This year, the only one of the eight that really impressed me was The Father. I would be happy to see Minari win, though, and the apparent favorite, Nomadland, wouldn't upset me. I didn't outright hate anything, but I'm definitely rooting against Mank and The Trial of the Chicago 7.
Following tradition, I'll visit them in the order I saw them. There are some mild spoilers below, so you should probably just watch them all before reading!
The Trial of the Chicago 7
I still consider myself a fan of Aaron Sorkin's TV shows (yes, even The Newsroom), but this movie felt slight and was missing his usual zing. I liked Sasha Baron Cohen's performance as Abbie Hoffman (though his accent didn't quite work) but the wisecracks and hijinks of Hoffman and Jerry Rubin felt clownish and self-absorbed, in an "OK, Boomer" kind of way. The curmudgeonly judge felt like a caricature as well. And having the entire case hinge on a quirk of Tom Hayden's dialect felt pretty contrived.
I watched Citizen Kane in college, I think, and I was bemused and underwhelmed, given how monumentally lauded the movie had always been. I rewatched it before seeing Mank and I certainly appreciated it more, though I still think it's a tad overrated. Unfortunately Mank suffered a lot in comparison, and also there wasn't much need to know Citizen Kane to watch Mank, but I probably missed some references. Mank's propensity for cracking lame dad-jokes may have been appropriate since David Fincher's dad wrote the screenplay, but I just found it annoying and jarring. If you want a drunken-writer-in-Hollywood film, watch Barton Fink instead.
Sound of Metal
A film about a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing? I really didn't want to see that. But his heavy metal band is more like an avant-punk noise duo, pained and cathartic, who I could easily imagine having seen many times in small clubs. And I recognized most of the obscure band shirts he wears throughout the movie. And certainly my growing tinnitus and need to crank up the TV volume to make out the dialogue makes me relate to hearing issues. Still, the movie left me a little cold; the story was overly straightforward, and I don't think I agree with the Paul Raci character's point, which seemed to be that it's bad to use technology to improve your situation? I am okay with the Buddhist-ish idea of being happy with what you've got, but I think it's bad to suggest that the best way to avoid suffering is to let go of the possibility of material change.
I should like this more than I did, a slow, quiet, artistic rumination full of ambiguity and multiple interpretation. But I didn't like feeling as confused as I was about what Fern wants in this movie. Is she forced into a nomad life because of economic conditions? Is she running from her grief about her husband's death? Or does she just enjoy the freedom of the nomadic life? Maybe all of the above, I guess, but she's just too much of a blank slate to really connect with her. The approach of making a documentary-ish study of the lifestyles of real people and inserting two fictional characters seems novel, but then I realized that's also pretty close to what the Borat movies are!
Promising Young Woman
Another hybrid of styles that doesn't quite work, a quirky rom-com inserted in the middle of a feminist revenge fantasy. It's certainly watchable, and funny, but the tone is uneven-- Max Greenfield seems to think he's in a sitcom in a scene that should be played as tragic horror. And again, it's a little too ambiguous about what the protagonist wants: was she actually falling in love during that second act, or was it all part of her plan? And going into the ending, does she have a death wish or is she just planning for all contingencies?
It was a relief to be pretty satisfied with this movie, a sad but likeable family drama "dedicated to grandmas everywhere". There are metaphors galore if you want to look for them, but it works just fine on its surface levels. And the grandma is indeed great. I would have liked to see more fleshing out of the mother character and especially the sister, but it's perhaps understandable that the son gets most of the attention given the autobiographical nature.
I was really dreading this movie, expecting it to be maudlin Oscar-bait, but I was impressed by its take on the subject: disorientation and memory loss being not just a source of grief and pain for the family, but a terrifying puzzle-box of dream logic, with shades of Nolan, Kaufman, and Lynch. It's a similar approach to Stephen Granade's Twine game Will Not Let Me Go, but Anthony Hopkins's mesmerizing and devastating performance adds to the viscerality. I ordinarily wouldn't be eager to rewatch something this cathartic, but I am actually looking forward to it coming to a streaming service so I can see it again without paying $19.99...
Judas and the Black Messiah
On the contrary, I was looking forward to seeing this, given the mostly very positive acclaim. I was somewhat familiar with Fred Hampton's story having seen the Vanguard of the Revolution documentary, and I think this maybe subtracted the reason most people liked the film, learning about this shocking history. But to me the ending felt so inevitable that I couldn't really engage with the dead-end story. I appreciated the way Lakeith Stanfield portrayed O'Neal's overcompensating aggression whenever anyone got near to questioning his subterfuge, but Daniel Kaluuya's Hampton performance felt a little too straighforwardly oratorial and un-illuminating. The Jesse Plemons character felt the most fleshed out, as both a sinister manipulator and conflictedly obedient to his corrupt superiors.
Here are my actual top ten favorites of the year:
- The White Tiger
- Let Them All Talk
- Palm Springs
- I'm Thinking of Ending Things
- The Father
- Bill and Ted Face the Music
- One Night in Miami
- Malcolm and Marie
- The Forty-Year-Old Version
- Another Round
See also last year's thoughts.
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