For most of the year, finding time to watch a bunch of movies is tough. But just as football season ends, the Oscar talk starts heating up, and I find myself — at least for the past couple years, with so many films available for streaming — catching up on a year’s worth of movies in the span of about six weeks.
Last year, I did a round up of all the films I watched (largely while dealing with COVID) and so I figured I’d do the same again now. Among the Best Picture nominees, “Licorice Pizza” and “Drive My Car” aren’t streaming , and I have zero interest in seeing “West Side Story.” That leaves “King Richard,” “Dune” as ones I still need to get to, but my interest is minimal.
As for the others, read on…
CODA (Apple+) ⭐⭐⭐⭐
A deaf family in working-class Massachusetts comes to rely heavily on their teenage daughter, who can hear, but the daughter has bigger dreams of a singing career, creating tension between individual goals and the family bond. It’s a pretty succinct conflict, and it could easily turn into teen melodrama. There’s a moment early on in the movie where the mother, played wonderfully by Marlee Matlin, asks her daughter, “If we were blind, would you have wanted to be a painter?” It’s a significant moment because this is how we might expect this film to unfold — the cliches about teenage rebellion and family discord are the same, using whatever catalyst for conflict seems most interesting.
Instead, “Coda” blossoms into something else — a coming-of-age drama, a musical, a comedy. But most of all, it’s a story about family, the bonds that are forged through facing life’s challenges together, and the challenge of letting go of the people you love most in the world.
This movie won’t win the Oscar for Best Picture, but it’d be my choice. It’s beautiful and heartfelt and funny and real and the performances — particularly Troy Kotsur as the father — are so damn good that it’s just a joy to spend time with these characters. My pal Joe Posnanski wrote a few weeks ago about “happy movies” — the ones that, when you watch them, will always bring a smile to your face. “Coda” should undoubtedly take a place among the best of those movies, because of all the things this movie is, in the end, it’s a story about finding happiness with the people you love.
BELFAST (Rental) ⭐⭐⭐
In my meager attention to Oscar buzz, this one seems like the favorite to win Best Picture. Should it be? The movie — based on director Kenneth Branagh’s childhood in Northern Ireland — certainly looks the part. It’s shot beautifully in black and white, with the feel of a Broadway show, from the set design to the way characters interact within the small mixed neighborhood where it’s set. (It has a sort of “West Side Story” quality to it, ironically enough.) The performances are strong — particularly from Caitriona Balfe, who might be the singular most beautiful human being on the planet — and there is no shortage of Van Morrison music (always a perk). That the story is largely told from the viewpoint of Buddy, a young boy growing up in 1960s Belfast, is both a strength and a problem. The insanity of the street wars between Catholics and Protestants, alongside the serious marital and financial troubles his parents face, feels all the more surreal when viewed through the lens of a 10-year-old. But that naivety also somehow stalls the story, because the stakes are less clear and the deviations from the primary tension are routine. In the end, it mostly works, but more as a rumination on childhood and innocence lost than a true narrative.
KIMI (HBO Max) ⭐
It wants to be a modern take on “Rear Window.” Instead, it’s essentially “The Net” with better technology. It feels like there was more to say within the story here about the surveillance state, about the claustrophobic nature of the pandemic, about a world that is entirely too connected and yet leaves us insufferably alone (a tone set, unintentionally, in how flat the supporting characters are and how quickly some of their plot lines are just dropped). Instead, it quickly becomes little more than a standard cat-and-mouse thriller. It’s filled with convenient details that set up the later plot movement, none of which says much of anything about the characters or the larger scope of Big Tech in our lives. Perhaps the most interesting part of the film is Steven Soderbergh’s camera work (he handles the camera himself) which alternates between making the camera a character for dramatic effect (a skill perfected by Hitchcock and occasionally used well here) to a tonal distraction that constantly reminds the viewer “YOU’RE WATCHING A MOVIE!” which seems like the last thing you want when the tension created by the plot is the only thing really pulling the movie along.
SUMMER OF SOUL (Disney+) ⭐⭐⭐
I actually watched this over the summer when it was first released, and unlike Peter Jackson’s endless “Get Back” documentary on the Beatles, this is a tight trip through a largely ignored piece of music history. There’s plenty to love here, from the scenery to the performances… but damn, Mavis Staples is just the best.
ATTICA (Amazon Prime) ⭐⭐⭐⭐
First, let me say that this is as well crafted a documentary as you’ll see — a film stuffed with first-hand footage, news accounts and powerful interviews with the subjects who lived it. Both “Attica” and “Summer of Soul” have similar aims — to shine a line on stories about race in the 1960s and 1970s that most people have some passing awareness of but little serious insight into. But if “Summer of Soul” is a remembrance of the joy to be found within an overlooked and marginalized community, “Attica” is its tonal opposite. The story of the Attica prison uprising of 1971 still feels entirely relevant — particularly as the country once again deals with the dynamics of a desire for “law and order” while finally more aware of the disproportionate toll that takes on communities of color. “Attica” clearly has a point of view sympathetic to the prisoners, but it is not ignorant of other side — the predominantly white community in upstate New York that exists, almost entirely, as a home for the prison. The culmination, however, is an affront to both points of view, as national politics and old-fashioned brutality overtake any semblance of nuance. It’s a powerful history lesson, and one you shouldn’t miss.
BEING THE RICARDOS (Amazon Prime) ⭐⭐
There’s a good movie in here — perhaps a very good one — but I was thrown by the decision to use a very specific framing device to largely tell the tale of one week in the lives of Desi and Lucy. There’s some additional backstory, but it’s sparse and comes at seemingly arbitrary moments. There’s also a real push to make this story seem relevant in OUR MODERN TIMES of “Me too” and political witch hunts that might be vaguely true of the actual humans portrayed in the story, but that’s never firmly established either. What really stands out from the movie are the acting performances. Javier Bardem and Nicole Kidman are terrific as Desi and Lucy (particularly the latter, who, for the first time I can remember, actually nails an American accent consistently), but the real treats are the supporting stars. Tony Hale is wonderful (in a role that feels like both a departure for the actor and yet intrinsically similar to Buster Bluth), and his “Arrested Development” costar Alia Shawkat is good (but I wish there was more to the character). Nina Arianda was fantastic as Vivian Vance (I’d previously only seen Arianda playing Pizzerina Sbarro, the sexy heir to the Sbarro pizza fortune, on “30 Rock). And then there’s J.K. Simmons as William Frawley in a role that should remind everyone that J.K. Simmons is a goddam American treasure.
THE POWER OF THE DOG (Netflix) ⭐⭐⭐
My wife is confounded by the attention this movie is getting (nominated for Best Picture, among other accolades). I mostly understand her position. If you’re not simply enraptured by the lead performances (and Benedict Cumberbatch is awfully compelling here) it’s largely just a Western about a dysfunctional family that revels in its own misery. Until the ending. I will not spoil it here other than to say, the end justifies the whole ride and utterly reshapes the perspective. Viewed amid that new perspective, I can see why it’s a strong contender for the Oscar. The problem, of course, is that you won’t view it through that perspective until you’ve finished watching it. Perhaps it’d be more enjoyable on second viewing, knowing what each note of the plot is building toward. My wife is unlikely to invest that time, regardless. To me, this was a movie better enjoyed as a conversation topic after viewing than the actual viewing, which is not necessarily a bad thing. If nothing else, it’s beautifully shot and the scenery is so gorgeous that it’s not all that bad spending time in this world, even when not much else is going on.
GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE (Rental) ⭐⭐⭐⭐
“Ghostbusters” is among my all-time favorite movies. “Ghostbusters II” is a flawed but perfectly entertaining sequel. The all-female “Ghostbusters” is a movie I have never seen and never will, but it made clear where the trend line for the franchise was pointing. So, my hopes for this were minimal. Instead, what “Afterlife” delivered was something both nostalgic and somehow new. In a literal sense, this is a continuation of the “Ghostbusters” story, and there is a ton of fan service here (most of which works). Some of it comes at the cost of plot, but that’s OK, because the plot never made a ton of sense in any of the “Ghostbusters” movies. There’s a level of suspended disbelief required to enjoy these movies at all. But once you moved past the nods to the franchise’s history, the movie felt less like a continuation of “Ghostbusters” than of something like “Goonies” or “Stand By Me.” I can’t remember the last movie that felt so quintessentially 1980s — in the best of ways. Hollywood just doesn’t make those blockbuster adventure flicks like “Back to the Future” or “Ferris Bueller” anymore — a stylized mix of comedy and adventure and… fun! “Afterlife” was a 1980s movie made in 2022, and I loved every bit of it. Were the characters particularly well developed? No. But it was still a delight to spend time with Paul Rudd (his generation’s Bill Murray?) and Carrie Coon and McKenna Grace was absolutely delightful as the film’s protagonist. There are a few moments that could’ve been executed better — particularly a long Dan Aykroyd monologue that essentially fills in the blanks on what the Ghostbusters have been up to over the past 30 years — but it’s easily overlooked when the ride is so enjoyable. And, perhaps more than anything, “Afterlife” serves as an absolutely beautiful and heartfelt tribute to Harold Ramis. It may have gotten a bit dusty in the room during the movie’s climax as a result.
THE TENDER BAR (Amazon Prime) ⭐⭐
This movie fits squarely into the genre of films where Ben Affleck drives around in an old car through white, working-class neighborhoods in New York or Massachusetts, listening to 70s classic rock and picking up his buddies while making vaguely funny jokes. All of these movies are fine. This movie was also fine.
ROADRUNNER: A FILM ABOUT ANTHONY BOURDAIN (Rental) ⭐⭐⭐
Anthony Bourdain’s suicide got to me about as much as any celebrity death has. If you’d asked me in high school about the person I admired most, I probably would’ve said Kurt Cobain, a man whose ability to speak to a deeper truth and thumb his nose at authority matched my suburban outrage at the world. In college, I was obsessed with Ernest Hemingway and viewed him as the epitome of masculinity, a flawed human who nevertheless represented an archetype I was supposed to strive for. In my 30s, as I began to define my actual place in the world, if you’d asked me whose life I most envied, it’d have been Bourdain. It’s not lost on me that there’s a common thread between all three of those men.
I recently read Charles Cross’s “Heavier than Heaven” biography of Cobain, which was terrific, but also maddenly depressing. In high school, I viewed Cobain as a god. Reading about him now, I realized we were very similar in so many ways that it was easy to envision a world where he had just a bit more love in his life and survived… or one in which I had just a little less, and didn’t.
“Roadrunner” does a great job of capturing the complexity of Bourdain as a human — not the romanticized ideal of the rebellious world traveler, but as a very flawed man who might’ve been running from something more than exploring the world. Unlike my deep dive into Cobain, I came away from this film seeing all the ways Bourdain wasn’t like me, wasn’t like I thought he was, wasn’t what he wanted to be either. Bourdain wasn’t so much a tragic figure as he was simply a flawed man who needed something the world couldn’t provide. It’s a sad film, but also perhaps an appropriate coda for a life that so many of us envied. I used to think, “Damn, if Antony Bourdain was so unhappy he killed himself, what hope do the rest of us have?” Now, I realize that what he was missing was something I already have — a place to belong, people to love, an acceptance that there is no perfect reality I have to endlessly pursue, just a few moments here and there that feel pretty close to perfection.
THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH (Apple+) 🤷
I feel quite certain this was good but… I’m just not a smart enough human being to appreciate Shakespeare. It was shot beautifully, it included some terrific actors who I assume did a terrific job emoting while reciting the Elizabethan English, but I ended up playing on my phone through most of it because I’m a big, dumb American. I apologize for nothing.
TICK TICK… BOOM (Netflix) ⭐⭐
I’m not much of a Broadway aficionado, but I am so enamored with the talents of Lin Manuel Miranda (making his directorial debut here) that I was convinced to watch. And it was… not bad. It gets the tone of Broadway down, particularly in the first half of the movie, which includes some fantastic musical numbers. The latter half of the movie leans more toward traditional film making as the plot climaxes, and that largely works, too, even if there are some stretches where you think, “Wasn’t I just watching a musical? This feels more like a ’90s drama now.” Andrew Garfield is also terrific as Jonathan Larson, a character whose world boils down to one thing: He’s about to turn 30, hasn’t had a show produced yet, and he just can’t get anything written for this super important song he needs for the second act of his latest project. Meanwhile, the supporting characters have their own, very real, very serious issues that he neglects while obsessed with his own career. It’s very ’90s, but for a character the audience is supposed to sympathize with and root for, this version of Larson is pretty damned unlikeable. The music is great though, so worth the watch just for that.
DON’T LOOK UP (Netflix) Negative 50 ⭐
I hated this movie. Hated it so very, very much. Hated with the red-hot intensity of a thousand suns. While watching it, I kept thinking of the “South Park” episode when everyone who bought a hybrid car loved smelling their own farts because that is essentially what this movie was — just Hollywood A-listers being so smugly self-righteous about this movie they were making that it turned into one deep inhale of their own farts. It was, ostensibly, meant to be in the arena of “Wag the Dog” (a movie I also hated), but it ended up as essentially “Ocean’s 12” with politics. (Side note: I’ve never hated a movie more than “Ocean’s 12.”) Political and social satire done well can be exceptional. Look at Key & Peele or Chapelle or “Confederacy of Dunces.” But there was nothing subtle or funny about this. Just Hollywood elites turning an actual crisis (the environment, per director Adam McKay, though it felt more about COVID-19) and, rather than turning a mirror on it, it used some sort of funhouse mirror, broadening every character to the limits of credibility, all meta commentary and no actual commentary. It’s so self-serious that nothing in the movie can actually be taken seriously. Which would be OK if it was a comedy, but it’s not that either. It’s essentially just an opportunity for a bunch of very rich, very famous people to talk down to the idiot commoners and tell them: “This movie is about important things and you probably can’t understand that so we’ll dumb it down for you.” I hated this movie so much that I longed for an actual asteroid to hit the earth just so I didn’t have to continue to exist in a world where this movie was nominated for an Oscar.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY (HBO Max) ⭐⭐
A thriller starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett and Willem Defoe and directed by the best monster-movie creator of a generation in Guillermo del Torro was… pretty dull. A remake of the 1947 classic, it largely sticks to the script, and as a result, doesn’t have anything new to say. It’s like a decent cover band — it sounds fine, but you’d never confuse it for the real thing. The sets, which mimic the art deco look of the 1930s and 1940s are wonderful, however, which almost warrants a viewing on its own. My biggest complaint is that I was expecting so much more.
And beyond movies, a handful of TV binges, too…
WOLF LIKE ME (Peacock) No stars
The premise seemed to have some promise: A widowed father falls for a woman who connects with his emotionally fragile daughter. One problem: The woman is a werewolf. This premise could work in so many ways — horror, black comedy, silly rom-com — and yet this show never really decides it wants to be any of those things. Take, for example, the male lead, Josh Gad. I have liked Gad in exactly two roles. The first is as the voice of Olaf in “Frozen.” The second was as Elder Cunningham in “Book of Mormon.” In both cases, he plays a naive but lovable doofus. His role in this show is meant to be the exact opposite. To say the least, it’s awkward. The plot really amounts to nothing, and the climax of the six-episode series is arguably the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen on a TV show. There’s a great bit on an episode of “30 Rock,” when Tina Fey’s character notes, “You can’t just create an ending out of thin air by playing music and having people give each other meaningful looks.” And that is exactly how this show ends – with a tedious montage of the three main characters exchanging looks while music plays … for close to five full minutes! There are a dozen other awful things about this show I could get into, but I’ve already thought too much about something that doesn’t deserve an ounce of your energy since the creators clearly put no effort into it themselves.
YELLOWJACKETS (Showtime) ⭐⭐
Perhaps I’m nitpicking with this show, because overall, it was enjoyable enough — tons of plot and action and suspense, enough to justify the binge. But there was also just so much I didn’t like. There was a ton of gore, and I have no problem with that when used to the right effect, but this continuously felt as if it was used as a way to signal HOW VERY IMPORTANT AND SERIOUS THIS SHOW IS!!! It wasn’t that it was simply gratuitous in the way it might be in a teenage horror movie. It was that it was utilized as a substitute for actual depth. The show could be easily pitched as “Lord of the Flies” but with girls, and “Yellowjackets” occasionally steers hard into that turn, as with the second episode when all the girls stranded after a plane crash get their periods at the same time because of course their cycles all sync up after just a few days together. (Never mind that this theory has been proven false repeatedly or that the “ugh my period!” jokes feel more than a bit stereotypical and misogynistic.) The casting, particularly among the adults, is off, too. Juliette Lewis is borderline unbearable, and her particularly brand of white-trash disaster doesn’t at all correlate with the troubled but likable version of her younger self. I love Melanie Lynskey in nearly everything she’s ever done, but she just can’t hit the right notes in a leading role here. Her husband on the show, played by Warren Cole, is even worse, and the climactic scenes in the final two episodes of the season lose any sense of tension or credibility because neither can play their part believably. And as for plot — it had a lot of echoes of “Lost,” occasionally to the show’s benefit, but mostly in a “I don’t think they’ve thought any of this through and are probably making it up as they go” sort of way.
STATION 11 (HBO Max) ⭐⭐⭐
Like “Yellowjackets,” the plot here is a train wreck. It’s less noticeable in the moment, but the more you think about it after the fact — a thing, I think, the show wants you to do — the less sense it makes. The show itself deviates wildly from the source material, which is both good and bad. The larger story becomes something of a Frankenstein’s monster, as the show tries to stitch together enough of the original book’s elements with the new threads it has created, when it should’ve simply picked a lane and stuck with it. Indeed, one of those new threads is the relationship between Himesh Patel’s 20-something Jeevan, deep in the midst of a quarter-life crisis, his drug-addicted brother, Frank, and an 8-year-old played beautifully by Matilda Lawler, as they struggle to survive an apocalyptic pandemic. There are two full episodes dedicated to this trio – including the premier – and they’re by far the best of the series. The show hits so many home runs in its small moments, when it’s focused on just a few characters. Every time it zooms out, however, things go haywire. Still, the performances are strong enough to make the viewing enjoyable, and my biggest complaint is I just wanted more of the good stuff and less of the rest.