With the year finally slowing down a bit, I managed to watch twenty-nine movies in December. That might be a personal record. It’s awards season too, a time when I would normally be heading out to theaters to watch some of the best movies of the year, but of course most of them have been going direct to streaming in 2020. I sorely miss theaters, but I have to admit it was really satisfying to be able to watch these from the comfort of home.
One of the major highlights was “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” starring the magnificent Viola Davis and the sadly departed Chadwick Boseman. It smuggles a searing, tragic look at the experience of early 20th century black musicians inside a beautiful, late career Spielberg-style photographic sheen. I’ll never tire of watching Davis—she’s among the most compelling performers working today—but it was painful to watch Boseman’s last performance before his premature passing. This was a worthy final performance.
“Ma Rainey’s” shares something with three other newly released, would-be Oscar hopefuls: “Sound of Metal,” a bare-knuckled drama about a musician who loses his hearing; “Soul,” Pixar’s newest fantasia about a musician who contends with fulfilling his lifelong career ambitions; and “Mank,” which recounts the career of the putative writer of “Citizen Kane.” None of these are perfect, but in addition to representing some of the most exciting filmmaking I’ve seen all year, they, like “Ma Rainey’s,” examine the cost of making a living in the arts. I guess that’s what appeals to the Academy at this time of year.
Finally, I also finished watching Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe”, a five-part series of short films about West Indian life in London in the 1970s and 1980s (I watched the first one, “Mangrove” back in November). I found all of them extremely frustrating, though not because they’re bad. There are some real flashes of profundity in this series, but more often than not the suffocating constraints of their television origins are visible in the seams. There’s a debate about whether “Small Axe” is television or cinema but whatever you call it, to me it’s obvious they were budgeted and scheduled like television. Meaning: the lack of time, attention and care shows. McQueen’s talent as a storyteller is immense though, and in some instances he manages to transcend his constraints. But more often than not, the threadbare scripting and overly obvious dialogue suggest a creative process under duress. All five of these installments would have been much more successful as full-length, fully fledged feature films. It’s a shame that they didn’t get that opportunity.
Here’s the full list.
“Small Axe: Lovers Rock” (2020) ★★★★Not everything quite lines up in this mood-first callback to West Indian nightlife in London ca. 1980, but it’s nevertheless a rapturous, irresistible romantic fairy tale on the order of “Before Sunrise.”
“The Muppet Christmas Carol” (1992) ★ When Gonzo is the straight man, things are not particularly Muppet-y, and not particularly fun.
“Back to the Future” (1985) ★★★★ Rewatched. A marvel of set-it-up and pay-it-off Hollywood storytelling.
“Other Music” (2019) ★★★ A sweet requiem for the lost hipster paradise of the world’s coolest record store.
“To Catch a Thief” (1955) ★★★★ Rewatched. Staggeringly gorgeous. One of the rare times when the form itself is so refined it matters more than the content.
“Soul” (2020) ★★★★ A hodgepodge of different movies. The least interesting of them is Pixar’s standard “secret, anthropomorphized world of things you usually don’t pay attention to” redemption tale. But when it lets its human characters actually be human, it soars.
“Mulan” (1998) ★★ Not particularly memorable, though not particularly terrible.
“Sound of Metal” (2019) ★★★★ At times this largely humorless drama about hearing loss threatens to be standard humorless indie fare, but it surpasses all of that by expertly putting the audience in its protagonist’s shoes. Also, absolutely killer opening scene.
“Small Axe: Alex Wheatle” (2020) ★★★ Another example of a story that would have been much better served as its own full-length feature than as an installment in an overly ambitious mini-series.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) ★★★★★ Rewatched. I’ll never be able to not cry when I watch this, I guess.