History: Belfast (3.5 *) is this year’s only movie in the history genre, making this one of my ‘minor’ genres. Belfast is a story of a family enduring under the great stresses of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland during the 60’s and 70’s. So the inclusion as a history is, mostly, because of its setting. While the movie does give you a good sense of what life during in this difficult environment was like, I think this is less a ‘historical’ accounting, and more a portrayal of a family and how strong family dynamics work even under stress. In fact, I compared it to the other ‘family’ movie of the year, CODA (Best Picture Winner) and, unfortunately, I think CODA ends up being a better film.
In contrast to this year, there were four movies in this genre last year. Greyhound (4*) starring Tom Hanks is an unusually effective war movie exploring the action on the high seas in World War II. Based on a true event, it “does an amazing job of creating tension almost entirely from the dialog of a captain’s orders and the efforts of the crew to comply.” Judas and the Black Messiah (4 *) and the Trial of the Chicago 7 (4*) both deal with the tumultuous events of the 60s. The former is a much darker movie dealing with the death of Black Panther founder, Fred Hampton, but may not fully develop the motivations of his Judas, Billy O’Neil. And Chicago 7 does a wonderful job of exploring the personal conflicts between seven very complicated characters all, supposedly, fighting on the same side. And finally, Quo Vadis, Aida? Is a very difficult but well done movie exploring humanities capacity for evil.
Between this year and last year, you have five good movies to explore our world’s history. Take your pick.
Horror: Nope, no horror movies this year, nor last year. Horror is a genre not real popular with Oscar folks, so you don’t see many in this genre.
Music: Coda (4.5*) and Summer of Soul ( 4.5*) are this year’s two nominated movies in this genre. (Frankly, this is a genre I’ve never really understood – supposedly, I think, it is about people who are doing something in the music world. But I would, actually, prefer a broader genre that included not just musicians, but also artists, writers, and others engaged in the creative arts. I think their stories all end up overlapping in many ways.)
CODA, this year’s Best Picture, is about music only because the lead character, Ruby, the CODA the title refers to, is a pretty good singer, and wants to develop her talents. But, obviously, her family, being deaf, have no idea what that means. In a touching family story, the movie tells the emotional story of how she and her family negotiate that transition. I loved young Emilia Jones and am looking forward to her future work.
Summer of Soul is this year’s documentary Oscar winner and it tells the story of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Six concerts held in a local park attracted over 300,000 attendees for some of the best Black music of the time. I thought the film was one of the best of the year. Admittedly, that might be because I grew up in the 60s and formed a lot of musical identity then. But it is also because this is a fabulously done documentary with concert footage that had been lost in a basement for 50 years that Questlove, the director, augmented with interviews with participants and newsreel footage that placed these performances in a much broader context. This was a terrific film
Last year there were four ‘Music’ movies, including two that I really liked. The Sound of Metal (4*), tells the tale of a heavy metal drummer, who goes deaf. The acting and the sound design are terrific, even if the ending is a bit disappointing. The United States vs Billie Holliday (4*) is exactly what it sounds like and tells the rapid rise and equally rapid fall of the legendary singer. Andra Day did a wonderful job, both acting and singing, in the title role. The other two, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (3*) and The Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (1.5*) were disappointments. The former is not only based on a play, but it feels like a play on the screen and that means it does not take advantage of what the movie format can provide – it feels cramped. And well, even though the music in the last movie is very good and the production numbers feel like music videos, the overall movie “sucks”.
Mystery: The Tragedy of Macbeth (4.5*) is this year’s only film in this category (and there weren’t any last year). This is a Shakespeare play told nearly verbatim, but with some incredible actors (like Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand) and a terrific production design. It is told in startlingly effective black and white cinematography that keeps the viewer enthralled the entire movie. I suppose there is a bit of mystery here in terms of who is going to kill whom, but that is not what the major focus of the play, or the movie, is about. So, while they put it in this genre, it hardly belongs there.
Sports: King Richard (3*) is this year’s only entry and it has to do with the rise to fame of Venus and Serena Williams in tennis. The movie raises emotions, but, for me at least, I’m not sure some of them were intended. While the film attempts to pin the Williams’ success on their father, Richard, I found him to be overbearing, controlling, and not really credible. For someone to come up with an 85 page plan for two of his daughters, while he had several other children that he paid no attention to, strikes me as either self-serving BS, or bad parenting. Either way, I have a hard time paying fealty to this king (it doesn’t help that the actor, Will Smith, carried his pompous attitude right to the face of the Oscar MC, Chris Rock). To me, a better movie would be portraying how the Williams sisters rose to fame in spite of their father! (There weren’t any Sports movies last year.)
War: No war movies this year, but there were three of them last year, all of them very good movies. One of the best of last year’s crops was Quo Vadis, Aida? (4.5*), a powerful film about the Srebrenica massacre during the Bosnia war in Europe. This is not an easy film to watch but tells the story from the point of view of a woman trying desperately to save her family. In Greyhound (4*), Tom Hanks plays a naval destroyer captain trying save the fleet under his protection from German U-Boats. The war scenes are rather unique, being at sea, but the power in the story comes from Hank’s portrayal of a man who seems absolutely unflappable and yet with all the humility in the world. Finally, Da 5 Bloods is a story of Vietnam, not one of our nation’s prouder chapters. Although rich in violence and blood, it has a heavy lesson in the racial politics of both then and now. So if war is what you’re into you have a few options.
Westerns: The Power of the Dog (4.5*), one of my favorite movies this year, is the only western. Nominated for almost everything, this film deserved it and I was surprised it didn’t take Best Picture. In addition to being beautiful to watch and hear, it also tells a complex psychosexual drama with enough twists and turns that you have to stay alert throughout the film, although that isn’t that hard. (There is a deep mystery here that I didn’t get until the next day – maybe if you know its there, you’ll get it faster.). This is moviemaking at its best.
Last year’s only western was News of the World. Starring Tom Hanks and a terrific performance from a German 11 year old girl, it has everything you want from a western including a gun battle and wagon trains.