Joyce at 34 (1972) Directed by Joyce Chopra and Claudia Weill
A friend recommended this documentary to me after I wrote about Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends in my monthly newsletter. Joyce at 34 is a short film, a little over a half-hour, about director Joyce Chopra’s transition to new motherhood as she tries to balance her professional and home life. She began filming when she was eight months pregnant at the suggestion of a friend, who said she was in a unique position to make a documentary about her life. Chopra at first thought the movie would be about her mother, and how her relationship with her mother might change after having a baby, but the documentary turned into an inter-generational story about how difficult it is for women to balance work and childcare. Chopra is about the same age as my parents, and her struggle to continue working after having a baby is all too familiar to women in my late Gen X/early millennial cohort. Even as Chopra is shown to have a supportive partner with a flexible work schedule, the burden of childcare falls on her and her mother. I left this movie feeling as if nothing has really changed for women, and nothing will until there is some kind of universal childcare in place, although this isn’t something that anyone in the documentary suggests. It’s not prescriptive or overtly political in its tone. Instead, its power comes in its straightforward depiction of a woman who continues to work after having a baby.
John Lewis: Good Trouble (2020) Director: Dawn Porter
My third-grader is writing a report on John Lewis for Black History Month, so Dawn Porter’s Good Trouble was an obvious choice for family movie night. This documentary came out over the summer, just a few weeks before Lewis passed away. Lewis served as a representative for Georgia’s fifth district from 1987-2020, and it was interesting to review his career in this political moment, after Georgia has elected two Democratic senators for the first time in decades. For much of the country, Georgia turning blue felt like a huge surprise, but for Lewis and his supporters, it was the obvious — if not quite inevitable — result of years of grass roots organization to grow the Democratic party and increase access to the polls. Although Lewis is probably best known for his extraordinary example of nonviolent resistance during the marches in Selma, when he and other activists were brutally attacked by state troopers, Porter’s documentary shows how much of his legacy comes from the work he did in the decades that followed the Civil Rights Era, both as a legislator and as a mentor to budding activists and Democratic leaders.
Beyond The Visible (2019) Director: Halina Dyrschka
In the winter of 2018, I was part of the record-breaking crowds that swarmed the Guggenheim Museum to see Hilma af Klint’s mystical and enigmatic paintings. Like most museum visitors, I had never heard of the Swedish artist before her retrospective at the Guggenheim. Although af Klint is one of modernism’s pioneers, with abstract works that predate Kandinsky and Mondrian, she barely exhibited her work in her lifetime. According to the instructions in her will, her artwork was to be kept out of the public eye until at least twenty year after her death. She also stipulated that they could never be sold. Af Klint died in 1944 at the age of 81, and when her paintings were finally examined in the 1960s, the art world didn’t know what to do with them. Stockholm’s Museum of Modern Art turned them down, not understanding their value. Beyond The Visible argues that the blindness has to do with the fact that af Klint was a woman making explicitly spiritual works. Her genius couldn’t be seen because it wasn’t male.
This was a good year for female directors. The cynical part of me wants to say that’s because the studios were more likely to release movies made by women in a year of cutting losses. But it may also be the result of efforts to boost equity in the wake of the Weinstein revelations, which occurred in late 2017. If a lot of female-directed/produced movies picked up for distribution after premiering at 2018 and 2019 film festivals, the majority of those titles would start coming out in 2020.
When I was writing this list, I wasn’t sure what should count as a 2020 movie, since the Academy Awards have been pushed back to April. Ultimately, I decided only to include movies that were available via VOD in 2020, so this list doesn’t include some big titles like Regina King’s One Night in Miami and Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, although I plan to catch up with them when they are released later this month and in February. This list is a reflection of my year, and what I was able to watch on streaming platforms, “virtual” cinemas,” and via screening links. It’s probably a little quirkier than my previous best of lists in 2018 and 2019, but this was an odd year, and I’d guess that the next couple of years are going to continue to be unpredictable as Hollywood figures out what movie-going looks like in a post-COVID world.
I finished revising my novel a few weeks ago and since then I’ve been catching up on 2020 releases. There are so many 2020 female-directed movies that I want to still want to watch that I divided the remaining titles into three categories: Must See, Should See, and If Time. Theoretically I was going to start with the Must See list but I ended up watching two from the If Time category, including Summerland (pictured above) and The Glorias, and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed them both. Below, you’ll find reviews of those two, as well as five other recent movies . . .
Watching movies has been a welcome distraction over the past few weeks. I’m breathing a sigh of relief that Biden won but very distressed by the way Covid-19 is spiking all over the country. Looks like we’re all going to be inside for several more months. Here are some new movies to keep you company . . .
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.
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.
Bully. Coward. Victim. The Roy Cohn Story (2020) ★★★
Director: Ivy Meeropol Streaming on HBO
The first time I heard of Roy Cohn was when I read Angels in America. He’s the play’s villain, lifted from real life, a ruthless fixer and corrupt lawyer who denies that he is gay but then uses his influence to obtain experimental treatments for HIV in order to prolong his life. Abusing power was Cohn’s thing: he started his career by tampering with evidence so that the Ethel and Julius Rosenberg would be sent to the electric chair for espionage. After the Rosenberg were executed, their children were adopted by the Meeropol family. Director Ivy Meeropol is the granddaughter of the Rosenbergs, and she is understandably interested in Cohn, this person who destroyed her family in order to show the world that he was tough on communism — and to gain personal notoriety.
Lance (2020) Director: Marina Zenovich Streaming on ESPN
I think I miss sports. I wouldn’t have guessed that I’d have this reaction to quarantine life, because I never deliberately watched sports or followed any particular team. But I guess I picked up on the ambient noise of sports, the dramas unfolding in the background. Armstrong’s story, for example, was one I knew, even though I don’t think I ever read an article about him or followed the Tour de France. In fact, I don’t think I understood how grueling an endurance event the Tour de France is until I watched this documentary. Now I’m in the weird position of feeling newly in awe of Armstrong’s athletic abilities while also understanding the full extent of his doping, lying, and bullying.