There are a lot of ways that a film can feel uniquely American. It can be the tone, the setting, the soul of a movie, one that resonates with rebellion, freedom, arrogance, indulgence, despair, or independence. Recently, we have seen films like Hidden Figures, 12 Years a Slave, Hell or High Water and The Wolf of Wall Street all explore different depths of American possibilities and their often-corresponding tragedies. There have been films like Wild and Into the Wild that have examined the American need for self-reflection and escape, and films like Thelma & Louise that explore all of the above. So many films have, ingrained in them, a spirit of what makes this country all of the good and bad things it is and can be. Nomadland, from writer/director Chloé Zhao, is a film that revels in that essential American spirit, in all its strength, courage, desperation, fortitude and loneliness and it is by far one of the best films of the year.

It is somewhat ironic that a movie that feels so American is made by a Chinese filmmaker, but Zhao has managed to uniquely tap into a piece of the fabric of our country, perhaps more honestly because she wasn’t born here. Nomadland is the writer/director’s third film, following Songs My Brothers Taught Me in 2015 and the critically-acclaimed The Rider in 2017. Both of those films were modern and minimalist takes on the American Western genre, set in and telling the stories of people from the open plains, cowboys, ranchers and farmers. Zhao’s lens, both literal and emotional, stays focused on the open country of the American West in Nomadland, a film not about cowboys or ranchers, but about a different breed of people who live off the land, those who choose to journey rather than stay put, those who make their home on the open road and in the wide, open spaces that once defined this bountiful country.

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The Sound of Metal

Amazon Studios
Writer/director Darius Marder’s new film, The Sound of Metal, explores, quite beautifully and somewhat elegiacally, how losing all control of your life can be the one thing that saves it.

Riz Ahmed plays Ruben, a heavy metal drummer on tour with his band, which consists of him and his singer girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke). Although “tour” is a generous word, considering they just travel from one dumpy club to another and live in an airstream RV. But, still, they are happy, even though he is a drug addict in recovery, and she has a past as a self-harmer. But, together, they have carved out a nice little life for themselves, until the morning when Ruben wakes up and can suddenly no longer hear. When the doctor confirms 70-80% hearing loss, Ruben is understandably shaken. When Lou fears that this news will prompt a relapse, she calls his sponsor, who recommends Ruben get himself to a meeting asap, and suggests a recovery center for deaf addicts. Even though Ruben is resistant, Lou insists and she leaves him there, knowing she can’t help him. Ruben is terrified to be alone and doesn’t want to be there, but he eventually settles into the strict and familial atmosphere overseen by Joe (Paul Raci), a hearing-impaired recovering alcoholic. Joe sees a real potential in Ruben, but Ruben is obsessively determined to “fix” his situation and get back to Lou and his old life, no matter what it takes. But there are some things that can’t be fixed and, as Ruben learns, there are even some problems that you never knew were there until forced to face them.

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On paper, there is no way any other movie could compete with Mank at the Oscars. Even in a normal year, when the Oscar race wouldn’t have suffered from some of its major contenders fleeing to a post-pandemic, more welcoming theatrical world (will there ever be such a thing again), Mank would still have been top of the lists and competing for every major award. For all the bitter “Oscar bait” criticism being leveled currently at Ron Howard’s sincere-but-overwrought film Hillbilly Elegy, Mank is seeming to escape similar negativity, despite its comparable pandering to a certain audience at a certain time of year. Why? Because Mank is everything Hollywood loves about itself: artistic, symbolic, political, reverential, and forgiving. But, sadly, despite all of Mank’s high achievements (and there are many), it will find a hard time finding a loving audience outside the warm, clutching and adoring bosom of the industry town which birthed it, and that, ironically, could be its downfall.

Mank is director David Fincher’s true passion project. Normally, when an admired, respected and beloved auteur brings forth such a thing, the response is enormous, and such has been the case with Mank, a movie directed by one of the most revered talents in the business, and one that happens to be written by his own deceased father. Mank was Jack Fincher’s only screenplay, one that he wrote in the 1990’s and still hadn’t been produced by the time he died in 2003. So, for his son, a director who enjoys a place among the top echelon of directors thanks to films such as The Social Network, Se7en, Gone Girl, Fight Club, Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the chance to finally get his father’s script on screen was a promise fulfilled. The problem is, the film feels a bit too reverential, not just to its subject, but to its author. The director insists that not a single word was changed from his father’s original script, but, in that, we see maybe why it took the younger Fincher’s clout to get it made. While the dialogue is crisp and smart, it feels a bit too smart and a bit too much.

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Happiest Season

When I interviewed Kristen Stewart last year, she mentioned that she was about to start filming a new film that she was really looking forward to. She didn’t mention what the genre was, she didn’t say the name of the director, she didn’t say anything about the story, her only note on the film was she was working with a friend. Well, as it turns out, now that we’re a year later, we see that the movie she was referencing was Happiest Season, directed by Stewart’s friend Clea Duvall, and all you really need to know about the movie is that it truly feels like a bunch of friends working together, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Filmed last January before the pandemic hit, Happiest Season is everything we need right now, in this different world we live in. It is a Christmas movie, it is loaded with clichés and tropes and worn-out jokes, but it still is something we’ve never seen before. It cannot be emphasized enough how one’s world can be shaped by popular culture, what we see, what we read, what we hear. And when you continue to not see yourself reflected in those places, it makes you start to feel like an outsider, someone who does not belong. In the long run, that makes an impact on your psyche, it drills deep down to the core, changing your basic chemistry. For gay kids, like me, there were no happy endings in television shows or movies for us when we were growing up. There were no light-hearted mainstream comedies for us to relate to and revel in. When you saw a queer character, the entire story was about that, and it always—always—ended painfully.

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The movie industry is starting to heed the call for more stories told from diverse perspectives, by diverse voices. History books were written by white men, so that’s generally the history we’ve been told, and, up until recently, it’s the only history that movies have been telling. The tide is starting to change, though, as we are seeing more movies about the people who have been in the shadows, whose contributions to history were overlooked or flat-out ignored, simply because of their gender or color.

Writer/director Francis Lee found just such a story as he was looking on the internet for a birthday gift for his fossil-loving boyfriend. As he continued to do a deep dive into the history of fossils (pun intended), he came across one of the most acclaimed fossil hunters of the 19th century, a person who was overlooked and underappreciated simply because she was a woman. Her name was Mary Anning, and Lee knew he wanted to tell her story. The result is a new movie called Ammonite, starring Kate Winslet as Anning, and Saoirse Ronan as her friend and lover.

Ammonite is set on the harsh, unforgiving and cold English coastline of Lyme Regis in the 1840s. Anning works alone, walking the beach, searching for small fossils which she can dig up and sell to tourists from her tiny shop in town. Because she’s a woman, she is not taken seriously in her field, even though she has made some substantial discoveries, ones that were claimed and made famous by her male colleagues. So Mary is left to sell trinkets to tourists, while taking care of her mother and nursing some serious resentments toward life.

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Hillbilly Elegy

Ron Howard is one of those directors who is really hard to categorize. He has won an Oscar for directing (A Beautiful Mind in 2002), and has made other well-respected and critically-acclaimed films, such as Apollo 13, but he also is considered one of the most mainstream of the Oscar-caliber directors working today. Howard’s movies tend to be less high-brow than his Academy-friendly counterparts, his movies are for the masses, not for the critics. Beginning with Night Shift, through Splash, Cocoon, Gung Ho, Parenthood, Backdraft, Ransom and Rush all the way to Solo: A Star Wars Story, Howard’s movies have been popular and successful, telling stories of the everyman in a relatable way. His latest, Hillbilly Elegy, is another contemporary look at ordinary people and their struggles in life, and, like every Ron Howard movie, it never gets too dark and it keeps it simple.

Hillbilly Elegy is based on the memoir of the same name written by J.D. Vance. Adapted by Vanessa Taylor, the film tells of a boy from Appalachia and his dysfunctional relationship with the two women who raised him, his mother, played by Amy Adams, and his grandmother, played by Glenn Close. Vance’s mother was a drug addict and his grandmother a tough-as-nails, no-nonsense taskmaster, and Vance found himself caught between them, trying to both save his mother and please his grandmother, even as he grew into adulthood.

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