ahmed, the British actor/rapper who had made a big name for himself on such projects as NIGHTCRAWLER and THE NIGHT OF.
The film was made available to stream on Amazon Prime back on December 4th and I watched it not long after. I feel like despite my very positive response to the film, I wanted to give some space to my thoughts before I tried to put them down for others to read.
So, before I go into my thoughts on the film, let me give you a standard synopsis to get you up to speed.
The film revolves around Rueben (Ahmed), a drummer, along with his girlfriend of 4 years named Lou (Olivia Cooke). The two of them make up a metal band called Blackgammon, and they tour the country while living out of an RV. Simply put, their lives are basically their music and each other.
During one of their concerts, Rueben begins noticing that his hearing is dissipating and despite doctors encouraging him to avoid any extensively loud noise, he still continues to play which leads to rapid hearing loss. Doctors suggest that he could get cochlear implants to reinstate some form of hearing but this is not covered by insurance and would cost Rueben at least $40,000.
From there, we learn Rueben is a recovering drug addict and Lou is concerned that the stress of his hearing loss could lead him to relapsing. At the recommendation of his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor, Rueben is sent to check out a recovery retreat run by Joe (Paul Raci) in a rural community that specializes on helping deaf addicts.
The movie then proceeds to follow Rueben on his journey within this deaf community while also battling his desire to try to get money to obtain these elusive implants.
Okay, so with that synopsis out of the way, let’s go into my thoughts:
This was a movie in which I was almost amazed by its unassuming beauty. It isn’t flashy or bombastic in its approach but it simply shows us how one might handle losing one of their senses, especially when it is a major part of their livelihood and career.
Aside from exceptions such as CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD, it doesn’t feel like the deaf community gets much focus in film or theatre or TV. I certainly felt the film did a wonderful job at showcasing this community and gave them their due and a lot of credit has to be given to Marder & his co-writer Derek Cianfrance for the attention to detail they gave to their story and the actors involved.
Riz Ahmed is not deaf nor did he know sign language or how to drum. He spent six months prior to shooting learning to do both…and in addition to that, he was able to create such a compassionate performance.
Rueben is a character you could say is selfish or ignorant or insecure, but he is also dealing with something completely new that is going to drastically alter his life and he isn’t sure how to navigate it. Despite these tendencies that we may see in him, Ahmed is able to infuse him with a very dark vibrancy.
This is not a performance in which you are going to see someone screaming at the top of their lungs while throwing plates on the floor in defiance. Ahmed gives one of the most beautifully subtle performances I have seen in a film in quite some time…and he uses those big expressive eyes of his to great effect. It feels like a performance of such great restraint where instead of intense outbursts, we get slow doses of his emotions here and there as if he won’t completely let go and it is truly remarkable to watch him navigate this role.
As fantastic as Ahmed is, I feel like there is another performance in the film that warrants a special mention. That would be Paul Raci as Joe, the man behind the deaf community retreat that Rueben joins.
Paul Raci is not exactly an actor that is known to the masses. In fact, he still doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page (neither does writer/director Darius Marder for that matter). Raci does have full hearing but both of his parents were deaf so he learned sign language from a very young age and he remains a member of the famed Deaf West Theatre in Los Angeles.
Raci’s career has essentially been that of a day player on TV and films for the past 40 years after having served in the Vietnam War. However, despite the fact he can hear, his life experience makes him the perfect choice to play Joe.
Raci as Joe is the kind of performance where you might watch it and wonder why it is receiving the kind of praise it is getting, but once you watch him and let it sit with you afterwards, you realize that he was able to do so much by doing so little. He isn’t onscreen much but whenever he is, his strength and warmth and wisdom practically pour out of every frame. It is a prime example of how the best actors may simply never get a chance strictly because they don’t have “a name” in the business…and here, we get to see the right actor win the role.
Both Raci and Ahmed are doing fairly well with the critics award circles and while I do feel like Ahmed will end up slipping into Best Actor, I am still worried that Raci may end up missing out simply due to the politics. I am going to predict both of them to get in but I feel like both of them will face an even bigger uphill battle to win.
I sort of find myself in a weird position when discussing movies on my blog just as I would be with a show on TV or a theatrical production. I want people to read what I write but I also don’t want to spoil anything that might occur in the movie that could make the experience less profound.
The movie doesn’t take any crazy turns in plot like PARASITE for example, but I just think anything you watch benefits from knowing as little as possible about certain key aspects.
I won’t go into how the film resolves itself, but I do want to address one scene which is the last time we see Raci’s Joe. In a conversation with Rueben, Joe states to him how the concept of getting the cochlear implants goes against the beliefs of the community of which he is a part of.
Rueben, despite the progress he has made at the retreat, still doesn’t accept this new aspect of his life and his demeanor and appearance look as though, as Joe points out, he has become an addict again even if he may or may not fell off the wagon.
Joe conveys to him that there can be a certain peace, or a stillness as he puts it, that helps you cope while the rest of the “damn, cruel” world is moving along around them. He acts as if the sound of permanent silence has its own blessings:
“But for me, those moments of stillness…that place, for me, is the kingdom of God. And that place will never abandon you”.
This scene in particular struck a chord within me and even if a lot of us may not be deaf, there is a certain desire within a lot of us to find an inner sense of peace in these chaotic times.
This movie succeeded quite handily in what it set out to do and while I still have several more movies to see from this year, I have a feeling SOUND OF METAL is going to make it onto my top 10 list when all is said and done.
Gasp! I know…how intense of a revelation that must be for you.
Anyone that knows me tends to realize that my love of this particular holiday is rather massive and I will listen to the music without any real sign of letting up.
This year, in particular, has been a bit of a change of pace though. I’ve still been listening to the music but nowhere on the same level that I typically do. I guess with everything going on in the world that perhaps even my passionate love of Christmas isn’t enough for me to get fully into the spirit.
Nevertheless, I have my tree up; we have some presents under the tree; and I also have wine chilling in the fridge. I am ready to enjoy the holiday regardless.
Considering I do tend to love lists, I decided that I would try to narrow down the countless array of songs into a list of 10. These will not be ranked but I will list them in alphabetical order. I do have to stress that I don’t exactly hate any Christmas song (although some I find to be “meh” at best) and even if I don’t list a song here, I might very well really like it as well. One other key rule: if the song isn’t explicitly directly related to Christmas but only deals with the snowy weather (such as “Let it Snow”, “Marshmallow World”, or “Winter Wonderland”) then those will be exempt from the list.
So, these are 10 of my absolute favorite Christmas songs with video and/or audio attached of my favorite renditions:
Perhaps the most famous of Christmas Carols from the Alfred Burt catalog, CAROLING CAROLING is still not as often played or sung by people nowadays. In fact, I feel like the only version I have ever really heard was sung by Nat King Cole…although I do believe the song was sung by the Muppets on A MUPPET FAMILY CHRISTMAS.
This is an example of a song that I didn’t really give much thought to as a kid but it ended up becoming a surprisingly frequent staple when I would play Christmas music on Pandora at my old job a few years ago. It also doesn’t hurt that I love Nat King Cole.
THE CHRISTMAS SONG (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)
I feel like this is a choice that is very typical, but so be it….it’s a classic. As writer Mel Torme put it, he wrote the song on a blistering hot July summer day as an effort to “stay cool by thinking cool”…and thus, the most covered Christmas selection of all time was born.
Once again, this song gained traction right away thanks to a recording by Nat King Cole…and his version still remains my favorite and the one that seems to get the most air play year after year.
-THE CHRISTMAS WALTZ
I have always been a sucker for anything in 3/4 time…or rather, the “waltz” time. I feel like THE CHRISTMAS WALTZ is one of those songs that does get covered fairly often but it isn’t quite as overdone or heard as much as various others.
I first noticed the song years ago on the legendary album CHRISTMAS PORTRAIT that was put out by The Carpenters as it was the first full song on the album after the Overture. It helped set the tone of the album perfectly.
-HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS
This classic was written for the equally classic 1944 MGM movie musical MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS starring some woman named Judy Garland…..
As the story goes, Garland objected to the song’s original lyrics which were certainly rather darker in tone. In fact, the whole tone of the song in the movie is a lot more somber whereas in recent years, the song is covered in more of a sweet and sentimental light.
The original opening lines were: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last; next year we may be living in the past”.
Even after the revisions, many chose to further revise the lyrics…such as “we’ll have to muddle through somehow” becoming “hang your shining star upon the highest bough” to simply make the song more cheerful.
Nevertheless, the original Judy Garland version remains my favorite. So much so that I only listen to it on Christmas Eve and Day as a special event. Call me crazy, I guess.
-HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS
I don’t think I am alone in saying that as a kid, there was nothing more thrilling than the last day of school before a big break. I most especially loved being able to come home from school knowing that Christmas break was upon me.
As for actually going home for the holidays, I haven’t done so since 2017. It isn’t really by choice but my past jobs never really allowed me the time off…or they were fairly new jobs that didn’t give me the ability to take off. I probably could’ve traveled this year but….you know….COVID.
I do love this song and I opted to choose it for its more upbeat tone. I do want to single out another song that has a similar theme but sung in a more melancholy manner: I’LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS.
-IT’S BEGINNING TO LOOK A LOT LIKE CHRISTMAS
For many years, I actually considered this to be my favorite Christmas song. I would even be willing to say it would still contend for that slot.
As written by Meredith Wilson (the man who also gave us THE MUSIC MAN), this song certainly captures that joy of watching as your surrounding begin to take on a festive glow.
My favorite version of this one has to be the original done by Perry Como:
-O HOLY NIGHT
First of all, I will say right off the bat this is the only Christmas song on this list that actually deals with the religious aspect of the holiday. I do want to commend a few other classic hymns that I do like: O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM, IT CAME UPON A MIDNIGHT CLEAR, O COME ALL YE FAITHFUL, and JOY TO THE WORLD…but there is simply an ultimate winner at this party.
There is something epic and majestic about O HOLY NIGHT that never ceases to amaze me when I hear it…and I love it even when Eric Cartman sings it and makes it about presents and pie.
As it stands, I will give a shoutout to Josh Groban for his stellar vocal performance.
You could say that this song is something of a companion piece to IT’S BEGINNING TO LOOK A LOT LIKE CHRISTMAS in the sense that both tap into the sense of wonderment in how everything around you has been taken over by the sights and sounds of the season.
As a kid, I viewed SILVER BELLS as a boring Christmas song, especially at the expense of a song like JINGLE BELLS or SLEIGH RIDE…but once again, age has made me fall in love with this one and it was this particular cover below by Doris Day that did it.
-SOMEDAY AT CHRISTMAS
This song may have been covered by others but no one found the true power behind it like Stevie Wonder, who recorded it in 1966 during the growing surge of our involvement in the Vietnam War.
I feel like we keep hearing various sentiments nowadays about how so many things from the 60s feel just as relevant and potent than ever before…SOMEDAY AT CHRISTMAS is another example of that. It is a song that tackles what is horrible in the world but, much like Wonder often does, he approaches the song with a sense of hope.
I do have to give a shout out to Lennon and Ono’s HAPPY XMAS (War is Over) for falling into a similar category.
For my final selection, I had to go with what might be the most iconic Christmas song of all time. Do you think that’s hyperbolic? One major factor in me making that claim is that the original 1942 recording done by Bing Crosby (who probably took a break from beating his children just to record the song…) is the highest selling single of all time. That is a record it has now held for nearly 80 years…and it is a feat that is quite impressive.
The song was written by the legendary Irving Berlin, perhaps the most songwriter most indelibly linked to the “Great American Songbook”. After completing the song, Berlin was reported to have told his secretary:
“I want you to take down a song I wrote over the weekend. Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it’s the best song anybody ever wrote.”
Cocky, perhaps? Maybe…but hey, the song’s legendary status still remains and I think he earned the right to be cocky.
This wasn’t exactly an insightful piece…but I felt it might be a nice change of pace. Things have been rough this year to say the least and I have dealt with a lot in the past couple of months in terms of stress. Christmas is a time I have always remembered loving and I might as well take the chance to throw this list out there and make myself feel better listening to all of these classics.
After the holidays are over, I am hoping to return with a couple of movie reviews along with doing my Top 10 Films of the 2010s list and I also hope to continue with my SIMPSONS series by spotlighting each season and discussing their highs and lows and ending with my top 10 episodes of each season.
Thank you all for reading and I hope you have a wonderful Christmas/holiday season!
There are certain years where you just get a movie that wows you with the power of its ensemble. Last year, we had PARASITE and this year, we have MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM.
This isn’t to say that MA RAINEY is as good as PARASITE (frankly, that is a pretty tall order for a lot of films to match), but at its core, MA RAINEY is held up immensely by solid direction, a fantastic cast, and a script by Rueben Santiago Hudson that he adapted from the play by the late, great August Wilson.
MA RAINEY wasn’t the first play that August Wilson wrote but it was the first of his works to be produced on Broadway and it garnered him instant acclaim. It stands out as different from the other 9 plays in his Pittsburgh Cycle (now more commonly referred to as The Century Cycle) as being the only one not set in Pittsburgh. It is, instead, set in a rather run-down recording studio in Chicago.
The plot revolves around the real-life legendary “mother of the blues” Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) coming to 1927 Chicago to record an album with her band: trumpeter Levee (the late Chadwick Boseman), pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), guitarist/trombone player Cutler (Colman Domingo), and bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts).
Most of the action takes place in the rather tiny and dingy rehearsal space of the recording studio and primarily focuses on that of these band members. Toledo, Cutler, and Slow Drag aren’t exactly fond of the cocky exuberance of the younger Levee, who is one of those types that is always looking to the future and the next stepping stone rather than truly focusing on the here and now.
Once Ma Rainey arrives to the session (after a fender bender in her car right outside the studio), it is apparent immediately that this woman is a Diva with a capital D. She is also a woman that is completely sure of herself…and not afraid to BE who she is, particularly when she parades herself holding her younger female lover on her arm while en route to the studio.
Ma Rainey puts up with nothing short of instant perfection and with personalities clashing and the heat at unbearable peaks, tension is nothing less than palpable among this group.
In terms of the story content, I would say that the piece is compact and potent. It runs just over an hour and a half long and the run-time still flies by to the point where when it ended, I was surprised…and this is coming from someone who has seen and read the play multiple times.
A lot of that credit can also go to director George C. Wolfe, who isn’t exactly known to mainstream audiences but he is simply a LEGEND in the theatre world for directing such productions as the original incarnations of ANGELS IN AMERICA, TOPDOG/UNDERDOG, CAROLINE OR CHANGE, along with the famed Delacorte Theatre production of MOTHER COURAGE & HER CHILDREN starring Meryl Streep and being the Artistic Director of The Public Theatre from 1993-2004.
Some have criticized Wolfe’s direction as being bland and too staged. I actually feel he did very well with this material in making it seem lively and vibrant when it truly could’ve been mundane. I would even go as far to say he would be more worthy of an Oscar nomination for Directing than many contenders they’ve given the freaking award to over the years. Simply put…he did a good job. If you want to see a horrid example of a famed theatre director trying his hand at film and failing, I suggest you look up Hal Prince’s A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC and prepare to cry.
The script was adapted by Rueben Santiago-Hudson, who is primarily known as an actor and a director with a history of working on the works of August Wilson (SEVEN GUITARS, THE PIANO LESSON). He does right by Wilson and maintains a lot of his fiery dialogue but also helps move the action along to multiple spaces as opposed to keeping it all confined in just the rehearsal room space. I do hope he will be able to receive an Adapted Screenplay nomination.
Now that bring me to the performances:
The smaller supporting performances by Taylour Paige, Dusan Brown, Jonny Coyne, and Jeremy Shamos are solid and each have wonderful moments and add something to the material.
Then you have the main core group:
My god, this is quite the cast. With all of the talk of how THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO SEVEN was going to have the killer ensemble of the year, it ended up not holding a candle to MA RAINEY.
Domingo, Potts, and Turman are remarkable and that isn’t a surprise. While none of them are exactly household names (though most people would instantly recognize Turman thanks to his work on such shows as A DIFFERENT WORLD and THE WIRE), they have always been truly stellar performers. The roles of Cutler, Slow Drag, and Toledo are good roles but they are also the kind of roles that could disappear into the background if not dealt with in a proper manner. Thankfully this trio, under the direction of Wolfe, helped bolster this movie to a higher level.
Then comes Viola Davis.
It goes without saying that Viola Davis is easily one of the greatest acting talents working today, female or male. Despite not doing her own singing, she owns the role and commands the screen whenever she appears. Ma Rainey is an interesting role because while it is a leading role, it is somewhat truncated and that is why I think this film, just as with the play, can be truly considered an ensemble piece. As of this writing, I can’t exactly say if I would support Davis winning an Oscar for this. I haven’t seen enough of the contenders yet but I do feel quite comfortable in saying that she deserves a nomination quite easily.
Back in 2008, Heath Ledger gained Oscar buzz for THE DARK KNIGHT right after he passed away. Some at the time speculated that Ledger might not have won had he still been alive since the Academy had never honored any performances from a superhero movie. However, he was fantastic and deserving and he won.
People are already saying online that Boseman could win the Oscar thanks to a combo of a great performance and the fact that he is sadly no longer with us. The truth is…that narrative could work. However, here is another truth:
HE IS TRULY GREAT IN THIS FILM.
I have seen MA RAINEY done as a play 3 times, including one with Charles S. Dutton playing the Levee role, and I had not seen an actor bring the immense charisma and passion and electric energy to Levee that Boseman did. While I still have to see Anthony Hopkins in THE FATHER (the other huge performance that is getting passionate raves) and I still think Riz Ahmed’s work in SOUND OF METAL is a true subtle marvel, I do think that Boseman would be a very deserving winner for this performance. It would also only make him the third African-American male to win a Lead Actor Oscar after Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington. What a truly stellar way to bid the world farewell.
If you are unfamiliar with the material, I think it benefits knowing less about the characters beats in the story. It might seem a little bombastic and theatrical at times (despite what I said about Wolfe being able to expand upon that), but I do think the emotion and passion given by these actors are enough to carry the day.
I have been in the mood to write and yet I have been unable to get into the routine and mindset of wanting to write on a few of the topics I hoped to tackle. I decided the best way to (hopefully) combat this is to go back and continue the series of my BEST OF THE DECADE lists as I have not done lists for the 2000s and the 2010s.
The 2000s were quite the bizarre time and despite some of these years leaving me a little cold, you can definitely find some hidden gems…or even films that were out in plain sight but seemed to not grab the attention of the critics or mainstream public or award voting bodies as they should have.
Despite the rather erratic feel I have for this decade in film, I do have a certain fondness for it in the sense that I was able to begin truly following films as I approached my teenage years.
So, with that in mind, I will start off with ten honorable mentions before listing my top 10:
ALMOST FAMOUS, CITY OF GOD, DANCER IN THE DARK, MEMORIES OF MURDER, MOTHER, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, UP, THE WHITE RIBBON, Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN, and YI YI
#10-WALL-E (2008- Andrew Stanton)
I have noticed that a lot of people tend to bash WALL-E as it seems to be one of those movies that got SO hyped up when it came out that it couldn’t live up to expectations. When it comes to how I often respond, it is very rare for me to find myself agreeing with a lot of the hype.
Recent example of me actually agreeing with the hype? PARASITE.
An even more recent example of me wondering why something was getting as highly praised as it was? THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT.
So, yeah…I don’t think I need to go much further as to say WALL-E was a movie I adored upon viewing it and I still think back on in it fondly 12 years later. PIXAR is simply a powerhouse studio and this was around the time they were at their absolute peak with offerings such as this film, UP, and RATATOUILLE.
WALL-E is set in the 29th Century after severe and rampant consumerism and environmental neglect (basically how the United States of America has always been). Earth has essentially been destroyed and is no longer populated by humans, who are now living a life of luxury about massive spaceships flying around the galaxy. This was a system that had been created during the 22nd Century when things became too much for the human race….quite the dark concept.
The Buy-n-Large Corporation, the ones behind the spaceships, left behind Waste Allocation Load-Lifter: Earth-class robots to help clean up the mess…AKA WALL-E’s. Only one of these robots remains active after all of this time and he is the main character we follow until he comes across EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator). WALL-E becomes smitten with EVE and eventually she takes him up to one of these spaceships from which she had been sent.
However, from here, a misunderstanding leads both robots to end up being labeled as “rogue” and they face potential demise.
WALL-E is a movie that felt unique in that it didn’t really rely on dialogue but rather than visuals and random noises to move along a good portion of the story. In some ways, you could argue that it felt like a hybrid of a silent film, particularly something like CITY LIGHTS.
A lot of film fanatics talk about how THE DARK KNIGHT was egregiously snubbed from Best Picture that year…and perhaps it is true that it was better than at least 4 of the nominees but I still think WALL-E should’ve made history as the first Animated film to win the Oscar for Best Picture….(although I also think the first TOY STORY should’ve been in battle for that as well).
#9-THE DIVING BELL & THE BUTTERFLY (2007- Julian Schnabel)
This film seems to have slipped from a lot of people’s minds in the last decade but in 2007, this French film actually came close to receiving a Best Picture nomination…but I guess they just HAD to nominate ATONEMENT and JUNO……sigh….
THE DIVING BELL & THE BUTTERFLY was based on the autobiography of French writer Jean-Dominique Bauby, who in the film is played by actor Mathieu Amalric. Bauby suffered a severe stroke that has left him in “locked in syndrome”, a condition in which a person is left completely paralyzed but still retains full mental capacity. The only part of his body in which he can seemingly communicate is through one eye via blinking.
Director Julian Schnabel, who previously directed another strong outing in 2000’s BEFORE NIGHT FALLS with Javier Barden, chooses to film a good portion of the movie in first-person perspective while Almaric’s Bauby narrates his thoughts which are, at first, what he thinks are his own actual words he is speaking to people.
Despite the exhausting method of trying to communicate, he has a woman hired for dictation and he drafts a novel explaining how it feels to be trapped inside with no real escape…and this is only after his unable to do his original for a novel: THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISCO told from a female perspective).
There was something so utterly entrancing about this movie and a lot of that credit has to go to Schnabel, whose direction is quite remarkable and he should have easily won the Oscar for it…even over P.T. Anderson from that year (you will be seeing that film shortly).
#8-THE SQUID & THE WHALE (2005- Noah Baumbach)
In 2019, writer/director Noah Baumbach released MARRIAGE STORY, a film that was inspired by his own recent divorce. Despite it being a good film, I almost felt like some of it was a more polished and rather glossy rehash of an earlier film of his: THE SQUID AND THE WHALE.
The major difference between these two movies is that SQUID & THE WHALE has such a raw and edgier quality buoyed up by the fact that the setting (both in Park Slope and Flatbush, Brooklyn) is grittier, the characters are rougher around the edges, and we get more of a viewpoint from the children than we ever did with the son in MARRIAGE STORY….and that indie edge is strongly apparent due to the fact that Baumbach chose to film it in Super 16mm with a handheld camera.
The movie is also less than an hour and a half long; Baumbach knows what needs to be told and doesn’t put in any kind of filler.
So here are the characters: dad Bernard (Jeff Daniels), mom Joan (Laura Linney), elder son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and younger son Frank (Owen Kline). Bernard is a novelist who has been struggling for quite some time and has a rather strong arrogance streak. Joan has found more success as a writer and has also frequently been stepping out on Bernard which leads to them telling their sons that they will be separating.
A lot of the movie then delves into how this rather volatile divorce affects young Walt and Frank and how Bernard and Joan are not exactly the best at helping either one of their sons since they barely can even manage their own lives. There is also a very key factor in how memory can fault you as you might suspect that one parent is the hero when in fact they may have been more of a villain.
Despite Daniels and Linney as the parents, you do feel more of an attachment to how everything is coming off on Eisenberg and Kline. All four of them are truly wonderful in this film and it is a shame to think this movie was only nominated for its Screenplay at the Oscars and that it lost to CRASH…the fact that CRASH even won is another discussion to have but one that would end with me wanting to throw something across the room.
#7-CHILDREN OF MEN (2006- Alfonso Cuaron)
In the last decade, Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron was a part of a trio of Latino directors who dominated the Best Director category at the Oscars. In 2014 and 2019, Cuaron himself won Director for GRAVITY and ROMA respectfully. (For reference, the other two were Alejandro Innauritu who won back to back Oscars in 2015-2016 for BIRDMAN and THE REVENANT while Guillermo del Toro won in 2018 for THE SHAPE OF WATER).
As great as this domination was to see, none of them really won for their best work. In the case of Cuaron, his best work was in the 00s with Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN and also for my #7 selection: CHILDREN OF MEN.
Set in a year we are now getting a lot closer to, 2027, the story revolves around a rather dystopian society in which society has been plagued by two decades of infertility…and it is leading to a severe collapse. A lot of the main focus is on the Asylum seekers who are looking for sanctuary in the United Kingdom, where they are subjected to detention and refoulement by the government.
Looking back at 2006, which was my favorite year for film in that decade, I feel like most of the films that have retained a sense of importance and respect amongst cinephiles were mainly ignored by the awards circuit…which isn’t an unusual practice sadly.
Even at that time, CHILDREN OF MEN seemed like one of those highly praised movies that despite the immense pedigree, never got the respect of the awards voting bodies in any major categories.
Time does things to movies and there is a reason why CHILDREN OF MEN is now discussed as one of that decade’s best even though it received less attention than some rather questionable films that year such as BABEL or DREAMGIRLS.
#6-LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003- Sofia Coppola)
Back in 1990, there was a rather massive push to attack Francis Ford Coppola for casting his daughter Sofia in a pivotal supporting role in THE GODFATHER PART III playing Mary Corelone, the daughter of Michael and Kay Corelone. Her performance felt lifeless and wooden and it led many to pass off the decision as nothing short of nepotism when it really seemed like a hasty choice due to the fact that actresses like Julia Roberts, Winona Ryder, and even Madonna had either passed on the role or needed to drop out due to other conflicts.
The performance led to Sofia Coppola winning two Razzies for Worst Supporting Actress and Worst New Star of the year…and a lot of negative press. Despite all of this, the young Coppola would upstart her own career as a writer/director and would have a promising debut in 1999 with THE VIRGIN SUICIDES.
However, just a few years after, Sofia Coppola would become an Oscar winner (for Original Screenplay) and also become the first American woman to be nominated for Best Director for her crown jewel to date: LOST IN TRANSLATION.
Set in Tokyo, a washed-up actor by the name of Bob Harris (played by the brilliant Bill Murray) is visiting the city in order to shoot commercial bits for a Japanese whiskey brand. While there, he encounters a much younger woman named Charlotte (played by Scarlett Johannsen in her breakout role) who is in Tokyo with her husband, a paparazzi. Since her husband is off and about a lot, she and Bob end up taking on a rather close and intimate friendship as the two of them feeling completely lost in their lives find themselves having more in common emotionally than expected as they both explore Tokyo.
Coppola shot this movie in 27 days. It is the kind of example that shows how Indie filmmaking can still lead to rather glorious and impactful results…so much so that the film was a relatively huge box office success on top of receiving immense critical praise.
For many years, people have (rightly) expressed rather questionable concerns over Woody Allen’s frequent penchant of casting either himself or other older male actors opposite younger and far more attractive women. It rings false and lately even more uncomfortable due to Allen’s rather sad dip in quality…but that age difference doesn’t feel the least bit weird under Coppola’s guidance. Both Murray and Johannsen are simply lovely in their roles…and in the case of Murray, he should’ve won the Oscar for his very subtle and rather delicate performance which felt like a rather big departure for him.
#5-THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007- Paul Thomas Anderson)
Paul Thomas Anderson may be the greatest filmmaker working today. I actually once compared him to Stanley Kubrick by way of Robert Altman in that his quality output has been consistently impressive like Kubrick plus he does really well with large ensemble films like Altman.
While I do have a strong passion for some of his other films, I can’t deny that THERE WILL BE BLOOD is simply epic and a lot of that has to be traced back to the stunning performance of Daniel Day-Lewis.
THERE WILL BE BLOOD was loosely based on the 1927 Upton Sinclair novel OIL!, which had been written in response to the then-recent Teapot Dome Scandal that had plagued the brief and disgraceful Warren G. Harding administration.
Anderson moves the action to the turn of the 20th century and centers on Daniel Planview (Day-Lewis), a very ruthless silver miner-turned-oil baron who is on a quest for immense wealth who comes across twin brothers Eli and Paul Sunday (both played by Paul Dano). Paul wants to seel Daniel a piece of land on their family farm that contains oil while his brother Eli, an Evangelical preacher, is dead set against this which sets off a rivalry of sorts.
This movie is epic in a way that makes it feel like it could be viewed as a more modern example of those big sprawling epics of Hollywood’s supposed “Golden Age”. It is long in run time (just shy of 3 hours) and its aesthetics are big and sprawling…certainly Anderson’s biggest film to that date.
I think it is another film that has grown on me over time. Even now I almost feel like I should give it another viewing to see how I feel about it because I certainly admire it immensely for how well it is made and for the acting duo of Day-Lewis and Dano and you can’t deny the brilliance of P.T. Anderson!
#4-MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001- David Lynch)
“This show is going to be long…but not as long as it took to explain MULHOLLAND DRIVE”- Whoopi Goldberg while hosting the 2002 Oscars in which director David Lynch was MULHOLLAND DRIVE’s sole nominee.
In 2001, MULHOLLAND DRIVE was one of the two critical darlings of the year. It did well at the Cannes Film Festival and also on the American Critic Award circle prior to the Oscars…however the awards attention fell short once they got to the more mainstream prizes.
Anyone who knows David Lynch knows his films aren’t exactly…how should I put this…easily accessible. Even a movie like BLUE VELVET, which is pretty straightforward in its approach compared to most of his films, still deals with brutal sexual violence that would make anyone feel uncomfortable.
MULLHOLAND DRIVE felt like the movie that David Lynch was building up to in his career. You have his usual tropes: a woman in trouble and shrouded in mystery, bizarre supporting characters, and a storyline in which you aren’t even sure if you are either watching something happening in reality or if it is someone’s fantasy.
The movie was originally intended to be the pilot for a TV series that Lynch had pitched to ABC in 1999, however the pilot he made simply didn’t come off in a way that appealed to the network. It shouldn’t have been a surprise; ABC basically botched TWIN PEAKS when they aired it and by this point, they were owned by Disney. It almost makes you wish Lynch would’ve gone to premium cable like he did with his TWIN PEAKS revival.
As it stands, this pass by ABC led to Lynch filming additional scenes to flesh out the content and also to spice up the material (such as sex scenes, nudity, and profanity)…and the results are a film that can take a lot out of you while viewing it.
How does one even begin to describe the synopsis of this movie?
I am going to cop out and do a synopsis copied from Wikipedia: “It tells the story of an aspiring actress named Betty Elms (Watts), newly arrived in Los Angeles, who meets and befriends an amnesiac woman (Harring) recovering from a car accident. The story follows several other vignettes and characters, including a Hollywood film director (Theroux)”.
I don’t think this is necessarily the right place to go into a deep analysis for the movie as I am discussing 9 other films and I couldn’t even begin to explain or describe how things unfold. Also, I think a lot of what works about the film needs to be experienced by watching it without having too many expectations about the story.
That year at the Oscars were a travesty in which the films nominated for Best Picture were all unworthy of the honor. I do think MULHOLLAND DRIVE deserved to win Best Picture, Director, and Actress for Naomi Watts whose breakout performance in this was simply fantastic. Her snub here was truly shameful.
#3-IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000- Wong Kar wai)
When it comes to a history of truly stunning character studies in cinema, I think the output of content that has been given to us by Asian cinema is nothing short of astounding. Japanese directors like Yosujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa were so influential in their styles that many directors to this day still owe a debt of gratitude to them. You also have Korean directors like Kim Ki-young, Park Chan-wook, Lee Chang-dong, and Bong Jong-ho; you have other Japanese directors like Hiroshi Teshigahara and Hirokazu Koreeda; and not to mention ones who truly found success directing in the English language like Ang Lee.
Then we have Wong Kar-wai, a director from Hong Kong who came to prominence in the 90s with such films as DAYS OF BEING WILD, CHUNGKING EXPRESS, and HAPPY TOGETHER. Each film got better and better and then in 2000, right as the decade and new millennium began, he gave us his crown jewel: IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE.
The film is set in 1962 Hong Kong, which was then still a British colony. Chow Mo-wan (played by Tony Leung) is a journalist who rents an apartment in a building on the same day as another resident: Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung). Both of them are married to other people but soon they discover that their spouses are having an affair which leads them to sort of fall into each other’s lap…but despite the betrayal of their spouses, they can’t quite get the same grasp on an intimate relationship.
IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE is one of those movies where when you hear the description, it sounds so simple and maybe even something that might have been done in various ways already over the years. However, this movie works extremely well thanks to the very delicate script, very sleek direction, lovely performances from our two leads, and a setting that feels and looks like an intimate dream.
The fact that a film about adultery and a forbidden romance comes across as a delicate and even heartbreaking film as opposed to a melodrama is nothing short of praiseworthy. Wong Kar-wai hit this out of the park and with each viewing of this film, I find myself more engrossed than ever before.
#2-ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004- Michel Gondry)
In light of the recent Charlie Kaufman outing I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS, which was the 3rd film he has directed in addition to writing the script, I feel as though Kaufman may have worked better solely as a writer of his films. I did love his directorial debut, which was SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK while also finding his second effort ANOMALISA to be interesting….however I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS just didn’t work. I almost want to see his scripts back under the helm of another director. After his brilliant scripts for BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ADAPATATION (which were directed by Spike Jonze), he then teamed up with Michel Gondry on ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND…which I would just BARELY call Kaufman’s masterpeice.
I revisited this film during quarantine for the first time in over a decade and I was amazed at not only how well it held up but how much better it seemed to me after all these years. Originally I might have ranked it around 5-6 for the decade but the recent viewing propelled it up.
In it, Jim Carrey (in yet another role that showed what a fantastic and underrated actor he is) plays Joel, who skips work one day to make a random trip deeper out into Long Island in the dead of winter. On the LIRR back from Montauk, he encounters a rather kooky girl with blue hair named Clementine (Kate Winslet, in the role that should’ve won her the Oscar instead of THE READER). They seem to have a very weird but endearing energy but then the film starts to slip into a more darker whimsical territory when we see Joel & Clementine begin to date but their romance crashes and burns.
In order to rid herself of the pain, Clementine chooses to participate in a new program with a company called Lacuna, who specialize in a process that allows you to have your memories erased of a particular person. Joel discovers this when he encounters Clementine at the BARNES & NOBLE she works following their breakup…and this leads him to wanting to do the same.
A lot of the movie that delves into flashbacks within Joel’s subsconscious while he is put under by the group from Lacuna, a crazy group of people that includes Mary (Kirsten Dunst), Stan (Mark Ruffalo), and Patrick (Elijah Wood) whom the latter actually tries to take the whole situation to his advantage in a rather shady way. They are all led by the founder of the company, Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) who is also in a rather questionable relationship with Mary.
ETERNAL SUNSHINE is a movie that is basically close to perfection. It feels as weird and quirky as any indie movie might but there is also such a relatable emotional core to the film that is extremely bittersweet. I feel like some movies flounder at the whole “fanciful timeline jumping” concept but I would say that this particular film might be the best example of the art form.
It is a film that is as beautiful as it is kooky as it is brilliant.
#1-PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006- Guillermo del Toro)
One of the oldest sayings around, and one that borders on the side of cliché, is “you can’t judge a book by its cover”. I do think this kind of philosophy of sorts is especially apparent with movies. I am not really someone who likes fantasy, science fiction, action adventure, or western movies that much. There are always exceptions to the rule and some of those ended up being films I have loved passionately.
I think, perhaps, the biggest example of this occurred for me in 2006 when I went into Guillermo del Toro’s PAN’S LABYRINTH with some hesitation. I knew it was getting great reviews and I knew it was going to have an edge considering it looked like a creepy children’s movie that just so happened to warrant an R rating by the MPAA.
By the time the movie was over, I was sitting in the theatre sobbing.
This movie was depressing, brutal, fascinating, whimsical, and beautiful all at once. Choosing a movie like PAN’S LAYBRINTH as my #1 movie of that particular decade is a choice that isn’t exactly unusual but it isn’t exactly a typical choice either. It does often show up on “Best Of” lists of films that have come out since 2000 and it managed gain quite a following even here in the United States despite being in Spanish.
It is a film that I have actually only seen 3 times and I am sure I will watch it again but it isn’t a film I frequently revisit…and I almost feel slightly weird choosing it to be my #1 film when I actually have a stronger connection to a couple of the films below…but as it stands, PAN’S LAYBRINTH blew me away and made me question how I respond and look at movies. It simply kicked my ass and never let up and I marveled at every moment that Guillermo del Toro devised for this piece.
And what exactly IS this movie about?
The story takes place in Spain during the summer of 1944, five years after the Spanish Civil War, during the early Francoist period. The narrative intertwines this real world with a mythical world centered on an overgrown, abandoned labyrinth and a mysterious faun creature, with whom the main character, Ofelia, interacts. Ofelia’s stepfather, the Falangist Captain Vidal, hunts the Spanish Maquis who fight against the Francoist regime in the region, while Ofelia’s pregnant mother Carmen grows increasingly ill. Ofelia meets several strange and magical creatures who become central to her story, leading her through the trials of the old labyrinth garden.
This is a movie that manages to leave you feeling both emotionally warped in the best possible way. You are, at once, both devastated and empowered…and I can’t think of many movies that made me feel such a way and also proceeded to make me eat my hat in the process.
I will be short and sweet: you can find gold in most places if you look hard enough….I wish that were true to life and in my quest to make more money but I digress…
The 2000s may have seemed a desolate wasteland for film at first glance but looking back on it, there was quite the explosion of high quality film and TV….you just had to look beyond the popular lexicon to find most of the best successes.
David Fincher has become one of those directors that has many film fanatics salivating upon every release of his films…and considering he has yet to win an Oscar (he most infamously lost his nod for THE SOCIAL NETWORK to that of Tom Hooper for THE KING’S SPEECH), he has taken up the banner of “most overdue” for an Oscar since Martin Scorsese finally won an Oscar back in 2007.
Fincher, much like another beloved director Quentin Tarantino, has never been a director that I’ve loved. It goes without saying that I certainly have liked or even loved some of his films: SEVEN, ZODIAC, and THE SOCIAL NETWORK are easily his best works and I would say that FIGHT CLUB (which I don’t love nearly as much as most do), PANIC ROOM, and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATOO are solid efforts.
He is a director that is, without a doubt, a marvel when it comes to the technical aspects. He has also been notorious for working actors to the bone in a similar vein of someone like Stanley Kubrick, my favorite American director. However, I can’t say that any of his films (aside from SOCIAL NETWORK and ZODIAC which were truly fantastic) have driven me to have any kind of passion. There is a certain lack of an emotional core in his work…and that isn’t to say that all the best films have characters or situations you necessarily care about. Look at a movie such as Martin Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS, in which we spend a lot of time around rather vile mobsters and yet we are consistently intrigued by them.
This brings me to MANK, a movie that was a passion project for David Fincher that manages to be two completely different things: perhaps Fincher’s most detailed and technically marvelous work AND one of the more cold and distant efforts of his career.
MANK is based on writer Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) who is most remembered today as being the co-writer of the legendary 1941 film CITIZEN KANE…and the script was written by Fincher’s late father Jack who passed away in 2003. It had been Fincher’s goal to producer his father’s script after he made THE GAME in 1997…but at the time, studios still didn’t have much faith in Fincher nor did they want to produce a film such as this in the manner he wanted to do so: black & white.
Fast forward to 2020: Fincher releases MANK to Netflix after having shot it in 8K resolution and then degraded the film quality to make it match the films that came out during the time in which CITIZEN KANE was filmed.
I almost think that MANK is to CITIZEN KANE just as LA LA LAND was to various movie musicals. Fincher, and his father’s script, try so hard to follow the same format of CITIZEN KANE’s structure and visual aesthetic that after a while, I felt like I kept thinking “Oh, there’s THAT shot”, “Oh, she is delivering that line similarly to Agnes Moorehead”…that kind of thing.
It might be fun to see the old-fashioned fade to black screen cuts of yesteryear but in the end, I am not sure the fact that the film looks rather splendid is enough for me to find much of a reason to care about the story of the drunken man who helped fight to get CITIZEN KANE made.
Acting wise, the ensemble wasn’t bad but I certainly wasn’t blown away by anybody.
It goes without saying that Gary Oldman is one of our finest actors and he certainly does a good job here. I feel like there have been years where he could’ve contended strongly for an Oscar nomination but it is too early to tell in my opinion if he should slip in this year. I know this might be a major nitpick but despite his fantastic skills as an actor, he was far too old to play Mank…especially as there are scenes where we are supposed to believe he is 30 years old. I get that Mank was a drunk but I think it was moments like that made me wonder if maybe they should’ve gone a different route with casting. Still, it was Gary Oldman and he does well with his drunken material, especially in the film’s final third when he has a drunken rant involving writer-turned-politician Upton Sinclair.
One other name getting a lot of attention from this film is Amanda Seyfried, from MEAN GIRLS, MAMMA MIA, and LES MISERABLES; she plays real life actress Marion Davies, who was the partner of William Randolph Hearst, the man in which CITIZEN KANE was inspired by.
Seyfried is, as of this writing, being considered the early frontrunner to win Best Supporting Actress. This movie does show that Seyfried is a skilled actress….and she was actually quite good doing dramatic work in the 2017 revival of David Lynch & Mark Frost’s TWIN PEAKS…and I would say that she does a good job with what she is given. The only thing is I am not sure I whether or not I agree this is a performance that warrants an Oscar. I could see her, perhaps, being nomination worthy but nothing about her performance made me think “Oscar!”. Then again, if Laura Dern can win an Oscar for her performance in MARRIAGE STORY then anything is possible.
The one person I actually left the movie thinking about the most was Lily Collins, who plays Mank’s secretary Rita. Her presence is poised and she gives off a no-nonsense vibe which made me look forward to any time she appeared…and for some reason, I really bought into her as being a person of this time more than anyone else. I am still not sure if I would call her “Oscar nomination worthy” yet but I might be inclined to call her the MVP of the cast beyond the solid work that Oldman was able to achieve with the text/direction he was given.
So, in terms of awards, would I nominate MANK for any Oscars?
I think the technical accomplishments deserve to be acknowledged:
Cinematography, Production Design, perhaps Costumes and Sound and maybe Score.
I also feel like Oldman, Collins, and Seyfried have the potential to be worthy nominees but I am not sold on this quite yet.
There has been a lot of buzz this year in the film buff universe regarding Fincher’s overdue status at the Oscars and that this film could be the one to finally net him the win.
I am very torn on this. On one hand, yes, Fincher is at his most glossy and stylized here and it was quite the marvel to behold but he is also trying hard to emulate the spirit of the Orson Welles aesthetic while also harboring a script that could be hard to follow and one that had me left wondering what was so pressing about this story getting told aside from the fact that revolved around two things: the making of what is often considered the greatest American film of all time AND a film director wanting to make his late father’s script.
To paraphrase the words of Orson Welles: “And that, my dear readers, is Hollywood”.
RATING (out of 5 stars)
(The technical aspects and solid ensemble helped boost the rating…otherwise I may have given this a lesser one)