Entries Tagged 'movie reviews' ↓

Seymour Movies: Oscar’s Chalkiest Year

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The one thing I can still remember poor Jo Koy saying at his much-derided hosting stint at this year’s Golden Globe Awards came at the very end when he exulted, “Hollywood is back!” Not even crickets could be heard acknowledging this statement, which made me, at least, wonder whether even Hollywood thinks it’s back. A Socratic temperament might press for terms to be defined: What do you mean by “Hollywood”? What do you mean by “back”? “Back” from what? From COVID? From the contract disputes? From the looming specter of A.I.? And is this what being “back” looks like?

It is a certainty that all those who work in the Factory of Dreams are back at their jobs, which means they can campaign and vote in all their various trade competitions leading up to the Academy Awards. But if by “Hollywood,” you mean, the “screwy, ballyhooey Hollywood” of klieg lights, big screens, and its ersatz royalty of big stars…well, only a sentimental naïf wouldn’t have by now figured out that gossamer myth dissipated into the ozone several decades ago and whatever tiny fragments remain are deflating hour by hour in a post-Millennial universe where, as somebody on the recently-completed fifth season of FX’s Fargo might put it, we all get to create our own reality while feeling empowered to throw big, sharp rocks at everybody else’s.

How can any movie, Hollywood or independent, presume to grab a lion’s share of a consensus audience in a determinedly fragmented world like ours? For a while this past summer, Barbie appeared to have pulled it off triumphantly enough to have given Warner Bros. a breathtaking surge in its profit margin. But before long, we stopped having serious fun with the movie and started getting frivolously solemn over whether it was OK to enjoy ourselves so much over such a conspicuous, if cheekily self-referential example of “product placement.” And we’re still arguing about it with one side of the room grousing about Oscar keeping both the movie’s star Margot Robbie and its director Greta Gerwig out of the running while others bloviate about arrested development and whether the whole thing was post-feminist or post-post-feminist, or yet another marker in civilization’s dreary slouch towards Bethlehem.

I shall, of course, deal further with Barbie in the text below. As far as how I liked it, I need only quote the indispensable cultural critic Robert Warshow who is famous for saying the following: “A man watches Barbie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.” OK, I made up the Barbie part. But somehow the original quote, a standby among cinephiles for generations, makes more sense when put this way, at least to me.

The critic that I like to think I still am enjoys the ongoing threads and conversations as they unspool on various platforms. But conversation, after a while, gives way to a kind of annoying “know-it-all”-ism requiring nothing more than loud, emphatic assertions of opinion with little to no room for challenges or even questions from the floor. Often, it’s jaded contrarianism without portfolio (literally) as if standing in opposition to the crowd, or merely believing that you do, is all you need to bring to the microphone. I want more than that. And we should, too, without worrying about how our opinions look to others and how our judgments will be judged in turn.

And if we do like something that everybody else likes, we shouldn’t have to apologize for it in the same way we shouldn’t have to apologize for liking things nobody else cares for. All that is part of what used to be the romance of moviegoing and in romance, looking or feeling foolish is always a liability. But you don’t move anywhere without such risks and neither does art. If we could stop being so self-conscious about what we wear in the digi-verse, we could all come back to the rapture we felt when we first sat down in a dark room waiting for transport. The movies, as we knew them, could truly be “back” – and so, maybe, could Hollywood.

Wait for it…wait for it…

Naaaah!

You know the drill by now. Projected winners are in bold and FWIW (For Whatever It’s Worth) asides will follow some predictions, as needed.

Best Picture

American Fiction
Anatomy of a Fall
Barbie
The Holdovers
Killers of the Flower Moon
Maestro
Oppenheimer
Past Lives
Poor Things
The Zone of Interest

As Barbie continued to dominate industry chatter well into the new year, I wondered whether Academy voters would do the Wild Thang (sic) and give it the top prize, partly to mollify those who think director Greta Gerwig and lead actress Margot Robbie got skunked out of nominations and mostly to give props to its galvanic impact on the Almighty Bottom Line. But devoted followers of this site will recall that a year ago, I believed Top Gun: Maverick would reap voters’ good will for its olly-olly-oxen-free shoutout to audiences that it was not only safe, but mandatory to return to the multiplexes in the pandemic’s wake. I’m not making that mistake a second time. Oppenheimer fits the Oscar prototype for a major movie whose significance surfaces before the movie even begins. The same can be said, even more so, for Scorsese’s Good Fellas of the Purple Sage (my own name for it and I mean no disrespect.). Voters have tended to seek the comfort of Big Important Topics as a way of putting the industry’s best possible face forward into its future. I’m opting now for the one whose importance would have been timelier back in the 1980s in the last tense days of the Cold War. But never mind. Right now, its front-runner status here is secure, even after more than half a year.

FWIW: Despite pundits’ best efforts to coax this year’s categories into wire-to-wire finishes (as they are prone to do), I suspect this is one of those Years of Foregone Conclusions as far as handicapping Oscars is concerned. In other words, chalk is your wisest investment. The past year has so exhausted the industry that it’s hard to imagine any of the nominated films, their casts and crews suddenly catching fire towards the finish line. There’s been enough excitement from all these shutdowns and strikes this past year, thank you very much. Let’s just worry about catching up and getting back to whatever this New Normal in the industry is concerned because there’s an awful lot of stuff to make everybody nervous about the future. So, who needs horse races? Let’s leave them to actual horses.

In case anybody’s interested, Poor Things would get my vote, simply because I had a blast watching all that grotesque slapstick and baroque comedy slithering out of the screen like tentacles. Yorgos Lanthimos’ movie goes about its sticky, gnarly business the way Willem Dafoe’s deformed Doc Baxter went about his: so absorbed in its own process as to be coolly indifferent to the effect it’s having on its incredulous onlookers. It won’t win here, but I’m tickled that I saw it if for no other reason that it gives me added incentive to actually read more Alastair Grey this year. Lanark, I think.


Best Director

Jonathan Grazer, The Zone of Interest
Yorgos Lanthimos, Poor Things
Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer
Martin Scorsese, Killers of the Flower Moon
Justine Triet, Anatomy of a Fall

Nolan has been so routinely unpopular with segments of the critical community (not an oxymoron) that I sometimes think his haters invent reasons not to like any of his movies, even when they work well. With me, it’s always been case by case. Liked Insomnia. Hated Tenet. Admired, without loving, Dunkirk. Loved, without admiring, Interstellar. And on and on. With other directors, as well as craftspeople in various disciplines, it’s a different story. They’ve likely been waiting for just the right moment to give him a party favor and if he doesn’t get it for this one, it’s hard to imagine another chance coming up. Except that directors like him outlast almost everybody else, even, and especially, critics like us.



Best Actress

 

 


Annette Bening, Nyad
Lily Gladstone, Killers of the Flower Moon
Sandra Hüller, Anatomy of a Fall
Carey Mulligan, Maestro
Emma Stone, Poor Things

All these contenders went all-out in their performances, and each would have been sure bets in other years with weaker competition. History, however, is opening a wide, clear path for Gladstone to repeat Michelle Yeoh’s coup of a year ago by becoming the first Indigenous American to win a lead-acting Oscar. And, as with Yeoh’s becoming the first Asian-American last year, Gladstone has earned it.

FWIW: Still, part of me wishes I could airlift Bening’s nomination to another year with weaker competition. I thought she deserved to win 13 years ago for The Kids Are Alright, which was her fourth and, till now, most recent Oscar bid in more than 30 years. She’s not quite Glenn Close as far as hard-luck Oscar nominees go, but one fears she’s getting there.


Best Actor

 

 


Bradley Cooper, Maestro
Colman Domingo, Rustin
Paul Giamatti, The Holdovers
Cillian Murphy, Oppenheimer
Jeffrey Wright, American Fiction

People look at Holdovers’ promotions and all they can see and hear are other, lesser nostalgic prep school comedies with cranky adults buddying up with drippy students; the most notable example brought up is 1992’s Scent of a Woman, which finally got Al Pacino his Oscar well into the “She’s-got-a-GREAT-ass!” phase of his career. This essay by Olivia Rutigliano says everything that needs saying about why both the movie and Giamatti’s performance are different – and why he’ll be rewarded for it.








Best Supporting Actress

Emily Blunt, Oppenheimer
Danielle Brooks, The Color Purple
America Ferrara, Barbie
Jodie Foster, Nyad
Da’Vine Joy Randolph, The Holdovers

Randolph’s already a front-runner, principally because she so deftly conveys the complex, mercurial nature of loss, a theme that makes the movie stand out from others in its sub-genre. Also, the way her character’s aching vulnerability is contained beneath  dry, if pliable layers.

FWIW: I still wish there were a way to train more attention on some of the other worthy nominees here, especially Ferrara, who to my mind had an even greater challenge in her overall characterization than the people playing dolls. 

Best Supporting Actor

 

 

 


Sterling K. Brown, American Fiction
Robert De Niro, Killers of the Flower Moon
Robert Downey Jr., Oppenheimer
Ryan Gosling, Barbie
Mark Ruffalo, Poor Things

I see this as, essentially, Iron Man vs. The Hulk. Iron Man wins.

FWIW: If Wright hadn’t been nominated for Best Actor, I would have liked to see his vulpine rendition of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in Rustin given its due here. Problem is, everybody else in this category is so formidable that there wouldn’t have been any room for his nomination.


Best Adapted Screenplay

American Fiction
Barbie
Oppenheimer
Poor Things
The Zone of Interest

In case you’re still wondering what Barbie is doing here, this will provide the (illogical, unsatisfying) answer. Whichever category it landed in, the script would have been well-positioned to allow co-writer Gerwig to get the statue for which director Gerwig wasn’t allowed to compete. Too bad in a way because the other “Adapted” nominees are all especially worthy contenders…

FWIW: …especially Cord Jefferson’s script for American Fiction. Even though he’s been scolded by some for paring down the serrated edges of his source material (Percival Everett’s acerbic satire Erasure), he managed to fashion an all-too rare and persuasively level-headed depiction of an upper middle class Black family, balanced, humane, and still witty enough to stand out from anything that came beforehand, if you can think of what that could be.

Best Original Screenplay

Anatomy of a Fall
The Holdovers
Maestro
May December
Past Lives

David Hemingson’s script for Holdovers isn’t perfect. But it makes for the kind of movie that holds its elements loosely enough for voters to cozy up to. Story, structure (of a sort), snappy dialogue, emotional impact. It checks enough boxes to breeze through here.

FWIW: Then again, there’s always the (very slight) chance that a sleeper like Past Lives could ease its way to the front of the pack on having even greater, if subtler emotional weigh


Best International Feature

Io Capitano
Perfect Days
Society of the Snow
The Teachers Lounge
The Zone of Interest

Great Britain’s entry is Jonathan Glaser’s chilling, prize-winning depiction of the banality of evil near one of the Nazi death camps. As with recent winners in this category, it also has a Best Picture nomination, which usually means an inevitable win here.





 

Best Animated Feature

The Boy and the Heron
Elemental
Nimona
Robot Dreams
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

By far, the most competitive race on the docket with predictions weaving back and forth between the new meta-Spidey adventure and Hayao Miyazaki’s Boy and the Heron, the latter of which has already collected a Globe along a rasher of critics’ prizes. The other three, including Diz-Pix’s latest, could legitimately be regarded as classics, especially the smart and daring medieval/urban fantasy Nimona, which almost didn’t make it into any kind of distribution. Even with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) edging towards eclipse at the moment, I’m going to put my chips on Miles Morales, even though it’s plausible that Oscar will wait for the third installment of that series to drop before full acknowledgment.

Best Documentary Feature

Bobi Wine: The People’s President
The Eternal Memory
Four Daughters
To Kill a Tiger
20 Days in Mariupol

Each of these selections carries enough urgency in their socio-political themes to illuminate a whole nation state. All of them deserve to win and any of them could. I’m betting on the AP/Frontline entry whose depiction of a Ukraine city under siege is wrenchingly, frighteningly intimate in its accumulation of raw detail. 

Best Cinematography

El Conde
Killers of the Flower Moon
Maestro
Oppenheimer
Poor Things

The relentless march of Oppenheimer ensures that Hoyte Van Hoytema will likely get his first Oscar after his previous work with Nolan’s Dunkirk and Interstellar was nominated but did not win (NBDNW). It’s by no means a lock, but… 


Best Original Score

American Fiction
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny
Killers of the Flower Moon
Oppenheimer
Poor Things

Of course, I would love it if Robbie Robertson would get some posthumous love for his haunting, old-weird-America score for Killers; his interludes fit so seamlessly with the scratchy, tinny archival recordings weaved into the soundtrack that you almost believe it all came from the same old 78-RPM records. But it’s easier to imagine Ludwig Göransson’s second win being part of the Oppenheimer wave.

Best Song

“The Fire Inside” (from Flamin’ Hot)
“I’m Just Ken” (from Barbie)
“It Never Went Away” (from American Symphony)
“Wahzhazhe” (from Killers of the Flower Moon)
What Was I Made For?” (from Barbie)

Outside of production design, this has to be the only sure bet on the table for Barbie, plus it’s already nabbed a Grammy for Song of the Year.

Gene Seymour’s Favorite Things in 2023

The preponderance of books and television series cited below suggests that I still don’t get out as much as I should. And while COVID isn’t going away (and did, in fact, bite me sometime earlier in the year), there’s still so much to behold in person as opposed to a screen. Or a page.

Still, I did, for the record, travel more than usual in 2023, mostly to northwesterly places on the continent where I saw bears, moose, elk, glaciers, and geysers. By my count, I still have twelve states in the union to visit in my lifetime and sustain the hope, however faintly it is articulated these days, that there will still be a union for as long as I hope to live.

Still.

If democracy is under siege and things are as bad as cable news networks insist (I don’t think they are, but that’s another discussion for another time), it’s not because culture failed us. The items below, even though they represent a relative sliver of what’s available, all tell eternal truths in up-to-the-minute fashion. Even when they depressed me, they gave me hope. So, the lesson here is a clear one: Stop watching cable news. Watch and – especially, for the love of God – read stuff like this. You’ll feel better. You’ll know more. That’s the best I can say. The rest, especially in 2024, is up to you.

Once again, these are in no particular order:

 

 

 



The Survivalists – Another outstanding year for African American fiction – and, at this point (for varied reasons), why don’t we just say, “American fiction,” period? – began with this silken-swift comedy of manners that’s as dark, rich, and intensely stimulating as the gourmet coffee that, along with heavy artillery, is a major trope in Kashana Cauley’s novel. Its central character is Aretha, a fast-tracking corporate attorney whose peripatetic love life seems finally to have found mooring with Aaron, the dashing founder-proprietor of Terminal Coffee, which roasts and sells coffee from his home base in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood. Beyond mutual infatuation, Aretha and Aaron are such kindred spirits in their droll hipness, Type-A impulses, and wily diffidence that she moves into the commodious old rowhouse he shares with two somewhat singular housemates: Brittany, a churlish, taciturn “Angry Flo-Jo” who’s responsible for assembling the backyard bunker, and James, a sullen, pallid ex-reporter fired from the Washington Post for plagiarism. It turns out this motley band is warehousing more than coffee beans. There’s also a deep, wide stash of guns and ammo, part of which they’re hoarding as protection from an as-yet unspecified urban apocalypse while the rest is being sold to all manner of dubious buyers in the Tri-State area. Aretha at first keeps a respectful distance from the gunrunning business. But when her hitherto upward trajectory towards full partnership hits the ceiling, Aretha throws herself into Terminal Coffee’s off-the-books operations – and becomes scary-good at it. Cauley, herself a lapsed attorney who was once a Daily Show staff writer, nails down rueful insights about cultivating high ambitions in cloistered times and tallies the ironies in striving for space in a future you otherwise fear and loathe. In other words, it’s about living one’s best possible life near the upper reaches (and below the radar) in the 21st century.



 

 



The Bear – I’m going to imagine that at some point during the filming of the second season of The Bear that the ghost of John Cassavetes somehow made it to the Chicago locations where the series was being shot. He (it?) likely felt very much at home, especially within the intimate, more ramshackle surroundings like the restaurant kitchen being ripped apart to make room for a newer, sleeker, higher-end eatery than the one it’s replacing. So much of him yearns to assume corporeal form even for a minute or two, if only to offer advice, encouragement, maybe a few suggestions, once he can find out the storyline, the schedule, and what the theatrical specifications are. First off, he probably can’t believe this is all being made for television. Then, with sheer wonder, he thinks: These kids really know what they’re doing. He is especially galvanized by Ayo Edebiri, who plays the precocious young chef Sydney. Despite her age, she seems the wisest, worldliest person among her stressed-out colleagues; except for those times when she isn’t, and her own insecurities come at her from unexpected places, like muggers in dark alleys. His attitudes towards The Bear’s male leads are more complicated. With both, it’s like staring at a looking glass. Jeremy Allan White’s portrayal of Carmen (“Carmy” or sometimes just “Carm”) Berzato, the perpetually frustrated genius-chef stalked by guilt, haunted by death, keeping fear of failure at bay, is the kind of soulful, belligerent savant Cassavetes used to play all the time. He’d have nailed his role down like an iron fencepost back in his day. The other guy, Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), Carmen’s best bud and restaurant manager, is also a role made for him, meaning the self-sabotaging stick-of-dynamite with the short fuse who needs just one more thing to go south for him to blow himself up and everybody else with him. All these three kids with dreams way bigger than they can carry without tripping on the curb are magnificent creations. But Cassavetes knows they’re not even all of it; it’s also the family background, which all comes to a head in that bravura Christmas episode with the Feast of the Seven Fishes. The ghost thinks: That was something I could have never pulled off the way they did. It managed to fire all over the place and still come through ferociously contained. And besides, Cassavetes thinks, even I wouldn’t have had the stones to end the whole episode with the mother driving a car through the living room. And that the mother was played by somebody you only gradually recognize as Jamie Lee Curtis, but in another time and place, could have easily been Gena Rowlands.

 

 

 

 

 

 



The Chain Gang All-Stars – I’ll admit it. There’s this teeny, microbe-sized Imp-of-the-Perverse way down deep inside me that’s tempted to wonder, if for no more than a nanosecond, whether the alternate universe depicted in Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s ingeniously dystopian first novel is onto something: that giving the most abject violent criminals in custody the option of fighting televised duels-to-the-death would be something of a win-win situation for them and for a society that can’t get enough of real-world violent spectacle. Before you judge me, you should know that at least one reviewer of Adjei-Breyah novel opened the piece by asking whether he was having too much fun reading about a world in which there is such a thing as a Criminal Action Penal Entertainment (CAPE) program and that such a world could all too easily adapt its moral compass to take in pay-per-view packages showing wanton, all-out bloodshed between otherwise doomed convicts, some with their own fan bases and merchandise. It may not be the kind of thing I’d shell out my hard-earned streaming dollars for, but the fact that I can imagine as easily as Adjei-Brenyah does fans of all ages having wall-poster-sized devotion to gladiators like Loretta Thurwar and Hamara Stacker a.k.a. “Hurricane Staxx,” who, inconveniently, are lovers as well as competitors. In addition to these awkward situations, Adjei-Brenyah is conscientious enough in his world-building to conceive a web of corporate enablers of his madness from all-sports cable networks to the incarceration industrial complex (which is what I’m calling it this week anyway). The heretics travel along with a protest movement stalking the CAPE caravan at every stop on its tour, making some of the arguments you can hear in “real life” about the malign growth of the private prison industry and the seemingly impermeable hold that mandatory sentencing, capital punishment, wrongful convictions, solitary confinement, and other, similar aspects of the “real” legal system has on those who want their loves ones protected. At what point, one asks, does “safety” itself become its own kind of prison? Part of Adjei-Brenyah’s purpose is to arouse such self-interrogations in his readers – who, in turn, could subdue their own meaner instincts enough to ask more questions of our society and ourselves. So you can question your fears…

 

 

 

 



The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store – …or you can engage with your hopes. We were as urgently in need of James McBride’s  depiction of collective strength and courage in the 20th century as we were of Adjei-Brenyah’s  more acerbic alternate vision of the 21st. McBride follows up his 2020 triumph, Deacon King Kong, with another exuberantly polyphonic novel in which a community, if not the notion of “community” itself, is the protagonist. It’s a murder mystery set off in 1972 by the discovery of a skeleton, along with a mezuzah, found at the bottom of a well in the Chicken Hill section of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, once a lively, tumble-down community of mostly Jewish and African American residents. The narrative steps back more than 40 years before when Moshe Ludlow, a Romanian Jew owned and operated a theater and dance hall while his American-born wife Chona ran the eponymous grocery store nearby. Events are set in motion when Nate Timblin, a Black employee at Moshe’s theater, asks the couple to shield an orphaned and deaf 12-year-old boy child Dodo from state officials seeking his institutionalization. Moshe is reluctant, but Chona, a woman of deep compassion and iron will, insists, despite threats, explicit and otherwise, from the city’s white power structure, many of whose members disdain the easy-does-it interaction between Chicken Hill’s ethnic minorities to the point of taking part in Ku Klux Klan parades. In clumsier, hammier hands than McBride’s, this is the kind of story whose melodramatic elements can be ramped to needless excess. But here, as McBride’s previous work, it is his exquisite sense of tone, timing, humor, and nuance that allows the novel to earn our tears — and our faith in each other, whenever we need it.

 

 

 

 




Lily Gladstone – Screen stars always emit a field of magnetism that at once draws us in and keeps us at a distance. With Gladstone, these warring elements somehow merge into an aura of repose that’s eerie to behold. Her less-is-more triumph in Killers of the Flower Moon is powerful and dominant enough on its own elemental terms as to all but redefine the very nature of bravura performance. She is a virtuoso of stillness in ways that harken all the way back, if you can imagine it, to Buster Keaton and other silent-movie icons. And not even they could convey with their faces whole landscapes whose emotional weather systems can shift from wary to vulnerable to kittenish to sensual to bemused, braced throughout by resilience whose sources are probably a mystery even to her. Perhaps one way to account for this composure is Gladstone’s portrayal of
Hotki in Reservation Dogs. As jail-bound mother to Danny, whose suicide pitches the series’ teenaged characters into upheaval, anxiety, and confusion, Hotki has distanced herself emotionally and otherwise from everyone in her family except for her niece Willie Jack. When in the series finale Willie Jack brings Hotki an “offering” of snacks and sodas, the “auntie” summons the spirits of the ancestors passing on to the younger woman the obligation of looking after the friends and family members most in need. Once again, a majestic act carried out with understated humor and minimal flourish. She’s a trickster goddess with more surprises in store for us.

 

 

 

 

 





Barry – Of the hustlers, victims, losers, loners, narcissists, innocent passersby, and low-life sharpies making their way through four seasons of auteur-star Bill Hader’s inky, deadpan tragicomedy, none was as manipulative or as disingenuous as Monroe Fuches (the amazing Stephen Root), friend-mentor of Hader’s Barry Berkman, the mentally-unbalanced ex-GI who was guided by Fuches through an underground career of lucrative assassination before Barry decided he’d rather be a professional actor. Towards the conclusion of this so-dazzling-it-physically-hurt-to-watch-it season, Fuches, who emerged as something of a crime capo following some hard prison time, confronts his Chechen counterpart Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan), whose bumptious naivete was darkened and deflated when he was forced by his own bosses to abet his lover’s murder. Now Hank and Fuches are haggling over who gets to kill Barry. (The “why” would take too long to get into here, requiring a rehash of Dostoyevskian proportions). It’s enough to say that Fuches, perhaps more than any other character in the whole sordid story, has arrived at something close to a complete reckoning for his many abysmal acts and is best able to assess where he’s landed in life. And why:

“I used to think I was a soldier, ignoring the fact that I never fought a battle in my whole life. I was a poseur. And I thought myself a mentor fostering other men’s natural abilities. But it wasn’t until I was in prison, and I got beaten to within an inch of my life day after day that I finally cut the bullshit and just accepted who I am: a man with no heart.”

Now, Fuches wants Hank to reach the same self-realization:

“I walk away, You’ll never hear from me again. All you have to do is admit that you killed Cristobal, admit that you fucked up, admit that you were scared, that you hate yourself, that there’s some days you don’t think you deserve to live. And the only think that’ll make you forget is by being someone else.”

Hank wants none of it. There are consequences.

 

 



Now, this wasn’t how the series ultimately ended. Still more grisly jolts are in store. But it figured that Fuches would use his curtain call to sum up the self-deluding, perpetually denying soul of present-day America. Keep his monologue in mind as 2024 unravels like a soggy bedsheet.

 

 

 

 


Scavengers Reign – Further proof that science fiction flourishes best in a television series format, the better to let ideas and themes grow, bend, and metamorphose in the same manner as the flora and fauna on the planet Vesta Minor, where survivors of the calamitous wreck of the cargo ship Demeter 227 are scattered and struggling to cope with the planet’s astounding and hazardous ecosystem. Horror and wonder are weaved into Joseph Bennett and Charles Huettner IV’s conception with as much fascinating dexterity as the characters’ complications which are themselves transformed by the intractable natural elements coming at them from all sides. Even Levi, the dutiful and empathetic AI, is as susceptible to transformation through Vesta’s organic matter as the humans. Whether the changes are good or bad are difficult to gauge; in fact, “good” or “bad” turn out to have as little use in classifying the survivors as the wildlife. The gorgeous animation, owing as much to the comic strips of Jean “Moebius” Girard as to the films of Studio Ghibli, keeps you alert to illumination and revulsion. Because of the relentless progression of new exotica at every narrative corner, you shouldn’t be surprised if, upon encountering the first of this series’ 12 installments, you find yourself compelled to stay with it all the way through. Nor should you be surprised if, after you’re done, you have a whole new reverence for Earth’s increasingly vulnerable ecosystem, which, as with Vesta Minor’s, should be properly regarded as a single living entity worth engaging at eye level.

 

 


Apple TV – I still believe Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is the See It Now of the 21st century (and if you don’t know what I mean by that exalted comparison, let’s go to the kinescope one more time). But occasionally, the host will get a little Too Extra for his, or his show’s own good. Recently, Oliver declared that Apple TV carries shows nobody wants to watch, hammering home the point by saying the streaming network is where celebrities go to hide. I get it, on some level. They canned Jon Stewart, and it’s understandable that Oliver would take the spiked baseball bat out of the glass case to vent his displeasure on behalf of the mensch who made him the force for good he is today. But were I he (sic), I’d think more than twice about that “nobody wants to watch” slur. As I write this, I am happily engrossed in both season three of Slow Horses and season four of For All Mankind and have gone through several digital hoops when away from home to make sure I don’t miss a single installment. Also, I’ve found myself keeping up with series that, however unpromising they seemed at first, got their hooks into me even with their quirks and shortcomings jutting out at odd places. I’m thinking principally of Ted Lasso, which overcame some glitches at the start of its third and final season to bring everybody home literally, figuratively, and, in general, smoothly. And despite what Oliver alleges about the network keeping its talent buried, it was the surprising strength of some big-name performers that carried me through their respective shows. Harrison Ford’s droll, affably wooly presence on Shrinking compensated for much of that series’ overreaching New Age-y kitsch and once Brie Larson’s character shook away the icy veneer on Lessons in Chemistry, her magnetism and charm held the show together. The network even carries what may well be my all-time favorite hate-watch series in The Morning Show, exactly none of whose characters make me want to let them into my foyer, much less my living room. And yet Billy Crudup, as the network president, is having such an insanely good time playing the leering, unapologetically two-faced butthole that every time he exits a scene I feel like applauding. Granted, it’s not Paramount/Showtime, FX or HBO Max — but then again, HBO Max doesn’t feel much like HBO used to be, as even John Oliver might agree.


 


Jeffrey Wright – Thelonious Ellison, the character Wright plays in American Fiction, bears the first and last names of artists who, among their many achievements, gave permission to subsequent generations of artists to be as crazy and individualistic as they need to be. Such empowerment isn’t enough for “Monk” Ellison whose complex, resolutely philosophic novels confuse so many people that booksellers put them in the African American section only because he’s Black. But not Black enough until…well, you can read about it here. The point to be made here is that Wright’s whole career has been made up of characters you don’t expect him to play, whether it’s Felix Leiter in the Daniel Craig Bond movies or the odd amalgam of A.J. Liebling and James Baldwin he portrays in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch (2021) or the enigmatic man-machine doppelganger Arnold Weber/Bernard Lowe on HBO’s Westworld. Wright’s ability to contain giant waves of emotional complexity has expanded possibilities in almost the same manner as Thelonious Ellison’s two namesakes. As with all great actors, Wright’s brilliance shines even in the tightest, narrowest corners, notably in his portrayal of the flamboyant Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in Rustin where the legendary Harlem congressman’s cruel mischief oozes like spilled honey on an expensive carpet. It’s one of those mesmerizing cameos you wish you could pull away from the rest of the movie to expand into a full-length feature all its own. But why stop with Adam Powell? If we’re all serious about widening the stage and screen for color-blind casting, why not place Wright in the role of that great American exemplar of conflicting motives Richard Milhous Nixon? Is it possible that Wright’s Nixon could go deep and broad enough to cut such accomplished renderings as those of Lane Smith, Frank Langella, Dan Hedaya, or even Wright’s old Westworld boss Anthony Hopkins? I wouldn’t bet against him.



Seymour Movies Struggles to Stay Intrigued by 2023 Oscars

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 2023 Oscar ceremonies bear down on us all like a vacant, runaway bus on an oil-slicked interstate. And yet, people still can’t stop nattering about what happened at the 2022 ceremonies, when somebody’s husband got so mad at somebody else’s bad joke at her expense that he bitch-slapped that somebody else while ABC did its gosh-darndest to keep us from seeing it happen. Now the Motion Picture Academy of Arts & Sciences have assembled a “crisis team” to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Too bad. They could use the ratings. And they know it.

For yet another year, the Academy Awards stagger into view beneath a fog of uncertainty as to whether they should continue to exist at all. In a recent interview, erstwhile Paramount Pictures honcho Barry Diller declared awards season “an antiquity”, along with the movie industry that kept them propped up for more than a century. The business model, Diller says, of a movie “going to a theater, building up some word of mouth if it was successful, having that word of mouth carry itself over” has been overpowered by streams, clouds, and movie theaters closing in America and abroad as a reverberating byproduct of the COVID-19 lockdown. The very definition of a “movie,” he adds, “is in such transition that it doesn’t mean anything anymore.”

He’s right, of course. And yet, here we are again, rewiring this tired old circuitry to get audiences in the mood for another night of triumph, tears, suspense, and whatever else Oscar hype used to promise. What’s kind of ironic, if not all that significant, is that this year, there may be real suspense in a few of the major categories given the mixed results along the way in the awards leading up to March 12. As of this writing, all the trade publications and prognosticators are certain Everything Everywhere All at Once will win everything, everywhere, etc. As you’ll note below, I’m not as convinced, at least not for Best Picture.

I’m also not convinced that this will be the last Academy Awards broadcast, nor, for that matter, the next one, or the one after that. Because, as wobbly as things are with the Oscars, and as more people, even movie lovers, wish they would go away already, no one seems to have any ideas as to what, if anything, would fill the void they would leave behind. As with newspapers, all-star games, and other institutions struggling for new identities in the still-new century, the very nature of what a “movie” is and what the criteria is for assessing its value, artistically or commercially is, unavoidably, under review in several quarters. Whatever the case, the movie business as we once knew it may be dying, but movies are not; any more than opera, live theater, even the damn novel, all of which persist, despite no longer occupying the center of the zeitgeist.

In fact, what is a zeitgeist these days anyhow? If the Oscars are little more than a lame excuse to avoid dealing with that question, then, they’re good for something after all.

As always, projected winners are listed in bold with FWIW (For Whatever Its Worth) notes added whenever I feel like it. 


Best Picture

All Quiet on the Western Front
Avatar: The Way of Water
The Banshees of Inesherin
Elvis
Everything Everywhere All at Once
The Fabelmans
Tár
Top Gun: Maverick
Triangle of Sadness
Women Talking

Let’s get this party started by clambering out on a limb. As I’m writing this, the Screen Actors Guild, the Producers Guild of America, and the Directors Guild of America have all given their top honors to Everything Everywhere All at Once with BAFTA dissenting by making All Quiet on the Western Front its choice for Best Picture. That digression, though hardly major, should be a hint that this season’s predictions shouldn’t be, if not set in stone, certainly written in ink. As the New York Times’s Kyle Buchannan tweeted, not since Apollo 13 swept the PGA, DGA, and SAG’s top prizes 28 years ago has a movie winning those awards fell short of winning the Best Picture Oscar. On the one hand, that’s a formidable precedent; on the other, if it happened at least once before…

At the risk of repeating myself (at least to those of you who’ve been paying attention to my annual dithering on these things), the Oscars, even in their present emaciated state, are trade awards, first, foremost, and for however long they go on. In the medium’s customary tug-of-war between Art and Commerce, the latter tends to have the upper hand in the Academy’s consideration. Neither the media nor the moviegoing public are factors in the voting except for those parts of the latter group with craft union cards within the moviemaking industry. Thus, most of the Academy’s final decisions have less to do with the quality of a motion picture and more to do with assessing its overall impact on their industry’s future. Hence, I put it to you: which of these eight movies has done more to bolster whatever’s left of the movie business’s sagging confidence?


Before you answer, I need to remind you that at this year’s annual Oscars luncheon, TG:M’s co-producer and star Tom Cruise made the biggest splash among its record-breaking 182 attendees; he was the Big Man On Campus, its Belle of the Ball, with none of the baggage he’s had to lug over the past 20 years. In a year with as many wide-open categories as this, the top prize may be the widest and most open of the competitions, excepting the feature documentaries. Draw your own conclusions, but at this moment, I can easily see Captain Maverick and his squadron booming and zooming to the winner’s circle. And because the movie was better than anybody had the right to expect, it wouldn’t be the most embarrassing Best Picture award in Oscar history. Too many others compete for that dubious honor.


FWIW: I doubt Prey or Nope, two of my own favorite movies from last year, would have made this list; nor would the tightly wound and ferociously topical Emily the Criminal and the sumptuously Hitchcockian detective story from Korea Decision to Leave. What all these had in common, as far as I was concerned, was a sense of each movie going about its business, doing what needed to be done in their allotted time, and keeping their audiences alert for surprise and possibility within tight corners. In short, they were the kind of movies I sought out in theaters or drive-ins in an earlier, different life.




Best Director

Martin McDonagh, The Banshees of Inesherin
Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere All at Once
Steven Spielberg, The Fabelmans
Todd Field, Tár
Ruben Öslund, Triangle of Sadness

Fablemans is a Steven Spielberg movie about Steven Spielberg. Some people have a problem with this, and I don’t know why. It’s not getting skunked the same way that his remake of West Side Story did a couple years ago. But you’d think a love letter to movies and moviemaking would be a slam dunk with voters. Instead, Team Daniel has been riding in triumph throughout awards season and there’s not so much as a pebble to trip them up to the winner’s circle.


Best Actor

 



Austin Butler, Elvis
Colin Farrell, The Banshees of Inisherin
Brendan Fraser, The Whale
Paul Mescal, Aftersun
Bill Nighy, Living

At the start, this category appeared to belong to Farrell or Fraser, whose SAG win may have put him back in play. But maybe it’s kind of a retroactive referendum on what people admired more about Robert De Niro’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Jake La Motta in 1980’s Raging Bull. Was it the all-out depiction in La Motta’s volatile personality or was it the fact that De Niro invested so deeply into the role that he made himself gain weight? Guess we’ll see.


Best Actress

Cate Blanchett, Tár
Ana de Armas, Blonde
Andrea Riseborough, To Leslie
Michelle Williams, The Fabelmans
Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All at Once

Everybody I know, including me, is rooting for Yeoh, though Blanchett’s been mounting a doughty and, it would appear, successful campaign to dispel the negative vibes her movie stirred up in the classical music community. Cate’s BAFTA win teases us into thinking this will be a photo finish, but somehow, I doubt it’ll be that close


FWIW: Every year, the Oscars always seem to single out a “little” movie with a broken, put-upon protagonist struggling with some malady that s/he cannot control until they find redemption at the end. This year, that movie is To Leslie and its principal beneficiary is Andrea Riseborough, whose controversial nomination came through an eleventh-hour campaign with big names (Kate Winslet, Amy Adams, and Gwyneth Paltrow among them) pushing her over. This in turn led to cries of foul, especially among the #OscarSoWhite veterans believing Risborough’s candidacy came at the expense of such Oscar-worthy lead performances as those of Danielle Deadwyler (Till) and Viola Davis (The Woman King), both of whom were nominated for SAG Awards, but lost to Yeoh. Till’s director Chinonye Chukwu accused Hollywood of “unabashed misogyny towards Black women.” She’s not altogether wrong. But it doesn’t mean Riseborough’s nomination is a manifestation of this prejudice. It’s legit. You come away from To Leslie with Riseborough’s all-out investment in her serial-fuck-up character resonating in your head. Do I think she’s better than Blanchett or Yeoh? Apples and oranges. Do I think Deadwyler was better in her movie than Riseborough was in hers? I’d say it’s a draw. Do I think Davis was better in Woman King? You bet I do because, as I’ve stated before on this platform, Viola Davis is God! Then again, I also would have wanted Aubrey Plaza represented here for Emily the Criminal. But who cares what I want? Not Hollywood. That, as we were once fond of saying, is show biz and biz-ness of any kind rarely plays fair. So, I say kudos to the coalition behind Riseborough for making their push. Someday soon, Black and Brown people will make their own Riseborough uprising because of the precedent it set. To repeat: that’s show biz.


Best Supporting Actor

 

 



Brendan Gleeson, The Banshees of Inisherin
Brian Tyree Henry, Causeway
Judd Hirsch, The Fabelmans
Barry Keoghan, The Banshees of Inisherin
Ke Huy Quan, Everything Everywhere All at Once

By now, a foregone conclusion. And, as with last year’s winner in this category, it’s also a great story: the little boy émigré from Vietnam who played Short Round in 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Down hitting the jackpot forty years later. Fun fact: Jeff Cohen, who played Chunk to his Data in 1985’s The Goonies, is now his lawyer.

FWIW: Keoghan was a surprise BAFTA winner in this category, and it may be because his poignant presence shined through the outsized personalities of Banshees’ two stars. He’ll get some attention, but, in many ways, he’s already won. As for Paper Boi (Henry), his day’s coming. Count on it.


Best Supporting Actress

 

 



Angela Bassett, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Hong Chau, The Whale
Kerry Condon, The Banshees of Ineisherin
Jamie Lee Curtis, Everything Everywhere All at Once
Stephanie Hsu, Everything Everywhere All at Once

Curtis’s SAG award shouldn’t have come as a surprise. For starters, she’s totally unrecognizable in the movie, at least at first. And Oscar loves it when the glamorous go all out to distort themselves on camera, especially when, in Curtis’s case, they’re Hollywood royalty. I’m now feeling it’s hers to lose. Bassett’s infusion of power and vulnerability helps ground what could have been an unwieldy popcorn blockbuster and made her an early favorite. But the MCU can’t withstand the accumulated might of ancestral movie legacy. Not this time, anyway.

Best Adapted Screenplay

 

 



All Quiet on the Western Front
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
Living
Top Gun: Maverick
Women Talking

On the one hand, giving an Oscar to a Nobel Prize winner like Kazuo Ishiguro (Living) would show elevated thinking on Hollywood’s part. On the other, Sarah Polley has quietly, diligently proven herself to be one of the world’s best writer-directors and I can’t see her walking away empty-handed from another one of these ceremonies.


Best Original Screenplay

The Banshees of Inisherin
Everything, Everywhere All at Once
The Fabelmans
Tár
Triangle of Sadness

Anything with Martin McDonagh’s name on it is all but automatically placed in this category’s pole position. This one’s an odd chamber piece, an astringent, overextended Laurel and Hardy sketch in which you actually feel the bumps on the noggin and see all the bruises, physical and otherwise. However thin the gruel, I can easily see it winning, though there’s always a chance that the momentum of EEAAO (“…with a moo-moo here and a moo-moo there…”) could sweep this one up.


Best International Feature

All Quiet on the Western Front
Argentina 1985
Close
EO
The Quiet Girl

Given a Best Picture BAFTA and eight other nominations, Edward Berger’s graphic, devastating take on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel is the surest bet on the table.


Best Animated Feature

 

 


Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish
The Sea Beast
Turning Red


I feel relatively alone in asserting that this spikier, darker take on The Puppet Who Wanted to Be a Real Boy may have been a more imaginative and adventurous movie than any of the Best Picture nominees if only in the way it risked pissing people off who cling to their memories of the Disney version, which, for the record, I love, too. Most of the experts think it’s a lock, but I’m sensing a groundswell of support for M. Shell.

Best Cinematography

All Quiet on the Western Front
Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths
Elvis
Empire of Light
Tár

Another close race, this one primarily between James Friend’s work on All Quiet on the Western Front and Mandy Walker’s on Elvis. If Walker wins, she will be the first woman to do so. But Friend’s movie also is nominated for visual effects and production design, which experts say gives him the edge. Screw it. I’m going to put my chips on progress.


Best Documentary Feature

All That Breathes
Fire of Love
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
A House Made of Splinters
Navalny

By far, the widest-open race this year. If precedent alone was a factor, Sara Dosa’s DGA prizewinner, Fire of Love, with its dual themes of nature and everlasting love (married scientists who perish in a volcanic explosion), would have the edge. Then again, voters’ hearts would be just as vulnerable to House Made of Splinters which is set in a home for neglected children awaiting adoption. But the timeliest of these nominees is Daniel Roher’s tense profile of the Russian opposition leader who survived poisoning by Vladimir Putin’s goons, recovered in Germany, and returned home to a hero’s welcome – and imprisonment. The winner may, as in previous cases, depend on whether voters want to assault the turmoil of what’s been happening in Russia and the Ukraine, or run from it towards more hopeful, or at least more heartening stories. I’ll guess I’ll just what-the-hell my chips on Roher’s film. 



Best Score

All Quiet on the Western Front
Babylon
The Banshees of Inisherin
Everything Everywhere All at Once
The Fabelmans

Once more, with feeling, to 91-year-old John Williams, though Carter Burwell still hasn’t won one of these yet. Here as elsewhere, I’m not convinced Banshees is strong enough to pull him over the hump.


Best Original Song

 



“Applause” from Tell It Like a Woman
“Hold My Hand” from Top Gun: Maverick
“Lift Me Up” from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
“Naatu Naatu” from RRR
“This is a Life” from Everything Everywhere All at Once

With Rhianna (“Lift Me Up”), Lady Gaga (“Hold My Hand”), and one third of David Byrne (“This is a Life”) in play, how is it possible that the showstopper in this bunch belongs to a Tollywood epic that somehow stormed the global marketplace? Everybody seems to have already taken its win for granted, but everybody, including me, has been wrong many times before on this category. 

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten 2022 List of Everything Else

There’s so much stuff to keep track of these days that it’s easy to lose track of stuff that seemed so great to watch, read, or even glean. So, this took a longer time to assemble than previous lists because it took that long a time to process the maelstrom that was 2022. I’m not going to tell you what I think is missing here because you’ll all have your own lists, some of which will likely include, say, the January 6th hearings or Everything Everywhere All at Once. The Multiverse itself likely deserves a slot all its own, except how do I know I don’t have a whole other list somewhere that’s all different. But there’s no time left to figure all that out. This is what I’m going with, and, except for the very last item, I feel altogether good about it. As always, these are not in any particular order – except, again, for the last one.





Reservation Dogs – Two things, I’ve recently decided, make life worth living: a sense of purpose and an active connection with each other’s souls, no matter how remote or hostile. Such were the animating forces of Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s poignant blend of teen anomie, vacant-lot naturalism, and stoner surrealism. As with its predecessor, Season Two found its indigenous American kids adrift in their ramshackle Oklahoma hood, still grieving the suicide of their friend Daniel and still getting haphazard and not altogether lucid counsel from varied elders, living and dead. My personal favorites among the latter demographic include, among the dead, William “Spirit” Knifeman (Dallas Goldtooth), a Lakota ancestor to confused-and-abandoned Bear (D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai), whose half-baked advice to his teen descendant include lyrics from “Carry On Now Wayward Son” (yes, that one); among the living, it’s a three-way tie between Officer Big (Zahn McClarnon), a tribal policeman who stumbles his way towards a wholly innate sense of law, order, and even (such as it is) justice; woozy, weed-mongering Uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer), and the oracular-if-shabby Bucky (the great Wes Studi), with his hard-won cosmic wisdom. Still, it’s the kids who occupy the series’ fitful center; not just Bear, but also Cheese (Lane Factor), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and Elora (Devery Jacobs), whose single-minded path towards California anchored the second-season narrative, and now appears ready to affect her friends’ destinies. Whatever happens and wherever all the rest of the grownups and kids end up, I hope I see more of those rapping, bike-riding bros LilMike and FunnyBone. Even if I don’t, I’ll happily settle for more Bucky and Brownie.

 

 

 


The Philosophy of Modern Song — Don’t call it “Bob Dylan’s Pop-Rock Criticism” or apply any socio-political ideology to its 60-plus selections. More than anything else, this is the authentic follow-up to Dylan’s 2004 memoir, Chronicles, Volume One and should be acknowledged as the autobiography of a personal aesthetic. Its illustrations and its text are as illuminating, evocative, cryptic, funny, and exploratory as “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” “From a Buick 6,” “Positively 4th Street,” or any other Dylan song, even those with no numerals in them. Also as with a Dylan song, whatever its intentions or origins, much of the raw content of these mini-essays, addenda, outbursts, and eruptions may arouse your subconscious to something it never considered before but recognizes as familiar. And no, I’m not going to explain what I mean by that.





Star Trek: Lower Decks – I’ll always place Matt Groening’s ribald space opera Futurama first above equals among animated science fiction TV series, even above the underappreciated, trailblazing, and scarily prescient Jetsons, which marked its 60th anniversary this year. Nevertheless, after three seasons, this doughty, wily offshoot of the ever-expanding-like-the-universe-itself Trek franchise has not only leaped towards the front of this personal pantheon, but it also threatens to become my favorite among the Trek shows that streamed into being over the last five years. As its title implies, the show moves its focus away from the Alpha Dogs of Star Fleet like Kirk, Spock, Sulu, Picard, Riker, La Forge, and other Heroes on the Enterprise Bridge and more towards the scrubs, swabs, and junior grade drudges several floors down from whose ranks would routinely come cannon fodder with imperiled landing parties in previous Trek incarnations. The series’ core clique waiting and serving on the USS Cerritos (itself a relative second-stringer among Star Fleet ships) is made up of science nerd D’Vana Tendi (Noêl Wells), super-striving Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid), sweet-tempered cyborg Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero), and last-and-certainly-not-least Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), thorny, determinedly underachieving daughter of the ship’s captain Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis), whose own insecurities and thwarted ambitions are of such comparable dimension that you come away from this ingenious, often touching series affirmed that even in deep space, nobody ever gets out of high school, dead or alive.

 

 

 

 



Percival Everett – Suppose Chester Himes was an actual cowboy who spent as much time working out ontological riddles as riding ranges and fishing in mountain lakes. At age 65, Everett, who claims Himes as an influence, along with Herman Melville, has published more than twenty works of fiction of startling range, deadpan humor, and formidable intelligence. This year, for instance, he published Dr. No, where he borrows both a title and a plotline from Ian Fleming’s James Bond’s novels to fashion a blackout-adventure spoof judiciously seasoned with red herrings and philosophical conundrums. If I told you it’s about Nothing, you’d still read it, right? You’d have to read it. But if I were you, I wouldn’t start with the new one, but the one just before that was short-listed for the Booker Prize: The Trees, a very different, but no less provocative and inspired comedy thriller in which cool, dry Black agents from, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation (MBI) investigate the serial murders of white racists whose bodies are somehow accompanied by the corpses of long-dead lynching victims, including Emmett Till. It made you almost wish Hollywood had made this into a movie instead of Till. But Hollywood was barely ready for that straight-ahead story to be told on-screen. And I doubt it’ll ever be ready for Percival Everett. But you might be. (Other recommended titles: Glyph, Erasure, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, For Her Dark Skin, Damned If I Do.)


 

 

 



Nope – Though I honor the memory of Rod Serling and what he did for me as a child in the warm bath of his Twilight Zone, the grownup I am now is less drawn to those Serling-esque episodes making broad and direct sociopolitical points and more towards those Zone stories written by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont that were more interested in pure jolts and unsettling visions for their own sake. Maybe that’s why I think this third feature by Jordan Peele is his best thus far for the same reasons much of the word-of-mouth I’d heard when it came out was so antagonistic: it was all over the map, in both theme and tone; it didn’t sustain a straight storyline or deliver a hard, sharp point. And it left me with more to unravel and think/dream about than either Get Out or Us. Yes, there’s a racial subtext (what Hollywood did for, and mostly to its Black workers, on- and off-camera), but it’s only one of several layers in this aliens-from-outer-space movie that manages to evoke the dry-mouth aura of a 1950s drive-in chiller while being up to date with its eccentric supporting cast, especially the marvelous Keke Palmer as steely, feisty sister to Daniel Kaluuya’s dispirited horse trainer. For the record, Michael Abels’s score reaches new heights here, too. Almost as high, maybe higher, than the big black disc in the sky that causes all the trouble.

 

 

 

 


Abbott ElementaryAs I’ve previously testified in public, I was so much in love at first sight with Quinta Brunson’s tender and whimsical workplace comedy series about an economically challenged South Philly public school that I took its premature cancellation as an inevitability. Now it’s a firmly established hit which may well be single-handedly rescuing the analog network sitcom from oblivion. Somewhere, Mister Peepers is grinning – and idly wondering how he’d cope with a principal like Ava Coleman.

 

 

 



Matthew Goode in The Offer — For most of Goode’s career, I thought I had him nailed down as a pleasant, perfectly comported prototype of the British smoothie capable of an eccentric tic (in the manner of British smoothies) or even a swerve into hysteria because of, say, combat fatigue from whatever beastly war harshed his erstwhile empire’s mellow. Watching him bring Robert Evans back to life in The Offer was a massive revelation. Those who know or have seen the 2002 documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture don’t need to be told that Evans was something of a Hollywood superhero in the mid-1970s when the movie business was generally lost at sea while the art form was at its peak. Evans’ one major misfire of that decade was The Great Gatsby and what you see in Goode’s evocation discloses where he went wrong: to do Gatsby right, what Evans really needed to do was to let cameras follow him around for a year and have somebody edit all the raw footage into a feature. That hypothetical verité could have been just as innovative and grand an achievement as both Godfathers and Chinatown. As it was, Goode’s rendering of a Gatsby-esque Hollywood legend, a “Last Tycoon,” if you will, elevated an otherwise middling docudrama to near-classic tragedy.




 



Prey – This was the prequel to the Predator franchise than no one, not even those who don’t care about hunter-gatherers from outer space, knew they wanted until it materialized in front of them. Set in a primeval American Great Plains more than three centuries before Arnold Schwarzenegger was a gleam in his mother’s eye, the film stars the magnetic Amber Midthunder as Nuru, an indigenous young warrior itching to show her brother and the other young tribesmen that she’s as great at stalking and hunting as they are. But the first in a series of hairy, insect-faced extraterrestrial hunters begins to pick off the incredulous young braves, eventually leaving her to figure out how to protect the rest of her village from being harvested. The special effects are, in their elemental way, just as spectacular as the hi-tech pyrotechnics of previous installments. (You will believe a bear can fly.) But Midthunder is, on many levels, the most dazzling of the movie’s assets, her character’s intensity and self-possession announcing both a young woman’s coming-of-age and a screen star’s arrival.

 

 




Atlanta: The Final Season(s) – Where to begin? The crew’s WTAF adventures during Paper Boi’s (Bryan Tyree Henry) European tour, including strange encounters with, among others, a friendly-but-oddly-abusive Liam Neeson, some well-heeled gourmet cannibals, a Blackface Dutch Christmas icon, along with streams of misread signals, overpriced fashion goods, exotic and dangerous drugs, and a missing phone. Or what about the seemingly “free-standing” stories, including the one about the wealthy white Manhattanites who discover their little boy is emotionally and psychically closer to their recently deceased Caribbean caregiver? Things got even weirder when Earn (creator-producer Donald Glover) and his posse returned to Atlanta where things are as dislocated as ever; how Van (Zazie Beets) somehow ends up searching for her daughter within a sinister cult-like entertainment complex run by the exploitative, enigmatic Mister Chocolate (Glover), all of it finishing off somehow with harrowing adventures in sensory deprivation with perpetually stoned Darius (Lakeith Stanfield). And that just scrapes the surface of this layers-within-layers, worlds-within-worlds cultural excursion that resembled exactly nothing else anywhere on any screen. They say it’s over. Not in my head, it isn’t.

 






Top Gun: Maverick – This is on the list primarily for its significance as a cultural phenomenon and not so much because it’s a great, or even very good movie. Not that I didn’t like it. In fact, I liked it a whole lot more than its 1986 predecessor, when its star’s grin was devouring everything in its path, symbolizing both the era’s avarice and obliviousness. TG:M provided such a massive, exhilarating surge to theaters struggling to shake loose from the COVID-19’s siege that some audiences used the word “great” without qualification or irony. There were great things in it, most of them having to do with aerial ballet. But as all-American paeans to duty go, I much prefer John Ford’s calvary trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande) and even with Ed Harris around for the first act, I’d still rather watch The Right Stuff than either Top Gun movie.

In that first act (and if I’m really spoiling things for you here, then, dammit, go watch it on a streaming channel), Tom Cruise’s Maverick flies a state-of-the-art craft based on the now-decommissioned SR-71 “Black Bird” modified to reach Mach 10. Harris’s crusty admiral is about to shut down the manned flight experiment in place of drones, which kinda sorta makes sense. But “Mav” being “Mav”, he takes the plane up into the stratosphere and not only reaches the optimum speed but decides to stretch that old envelope a tad past Mach 10, which causes the plane to break up in flight. The next thing you see is Maverick, woozily lugging his parachute into a small-town diner, chugging ice water and asking where he is to which a small boy replies, “Earth.”

Now I don’t claim to be an aeronautical engineer. But I’ve absorbed enough histories of test flight and space travel to know that any corporeal being who even tries to eject from a flying object traveling past Mach 5 (a.k.a. hypersonic speed) will at the very least break every single bone and rend almost every tissue in its body, even in the highly unlikely event that a parachute opens. I’ve heard explanations (a.k.a. excuses) that the plane was likely equipped with some manner of “escape pod” that broke away and carried its pilot safely to the ground.

Yes, well…


It’s only a movie, right? And a movie that works so conscientiously to please its audience as Top Gun: Maverick needs to sacrifice credulity to roll the turnstiles and leave everybody happy.

But suppose, just suppose, that what we see when that plane breaks up high in the sky is the death of Captain Pete Mitchell, USN? And what if everything we see afterwards, including – and especially – Maverick’s reunions with his ailing wingman and the embittered son of the Lost Goose, make up an extended posthumous dream sequence, a Sixth Sense with G suits and F-35s? You’d have a less satisfying popcorn epic. You might also have a resonant masterwork of American storytelling.
As it stands now, it’s likely the loudest, most ornately apportioned shout of “olly-olly-oxen-free” ever issued to the moviegoing public. Thus, it’s a masterstroke of some kind. But not quite the one we, or the movies, really needed.

Seymour Movies Retrospective: Watching “Cabin in the Sky” for Lent (2009)

Reposting this essay I wrote twelve years ago about Vincente Minnelli’s 1943 classic all-Black musical because a.) people besides me like it a whole lot and b.) because of its more-timely-than-ever admonitions against too-easy dismissals of what is believed to be Anachronistic and (thus) Patronizing. Also if you’ve never seen it before and it happens to come your way again, jump on it. You won’t be sorry.





At the hinge of the 1960s and 1970s, Cabin in the Sky embodied everything we young, gifted, and solemn black college students thought we were fighting against. All we blinkered baby cultural-nationalists could see back then in those idyllic depictions of small-town African American folk life were unhealthy levels of honeysuckle and hambone. Eighty-six those rolling dice and eyeballs, all that cornball piety and undignified shucking! Is that really what we wanted our collective profile to look like after King and Malcolm and countless others had died for our advancement?

 


It’s a measure of how much time has passed that I can’t even LOOK at that previous sentence, much less write it, without wincing; the same kind of wincing we aforementioned Children of the Movement were doing whenever Cabin  poked out from TV’s wee-hour wilds or was screened at collegiate film societies. Exaggerated nose-turning-in-a-vertical-direction is at least as embarrassing as pronounced eye-rolling – and not nearly as funny. Given the choice between retroactive scoldings from what some new-jack pundits have come to label the “soul patrol” and the to-be-or-not-to-be anxieties displayed by Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, I know whose party I’d rather go to.

 

 

 


The distinction no longer needs raising. A few days ago, I’d hosted a screening of Cabin  for a Wednesday-night Lenten supper at our predominantly black Episcopal church in lower Manhattan. It was a small audience, mostly older and just about all of its members had seen the movie before and loved it without predisposition or qualifiers (even though the DVD released three years ago opens with Warner Home Video’s contemporary disclaimer apologizing about “stereotypes” that were “wrong then and wrong now.”) The tiny audience appeared to appreciate the concern, though it didn’t need to be told what was or wasn’t appropriate. They just wanted a warm black-and-white memory bath. Even the sole 20-something in the room, recruited to help with projection, was caught up in a movie old enough to be his (grand) mother.

 

 

 

 


Each time I see the movie, I’m more galvanized by the sheer magnetism of its performers. Even in the reproachful seventies, it was hard not to be waylaid by the glory that was Lena Horne in her twenties. What she was then and what she remained throughout the sixties and beyond was so legitimate & enduring to young black fogies like us that we gave her quick dispensation for Cabin; the kind of pass that that didn’t easily go to, say, Ethel Waters (about whom, more later),“Rochester” Anderson or John “Bubbles” Sublett, whose song-and-dance recital of “Shine” is at once the movie’s most glaring anachronism and its most flamboyant affirmation of poise and skill.

 

 

 


Which in no way slights everyone else in the movie, though you wish Louis Armstrong got to do even a little bit more than set off a few elegant licks while wearing those ridiculous devil’s horns. You also wish you could see more of Duke Ellington’s orchestra at work beyond flashes of its suave, imperturbable leader. (That IS Johnny Hodges in the front with the alto, right?) But first-time director Vincente Minnelli was too caught up in the dancing and singing – and rightfully so. His own eye is so greedy and avid for movement and energy that you can almost feel him sitting next to you as you’re looking for the next big moment.

 

 


Almost all of which moments are owned by Waters. Donald Bogle has elsewhere noted how often contemporary audiences are drawn to screenings of Cabin by the promise of seeing the young, cat-like Horne, yet leave those screenings dazzled by Waters’ charisma. If younger moviegoers had easy access to Waters’ recordings from the 1920s and 1930s, they’d be better prepared for her vocal agility. (Critics and historians, not that anyone pays them any mind, argue with conviction that Waters’ chops as a singer were the equal of Armstrong’s – and that her influence on jazz singing was just as emphatic & far-reaching.)

 

 

 

 

 

But hardly anyone at any age is prepared for the moment when Waters’ Petunia, backsliding into “sin” to “save” Anderson’s Joe from the Devil’s clutches, sashays into a startlingly graceful jitterbug with Sublett’s Domino. One has read in books about both women of tension between Horne and Waters throughout Cabin’s shooting. (In her own memoir, His Eye is On the Sparrow, Waters doesn’t go into detail about the friction except to say that she “won every battle” and that her scrapes kept her away from the movies for another six years.) Whether Waters ended up dominating Cabin by fair or foul means, her triumph endures just as Dilsey, the character she played in her last film, 1959’s The Sound and the Fury, endured.

 

 


After the church screening was over, I asked the audience if there were still aspects of the movie that offended or seemed out-of-date. No one could think of any – and I honestly couldn’t come up with any that mattered. I do wish, in retrospect, that I’d asked them if it seemed as though the folks who were either in hell or engaging in “sinful” partying had a better time – and heard better music – than those who stayed close to Petunia’s righteous path. I decided against bringing that dilemma up in a Lenten discussion, though it now strikes me that there were folks willing to talk it over.

 

I did, however, bring up the closest present-day corollary to Cabin in the Sky’s blend of low comedy and Manichean melodrama: the films of Tyler Perry, especially those featuring Madea, Perry’s pious, pistol-packing alter-ego. Since I knew that all those assembled had seen more than one Perry movie more than once, I asked if there was any real difference between the depictions of black life in Cabin and those in, say, the recently released Madea Goes to Jail. They said there were none; a surprise to me since I expected them to mention the relative rawness of Perry’s depictions of single motherhood, class animus and teen pregnancy. Cabin’s dichotomy between Petunia’s milk-and-honey world view and the temptations of the flesh embodied by Horne’s duplicitous Georgia Brown seem like old school Disney by comparison. But in both cases, a simplistic (as opposed to simple) solution to mortal weakness and moral sloth is submitted to audiences for whom broad laughs and big emotions are the only justifications for entertainment.


Perry continues to astound the mainstream (white) world with the bushels of money he reaps for his movies. And his entrepreneurial moxie serves as a reminder that, unlike the 1940s (or the two decades subsequent to or preceding them), it’s possible for African American artists to have some control over how they’re depicted on screen, for better or worse. I still wonder whether future generations of black people will someday accuse his work of, at best, being too over-the-top or (so to speak) too black-and-white in their moralistic aims. I doubt it somehow. But of one thing I have no doubt: Madea, whatever her own martial skills or swaggering mojo, is no Ethel Waters.

Seymour Movies Thinks This Could Be The Last Time It Goes All Out on Oscar Predictions

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve never believed there was a useful distinction to be made between “popcorn movies” and whatever’s meant by “prestige films.” Good movies are good movies and whatever’s left to talk about is marketing, nothing more.

And so, for that matter, is all this year’s pre-Oscar chatter about the decline in TV ratings for the awards ceremonies and the relative apathy among the public for movies considered “Oscar bait.” Do pundits and other assorted “observers” really think nominating Spider-Man: No Way Home for Best Picture is going to revive the Academy Awards’ profile among the masses? I don’t think so – and I happen to believe movies like Spider-Man should be nominated – as long as they’re good; just as I was pulling for Deadpool’s nomination (and for that matter, Leslie Uggams’) a few years back and wouldn’t have at all minded if Black Panther had won Best Picture over Green Book three years ago. It was, after all, the better movie in addition to being the bigger success.

Neither factor has ever really mattered when it comes to the Academy Awards. As I keep putting my blood pressure at risk to tell people who refuse to believe otherwise, the Oscars are trade awards voted and decided upon solely by those who work in the film industry. That means whatever gets nominated and rewarded depends on whatever mood prevails each year among a crowd of Hollywood working stiffs. And these mood swings are somehow immortalized (for at least three months or so) as the Best Movies of their particular year by cable news channels, slick magazines, and whatever’s left of the newspaper industry.

The social and economic upheavals of the last three years, especially the pandemic’s ongoing reverberations, are causing even legacy media institutions to wonder if this venerable charade is, at last, over and out. The celebration of the 50th anniversary of The Godfather’s release is a melancholy reminder of theatrical cinema’s once prominent place in American life and of how the old apparatus of making and hyping movies at all levels of society hasn’t existed since at least the second Clinton administration. Once again, I find myself asking, if we’re no longer sure what a movie is, then what the hell is an Oscar? And more to the point, what’s any of it worth?

I still don’t have an answer and I bet none of you do either. It’s one of those many 21st-century dilemmas for which an answer will surface on its own rather than materialize as a lightbulb over the head of an Instagram follower. For now, The Show in whatever form and however it’s packaged will go on as will the usual griping and grousing from those who don’t care and never have about Academy Awards. I’m no longer sure I care much either. But I’m here. Again. And many of you are or will be. I can hear you growling and snapping.


Once again, projected winners are in bold and, whenever applicable or appropriate, an FWIW (For Whatever It’s Worth) note will be added to each category.


Best Picture

Belfast
CODA
Don’t Look Back
Drive My Car
Dune
King Richard
Licorice Pizza
Nightmare Alley
The Power of the Dog
West Side Story

Even before cowpoke’s cowpoke Sam Elliot blurted his indelicate critique against Power of the Dog (and these days, Oscar Season just isn’t Oscar Season without some occasion for public outrage and virtue-signaling to keep the yahoos distracted), Jane Campion’s western was showing a slight drop from the front-runner status it seemed to nail down upon its premiere last fall. The first wave of acclaim, along with the initial flurry of critics’ awards and field-leading 12 Oscar nominations, was followed by an unusually quick and acerbic blowback. I’d expected Belfast to be the principal beneficiary of this shift in Power/Dog’s fortunes – and it still might be. But lately it’s CODA that’s been gathering a head of steam since it won a best-movie-ensemble award from the Screen Awards Guild (SAG).

Not that SAG’s record as a Best Picture harbinger can be counted on to float without sinking. Less than half of the last 26 winners of that award carried their luck over to Oscar’s big prize. And besides (trying not to spoil things here), CODA’s story of a working-class teenager choosing between fulfilling her destiny as a singer and helping her financially strapped deaf family fits snugly into how SAG’s members see their own careers and aspirations. You wonder if that story arc is likely to patch into other Oscar voting blocs. Heck, yeah, it is, especially if it makes everybody cry as they’re watching. At the time I’m writing this, it’s still Power of the Dog’s race to lose, and as one of my correspondents suggests, Sam Elliot’s “POS” tirade could end up gaining added sympathy for Campion and her movie. But recent history has me regretting every time I’ve underestimated the power of “feel good” movies.


FWIW: Here’s where I usually talk about what I liked best last year, Oscar-nominated or not. Mostly I am, and plan to remain, confounded and aggrieved over Passing, its two stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, and its first-time director Rebecca Hall getting skunked out of any nominations whatsoever. In the long run, it may be all for the best; movies that are bold and enigmatic in their own time often find greater acceptance in another time – and I still believe in time.
Speaking of boldness, I keep insisting that Nightmare Alley wasn’t a “remake” of a 1947 noir classic so much as a total reimagining as though 1945’s Detour (a far bleaker and grittier exemplar of “noir” movie than the original Nightmare) had a head-on collision with a Stephen King movie adaptation from the mid-to-late-1980s. It got a few Oscar bids in technical categories, but you’ll never see it win anything on live TV because of how they’re planning to telecast this year’s ceremonies.
The Steven Spielberg-Tony Kushner revival of West Side Story deserved much better upon its theatrical release than it got from the public and from industry wise guys too quick or, maybe, too eager to stamp it as a disaster. These days, I’d say, the word “disaster” weighs too much to casually fling at a movie whose biggest mistake was having the bad luck to pile into movie houses during a pandemic. To me, there’s no greater portent for the inevitable fall of the multiplex than the turnaround in overall reaction to West Side Story 2.0 in the weeks since it dove into the streams, as it were.
I also have a qualified recommendation for The French Dispatch that reflects the latent generosity, or greater tolerance from my older, more indulgent self towards Wes Anderson’s intricate jewelry boxes. Or maybe it’s that I’ve lately found his knee-jerk critics more insufferable as time passes for their all-too predictable carping and jeering.


Best Director

Kenneth Branagh, Belfast
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car
Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza
Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
Steven Spielberg, West Side Story

Even if Power/Dog doesn’t get the Big One, it won’t keep its director from Getting Hers, as it were. It used to be an anomaly for Best Film and Best Director winners to diverge. It’s now happened often enough in recent years to be taken for granted. Campion still has lots of support for this one whatever Sam Elliot says. And, as I said earlier, he may even have unintentionally helped her stay in front of this pack.

FWIW: If I had a vote on this one, Spielberg would get it; if nothing else, just for withstanding all the catcalls he was getting, even as he was still trying to finish it against stiff odds. (e.g., “Why are you bothering? The first one was just fine!” Or: “Why are you bothering? This old warhorse is too creaky, an anachronism, etc.”) Branagh could also pick Campion’s pocket, but only if Belfast wins Best Picture.


Best Actor

 

 

 



Javier Bardem, Being the Ricardos
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog
Andrew Garfield, tick..tick…Boom!
Will Smith, King Richard
Denzel Washington, The Tragedy of Macbeth

As good as I am at intuiting such things, I still can’t tell for sure how much Hollywood still loves Will Smith, despite the hugs, kisses, and backslaps he got for winning the SAG prize a few weeks back for this same role. And yet I can’t imagine anybody else from this list taking the Oscar from him except possibly …Denzel, whom I’m sure Hollywood loves for still being able to open a movie on name recognition alone while always delivering nothing less than an A-level performance. His Macbeth isn’t his very best, but it’s good enough. Smith’s rendering of the Williams sisters’ volatile, complicated daddy, on the other hand, IS his very best. Not a slam dunk, maybe; Cumberbatch also lurks in the weeds. But taking everything into account, it’s close to a no-brainer.

Best Actress

 

 


Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Olivia Coleman, The Lost Daughter
Penelope Cruz, Parallel Mothers
Nicole Kidman, Being the Ricardos
Kristen Stewart, Spencer

Chastain’s SAG award vaulted her to the foreground of a not-terribly-strong-but-highly-competitive field. It’s a big, bravura performance, exactly the type that actors love to reward. And however effective, say, Kidman and Stewart (especially) were at embedding themselves in their real-life personas, it’s now Chastain’s to lose.


Best Supporting Actor

Ciarán Hinds, Belfast
Troy Kotsur, CODA
Jesse Plemons, The Power of the Dog
J.K. Simmons, Being the Ricardos
Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog

Another case where the SAG vote seems to have locked this one up. McPhee had the early lead, but with Plemons’ nomination for the same move came that hoary old saw about “splitting the vote,” which I never thought mattered much and won’t this time either. The veteran Hinds enjoys much affection and esteem among his peers and his turn as the grandfather in Belfast is lovely and touching. But Kotsur’s movie now has greater momentum and his is the far more compelling backstory.

FWIW: There was a moment early on when I thought Simmons had a fair shot of getting his second one of these and it had mostly to do with how even those who disliked Being the Ricardos were always happy to see his William Frawley appear on-screen.


Best Supporting Actress

Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter
Ariana DuBose, West Side Story
Judi Dench, Belfast
Kirsten Dunst, The Power of the Dog
Aunjanue Ellis, King Richard

Rita Moreno made me tear up when she soloed on “Somewhere” in West Side Story. I was sure that alone would have made inevitable another nomination, even another win 60 years after she copped this same award for playing Anita. Still, DuBose is getting unadulterated props – and prizes — for her fiery, effervescent, and deeply touching turn in the same role. She should have little-to-no trouble adding another trophy to the pile…

FWIW: …but if it were up to me, I’d ship this puppy posthaste to Aunjanue Ellis for all but stealing her movie out from under the Fresh Prince’s fabled jawline. Her character’s confrontation with a meddling neighbor was an aria of last-nerve enervation with Other People’s Bullshit. Love her, even if hardly any other forecaster seems to notice, or care.


Best Original Screenplay

Belfast
Don’t Look Up
King Richard
Licorice Pizza
The Worst Person in the World


Paul Thomas Anderson may be the most original and audacious living American filmmaker – which won’t necessarily help him win this one. You need to be in the mood for Licorice Pizza’s first-this-happens-then-this-happens-and-then-this-happens storytelling, which would be far more welcome to moviegoers in the 1970s when this story takes place. I was down with it because that decade was my most formative as a cineaste and it is probable there’s a majority of voters in this category who are likewise disposed. But I sense this one’s heading to Northern Ireland.


Best Adapted Screenplay

CODA
Drive My Car
Dune
The Lost Daughter
The Power of the Dog

This one’s wider open than it seems with all except, maybe, Dune carrying strong, if not overpowering cases on their behalf, and none as innovative as Kushner’s delicate, detailed upgrade of West Side Story‘s book, which was totally ignored. Even with CODA‘s late surge to the finish line, I’m thinking Power/Dog may have the edge. But not by a lot. 



Best International Feature

Drive My Car
Flee
The Hand of God
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom
The Worst Person in the World

Drive My Car’s triumphant ride through last year’s festival circuit made this elegiac dissection of grief an early favorite in this category. But this is an especially strong field, with both the groundbreaking Flee and Worst Person in the World drawing homestretch buzz. The Ukraine invasion could be a rogue factor favoring Flee if not in this category, then in one of the other two where it’s contending. Even past winner Sorrentino’s Hand of God has a puncher’s chance. Keeping my finger here for now but prepared to move it at any time.


Best Documentary Feature

Ascension
Attica
Flee
Summer of Soul
Writing With Fire

I’ve had dismal luck forecasting this category in recent years and I’m not quite sure about this pick either. As in past years, the outcome of this contest depends on whether Hollywood votes its hopes or its fears. Both impulses are very much in play in the present tenseness. As much as I was transported as everybody else by Summer of Soul’s found objects, I’m going to presume that both innovation and urgency count for a lot with this crowd and believe this is where Flee collects its Oscar.

FWIW: Once again, the grizzled ex-newspaperman in me is rooting for the nominee that shines a light on journalism overcoming formidable odds in foreign lands. Last year it was Romania’s Collective; this year it’s India’s Writing With Fire. Next year, it’ll be some doughty, put-upon independent weekly near the Urals – or, more likely, Central Florida.

Best Animated Feature

 

 

 

 


Encanto
Flee
Luca
The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Raya and the Last Dragon

Sony Animation’s rowdy, whip-smart sugar rush of a techno-satire is, in every sense, the wild card of this bunch. That it’s already won 25 awards from critics’ associations and other groups may come as a surprise to those who’ve watched only its first ten minutes or so on Netflix (where, BTW, you can still find it, even if it’s not always highlighted on the home page). It seems at the outset like such a typical example of formulaic dysfunctional-family slapstick that you’re almost shocked by how meta it gets without losing its edge, its warmth, or its run-amuck tempo. It’s by no means a sure thing, especially with not one, but two Disney entries and the aforementioned Flee as competition. But brains-and-heart, along with the much-beloved Olivia Coleman providing the voice of a megalomaniacal smart phone, seem to me a formidable combination of factors for victory.

FWIW: Unless I’m wrong and either Encanto or Luca end up in the winner’s circle after all.


Best Cinematography

Dune (Grieg Fraser)
Nightmare Alley (Dan Lautsen)
The Power of the Dog (Ari Wegner)
The Tragedy of Macbeth (Bruno Delbonnel)
West Side Story (Janusz Kaminski)

Once again, a good, strong field, all of them deserving. Because of that, I choose to go with my personal preference. Fraser may win it anyway. But this movie’s images keep crawling back into my head the way Dune’s do not.


Best Original Score

Don’t Look Up (Nicholas Ball)
Dune (Hans Zimmer)
Encanto (Germaine Franco)
Parallel Mothers (Alberto Iglesias)
The Power of the Dog (Jonny Greenwood)

Greenwood deserved this award in 2017 for Phantom Thread and he’d probably get his first win this year for his appropriately itchy and eccentric arrangements for Power/Dog if Zimmer, who’s only got one Oscar (The Lion King, 1994) to show for his 12 nominations, hadn’t done some of his finest work ever in laying down tracks, as it were, on Planet Arrakis.

FWIW: I’m going to assume, however, that the Encanto soundtrack’s prolonged stretch run on the pop charts isn’t lost on voters, many of whom likely have kids in the house who’ve played it to death on whatever platform or machine they have. Not that such factors have always tipped the scales; voters in this category like to think they’re above such matters. But nobody should be surprised if Encanto’s name is called. On any of these.




Best Song

“Be Alive” from King Richard
“Dos Oruguitas” from Encanto
“Down to Joy” from Belfast
“No Time to Die” from No Time to Die
“Somehow You Do” from Four Good Days

Does Billie Eilish beat Beyoncé? Do either of them expect to beat Disney? Or Van Morrison? (Well, yeah, because we’re all supposed to be ticked off at Van Morrison, right?) And what about Reba McEntire? Nobody knows from her movie anyhow. Maybe that’s why she’ll win. But I’m going with who’s hot right now and that would be…would be….could be…um…

Gene Seymour’s Ten Favorite Things in 2021

Going to live performances for most of the past year was pretty much out of the question for me (with one notable exception cited down below). And there were so many reasons for this that relatively few of them had to do with the pandemic. (Here, for example, was a big one.) As for the brave not-so-new-anymore world of streams and clouds, one wasn’t always sure where one wanted to dump several hours of one’s life into binge-watching. Most evenings found me staring at the available options, all but completely immobilized by the sheer mass of “content” to the point where I frequently found myself saying, “The hell with all this noise!” and go to sports or Turner Classic Movies – or both. Or neither.

So given the myriad, metric tons of possibilities for my favorite things. of 2021, it’s possible that there may be things I’ve neglected, passed by, haven’t caught up with or entirely forgotten about. It may say something about the sheer glut of “content” that my top pick was a 2020 release, but it took me most of this year’s first half to absorb its content, and even longer to assess its impact. It’s still Up On Top, so to speak, because it’s too important to ignore – even if much of the culture, popular or otherwise, pretty much has:

 

 

 

 

 

 




Turn Me Loose, White Man – Now that “critical race theory” has affected state and local elections, driven school boards up a wall and perplexed a mass media that doesn’t quite grasp the concept (or know exactly what it means), it may be time to consider the possibility that we’re all going about this “racial dialogue” thing the wrong way. Mostly we need to stop worrying about making Black and White people “feel better” about being what they are. “Feelings,” after all, are what got us all into this mess in the first place. Somebody needs to break the news, however gently, that none of us is as “Black” or as “White” as we think we are, thanks in large part to an ongoing cultural transaction that began centuries ago with music created by African slaves, propagated by their descendants, absorbed and, yes, appropriated by Whites only to be reinvigorated and even reinvented into new forms by pink and brown alike.
Fellow Americans and worthy constituents, it’s in all our DNA, whether we like it or not. We’re all different, and always the same.
Few people this side of Ralph Ellison’s ghost care to even consider such concepts, booby-trapped as they are with anachronisms, racial slurs, ribald and sacred outbursts swarming and popping on scratchy old 78-RPM records, archaeologic souvenirs of an earlier, exceedingly weirder America.
But Allen Lowe, saxophonist, composer, historian, educator, and cultural gadfly, has long believed that if you gathered as much aural arcana as can be assembled, you could approach something resembling a unified field theory about what makes up the American soul in all its contradictory restlessness and conflicting exuberance.

 

 

 


It takes 30 compact discs with almost 900 songs and two volumes of hypertext for Lowe to fashion Turn Me Loose, White Man, a survey of the national sound in all its permutations, blues, bluegrass, gospel, jazz, burlesque, C&W, R&B, rock and rockabilly in so many mutant and mongrelized strains that “genre” loses all meaning. As, Lowe implies, it probably should.
Lowe’s archival efforts have been compared in range to those of such intrepid pioneers as Alan Lomax, Paul Oliver, and Harry Smith. But there are far more idiosyncratic and illuminating patterns Lowe draws from and, in some cases, imposes upon his discoveries. You’ll probably need to follow along, as much as possible, with Lowe’s written text (pure pleasure on its own) to gauge how and why on the first volume he chose to follow, say, the great Black vaudeville comedian Bert Williams’ 1906 recording of his deathless “Nobody” with the more obscure May Irwin’s whimsical 1907 sliver of minstrelsy, “If You Aint Got No Money, You Needn’t Come Around.” Note the use of dialect in the title’s first clause and the grammatical precision of the second. Such tensions are played out in big and small ways throughout this cosmic juke box whose selections cover the 20th century’s first sixty years.
From the shuck-&-jive of Irwin’s “coon song” (defined by Lowe as “that odd phenomenon of progressive melody and harmony, advanced white singing, significant black co-optation and racist bait”) through the 1920s emergence of Black blues queens Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters and a panoply of artists from the widely celebrated (Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Rodgers, Al Jolson, Leadbelly, Count Basie, Bill Monroe, Bing Crosby, Kitty Wells, Charlie Parker, Roy Rogers, Little Richard) to just-below-the-radar legends (Geeshie Wiley, Babs Gonzales, Blue Ridge Quartet, Helen Merrill, Jimmy Yancey, Riley Puckett) and many more obscure or little-remembered artists whose contributions glow like searchlights struggling to be seen through twilight mists.

 

 

 

 


The zillions of epiphanies and discoveries along the way are too numerous to adequately summarize. The best I can do for now is to mention the shock of hearing the original bust-out 1911 recording of Sophie Tucker’s “Some of These Days,” composed by Black songwriter Shelton Brooks and thus an early example of appropriation; but one whose impact was galvanic enough to give safe passage to Tucker’s stardom well past the 1960s. Another shock: the spare, haunting 1941 recording of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” by the ill-fated blues singer Lil Green that Peggy Lee credited with influencing her own hit version the following year. And on and on…

Whether things should have turned out this way (and artists like Lee are the ones least deserving of blame) shouldn’t be a matter of concern to contemporary listeners anxious to throw as many red “racism” flags at the past as can be flung. (You’re better off blaming the Southern segregationist bloc in Congress for ruining what could have been a nice party for all.) The main point, as Lowe continually asserts, is that such push-pull dynamics, this braiding of cultures on record, as it were, didn’t validate or encourage racial separation. It was very much the opposite, even when the lyrics were far from conciliatory or respectful to Black people earlier in the century.


Lowe’s magnificent treatise comes to us as a gift we’ve needed for a long time, though this era being whatever it is, I don’t know whether the skittish, hopelessly judgmental masses who now dominate social media are prepared to deal with its sheer weight or its propensity for nuance, irony, wit, and surprise. For the moment, I choose to be optimistic enough to speculate that when these masses are ready for Turn Me Loose, White Man, it’ll still be around somewhere to both explain and evoke a world where the Light Crust Doughboys are as “ivey-divey” as the Sun Ra Arkestra.

 


The rest, as usual, are in no particular order:

 

 

 



Rita Moreno – You know how you have those people in your life or in your personal pantheon of whom you always say, “If you don’t like —-, then I don’t want to know you”? Well, Rita Moreno has for most of my life been at or near the top of that list for me and it was as much for what she did when she was Being Herself on talk shows and interviews as for when she exploded on-screen in the original 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story and collected her supporting-actress Oscar the following year. As most of the known universe knows by now, she’s also in the Steven Spielberg-Tony Kushner version and not a few people believe she can win the same Oscar sixty years after she got her last one. It may not matter much either way as she’s practically a charter member of the EGOT sisterhood. What does matter is that this year, at a supernaturally energetic 90 years old, Moreno has been given her proper due and then some; not just with the new West Side Story (of which she is also a producer), but this past year’s release of Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, a PBS documentary about Moreno that gained viewership when it streamed on Netflix. She made being Rita Moreno look easier and much more fun than it likely was, especially when struggling through her dispiriting and (especially) demeaning early years as a studio ingenue. From those experiences, she developed superior emotional intelligence and fervent empathy towards all who struggled as she did. At about the five-minute mark of this interview clip, she talks about how when working as a series regular, she would go out of her way to make guest actors feel more welcome in unfamiliar, and in some cases, less hospitable surroundings. It’s not in the documentary, but it’s yet another reason, as if any more were needed, to cherish her forever.

 

 

 

 



The Beatles: Get Back – As Samuel Johnson didn’t say, but would have, whosoever gets bored from watching four active imaginations pooling their resources to make music in a studio is bored with life. Eight hours of footage didn’t seem an exceptionally long time to get embedded in a handful of hard day’s nights in the studio. Much as they may have wanted to get back, so to speak, to live concerts, their basic instincts turned out right: they were better together in a studio than they would have been on stage in their latter days as a group. (The guess here is that if they’d stayed on the road any longer than they did, one or more of them would have gotten physically, seriously hurt as the decade they helped create began curdling like cream left open too long on the patio.) Even with all the tiffs, tantrums, and tensions sharing the room with them, the guys were in their safe space, as capable of mutually assured generosity (still loving the sequence where George is helping Ringo erect a bridge for the latter’s “Octopus’s Garden.”) as of sticking tiny needles into each other’s self-esteem. All of which happens when you’re just “hanging out” and this may well be for all time the sine qua non of cinematic “hangs.” The sainted Cassavetes couldn’t have pulled it off if he’d staged everything in advance: he could never have drawn up those two “what’s-all-this-then?” constables trying in vain to get the lads to shut down their rooftop concert. Questions for further study: Can we be sure Phil Spector didn’t put the old lady up to calling the cops? And where, in all this footage, was Phil Spector anyway?

 

 

 

 



Passing – With episodic television now firmly in the center of popular storytelling, it’s perhaps inevitable that some of the year’s most critically-lauded feature films tended to leave more of their narrative details to the imagination, much as producers, directors and writers tried to do in the mid-20th century as commercial television squeezed movie houses into tight corners. Jane Campion’s award-winning western noir The Power of the Dog was a revelation to many for its calculated ambiguity. I preferred Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut if only for the daring aesthetic and personal choices she made in adapting a Harlem Renaissance classic and thus proving (a.) that Nella Larson has earned serious reconsideration as a major American novelist and (b.) judging from some of the reactions to the movie, there remain some things about skin color we feel uneasy about.

 

 

 

 

 



Samantha Fish – So let me tell you how this happened: I was wandering around YouTube this past summer in search of vintage fifties black-and-white videos of the great country-rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson to show a friend of mine what she’d been missing. In the process, whatever algorithm mediates such things kicked up more recent live performances from a guitarist/vocalist I’d never heard before.  Among the many things that led me from the Telluride thing was this solo recital above for New Orleans’ fabled WWOZ from a year ago when things were too locked down for live audiences.

Damn! I said to myself. Where’d she come from? I then asked myself.

 

 

 

 

Born 33 years ago this coming January in Kansas City, Fish’s been performing kickass blues, soul, and country rock for more than a decade and has recorded seven albums under her name, the latest of which, Faster, came out this past September on the Rounder label. She plays several different types of guitar at several different speeds and may well be the master of the amplified cigar-box. With composure and conviction, she can belt, purr, growl, and shout like a grizzled juke-joint veteran, a swampland Marilyn Monroe with a surfeit of sang-froid. She’s always on the move from one medium-cool venue to another, her smitten fans following her trail and hanging on her every well-wrought lick and riff. By autumn, I was so enamored that when I found out her tour would land at Philadelphia’s Union Transfer on my birthday night, I gave her concert as a present from me to me as the first live music show I’d attended since lockdown. I keep wondering why this woman isn’t ruling the world. One answer, the best I can come up with for now, is that the world as it is now constituted would need to be at once older and newer to deserve her reign. As things stand now, she already travels the world, finds love wherever she goes, and, as The Fugs would say, is doing all right.

 

 

 




Tear Across the Dotted Line – In a time like ours where narcissism and its toffee-nosed sibling solipsism rule the populace regardless of ideology, anything that chips away at what legendary basketball coach Pat Riley famously labeled “the Disease of Me” is worth your time. I’m certainly glad for the time I spent absorbing this six-episode animated series by the Italo-Franco cartoonist Zerocalcare, who also voices (in the Italian-language version) his cartoon alter-ego Zero, a snarky, self-absorbed, and self-sabotaging professional illustrator whose personality is best expressed by the giant orange armadillo who hangs around as his sardonic Jiminy Cricket: “You’re a black belt at dodging life.” Exhibit A for the armadillo’s diagnosis is Zero’s fraught, constricted relationship with Alice, a shy, enigmatic young woman with whose feelings Zero plays an exasperating game of keep-away, until tragedy forces him to confront his own mangier inhibitions. On this description alone, you may be inclined to take a hard pass. But there is genuine charm, wit, and ingenuity in execution, and it wins your heart, fairly and honestly, at the end, even if you’re left feeling that Zero would still be more annoying without the armadillo tagging along.

 

 

 

 

 



The Love Song of W.E.B. DuBois – “We are the earth, the land. The tongue that speaks and trips on the names of the dead as it dares to tell the story of a woman’s line. Her people and her dirt. Her trees and her water.” If you’re going to try writing a “great American novel,” you better come at it with a killer lead, especially if what follows is almost 800 pages long. Award-winning poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers fulfills this first obligation in her first novel, an audacious, dense-star potpourri of bildungsroman, multi-generational history, socio-political inquiry and, as the title implies, love story. The coming-of-age story belongs to Ailey Pearl Garfield, habitually impertinent, intensely probing, and passionately engaged in the pursuit of her family background with all its upheavals, hardships, duplicities, and hard-won victories. For those who wonder if going so long and deep is worth the trouble, I yield the floor to culture critic Davin Seay who in 1982’s The Catalog of Cool posed the rhetorical question, “Ask yourself…you looking for something to do while the coffee cools or do you want to read a book?”

 

 

 



Lashana Lynch, Ana De Armas & Lea SeydouxNo Time to Die took its sweet time getting its business done, making Daniel Craig’s long goodbye to the James Bond franchise seem even longer than necessary. Still, the movie’s generosity of spirit towards its cast and its audience compensated for any number of longueurs and Craig’s comfort level with the 007 persona was never more evident, or more disarming, than it was on his way out. What also helped was a dazzling trio of what would have once been branded “Bond girls” for convenience’s sake, though somehow, they each seem emblematic of Things to Come rather than What Once Was. We’ll start with Lynch as Agent Nomi of MI-6, who in the wake of Bond’s resignation from the secret service, was granted “license to kill” status and made the most of it with a skill set formidable enough to get her out of any jam the franchise could conceive. Seydoux, reprising her role from SPECTRE as Bond’s enigmatic love interest Madeleine Swann, got to show additional bad-assery in an unexpected place beyond Bond: as the truculent prison guard who doubles as an artist’s nude model in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch. Last, and by no means least is Armas, who made perhaps the biggest splash with critics and audiences as Paloma, the callow, but poised CIA agent, whose one action set piece with Craig’s Bond showed she could take command of the screen on her own. When Armas’s Paloma split for Parts Unknown, you felt she’d taken much of the movie’s vitality with her. It’s been whispered that Paloma will be given her own movie as will Lynch’s Nomi. It’d be OK with me and I suspect millions of others if they paired up somehow, if the world could withstand so much magnetism from the same place.

 

 

 



The Underground RailroadI’ve had my say and then some about Barry Jenkins’s masterly, unsparingly corrosive adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s antebellum magical-realist picaresque. The only thing I can add is that I still believe there’s been nothing like it on television before. If it weren’t so tough to watch the first time, I might be able to say for sure after a return viewing. And I don’t know if those faint whispers about a second season are or should be for real. It’d be intriguing to see Jenkins, or somebody else, try.

 

 

 


Succession – For those who haven’t watched the third season, or for that matter, its two predecessors (and what are you all waiting for anyway?), I’ll try hard not to spoil anything for you by being of no real help whatsoever. Moving stuff around without changing anything about their miserable selves: that’s what being a member of the Roy family is all about, beginning with Mister “Fuck Off “himself, his satanic majesty Logan Roy (Brian Cox). Part of the reason Season 3 reached a new peak in dialogue was its many cogent deployments of the f-word as verb, adjective, noun, and adverb. beginning with what retains pole position as Snap of the Decade: not-as-smart-as-she-thinks sister Shiv (Sarah Snook) telling her not-as-hep-to-the-jive-as-he-thinks-younger bro Roman (Kieran Culkin): “Oh, you love showing your pee-pee to everybody, but sooner or later, you’re actually going to have to fuck something!” Then there’s Shiv’s not-as-pliant-as-he-seems husband Tom (Matthew Macfayden) telling nowhere-near-as-cool-as he-thinks renegade son Kendall (Jeremy Strong) why he can’t join the latter’s uprising against Big Daddy: “I don’t mean to be insulting, but having been around a bit, my hunch is you’re going to get fucked. Because I’ve seen you get fucked a lot. And I’ve never seen Logan get fucked once.” In the end, there’s Logan (and, as Tom says, this shouldn’t be a spoiler to those of us who’ve “been around” these jackals since 2018) proclaiming “I! Fucking! Win!” closely followed by Shiv’s doleful last words till next season, “Mom fucked us.” That’s more than enough fucking “fucks” for you to begin piecing together where things go from here. And you can count on so much more — and potentially worse — fuckery to come.

Seymour Movies: Seymour’s Movies

If blame is necessary, then it goes to my good friend, humane observer and fellow professional spectator Tim Page, who was inspired by this year’s recently completed Academy Awards to come up with his own entirely subjective Best Picture list for every year he’s been alive. He posted this list on Facebook and the heroism of his effort so inspired me that I was compelled to come up with one of my own.

I had fun with it while I was picking and choosing. But as soon as I was finished, I was all but overcome by a profound sadness. Because as I surveyed this list, it came across more like a melancholy relic of an era of moviegoing that is all but swept away by the streams and clouds of the digital age, along with the countervailing bombast of spectaculars and star-packages contrived to keep whatever’s left of the multiplexes alive and upright, post-pandemic. 

Whatever you want to say about my choices, which are presented with little more than random illustrations and no explanations (or, at this point, equivocations), they each came from discoveries I made either at the time they were released or, mostly, long afterwards.  They are not commodities to be assessed like IPAs or yoga mats, which seems pretty much how most “consumers” assess filmed “product” these days; these films were means of stretching my senses, deepening memories, sharpening the landscape around me. They are all places to which I am always happy and eager to return so I can re-encounter the arcane joys they gave me and, maybe, find something new to like about them as an older, if not always wiser viewer. 

“Viewer.” I like that word so much better than “consumer.” Don’t you? 

A couple things before we begin: 1.) It’s entirely possible that some of the things on this list could change over time. They did in at least a few places as I prepared to post this version. 2.) These are in no way intended to be a definitive, all-time-great, etc. or whatever other euphemism you wish to use. They are parts of myself that I and I alone declare as a personal best for each year. You will have your own. I shall be as forbearing towards those as I hope you can manage to be for mine own. 

 

So…

 

 

 

1952: Singin’ in the Rain
1953: Tokyo Story

 

 

 

1954: Rear Window
1955: The Night of the Hunter
1956: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

 

 

 


1957: Sweet Smell of Success
1958: Vertigo
1959: Rio Bravo
1960: Shoot the Piano Player

 

 

 


1961: Yojimbo
1962: The Manchurian Candidate

 

 

 


1963: Charade
1964: A Hard Day’s Night
1965: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
1966: Persona

 

 

 


1967: Bonnie & Clyde
1968: 2001: A Space Odyssey
1969: The Wild Bunch
1970: The Landlord

 

 


1971: McCabe & Mrs. Miller
1972: The Godfather
1973: Ganja & Hess
1974: The Godfather II

 

 


1975: Jaws
1976: All the President’s Men
1977: Annie Hall
1978: Blue Collar

 

 


1979: Being There
1980: Raging Bull
1981: Diva/My Dinner With Andre

 

 


1982: Blade Runner
1983: The Right Stuff
1984: Repo Man
1985: Lost in America

 

 

 


1986: Blue Velvet
1987:  The Princess Bride 

 

 

 


1988: Bull Durham
1989: Do the Right Thing
1990: GoodFellas
1991: Daughters of the Dust

 


1992: One False Move
1993: Groundhog Day

 

 

 

 


1994: Pulp Fiction
1995: Toy Story
1996: Jerry Maguire

1997: L.A. Confidential
1998: Babe: Pig in the City

 

 

 


1999: All About My Mother
2000: Yi-Yi

 

 

2001: In the Mood for Love
2002: 25th Hour/Talk To Her

 

 


2003: Lost in Translation
2004: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind 

 

 

 

2005: A History of Violence
2006: Children of Men

 

 

 

 

 


2007: Zodiac
2008: WALL-E

 

 


2009: A Serious Man

 

 


2010: The Social Network
2011: Margin Call
2012: Moonrise Kingdom

 

 

 

 

2013: Only Lovers Left Alive

 

 


2014: Inherent Vice
2015: Mad Max: Fury Road
2016: Moonlight

 


2017:  The Florida Project 
2018: The Sisters Brothers

2019: The Last Black Man in San Francisco

 

 

2020: First Cow

2021: Passing

 

 

 

2022: Emily the Criminal

2023: Poor Things

Seymour Movies Asks: If We’re Not Sure What A Movie Is Any More, Then What’s An Oscar?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just so we’re clear, movies aren’t dead, though multiplexes are likely dying. And that process was well underway before COVID-19 locked down the world.

We keep hearing that there’s light at the end of this tunnel we’ve been trudging through for a year. But keep in mind, whether immunized or not, that we’re still in a tunnel, even as I’m writing this. And whenever we all can safely stagger into this light-at-the-end, it’s going to take a while for us to get our cloistered senses re-adjusted. Things will at the very least look a lot different at the outset from how they did a year ago, the movie business being among the familiar institutions most conspicuously affected by a year of closures and strictly enforced re-openings here and there.

Of course, I too have missed going to movie theaters, even the ugliest, most utilitarian of them. No matter how big an HDTV screen you’re able to squeeze into your kitchen or bathroom, the experience of watching any moving picture, whether as intimate as Persona or as populated as Rear Window is nowhere near as immersive as sitting with strangers in even the narrowest darkened room. As with any other self-respecting cinephile, I regret what seems an irreversible decline in a kind of romantic, near-heroic age of moviegoing commemorated by Martin Scorsese during the past year. Streams and clouds are no longer alternatives to theater-going. They are now, pretty much, The Ball Game.  Given the choice between figuring out logistics for going out to see a blockbuster or watch that blockbuster at your own convenience as soon as it “drops,” how many would rather pony up the baby-sitting money, root around for gas and parking expenses and line up single file for whatever dubiously packaged snack will adequately meet their needs and those of the kids tagging along? 

But we’ll still have movie houses; better yet, all those repertory houses that were devoured by the multiplex could come back to life and restore the romance and adventure celebrated by Scorsese. If whatever’s left of the multiplexes still think they can make a go of it by including all kinds of other distractions – arcade games, dining, aerial acts, whatever – they’ll carry on and some may even thrive in such reinvention.

And the really good news, at least as far as I’m concerned, is that the Age of Clouds and Streams will better enable greater diversity of both product and producers. Studios will no longer have to wonder about whether certain scripts and stories are too “niche-ey” to reap theatrical profits worldwide. In other words, Black and other minority filmmakers will have more and better outlets to tell their stories and, through such exposure, may eventually be empowered enough to carry those stories into wider marketplaces.

But that’s all for later. For now, the movies are still trying to pick their way through a bewildering, anxious and altogether strange year that may someday be regarded as a transformative one. Whether the transformations are for better or worse won’t be settled or even suggested by this year’s Oscars that, whatever else you want to say about them, don’t look a whole lot like the Oscars of a decade or even a half-decade before

As always, projected winners are in bold face and, whenever necessary, a FWIW (For Whatever It’s Worth) disclaimer/appendix will follow.

Oh…and one more thing: if you’ve been annually wagering on my picks, please don’t do that this year because this year, as opposed to its predecessors, I expect to be wrong about most, if not all of these. 



Best Picture

 

 

 

 

 

Judas and the Black Messiah
Mank
Minari
Nomadland
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal
The Father
The Trial of the Chicago 7

After all those serial film festival triumphs, rapturous reviews and probing inquiries into its up-to-the-minute-neo-Grapes-of-Wrath relevance (or lack thereof), Nomadland has become this season’s catch-all for smarty-pants revisionism. Critics and civilians alike seem to be groping for reasons to dislike or dismiss it, many of them insisting on greater detail or added socio-political content that the movie’s structure was never built to contain in the first place. Why? Who’s that helping? And aren’t we supposed to be smart enough to tease out such inferences on our own? What happened to the idea of making the audiences work even a little bit instead of the story doing all the work for them?

I still believe in Nomadland, even if I’m no longer certain the Academy does. But what kind of Academy vote will matter here? If it’s the same Academy that punched Green Book’s ticket two years ago, then Mank, The Father or Chicago 7, the closest things to “traditional” Oscar bait, will get this one. If it’s the Academy that gave Parasite its unprecedented near-sweep of a year ago, then Minari, Judas and, yes, Nomadland lead the pack. This leaves Sound of Metal and Promising Young Woman, both very dark in very different ways. If you think the Best Picture vote is the best reflection of an overall industry mood, then I’m going to presume here that the overall industry is both anxious and angry over what’s happened over the last twelve months, or four years, or whatever index you choose to use. The mordant humor of Promising Young Woman is, from this vantage point, best suited to ride that wave. If on the other hand events since January 20th are making Hollywood feel more hopeful than not, then any of the others could take this one home. As with just about every category on the board this year, nothing’s set in granite.

UPDATE (4/8/21): Is it plausible to imagine a world in which the in-your-face storytelling of The Trial of the Chicago 7  vanquishes the sublimities of Nomadland or even Minari (which would be my personal choice)? Doesn’t take much imagining,  because that world has been with us for as far back as the 1940s when issue-oriented melodramas such as Gentlemen’s Agreement could prevail over David Lean’s Great Expectations. (A greater, if not necessarily bigger movie than either Lean’s Bridge Over the River Kwai or Lawrence of Arabia. ) It’s still anybody’s ballgame as far as I’m concerned. But somehow Aaron Sorkin’s look-back-in-anger over what happened to Fred Hampton in 1969 seems more of an industry crowd-pleaser (and prototypical Oscar-winning Best Picture) than, say, Shaka King’s angrier one. 

Best Director

Chloe Zhao, Nomadland
David Fincher, Mank
Emerald Fennel, Promising Young Woman
Lee Issac Chung, Minari
Thomas Vinterberg, Another Round

Zhao’s ascension is as compelling and inspiring a story as her movie’s. Besides which, it’s past time for a woman-of-color to win one of these

Best Actor

 

 



Anthony Hopkins, The Father
Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Gary Oldman, Mank
Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
Steven Yeun, Minari

There’s been some chatter, as the NSA likes to put it, over how Hopkins’ portrayal of an Alzheimer’s victim is so consummately good that voters may decide he deserves another one of these after all. But Old and New Hollywood, in whatever post-Millennium forms they assume, were deeply shaken by Boseman’s passing last August and his widow’s acceptance speech at the Globes was so startlingly beautiful and moving that voters would love a reprise.


FWIW: Since we’re here, would it be OK if we take a brief tour of Boseman’s (brief) life’s work to determine which of his roles would or should have gotten this award beforehand? We can eliminate Black Panther ‘s title role, even though he evinced a lot of star power in all the MCU movies where his character appeared. Of the historical figures Boseman brought to life, his portrayal of James Brown in 2014’s Get On Up is the one that was at once the most electrifying and credible, though the Jackie Robinson he played in 2013’s 42 was more complex and cogent than was generally acknowledged at the time. A few words, but no more than a few, should be submitted on behalf of his impressive star turn in the 2019 NYPD thriller, 21 Bridges. But what in many ways represented Boseman at his most magnetic was his scene-stealing performance in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods as the charismatic, doomed patrol leader for which he richly deserved a Supporting Actor nomination – and, for that matter, the Oscar. Have I mentioned yet that this particular nomination is only his first? How could I have forgotten to mention that? Oh, and about 5 Bloods? Delroy Lindo was screwed. 

Best Actress

Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman
Frances McDormand, Nomadland
Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman

In any other year, this might have been the occasion for yet another win for Academy fave McDormand. But this a formidable quintet competing in what is almost, but not quite, as wide open a contest as this year’s Supporting Actress race (see below). Early on, Day’s Golden Globe victory took so many by surprise that it compelled several hundred eyes to gaze upon her  intuitively intelligent rendering of Billie Holiday. The rest of her movie, however, can’t keep up with her and, in some ways, drags her down. She could still take it. But Mulligan’s been poised for some time towards Oscar’s embrace the same way that a heat-seeking missile is poised to take down an enemy compound. And this all-out performance of a fierce, wounded feminist avenger, especially when juxtaposed with her un-nominated, but noteworthy turn as an emotionally-tough-yet-physically-fragile aristocrat in The Dig, seals Mulligan’s reputation for range and raw nerve.


Best Supporting Actor

 



Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
LaKeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah
Leslie Odom Jr., One Night in Miami
Paul Raci, Sound of Metal
Sacha Baron Cohen, The Trial of the Chicago 7

Yet another example of what should have been acknowledged as a lead performance that’s (kind of) a ringer in the supporting category. Some think having Stanfield in the mix make a cancelling-out effect, or even a tie, inevitable. Ties are not unprecedented, but it won’t happen here. And I’ve been hearing about “cancelling-out effects” for most of my adult life and now believe them to be as mythological as sports teams getting a championship for no other reason except that they’re “due.” Gambling tip: next time you hear somebody make a pronouncement like that, hook them immediately for whatever hard cash you can risk. And thank me later.

FWIW: If I had a vote, it’d go to Raci, without a second thought.


Best Supporting Actress

 

 

Amanda Seyfried, Mank
Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy
Olivia Coleman, The Father
Youn Yuh-jung, Minari

So wide open, as noted earlier, that there’s no such thing as a dumb guess here. Coleman’s recent win for The Favourite makes her the least likely winner. But as I’d warned the year she got that Best Actress prize, quite a lot of people love her and as noted above, The Father’s been picking up some momentum on the home stretch. Close’s work was, by common consent, the best thing about her movie and the Academy seems to be searching for some way, any way, to give her a win after eight tries. Bakalova’s turn as apprentice Kazakh journalist and would-be-sex-partner to Rudy Giuliani may have been the century’s most audacious comedic impersonation and she’s been getting considerable buzz for it. Seyfried already has amassed a great deal of industry-wide affection, and it’s hard to imagine an Oscar contender going away empty-handed after picking Gary Oldman’s pocket in a black-and-white movie in which Orson Welles is more of a supporting character than hers is. Except..in situations such as this, dark horses always have a chance. And since the marvelously bawdy and winsome Youn Yuh-jung has won the SAG, she’s no longer a dark horse. Nevertheless I insist it’s still wide-open. 

 

 

 



Best Adapted Screenplay

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Nomadland

One Night in Miami

The Father

The White Tiger



Usually I go with the Writers. Guild on these, but I’m having trouble picturing the same crowd who put their heads together on Borat Subsequent Moviefilm converging here as one big winner, though it’d certainly be my preference. Kemp Powers is already assured of a win for co-directing Soul (see below). But he’s been such a conspicuously entertaining media presence throughout the Oscar campaign season that it isn’t hard to see him scoring a rare double here. Of course, if Nomadland gets a monster surge of momentum towards the home stretch, I’m an idiot once again.


Best Original Screenplay

Judas and the Black Messiah
Minari
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal
The Trial of the Chicago 7

Definitely going along with WGA on this one for its serrated edges and willful ingenuity. Dark as hell, almost literally speaking, but in its weird, deterministic way, the most fun of these assembled nominees. (I mean, not that “fun” has anything to do with it, but…)

 

 

 



Best International Feature

Another Round (Druk)
Better Days (Shaonian de ni)
Collective
Quo Vadis, Adia?
The Man Who Sold His Skin

Thomas Vinterberg’s Best Director nomination was about as big a “tell” as you can expect as to how this one’s going to go. But it’s also the closest Vinterberg has come to a “feel-good” movie and that will count for a great deal with the general consensus. 

 

Best Documentary Feature

 

 


Collective
Crip Camp
My Octopus Teacher
The Mole Agent
Time

I took Crip Camp to my heart for how authoritative and touching it was in rendering the rise of the handicapped-rights movement. And this grizzled old newspaperman greatly appreciated Collective’s intricate, rousing examination of how investigative journalism can effect change, even in a government as corrupt as Romania’s. But Garrett Bradley’s multi-layered chronicle of a Black woman entrepreneur’s efforts to overcome heavily stacked odds in freeing her husband out from under an egregiously lengthy prison stretch is the most innovative picture among this year’s entire slate of feature films, fiction or nonfiction. This doesn’t necessarily mean it will win. But for those who still appreciate how movies can still catch you by surprise in the things they do (or don’t), it’s, so to speak, Time.

 

UPDATE (4/23/21): Way too late to take my hand off this piece, but the New York Times this morning has My Octopus Teacher the overwhelming favorite and I should’ve known it carried even more of a feel-good vibe than Time. I’m prepared to concede defeat on this one. My only comfort is that it won’t be the only one.




Best Animated Feature

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon
Onward
Over the Moon
Soul
WolfWalkers

 

 



A lay-up, of course. All the same, it’s a drag that Pixar releases one of its finest features the same year that the Ireland-based Cartoon Saloon gives cel painted animation a gratifying jolt with the enrapturing WolfWalkers. The jazz beaux and the romantic folklorist living within me are deeply divided — though I doubt either of them will grieve all that much if the Saloon scores the (unlikely) upset.



Best Cinematography

Judas and the Black Messiah (Sean Bobbitt)
Mank (Erik Messerschmidt)
News of the World (Darius Wolski)
Nomadland (Joshua James Richards)
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Phedon Papamichael)

I don’t know who has the edge here, so I’m going to presume that what Messerschmidt does with shadows and light emit dazzle sufficient enough to carry the day.
 

FWIW: Of course, if Nomadland runs the table, etc etc.

Best Original Score 

Da 5 Bloods (Terence Blanchard)
Mank (Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross)
Minari (Emile Mosseri)
News of the World (James Newton Howard)
Soul (Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross & Jon Baptiste)

Reznor and Ross’ only real competition here is with themselves and Stephen Colbert’s unflappable bandleader pushes this one over the hump with the kind of acoustic jazz charts the movies have hitherto forsaken.


Best Song

“Husavik” from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
“Fight for You” from Judas and the Black Messiah
“Speak Now” from One Night in Miami
“Io Se (Seen)” from The Life Ahead
“Hear My Voice” from The Trial of the Chicago 7

Leslie Odum Jr., the song’s co-writer and performer is compensated for not getting the Supporting Actor prize for re-enacting Sam Cooke. It must be nice….


Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Favorite Things from 2020

Just so you all know: I had a tougher time than usual with my annual everything-but-jazz list and not for the reasons you think. There was an awful lot that gave me comfort and joy in the past year because what else did I or anybody else have to do in 2020 but seek such things whenever they could be found. So I left a lot of things I could have included to the side. But I don’t regret anything I retained because the main point for me is to let you know that I recognized and embraced the same things you did and also found out stuff that you may not know about, but need to. So here we go and sorry if I missed something. Chances are I didn’t. But because I once again reside in the global capital of It Is What It Is (a.k.a. Philadelphia), I’m in no position to regret anything here. Next year? That’s next year. For now…in no particular order…

 

 

American Utopia – I saw it live in January on one of its last pre-lockdown Broadway performances and again this fall as a Spike Lee movie. The whole bouncy, juicy enterprise is just as you’ve heard: an invigorating, beautifully staged tonic for nerves frayed and hopes stressed by the previous four years (if not longer). Yet for all the show’s ecumenical uplift and big-tent benevolence, I couldn’t help but think back to its producer-writer -star’s early life as a Talking Head. And by “early,” I mean all the way back to Talking Heads ’77 and such lines from that long-ago breakthrough as: “Other people’s problems/They overwhelm my mind/They say compassion is a virtue/But I don’t have the time.” Of course, David Byrne’s a different person from whatever or whoever he was back then, as am I. And I’d like to think he now wonders sometimes, as I do, whether the spirit animating that chorus from “No Compassion” is in any way partly responsible for whatever culminated over the intervening decades into a Donald Trump administration (especially given how some of you kids, at whatever age, may not be as fluent in irony as you think you are). But while there’s plenty of Heads music to sing along with here (and you invariably will), you’ll never hear a song like that in this show. And you don’t see even a trace of Byrne’s I’m-smarter-than-you glower from those late-seventies days when CBGBs was the place to go for the Next Big Thing. You do hear a lot from Byrne’s gnomic side; the part of him that can’t stop bringing up potato chips even as he’s urgently decrying injustice in all its domestic and foreign manifestations. Only now it doesn’t register as smart-assery so much as cozy schtick and, as such, it enhances Byrne’s bright-beaming avuncularity and, yes, compassion. He’s evolved from not-having-the-time-for-empathy to: “As a people, we’re a work in progress. Who we are extends beyond ourselves.” Just another way of saying “Happy New Year.”

 

 

 

Lovers Rock – Taken together, the films that make up Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s multi-tiered chroniclie of the West Indian experience in London from the 1960s to the 1980s, are a revelation, sweeping and intimate in their depiction of tribulation, perseverance and resistance in the face of white bigotry. The eruption of militant Black protest is given the same respect as the determination of a young Jamaican to protect his community by becoming a patrolman. The harsh coming-of-age of a celebrated YA writer illuminates an era as powerfully as the account of promising, but misunderstood Black children systemically funneled into subpar educational facilities. At times, McQueen can be overly emphatic. In Education, for instance, he piles on the soul-killing drudgery imposed upon warehoused children, making you, at one point, resent the movie almost as much as the clueless white teacher mangling “House of the Rising Sun.” But you don’t in the least mind the way McQueen goes all out in Lovers Rock, a one-of-a-kind depiction of a 1980 reggae house party in which two young people (Micheal Ward, Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) manage to go through a full courtship during a tightly wound night of music, food and dance. You’re spellbound by the way these smart, resilient and beautiful kids inject their own martial arts movies into “Kung Fu Fighting.” And you give in to rapture as the young women keep swaying to and singing the lyrics of Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” after the record stops playing, in key and keeping the beat. You fall in love with the movie in the same way that the movie – and McQueen’s series — loves its people.

 

 

 

 


The Queen’s Gambit – Its worldwide popularity has set off the inevitable backlash for any number of perceived sins, e.g. too slick, too soapy, too pulpy, whatever. But I was all in with this Netflix adaptation of Walter Tevis’ novel, if for no other reason that I preferred living a world in which America’s leading contender for global supremacy in chess dead center in the American century was a moody, pill-popping orphan girl from Kentucky instead of the bombastic, deranged Bobby Fischer. In the lead role of Beth Harmon, the winsome Anya Taylor-Joy grabbed and sustained your attention with the way her complicated, not-always-admirable character grew from gangly teenaged social awkwardness to demure grownup self-possession, even when, near the crest of triumph, she’s still barely holding it together. Verisimilitude is always valuable when it comes to such period melodrama and the series kept excellent time with its sense of detail from the fifties showroom nature of the furniture to the sixties chic of its fashions and, most especially, the soundtrack that took in the Vogues’ “You’re the One,” the Association’s “Along Comes Mary,” Quincy Jones’ chrome-plated arrangement of “Comin’ Home Baby,” Gillian Hills’ “Tut Tut Tut Tut,” and Shocking Blue’s “Venus.” The supporting cast was uniformly excellent; in particular Marielle Heller as Beth’s thwarted dreamer of a stepmother and Moses Ingram in a best-friend-from-childhood role that she almost single-handedly rescues from hackneyed “magical negro” convention. But it’s Taylor-Joy’s star-making show all the way through. And her total magnetism was more than enough to get most of us to dust off our old chess sets and figure out how her character’s huge, espresso eyes are able to see everything happen before it happens – as useful a skill in art as it is in chess.

 

 

 


Glynn Turman – In a world that makes much more sense than this one, Glynn Turman would be nationally renowned as a generational icon of his profession. It’s enough to say that, at 73, he is a living, breathing retrospective of Black cultural advancement from the civil rights era to the present day. At 12 years old, he played Sidney Poitier’s son on Broadway in the original production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Less than a decade later, at 21, he helped integrate TV’s Peyton Place and was to the 1975 coming-of-age comedy Cooley High what fellow child actor Ron Howard was to its 1973 counterpart American Graffiti. Over the succeeding decades, he became as much of a cult hero for the parts he got (the spit-and-polish Army colonel on A Different World; the sleazoid Baltimore mayor in The Wire) as for the one he didn’t (he auditioned for Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie, but George Lucas reportedly backed away from the idea of a Black Han playing approach-avoidance games with White Princess Leia). Plus which, he was once married to Aretha Franklin. This year found people sitting up and taking full notice of Turman’s contained intensity and mastery of space. In Netflix’s production of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom he was Toledo, the circumspect piano player for Ma’s band trying to retain composure and dignity amidst the tempest of resentment and rage in the recording studio. And in the fourth season of FX’s Fargo, he was Black mob consigliore Doctor Senator, who displays so much shrewdness, gravitas and diplomacy among the short fuses going off like fireworks throughout circa 1950 Kansas City that you wish he were in charge of all the city’s warring mobsters, Afro- and Italo-American alike. The attention Turman’s been getting for these turns is as gratifying as the grace with which he’s greeted the renewed acclaim. He seems more than happy to be regarded at this stage in his long and illustrious career as an “actor’s actor.” And while some of us still wish he were regarded as so much more, if he’s cool with that status, we should be, too.

 

 


Soul Ethan Iverson has declared this latest Disney Pixar project to be the best jazz movie in a long time. And as I’ve written elsewhere, I’m with him on this — with the caveat that one of the things that disquieted me a little was its implication that the jazz calling and the dedication it requires so obsessed Joe the protagonist that it kept him from appreciating everything in his life that had meaning and resonance. Most of us who love music (and I’m not just talking about “the music,” but all music) believe it to be one of the gateways towards embracing life in all its outward and inward graces. Maybe Pete Docter’s movie was saying the same thing ultimately. But I fear it will nonetheless give haters more ammunition for disdaining or dismissing “the music.” As soon as the closing credits started rolling, there was also the melancholy suspicion that Soul wasn’t going to find as much love out there as other Disney/Pixar inquiries into the metaphysical such as Coco or Inside/Out. It left more questions open than answers, which makes it my favorite DizPix movie since WALL-E – and 2008 now seems a long time ago. Meanwhile, the jazz head in me was more caught up with the movie’s digressions and diversion e.g. the rat dragging the pizza slice in one direction while the cat is dragging another one in the other; the offhand little jibe by the afterlife’s gatekeepers over how too many new souls were being herded into the hovel set aside for self-absorption; the modernist depiction of those gate-keepers that tipped its cap to the UPA and Terrytoons shorts of the 1950s; and. most of all, the characterizations of all its Black supporting characters from the older ladies rocking with Joe’s mom in the tailoring shop to the brothers at the barber shop simultaneously keeping it real and cool. When Oscar time rolls around, I’ll be rooting for Wolfwalkers to win the best animated feature prize because those guys at Cartoon Saloon deserve the love for keeping hand-painted animation alive and kicking in the digital age. But as Ethan says, if there’s an envelope somewhere for Best Jazz Movie of this year (if not the last 10-to-30), this is what it’ll say on the card inside.

 

 



Quarter Life Crisis – I’ve watched enough Netflix stand-up comedy specials over the now-all-but-completed decade to know that the raunchiest, most incisive and most double-dog-daring of these comics have been women. I’ve found something to like and/or admire in most, if not all their provocations. But for whatever reason, none of their specials have kept me coming back for seconds this past year like this recital by Taylor Tomlinson. The title refers to her up-front fatigue with being in her twenties. “I am done with this shit!” she declares. “They are ten years of asking yourself, ‘Is this a phase or is it a demon? Am I fun or should I go to a meeting?’” She’s had a fairly conventional rise through the talk-show circuit and Last Comic Standing duels, but has somehow pulled together a fascinating self-portrait of a Millennial caught squarely in a conflict between her nice-girl upbringing and her nascent yearnings to be a bona-fide mean girl. (And she probably would be, if she didn’t find mean girls to be lame as well.) Watching this tension play out is what keeps you strapped in her passenger seat, along with her gift for the seemingly offhand, Day-Glo zinger. (“[If] love is blind, lust is Helen Keller.”) She’s got so much figured out at such an early age, even with her white-bread religious upbringing, that you can’t wait to see what’s spilling out of her next. And even if she doesn’t figure all of it out (and who does?), it’s still going to be fun watching her try well into her thirties.

 

 

 



James McBride – If this country has a Poet Laureate, then why shouldn’t there be, officially or otherwise, an office for “America’s Storyteller”? McBride has been a rock-solid contender for the title ever since his canonical 1995 memoir of his mother, The Color of Water, endeared itself to generations of readers. He has since demonstrated his chops as a screenwriter (Miracle at St. Ann’s), socio-cultural history (Kill ‘Em And Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul) and short-story writer (Five-Carat Soul). This year provided a double-jolt of added luster to McBride’s reputation: his critically acclaimed novel, Deacon King Kong, an effervescent, humane comedy of errors set in and around a circa-1969 Brooklyn housing project and Showtime’s multi-part adaptation of his award-winning 2013 historical novel, The Good Lord Bird, a boisterous picaresque about a young Black boy’s adventures in Antebellum America with the insurrectionary abolitionist John Brown, played with bravado and poignancy by Ethan Hawke. An accomplished jazz saxophonist, McBride not only knows the secret to holding an audience, but to reaching into its core for shared trauma, yearning and faith. He is capable of making everybody laugh at the same joke at once, which doesn’t seem possible in a time as polarized as ours. If you wonder where to go next, I’d suggest both Five-Carat Soul and the James Brown book, the latter as indispensable in its rock-pop-critical-bio subgenre as Chet Flippo’s Your Cheatin’ Heart, Nick Tosches’ Hellfire and Peter Guralnik’s Feel Like Going Home.

 




First Cow — I’ve heard Kelly Reichardt’s latest exemplar of sneaky-great filmmaking described as both an “anti-western” and a “near-western.” It’s almost as if she were working beyond John Ford’s vision, except I suspect Ford would  appreciate exactly where First Cow was coming from, even if it is set all the way back to 1820s Oregon and carrying an implicit anti-capitalist message that Depression-era insurgents could identify with. (Two ill-fated wanderers, one Jewish, the other Asian, struggle to make a business for themselves by using milk from a rich man’s cow to make ambrosial desert cakes.) It’s a movie that’s both beyond and steeped in its genre conventions and as somebody cheering for the western, in any form, to carry on however it’s able, I’m delighted to see both her and her movie get their props.


Julie Nolke – Not that we’ll ever be nostalgic about 2020. But should the (albeit unlikely) occasion arise to retrieve a taste of what it felt like to be alive in that near-unprecedented maelstrom, the YouTube series of videos by this Canadian comic actress will bring it all back alive. And, just as they did during the past nine months, her videos will continue to offer solace and commiseration for our shared bemusement and exasperation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Stephen Wright & Steven Wright –Just before Everything Changed earlier this year, I came across two very different and eerily relevant novels written by two very different authors with almost the same name. (Neither of whom, to be clear, are stand-up comedians, though each is very funny in a grim, caustic way.) Looking back, I’m a little startled by how effectively both books nailed down deeply rooted illnesses in the American psyche that explained a lot of messed-up behavior over the succeeding months in the face of mass disease and systemic racism.

 



First there was Stephen Wright’s Processed Cheese, a surrealistic pillow stuffed with sharp objects. It’s set in a funhouse version of present-day America whose largest, wealthiest metropolis is called Mammoth City, whose wealthiest and most powerful resident, Mister Menu, lives in a penthouse apartment of a very shiny skyscraper. One day, Mister Menu’s supermodel wife (Her name? Missus Menu, of course) hurls a canvas bag loaded with cash at her husband. The bag sails past him, off their terrace and fifty-two stories to the street where it lands smack dab in front of an unemployed-and-desperate citizen named Graveyard. Not knowing where the million-dollar sack came from or to whom it belongs, Graveyard takes it home to his wife Ambience and, once they’re convinced no one’s looking for their money, they proceed to Live Larger than they ever have before, buying everything and anything they want. You name it: sex, drugs and other commodities with brand names like Walleyed Monkeys champagne, DominationDonuts, the HoochieCoochie flatscreen TV and, inevitably, guns like the Gibe & Cloister 418 firearm or “The Last Judgment” (with a) “silver barrel engraved with lifelike drawings of people in sexual positions most of us couldn’t even imagine.” All this and more sounds as over-the-top as that canvas bag’s trajectory and yet this Stephen Wright, a meta-novelist highly recommended by the seemingly incongruent likes of Toni Morrison and Stephen King, applies a thick Buster Keaton-esque sheen on all this slapstick avarice. You can think all you want that it’s way too outrageously conceived to have anything to do with you– until the next time you walk out of your house and see all those empty Amazon boxes spilling out of the nearest available dumpster.

 



Unlike Processed Cheese, The Coyotes of Carthage by (the other, differently spelled) Steven Wright is set in this plane of reality. But it’s no less trenchant or unsettling. Its protagonist (not at all the hero) is Dre, a jaded young Black operative for a K Street consulting firm who’s assigned by his bosses to supervise a ballot initiative enabling a metals conglomerate to strip mine an Appalachian rain forest in South Carolina. Saying the least, an African American smarty-pants seems the least likely person to galvanize a predominantly white and right-leaning constituency into parting with such fertile land. So he pulls hidden levers and disperses dark money to enable a local bar owner to become the face of the initiative. Eventually, the trickery and duplicity involved in making people vote against their own interests take their toll on Dre, whose self-loathing reaches red-zone levels. “Aren’t elections about getting people to like you?” the bar owner’s God-fearing wife asks Dre. “That’s a common misconception,” he answers. “Elections are about getting voters to hate others.” Whatever happens over the next 12 months and beyond, both these novels are neon-lit arrows pointing to the pile of crap we’re going to have to clean up if we want to survive as a democratic republic.