Judas and the Black Messiah

Warner Bros.
The giants of the Civil Rights movement of the ‘60s could be considered America’s original Avengers, and perhaps there is no better representative of their collective might than Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, a film that highlights both the struggle and the power of the resistance during one of this country’s darkest times. Of all the superheroes of American history portrayed in Sorkin’s protest epic, it is unexpected that the first one to garner their own origin story would be Fred Hampton, the Black Panther leader who is only a minor character in Sorkin’s film, but whose real-life story is a significant touchstone for a tumultuous era and a country’s formative history. Director Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah not only tells Hampton’s story, but shines an even brighter and harsher light on who and what America really was during the 1960s.

Co-written by King and Wil Berson, with a story by Keith and Kenneth Lucas, Judas and the Black Messiah is based on the true story of Hampton’s Chicago branch of the Black Panthers, engaged in a near-constant battle with the corrupt Chicago P.D. and under constant surveillance by the FBI, motivated by a J. Edgar Hoover-driven vendetta. When FBI agent Roy Mitchell is able to convince car thief William O’Neal to infiltrate the Black Panthers and report back details of Hampton’s activities in exchange for leniency (and cash), Hampton is betrayed by someone he trusts and the party is ripped apart from within.

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The Little Things

Warner Bros.
Normally, when you hear that three Oscar winners are starring in a movie, it would garner at least a heightened interest in the film, at most a genuine excitement for what that kind of talent can produce. Add to it a director/writer whose filmography includes a Best Picture nominee and a Best Actress winner and it most certainly would rank among the most anticipated films of any awards season.

Unfortunately, The Little Things, from writer/director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) and starring Oscar winners Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto, not only doesn’t live up to the talent associated with it, but crushes any semblance of legitimate awards consideration by being one of the most hackneyed, off-course and morosely derivative exercises in storytelling in recent memory, with disappointing performances to match.

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Our Friend

Gravitas Ventures
It’s safe to say that a movie about a young mother dying of cancer might not be one that someone would race to watch. It certainly is asking a lot of an audience to voluntarily put themselves through the emotional wringer like that, especially in the general emotional state we are all in right now. However, if there is a director who can find a way to make a movie about cancer not only appealing, but also inviting and even funny, it’s Gabriela Cowperthwaite, and Our Friend is just that movie.

Don’t get me wrong, the movie is still devastatingly sad, there’s no way around it. But Cowperthwaite, who previously demonstrated the skill to tell audiences a tough but emotionally satisfying film in Megan Leavey, mines every bit of humanity and comedy in the suffering of Our Friend, massively aided by three incredibly strong performances by Jason Segel, Casey Affleck and Dakota Johnson.

Written by Brad Ingelsby, who himself is having a good year, having also written the Ben Affleck-starrer The Way Back, Our Friend is based on an Esquire article written by journalist Matt Teague, about Teague’s best friend, Dane, who moved in with his family when his wife Nicole was dying of cancer. Dane puts his whole life on hold to assist his friends in their time of need, helping out with the Teague’s two young daughters and giving Matt the time he needs to focus on Nicole.

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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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Nomadland

Searchlight
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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