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A mountain of movies has been piling up in time for year-end OSCAR eligibility. (YES the OSCARS will be delayed till April but will GO ON!) I’ve singled out a few of the year’s best not to be missed, and at least one definitely to be missed, even in a snowstorm or pandemic. Most of these are available on demand or have just been released in theaters.
ANOTHER ROUND: YOU MUST SEE THIS. Four high school teachers set out to reclaim their mojos and jumpstart their stagnant midlives and careers by engaging in an experiment. This year’s Oscar submission from Denmark, by writer/director Thomas Vinterberg, “Another Round” stars the glorious Mads Mikkelsen as a history teacher who’s barely there, drifting in and out of his classes and his marriage. He and 3 of his colleagues hit upon a study positing that the maintenance of an alcoholic buzz is what nature intended, and the four decide to find out if that’s true. They come to find that the alcohol disinhibits their joys and their sorrows– with alternately exhilarating and tragic results. The film withholds judgement on individual on alcohol consumption, but makes a case for not giving up on reigniting a fresh start, and discovering all that’s old within us, can be new again. The last scene is a euphoric booze-fueled ballet. Who knew Mads could do a cartwheel, and then some?! Now streaming at Coolidge Corner Theatre and The Brattle.
BLACK BEAR: WOW. I had no idea where this was headed and found myself on the edge of my seat, then drawn deeper into the rough waters of a writer’s psyche. Aubrey Plaza leads the way in a terrific performance as a filmmaker/actress who heads for a country retreat and finds herself getting lost in the woods in a three-way psycho-sexual power struggle with an attractive young couple. (Christopher Abbott & Sarah Gadon) A thrilling, layered screenplay involving these nimble actors in multiple roles, is by turns baffling, terrifying, and gut wrenching. I felt like I was chasing a receding line between reality and imagination, with a behind-the-scenes look at the lengths creative artists will go to in order to excavate “the truth” by way of the fictions they create. Sleekly written and directed by Lawrence Michael Levine. SEE THIS.
MANK: This overachievement of a bio-pic about the troubled screenwriter who fights for credit, will mean little to you if you haven’t seen 24 year-old Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece CITIZEN KANE, about newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane (a thinly disguised William Randolph Hearst played here by Charles Dance). “Mank” refers to Herman J. Mankiewicz, Welles’ hyper-literate, alcoholic co-screenwriter played by Gary Oldman. His every utterance sounds like it’s meant to be enshrined. (Perhaps no accident given director David Fincher’s late father Jack Fincher wrote this screenplay.) Wall to wall wisecracks paper the script shot in black and white with enough deeply-shadowed, steeply-angled framing to satisfy a film noir-ian’s (and a few critics’) deepest desires. Much of the film glows with the silvery glamor of the era. Fincher structures “Mank” like the movie whose backstory it interprets, and counts on our knowing the references and caring about the behind the scenes machinations, along with the personalities of the day: Marion Davies (a splendid Amanda Seyfried whose depiction somewhat restores Davies reputation as a savvy star with the original “head for business and a bod for sin”) and studio titan Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), his production head and “boy wonder” Irving Thalberg, and assorted luminaries including Charlie Chaplin at the piano (miming a mustache) in case we weren’t sure.
But MANK, while intensely well-crafted (including music by Nine Inch Nails Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross), is also unrelentingly arch in tone, and holds us at stylistic arms length. It fails to resonate emotionally, despite Mank’s wrestling with his liberal scruples and the corrupt Hollywood machine (and its attendant carnivorous media) that employed him. I grew up loving movies and their milieu; I love the inside gossip and the backstories, am crazy about these stars and their iconic and more obscure movies from the silents on–and I found MANK exhausting. If you decide to watch, bone up and watch “Citizen Kane” first.
HILLBILLY ELEGY: The film is based on J.D. Vance’s bestselling memoir about his Appalachian background and upbringing which was circumvented by a key figure in his life. That influence and his own native intelligence got J.D. (Gabriel Basso) a ticket out of town, into Yale Law school, and on the road to a successful career as a venture capitalist. Directed by Ron Howard, the movie is visually generic and unfortunately strips away the context and thornier issues raised by this real life story, focusing solely on the broad strokes of the painful domestic drama. However, Amy Adams, once again, is all in as a mother fighting addiction, and Glenn Close is both off-putting and potent as her mother whose wisdom and tough love skipped a generation and saved her grandson. The film is simpler and smaller than its slim book, but these performances will reel you in.
HAPPIEST SEASON: This is sad, recycled dreck, updated and regurgitated as a rom com about two women (Kristen Stewart and MacKenzie Davis) attempting to hide their romantic relationship from an ultra-conservative family over Christmas. Yes, it’s great there’s LGBTQ representation on the big screen, but too bad it’s packaged up as formulaic drivel which wastes a good cast including Mary Steenburgen, Victor Garber, Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie, and “Schitt’s Creek” ‘s Dan Levy providing some relief for Kristen Stewart who looks like she desperately needs it.