The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020) ★★★★1/2 Written & Directed by Rahda Blank Streaming on Netflix
I finally caught up with Radha Blank’s debut feature after hearing good things about it all year long on Twitter and elsewhere. It premiered at Sundance and the buzz that followed it reminded me of the excitement that accompanied Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird. As with Gerwig’s debut, I was rooting for it, but worried it wouldn’t live up to the hype. But a great movie has a way of making you forget the chatter and even your own expectations. From the first scene of this joyful, layered story of self-creation, I found it hard to believe that it was Blank’s first film. It is so assured, and wears its influences so lightly, that it feels like the work of a much more seasoned filmmaker.
The Way I See It (2020) ★★★1/2 Director: Dawn Porter Streaming on MSNBC
Pete Souza was the Chief Official White House Photographer to both President Reagan and President Obama, and he also documented Obama’s time in the Senate, accompanying him on foreign trips and on the campaign trail. Both Obama and Reagan were unusual in the amount of private access they offered their photographer, and Souza got to know both men well. Souza’s photographs are remarkable for the way they show the human side of the presidency. His images show Reagan and Obama laughing with friends and family, ribbing spouses, hugging children, and joking with staff. Souza’s photos also reveal the weight of the office; we see anxiety, stress, and even sadness on both former president’s faces as they mull situations with grave consequences.
What a year. It’s been hard to keep track of release dates. There have been times when I’ve asked myself what even is a 2020 movie. Is is a streaming movie? A drive-in movie? A movie that premieres in “select theaters” for a certain number of weeks and then is available VOD? After all these months, I’m still not totally sure what a virtual premiere is, and how it differs from a streaming premiere.
With the the Academy Awards delayed to April 25, 2021, the deadline for awards-eligible movies has extended to Feb 28, 2021, which should make for a more interesting January than usual. I’ve included releases for January and February of 2021 in this list even though I’m not sure how people will ultimately be thinking about this year of movies. Will the top ten lists be brought out in December, as usual? Or will people wait? (Do top ten lists even matter is another questions for another day . . . )
When possible, I noted where movies are streaming online–especially if they are exclusive to a particular streaming platform. Some of these titles, especially those coming out in December and January, will probably not be available on VOD until a couple of weeks after their official release date. I’m not sure if anyone refers to this list except for me, but, just in case, I will update it as 2020 winds down and things change…
Kiss the Ground (2020)★★★ Writer & Directors: Joshua and Rebecca Tickell Streaming on Netflix September 22
“We have 60 harvests left.” That’s one of many sobering quotes in Kiss The Ground, a new documentary about soil regeneration and the toxic legacy of industrial farming. Those 60 harvests refers to the U.N.’s forecast that that world’s topsoil will be gone in sixty years, and a vast majority of the Earth’s land will be a desert or in the process of becoming one. And yet, despite these horrific predictions, I didn’t feel depressed after watching this documentary. In fact, it left me feeling cautiously hopeful about the possibility of healing the planet — a rare occurrence for me, and I think for anyone who engages with the science of climate change.
After a summer of watching 90s movies and weeping over how young and beautiful Celine and Jesse were in 1994, I’m trying to catch up with new releases so that at the very least I can come up with a “best of 2020” list — though it seems that there is still a lot of debate in Hollywood about when the 2020 movie season will officially end.
I actually think it’s an interesting, volatile time for movies and streaming content and I’m curious to see how things shift over the next few months. Maybe I’ll even write about it . . . but right now I’m trying to finish a fourth revision of my novel and dealing with two little kids and a WFH husband. Like everyone, I’m pretty overwhelmed at the end of the day. I think that’s why I’ve gravitated toward movies I enjoyed as a teenager. One of my favorite retro watches this summer was Twister, a movie I remember seeing at the second-run theater with my sister and her boyfriend at the time. We threw popcorn at the screen, it was so ridiculous! But so much fun. Rewatching it, I was startled to see a young Philip Seymour Hoffman in a minor roll as one of the hurricane chasers. His character is so thinly drawn but you only realize that in retrospect because Hoffman seems to bring an entire unspoken backstory to every scene.
It wasn’t exactly a fun summer but I did start using my Criterion subscription, so that’s something. Before I move on, I wanted to catch up with the new movies that I managed to watch over the summer. . . Continue reading “Catching Up”→
Like everyone else, I was devastated last night by the news of the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It gave me a lot of comfort to know that she was alive and fighting for our rights. It really feels like she stayed alive as long as she could for us, and I feel terrible that she never got a chance to rest at the end of her life. I am so grateful for everything she did for women.
I’m reposting my 2018 review of RBG, my small way of honoring her legacy:
RBG (2018) Directors: Julie Cohen and Betsy West
Last week I saw A Star Is Born, and I was told by many people to bring tissues. But I didn’t shed a tear watching that movie. Instead, it was a documentary about an 85-year-old Supreme Court Justice that brought the tears on. There were so many things I found moving, starting from Bader Ginsburg’s close relationship with her mother, who died when Ruth was 17, to her long marriage to Marty Ginsburg, a man who realized, from pretty much the first date, that he had met a person of unusual intelligence and strength.
She would need her strength in the early years of her marriage, when she was one of five women at Harvard Law. Her presence in class was suspicious, especially since she was married to a fellow classmate — why did she need to be a lawyer, too? The Dean hosted the female students for a special welcoming dinner, asking them: why did they think they deserved to take the spot of a man who was just as qualified? Ruth put her head down and made the Law Review. She also had a baby in her first year of law school. Oh, and Marty got cancer. Yes. He got cancer. Guess who cared for him, the baby, and graduated at the top of her class?
But this was before she was Notorious. Then, she was just a really good lawyer who no one in Manhattan would hire. Because none of the big firms hired women.
(At this point, the plot line of A Star Is Born doesn’t even compare. And we’re not even a third of the way through RBG.)
Ginsburg’s early experiences with gender discrimination were formative and she devoted her career as a lawyer to shining a light on the problem. She realized a couple of things: 1) a lot of men were not aware of gender discrimination and therefore did not believe it existed 2) it would be easier to convince men that gender discrimination existed if she could find cases in which men were being discriminated against because of their gender. Using strategies developed by Civil Rights-era lawyers like Thurgood Marshall, she argued for women’s liberation incrementally on a case-by-case basis. She said she saw her job as a teaching position, and that her role was to educate the male judiciary about gender-based discrimination.
In the first case Ginsburg argued before the Supreme Court, she was representing a female army pilot, Sharron Frontiero, who was denied the housing allowance that male pilots received. Initially, Frontiero thought it was an administrative error and sought to correct it. But she was told that she hadn’t received it because she was a woman, and that the housing benefit was for men who had to support their families. I guess the logic was, a working woman doesn’t have a family? Actually, there was no logic, and Ginsburg successfully made that point and Frontiero received the benefits. After the case was over, Frontiero said people asked her if she was happy and she was like, why would I be happy that I had to go all the way to the Supreme Court to get paid fairly?
I liked Frontiero. She had a certain naivety that I think Ruth Bader Ginsburg also had as a young woman. Neither expected to be discriminated against, and when they were, their reaction was to correct the mistake. The causes and structures of gender-based discrimination are far from simple, of course, but both women were wise to stay calm and focus on the task in front of them. Ginsburg explicitly says that she learned from her mother not to show anger, because it wouldn’t help her get what she wanted.
RBG is also a portrait of Marty Ginsburg, who did something that men rarely do, which is to make a career sacrifice in order to help a wife’s career. The biggest on-paper sacrifice Marty made was the abandon his high-status law career in New York City in order to follow Ruth to Washington, D.C. But throughout the movie you see that it was the daily sacrifices that mattered most. He made dinner every night, allowing Ruth to work late on weeknights. On the weekends, he let her sleep. Ruth was a loving mother — and now grandmother — but she spent most of her time at home working, staying up until 2 a.m. at the kitchen table. Marty was the involved parent, the jokester, the one who got their mother to come home from the office. He did it, it seems, because he recognized her gifts, and would do what he needed to do to support her. It was also an opposites attract situation, where he was the gregarious, light-hearted one, while she was serious, reserved, and ambitious. It was Marty, everyone said, who got Ruth’s name on the short list for the Supreme Court. She was too busy working to put herself out there in that way.
At the end of this movie, I turned to my husband and was like, “What am I even doing with my life?” Which is the typical reaction of a self-involved writer, I guess. But I also felt grateful to Ruth for all the work she has done to break down gender barriers. And in the current political climate, in which the rights of women and minorities are being rolled back on what seems like a daily basis, it was helpful to be reminded of just what a struggle it’s been, and the strength that will be required to carry on.
Losing Ground (1982) ★★★★
Written & Directed by Kathleen Collins
Early in quarantine, I subscribed to the Criterion Channel with the optimistic thought that I would have more time to watch old and obscure movies. But it took me a while to turn away from the news and Netflix’s latest offerings. At some point, however, a nostalgic desire for the past crept in. I started perusing Criterion. Losing Ground wasn’t the first thing I watched, but it was the movie that got me hooked on the channel, for the way it brought me into what felt like a lost world.
Between the Lines (1977) ★★★1/2
Director: Joan Micklin Silver
I came across this movie on the Criterion Channel and was drawn in by the ensemble cast, which includes a very young Jeff Goldblum, John Heard, and Bruno Kirby. I also had fond memories of Joan Micklin Silver’s Chilly of Scenes of Winter, which I saw a couple of years ago at BAM. So, I decided to give it a try and I’m so glad I did — it was like a time capsule of the mid 1970s and also of a certain period in journalism, when small alternative weekly newspapers were still a training ground for ambitious young reporters and writers.
Between the Lines follows the scrappy staff of a Boston alternative weekly as they chase assignments, jump in and out of each other’s beds, and adjust to a new management structure after their newspaper is bought out by a corporation. Everyone is young, with their lives still in flux. It’s a movie about transition: career transition, relationship transition, and ultimately the transition that the culture is undergoing…you can feel the 1980s on the horizon, and you just know some of these characters are going to be yuppies in no time. I was especially amused to see Bruno Kirby as a cub reporter, because I know him best from When Harry Met Sally, where he plays an established journalist who writes for New York Magazine. It’s almost as if he’s the same character, and we’re seeing him at the beginning of his career. Now that I think about it, this would be a great double feature with When Harry Met Sally, because they are both so much about negotiating ambition and romance.
Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator (2019) ★★★
Director: Eva Orner
The corrupt guru is a tricky character, because he often imparts knowledge that is good. Bikram Choudhury was your classic bad guru: hypocritical, greedy, domineering, and cruel, but his “hot yoga” routine was so popular that people were willing to overlook his bullying style, which was peppered with racist and sexist taunts. This changed in 2013, when several women filed charges against him for rape, sexual assault, harassment, and discrimination. Their accusations, along with allegations of racism and homophobia, threw the Bikram yoga world into turmoil as devoted students and Bikram studio owners rushed to defend him. Others were disgusted and cut ties to him altogether. Bikram, meanwhile, fled the country after being convicted for unlawfully firing his personal lawyer, who tried to address his harassment.
I don’t have to tell you, the news is bad. Public school is crumbing, the polar bears are going extinct, and my brain is melting from the heat and the constant interruptions from my children and WFH husband. Also my computer died. And our car broke down. I got my novel back from my agent and I have a lot of revisions. I knew I would have to revise and under normal circumstances, I’d be rubbing my hands together. But now I’m just like, how? When? In what universe? Is anyone even reading books anyway? (Actually, I am! Shout out to reading! It’s a great escape.)
For all these reasons and many more, I’ve been wanting to watch movies with a little sweetness to them, and preferably a happy ending. So, here are some of my favorites from the past few weeks. I included star ratings to temper expectations: most are in the 2-3 range and it’s possible that I overrated a few of them just because I need something light-hearted. The point is, I’m not making any grand claims for their quality. But they might distract you from the news for 90 minutes, and give you a good night’s sleep without any nightmares.