Pieces of a Woman (2020) Director: Kornél Mundruczó Writer: Kata Wéber
For the first half-hour of Netflix’s “Pieces of a Woman,” my husband and I were nervous wrecks, sitting on the sofa in our living room. It was the opposite of “Netflix and chill,” more like “Netflix and re-live traumatic experiences.” During the movie’s extended prologue, Vanessa Kirby and Shia LeBeouf play Martha and Sean, a young couple in the midst of a home birth, with Kirby convincingly going through labor, not just the terrified/ecstatic screams we’re used to seeing dramatized on screen, but the uncertain and confusing middle stages of labor, when unexpected physical sensations and emotions begin to arise. The entire birth sequence is shot in one unbroken take, which heightens the feeling of intimacy and vulnerability, especially as things begin to go wrong.
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 . . .
It’s A Wonderful Life is my favorite Christmas movie and possibly my favorite movie of all time. I never get tired of watching it. I love its weird structure, which has a big chunk of backstory at the beginning. I love the angel narrators, who are proxies for both the audience and the director. I love Jimmy Stewart. Once I went back and watched a bunch of Frank Capra movies and it was interesting to see elements of It’s A Wonderful Life in the other films –including Jimmy Stewart. It was as if he had all the ingredients but didn’t combine them in the right way until he made It’s A Wonderful Life.
I haven’t watched It’s A Wonderful Life yet this year, but earlier this month I checked out a few new Christmas movies and one old favorite . . .
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 . . .
The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020) 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.
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.