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.
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…
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.
It’s hard to know, at first, what is amiss in the well-to-do Australian household at the center of Babyteeth. We first meet the daughter, Milla (Eliza Scanlen), standing on a train platform in her private school uniform, waiting with her friends at the end of the school day. When a feral-looking young man in grubby clothing jostles her, it seems at first that she’ll be scared, or at least irritated. Instead, she’s enthralled, and brings him home to her parents. It’s clear that he’s too old for her, and possibly a drug dealer, but Milla’s mother (Essie Davis) has taken so much anti-anxiety medication that she can’t focus on her daughter’s unusual guest. The father (Ben Mendelsohn), a psychiatrist, is equally distracted — he’s secretly dosing himself with morphine and nursing a crush on a pregnant neighbor in her third trimester. She’s the movie’s clock. But what are we counting down to? What bomb is about to go off?
After a few years of cutting back on TV so that I would have more time for movies and books, I’ve been watching more of it. Blame quarantine. But one thing I really like about television is that there are a lot more female writers and directors. Women seem to be given more free rein in television, I guess because it’s seen as a less risky financial investment, or maybe because there is such a need for streaming content that networks are willing to take a chance on women. Who knows. In any case, my many of my favorite shows over the past few years have been helmed by female showrunners — shows like Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Catastrophe, Transparent, and of course Fleabag.
I realized the other day that my current favorite shows are also written and directed by women, so I thought I’d write about them here . . .
The Short History of the Long Road (2020) ★★ 1/2
Writer & Director: Ani Simon-Kennedy
This gentle indie about a father and a daughter who live on the road had a lot of warmth and many likable performances, but ultimately felt too pat as it shied away from the more painful aspects of its story. The ending, in particular, felt like more of an Instagram moment than a resolution. Still, I enjoyed the journey with its glimpses into the lives of people who exist on the edges of mainstream society.
Becoming (2020) ★★★
Director: Nadia Hallgren Streaming on Netflix
Last year, along with ten million other people, I read Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming. I picked it up expecting to get the inside story on what it’s like to live in the White House as First Lady, but Mrs. Obama doesn’t spend a lot of time on her years in Washington. Instead, she focuses on what grounds her: her family, her upbringing on the south side of Chicago, her education, and the early years of her marriage before Barack Obama was elected president. This turns out to be much more interesting and illuminating than anything she could have written about living in the White House.
One of the refreshing things about Becoming (both the memoir and documentary) is how open Michelle Obama is about the challenges she faced in her career and marriage, as well as on the campaign trail. It’s not only that she talks about her struggles, it’s that she describes what she did to address each difficulty. She gets specific about the little, day-to-day things, like how she found time to go to the gym or feed her children healthy meals. The truth, she explains, is that she often had help, and she gives a lot of credit to her mother, as well as her staff and assistants. The book had a self-help aspect that felt generous to her reader, a way of saying: look, it took a lot of work to become the person I am today, I’m not naturally this calm, cool, and collected.
Still, it’s clear that Michelle Obama has a lot more discipline and grit than most mortals.
Director Lynn Shelton died on Saturday and it hit home for me, for a lot of reasons. First: I really liked her movies, and reviewed two of them on this blog: Sword of Trust and Outside In. They were mellow, lived-in, gentle, kind, and deeply humane. Her characters felt real and her stories always had an interesting shape. She also directed a lot of TV shows I watched, including GLOW,Love,The Good Place, The Mindy Project, New Girl — to name just a few. She came to directing late in life, at age 39, but then she was prolific, directing eight feature films and numerous television shows. She was one of those directors I watched out for; I felt like her best work was ahead of her. I can’t believe she’s dead. She was only 54.
How To Build A Girl (2020) ★★1/2
Director: Coky Giedroyc
Writer: Caitlin Moran (based on Moran’s novel)
I know many people believe it’s always best to read the book before the movie, but I’m on the fence. Very often, the book outshines the movie by a long shot — especially if you read the book shortly before seeing the movie, as I did with How To Build A Girl, which is based on Caitlin Moran’s 2014 novel by the same title. I loved the book, loved its early 1990s setting and its teenage heroine, Johanna Morrigan, a working-class girl who is obsessed with sex and books and writing. She’s a girl so sure of her literary talent that she auditions to be a rock critic without knowing a thing about rock music. She gets CDs from the library to catch up and invents a rock critic persona, “Dolly Wilde.” Soon, she has a full-time magazine job, and is going to concerts, meeting rock stars and having lots of sex. It’s very, very fun reading. And then at the end, you cry!
Blow the Man Down (2020) ★★★1/2
Writer-Directors: Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy Streaming on Amazon
Easter Cove, Maine seems like a picture perfect postcard of New England, complete with fishermen singing traditional sea shanties like “Blow the Man Down” and kindly old ladies who take fitness walks together every morning. But look a little closer and you’ll see the quaint old inns and weathered docks hide murder, prostitution, and money laundering. And those old ladies out walking? They’re patrolling, not exercising. Don’t cross them!
I don’t want to give too much away about this extremely entertaining noir, which was thrilling enough to keep me watching, but witty enough to quell any anxieties. Directed and written by a debut team, Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, it’s stylized just enough to wink at the viewer and create visual interest, but not so much that the world seems fake or glib. I noticed that early reviews compared it to the Coen Brothers, but I kept thinking of writers like Alice Munro and Elena Ferrante, authors who bring you into the unseen and ignored realm of women to show you the covert ways girls and women learn to deal with criminality and abuse. As one character says, “A lot of people underestimate young women. That’s why they get away with a lot.”
The cast is marvelous, and makes excellent use of veteran actors like June Squibb and Margo Martindale. I also enjoyed the performances of his younger leads, Sophie Lowe and Morgan Saylor. If you’re looking for something to take your mind off the news, this is a great weekend watch. I’m eager to see what these filmmakers do next.