Movies

I Was Moved by Riz Ahmed’s Understated, Intense Performance in Sound of Metal

The Movie Club, Entry 15.

Riz Ahmed at the drums in Sound of Metal.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Amazon Studios.

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, Justin Chang, Odie Henderson, and Alison Willmore—about the year in cinema. Read the previous dispatch here.

Fellow Cinematic Nomads,

Like this tumultuous year, the Movie Club is coming to an end. Parting is such sweet sorrow, to quote Kenneth Bran—I mean the Bard. Our impending goodbyes make me feel so bittersweet that I had to cue up Nicholas Britell’s If Beale Street Could Talk score for maximum effect.

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Because so much turmoil befell me in 2020, my joys and successes were often pulled into the undertow by my worries, fears, and concerns. I often felt overwhelmed and hopeless. And it wasn’t just me; you could feel that same coexistence of sadness, dread, triumph and rage in this year’s documentaries. These films were so timely that they seemed to predict the hell we were to be plunged into, election-wise, pandemic-wise, and social-unrest-wise. This was due less to prognostication and more to how 2020 represented just a new chapter in the long-running story of injustice and the financial imbalance between rich and poor. Even documentaries thrown together this year, like Alex Gibney’s devastating yet ultimately flawed Totally Under Control, see their subjects’ horrific origins stitched into the great American fabric.

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Looking at our Top 10 lists, I see that we were similarly affected by this year’s documentary offerings. Garrett Bradley’s Time, which Justin, Alison, and I had on our lists, is a beautiful encapsulation of all those feelings, a film as lyrical as Nomadland and just as nonjudgmental toward its subjects. Shot in haunting black and white, Time portrays Sibil Richardson’s battles with a system that punishes the guilty far more harshly if they’re not white. In your review, Justin, you described a particular sequence as “teeming with life, pulsing with joy and yet marked by a powerful, palpable absence,” a description that can also be applied to Dick Johnson Is Dead, Kirsten Johnson’s unorthodox yet hauntingly funny meditation on impending parental loss. I wasn’t as high on this one as Dana and Alison, but I admired its daring and its approach. It was also great to see Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets represented on Alison’s list.

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I haven’t seen City Hall yet, but I still got my fill of how political machines affected the people they’re supposed to represent. Collective was one of the hardest things I sat through this year. I was so consumed by my own anger that I had to turn it off briefly to compose myself. That same feeling arose while watching the Stacey Abrams documentary, All In: The Fight for Democracy, which ultimately managed to soothe my troubled soul by ending with “Turntables,” a fantastic song by Janelle Monáe. Her video for the song is one of the best short films of the year. The less said about Monáe’s other 2020 contribution, the repugnant Antebellum, the better.

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All I can add to Dana’s and Justin’s insightful Nomadland comments is that I’m glad Chloé Zhao’s film was No. 2 on our collective Top 10 list at RogerEbert.com. It embodies what Roger Ebert, Movie Club hall of famer, always said about movies being an empathy machine. I don’t profess to understand Fern and her fellow nomads’ lifestyle, but Zhao unobtrusively allows us to sit with the characters and observe their joys and struggles. Their humanity shines through, so even if we don’t agree with their choices, we see the common bonds we all share as people. It’s a gorgeous, memorable film.

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Empathy haunted the cinema this year. I was moved for personal reasons by Sound of Metal, Darius Marder’s beautiful film about a musician slowly coming to terms with his sudden deafness. Riz Ahmed is superb here, never overplaying a scene, going for realism when the overly dramatic would have been easier. It made me relive my own sudden loss of half my vision, and later the loss of enough of my hearing to cause concern. I understood Ahmed’s character pinning his hopes on a possible cure that doesn’t work as expected. Through the powerful performance of Paul Raci, I saw my own ultimate acceptance of things as they are.

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You know what else haunted moviedom this year? Stage adaptations! We couldn’t get to the Great White Way, so it came to us. We had the slightly censored Hamilton, which Disney+ brought to folks who couldn’t afford its steep ticket prices or who weren’t able to bribe theater critics so they could go as a plus-one. (Odie stares into the distance, nonchalantly whistling to hide his guilt.) There was also the aforementioned American Utopia; the majestic and superb “what-if” scenario of Kemp Powers and Regina King’s One Night in Miami; and of course, Meryl Streep in Let Them All Sing, I mean, The Prom, the Ryan Murphy production that answered the musical question “What if James Corden were a puppet controlled by Wayland Flowers?”

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Another Ryan Murphy thingamabob, The Boys in the Band, will tie in nicely with Justin’s comments about representation. Justin, I really identified with your sense that your voice needs to be heard on significant works by people of color. It’s a bit of a running joke how many Black films I’ve covered over the years, yet part of me feels compelled to put my two cents in on how I feel my people are represented. I fear being pigeonholed, but by that same token (pun intended), I realize there aren’t enough of us out here to achieve any kind of balance yet. Reviewing the second cinematic incarnation of Mart Crowley’s play offered me the rare opportunity to not only represent my Blackness (though I was very hard on its lone Black character) but also my bisexuality. I rarely get that opportunity, so I seized it and wrote a shade-filled, bitchy review that I’m sure Jim Parsons’ Michael would have enjoyed.

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My coach is about to turn into a pumpkin, so I’d better wrap up. Alison, thank you for your words on Mank, a movie that is on my 10 worst list this year. I thought it was yet another film in which David Fincher is more occupied with showing you what he can do with technique rather than making a movie that’s not a goddamn bore. Those cigarette burns on the “film”—Lord, hold my tongue!—AARRRRRGGGGHH! At least Mank gave me two things to be happy about: Amanda Seyfried’s performance is one. The other is the opportunity to close out with a song. Join me, won’t you?

They’re Manky and the Brain

Yes Manky and the Brain

One’s a boy genius

The other wrote Kane

Their script ownership rights

Will make critics fight

They’re Manky, they’re Manky and the Brain

Brain Brain Brain Brain Brain Brain Brain!

 

To give the Mank his due

Dave Fincher’s plan unfurled

With the help of Pauline Kael,

They’ll shatter Orson’s world.

 

They’re Manky and the Brain

Yes Manky and the Brain

That constant refrain

Will drive you quite insane.

But in the Twitterverse

They’ll prove that we’re all cursed.

They’re Manky, they’re Manky and the Brain

Brain Brain Brain Brain!

Thank you! I love you all!

I tip my fedora and bow out gracefully,
Odie

Read the next entry here.

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