Finally, at long last, the end of this hellscape year is upon us, though this month’s indie selection is somewhat muted – most of the big awards hopefuls rolled out in October and November, and will expand slowly in the weeks (and months) to come, if the fortunes are with them. But we do have a handful of new ones to seek out between shopping, baking, and stressing, from joyful documentaries to nihilist arias.
Bathtubs Over Broadway
RELEASE DATE: Out now DIRECTOR: Dava Whisenant CAST: Documentary
It began with a smirk, the day Late Show with David Letterman writer Steve Young discovered, while finding oddities for the “Dave’s Record Collection” segment, a souvenir album from an “industrial musical” – full-fledged, Broadway-style musical shows for private audiences at company conventions. At first he laughed, but then he found himself humming the songs (they’re fluid and catchy; if the lyrics weren’t commercials, who knows?) and digging into the history of this unknown corner of show-business, a whole circuit that provided (lucrative) early work and opportunities for performers and songwriters, many of whom you’ve heard of. Director Dava Whisenant ably transfers the interest – Young’s fascination and enthusiasm is infectious – but ultimately, Bathtubs Over Broadway is about more than this tiny, weird thing. It’s about how these peculiar interests can become our obsessions, and the way that ironic detachment can develop, surprisingly enough, into genuine affection. What a delightful movie this is.
RELEASE DATE: December 7 DIRECTOR: Sydney Pollack CAST: Documentary
Back in January of 1972, an impossibly young Sydney Pollack headed up a crew that filmed, over two nights in a Los Angeles sanctuary, the recording of Aretha Franklin’s gospel album Amazing Grace. It became a bestseller, but the footage was never assembled or released (for “technical reasons,” per the opening credits) – until now. The result is more a concert film than documentary, and that’s just fine, because it’s as pure a shot of sheer joy as you’re likely to feel this season. Franklin is backed up by the Southern California Community Choir under the guidance of Rev. James Cleveland, who is essentially our emcee; early on, he invites us to “relax and enjoy one of the greatest sounds in the world,” which he goes on to pinpoint as “the sound of gospel,” but this viewer assumed he meant the sound of Aretha. Pollack shoots her in tight, beads of sweat rolling down her face – she’s standing still, to be clear, just singing so hard that she works up a sweat. Her singing is raw, and rowdy, and transcendent, and within a few minutes, the film itself is like being in church; when Cleveland suggests, as reverends do, to reach out to neighbor, I realized I was looking around for one. I was lucky enough to see its DOCNYC premiere, where Rev. Al Sharpton led an opening prayer, asking the Lord to “bless this film, that it blesses people all over the world.” Amen.
Ben is Back
RELEASE DATE: December 7 DIRECTOR: Peter Hedges CAST: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance
As she’s gotten older, Julia Roberts has acquired a striking ability to convincingly capture people who are just barely keeping it together – and because we’ve spent so much of our moviegoing lives sympathizing with her, when she falls apart, it has real power. She’s well-cast here as the mother of an addict (Lucas Hedges, quite good) who tries to keep him from relapsing during one-day Christmas break from rehab, and writer/director Hedges impressively arranges the trickiness of all the familial relationships – how the dynamics and triangulations and rectangulations bang each of them around – while getting inside the feeling of inevitability that surrounds addiction, and the circle of blame and guilt around it. It’s a tough picture, and it stumbles in spots, but when it works, it works.
The Party’s Just Beginning
RELEASE DATE: December 7 DIRECTOR: Karen Gillan CAST: Karen Gillan, Lee Pace, Paul Higgins
Doctor Who and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle‘s Karen Gillan stars, writes, and directs (it’s her feature debut on the latter two fronts), but this isn’t some actor’s vanity project; it heralds the arrival of a major filmmaker, with a genuine voice and a striking style. She stars as Lucy, an aimless young Scottish woman whose days and nights are a blur of monotony, yet becomes keenly aware of how her town’s overwhelming ennui is manifesting itself in inescapable suicides. It’s a refreshingly unpredictable movie – it really could go anywhere at any time, thanks not only to the wildness of her direction, but the cleverness of its cross-cutting – and Gillan’s insightful script finds the humor in some deeply dark material. And then, on top of all that, she crafts a tremendous performance, haunting yet present, dryly funny but casually tragic. There’s a real power to the filmmaking here; Gillan is, clearly, a force to be reckoned with.
Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes
RELEASE DATE: December 7 DIRECTOR: Alexis Bloom CAST: Documentary
Political commentators – particularly the “intellectuals” of the right – love to act as though Donald Trump was an anomaly, appearing out of nowhere and taking the Republican party hostage. But he was the natural, logical outgrowth of years of policy and personality, one of the many conclusions made inescapable by Alexis Bloom’s excellent documentary profile of Ailes, the television producer turned political strategist turned Fox News Channel head whose on-air recipe of fear, paranoia, and racial suspicion resulted in the first Fox News president. Bloom has a lot to take on, in not only the story of his ascension but the sexual harassment allegations that eventually put him (and many of his FNC colleagues) out of work, and the political climate that he first served, and then steered. But she orchestrates it all with skill and ease, connecting to the larger story without ever losing her own thread, and the choice of the closing clip is a chilling stroke of genius.
If Beale Street Could Talk
RELEASE DATE: December 14 (delayed from November) DIRECTOR: Barry Jenkins CAST: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Parris
Beale Street is in New Orleans and Barry Jenkins’ latest is set in Harlem, but that doesn’t matter much; the opening quote from James Baldwin, who wrote the novel it’s taken from, explains that Beale Street is less of a place than an idea, a location for the lives and loves of black people in every city. The film — which perfectly fuses the voices of its two creators — concerns a young couple in love, and the trials they face. Jenkins’ images soar in time with the swells of the score, and the actors gaze into his camera with an emotional immediacy that’s downright transportive. Every performance lands, but special praise is due to the heart-melting work of Regina King; every moment, every gesture, is imbued with immeasurable love and wisdom. As is the movie itself.
RELEASE DATE: December 21 DIRECTOR: Pawel Pawlikowski CAST: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc
Ida director Pawlikowski returns with another compact, visually austere, yet emotionally scorching picture, this time the devastating story of a teacher and student who meet in early ‘50s Poland, fall into some version of love (or at least lust), and spend the next several years basically ruining themselves for each other. It’s a wise movie – one that understands how absence can idealize a romance, and how it can curdle when that absence is resolved – and nimble too, covering a lot of story, over a long period, with a light touch (and in a tight 88 minutes to boot). Also, keep an eye on female lead Kulig, a next-level talent whose aging is stunning, whose nuance is astonishing, and whose “Rock Around the Clock” dance has more joy and freedom than any ten performances this year.
RELEASE DATE: December 25 DIRECTOR: Karyn Kusama CAST: Nicole Kidman, Sebastian Stan, Tatiana Maslany
The latest from director Karyn Kusama (The Invitation, Girlfight) is basically a police procedural, with Kidman as a cop who went under deep cover a while back, and is still sorting out the fallout. And Kusama tells the tale with such healthy doses of dread, nihilism, and psychological introspection, it never feels like “just” a cop movie anyway; this is the story of a deeply damaged woman, who continues to harm herself and those around her, and the steps she knows she has to take to set them free. Masterfully constructed and stylishly executed – no director this side of Michael Mann loves shooting L.A. at night like Kusama – this is a thrillingly nasty piece of work.