Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Netflix
Denzel Washington and Viola Davis last teamed up in 2016 for Fences, the film adaptation of the August Wilson play. Washington, who directed, produced and starred, was nominated as producer and actor, and Davis won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Now, four years later, the two pair up again to bring another Wilson adaptation to the screen, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. This time, Washington is only producing, but Davis is aiming for her second Oscar, this time for lead, as her performance as legendary Blues singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey has her in the Best Actress conversation, for good reason.

Directed by legendary stage director George C. Wolfe, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an incendiary glimpse into the lives of a group of black musicians during a recording session in Chicago in 1927. Ma Rainey is the biggest name in Blues and her management is determined to get her songs recorded onto vinyl, so her agent, played by Jeremy Shamos, is tasked with corralling the headstrong and stubborn Rainey and convincing her to lay down some tracks on this steamy Chicago day. But Rainey, who claimed she created the term “the Blues,” knows that once her music is recorded, it will lose its vitality, and she will lose all her power. Thus begins a long day of cajoling, resisting, delaying and begging, as the power struggle between Ma and her (white) management becomes as heated as the mid-summer Chicago sun.

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Promising Young Woman

Focus Features
Revenge movies have traditionally been the domain of fantasy, of an acting out a deeper, imagined strength through excessive violence. Quentin Tarantino movies like Kill Bill or Inglourious Basterds have made violent revenge a cottage industry, righting wrongs in the most outlandish and unrealistic of ways. In writer/director Emerald Fennell’s stunning debut film, Promising Young Woman, however, revenge is positioned more as a moral imperative than a bloody catharsis, and it is in this approach that this film achieves its greatest effect.

Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie, a former medical student who has never gotten over the trauma of her best friend’s brutal rape while they were in college. When nothing happened to the attackers because the college covered it up to protect the men involved, Cassie set about to exact her own form of justice by laying traps for men in bars, posing as intoxicated, daring those with evil intentions to take advantage, prompting panic and anger when she drops the charade and challenges their motives. It’s a dangerous game, but we soon understand that Cassie has long ago given herself over to her impulses, perhaps to her own detriment.

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News of the World

Universal Pictures
It’s hard to believe that in Tom Hanks’s illustrious 40-year career, he has never done a Western—until now. It’s not surprising, though, that it was director Paul Greengrass who was the one to convince America’s Dad to climb onto a horse and handle a six-shooter in the new movie News of the World, adapted by Greengrass and Luke Davies from the novel by Paulette Jiles.

In this new movie, coming out on Christmas Day, Hanks plays post-Civil War captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd who makes a measly living traveling from town to town in the rapidly expanding Western territories, reading news to the locals. When he comes across an orphan girl who had been kidnapped by an Indian tribe as an infant, he feels a responsibility to deliver her to the only family she has left, despite the inherent dangers of the journey.

A cross between Dances with Wolves and The Mandalorian, News of the World is a surprisingly action-packed yet deeply personal movie that lands squarely in Hanks’ wheelhouse. Reuniting with Greengrass, who previously directed him in Captain Phillips, Hanks does what he does best, giving the audience a grounded emotional center around which all matter of hell can swirl. And Greengrass does what he does best, crafting a frills-free action movie that is taut and well-paced. I have to say, seeing Tom Hanks in a shoot-out gave me much more joy than it probably should have.

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One Night in Miami

Election years always inspire artistic expression, notably in movies. This year, an election year unlike any other, we’ve already seen several documentaries and narrative films like The Trial of the Chicago 7 that have a political bent. One more film that is coming out after the election but still has extreme resonance in 2020 is One Night in Miami, the directorial debut by Oscar-winning actress Regina King.

One Night in Miami tells of an imagined gathering of four of the most significant icons of twentieth-century black culture, against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement. Set in Miami on the night of February 25, 1964, the film features political activist Malcolm X, football star Jim Brown, singer Sam Cooke and boxer Cassius Clay as friends who get together to celebrate Clay’s monumental victory earlier in the evening. While the gathering is fictional, the date is not, as it is the actual date when a young Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston to capture the heavyweight boxing championship. Clay, who would soon rename himself Muhammad Ali when he famously converts to Islam, is mentored by Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X, who, on this night, is in Miami to provide Clay spiritual guidance and support on his big night. Malcolm and Cassius are joined by Brown and Cooke, and the four embark on an evening of revelry, celebration, reflection and conflict as the events of the evening and the state of the world influence their individual paths and their mutual interests.

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Wolfwalkers

Apple
I’m the first to admit that I have adored the advances in animation that have occurred since the release of Pixar’s Toy Story in 1995, the very first feature full-length computer animated film. My favorite animated movie of all time, 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film, continued to push the envelope of animation technology, to soaring effect.

But once in a while, it’s good to be reminded that animation is, at its heart, a true human art form, not just a chance to show off how far we’ve come with digital wizardry. In fact, for all the praise heaped on Pixar over the past twenty years, it is still Studio Ghibli in Japan, founded by legendary animated artist Hayao Miyazaki, that is still considered the preeminent animated studio in the world, largely for its artistic and beautiful films.

Because of Pixar and Studio Ghibli’s successes, the world of feature animation is now a booming industry, with room having been created for all kinds of voices and visions. One of my favorite films last year was I Lost My Body, an animated feature out of France, which was aimed at adults and dealt with serious themes, the furthest thing from the traditional children’s fare.

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The Forty-Year-Old Version

Netflix
There are few things more rewarding about being a film critic than coming across a film that takes you by complete surprise. In a time when critics race to be the first ones to post their reaction to a screening sometimes months before a film’s release, it’s nearly impossible to go into a movie without already knowing everything about it, including whether you are supposed to like it or not. So maybe part of the reason why I was able to enjoy the new film Forty-Year-Old Version so much was the fact that I didn’t know much about it. But most of why I loved this film was because it just kicks ass in every way.

A personal passion project by writer/director/star Radha Blank, The Forty-Year-Old Version is an ode to self-awareness, a tribute to anyone who has struggled to find their voice. In this age of “influencers” and people who literally are famous just for being famous, I basked in the glow of a film about an artist genuinely trying to find a way to express herself through art. In this semi-autobiographical story, Blank plays herself, struggling through a crisis of confidence as she nears her 40th birthday. Facing the fact that her career as a playwright never picked up much steam since having been declared one of the “30 under 30” writers to watch, she is faced with a choice, whether to continue pursuing her dream and risk not being able to pay her rent or become a writer-for-hire in order to pay the bills. As she faces some serious life choices, she stumbles onto the cathartic elements of rapping and decides to re-invent herself as the rapper RadhaMUSprime.

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Wild Mountain Thyme

Bleecker Street
Simply on its face, the new film Wild Mountain Thyme is a light-hearted, almost fantastical take on a Hallmark romance, but there’s just something about it that rises above its hokey-ness and leaves you with a warm feeling inside. The whole film is a bit mystifying until you realize it’s written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, and then it all seems to make sense.

Directed and written by Shanley, adapted from his own 2014 play Outside Mullingar, Wild Mountain Thyme stars Emily Blunt and Jamie Dornan as Rosemary and Anthony, neighboring farmers in Ireland in the ‘80s who bicker, banter and fail miserably to hide their feelings for each other, even though neither ever notices. Because their families are supposed to be rivals who have had a generations-long dispute over a small piece of land, they have suppressed their emotions all these years, despite each being in love with each other since childhood. And here’s where it all goes a little wonky. The “rivalry” that supposedly has torn the two families apart now stands more as a nagging issue as the two families are fast friends, the adults getting along and the children growing up together. But, much like Shanley’s other star-crossed lover rom-com, Moonstruck, tradition is a hard thing to break free from.

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The Prom

Netflix
There’s always something to be said for a movie whose sole interest is to elicit joy. It’s really hard to beat up movies like this, especially when they seem to be sincere as well as sweet. But, in the case of The Prom, there is no avoiding the harsh, ugly truth that this movie, despite its intentions, is an overdone pop tart that made me want to run screaming back to the dark and dreary Oscar movies.

While I am fully aware of my inner Grinch with this movie, I just couldn’t find a way to like it, no matter how hard I tried. And, for those of you who think I didn’t like it strictly because Meryl Streep is in it, well…you may have a point. But, then again, you might not. Streep is excessively over the top, but that’s really nothing new. What is new, and surprising, is the fact that director Ryan Murphy, who has pushed all the boundaries of television in the past decade with innovative and interesting shows like American Horror Story, Pose, The Politician and Hollywood, has made a movie—his first feature in 10 years—that is nothing more than an overblown episode of Glee, the show that put him on the map back in 2009 and went off the air more than 5 years ago. To see such a visionary revert back to something so tried and true was disappointing, to say the least.

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I’m Your Woman

Hollywood, despite its recent struggles, still remains at the forefront of the movement to push through more opportunities for women and minorities. With that push comes more chances to explore different perspectives on some of the same stories and histories that have previously been seen only through the white, male lens. One of the most popular genres traditionally told through a male perspective is the mob crime drama. Arguably the most popular film of all time, The Godfather, and the most popular television series of all time, The Sopranos, both mob stories, were strictly from the male protagonist’s perspective. But in writer/director Julia Hart’s new film, I’m Your Woman, which premiered as the opening film of the annual AFI Fest, she and co-writer Jordan Horowitz put a fresh spin on the mob movie, telling the story from the normally put-upon mob wife’s perspective.

Rachel Brosnahan stars as Jean, a young wife in the ‘70s who, via voiceover narration, informs the audience that she and her husband never had children, despite always wanting them. Jean’s husband, Eddie, played by Bill Heck, works at night and often for long hours, leaving Jean mostly alone. It’s not clear what Eddie’s occupation is, but when he comes home one day with a baby, saying he’s “worked it all out,” so she can now be a mother, Jean doesn’t ask questions. She learns how to be a mother, even though it’s clear that motherhood—and general housewife tasks—are not her strong suit. When Eddie doesn’t come home one night, his “friends” arrive at the house and whisk Jean and the baby away, saying it’s not safe there. Jean is driven to a safe house by Cal (Arinzé Kene), who tells Jean that Eddie has killed someone and he needs to keep her safe. It’s not until this moment that we—and maybe even Jean—are sure that Eddie is, in fact, a gangster. Cal warns Jean to not speak to anyone and to wait for him to return when things are safer. Jean is initially compliant, but she eventually breaks Cal’s rules and disaster ensues. She is forced to go on the run again, but, this time, she’s not content to just sit back and wait.

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