Screening Room: ‘Donbass’

My review of the new Ukraine-set black comedy Donbass, which opens next week, is at The Playlist:

Winner of the 2018 Un Certain Regard award for Best Director at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival but only getting released in the United States now, “Donbass” makes for eerie viewing coming just weeks after the Russo-Ukrainian war entered a new phase following the Russian invasion of late February 2022. Set at some unspecified time after Russian-backed separatists carved off the Donbass region of southeast Ukraine in early 2014, the film provides a glimpse of what life is like in (as the on-screen titles term it) “Occupied Territory in Eastern Ukraine.” From what we see here, day-to-day life appears to be some combination of Cossack ”Mad Max” cosplay, throwback Soviet-era corruption, smashmouth nationalism, and gangster’s paradise…

Here is the trailer:

Screening Room: What’s Wrong with the Oscars?

I wrote a piece in Eyes Wide Open about how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is ensuring that it will continue to lose relevance, with a suggestion for how they can avoid the annual hand-wringing.

You can read the article here:

There has been an increasing divergence between what Academy voters consider the best movies of the year and what people are actually seeing. It is easy to view this as simply Hollywood snobbery. In fact, an entire subgenre of criticism, often but not always from right-wing sources, can reliably be counted on to make that argument every year when the Oscars come around. It was not always this way…

Awards Central: Online Film Critics’ Best Films of 2021

The Online Film Critics Society, a group I have been a member of for some years now, has just announced their 25th annual film awards. You can see the full list here (The Power of the Dog was the big winner, and deservedly so, with West Side Story and Licorice Pizza racking up a lot of nominations but sadly no wins).

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Best Picture: The Power of the Dog
  • Best Director: Jane Campion – The Power of the Dog
  • Best Actor: Benedict Cumberbatch – The Power of the Dog
  • Best Actress: Olivia Colman – The Lost Daughter
  • Best Supporting Actor: Kodi Smit-McPheeThe Power of the Dog
  • Best Supporting Actress: Kirsten Dunst – The Power of the Dog
  • Best Screenplay: Pig
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: The Power of the Dog
  • Best Animated Feature: The Mitchells vs. the Machines
  • Best Film Not in the English Language: Drive My Car
  • Best Documentary: Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Screening Room: ‘The Power of the Dog’

The newest film from Jane Campion is a somewhat tortured and brooding but still surprising drama set on the high plains where Benedict Cumberbatch makes a surprisingly believable rancher.

The Power of the Dog is playing on the festival circuit right now in what looks like a pretty certain play for the Oscars before being released on Netflix in December. My review is at Slant:

Nobody is where they should be in The Power of the Dog, and everybody seems to be searching for something, somebody, or somewhere else. Set in 1925 Montana, Jane Campion’s adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 book tracks the obsessions, miseries, and passions of a group of people who inhabit a cavernous house in the middle of a vast ranchland and make each other miserable until blood is finally shed. The film looks at times like a stiff-jawed period piece, but it ripples underneath with a prickly modern sensibility…

The trailer is here:

Screening Room: ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’

One of the most gripping films to premiere at Sundance so far this year is Judas and the Black Messiah, which details the extreme lengths the FBI and Chicago police went to in order to take down Black Panther leader Fred Hampton.

Judas will be in limited theatrical release and on HBO Max starting February 12. My review is at Slant:

Fierce but mournful, Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah serves as testament to a brief and revolutionary flare that was snuffed out before it could take hold. Unfolding during the late 1960s, when the Black Panther Party’s Chicago chapter was besieged by law enforcement, the film is filled with the high drama one expects from tales of heroes cut down before their prime. But because the drama is split between the story of that hero and that of his betrayer, King’s film complicates the expected narrative of martyrdom…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Nomadland’ Best Picture

After much deliberation, the Online Film Critics Society released our list of the best movies of 2020. Nomadland quite deservedly took the most awards with six wins, including best picture. Here are the rest of what we thought were the most worthwhile cinematic endeavors of that very strange year just passed:

BEST PICTURE
· Da 5 Bloods
· First Cow
· I’m Thinking of Ending Things
· Minari
· Never Rarely Sometimes Always
· Nomadland — WINNER
· Promising Young Woman
· Soul
· Sound of Metal
· The Trial of the Chicago 7

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
· Onward
· Over the Moon
· Soul — WINNER
· The Wolf House
· Wolfwalkers

BEST DIRECTOR
· Emerald Fennell — Promising Young Woman
· Eliza Hittman — Never Rarely Sometimes Always
· Spike Lee — Da 5 Bloods
· Kelly Reichardt — First Cow
· Chloé Zhao – Nomadland WINNER

BEST ACTOR
· Riz Ahmed — Sound of Metal
· Chadwick Boseman — Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
· Anthony Hopkins — The Father
· Delroy Lindo — Da 5 Bloods WINNER
· Steven Yeun — Minari

BEST ACTRESS
· Jessie Buckley — I’m Thinking of Ending Things
· Viola Davis — Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
· Sidney Flanigan — Never Rarely Sometimes Always
· Frances McDormand – Nomadland WINNER
· Carey Mulligan — Promising Young Woman

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
· Sacha Baron Cohen — The Trial of the Chicago 7
· Chadwick Boseman — Da 5 Bloods
· Bill Murray — On the Rocks
· Leslie Odom Jr. — One Night in Miami WINNER
· Paul Raci — Sound of Metal

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
· Maria Bakalova — Borat Subsequent Moviefilm WINNER
· Olivia Colman — The Father
· Talia Ryder — Never Rarely Sometimes Always
· Amanda Seyfried — Mank
· Youn Yuh-jung — Minari

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
· Da 5 Bloods
· Minari
· Never Rarely Sometimes Always
· Promising Young Woman, Emerald Fennell WINNER
· The Trial of the Chicago 7

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
· First Cow
· I’m Thinking of Ending Things
· Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
· Nomadland, Chloe Zhao WINNER
· One Night in Miami

BEST EDITING
· Da 5 Bloods
· Mank
· Nomadland, Chloe Zhao WINNER
· Tenet
· The Trial of the Chicago 7

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
· Da 5 Bloods
· First Cow
· Mank
· Nomadland, Joshua James Richards WINNER
· Tenet

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
· Da 5 Bloods
· Mank
· Minari
· Soul, Trent Reznor Atticus Ross WINNER
· Tenet

BEST DEBUT FEATURE
· Radha Blank — The Forty-Year-Old Version
· Emerald Fennell — Promising Young Woman WINNER
· Regina King — One Night in Miami
· Darius Marder — Sound of Metal
· Andrew Patterson –The Vast of Night

BEST FILM NOT IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
· Another Round
· Bacurau
· Collective
· La Llorona
· Minari (United States) WINNER

BEST DOCUMENTARY
· Boys State
· Collective
· Dick Johnson Is Dead WINNER
· The Painter and the Thief
· Time

Screening Room: The Movies of 2020

My essay on the cinematic year that was, “2020 Didn’t Kill Cinema But it Didn’t Help”, was published at Eyes Wide Open:

This year will be remembered for many things. Sweat pants. Zoom humor. The post-Election Day realization that a solid minority of Americans were in a cult. Warner Bros. selling out its filmmakers (sorry, “content creators”) for some short-term streaming buzz. What people may not remember — and for good reason — is that the top box office performer of 2020 was released just seventeen days into the new year. And it was Bad Boys for Life

Screening Room: ‘The Father’

Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his play The Father is one of the year’s best-acted movies, thanks to Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins.

The Father is opening soon wherever movies play these days. Go find it. My review is at Slant:

A quietly terrifying drama about dementia, The Father starts off inauspiciously as a simple chamber piece in which a daughter spars in semi-comic exasperation with her retired father over his inability to live on his own anymore. Set in a tony London flat, the drama initially appears to take place inside the kind of tastefully cinematic milieu where nothing earth-shattering ever seems to happen. But before long, Zeller upends expectations by revealing the true depths of the father’s problems through dramatic perspective shifts that undermine any sense of cozy remove…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Midnight Sky’

George Clooney’s adaptation of the Lily Brooks-Dalton novel Good Morning, Midnight is a beautiful but bleak look at the end of the world.

The Midnight Sky lands on Netflix December 23. My review is at The Playlist:

Knowing that what we imagine is more terrifying than what we see, “The Midnight Sky” plays the end of the world pretty close to the vest, with nary a devastated cityscape to be seen. It is a canny move for a movie that pivots around an apocalyptic disaster, and one that pays off at times by refocusing the story from the spectacle of loss to its rending emotional reality. But while less-is-more tends to be a smart play when trying for awards season credibility, there are times when George Clooney’s latest directorial effort trips up on its own earnestness…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’

Getting a limited theatrical opening (whatever that means in pandemic times) before coming to Netflix in October, Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 dramatizes the story of the biggest, oddest political show trial of modern American history. Also: Sacha Baron Cohen plays Abbie Hoffman.

My review is at Slant:

Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 pulses with relevancy in a time when high-stakes debates over authoritarianism, protests, and the necessity of radicalism are convulsing America. Sorkin uses an ensemble approach to tell the story of the anti-war activists charged with conspiracy and incitement to riot after the street fighting that ripped through Chicago in August 1968 during the Democratic National Convention. While necessary, given the number of key characters involved, the approach also allows Sorkin to establish different factions among the defendants who are debating the merits of their wildly varying methods to the same cause even as they’re fighting to stay out of federal prison…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: Toronto International Film Festival

Nomadland (Searchlight Pictures)

Pandemic or no, awards season must go on. So it was that this year’s edition of the Toronto International Film Festival launched another clutch of buzzy movies, only this time via streaming and some outdoor screenings (much like how the New York Film Festival is incorporating drive-ins to their pandemic screening efforts). Even though nobody is really going to movie theaters right now, if we were, there would be some really impressive flicks to check out, come December. Here’s a few that I was able to see.

Nomadland — Frances McDormand stars in Chloe Zhao’s story about a woman drifting through a rootless America of van-dwellers and odd-jobbers. Already getting hyped for best director/picture/actress. Review at Slant.

The Way I See It — Feel-good documentary about former White House photographer Pete Souza and his attempts to satirize Donald Trump’s presidency simply by posting old pics of Barack Obama to remind people what a true president acts like. Review at Slant.

MLK/FBI — Gripping and potentially controversial documentary about the FBI’s campaign against Martin Luther King, Jr. which actually delves into some of the more disturbing accusations. Lot of interest in this, deservedly so, though may not hit theaters until January 2021. Review at Slant.

76 Days — Heart-wrenching documentary that covers the 76-day COVID lockdown in Wuhan through up-close coverage inside a hospital being pushed to the edge. May get overlooked but worth finding. Review at The Playlist.

One Night in Miami — Regina King’s imperfect but still highly impressive story of four men (Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke) hanging out and hashing over the politics and crises of the day in 1964 could be a late favorite in the awards race.

City Hall — The latest Frederick Wiseman is another lengthy (4 1/2 hours) documentary about an American institution. This time he showcases the ins and outs of Boston’s municipal government, tracking all the bickering, horse-trading, complaining, and down-right idealism that goes into the urban mix. Demands your attention but rewards it.

Poster of the Day: New York Film Festival

Courtesy of the inimitable John Waters, here is the poster for the upcoming New York Film Festival:

The fest starts on September 17. Here’s the full schedule.

Of course, with virtual screenings and some drive-in shows, it is not precisely a “festival.” But hey, better than adding another series to your Hulu queue that you will never, ever watch.

Screening Room: Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

stlouissuperman1
‘St. Louis Superman’

The 2020 edition of the Oscar-Nominated shorts program is hitting theaters next week.

My review of the five-part documentary program, nearly all of which are fantastic if sometimes hard to watch, was published at PopMatters:

When assessing a short-film anthology, sometimes a theme presents itself and other times you have to go looking for one. The movies in The 2020 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Documentary come from places far and wide, presenting an array of tones and personalities. But the thread that seems to link all of them together is worry that the future will not be an improvement on the problematic present…

Screening Room: The Oscars and ‘Joker’

Really? (Warner Bros.)

In response to yesterday’s fairly uninspiring Oscar nominations, here is a piece I wrote for Eyes Wide Open about why every single other best picture nominee deserves to win more than Joker:

Yes, that includes JoJo Rabbit. Even the cringey and self-congratulatory Nazi slapstick of Taika Waititi’s quasi-Wes Anderson anachronism-riddled World War II satire — which might have worked nicely if compressed into a 5-minute short — ultimately had something to offer, even if it was simply the not-quite-groundbreaking message that Nazis are bad. Not so Joker

 

Screening Room: ‘Les Miserables’

lesmiserables1
(Amazon Studios)

French director Ladj Ly’s scorching new movie, Les Misérables, is set in the same poverty-stricken outer neighborhood of Paris as Victor Hugo’s novel and involves many of the same themes of systemic oppression, but the story is Ly’s own.

Les Misérables is opening this week and will be available later on Amazon Prime. My review is at Slant Magazine:

The giddy joy and strong sense of unity that pulsates throughout the opening montage of Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables is as stirring as it is fleeting. A black kid dashes with his friends onto the Paris Metro, flying over turnstiles like a superhero as they rush to a crowded bar to watch France compete in the World Cup. They roar along as their team wins and pours out into the streets to join the crowds in front of the Arc de Triomphe. One of the boys wears a tricolor flag like a cape, joining what looks like a unifying wave of national pride. Several minutes later, Ly makes it clear that this sense of comity is little more than a bad joke…

Here’s the trailer: