A couple weeks ago we took note of 90-year-old Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary City Hall. Its four-and-a-half hours attempted a full measure of about Boston’s civic governmental operations, and in particular the doings of mayor Marty Walsh, who appeared to be performing his job for the benefit of citizens in a particularly inclusive, hands-on, and progressive way.
More narrowly focused is David Osit’s new Mayor, which takes just under 90 minutes to provide a glimpse of someone else in that elected-official role. Musa Hadid, seen in his second term, is likewise perpetually behind schedule, dealing with big issues and petty complaints, almost always admirably composed under any degree of pressure. His city is smaller, so you might suppose his task easier.
But Hadid is the mayor of Ramallah, the de facto capital of Palestine, whose patch of earth is frequently raided by Israeli soldiers on any pretext (“It’s just about humiliating us,” he sighs), and is ringed by hostile Israeli settlements that are illegal by international law. Ramallah doesn’t even have its own sewage treatment plant because (surprise!) that’s one more thing the Israeli government won’t yet allow, and quite possibly never will.
You think your job is hard? Walk a mile in this man’s shoes. He probably can’t walk that far himself, anyway—most citizens here (even Christian ones like the mayor) aren’t allowed to visit the sea they can spy from their windows, or nearby Jerusalem. Yet at first glance, Hadid’s burg seems a perfectly normal, even pleasant and picturesque city. It’s got a downtown shopping district like any other (complete with KFC and Pizza Hut), and the usual lineup of mostly-for-kids Christmas events his office must orchestrate. There are also discussions about promotional “branding,” and the positive PR of a determinedly apolitical (yet inevitably semi-political nonetheless) visit from Prince William.
On the other hand… well, there’s a lot on the other hand. Even before the White House’s malicious decision to move its Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to contested Jerusalem—yet another slap at Palestinians—ignites protests and tensions anew, Hadid faces crises of varying degree every single day. Surrounding settlers deliberately poison groundwater; infrastructure is in a state of constant breakdown; soldiers might be firing within a block or so of his car. “I feel jealous when I visit other cities. There’s so much they can do that we can’t,” he says, drastically understating matters as usual. That tactic makes sense, because as he notes elsewhere (as one more emergency strikes), “It’s happening whether we freak out or not.”
Easily one of the best documentaries of the year, Mayor straddles political commentary, verite reportage, poetry and absurdism with considerable aplomb. The “you can’t make this shit up” apex is arrived at when Hadid gets literally trapped at City Hall one night as the Israeli Army overruns downtown, raiding businesses to seize surveillance footage in search of a supposed shooter. When the tide finally turns, and enraged citizens chase the soldiers away by throwing rocks, the decorative musical fountain he’s just opened in a central square gets damaged in the melee. We may not know whether to laugh or cry (though the use of teargas definitely tips that scale), but this mayor is already planning the next day’s cleanup. Mayor is playing virtual cinemas including the Roxie and Rafael.
The many weirdnesses of 2020 (including severe curtailing of theatrical releases) have thrown much confusion into the annual awards-giving game. But that doesn’t mean movies aren’t being released to target “awards season” (i.e. now) voters and tastemakers anyway. Several interesting dramas in that vein have thus just become available, most well after their festival premieres, and in some cases delayed from distribution originally planned for earlier months:
This latest from writer-director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt, The Celebration) and co-scenarist Tobias Lindholm (A Hijacking, A War) is the sort of movie you might term “Oscar bait” if it weren’t Danish—which means it may not tempt many Oscar nominations beyond the Foreign Language Feature one. Mads Mikkelsen, one of the screen’s best actors in any tongue, plays a small-town schoolteacher with a wife, two sons, and a comfortable life. But the thrill is gone, and when Martin’s students complain about his “indifference,” he’s worried enough to ask that wife (Maria Bonnevie as Anika) “Have I become boring?” Her answer isn’t terribly reassuring.
At a colleague’s 40th birthday party that turns into an inhibitions-freeing bacchanal, Martin and three fellow profs get wind of a dangerously tempting idea: Testing a theory that humans are born with a blood alcohol level “too low,” and if that level is upped, they will become more “relaxed, poised, musical, open, courageous.” Put into action, this secret, rather naughty and definitely against-the-school-rules experiment really does seem to work like a charm…at first. In the classroom and at home, Martin rediscovers the “self-confidence and joy” he once had, his pals likewise. But needless to say, booze is one good thing you can very easily have too much of. As they ramp up their “dosage,” its liberating effects turns destructive.
Vinterberg is a very skillful filmmaker, but one senses he’s becoming enough of a Danish cultural institution (in a way very different from perpetual misanthrope Lars von Trier) that every movie now must overreach a bit—aiming for “all of life in two hours” when a little less of it might seem less contrived. Still, Mikkelsen and everyone else here are first-rate, and the somewhat gimmickry premise is worked out in a deft balance of the humorous, tragic, and affirming. For better and for worse, Another Round (simply called Druk or “drunk” in Denmark) is, indeed, exactly the kind of movie that wins Oscars. It’s opening in virtual cinemas (including CinemaSF and the Rafael) today, then reaches general digital platforms Dec. 18.
Ditto this warm and fuzzy rare directorial feature from Alan Ball, who’s better known as the creator of TV series Six Feet Under and True Blood, as well as American Beauty’s screenwriter. It’s a crowd-pleasing seriocomedy set in the early ’70s, with Sophia Lillis as a brainy teen whose conservative, patriarchal South Carolina family provides few allies, save favorite uncle Frank (Paul Bettany). He’s “smart and funny and considerate”—qualities no one else hereabouts seems to appreciate, which is probably why he moved to NYC.
When she lands there as a freshman at NYU (where he teaches), she’s still naive enough to be shocked when a classmate points out that Uncle Frank is a big ol’ ‘mo. His alleged “wife” was just a ruse to cover the existence of an actual, rather flaming Saudi-emigre boyfriend (Peter Macdissi). Once Frank and niece must return “home” due to a family death, the North/South sociocultural rift becomes painfully obvious.
This combo coming-ol-age/coming-out tale ultimately goes a bit over-the-top in terms of tearjerking melodrama, which has a painfully retro “tragic homosexual” tinge. But it’s expertly done, with a fine performance from the reliable, underrated Bettany keeping things emotionally grounded. Uncle Frank is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Contrastingly very indie-idiosyncratic, perhaps to a mannered fault, is this nonetheless stimulatingly adventurous construct from writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine. Aubrey Plaza plays Allison, a familiarly neurotic filmmaker hoping to dent her writer’s block via a guest rental in the country from a married couple (Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon) who’ve recently moved here from Brooklyn. But her provocative presence, their first experiment with Airbnb-style hosting, worries the holes in their own already-fraying relationship.
That dynamic rapidly escalates towards crisis when Black Bear suddenly shifts gears, and recasts these characters in new roles—or rather, reveals them as having been role-playing. I don’t want to spoil the ways in which Levine seeks to mess with our minds, beyond to say that they are at once clever and frustrating, because this tricky, very meta puzzle box of a film plays a game with no apparent resolution, or even “point.”
It may work best if you’ve actually worked on a film (or theater) production yourself. But if I found it a wee tad too insiderish and self-indulgent in the end, others at Black Bear’s Sundance premiere found it bracing. There’s no question Levine knows exactly what he’s doing (even if you’re not sure what that is), and that his actors are very adept in going with his unpredictable flow.
As low-key and earnest as Bear is complicatedly ambivalent, Zeina Durra’s terse drama has the always intriguing Andrea Riseborough as Hana, a woman staying in a luxury hotel in the titular ancient Egyptian city. Seemingly just to fill her days, she tours enchanting tourist spots—at one of which we discover she’s a doctor, when she comes to the aid of a sightseer who’s fainted.
Eventually she runs into Sultan (Karim Saleh), an archaeologist she once worked and was romantically involved with. He clearly wants to rekindle their relationship, but she’s distracted, reluctant. He’s shocked that she no longer remembers things they did and places they went together. But we gradually realize that Hana, who’s just returned from a stint as a surgeon at a trauma unit on the Jordan-Syria border, now survives by blotting things out. She’s able to do the war zone work she does by constantly wiping her mental whiteboard clean.
Luxor (currently streaming via Rafael@Home) doesn’t spell out the horrors she’s seen or experienced, but its quietude is meaningful enough that we can imagine. Sometimes a little meandering, this lovely (visually and otherwise) tale works as a moment of meditative stillness, a passing shelter against global chaos—chaos that can be ignored or denied for a time, yet which never goes away.