Academy-Award nominated Being the Ricardos (2021) opens in the the year 1939 with a handsome 22-year old Cuban singer named Desi Arnaz (played by Javier Bardem), touring the country with his orchestra. After Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi fall in love and marry, Desi continues to have modest success on tour while Lucille struggles with bit parts in low-budget films.
After ten years trying to breakthrough to stardom, Lucille turns to radio, and with “My Favorite Husband”, finds a popular medium for her comic timing. CBS asks her to continue the show on television, renaming the program “I Love Lucy”. Premiering in 1951, at Lucille’s insistence, Desi assumes the role of her TV husband. At the peak of its popularity, over 60 million viewers are enamored with the weekly comedy. “I Love Lucy” also coincides with McCarthyism and Lucille Ball admits she supports Communism, while Desi does not.
After the first broadcast of the “I Love Lucy” , the series has become an icon of popular culture for over half a century. In those early years of television, the rules for comedy were still being established. And Lucille Ball oversaw and wrote many of the most famous scenes–on the factory assembly line, the dining room bickering, the wine-crushing vats. But beyond “I Love Lucy’s” considerable influence on future comedians and television in general is an inarguable truth: “I Love Lucy” is timeless in its humor and subtly subversive for the 1950s.
There are two main reasons for watching Being the Ricardos: 1) Nicole Kidman channels Lucille Ball in appearance and voice. Her performance is no less than astounding. Kidman continues to demonstrate a remarkable ability to make us share her character’s feelings. 2) The 1950s are shown in unsettling details, some mirroring the puritanical values of The Handmaid’s Tale. In one scene Lucille Ball, who has become pregnant, is determined to win the fight with corporate executives to show that pregnancy is not to be censored as obscene. The management, not accustomed to their position being challenged–much less by a woman–are forced to relent.
Being the Ricardos is not a memorable film, but this pandemic is replete with marginal movies and television series. The pace is slow with superficial interviews with co-workers, fellow actors, and friends of the Ricardos. The result is disruptive and drags the main story: the marriage and professional life of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Yet Being the Ricardos is revealing as it encapsulates the historical details of which many viewers are unaware. The 1950s were by no means glory days–and this movie indicates some of the period’s underbelly. For that reason alone, Being the Ricardos is worth watching.
Based upon Rosalie Ham’s novel by the same name, The Dressmaker (2015) gives us an opening scene in which 10-year-old Tilly Dunnage is being bullied by classmate Stewart Pettyman, the mayor’s son, and a group of boys in Dungatar, a town in the Australian outback. With little investigation she is sent away by police Sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving) for the boy’s murder.
Twenty-five years later (1951) Tilly (Kate Winslet) returns to Dungatar after a highly successful career as a couturier working in Paris. Presumably returning to care for her mentally unstable mother Molly (Judy Davis), Tilly is mistreated by her mother and all the townspeople who have animus towards her for the alleged murder of Stewart Pettyman. Her mother does not remember the past nor her daughter’s ordeal as a child, but clarity of mind soon prevails and Molly begins to realize her recall bias and the faulty, convenient memories of the townspeople of Dungatar. Only a few townspeople, including Teddy (Liam Hemsworth) and Gertrude (the surprising Sarah Snook who plays “Shiv” in the HBO series Succession), are willing to accept Tilly as she is, not her rumored past. Tilly is immediately too generous in spirit and too sophisticated, not to mention too glamorous, for Dungatar. But, she’s also unwilling to forgive and forget.
The characters are a wonderful, unexpected and thoroughly captivating array of narrative weirdness which will hold viewers’ attention. The goofball, comedic scenes–a crossdresser, for example– may or may not be a comfortable fit for some viewers. And humor is mixed with the cusp of a thriller, Dexter-style, in a surprising plot twist. In some ways The Dressmaker reminded this reviewer of the classic “The Visit” (1964) or the more recent “Dogville” (2003).
The actors embrace the mayhem, with the remarkable, always noteworthy and energetic Kate Winslet and Judy Davis in the lead roles. As the events of The Dressmaker unspool, it is frequently unpredictable: where will the narrative take us next? And then it goes further than one would think: into the absurd…in a good way. The unexpected journey is one worth taking. The ensemble of misfits is highly original and quirky, making The Dressmaker an enjoyable and cheeky indie film.
In her directing and writing debut Maggie Gyllenhaal gives us The Lost Daughter, a courageous look at the “maternal instinct”… which isn’t. Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman), a college professor, is vacationing in a quaint Greek resort. Traveling alone with her books, she is enjoying a lazy day on the beach when she observes Nina (Dakota Johnson), a distracted young mother,who is not watching her little girl. When her daughter goes missing, Leda manages to find her. In a series of flashbacks, a younger Leda (played by Jessie Buckley) has a troubled relationship with her two daughters. The two women–Leda and Nina–seem to have parallel lives.
The Lost Daughter is a multi-layered, nuanced look at how overwhelming and relentless parenting can often feel. Unbearable feelings of guilt are hard to suppress. It’s rare to see such a raw look at the emotions behind what is often referred to as the joy of motherhood. [I am reminded of the phenomenal 2021 novel, The Push, by Ashley Audrain.]
Colman and Buckley give supeb perfomances as Leda. But not all is well here. The Lost Daughter is amorphous with little backstory to explain why and how Leda became such a damaged mother. This resulted in not caring or becoming sympathetic to their unfortunate relationship with their daughters and the dilemmas and difficult choices they felt they had to make.
How much of a woman’s identity is given up for the sake of mothering a child?. The Lost Daughter is a compelling portrait of troubled motherhood. Nina and Leda have no obvious support for things unsaid. Although The Lost Daughter lacks sufficient backstory to understand why motherhood can be so difficult for Leda, it is a fascinating venture into unmarked territory.
While we all continue to shelter-in-place during this lockdown, many of us craved new content to watch, some less well-known and under-the-radar. Well, this year I watched more movies and television than ever before, so I have thirty to recommend, instead of the usual 15-20.
Here are the reviews I wrote this past year with the criteria that they were available online since movie theaters were either shut down or offered very limited screenings. Of the 52 reviews I reviewed this year, here are my favorites. Yet another difficult year to make my “listicle”. As in past years, both television and cinema have continued to produce phenomenal story-telling and intriguing characters.
The following list is not ranked, only grouped by genre and date of review.
Toni Morrison (1931-2019), the 1993 Nobel Prize winner in Literature, was a complex artist who did not hold back from confronting the worst of human history. This documentary is a historical panorama of a slice of history dating from the 1930’s. Morrison emerges as a powerful, iconic, and formidable moral and intellectual force. The film gives us a retrospective of her groundbreaking novels which challenged the literary status quo, rewarding the reader with imagining black lives on their own terms, devoid of the “white male gaze”.
Don’t let the title mislead you. In the opening scene we see a very inebriated Cassie barhopping and wandering the city streets at night. The viewer doesn’t know why this bright and attractive woman is engaged in such risky, dangerous behavior. This is an extraordinary directorial debut that explores sexual aggression, objectification of women, and the denial of women’s voices.
This is a stomach-churning ride with a lot of venom and dismay that people assigned to be guardians for the most vulnerable may get away with highly irregular, if not criminal behavior. Resources are stretched allowing the court-appointed caregivers to conceal bad acts because they are trusted. They come in and steal under false pretenses and strip the victim of all credibility. And Rosamund Pike’s and Peter Dinklage’s twitchy, angry staggering performances menace one another in a vicious death spiral. Until the very end of I Care a Lot the viewer is treated to unexpected twists and turns, in one traumatic scene after another.
4) Ammonite–Two Women Shedding Their Shells (May 3)
This highly original biopic of a little-known woman scientist highlights the obscurity in which women of renown nevertheless hid in plain sight. Set in the coastal village of Lyme Regis, in 1840s England, this film chronicles the intense relationship between the acclaimed but overlooked fossil hunter and paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and a young affluent woman, Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan). Their friendship transforms both of their lives.
A little-known and highly unlikely story of the black hair care pioneer during turn-of-the-century America, Self-Made recounts Madam C J Walkre, a brilliant entrepreneur, who created thousands of jobs during the worst of the Jim Crow era and became a neighbor of John Rockefeller in upstate New York. No bank loans, no white retail store support, and competition and sexism among the Black male business community presented almost insurmountable obstacles to Madam CJ Walker’s dreams and ambitions. Walker’s story is one of extraordinary grit, cunning and marketing ingenuity, and absolute determination against post-slavery racial and gender oppression.
Navillera in Korean means “like a butterfly.” Sim Deok-chul, a retired mailman, is celebrating his 70th birthday with his wife, three sons and their wives. He has always dreamed of performing “Swan Lake” on stage and now, at his advanced age, is determined to follow his passion after seeing how his friends regret not pursuing the dreams of their youth. Accidentally, he observes a gifted male dancer Lee Chae-rok, practicing for his upcoming ballet competition. This quirky and endearing sleeper mini-series from Korea is a definite winner.
How does a hearing child raised by deaf parents acquire speaking skills, and navigate school with students who do not understand what her life is like straddling two cultures: Deaf and hearing? That is the main theme of Coda, yet laced with humor and the usual teenage angst towards parents. . . and then some.
8) Squid Game–Hunger Games Meets Snowpiercer: Gangnam Style (October 13)
An over-the-top critique of what happens when the powerless are at the mercy of the powerful. The series’ brutality and bloodfest give off a computer-game vibe, where the body count is grotesque but meaningless. This is what Squid Game drives home. I was begrudgingly captivated by Squid Game. It hooks in the voyeur’s curiosity: watching a car-accident, a boxing match, contact sports, “survival” tv, or gladiator-style competition.
“A person dies when he loses his memories.” Sam, a concert pianist, and Tusker, a novelist, travel across England’s Lake District, in their van to visit friends, family and places from their past. Tusker was diagnosed with dementia two years ago, and Sam and Tusker have been partners for over thirty years. Driving along in their van, Sam and Tusker first engage in the familiar banter of any long-married couple who have spent the majority of their lives together. Tusker’s early onset dementia, frightening to both of them but left unsaid, soon has to be acknowledged. Both main characters’ worlds begin to unravel in terrifying ways and the viewer soon realizes that whatever has just happened, the worst is yet to happen.
This series, a Nordic Noir crime thriller, has violent and gruesome serial murders, a workaholic female detective, an initially ineffectual male partner, and a dark and ominous landscape. This is a story concerned with mangled corpses, haunting blood pools, and a weaponization of a childhood arts and crafts project. In 1987 a local sheriff walks into a barn in response to a call that some of the farmer’s cows have escaped. He finds three people brutally murdered, and a fourth seriously injured. Chestnut figures, toothpicks sticking out for hands and feet, are nearby.
How the carefully curated story becomes the reality is the emphatic warning of The Reagans. Beginning in the 1950s, when Reagan first testified in front of Senator McCarthy to support investigating and expelling film industry professionals as communists, we see the former Screen Actor Guild president rewrite the facts of his own life. Scanning the political landscape with her bird-of-prey eyes and instincts, Nancy was a force to be ignored at a politician’s own peril. Nancy’s stagecraft is in play when announcing her husband’s presidency in Philadelphia, Mississippi –the notorious site of a Ku Klux Klan massacre. The viewer sees Reagan’s dog whistle raise the attention of those who will be his first believers.
A devastating, disquieting journey into the horrors of dementia, both for the afflicted and for those who are close to the afflicted. The viewer is invited into a breathtaking and wrenching look at advancing dementia through both the individual frightened by what is happening and to the no-less-terrified family and caregivers. Watching a loved one die is always harrowing, but dementia makes it especially so, as the patient not only slips away mentally, but lashes out in angry and hurtful ways as they do so. The Father breaks new ground on this difficult subject.
We see the endurance of a young Mauritanian, Mohamedou being held in Guantanamo Bay after 9/11. The legal drama The Mauritaniandemonstrates the lawyer’s duty to represent a client, regardless of doubt in his innocence, and whether winning at all costs is what a justice system should condone. after going to trial, there is a surprising turn of events. Definitely worth watching for a better understanding of the existence and ostensible justification for Guantanamo Bay. A painful reminder that Gitmo still prevails, twenty years after 9/11, with detainees who have never been charged.
Trying to put more excitement into their marriage, Nadja and David, a young doctor and engineer, decide to go on a camping trip in a remote forest in Sweden, fantasizing that it will be romantic, gazing at the Northern Lights with their adorable dog. The impending “excitement” is not exactly what they bargained for, however. Stalked by an unseen enemy, they become the targets of a hellish nightmare. Red Dot is an intense psychological thriller.
All three main characters have pasts which haunt them and each other. As their damaged psyches unravel their secrets to each other, more questions arise: Is Karen/Emma being truthful when she claims she doesn’t know about the murders? Is there a natural tendency to gaslight and condemn women whose lovers are criminals, guilty by association? Can a brutal serial killer actually be capable of redemption? And when does a mother’s obsessive quest for a missing child become pathological?
The Underground Railroad, in the mid-1800s, was actually a network of safe houses and routes from the southern US up into Canada– with other routes to Mexico (which had abolished slavery decades earlier). The book and film re-imagine these escape routes and safe havens as an actual train running underground to assist runaway slaves in their escape from their plantation owners.
In this merciless seesaw of harrowing grief, we witness the main character, policewoman Mare Sheehan– and all those impacted by her son’s death–lose him a thousand times in a thousand ways. As a mother, a source of her agony is the realization that she cannot protect her children. The multiple characters demand focus and attention to detail in order to understand the mystery and the jaw-dropping final scene.
Set in London in the 1970s, Cruella focuses on the backstory of the woman who becomes Cruella DeVil, the villain in the beloved children’s story, 101 Dalmatians. This Disney film is the origin story of Cruella DeVil. Beautifully costumed, creatively re-interpreting characters from the much-loved two previous 101 Dalmatiansfilms, we are treated to a prequel like none this reviewer ever expected.
DCI Cassie Stuart is a brilliant sleuth. She is a master at understanding the connection between good intentions on one hand and bad actions on the other. Despite that clear-headed detective’s acumen, will the darkest corners of Cassie’s psyche overwhelm her? She is frequently at the mercy of her emotional tides, regretting her impulsive responses.
The title character is a corpse lying on a slab prepared for a post-mortem analysis–a “silent witness” providing evidence of a crime, suicide, or death by natural causes. Stories untold, things unsaid. The crimes range from human trafficking to biological weapons, drug cartels, organized crime, corporate skullduggery, mental illness, the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the occasional insurance scam or accident. The most insignificant anatomical anomaly or physical trace of soil or insect can indicate whether a death is a suicide or a homicide, an accident or not.
Although Sandra O’Connor graduated at the top of her Stanford Law School class (one of only four female students), no law firms interviewed her. While her fellow classmate and future husband, John O’Connor, thrived in a successful law firm, Sandra was resigned to set up her own law office to offer her legal services to anyone who entered on a walk-in basis: mostly bankruptcy and small claims clients. Her riveting–often unexpected– family and career trajectory are explored in this timely biographical portrait.
We see again the still down-and-out “lemon lawyer” Billy McBride (Billy Bob Thornton) take on a giant corporation. This time it is an opioid mega-corporation, Zax Pharmaceuticals, and its billionaire CEO). In a fierce and lurid courtroom battle in San Francisco (eerily conjuring the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma in recent headlines), will McBride prevail?
In 2014 Theranos is a startup in blood-testing technology. Filmed at Theranos’s spectacular Silicon Valley headquarters in Palo Alto, The Inventor follows founder, Elizabeth Holmes, hailed as the youngest self-made female billionaire. With a multi-billion-dollar valuation, and a recent $400 million investment from many Trump supporters (the Waltons, Betsy DeVos, Murdoch) as well as other luminaries with gravitas–George Shultz and Henry Kissinger (both former Secretaries of State), General James Mattis, and a stable of others, Theranos is revealed to have been a massive con game, with its pending collapse looming just around the corner.
Police chief Del Harris (Jeff Daniels), struggles with his past. He is an Army combat veteran with PTSD, investigating the murder of a fellow police officer. Billy Poe, son of the woman he loves, is suspected of the murder. In the opening scene, we see the waste and decay in Buell, Pennsylvania–a “flyover” town outside Pittsburgh. The residents and community are on the margins of life. Two teenagers, Billy Poe and his best friend, Isaac English, are seen running from the murder scene, the abandoned steel mill. Isaac flees and Billy is left to maneuver the police and prison system.
From the point of view of Monica Lewinsky, a naive twenty-two year old intern, we witness her self-destructive infatuation with a charismatic president. There are more than several awful and illegal actions taken against Monica: interrogation in a hotel room by the FBI without legal counsel present; threats by Bill Clinton’s staff; media “slut-shaming” for her testimony–all make Impeachment a compelling narrative presenting facts and corrupt behavior not well-known.
Dopesick” refers to the excruciating withdrawal from OxyContin and this mini-series depicts withdrawals in visceral detail where most other shows only touch the periphery. Multibillion-dollar Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family are the true drug cartel behind America’s opioid crisis. The Sacklers’ avoid culpability and accountability for years by paying relatively low million-dollar fines while retaining billions as they continued to increase distribution of the drug. The drug lords here, like Walter White in “Breaking Bad”, are quite aware of the horrific consequences of their business. Dopesick exposes the systemic manipulation of people for profit.
Unconditional love–are there limits? A highly respected recently widowed New Orleans judge, Michael Desiato is known for his fair and impartial sentencing of young criminals. But the judge gets personal to protect his teenage son, Adam, from the consequences of his reckless actions. Time after time the judge tries to use some moral principle to justify bad acts, and it all goes horribly wrong.
Can true love be analyzed and dissected by science? Entrepreneur Rebecca Webb uses her own husband as proof that genetic matchmaking works. Her own match is purportedly the perfect soulmate identified through algorithms and DNA analysis. Her message: “You’re not going to end up alone.”As CEO of the start-up MatchDNA, Rebecca becomes unimaginably wealthy manipulating the human desire to find one’s perfect match. Through scientific datamining, MatchDNA promises to shortcut all dating disappointments.
The English department is not at all popular with students. Declining enrollments are triggering budget cuts and forced early retirement on the old white professors who never thought of sexism and racism. Ji-Yoon is highly motivated to bring excitement to teaching, modernize the curriculum, and work toward greater diversity. But the old-school profs will have none of it. Sandra Oh’s Ji-Yoon, without over-the-top theatrics, has perfect comedic timing in her attempts to balance what is impossibly askew.
Loosely based upon the history of tribal and internecine warfare between various factions of Saxons and Danes (=Vikings), \a Saxon aristocratic boy named Osbert, is taken after his father and older brother are slain by Danes. Only his ruthless uncle survives and robs him of his birthright. The year is 866. Renamed Uhtred and, along with a little Saxon girl, Brida, the two children are taken as slaves and raised by the powerful but loving Earl Ragnar in Danish Northumbria. Time passes and The Last Kingdom follows the now determined warrior Uhtred (newcomer Alexander Dreymon) to reclaim Bebbanburg and seek revenge on his uncle.