by Philip Price
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Starring: Jason Segel, Dakota Johnson & Casey Affleck
Runtime: 2 hours & 4 minutes
I'd like to start with Jason Segel. I've always felt a unique affinity for his persona. This is a guy who has been oddly engaging yet completely endearing and - most importantly - both effortlessly funny and likable since his cameo as a high-school stoner who couldn't help Jennifer Love-Hewitt find Ethan Embry in “Can't Hardly Wait.” In many ways Segel is an unlikely movie star whether it be his awkward charisma, his laid back persona as opposed to the traditionally handsome and self-serious stars who are typically granted the more dramatic leading roles, but while "movie star" may be a stretch for anyone these days Segel has carved out a particular spot for himself among the recognizable faces on posters to which we now attribute the word "star". As one of the many funny guys doing as they please in Hollywood after originally making their bones in Judd Apatow projects, Segel has had an interesting journey. He never had the headlining Apatow treatment necessarily but served enough time in supporting parts to garner an Apatow-production via a script that was obviously very personal to him. It was with “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (some 13 years ago now) that Segel finally came into his own with what fully displayed his personal brand of comedy and it killed. Absolutely destroyed, one might say. ‘Sarah Marshall’ is one of the best comedies of the last 20 years and much of that has to do not just with Segel's willingness to be vulnerable which felt a lot fresher and a lot bolder in 2008, but largely it deals in that extreme sense of sincerity the guy generates. One can't help but think Segel is probably a little strange, but that he also has this cool streak that makes you want to hang out with him. He's not an immediately striking presence, but the more you unravel his philosophy the more you want to hug him. The one-two punch of ‘Sarah Marshall’ and “I Love You, Man” seemed to set Segel's career trajectory in stone, but after a good mix of ill-performing studio productions (“Gulliver's Travels,” “Bad Teacher”) and better, more personal milestones (“The Muppets,” “The Five-Year Engagement”) Segel's ride seemed to culminate only some six years after it began with the bomb of a summer comedy that was “Sex Drive” and the fact his long-running hit sitcom, “How I Met Your Mother,” ended its run that same year. In 2015, Segel portrayed David Foster Wallace opposite Jesse Eisenberg in “The End of the Tour,” but while this served as a potential hint as to where the actor would take his career next, he has since largely been absent from the public eye (only appearing in two Netflix films in 2017 and 2018). I say all of this to say that as Segel returns in a more substantial role both in film as well as in the public consciousness that it finally seems the space, he now occupies personally has synced with the space he occupies onscreen. It's possible there isn't a more perfect part for Segel than that of Dane Faucheux as it utilizes his vulnerabilities, his comedic sense, and his genuine spirit to convey the wholly compassionate titular friend of Gabriela Cowperthwaite's “Our Friend,” a man who visits his friends over Thanksgiving break and ends up staying with them for over two years in order to help care for the couple and their two young daughters as they deal with a terminal cancer diagnosis.
Based on Matthew Teague's 2015 article for Esquire magazine titled "The Friend" his six-thousand-plus word essay details the years where he and Faucheux cared for his wife, Nicole, who learned she had terminal cancer at the age of 34. As someone who will turn 34 this year and has two small children at home this immediately strikes a certain kind of chord; that should be noted up front. In the article, Teague is brutally honest about the putrefaction of human life under the control of a terrible disease like cancer. For Nicole, it was ovarian, and in the movie as with the article the doctor describes the situation being, "Like somebody dipped a paintbrush in cancer and flicked it around her abdomen." The difference in the article and the resulting film though, is that there is less focus on the grotesque aspects of Nicole's deterioration and more emphasis on the void left by her partnership that Faucheux helps to fill while counter-balancing the exhaustion Teague experiences throughout the two-year ordeal. It's difficult to equate a piece of written text with the individual moments that actually took place and the memories spawned from those moments that are undoubtedly made-up of an amalgamation of contrasting emotions, but Teague's article distills this journey down in a fashion that feels honest, unflinching, as well as - for one reason or another - almost reassuring and the movie version largely does the same.
The idea of this existence of death not as a personified reaper, but simply as an act and the finality of it is in the essence of Teague's words. Those words have been applied to the screen by “The Way Back” scribe Brad Ingelsby, so there is some familiarity with death and grief through the language of cinema, but in “Our Friend” Ingelsby is not dealing so much with grief after the fact - he's dealing in a bond that allows our main characters to survive the grief they know is coming. And while Teague and Faucheux are the focus of the film, Ingelsby's screenplay almost feels as if it wants to pull away further from the article and explore this dynamic from the point of view of Nicole which we only get hints of in Teague's original story. It would seem Ingelsby wants to extract that essence concerning the finality of death and apply it to what that means to those dealing with it directly; what it really means to stare down mortality. There are hints of this in Cowperthwaite's film as well, but overall, the movie version of this very moving yet devastating story seems to understand this essay was largely a way for Teague to work through what those two years and the people involved in those times meant to him in the larger context of his existence and how those experiences would shape his existence moving forward. Therefore, Cowperthwaite approaches the film with this mentality of Nicole's suffering being the timeline that maps the friendship the story is actually about.
While it may be easier to glean why Segel's sincerity is so key to the film's success now, the movie version of Teague's life also needed to cast a Teague and a Nicole in order to make the energy between the core trio work in an effective manner. In something of an unexpected turn, Casey Affleck fills the role of Matthew Teague while the always reliable Dakota Johnson takes the role of Nicole. It's not necessarily unexpected that Affleck would take on a role where the most demanding facets are devastation and loss but having this signature dourness be underscored with the levity that Segel as Dane brings is a highlight of Affleck's performance. While the article this story is based on was solely from the perspective of the real Teague and he is therefore not so much a character in that piece as he is the narrator, it would then seem Affleck had the most challenging task in bringing Teague out from behind the curtain and into the fold of a time in his life the writer likely had no desire to re-live. It's not as if Affleck has never dealt in comedy, just look to his work in the ‘Ocean's’ films, but his temperament here is perfect for the kind of compounded tragedies that Teague faces as Affleck portrays the man as someone desperately in need of help, but who bears the weight of guilt after having been away from his family on assignment for many of the years prior. Without spoiling much of the intricacies of the story, there are notable liberties seemingly taken with the relationship between the characters of Matthew and Nicole that add a certain disheartened quality to the proceedings, but ultimately deepen the bond between the two given the lengths Matthew goes to; Matthew's devotion overriding the disheartening with the altruistic. Johnson, who has done nothing but carve out a winning persona since her completion on the ‘Fifty Shades’ franchise, is strapped with both the least to work with (there's only so much one can do when literally evaporating before your friends and family's eyes) while also serving as the anchor that pulls our two more prominent protagonists together. Johnson does much of her heavy lifting in early scenes that fill in the gaps around how these three met and became friends while Nicole and Dane were in college and how the relationship between Dane and Matthew evolved out of it. Teague's article describes his wife by saying, "Men trailed Nicole everywhere; when she smiled, men imagined she needed them, and she smiled a lot." Johnson emanates this kind of raw magnetism combined with the anger that builds around what her disease is taking from her and the jealousy that resonates in a reaction to what her husband and her friend are building together for her, but ultimately without her.
And so, while the characters are clearly the beating heart of a movie such as this the looming question is always whether the film accomplishes what it set out to accomplish in the end. While “Our Friend” is not necessarily as lean as it needs to be it gets the job done. That might sound slightly dismissive, but it's nearly impossible not to feel something while watching the film. Is this a movie anyone will love? Probably not, but that's no fault of the craft involved - it's simply due to the painful nature of the subject matter. Did it make me feel something? Did it genuinely movie me? Of course, it did. Absolutely destroyed, one might say. The film's biggest detraction is the structure with which Ingelsby has organized his screenplay. The film begins in the fall of 2013, goes back in time 13 years, then jumps forward to 2012, then goes back to the summer of 2008 and so on and so forth to the point it's difficult to get a grasp on any one aspect of who these people are at a given point in time because it jumps around so frequently to different stages in their life and furthermore, to different stages of Nicole's diagnosis. That said, there is a degree of appreciation in the choice especially given many of the flashbacks lend the more emotionally crushing scenes some much needed stability. Minor complaints aside though, this is a movie largely about what it means to be a friend to someone and it is through this non-linear fashion that we come to learn not only how much Matthew and Nicole along with their two daughters, Molly (Isabella Kai) and Evie (Violet McGraw), mean to Segel's Dane, but how much they mean to him.
While I've already talked at length about why Segel is perfect for the role of Dane I haven't mentioned as much why Dane is so crucial to the extent, he became the central point of a piece of writing that was originally intended to be about a man's dying wife. This recalls another set of flashbacks in both the time the film takes to spend solely with the Dane character as well as a moment that exemplifies the level of brutal honesty that can be shared between Faucheux and Teague. At a certain stage in the film Affleck's Matthew is playing the selfish, asshole of a husband who resents his family for holding him back from his own endeavors and his friend has to be the one to call him on it. It's a quick interaction, but it's one the movie uses to jump to another point in time right after and therefore puts an emphasis on both the arc of Teague as well as the true importance of Faucheux's presence in his life at this critical, heartbreaking juncture. In terms of the time the film spends with Faucheux on his own though, we are granted the realization that the character is not simply a martyr but is in fact more complex; as much help and support as he's providing his friends, he's getting something that's missing from his life as well. In the first act of the film, we see that Faucheux has a semi-serious job and relationship with a woman in his hometown of New Orleans that naturally both disintegrate after having taken an extended leave. Whether Faucheux is running away from what are more serious commitments than he'd ever made in his life up to that point or not there seems this overriding sense that helping his friends face the end of their relationship was more important than following through on the beginning of his. That act in and of itself feels selfless, but because he knew he was needed by his friends and was unsure of what he wanted to do with his life there is a level of both dependency and escape in Faucheux's choice. Segel fully comprehends the function of this character in this regard and brings that necessary authenticity that makes it work. “Our Friend” is sad. This is a sad, sensitive movie and while it may not be something you want to necessarily snuggle down with on a Friday night it is the type of movie that, at the very least, is a reminder to us all that we can never fully realize or comprehend the emotional depths those around us might be experiencing and that we should always try our best to mindful of that by not being a Jake Owen, but by being more a Jason Segel.
by Philip Price
Director: Regina King
Starring: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge & Leslie Odom Jr.
Runtime: 1 hour & 54 minutes
It was 70 degrees in Miami Beach, Fla. on the night of February 25th, 1964. It had reached temperatures as high as 81 earlier in the day, but the night was mostly cloudy and pretty damn humid. Ironically, this rather oppressive climate would be the backdrop for the night Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) would become the heavyweight champion of the world at the age of 22. Clay, in a somewhat shocking upset, defeated the animal that was Sonny Liston - who was 10 years Clay’s senior - by technical knockout when Liston refused to answer the bell at the start of the seventh round. Because no one actually expected the young, cocky Clay to take home the title there was no large celebration planned. Instead, Clay and a 38-year-old Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), his spiritual mentor, who Clay had flown in for support along with the likes of eventual NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), who'd just turned 28 eight days prior, and the absolute musical legend that is Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) who'd celebrated his 33rd birthday at the end of January, but who had no idea he'd never see his 34th as he'd be killed only 10 months after the events of the film all retreated back to the black section of town and mostly hung out in the small, unremarkable hotel room that Clay had arranged for his friend Malcolm X. On February 26th, 1964 Clay would announce that he was becoming a Muslim and henceforth become known as Muhammed Ali.
“One Night in Miami…,” the feature directorial debut of Oscar-winning actress Regina King based on the 2013 stage play by Kemp Powers is about what theoretically happened on this single night when four men who would come to define their era and play immeasurable roles in the larger fight for civil rights explicitly had nothing better to do than celebrate their friend's win with cheap booze and vanilla ice cream. Of course, there is no way to know the actual conversations held between these men that fateful night in Miami, but Powers-who adapted his own stage play for the screen-has surmised what was on the minds of each man given the circumstances of their lives at the time and what each would come to do in the months following that February night. In many ways the film is almost an origin story for the mythical status the four would come to be renowned for, but what is not only insightful about Kemp's screenplay and King's direction, but absolutely critical to the success of conveying the main ideas infused through each of these figures is that even these men who would go on to be regarded as legends, heroes, martyrs, and what have you-even they were vulnerable human beings who doubted themselves and questioned their choices. Obviously, this is something of an over-simplification of what's at the heart of “One Night in Miami...” and yet it perfectly encapsulates that no matter how deep this thing cuts or what complicated questions it poses the execution of it all feels absolutely effortless.
We are first introduced to Goree's Cassius Clay as he battles Britain's Henry Cooper in the summer of 1963 at Wembley Stadium where he complains about getting blood on his shorts and how if he gets any more on them his momma won't be able to get it out. We travel next to New York City where Odom Jr.'s Cooke is making his debut at the Copacabana to an all-white crowd as owner Jules Podell had only recently changed the rules allowing black performers and patrons into the club. Hodge's Brown was born in St. Simons, an island off the Georgia coast, and in his introduction in the film we see the football star returning to his hometown to visit an old friend in Mr. Carlton (Beau Bridges) who would initially give the impression he loves and appreciates all Brown has done not only for himself, but for how well he's represented this place he calls home. Of course, this is all until Brown assumes his status would actually change how a black man was treated in Georgia in the early- ‘60s as the film swiftly reminds us that even those who might seemingly transcend race are still viewed as less due simply to the color of their skin. And finally, King brings us around to Ben-Adir's Malcolm X as he preaches a sermon on perspective as this was around the time Malcolm X began to grow disillusioned with the Nation of Islam, as well as with its leader Elijah Muhammad. This disillusionment plays into a plan Malcolm consistently alludes to throughout the film that will come to serve as the crux of many of the conversations these four men have over the course of the night-namely Malcolm and Clay and Malcolm and Cooke with Brown's ever commanding presence serving as the balance to the more extreme ideologies contained in this single space.
Obviously, “One Night in Miami...” is a character-driven piece with the richness of its quality not having anything to do with the details of the plot, but wholly being wrapped up in who these characters are as people. It is in this approach that King is able to allow character to drive her movie rather than story. While the inspiration undoubtedly comes from Powers' screenplay and the work he did when first crafting this story into an organized account of some sort, King seems intent to uphold the fact that by containing not only the action of the movie to more or less a single location, but the dynamics of the relationships we see displayed that it will by contrast allow for these hugely meaningful moments to occur. Essentially, it's not necessarily about what happens to these characters so much as it's about setting up who they are and defining their humanity with cultural specificity while relaying the universal themes expressed within those. These are four young, black, righteous, and famous men and they existed at a time, during the ‘60s, that have proven to be a crucible moment in regard to the unrest that decade spawned and that has since been burned into our psyche largely due to the innovation of live TV during that time. Just as with today and the innovation of social media in all its forms, it's not that things like what have seemed to become more commonplace didn't happen before, it's simply that these innovations have both made people more aware while unfortunately inspiring further hate. In the ‘60s specifically, this innovation represented a bomb of change with race and class intersecting on everything all at the same time. It is this heightened awareness, this ability to instantly reach a larger audience than ever before that has the four men at the center of the film considering the role they play in the continued liberation of their people. At one point, Cooke tells Malcolm that, "Taking the world on your shoulders is bad for your health." So, the question is posed, "What responsibility does a successful black person have to their people?" Are they affecting change simply by leading as an example or does it need to be more direct, more pointed in order to actually make some type of difference moving forward? The stars of the text were having these thoughts in 1964 whereas it's more expected to have these kinds of thoughts today. Clay had to live in two worlds from a young age as he was both a black man in the south as well as an incredibly famous person. He was both a champion for the people and a hero to the black community. He had to take on the mantle of this worldwide leader in the public eye while being a very conflicted man in private. It is in the power of the film - and Goree's handle on Clay as a character and not a caricature - that come the final moment of the movie we completely understand that key word Malcolm preaches about: perspective.
Naturally, Clay and Malcolm are more the stars of the show in that they are the reason these four ended up spending a night together in the fashion they did, but each still gets their moment to shine; the performances only enhancing this exceptional scenario across the board. Both as singular figures as well as with one another these moments are erected as Kemp's screenplay reverse engineers what is presented as being on each character's mind based on what was likely being discussed. Each character stays in their lane as far as how the character is conceived for the purposes of the film, but it comes as no surprise that Malcolm - to use his own words - is quite truculent as he passionately believes there is no room for anyone to be sitting on the fence any longer. That said, it's difficult to tell initially if he himself can handle people doing the same to him. Malcolm completely dejects any other black man who doesn't view their role in the world in the same way he does which feels somewhat ironic given the aforementioned speeches centered on perspective, but he believes his race as a whole should feel empowered in the same way he does which again lends “One Night in Miami...” more fertile soil to dig into. For example, Brown brings to the table questions of whether the point of all Malcolm's pushing is more in order to prove something to white people or his fellow black people where both he and Brown know that lines break down even further. This feeds into the Malcolm/Cooke dynamic which may very well be the most fascinating the film has to offer due to the fact these two characters have diametrically opposing viewpoints. Malcolm wants to tear down the institution completely while Cooke wants to take it over from the inside out. Cooke believes that by winning people over with his music that he is knocking down doors for everybody. Malcolm simply labels this as pandering as he protests that Cooke could easily have the loudest voice among all of them. Malcolm sees no reason why what is happening isn't cause enough for them all to be angry while trying to convince Cooke he'll never be able to win over those he seeks to satisfy whereas Cooke feels he can recognize Malcolm for what he truly is - a natural born hustler. Brown and Clay meanwhile touch on what it feels like to be gladiators for the rulers sitting up in their boxes. Brown is on the verge of breaking free of this role where he's praised by all when serving as their entertainment, but immediately degraded for expecting respect off the field. Brown, and therefore Lodge, are the low-key MVPs of the film as more times than not Brown resolves the divided room with sound advice; a moment with Brown reminding Malcolm that the key to true independence is economic freedom and that Cooke is more economically free than any of them is especially reflective. To use football-appropriate terms, Brown's reasoning exerts a keen reminder in the difference between the payoff of the long game and the instant gratification of the passing game. Still, Malcolm holds firm to his belief in black power a la a world where black people are safe to be themselves and free to think how they want without having to worry about paying for it as a world that can only be accomplished through his methods.
We are meant to be a fly on the wall. “One Night in Miami...” is meant to feel like we're listening in on discussions the public weren't privy to while presenting a more sedated, relaxed version of the public personas each men had created. It's the fact King's film accesses a version of these men that gets to the essence of who each of them was that makes her debut one of the most powerful films of the year. Though clearly not written in reaction to the events of the past few years, “One Night in Miami...” also feels more pertinent than ever - especially in this bombshell of a year. It is both the cathartic experience the Black Lives Matter movement seemingly needs and deserves right now while also adding another layer to the movement as a film about characters whose inner turmoil's and doubts are unfortunately similar to those faced by many in the black community today.
January's Streaming Recommendations Include Potential Oscar Nominees like 'One Night in Miami,' 'Pieces of a Woman,' as well as a Netflix Documentary on Swear Words
by Julian Spivey
History of Swear Words (Netflix) – 1/5
I’ve never been much of a fan of Nicolas Cage’s acting work, but I do fuckin’ love to swear! Who doesn’t? Prudes, that’s who. That’s why the Netflix original documentary series “History of Swear Words,” premiering on Tuesday, Jan. 5, is probably going to be both a lot of fun and a learning experience. Who wouldn’t want to know where some of our favorite curse words like “fuck,” “shit” an “bitch” originated? I will also admit that even though Cage’s acting skills leave a lot to be desired, he does seem like a perfect choice to host such a series.
Pieces of a Woman (Netflix) – 1/7
Admittedly, “Pieces of a Woman” doesn’t feel like the kind of movie that is going to be a breezy, fun watch if you’re looking to turn on a movie and just relax. But if you’re looking for award-worthy performances Vanessa Kirby (who you know from the first two seasons of Netflix’s drama series “The Crown”) supposedly gives one of the past performances of the year and is one of the front-runners for a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Director Kornel Mundruczo’s film opens with a harrowing and anguish-filled 23-minute scene of a birth that goes wrong and the aftermath felt by a couple after the loss of their child. Again, not going to be your typical popcorn flick, but one filled with much emotion and terrific performances.
Tiger (HBO Max) – 1/10
Few, if any, athletes have changed their sport the way Tiger Woods has done for the game of golf. HBO’s two-part original documentary on Tiger Woods, simply titled “Tiger,” premieres on Sunday, Jan. 10 and finishes on Sunday, Jan. 17 and can be streamed on HBO Max. Directed by Matthew Hamachek, the documentary focuses on the rise, fall and comeback of Tiger Woods from child prodigy, to superstar, to controversial figure, his struggles with multiple injuries and his epic comeback at the 2019 Masters Tournament. “Tiger” will be a much-watch for both golf and all-around sports fans.
One Night in Miami (Amazon Prime Video) – 1/15
Actress Regina King makes her directorial debut with Amazon’s original “One Night in Miami,” a fictionalized meeting between four African-American legends activist Malcolm X, boxer Muhammad Ali, football legend Jim Brown and R&B singer Sam Cooke. Written by Kemp Powers, based on his play by the same name, “One Night in Miami” sees these four icons together in a Miami hotel room in February of 1964 celebrating Ali’s surprise victory in the ring over heavyweight boxing champ Sonny Liston. The performances by Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcom X), Eli Goree (Ali), Aldis Hodge (Brown) and Leslie Odom Jr. (Cooke) are drawing rave reviews, and King could become one of the few female directors ever to be nominated for Best Director at the Oscars.
The White Tiger (Netflix) 1/22
“The White Tiger,” directed by Ramin Bahrani, is adapted from Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel of the same name about a young Indian man who’s a chauffeur to a rich landlord and fights to make his way to the top of India’s class struggle. The film stars Adarsh Gourav as the young chauffeur who uses his wit to escape poverty and rise to the top. “The White Tiger” also co-stars Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra Jones, who many American audiences will know from the former ABC drama series “Quantico.”
by Philip Price
First up is the movie that took me the most by surprise this year; my most unexpected, but one of the most stunning experiences of the year: Jessica Swale's “Summerland.” In a year that saw an uptick in LGBTQ friendly shows and films from Netflix docs like “A Secret Love” to Netflix original films and shows like “The Boys in the Band,” “The Haunting of Bly Manor” and “The Half of It,” to Hulu's “Happiest Season,” Amazon's “Uncle Frank,” and not to mention the likes of “Ammonite” and countless others I'm likely forgetting, but it was “Summerland” that somehow flew completely under the radar. The point is, there was a bounty of representative content available this year, which is fantastic, but I highlight “Summerland” almost as a way of simply notifying those interested that they may have missed a real gem. As a sucker for these small, stuffy little British dramedies it's possible my pick comes with a certain amount of preference, but the film honestly caught me off guard with how much it impacted me on an emotional level. Set during World War II, the film follows an Englishwoman, Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton), as she opens her heart to an evacuee after initially resolving to get rid of him in this deceptively simple wartime drama/romance that deals in life and if the risks taken and heartbreak endured along the way were worth the moments of magic.
9. The Invisible Man
Though it might not be saying as much as it would in your typical movie-going year, “The Invisible Man” was far and away my favorite theater-going experience of the year though this isn't the sole reason it lands in my top 10. Writer/director Leigh Whannell’s (“Upgrade”) contemporary adaptation of H.G. Wells' classic monster movie casts Elisabeth Moss in the lead as a suppressed, but capable woman stuck in an abusive, controlling relationship who - even when she escapes her brutal fiancé - has a difficult time accepting this freedom due to the nature of her life as it was. Moss' Cecilia Kass sees her worst fears come true as her fiancé continues to terrorize her even after it's been reported he killed himself. Slowly cutting ties with every person in her support system and painting Cecilia as a psychotic, “The Invisible Man” is most frightening as a critical look at manipulation in a relationship and the power this allows not only for one person to have over another, but how this sense of control manifests in other’s perception of who you are: leaving Moss' character in particular with large amounts of self-doubt and a severe lack of trust. “The Invisible Man” might not break any new ground as far as story or scares go, but it does what it intends so well that it's difficult to deny the effectiveness of the monster or the message.
Though arguments will be made over how to classify Steve McQueen's “Small Axe” anthology series there is no denying the first track of the record, “Mangrove,” is feature film through and through and not only that, but it's easily one of the best films of the year. Each of McQueen's entries in this project have something unique to offer, but it's truly a shame Shaun Parkes won't be taking home an Oscar for his performance here. Never mind the fact the entirety of the performance is mesmerizing, but the man deserves a statue for the single shot that remains on his Frank Crichlow as the jury reads the verdicts for both him and the remainder of the Mangrove Nine. It's astonishing, breathtaking, and all the adjectives that might hope to accurately describe the greatness that can't truly be captured with words. Chronicling the first judicial acknowledgment of behavior motivated by racial hatred within the Metropolitan Police, “Mangrove” is every bit as much a call for justice as it is a commentary on the explicit inequalities of the world. Despite being one part of a larger series, “Mangrove” conveys its vitality with the quality and skill of any other Steve McQueen film. The cast is first-rate, the period detail is on point, with as much being true of every other contributing department, but it's the antithetical tone of the environment within Crichlow's Mangrove restaurant that populates the first half of the film and that of the tone inside the courtroom throughout the second half of the film that is most effective in defining McQueen's central thesis which is more a question of why it's so hard for those with all to make room for those with less.
7. The Vast of Night
Andrew Patterson's audacious debut made the festival rounds last year, but after debuting on Amazon Prime on May 29th of 2020 it quickly became the first big streaming hit of quarantine and a staple of a year not soon to be forgotten. Made for less than $1 million in true DIY-fashion, Patterson’s film draws inspiration from the likes of “The Twilight Zone” and ‘50s science fiction staples like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” “The Vast of Night” unfolds over a single night as town folks root for the home team at a high school basketball game, while our two brainy leads, radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) and switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick), band together to track down strange, unidentifiable noises, arguing about whether they’re alien or not. I’ve watched “The Vast of Night” three times now and besides Patterson’s impressive control over his narrative, his characters, and his camera what continues to be the most impressive and haunting aspect of the film is its ability to deal in the sorrows of loss and mythical and mysterious places our minds can take us in our loneliness. The extended scenes of dialogue bring us into these worlds where partial ignorance is bliss for, to have full clarity, is to recognize the inability to go on with purpose or a sense of relief. As stated, it's a haunting series of scenes that will mesmerize some and completely bewilder (or possibly irritate) others, but I'm firmly in the former category.
6. Palm Springs
If you've been reading this site for any period of time, you'll know re-watchability is a huge factor for me and in my number six spot is the movie I had the most fun experiencing this year while also being the film I'll likely re-visit the most over the years to come. The feature directorial debut of Max Barbakow, “Palm Springs” is best viewed with no idea whatsoever as to what it's about but given this arrived on Hulu back in early July and - much like with “The Vast of Night” - quickly became a streaming staple of the quarantine summer, the chance one has completely avoided spoilers is slight. Still, in the interest of those looking to lists for suggestions on movies they might seek out we'll keep the synopsis around “Palm Springs” limited. Carefree Nyles (an electrifying and charming Andy Samberg) and a reluctant maid of honor, Sarah (a revelatory Cristin Milioti), have a chance encounter at a Palm Springs wedding where things get complicated as they are unable to escape the venue, themselves, or each other. In spite of what you may or may not think of the central "gimmick" Barbakow and screenwriter Andy Siara use it in such a fresh and exciting fashion that not only conveys the grounded and sobering themes in an effective fashion, but also delivers as a whole a more well-balanced and genuinely heartfelt film than some of these year-end dramas whose entire purpose is as much.
5. Dick Johnson is Dead
Though I'm for one reason or another often hesitant to include documentaries in my year-end top 10 lists, I can honestly say without any reservation this list would not be complete without “Dick Johnson is Dead.” From what I've seen, 2020 turned out to be quite the year for non-fiction filmmaking and while a complete list of the best documentaries of the year would seemingly be easier to make than ever (thanks to the wealth of options, not because there are so few of quality) there's no denying that “Dick Johnson is Dead” would be near if not at the top of those lists as well. Made in order to relieve if not necessarily alleviate Dick's fear of death and his daughter's fear of losing him, “Dick Johnson is Dead” may very well be the most moving film I saw all year. Yes, “Summerland” is stunning, “The Invisible Man” thrilling, Mangrove completely rapturous, ‘Vast of Night’ haunting and inspiring, with “Palm Springs” being exceedingly reaffirming, but as far as sheer power and impact on my own personal life it is Kirsten Johnson's film that will resonate the most and remain a touchstone for the rest of my days. Johnson seems to have wanted to make a film about her father who had been diagnosed with dementia, and tackle conversations with him about his decline and death, while also celebrating his life, all before he was too far gone. It is in the ever-evolving approach and the fact it’s presented with as much transparency and candor as death itself that Johnson's inventive portrait succeeds in keeping a piece of her father alive forever.
Chloé Zhao's “Nomadland” chronicles a year in the life of a woman whose world is dying and her journey to discover a new one. While most will know Zhao's name soon enough for directing Marvel's “The Eternals” it is her documentary-like approach to fictional material that will seemingly carry over no matter the brand she applies it to. What is critical to be noted about this latest endeavor from Zhao however is that her stylistic approach is one that requires a certain level of patience and attention, but as with most things that are worth investing time and effort in if one is able to give those things over to the film completely what it delivers is more than a rewarding experience - it's a cathartic one. Such praise is heaped upon the film with caution, mind you, as “Nomadland” is also a film about both everything and nothing. It's a movie difficult to describe to people in terms of why it carries the weight it does as it would appear to be little more than a road movie from the outside looking in. The film creates this sense of grand discussion and deep reflection while appearing to be as mundane an artistic endeavor as the people it chronicles. McDormand's performance is as reassuring as ever, but its these portraits Zhao paints of those the grind has forgotten that give the film a sense of hope without ever romanticizing its notions.
3. Bad Education
It's been argued my number three pick is a "TV Movie", but this is a feature film among feature films that debuted on HBO after a premiere at 2019's Toronto International Film Festival and it's 2020, so I'll do as I please and I'm begging you all to consider this: Cory Finley’s “Bad Education” is easily one of the best films of the year. Briskly paced and increasingly engaging with every turn, “Bad Education” is a cautionary tale of people with genuine ambition who take real initiatives to implement plans on top of plans to present how successful they are only to convince themselves they deserve more than their annual salaries allow. It's about people attempting to validate themselves within a system that inherently minimizes their overall contribution to the world. “Bad Education” is both a testament to the unsung heroes of the education system and a call to hold those in positions of power responsible for the power they've been granted. What makes the film so satisfying though, is that it somehow manages this balance in an even fashion by becoming a character study of the multi-faceted superintendent Frank Tassone as portrayed by Hugh Jackman. Allison Janney, Ray Romano, Rafael Cassel and Geraldine Viswanathan co-star from a script by Mike Makowsky (who attended the school where the real events occurred). Composer Michael Abels also delivers one of the best scores of the year here.
2. Sound of Metal
The story of Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is a very human, very grounded, and largely - a very cleansing one - but as presented through this veritable style of director Darius Marder and co-writer Derek Cianfrance, Ruben's tale takes on what feel like mythic qualities...turning it into more than just a story, but a parable. While not your traditional parable as told by Jesus in the Gospels, “Sound of Metal” is a rawer approach to that age old serenity prayer that people repeat to remind themselves of the influence they have over the occurrences in their life on earth. "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." In the film, Ruben comes face to face with a reality he can neither control nor accept. As a drummer for a two-piece metal band seemingly on the cusp of bigger and better things the sense of sound is one of the most critical aspects of Ruben's life. So, when the feedback becomes more consistent, the ringing doesn't stop even after a night's rest post-gig, and the frequency of other people's voices becomes so inaudible that everyone begins to sound like Charlie Brown's teacher he knows he can't ignore the issue and he knows it won't magically go away no matter how much he needs it to. Ruben runs headfirst into the question of how does one preserve the hearing they have left when they can’t preserve themselves without it? The rest of “Sound of Metal” explores as much and presents both a completely devastating yet strangely calming experience around Ruben's plight.
Though only playing in a limited theatrical run at the moment with plans for a wider release in February, “Minari” is my number one film of the year. Based largely on writer/director Lee Isaac Chung's own experiences of being of Korean descent and moving to middle-of-nowhere Arkansas in the 1980's in order for his family to start anew and his father to start a farm, “Minari” is a very personal story and therefore undoubtedly includes what must be several specific details that transport Chung back to what he likely remembers as a very brief, but meaningful time in his life. Chung's screenplay and eventual film make sure to include a very specific level of detail while never zeroing in on any of these ultimately allowing the cumulative effect to relay why Minari is not only a story of the American experience as seen through the lens of Korean heritage, but simply a story of the American experience, maybe even the most American of experiences. In short, “Minari” blew me away. Every character is so well-realized, every piece of dialogue so meaningful, with the structure and pacing embodying further perfection. I absolutely loved it...and I promise it has nothing to do with me having lived in Arkansas and having felt like an outsider for the majority of my life. OK, maybe a little bit, but it's still the best movie of the year regardless.
You can read more of Philip Price's reviews at ReviewsFromaBed.com
by Philip Price
Director: Emerald Fennell
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham & Alison Brie
Runtime: 1 hour & 53 minutes
From the opening second of Emerald Fennell's feature directorial debut that sears itself into your eardrums with Charli XCX's "Boys" it's abundantly clear we're in for a hell of a treat that is as pop-fueled and brightly colored as that introductory music track. Even as the music conjures images of pristine bodies dancing around pool parties that feature the color palette of a highlighter collection, Fennell immediately emasculates and disarms every male viewer that might already be dismissing her film by displaying what hapless, awkward grunts the majority of us look like when trying to appeal to the opposite sex in an alluring fashion. After immediately establishing the style in which she will relay her message Fennell's camera next wades in slow motion through a sea of nine to fivers scavenging for drinks that might hand them enough courage to approach vulnerable girls as the writer/director next establishes the key to “Promising Young Woman”: tone. Drawn from the anger of double standards and the (large amount of) satire contained in the line of thought that men could ever be more mature than women in any sense Fennell's screenplay - aided by a tour de force (and I don't use that phrase lightly) performance from Carey Mulligan - is as scathing as it is smart and as wild as it can be funny. It's almost contradictory how much there is to smile about while taking in the film given the serious nature of the topics being addressed, but Fennell finds such a satisfying way of conveying the revenge fantasy elements that it's next to impossible to not want to stand up and cheer every time Mulligan's Cassie leaves the room after delivering a gut punch of a one-liner to the creep, she just taught a lesson. Fennell has style for days, obviously, along with what were probably notebooks full of stories about encounters she and her friends have had with men who seemed decent enough but would still try to take advantage if the opportunity presented itself yet it is the way in which she is able to distill the daily indignities women routinely endure that ultimately reconciles the message with the mode. “Promising Young Woman” may be constructed to feel like an epic revenge fantasy and a sometimes sweet romantic comedy, but the situations depicted are unfortunately not as far-fetched as the calculated aesthetic would lead one to believe. To this extent, Fennell isn't interested in making a genre film as much as she is courting how cunning, meticulous, and self-aware one must be in order to exact revenge in the ways Cassie does here; she isn't trying to wipe the slate clean, she's looking to re-configure the establishment of that slate one piece at a time. In the immortal words of Paris Hilton, "That's hot" has never been more sincerely stated (or accurate) than when applied to “Promising Young Woman.”
Speaking more to the mode and the message and how each leans on the other as much as it does contrast it, this relationship is a facet as intentional as it would seem having Cassie eating something in almost every frame of the film is. While the messages of the film clearly deal in the likes of female power and revenge as much as they do romance and the kind of dismissive nature of Britney Spears' contributions to pop music and culture it's in this somewhat "tongue in cheek" comment that we touch on an actual thesis Fennell is putting forth in her film. This thesis being that things strictly defined as objects of interest to only women are also things immediately dismissed as silly and/or only good in an ironic fashion i.e., Britney Spears music, romantic comedies, fashion accessories, etc. Fennell argues that not only is this perception unfair, but that by being automatically slapped with this designation automatically creates a broader sense that what women find important is less important overall because these things aren't as important to men. It's not the main idea of the movie and Fennell doesn't spend too much time laboring over the intricacies of the scale on which different gender-specific prejudices take place, but by opening her film with a song as infectiously bubblegum as "Boys" through to the use of an all violin rendition of Spears' "Toxic" in the final act Fennell is making a statement by using them at all, but mostly through the fact she doesn't use them in an irreverent fashion. Adding to the heightened sense of style the film possesses, Fennel uses her soundtrack to illustrate just how effective and - strangely enough - how moving these songs often credited with carrying little substance can prove to be. Sure, you remind people Paris Hilton once had a music career and you're automatically going to get a few laughs, but we also feel the candor and irrefutable joy it brings not only to Cassie when she feels comfortable enough to embrace what she's been told is ridiculous since she was a teenager but has secretly enjoyed for just as long. Though Bo Burnham's Ryan might perform Hilton's sole hit with a strong sense of mockery it's also clear he finds a genuine freedom in being able to admit "Stars are Blind" is in fact catchy as hell. We all live with not only these pre-conceived notions of who we're supposed to be thanks in large part to extraneous pressure from friends and family, but as we become more involved and peculiar about how we portray ourselves on social media there is a sense one has to live up to the facade they themselves create. Fennell's film has a lot on its mind and again, while not explicitly about this particular decline in humanity, it draws on these modern experiences to highlight how sick its protagonist is of all the bullshit.
In essence, Fennell uses many of the themes and ideas she incorporates to carve out and better define her main character. Coming back around to the key element of tone is to discuss the fact that despite the sometimes dark and disturbing truths of the subject Fennell is discussing she has layered her film with the coping mechanism of comedy, albeit dark comedy. While it may sound like these comedic elements lighten the mood and therefore make the portrayal of this toxic, sexist culture we're all somewhat complicit in cultivating and/or perpetuating more bearable the fact of the matter is that Fennell's ability to tap into and find the humor in these more heavy scenes and sequences not only highlights the insight of what she's saying, but does so in an entertaining fashion that will engage audiences not typically inclined to want to see a movie about such topics. In other words, nothing about “Promising Young Woman” ever feels manipulative as it is by all accounts a movie about a woman dealing with a terrible trauma, but as hard as Cassie may try to maintain this stoic, icy figure who has only one objective left in life she can't help but to also be this very smart, very funny person that "must want something" as her boss at the coffee shop (Laverne Cox) puts it. And sure, maybe Cassie does yearn for something more normal deep down inside but given the obligation of justice she has committed her life to and the grand injustice she's seen the culture and respected institutions allow she can't help but to feel that sacrificing the romantic comedy aspects of her future for the blood bath of the revenge thrillers is the right and honorable thing to do. Cassie is as tough as she is vulnerable, someone who knows how to project the emotion a given situation calls for yet is consumed by this grief she can't let go of and it's to Mulligan's credit we run this gamut of emotions without ever feeling disoriented or unsure of who the character is. Mulligan is known for and will continue to be known for her wide array of roles in films that so far range from critical darlings like “Drive” and “Shame” to other critical darlings like “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Wildlife” even if the majority of the movie-going public will know her as the Daisy Buchanan to Leo DiCaprio's Jay Gatsby, but it is with this film that Mulligan has crafted her most brazen character yet as she subverts all expectation set by previous performances instantly making this feel like the staple she will be most often identified by. "Carey Mulligan? Who is she again?" "You know, the main girl in ‘Promising Young Woman.’” "Oh yeahhhhhhhh!" From the moment Mulligan's eyes look directly into the camera the first time we know exactly who Cassie is, who she wants to be, and what she's all about; revealing both this supremely intelligent if not deeply damaged woman who purposefully embodies that old saying of "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned".
Of course, while this is wholly and completely, one thousand percent Mulligan and Fennell's movie there is also plenty more going on and plenty more to enjoy and consider that leads to this strange kind of sensation coming out of the film where you both enjoyed it but are stuck contemplating everything of what the film was saying. I would be remiss if I didn't mention DeathbyRomy's rendition of "It's Raining Men," that plays over the opening credit sequence as it only enhances Fennell's intent and assists in setting the table for the aforementioned style that is key to Fennell nailing her desired tone. Besides the soundtrack though, Fennell makes several other choices that aren't difficult to get behind and only further emphasize the relevance of the story while maintaining the feeling of constant surprise by the narrative. A key element in this is what some would refer to as "stunt casting" in that Fennell has littered her movie with recognizable names and faces to make the roster look impressive even if many of these people are in the film for less than a handful of minutes. That said, this type of casting doesn't feel pandering in any sense for, if nothing else, the fact we recognize these faces and associate mostly well-meaning, fun personalities with a lot of these actors only emphasizes just how fast one’s perception of someone can change. Adam Brody's Seth Cohen would never take advantage of a girl like that, Christopher Mintz-Plasse's McLovin was just happy a girl paid any attention to him there's no way he'd ever purposefully get someone high to take advantage of them, Max Greenfield's Schmidt...well, c'mon! It's Schmitty for heaven's sake! The "stunt" as it were completely working in favor of the intent and efficiently relays to the audience why and where the movie is coming from. Cassie moves through the world wearing cynicism like armor and shows little interest in anything more ambitious than holding down her job at the coffee shop and continuing to live under her parents’ roof (the great combo of Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown) until a former classmate in the form of Burnham's Ryan re-enters her life and shows genuine interest in her. I adore Burnham's insanely intelligent and aware stand-up specials and fortunately as a 6'5" comedian accustomed to looking at the world from the outside in his awkward and nervous energy works in favor of his character here. Ryan is seemingly everything Cassie has come to believe men aren't, but this naturally complicates things for her and her mission as Ryan offers an option and a life Cassie had long since decided was out of the question. The two possess a sweet chemistry with one another and the development of their relationship while fresh and new is tinged by the fact they went to med school together meaning Ryan knows some of the people Cassie would rather forget. It's difficult to go further into the dynamic without spoiling much of Cassie's plans that she continues to carry out, but needless to say “Promising Young Woman” is a provocative tale uncompromising in its vision and - if not necessarily singular in its meaning - a strong voice to add to a meaningful and much needed dialogue. It's also entertaining as hell.