We all know what kind of year 2020 has been, so let’s start with a bit of good news: There are some genuinely terrific movies headed our way this holiday season. And, perhaps more bittersweet, your options for viewing those movies at home are greater than ever. In the following conversation, Times critic Justin Chang and columnist Glenn Whipp highlight some of the upcoming releases most worth anticipating, and celebrate a few other reasons to be optimistic as the year heads toward its finish line.
WHIPP: The movie world, like everything else on this planet, has been in limbo for most of 2020. Last year at this time, audiences packed theaters for “Frozen 2,” breaking all kinds of box office records in the process. You could also buy a ticket for “Knives Out,” “Ford v. Ferrari” and “Queen & Slim.” Bong Joon Ho’s future best picture winner, “Parasite,” was making waves. Hell, “Waves” was making waves, or, at least, some modest swells. It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Holiday moviegoing was in full swing.
Thanksgiving this year will be markedly different. Theaters are closed in most places. And even if you could go to the movies (and I still haven’t been since February), the pickings are slim. Which means that after Thanksgiving dinner with our immediate families or our quarantine pods, we won’t be taking that brisk walk from the car to the multiplex, the cold air (here in Southern California, it might even dip below 50!) blowing through the tryptophan as we debate between the latest Disney or Pixar animated offering and whatever family holiday bauble might be playing. It might not even be all that good. But as long as we’re out of the house and away from any possibility that someone might stumble across “Love Actually” on TV, all is right in my world.
But now we’re going to be stuck at home. Which means there’s real, imminent danger that I’m going to be unable to escape that glob of glib British whimsy when it starts airing round the clock. (Is there a cut of “Love Actually” on YouTube that edits out every exhausting subplot but keeps the Bill Nighy bits?) Or are there fresh alternatives available without having to delve into the Ghosts of Christmases Past, because I’m not really feeling “It’s a Wonderful Life” right now, Justin. Help me, my friend. What is going to be playing in your home this week?
CHANG: Oh, Glenn, I do enjoy a nice lump of anti-“Love Actually” coal. And while I think I would happily watch a Nighy-only cut (that’d be a delightful, what, 20 minutes?), it probably would be wiser to just curl up on the couch with a mug of hot chocolate and watch, y’know, an actually good movie from start to finish. I’m not entirely sure what’ll be in my rotation this week, though as I will never tire of noting, my year simply isn’t complete without a holiday helping of “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Given what a strange, temporal blur this year has been, how many months seem to have passed in this unending season of lockdown, Vincente Minnelli’s musical about a family weathering the passing seasons in the comfort of their own home sounds more apropos than ever.
There will, of course, be some interesting new movies on offer, and while it won’t be the same watching them at home rather than in a theater, I find myself feeling thankful for their mere existence. A movie lover could certainly do worse this season than cue up “Citizen Kane” for the umpteenth time (never bad advice!) and then dive deep into “Mank,” David Fincher’s coolly dazzling drama about the origins of that 1941 classic; it begins streaming Dec. 4 on Netflix. You mentioned Disney and Pixar animation, Glenn, and on that front, at least, we won’t be let down: Pete Docter’s “Soul,” which was originally intended to open over the summer, will now be made available Christmas Day for Disney+ subscribers.
There are other soon-to-stream titles too, which may not have the same name recognition but will be no less accessible and worthy of attention. I’m thinking especially of “I’m Your Woman,” Julia Hart’s smart, absorbing, quietly subversive ’70s crime picture, which features a terrific performance from Rachel Brosnahan and begins playing Dec. 11 on Amazon Prime. I’m also thinking of “Another Round,” Thomas Vinterberg’s sparkling dramedy, which stars Mads Mikkelsen as one of four buddies who set out to redefine high-functioning alcoholism. It hits video on demand Dec. 18 through Samuel Goldwyn Films and is just the thing to spike your eggnog with this season.
WHIPP: With all the streaming services and VOD options, I feel like everyone needs to make a list and, yes, check it twice. Subscription services should be a great holiday gift this year. “Soul” alone is worth a Disney+ sign-up. I hesitate to oversell this new Pixar film — the only things I really want to emphasize right now are democracy, the integrity of the 2020 election and the value of a good, homemade pumpkin pie — but the ways that “Soul” sweetly examines the meaning of human existence left me both gutted and delighted. In other words, it’s a top-tier Pixar offering, which is no surprise as Docter has made many of the studio’s most ambitious movies (“Monsters, Inc.,” “Up,” “Inside Out”).
“Soul” is also notable for being Pixar’s first Black-led feature, a bit of history-making that’s also present in Netflix’s holiday musical “Jingle Jangle,” which writer-director David E. Talbert made for his son so he could see a Christmas movie full of magic and wonder starring people of color. I know people who’ve already watched it a dozen times. These are also people who broke out their Christmas decorations the day after Halloween — not that I’m judging. This year, you take your comfort and joy wherever you can find it.
You mentioned “I’m Your Woman,” Justin, one of many similarly titled films worthy of notice. There’s “Promising Young Woman,” the sly revenge thriller that premiered at Sundance that marked Emerald Fennell’s auspicious feature directorial debut and served as a superb showcase for star Carey Mulligan. It opens in theaters on Christmas, in whatever form that might take, but will likely be available on demand early in January. There’s “Pieces of a Woman,” a gut-wrenching portrait of loss and rebirth starring Vanessa Kirby that will be available on Netflix on Jan. 7. You could also watch “I Am Woman,” a moving portrait of Helen Reddy and her feminist anthem, on Netflix.
The preponderance of female-driven movies is one thing I’m thankful to see this year. I’m reluctant to say studios have turned a corner in terms of gender representation, given Hollywood’s rotten history, but, to quote dear Helen, the numbers are too big to ignore.
CHANG: And of course, we can’t forget about “Wonder Woman 1984,” an already much-postponed Warner Bros. tentpole that will now be released simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max on Christmas Day. A Solomonic compromise, I guess, though one that makes me shudder with COVID-19 cases surging horrifically across the country. There aren’t too many other big studio offerings with theatrical dates still on the calendar for 2020, besides Universal’s long-gestating animated sequel “The Croods: A New Age,” which was already delayed numerous times before the pandemic broke out. With both the pandemic and your apt musings on democracy on my mind, I know I’m not the only one who’s ready for a new age.
Or, you know, a leap into the great beyond. I’m as reluctant as you are, Glenn, to say too much about “Soul” at this point; given the relative slimness of this holiday movie season, unwrapping one of its shiniest packages right now seems a bit premature. But coming at the end of a year of unprecedented challenges, Docter’s movie — originally set to be shown on one of the world’s great cinema screens in Cannes months ago — certainly feels like a well-timed gift for homebound moviegoers. It’s a story about art, empathy and the afterlife that lifts its narrative and thematic cues from the jazz music that is its protagonist’s all-consuming passion. A fitting movie for a year in which we’ve all contemplated the fragility of life — and the importance of learning to improvise.
“Soul” was co-directed and co-written by Kemp Powers, who’s having quite the year: “One Night in Miami,” directed by Regina King and adapted by Powers from his own stage play, will be available for streaming Jan. 15. Make it a double bill: The two films could scarcely be more different, and yet “One Night in Miami” grapples in its own way with the complexities of Black identity, ambition and art-making. And so, for that matter, does another stage-to-screen transplant, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which begins streaming Dec. 18 on Netflix. Directed by George C. Wolfe and adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson from the August Wilson play, it features a knockout cast that includes Viola Davis, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman and the late Chadwick Boseman in a terrific, devastating final performance.
WHIPP: I’ll second that Kemp Powers double feature. He’s a sure bet to pull off the rare feat of earning Oscar nominations for both original and adapted screenplay in the same year, and there will be no asterisk attached to the accomplishment. “Soul” and “One Night in Miami” offer, in distinct ways, thoughtful and vibrant insights into the human experience. We’ve lamented the loss of theatrical moviegoing more than once this year, Justin, but there’s upside in accessibility. I’d hope people homebound for the holidays (and beyond) will discover the rich pleasures in both these films.
Though ... Christmas is a month away. Who knows what humbug awaits us between now and then? But I would like to take a moment from downsizing my Thanksgiving side-dish recipes and bring a little of Tiny Tim’s defiant optimism to the fore. While we have no idea what moviegoing will look like next year or how many more times the upcoming Bond film will change its release date, we can take solace in the fact that we’ll have a president who will support the arts instead of actively trying to slash their funding, one who reads books instead of “passages” and “areas,” one who can celebrate a movie from another country winning the best picture Oscar and not lament the good ol’ days when Hollywood reveled in white supremacy mythmaking (“Can we get like ‘Gone with the Wind’ back, please?”).
Art enlightens. Art offers hope. Art engenders empathy. Right now, Justin, I’m thankful for at least the promise that there might be a bit more poetry in our lives in the coming year.
CHANG: Congratulations, Glenn. You’ve just ensured a flood of reader emails berating us for injecting politics into the conversation and wondering why the hell we can’t just stick to the movies. As if movies were not, like all art forms, inherently political. As if the Trump administration’s reckless downplaying of the pandemic — a downplaying that continues even now, as the numbers spike — were not a huge part of the reason why the sensible among us will be staying home for the holidays in the first place. And in one small way, I’m sure that’ll be a blessing: Just think how much easier it’ll be to hit the mute button on your virtual Thanksgiving dinner rather than having to tell off your racist uncle in person.
All of which is to say, Glenn, that I’m thankful too, in spite of everything, and I’m especially thankful for an incoming president who will certainly do more for the arts, even by simply acknowledging their importance, than the current White House occupant has done in the past four years. I mean, I’m not expecting President-elect Biden to crank out an annual list of favorite movies the way President Obama did; God knows he’ll have his hands full with more important things. But what will the movie industry look like under the overall stewardship of a Biden administration? Will there be stimulus relief for multiplex chains and art-house cinemas, allowing them to remain closed (as they should) until the pandemic is under control? Will the industry be constructively enlisted to help promote a nationwide mask-wearing campaign? Will the next best picture winner be screened at the White House, rather than ridiculed unseen?
Who knows, Glenn. Those are just a few items on my wish list in this season of hope and renewal, when I know “Happy New Year” will mean more to some of us than it ever, ever has. And with that, I must be off, as my “Love Actually” excerpts await. Happy holidays to all, and to all a good Nighy!
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