And so this cumbersome, erratic movie year comes to a close. 2019 has had its share of unassailable masterworks, but it’s also had more than its share of soul-crushing mediocrity. And the last month looks to have more of both, though in the case of one particular motion picture with digital fur technology, my expectations are definitely not for something as pedestrian as mediocrity.
A quintessential first weekend in December: one failed Oscar bid and one movie that is getting buried as deep as the distributor can manage. The burial is for PLAYMOBIL: The Movie, which has been bumped to this terrible spot from an equally dismal Labor Day release date. The Oscar bid-that-wasn’t is that of The Aeronauts, in which the uncharismatic stars of The Theory of Everything re-team to go up in a hot air balloon.
Happily, there some limited foreign films that give me hope: both of them new works by European woman directors that I’ve greatly enjoyed in the past, as it happens. Jessica Hausner is dipping her toes into the English language for the first time with Little Joe – not always a good sign, but I’m hopeful that her actors will be able to keep her on the straight and true. Céline Sciamma, meanwhile, has the costume drama lesbian love story Portrait of a Lady on Fire, about which I feel as much confidence as I’ve felt about any movie coming out in the last third of the year, and I have rave reviews from friends and colleagues to back up that confidence.
The month’s second-biggest tentpole shows up to make as much money as it can before getting completely obliterated by the biggest: Jumanji: The Next Level looks like a (literally) re-skinned version of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, but I am not made of stone. If you tell me that Dwayne Johnson is playing Danny DeVito and Kevin Hart is playing Danny Glover, I am not going to tell you no. We all have our dubious, shallow pleasures, and this sounds extremely much in line with mine.
Very much not in line with my shallow pleasures: a third version of Black Christmas, this one with a PG-13 rating attached. PG-13 slashers are the fucking Cool-Whip of horror cinema, all the lousy writing with none of the compensatory gore, and I think it’s hilarious in a disgustingly cynical way that the director is claiming this was a moral choice to allow more teen girls to see the film and appreciate its message of sisterhood. Because as we all know, the R ratings have made it historically impossible for teenagers to see slasher movies, good Christ. Lastly among the wide releases: Clint Eastwood with yet another true story of modern American everyday heroism, Richard Jewell, though just based on the footage in the trailer, this looks way better than most of his 2010s output.
In limited release, a couple of films with no meaningful industry awards prospects that are probably just hoping to show up on a bunch of critics’ lists: Uncut Gems, the latest story of squalid New York life from the Safdie brothers, and A Hidden Life, the latest story of people in fields delivering voice-over about spirituality from Terrence Malick. Snark aside, it’s the only film other than the Sciamma that I’m unabashedly, unironically excited for this month.
As for ironic excitement, well. The part of me that loves messy, disgusting trainwrecks – it is an extremely large part – is positively vibrating with excitement for the new feature film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s deranged, coke-fueled ballet musical Cats. It’s already a show that has no business whatsoever existing, let alone being popular; and the idea that you could somehow make a movie out of stage material that is barely a narrative and almost exclusively about dancing is almost as astonishing as the decision to make a bunch of T.S. Eliot’s children’s poem into a major Broadway production was in the first place. But then! Deciding the way to do this was by having humans play the cats as some kind of psychotic, Lovecraftian hybrid of the two species? Humanoid posture but felid movements? Oh my yes, we’re getting there. And, instead of the cheesy but charming costumes of the show, paint the whole cast in inexplicably bad-looking CGI that makes them all look like they’ve suffered chemical burning, rather than being “furry”? And leaving them with completely normal human-looking faces except that they’re sheathed in that same CGI, like too much pancake makeup? I am already committed to seeing it in theaters three times with three different friend groups, and I might very well do a fourth one, just for me.
The rest of you can be as excited for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker as you want. I know how my weekend is going.
Also, the rest of you can be as excited for Bombshell as you want – that would be the ripped-from-the-headlines story about sexual harassment from the director of Austin Powers and Meet the Fockers, that Bombshell – but I somehow do not imagine that you actually are.
Christmas Day brings the familiest of all beloved literary properties: the latest version of Little Women, making a late bid for Oscars and the love of every single teen girl in the United States. I have my doubts that it will be anything particularly special – to date, I have not been interested in buying anything that writer-director Greta Gerwig has tried to sell me – but it admittedly has an absolutely irreproachable cast.
The other big family option is another burial for a film that got ripped out of the schedule when Disney bought Fox and in the process acquired a third animation studio, Blue Sky. This is one Spies in Disguise, a movie whose teaser trailer filled me with a kind of demented pleasure – it suggests the plot is no more nor less than “Will Smith just straight-up becomes a bird” – and which has lost more and more of my interest with every subsequent bit of advertising. There also appears to only be one spy in disguise.
If those aren’t to your taste, there’s some merry Christmas fun to be had in the limited release. For what says “Christmas” more than an unblinking wallow in the trench warfare hell of World War I, as 1917 is offering? Surely, it must be a reckoning with America’s history of racial injustice centered on black men waiting to be executed for crimes they didn’t commit, in Just Mercy! Ho ho ho, everybody!
The limited release Clemency sounds pretty message movie-ish, but look, you tell me that Alfre Woodard is giving the best performance of her career, you’ve got me there opening night.