This is the final entry in Slate’s annual Movie Club, in which 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.
Future karaoke collaborators,
One of the most pleasant knock-on effects of Movie Club each year is the sense that, as it winds down, I’ve gotten to know a few of my colleagues a little better as critics and as people. Justin, I so appreciate you being honest enough to revisit a long-ago too-hasty review the glibness of which you now regret, and also allowing yourself a moment to praise a movie made by a close friend that was hence off-limits for you to review. Minari made my Top 10 list, and that of dozens of other critics. It’s one of the most impeccably crafted films of the year, pictorially beautiful on top of being smart and funny as hell, and one I’d recommend to viewers of all generations and backgrounds, since it has something to say about being a child, a parent, a grandparent, a spouse, an immigrant, a laborer, a husband, a wife. It’s both a category error and an embarrassment to shunt it into the “foreign language film” slot for Golden Globes consideration; it’s a movie made in America by an American that tells the most American of stories.
Minari is the kind of film that, in a normal movie year, might have started off as the buzzed-about Sundance audience darling it was, then vanished into the deafening vortex of Oscar-seeking end-of-year big releases. Instead, because so much of the planned release calendar was put off until 2021, the reverberations of that January lovefest lasted through the movie’s brief, virtual-only release window in early December. It won’t be available via streaming until February, which sounds like a long way off in our current “give me all the content, immediately” era. But that makes it one of many 2021 movies to look forward to, along with such still-unreleased-anywhere titles as Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, Craig Brewer’s Coming 2 America, and Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho (starring none other than this year’s chess-playing “it” girl Anya Taylor-Joy). Also currently slated for the first half of next year are the John David Washington/Zendaya romantic drama Malcolm & Marie from Euphoria creator Sam Levinson, Wes Anderson’s journalism-themed ensemble comedy The French Dispatch, and Judas and the Black Messiah, Shaka King’s civil-rights-era biopic starring Daniel Kaluuya as the Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. One of my favorite movies I saw this year, Rose Glass’ stunning body-horror debut Saint Maud, still doesn’t have a release date at all. That’s OK—like all of us with our lives currently in suspension, it should step out in the world only when both it and the world are good and ready.
Speaking of deafening vertices: Odie, I knew you had only one working eye because of all the Columbo jokes you’ve made about it over the years, but it was only through your moving writing on Sound of Metal that I learned you have a hearing impairment too. Riz Ahmed, a British rapper and actor who should have been a household-name movie star at least since 2010’s Four Lions (though I first remember noticing him four years before that, in The Road to Guantanamo), gives one of the performances of the year in Darius Marder’s powerful character study of a drummer and former heroin addict who’s losing his hearing. As Bilge Ebiri at Vulture beautifully put it, the still, watchful Ahmed “seems at times like a silent-movie performer who accidentally landed in the 21st century.” That quality of eloquent silence makes Ahmed the perfect actor for this very difficult part. Difficult, that is, to do as well as he does it—this is no inspirational disability drama but a harsh and sometimes disorienting attempt to represent what the experience of losing a major sense might feel like from the inside.
In my own private Oscars, Ahmed would get at least a nomination for Best Actor, though I would still reserve my top vote for Delroy Lindo in Da 5 Bloods—if he keeps doing work this good, Riz’s time will come. Paul Raci, who plays a recovering alcoholic who becomes the younger man’s mentor, would take the prize for Best Supporting Actor. Best Supporting Actress would go to Amanda Seyfried for Mank, even though I agree that movie was mainly fan fic for classic Hollywood nerds, and Best Actress is still in play. I know she already has one, but I’m tempted to toss another statuette Frances McDormand’s way, if only to hear what acceptance speech she has to top the rousing “inclusion rider” one from her win for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri—a movie that, whatever you thought of it when it came out, we can surely all agree will age less well than Nomadland.
Alison, as we’ve been writing in round-robin form all week, you have been busy behind the scenes settling in with a new puppy, making for a lot of awwwws in the Club email thread and no doubt, for you, a lot of posts churned out on very little sleep over a holiday week. That makes it even more impressive that you felt ambitious enough to take on not just individual movies but the business as a whole at this fast-changing moment in its history. Whether we will all be watching movies together in theaters by this time next year is still unknown, but your last post helped me think through the inescapable feeling that, along with the pandemic but not only because of it, something about the way we make and watch and buy and sell movies has shifted for good. I’m so glad your posts often pulled out to take a global view. Though it was also a thrill when you dollied in on films like the world’s top box-office hit of 2020, a title that had never made it through the walls of my particular media silo. Congratulations on your new live-in Ewok, and may he nap on your lap through the watching of and writing on many good movies in the year to come.
As I wrap up this year’s club, it’s the first day of 2021. 2020, the year that finally made us understand the previously ungraspable concept of infinity, is finally over. And thanks to two of the Slate culture writers who parachuted in to speak their piece between the last two rounds (is it still an “interruption” if it’s welcome?), I have movies to watch on the first two nights of the year. Tonight will be for The Painter and the Thief, which sounds intriguingly bizarre, and which, if Sam hadn’t contributed a post about it, I would have gotten through the whole year never hearing of. He is right that the flattening of an entire industry’s output into a few corporate-branded tubes of Soylent-style content-paste would be a very grim prospect for the future of movie marketing, not to mention movie watching. But we are lucky to have the Movie Club as a place to serve some home-cooked slow food and bring people’s attention to small, offbeat releases like The Painter and the Thief, which otherwise might never cross their algorithms and, therefore, their field of vision.
And tomorrow night, you had best believe I’ll be fixing a shaker of cocktails and settling down to Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. Karen didn’t even need to get granular on which celebrity belts which power ballad: She had me at “Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams as a couple of Icelandic rubes and would-be Eurovision stars who call themselves ‘Fire Saga.’ ” Well, of course they are! This sounds like a celebration of life, love, and karaoke designed for Ferrell fans who, like me, will never again hear Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” without giggling at the memory of his triumphant ice dancing interpretation of that song opposite Jon Heder in Blades of Glory. While “Jaja Ding Dong” is setting up earworm residence in my brain for the year to come, I’ll drink a glass to you all. Thanks for making this year’s club feel like what I think we all need right now: a knock-down, drag-out, not-on-Zoom party.