If you’re alive, you know Kathryn Hahn. You might not realise it, but believe me, you do. To look at her IMDb page is to finally understand the word “versatile” in relation to actors; stints on well-loved sitcoms, supporting roles in charming indies, blockbuster comedies, star-filled ensemble dramas, HBO dramedies about sex and marriage, Oscar-nominated weepies, and so much more.
I fell in love with Hahn as an actor through her role as Rabbi Raquel Fein in Amazon Prime’s queer family comedy Transparent. The level of complexity she brought to the show as its moral centre was fascinating and, as Emily Brennan wrote in the New York Times, was as wonderful as “Mallomars and beech trees and Jesmyn Ward books.” Now, with the end of lockdown in sight, I’m entering a Hahn-induced halcyon to see me through, and I’m not the only one.
Two days ago, Marvel’s WandaVison came to an end. The show, which was supposed to be the studio’s grand experiment, became more generic and risk-averse with each passing episode. But its opening three – which featured near-perfect recreations of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, and The Brady Bunch – was something that excited even me, a Marvel-sceptic. As the “nosy neighbour” Agnes, Hahn’s role in these episodes only extended the range of her talents. Alongside Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany, Hahn fit perfectly into each recreation. Her mannerisms and tone of voice, right down to the style of her delivery, were eerily accurate. Even as the show broadened its scope and moved into typical superhero fare, Hahn still managed to bewitch and captivate – even up until the non-reveal of her character’s actual identity.
After the show’s first three episodes premiered on Disney+ in mid-January, Hahn began trending on Twitter. One user noted that people seemed to be “rediscovering” Hahn, whilst another described Hahn as the only actor working today who “tonally gets the frequency and the vibe of every movie/show she’s in.” It seemed that, like those other actresses of her ilk (Laura Dern, Nicole Kidman, Marisa Tomei etc.), Hahn was due a twitter-induced “renaissance”.
These Twitter comebacks usually are that in name only; the actor in question has typically been doing good work for years, but the mainstream is finally catching up. In Hahn’s case, her work on shows such as Transparent and I Love Dick was exceptional. Her performance in 2019’s Mrs Fletcher was similarly transcendent. As a middle-aged woman exploring her sexual desire through pornography, Hahn created pathos and urgency for an idea that is too often ignored. Now, poised to retain her role in the MCU, Hahn appears to be unstoppable.
As someone who loves Hahn, this is good to see. Yet it also seems to point to the cultural perception of middle-aged women and how we assess their value. In a recent Tinder conversation, a man told me that he was “here for every second” of Laura Dern’s “renaissance”. How can you have a renaissance – defined as “cultural revival” and “renewed interest” in something – if you’ve always been doing avant-garde and risky work? To whom does it appear as though interest as waned? In Hahn’s case, it seems to have only been building.
I can’t help but feel that this idea of a career renaissance is a gendered one that ultimately puts a particular person’s attention at its centre. I can only think of a single male actor who has been talked about in this way: Matthew McConaughey. In the eyes of the mainstream, he went from doing romantic comedies – a genre typically maligned for its connection to female-centred storytelling – and into serious, often masculine, projects like True Detective and Interstellar. That his career is back on track now because he is appealing to a certain kind of viewer speaks to where our assessment of value comes from.
The fact that Hahn, who has spent the past few years telling stories that centre around female desire, lust, and complexity, is only now considered “revived” because the Marvel Fan Boys have given her a seal of approval feels reductive. Of course, this has always been the case for those that choose to tell stories outside of the hegemony. For example, an adaption of Chris Kraus’ complicated feminist novel (even if it was, bizarrely, for Amazon) was never going to bring in Spider-Man level numbers. Still, it rubs me the wrong way when people now say that because Hahn has worked within the superhero machine she’s made it.
It’s hard to make this sound like it isn’t just some variation of the “I liked them before they were cool” argument. Maybe now I understand those coked-up indie boys at house parties who told me the Arctic Monkeys have sold out or that the Kings of Leon were so much better before ‘Use Somebody’ came out. So maybe, when this pandemic is over, you’ll find me in the corner of a bar or a club, explaining to an unwilling audience that Hahn was always a star and that Marvel didn’t make her one.
These days, at around 7pm, I face the same predicament: what to watch. This question is not exclusive to pandemic living, but it certainly feels heightened by it. There are, of course, fewer options. I am not wolfing down leftover Ragù so I can make it to the pub in time to meet friends, I’m not sitting down with a group to watch the latest instalment of our favourite show. Instead, I’m looking to fill my time after cooking my extravagant meal for one. I’m looking for something that fills hours; that can fill them over and over.
So, I’ve started to rewatch a lot of TV. Texting with a friend recently, I remarked that movies, in this current climate, don’t do it for me. They’re too fleeting, too 90-minutes-and-done. A TV show, however, episode-upon-episode, has the potential to offer a week’s worth of entertainment, or maybe even more. It has familiar characters who can stand in as friends when my actual friends are separated from me by a two-metre distance. It offers romances when I can’t date, sex scenes when I can’t… well, you know. It can give me all that I’m craving without pushing me too far. At times, it felt like rewatching was all I could handle. I didn’t want any surprises, any twists, anything shocking.
The benefits of rewatching are twofold. Firstly, you know where you are. In these times which are ‘uncertain’ or ‘unprecedented’ (or however you allude to the current hellscape in your work emails), I don’t think I want the stress of something new. Instead, I want comfort, and I want security, but who can offer that these days? Well, Derry Girls, Ru Paul’s Drag Race, The Office, Parks and Recreation, I May Destroy You, and many more – that’s who. These shows, some of which I know by heart, offer me what feels like normalcy on these long locked-down nights.
That feeling of close-to-normal is the second major benefit. These shows are nostalgic and remind me of the days when I would choose to spend an entire evening watching the first series of Sex and the City in one sitting, as opposed to doing so because the government mandated that I must. Nostalgia, though, is a complicated thing to reckon with. The word’s origins – the Ancient Greek translating to something along the lines of “pain for a journey home” – highlights its darker uses: we feel pain for time passed, for places and people we can no longer return to. This isn’t just felt on a personal level, but it appears routinely in political rhetoric; returning to a simpler time, making a country “great” again.
The media psychologist Pamala Rutledge said in an interview with NPR last year that “we actually are craving time with our friends, and so these [shows] become kind of a proxy for that experience.” This was in response to the news that Friends and The Office had been the most-watched shows during quarantine.
We’re basically exhausted all the time because we’re under the stress of uncertainty. So what do I want to watch that will give me some comfort and some rewards that’s easy, that doesn’t drain my energy but gives me some back? And that makes shows like “The Office” or “Friends” a very good choice.
This yearning for nostalgia and ease doesn’t feel specific to the pandemic, however. In recent years, nostalgia has been the driving force behind television. Show after show was brought back from the dead, most of them shocked into existence on streaming sites. Will and Grace, Prison Break, Queer Eye, Saved by the Bell, Tales of the City, Full House, The X-Files, and so many more came back to varying degrees of success. Even to the untrained eye, it was clear the past decade had brought on a soft spot for days-gone-by. Most recently, Sex and the City was announced as the latest to make a comeback (with a new name and sans Samantha) and it became one of around 30 rebooted shows currently in development. As a fan of the show, and its new diverse writing staff, I was excited. Yet, I did hear, somewhere deep inside me, a quiet ‘why’ when I read the news before I quickly silenced it and got excited for something that might upset me (can you tell I’m a Carrie?).
It’s hard not to see the connection between my current rewatching craze and this wider cultural mode of production whose mantra seems to be in the vein of a 90’s era S Club 7 – ‘bring it all back’. In fact, it’s somewhat stunning. I had seen, in recent years, that political craving for nostalgia and had fought ardently against it; things were never great, and the only way is forward.
During a year that has made comfort paramount, even more so than in previous years, was I more open to the return of familiar faces because, I’m hoping, I’ll soon be able to see my actual friends? As things open up and new shows premiere, I’ll have to apply that to what I’m watching too. I’ll have to shake it off, leave this hibernation, and walk once again amongst original and exciting things. I just hope I haven’t become too comfortable.
I don’t remember learning about AIDS. When I started high school in 2005, it was frequently used as a homophobic insult or punch line – Gays give you AIDS – so I spent my teenage years denying any sense of difference for risk of being connected with it. Forced into submission by a post-Section 28 landscape, I didn’t want to be seen as one of “them”, as an “other”.
This, something I’ve seen many queer people my age do, leads to a lot of denial and judgement. I still remember claiming I wasn’t interested in feminine boys because “I’m gay so I like men,” when really, it was about separating myself from visible queerness, propping up a structure that idealises masculinity, and internalising homophobia in the process. However, now, in my late twenties, I strive to be visibly queer and not to frame my desire or existence through a hetero lens. This came from an understanding of queer history and a grip on what it all meant politically.
In my early twenties, I began to uncover the history of AIDS within the queer community. The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s seminal play, was adapted into a film in 2014 (my second year at university) which created an entryway through which Angels in America, Parting Glances, Buddies, Longtime Companion, and 120 Beats Per Minute walked. The latter introduced me to the global political group ACT UP, something I’d heard referenced on the Original Broadway Cast Recording of Rent (yes, I’m that kind of gay) but had never delved into. Documentaries followed this; How to Survive a Plague, We Were Here, and United in Anger, to name a few.
Which brings us to It’s A Sin, Russell T. Davies’ latest drama currently airing on Channel 4 and available to stream, in full, on All4. The show follows a group of friends, mostly gay men, in 1980s London as they shed the skins of their small towns and dive head-first into the hedonism of queer life as it was at the time. Of course, slowly, a disease starts to emerge – referred to as a “gay cancer” – caught through having sex. Some of the characters reject this, seeing it as too perfect an illness when sex is what most homophobes linger on, but nonetheless, the reality becomes ever more apparent.
Overall, my Twitter feed has been divided on the show. A lot have heaped praise onto it, calling it a “masterpiece”, “important”, and “vital”. People spoke of watching it with their husbands, or they reassured teens (watching, in the dark, with the volume down) that it would “get better” (though, whether this was necessary is up for debate). I saw friends talk about how educational the show was, how it filled the cavernous gaps school left, and they were beginning to understand how bad it had been. Others, admittedly a smaller group, voiced valid criticisms; where are the queer womxn? Trans people? Sex workers? Those who were crucial in the political fight against government ignorance and were also infected by the virus? For four years, as Sarah Schulman notes in her book The Gentrification of the Mind, AIDS was not considered a disease that affected womxn. As such, they couldn’t gain access to treatment, which at the time took the shape of experimental trials, because they were considered “unreliable” by pharmaceutical executives. People have also asked what about intravenous drug users, gay and straight, who were significantly affected by sharing needles? Are these stories not worthy of dramatization too?
It made me wonder about how queer history is told on screen, or, indeed, history at all. If I wanted to learn about other historical events, like the World Wars or 9/11, there is a lot that can be found. But the AIDS epidemic is so rarely dramatized that there are significantly fewer places to look. Of course, each time any new show or film comes out, there are inevitably those who like it and those who don’t. But LGBTQ+ content, which still feels few and far between, falls under a specific microscope. Whether that’s due to conversations about queerbaiting, sanitisation of experience, or too much consideration being given to a straight viewer, they have felt lacking and, almost always, overwhelmingly white, cis-gendered, and male-oriented. Yet because queer life and, more specifically, the widespread impact of the AIDS epidemic on various cultures and communities, is so varied, there is still so much left to look at.
In recent years, TV and film have made attempts to spotlight those areas left uncovered. For example, Pose examines the effect on the New York Ballroom scene, primarily frequented by black and brown, queer and trans folk, as well as sex-workers. While there has been growth, there has been significant backlash against the homogenisation of queerness too. The Prom faced backlash for James Corden’s performance, The Boys in The Band for being potentially outdated and too white, Happiest Season for being too middle-class and also too white. The question that so often arose was: who it was for? The answer: white gays and straights.
The idea that only dramas centred around cisgender (often, but not always, white) gay men and women are considered the history of queerness on film and TV leaves a lot to be desired. It simplifies the actual history. The boys of It’s a Sin, for example, are all likeable, young, attractive men, but history is more complicated than that. It feels like positioning experiences outside the white cultural experience (either gay or straight) as central is not an option. To air at primetime on a Friday night on terrestrial television you need straight people, and so it will always be watered down.
I’m not advocating for queer folk to court the mainstream – in fact, I’d rather they didn’t. But it corrupts the narrative of queer history when a particular type of queer story is the only type of queer story that most people see. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy It’s A Sin. I did. I liked its performances, its emotion, and its representation of how people coped in the face of a crisis. It’s more that it is an example of what I’m trying to articulate. Just because it is a certain type of queer story, doesn’t mean it isn’t good or doesn’t have its merits. It just can’t be the only type of queer story.
There are certain films I’ve only been able to watch once. Not because I didn’t like them, but because they were such an ordeal that I couldn’t stomach them again. Lately, I’ve been thinking about those films and why, even though I know they’ll tear me emotional-limb from emotional-limb, I choose to watch them in the first place.
It might be that this type of thinking is brought on by this time of year. The jovial aspect of the holiday season that romanticises snow and the cosy winter nights has given way to the cold bitter light of January; a period of time in which we’re forced to look back on the previous year (something especially tough now) and consider what might change about the year ahead, only to wonder if anything will at all.
There are, of course, those films that everyone is told they need to watch, despite them being depressing, like Schindler’s List or 12 Years a Slave, but they seem to fall into a slightly different category. They are depressing, for sure, but I’m not necessarily talking about movies that are just sad or difficult. I’m talking about movies that have sadness in every frame, that are soaked in gloom, and whose sadness oozes from the screen like dark vines which wrap their tendrils around you. Movies that don’t offer a sense of abject hope, that lean strongly into their nihilism.
One such movie is Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, a movie the critic Guy Lodge called “an opaque, bruise-blue mist.” The film focuses on the addictions of four Coney Island natives: there’s Jared Leto’s heroin addict Harry, Jennifer Connolly’s wannabe fashion designer Marion, and Marlon Wayans’ Tyrone, who wants to escape his overbearing mother and the circumstances of his upbringing. None of these are a match, however, for Ellen Burstyn’s Sara, a widow whose sanity is pushed further and further by an addiction to amphetamines which fuels a psychotic delusion that she is taking part in a TV game show.
Burstyn’s performance is not only devastating but it digs its claws in and, though it’s been around ten years since I last saw it, I still feel pangs of horror each time it crosses my mind. I’m not sure I can pinpoint why I have this reaction. It is similar, in some ways, to Gena Rowlands’ performance in A Woman Under the Influence, which I am both in awe of and deeply affected by. Both performances commit fully to the sadness at their core, both are complex and heart-wrenching, and both unjustly lost out on an Oscar (ironically, it was Burstyn who beat out Rowlands for the statuette in 1975). They have this vacuum-like quality, that pulls you in and positions you in that depression.
Speaking of the Oscars, it may have also been Netflix’s Pieces of a Woman which sent me spiralling down this rabbit hole of sorrow, and its star, Vanessa Kirby, is high on the list of Best Actress hopefuls this year. I thought, whilst watching the first half, that Kornél Mundruczó’s story of grief and loss might find its way onto my list of one-and-done movies. Much has been written about the film’s 30-minute birthing scene, but nothing can really prepare you for how it feels to actually sit through it. Kirby sells the pain, the stress and, ultimately, the loss so exquisitely that your heart is on the floor by the time it’s over and has been stamped on repeatedly. It’s a shame, then, that the rest of the movie (bar one complicated sex scene) is never able to quite live up to it.
It did, however, make me wonder what draws me to this type of film. I was, after all, the one who convinced my bubble to watch it on a Saturday night. Back in 2016, researchers at Oxford University found that watching traumatic films “boosts feelings of group bonding, as well as increasing pain tolerance by upping levels of feel-good, pain killing chemicals produced in the brain.” In essence, it provides a kind of quasi-schadenfreude. Not that we find joy, specifically, in the characters’ misfortune but, subconsciously, it triggers something in us that ultimately leads to happiness.
If the past year has taught me anything, it’s that I lean away from escapism. When the pandemic hit, I found myself reading and watching anything and everything that dealt with a global collapse. I, for better or worse, find it hard to tear myself away from Twitter and its constant supply of doom. I know I’m not alone in this either. A friend recently pushed back a FaceTime call by an hour because she had been endlessly scrolling on Twitter and needed to “walk it off”.
Maybe this, my seemingly masochistic tendency towards gloom, is one of those things I’ll try to shake this year.
As 2020 drew to a close, writers and critics began to assess the year in terms of how film and television had managed (or struggled) as a result of the global pandemic. It was at this point that one writer’s assessment caught Twitter’s attention.
Julia Alexander’s article for The Verge proclaimed that a year without Marvel movies “left a pop culture void”. Admittedly, her central reference point was one that I, too, found somewhat moving; a packed movie theatre screaming in wild excitement during a screening of Avengers: Endgame in 2019. It wasn’t that I found that particular movie scene as rousingly exhilarating as those fans did on opening night, but I did sympathise with the desire to be seated in a full cinema again.
Where Alexander lost me – and quite a few others, it seems – was in her conclusion that 2020, the first year since 2009 which lacked the release of a Marvel movie, had created an“absence of a very specific kind of excitement”. While she admits that other films can generate discussion, memes and discourse, none can do so quite like a Marvel film can. In some ways this is true, but this phenomenon doesn’t just extend to Marvel movies; any type of superhero tent-pole designed as a marketing ad first and a film second will create this kind of buzz.
Over the Christmas period, Wonder Woman: 1984 found itself at the centre of this familiar blockbuster storm. Released simultaneously in theatres worldwide and on HBO Max in the US, it garnered both harsh criticism and intense defence. The group against the film (of which I, admittedly, am a member) thought it to be bland, nonsensical, and oddly racist. Those for the film thought its critics were paid off as part of some wider conspiracy against DC or floated theories that, due to most Americans watching it at home, they disliked WW84 because they were easily distracted by their phones.
This is a familiar story: the internet whipping itself into a frenzy over the latest comic book movie. Last year, it was Joker. In previous years it’s been Man of Steel, Aquaman, X-Men, or some other such champion ‘man’. As Jia Tolentino wrote in Trick Mirror, the internet thrives on its ability to maximise our “sense of opposition”. As such, we are divided into two cultural camps: the childish-unintelligent-bro who adores these movies, and the snobby-elitist who considers the existence of such franchise films to be the very death of cinema itself.
This divide might seem overly simplistic and, in a way, it is, but its existence provides what the internet needs in order to thrive: clicks.
Think back to when Martin Scorsese decried superhero movies as not being cinema, or when Stephen Spielberg blasted Netflix. How many think pieces, hot takes and Tweets did that generate? A lot. One person’s opinion requires a near-immediate response, and that rebuttal requires one too until the original point is so cannibalised it is almost unrecognisable (hell, I’m even contributing to the phenomenon now with this column!).
This discourse seems to be shifting and distracting from the real issue: that audiences have simply become lax in what they will accept as good. This might be as a result of spending a decade arguing that the thing they enjoy is worth enjoying. It may also be that those aforementioned snobby-elites have forgotten that maybe there is some joy to be had or fun to be shared in the specific cultural experience of the superhero movie. Who’s to say?
Well, Fran Lebowitz is to say. In a recent clip that surfaced on Twitter from the documentary Public Speaking, Lebowitz discusses an audience’s role in maintaining the quality of the culture it consumes. She explains plainly that as a particular audience – one that paid attention and valued quality – died out due to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, it gave way to a different, more accepting, one; a group that were happy to get what they were given and were content to simply like it. She also attributes the decline in culture to the fact that many great artists and filmmakers were also lost during this time.
I would say that, in 2020, we do a have a pop culture void – but it isn’t what Alexander reckons it to be. At the centre of our culture we have these five-hundred million dollar movies that, because they’re primarily considered a product, have to be bankable and provide profit. How do studios plan to recoup their investment? By presenting something that will appeal to as many people as possible while simultaneously saying nothing that might offend (in either direction) or indeed say anything at all beyond a basic, agreeable message like “girl power” or “good triumphs evil”.
Instead of focusing on this, putting our money where our mouth is and demanding better, we simply feed into the model of opposition and say: ‘it’s me, and not you, who is right about this’. We seem to just accept that DC plans to release six movies a year from here on out, or that Disney recently vomited up plans for over fifty-two new Star Wars, Marvel, and other franchise entries over the coming years.
So yes, there is a cultural void. One into which we just keep throwing money and time, until nothing matters at all.
2020 has been a year of reckoning for film. We lost access to cinemas for a considerable portion of the year, film festivals moved online, and online screenings became the norm. Big blockbuster releases ran the gauntlet early on, like Tenet, or retreated into 2021 like No Time to Die and Black Widow. Most films arrived via streaming platforms, like Netflix or Amazon, while some trialled video-on-demand services day-and-date with a theatrical release. But it all meant smaller films were pushed into focus because the monolith that is blockbuster filmmaking was, for the most part, absent. Their model of filmmaking, which requires movies to make hundreds of millions of dollars just to breakeven, was exposed as unsustainable, and it meant independent film could shine through (and some especially great performances.)
I’m not naïve enough to think this will last. Wonder Woman: 1984 is due next week, the first significant tentpole movie since Tenet, and is also the first to be included on Warner Bros. plan to release their entire 2021 slate on HBO Max alongside theatrical releases. Disney also just vomited up about a thousand new Star Wars and Marvel projects to air on Disney+ over the next few years. So, yes, blockbusters will make a comeback, but how you consume them might be different.
Still, 2020 provided some respite and, so, in no particular order, these are my favourite movies from this past year…
(dir. Miranda July)
Miranda July, feminist oddball, artist, and author, returned this year with her third feature; Kajillionaire. It was a strange, lush, and queer heist comedy about family and love. I loved July’s previous films for their introspective look at loneliness and connection. I love the weird performance art videos she makes on Instagram, and I love her short stories and novels. Basically, I’m all in on Miranda July.
Kajillionaire sits in line with all the things I love about her work as it follows a dysfunctional family, who get by on running small scams, when they are faced with an interloper and all she can offer. It’s a beautifully queer story about finding your value and understanding that you don’t have to sit with the cards you’re dealt. It also has a lot to say about how our parents will ultimately disappoint us, but that might not ring true with the kind of folk that has a family Whatsapp group.
Sofia Coppola has made a name for herself by exploring the specific malaise of young women. From The Virgin Suicides to The Bling Ring, Coppola has given reverence to a period in woman’s lives that is so often ignored or used as background noise to a male protagonist’s story. On the Rocks, her latest film, instead looks at a woman approaching middle-age and a marriage that is, as the title suggests, struggling.
One night, when Laura (Rashida Jones) is sleeping, her husband (Marlon Wayans) returns home from a business trip, he climbs onto the bed, half-asleep, and starts kissing her only to wake up and look surprised that it’s Laura in front of him. Suspicious, Laura begins to spiral. Is he cheating? Who was he expecting to see? Is their marriage falling apart? She enlists the help of her bachelor, and vaguely misogynistic, father (Bill Murray) to help find out.
I’ve been a fan of Coppola since I first saw Lost in Translation nearly a decade ago and On The Rocks, significantly lighter in tone than her previous films, feels like a notable pivot in direction for her. It excites me to think about what might be to come.
(dir. Josephine Decker)
Shirley Jackson is one of the most famous American authors. Her story, ‘The Lottery’, is a staple on US high school syllabus’s and one of her most famous novels, The Haunting of Hill House, was loosely adapted for Netflix last year. Shirley, the latest film from Josaphine Decker, turns its gaze on the ghosts that haunted Jackson herself, namely paranoia and depression.
This pick is mostly about Elizabeth Moss, who plays Jackson, though I think the direction and writing are masterful too. Moss has provided some brilliant work on both film and TV in the years since leaving Mad Men such asin last year’s claustrophobic and chaotic Her Smell, her supporting role in the satirical artworld comedy The Square, or her comedic contribution to Jordan Peele’s Us. She has made a name for herself for giving spirited and wrought performances, and Shirley might well be the pinnacle. As Jackson, she exudes unpredictability, panic, and yet remains engrossing.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
(dir. Eliza Hittman)
I was a strong critic of Eliza Hittman’s debut, Beach Rats, when it arrived in 2017. While Harris Dickinson’s performance was commendable, the film felt like an inauthentic look at queer life without really doing the legwork. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is the complete opposite; a well-considered feminist polemic that sits with you long after the credits roll.
As the story of a working-class teenage girl travelling to New York City to get an abortion, the film has a specific brand of American social realism that wraps itself around you. The central performance, by Sidney Flanigan, is one of the most outstanding performances of the year and I couldn’t shake the scene from which the film gets its name for weeks after watching it.
A lot of the visual flair that Hittman brought to Beach Rats (its cinematography, to be fair, was stunning) is honed further here, and the gritty dangers of New York are captured with simple, but gorgeous, shots.
(dir. Kitty Green)
Again, this pick is a lot to do with its central performance. In The Assistant, Julia Garner plays the only female assistant to a predatory film producer. As sensational as that may sound, for the most part, we never see the producer. Instead, we follow those around him who cover for him, aid him, or find their morals are in question.
Throughout a single, long, day Garner’s assistant signs off large cheques to undisclosed women, watches as young starlets are co-opted into signing NDA’s, and listens as her male colleagues dismiss it all. All this, which could have been seen as reactionary or in bad taste, becomes something sensitive and gripping in the hands of director Kitty Green in her fiction film debut.
(dir. Elizabeth Lo)
Is it insane to say that one of the greatest performances of 2020 comes from a Turkish street dog? Well, it might be insane, but it’s true.
Stray, Elizabeth Lo’s stunning documentary, follows Zeytin, a stray dog living on the streets of Istanbul. Due to Turkish law, stray dogs can’t be detained or killed, and so they often roam the streets in huge numbers searching for kindness and food. Zeytin, an independent and oddly charismatic dog, spends his days idling around the streets, fighting with other dogs, and forming a bond with a group of Syrian refugees displaced by the war in their country.
Impressive for its emotional depth as well as as a feat of production (Lo followed him every day for six months), Stray is, ultimately, a didactic story of resilience, connection, and love.
(dir. Steve McQueen)
I was introduced to Steve McQueen through his 2011 drama about sex addiction, Shame. Lovers Rock could not be further from that in terms of subject matter, though McQueen’s slow and lingering style shines through. The film, which is part of the anthology Small Axe, follows a group of mostly young people at a party in 1980’s London.
It’s hard to point out precisely what makes Lovers Rock so appealing. It’s an ode to community, to music, to sisterhood, to young love, and blackness. It is also meandering and experimental, opting only loosely to consider plot and instead position the viewing as a guest at the party the film revolves around. Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, the closest thing the film has to a lead character, is beautifully strong and restrained in the role of Martha and Michael Ward is handsome and stoic opposite her.
(dir. Chinonye Chukwu)
In a year of excellent performances, Alfre Woodard’s in Clemency is probably the most under-seen. As prison warden Bernadine Williams, Woodard navigates the complexity of a life spent presiding over executions – mostly of young black men. As Bernadine considers her legacy and her position, she tries to connect with Anthony Woods (played with quiet restrain by Aldis Hodge), a young inmate who has lost his final appeal despite maintaining his innocence and is sentenced to death.
In my opinion, Woodard was grossly overlooked during awards season earlier this year and deserved not only a nomination but a win at the Oscars. Still, it’s nice to see a seasoned actor get a role that is worthy of her immense talent, and Clemency provides just that. It also works as a great debut for Chinonye Chukwu, who recently signed on the direct the first to episodes of HBO’s Americanah adaption and announced her second feature will look at the murder of Emmett Till.
The Human Voice
(dir. Pedro Almodóvar)
Coming in at only 30 minutes, Pedro Almodóvar’s short film The Human Voice, is one of the most refined and fleeting pleasures of the year. Shot during lockdown earlier this year and put together in time for Autumn, the film follows a woman (played with campy reverence by Tilda Swinton) as she takes a phone call from the man she loves. Dressed in bright clashing colours and wandering around her luminous apartment with her Airpod’s in, she languishes over the end of their relationship in what is, essentially, a monologue.
The film, loosely adapted from the play of the same name by Jean Cocteau, keeps the slick and vibrant melodrama style that has come to characterize Almodóvar’s more recent work and, when paired with Swinton, who irrevocably belongs in that world, it’s pure magic.
Mattias and Maxime
(dir. Xavier Dolan)
Xavier Dolan’s lavish, and more recently star-studded, melodramas can have a somewhat marmite effect on some. His commitment to using pop music, his angst, or his youth can lead people to either love or hate the work he puts out. Mattias and Maxime is a return to the smaller-scale filmmaking that Dolan made his name with, following two friends whose relationship is tested when they’re asked to kiss on camera for a student film.
I’m, more often than not, in the “love it” camp when it comes to Dolan. In Mattias and Maxime, he offers a tender portrait of young love and how it can be confused when it’s looked at through the prism of friendship. Dolan, who also stars as Maxime, is suitably moody and aggressive opposite Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas as Mattias, a beautiful (supposedly straight) young professional.
What I love about Dolan’s work, and it’s present here, is his commitment to queer romance on screen. There is a gorgeously hot and romantic kiss during a house party that made me thump the sofa with glee as I watched and he also continues to highlight Hollywood’s sexiest male stars as Harris Dickinson shows up as a douchey American businessman who really wants to go to a strip club (why, oh, why do I find him so hot in the role? *dials therapist*)
One Night in Miami
(dir. Regina King)
In September, Regina King became the first black woman to have a film premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Outside of this, or maybe in spite of it, King’s film, which follows four famous black civil rights figures over one night, is a strong, political, and powerful film that dissects so much of what we’ve been talking about this year. How do we make progress, with peace or violence? How do we advocate for change, with passion or restraint?
King, who is critically lauded as an actor and director of television, deftly guides this dialogue-heavy drama in a slick and smooth manner. The performances of her four leads are distinct, and each offers depth and insight. It’s likely to be high on the list of awards ballots come January.
Anyone who knows me will understand that Christmas is not my thing. I do not get swept away in the magic, I rarely listen to Christmas songs unless they’re sad and gloomy (‘River’ by Joni Mitchell, come through!), and I don’t spend December watching Christmas movies. In fact, I have a list of only five movies I find acceptable during the season of giving: Die Hard, The Family Stone, Batman Returns, Carol, and Tangerine. However, in 2020, I was willing to expand that list with Happiest Season, the latest Christmas rom-com from Clea Duvall because, well, it was gay.
The film follows Abby (Kristen Stewart) as she agrees to spend Christmas with her girlfriend, Harper (McKenzie Davis), and her family for the first time. The catch? Harper isn’t out to her parents, and for the five days they’re staying with them they’ll have to pretend to be “roommates” and hope that no one picks up the 1970s undertones of that word. Abby begrudgingly agrees, but their trip brings into question Harper’s commitment to their relationship and also brings up her past; one in which she has acted cruelly towards an ex-girlfriend and has an ex-boyfriend who her family thinks she’ll eventually marry. It pits Stewart and her queer world against Harper’s family – a wealthy, white, seemingly conservative, political family who are seeking donors for the father’s mayoral campaign.
Despite my reservations about the holiday itself, I was excited for Happiest Season. Clea Duvall is a great comedic actress who I loved as Margery on Veep, and, on top of that, I enjoyed her directorial debut well enough, The Intervention, in 2016. The latter being a mid-range ensemble comedy that dealt with the breaking down of a relationship. I also love Kristen Stewart from her reckless swearing on SNL, to her fashion sense, to her nuanced performances in films like Personal Shopper, Certain Women, Still Alice, and The Clouds of Sils Maria, for which she won a César (the French Oscar) and became the first American woman to do so. When you add to that a cast that includes Aubrey Plaza, Dan Levy, and Mary Steenburgen I was entirely sold. After watching it, however, I’m not so sure.
Whether or not Happiest Season is “queer” enough isn’t a conversation I’m interested in having any more. I think there are valid conversations to be had about its whiteness and its cis-ness, though. While art can be inherently political and, through its casting and narrative it does subvert typical norms, it still conforms quite neatly to a heteronormative ideal – with Abby planning to propose to Harper at Christmas despite her friend John (Levy), reminding her that she’s “engaging in one of the most archaic institutions in the history of the human race.”
Inthe film, even though the spectre of heterosexuality looms large, the two leads are lesbians (well, one of them might be bisexual but the movie doesn’t offer much in the way of this interpretation.). In the past, mainstream Christmas movies have allowed queer couples only to exist as supporting characters. In one of my acceptable Christmas movies, The Family Stone, Tyrone Giordano, and Brian White play a gay couple who are members of the titular family. Their sexuality, which is used occasionally to develop the stony and lost-for-words Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker), is not often discussed (but, in a movie that features so much bed-swapping and romantic drama it is sad to see them sit it out.)
There is no straight romance to counteract the gay in Happiest Season and there is no straight drama to hide behind. Yet, it does feel like it’s accessible to both gay and straight people. Usually, that would bother me. It did with 2018’s Love, Simon, or even, a few months ago, with Supernova, the Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci two-hander. The desire to appeal to straight people by either offering a diluted version of queer people – i.e. basically classically handsome straight-acting white people – or (spoilers for Supernova) killing them off so audiences can feel sympathy for them. God forbid straight folks might have to empathise with the gay experience that doesn’t involve death!
Anyway, I’ve digressed slightly, but what I mean to say is this; Happiest Season is potentially a step in the right direction but it depends how you look at it (well, apart from the overwhelmingly white part, that’s bad from every angle.) Stewart, an openly queer woman, shines in all her pantsuit, beanie hat, and sneakers glory. She is funny and awkward, while able to capture the difficulty her character has with being forced back into the closet. Also, spoiler alert for Happiest Season, no one dies.
I might watch it again next year, if not just to see the palpable sexual tension between Stewart and Plaza (I know I’m not the first to say it, but those two should be together.) It may even open a conversation with people who might not normally engage in that kind of discussion, about how the holidays can be difficult for queer folk who often have to hide who they are.
I suppose, it’s time for me to stop expecting so much from mainstream movies. I still will continue to be vocal about the number of queer characters that die, but I don’t think it’s time for me to give up on seeing myself in them. Instead, I’ll reframe them gateway films (so they don’t make me so mad!)
Gateway films, like gateway drugs, are a low-level intro into something larger. Happiest Season is sedate enough that it might creep into the average home but, just like Love, Simon it’s queer enough for young folks to get it. These films might reach the young queer kids who aren’t able to see the more radical or bold queer cinema such as Kajillionare or Ammonite (both of which premiered this year too.) It might act as their gateway to seeing themselves on screen, which in turn will feed a curiosity in other representations. It might lead them to bigger and better things.
If you, like me, are just desperate to feel something other than existential dread during Lockdown 2: Back in the Habit, then you’ve likely been watching The Undoing. If you haven’t, the twisty thriller, based on a book by Jean Hanff Korelitz, stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant as a wealthy New York couple caught up in a horrific murder case. Not only is it providing some level of escapism, with its lavish Manhattan apartments, dramatic plot twists, and its lack of social distancing (it was filmed pre-pandemic), but is also airing one episode a week, reminding me that time is indeed passing and we are not stuck in some stagnant version of hell. Instead, each week is marked by an hour of Nicole Kidman doing what she does best; wearing wigs and acting everyone off the screen.
As a queer person, I routinely discuss how much I love actresses. From Laura Dern to Dakota Johnson, Holly Hunter to Kristen Stewart I love the work of women (I am basically that clip of Saorise Ronon saying “women” emphatically) but Kidman, has always been a point of specific interest. The first time I remember seeing a Nicole Kidman film was likely Moulin Rouge when I was around thirteen. My high school, quite inappropriately, decided to adapt the movie for the stage as that year’s school play (long before the Broadway version existed) and I watched the film over and over during rehearsals. Not so much because I had a big role (I was in the chorus and had three dance numbers which I slayed) but because I became obsessed with Kidman as Satine, a courtesan dreaming of a life elsewhere. I used to listen to her version of ‘One Day I’ll Fly Away; as if it applied to my own teenage existence on frosty Winter mornings as I wandered to school. What I didn’t realise at the time was that Moulin Rouge was also a crucial film in the emancipation of Kidman.
When Kidman first broke into Hollywood in the late nineties, she was primarily seen as Tom Cruise’s girlfriend. Despite success with the thriller Dead Calm, Cruise was the biggest movie star in the world, and ultimately his overall star power consumed Kidman too. They worked together in films like Days of Thunder, Far and Away, and Eyes Wide Shut – all of which gained attention for starring the real-life couple. Her other films, well-reviewed but lacking impact (like Gus Van Sant’s To Die For or Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady) flew mostly under the radar. At the same time, her more significant blockbuster roles (in Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever) were often written off as campy. Her move, from a respected indie actress to a major movie star, facilitated by her marriage to Cruise, provided both pros and cons. As Ingrid Sischy wrote in a 2002 profile of Kidman, “She went from being an actress who had begun to taste success—and who had always insisted on living on her own, even during her various romances—to a woman inside the engine of the Hollywood machine.”
When Kidman and Cruise divorced, the tabloids raised the question of who would “win” the break-up. Would it be Cruise? The megastar with millions of adoring fans and a proven track record in Hollywood. Or would it be Kidman? An Australian actress whose highest-profile roles were directly connected with her husband. The answer seemed obvious.
In early 2001, the couple announced their divorce, and later that year, in May, Moulin Rouge premiered at the Cannes film festival. The film went on to be nominated for eight academy awards the following year including a Best Actress nod for Kidman. That year she lost to Halle Berry – a historic win of its own – but this nomination cemented her position in Hollywood moving forward. Not only was she well-reviewed and Oscar-nominated but the film made $179.2 million at the box office, more than doubling its original budget. When this was put together with The Others, which came out a few months after Moulin Rouge and was also a critical and financial hit, it was clear Kidman was more than the sum of her celebrity marriage.
A few years ago, a friend asked me if Nicole Kidman had ever won an Oscar. “She’s been nominated four times and won once,’ I said, surprised at how quickly that knowledge came to my mind. My friend followed up, asking which films she’d been nominated for. “In chronological order,” I said, “Moulin Rouge, The Hours (which she won for), Rabbit Hole, and Lion.” Again, I hadn’t realised I’d absorbed so much “kidmanformation” (I just coined this, we’ll see if it catches on) in my everyday life. Of course, my daily life (as a queer movie person that watches Oscar acceptance speeches on YouTube in my spare time) is not the same as everyone else’s.
Her performance as Virginia Woolf in The Hours is one of my all-time favourite Kidman performances. Spurred on by the rawness of a significant public break-up, Kidman embodied the writer who was on the brink of suicide. She captured a woman lost and struggling with how to be and how to act. She transformed herself physically too, something Kidman regularly does but often doesn’t get much credit for, proving that she was an actress to reckon with. Despite the Oscar win, her public persona was somewhat confused. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, Kidman was written off by many and was often cited as having a “comeback” any time she made something critics liked. In a 2017 article for Buzzfeed, Anne Helen Petersen wrote,
Post-The Hours, Kidman straddled arthouse movies and big blockbusters. She had critical hits and major flops; she moved into producing, and through her work on Big Little Lies she made a huge impact on TV too. She has worked with Yorgos Lanthimos, Sofia Coppola, Park Chan-Wook, Lars Von Trier, Nora Ephron, and Noah Baumbach, to name a few. She routinely takes risks and jumps between genres, but isn’t afraid of a big pay check gig – like Aquaman – either. She is the modern movie star who understands the requirements of Hollywood (one-for-me-and-one-for-you) but plays that so keenly to her advantage that it never feels like she’s selling out. To put it plainly, Kidman is the GOAT and we’re lucky that we’re alive to see her thrive.
There is nothing that emphasises a dry spell more than your upstairs neighbours having near-pornographic sounding sex at 7am on a Thursday. It’s incredibly tricky when that dry spell is government-enforced. In May, the government in the Netherlands told single men and women they should organise a “sex buddy” if they wanted to enjoy physical contact during lockdown. They asked people to consider their sexual partners based on how many other people they might see and plan the safest way to meet up for a shag. Going through someone’s social calendar and organising which position you’ll be in based on how likely it would be to transmit an airborne virus is not precisely foreplay though, is it?
As for in the UK, the government offered no such suggestion – although, having Chris Whitty or Boris Johnson dictating the specifics of my sex life would kill what little libido I have left – and thus, we were told we wouldn’t hug a stranger until 2021. So whether it was organising a sex buddy with the precision of a NASA Space Launch or being forced into celibacy by government restrictions, for most single people, sex has become, well, unsexy.
This has become increasingly harder to deal with when watching movies with sex scenes. The touching, the kissing, the licking, the panting, the sweat; all of which feel both dangerous and off-limits now. Recently, I watched Matt Bomer and Andrew Rannell’s get it on in Joe Mantello’s The Boys in the Band remake. It’s only for a few seconds, but the two beautiful men kiss, drenched in sweat and passion, and all I could think was they’re definitely not six feet apart. I couldn’t find it hot (which objectively it was) because all I could think of was all the germs that might be passed around in their hot breath.
The pandemic has made sex unsexy and has made even watching sex scenes tough because it requires a physical closeness that most of us fear now. We can’t be near people, but when we see actors on screen, in movies filmed sometime last year, getting too close, it’s hard to un-train the brain to not panic at the sight of their touching.
As Raven Smith noted in Vogue earlier this week, it’s not only the closeness but also the current climate stopping us from “feelings super-duper horny” these days. News of Trump, Brexit, Boris Johnson, death tolls, tiered lockdown systems, social unrest, racism, violence, and corruption are not exactly subjects that lead to being turned on. It’s hard to spend all day on Zoom taking in news updates, and rumours of impending lockdowns, and still have the mental capacity for sex – if the option is still available to you. Plus, any sex scenes I watch just serve to mock me. Not only because I wince at the touching but because they say to me: Look at all the fun you could have been having if you weren’t in the throes of a major historical event.
I used to see sex scenes as a marker of boldness, especially in queer cinema. Whether that was Jake Gyllenhaal bottoming on a stomach full of baked beans, or Taron Edgerton, as Elton John, getting into bed with Richard Madden, it often signified a film’s willingness to “go there”. Was the filmmaker unafraid of alienating a straight audience by showing queer sex? Rachel Wiess spitting in Rachel McAdams mouth in Disobedience, Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu rolling round in the mud in God’s Own Country, or the sandy-handy on the beach in Moonlight set them apart from the “straight-friendly” LGBTQ+ movies that tried to toe the line.
I hope, soon, I can return to that mindset. One in which I’m excited by sex scenes again and take pride in the unabashed sexiness. In fact, I’m just as keen to enjoy sex scenes as I am literal sex. Still, as my neighbours taught me at 7am last Thursday, not everyone is in the same boat.
What happened to the web series? For one brief and shining moment, around the early 2010s, it was flourishing. It gave us creators like Issa Rae, Desiree Akhavan, Abbi Jacobson, and Ilana Glazer. It seemed ripe for the picking of talented individuals who had stuck their middle finger up at the perceived norms and taken their fate into their own hands instead of that of older white dudes who handed out the cash. In 2016, Matthew Fifer debuted his web series, Jay and Pluto, after a successful Kickstarter campaign and now he returns with Cicada, a meditation on the impact of trauma.
The film, co-directed by Kieran McClure, follows Ben (Fifer), a bisexual man going through the motions in New York City, painting apartments for West Side “DILFS”, and seeing the doctor for nausea that can’t be explained as he repeatedly vomits in the morning seemingly to expel something. After a broken engagement he is, as his sister refers to it, “back on the dick”, meeting (mostly) men online, in work, at clubs, on the subway platform, in the bathrooms of bars. Ben hasn’t been out for long, due to trauma he refuses to deal with from his past, and admits that he has never been able to be truly intimate with someone without being drunk or high. This is until he meets Sam (Sheldon D. Brown) while browsing at a bookstore. It isn’t clear what makes Sam different, why Ben decides to ask him for a drink rather than a fuck, but the two begin to bond and slowly fall into the regular patterns of a relationship.
One night Sam asks Ben about his first time with a man. At first, Ben is cagey, describing the experience of Kirsten Dunst in The Virgin Suicides, left alone on the football pitch when he awoke in the morning, rather than his own experience but Sam persists. Ben, reluctantly admits he was “young” and leaves it at that, but Sam understands the implications. The film focuses itself mostly around this issue; how do those with trauma try to move on? Both men are carrying it, as Sam is reluctant to hold hands or kiss in public due to being the victim of a homophobic drive-by and we see flashes back to Ben’s childhood aware that something happened there that he can’t let go of.
Cicada, an autobiographical story from Fifer’s own life, seeks to understand how this trauma manifests in both men. Ben is seemingly doing great with Sam, he wants to be committed and, for some reason, no longer needs substances to do that, yet he’s haunted by an ongoing molestation trial that is all over the news. Sam, however, lashes out when he feels like he’s not in control. First, when Ben shows up to his place of work with flowers and, second, when Ben introduces him to his friends, Sam picks a fight as things are becoming “real”. This is most likely related to his father, to whom he is not out, and the internalised homophobia he is harbouring since his attack.
Trauma and its effects have been depicted more commonly in film over the past few years, and Cicada joins a recent few that don’t aim for sensationalism but rather work to explore that experience realistically. For example, Jennifer Fox’s experimental and ground-breaking film The Tale told the story of the sexual abuse she faced as a young girl, and Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale followed a traumatised woman who was seeking revenge. All of these are creating a new wave in cinema, led by women and minorities, that refuses to be silent about the things that make us, as a society, uncomfortable. However, engaging in discussions of sexual abuse with the realm of queerdom navigates some tricky optics, ones that have to contend with decades of pseudoscience that have tried to link the two. In its personal focus, it feels like Cicada never reaches to make a grand statement about queer people, but it also doesn’t feel like it has fully considered where this conversation might go.
This is all fascinating territory and, as a film, it is a bold choice to try and engage with it, yet it doesn’t quite all come together. Still, that doesn’t mean it isn’t affecting in various ways; it just doesn’t rise to the severity of its subject matter. It’s ending feels a little neat for a story about how trauma manifests and its script, at times, can feel a little by-the-book, especially during the early scenes of Ben and Sam’s relationship. It all feels somewhat trapped within that millennials-in-New-York-style indie movie that has risen in popularity since the premiere of Lena Dunham’s GIRLS in 2013 (though it’s definitely one of the better ones).
Cicada is a strong debut for Fifer and his team. It made me wonder what they could achieve with a bigger budget and more time. Fifer has managed to navigate that tricky terrain from the internet to the big screen and has been able to manifest something emotional, artful, and thought-provoking. As is typical for debuts, it’s imperfect but shows promise. It asks a lot of questions but doesn’t quite find every answer. It’s bold, yet limited, but what comes next is something to keep an eye on.
In a 2014 interview, the activist and writer Angela Y. Davis decried the emphasis on individualism in American history. “It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals,” she said, as a way to make sure that people today are able to recognise their “potential agency as part of a community of struggle.” In Regina King’s directorial debut, One Night in Miami, we spend time with four black men who might fall into the category of “heroic individuals” yet we seem them collaborate, argue, and support each other: Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and Malcolm X.
In 1964, Cassius Clay (soon to become Muhammad Ali) beat Sonny Liston to become the boxing World Heavyweight Champion despite odds, 7-1, saying he would lose. The win launched Clay into the public eye in a new way and, shortly after, he announced his conversion to Islam and his new name. One Night in Miami takes place over a few hours after that history-making fight and sees Clay (played with flair by Eli Goree, Riverdale) celebrate in a hotel room with his friends revolutionary Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir, High Fidelity), NFL hero turned movie star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge, The Invisible Man), and, the King of Soul, Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr., Hamilton). As the night draws on, tensions rise, and the discussion moves to how positions of power, stages in the public eye, can be used to speak out against the rampant racism and violence of the mid-sixties.
In this sense, it is a clash between Malcolm and Cooke that takes the central focus. Malcolm, already being followed by the FBI, believes in freedom by utilising activism; speaking out, challenging the powers that be, and refusing to play by their rules. While Cooke, who has been pursuing success on the pop charts and playing segregated venues like the Copacabana, believes in winning them over with his music – not music that is politically minded, but music that is soft and gentle which might lead a white audience to realise black people really are just like them.
This is an issue that has plagued nearly every movement for rights in the past decade; how do we do it? Is it done politely, with the oppressor setting the guidelines for how the discourse can play out? Or is it in the hands of the oppressed to fight against whatever way they see fit be it through boycott, protest, or rioting? Even now, in response to the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, white people and conservatives are still trying to dictate how the oppressed can politely ask for their rights. Peaceful protest is allowed but kneeling during the national anthem is too far. Organised marching is okay but not during COVID and not if it descends into violence – even if that violence is, more often than not, instigated by the police.
King’s timely debut spends a lot of time unpacking this idea, as Malcolm and Sam become more heated the others offer advice too. Brown, sympathetic to Malcolm’s ideas, offers that Cooke is seeking “economic freedom” which is essential within capitalist structures while Clay seems to advocate for unity between the four regardless of opinion. This is part of the immense power One Night in Miami holds; it can jostle with lofty political debate, engage with political theory, and ideological differences yet it remains a downright entertaining, gripping, and riveting drama. The latter is mostly down to the cast, all of whom are incredibly exciting and captivating on-screen while embodying their famous characters. Ben-Adir oozes righteousness with hints of the radical and smatterings of kindness, Hodge offers a stoicism, graceful and straightforward (plus the way his eyes react can tell you more than 100 pages of dialogue), Goree appears enamoured with a naïve confidence and boyish attitude while maintaining maturity in his decisions, and Odom Jr.’s light-hearted exterior gives way to waves of intense internal conflict.
Of course, all of the above would not be possible with King’s deft and subtle direction that creates both a sense of claustrophobia in the small hotel room and also suggests a future far beyond it filled with possibility. King, who has won multiple Emmys for acting in shows like American Crime and Watchmen as well as an Oscar for her portrayal of Sharon Rivers in 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk, is no stranger to directing despite this being her debut feature. For TV she has directed episodes of HBO’s hit comedy Insecure, NBC’s prized weepy This is Us, and Shondaland’s twisty political drama Scandal amongst others. In One Night in Miami, she isn’t afraid of the intimacy the film (adapted from a stage play of the same name by Kemp Powers) offers, nor is she afraid of the complexity the debate at its centre offers. She only slightly resists its theatrical trappings, by adding an elongated intro and occasional flashbacks, which is a bold step but one that ultimately pays off. Yet, that shouldn’t come as a surprise from an actor who has, in the past decade, defined herself as one of the industry’s best and brightest.
In Zadie Smith’s recent essay collection, Intimations, she writes about the recent murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers by conceptualising racism as a virus that has infected America, one that arrived long before COVID-19. “I used to think one day there would be a vaccine,” she wrote. “I don’t think that anymore.” This is not defeatism, but it is something that becomes easier and easier to understand as the decades go by, and things don’t seem to change. In one scene, Malcolm passionately cries that black people are being “murdered in the streets” and that it’s not enough to “sit on the fence” anymore (Malcolm himself would be murdered less than a year after Clay’s historic win). This does not seem unlike the sentiment we see today, one that still hopes for change but has decades of stagnation to look back on. In presenting this debate, on how to dissent and when, King offers an artistic, entertaining, and thoroughly impressive comment on our current climate. How do we move forward? We will not get there individually but rather with the help of others, standing collectively, and, like the song the film finishes with, knowing that a change is gonna come.
One Night in Miami is playing at the BFI Southbank 11th & 12th October as part of the London Film Festival 2020.
It will be released nationwide by Amazon Studios in early 2021.
One of the most quoted lines in all of literature is from the beginning of Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This has, for hundreds of years, surmised our feelings towards our families. We view others with envy, the seemingly perfect families, nuclear and close, while we resent our own uniquely unhappy one. For Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), the oddball protagonist of Miranda July’s Kajillionaire, that unhappiness is incredibly unique.
Old Dolio, named after a man who won the lottery in the hopes she might end up in his will, is from a family of scammers; small-time criminals who are happy to skate by, or so they say. Her father, Robert (Richard Jenkins), prefers this half-life, one in which the rent is always due, and turning fast tricks is both an adrenaline rush and a necessity. “Most people want to be kajillionaires,” he says, but it doesn’t interest him. While her mother, Theresa (Debra Winger) is equally baked into this life on the fringes but, maybe more so than her father, shows little affection for Old Dolio.
It’s because of this life that Old Dolio has become more of a worker than a daughter. She works the scams as she’s asked to; stealing from the post office, conning a wealthy married couple, and then attempting to do the same to their daughter. All to earn a little extra cash, never too much, $20 here, $50 there. This family isn’t interested in robbing banks, in splitting millions of dollars three ways, but rather playing against the system as a means to survive.
That is until Melanie (Gina Rodriquez) shows up, a chatty and beautiful woman who exposes the family’s dysfunctionality, while they’re running a job. Melanie, intrigued by the strangeness of Robert and Theresa is pulled into the thrill and ease of these jobs and begins suggesting cons of her own. The first is to scam the old desperate customers she serves at work, to convince them to give her that antiques and to sell them on at a profit; the sad and lonely praying on the sad and desperate. Then, as the money does start rolling in that value system, about living on very little, is tested.
It’s from here that each new step exposes, to Old Dolio, that her perception of family is misguided. She watches her mother warm to Melanie, watches her become crucial in the family’s newest scams, and sees what her life could be like if her parents acted as if they loved her. In one scene, she even watches as her parents play happy families as part of a con, and she sees that they do know how to be kind, they just choose not to be.
This yearning, for connection and to be seen, is Miranda July’s favourite territory. In her short stories, people, often lost young women, explore their tangible and fragile connections with others, and her novel sees a lonely woman find love in the strangest of places. Her previous films, Me and You and Everyone We Know(2005) and The Future (2011), showed a kooky side, one that saw talking cats narrate tales of existential crisis and awkward salespeople creating intimate connections with customers. She is an artist who likes to explore the uncomfortable, the strange, and the confusing and Kajillionaire is an excellent addition to July’s Theatre of the Lonely.
Old Dolio is lonely. She has never been called affectionate nicknames, never been hugged, or caressed yet she is “addicted” to the neglect of her parents. She doesn’t know what an alternative life would look like until Melanie tries to show her. This queer connection at the centre of this small world is Old Dolio’s driving force to look for something different, to seek the love she deserves.
In July’s deft and absurd hands, Kajillionaire is enrapturing, strange, and overwhelmingly joyful to watch. It feels distinctly of its own creation and each left-field acting choice, visual, or plot point only furthers to strengthen the overall whacky experience. It is, at times, heart-breaking then romantic, then silly, then serious, then funny, and manages to give each feeling, each beat, just as much credibility. As you watch pink suds droop down from cracks in the ceiling of the disused office where the family lives or the way they crouch behind low walls to avoid the landlord, if you examine the strange outfits Old Dolio dons, or watch her try to army crawl along the floor as a form of apology, you can’t help but feel that Melanie sums it up best; “Most happiness comes from dumb things.”
Kajillionaire is available to rent on BFI Player as part of the London Film Festival from today.
It is released in cinemas nationwide from Friday 9th October
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