This time last year, the most pressing question in the film world was: “Exactly how bad is Cats?” Whereas now my response might be: “Cats? In a cinema? Sign me up!” Most of this year’s Christmas releases will debut on streaming platforms, with big-screen showings in some cases, though thankfully only one of these films has the stink of the litter tray about it. (Clue: it features James Corden, who also starred in… Cats. The man’s a jinx.)
I can’t vouch for Wonder Woman 1984, which hadn’t been shown to press at the time of writing (it gets a cinema-only launch on 16 December), but most other new movies are dominated by music. Jazz rules in the Pixar animation Soul (25 December, Disney+), where Joe (Jamie Foxx), a music teacher who has all but given up on his performing dreams, lands a last-minute club gig. On the same day, he falls down a manhole and ends up in the Great Beyond, still wearing his pork pie hat but now a pale blue ghost of his former self. Accompanied by a doughy-looking, as-yet-unborn soul (Tina Fey), Joe sets out to re-enter his body, which is lying unconscious in a hospital bed. “I’m afraid that if I die today, my life will have amounted to nothing,” he says.
Having transformed a child’s mental health struggles into a madcap yet melancholy adventure with Inside Out, the director Pete Docter now makes merry with a midlife crisis. Soul has some of the earlier film’s tendency towards over-complication; the afterlife, staffed here by luminous cubist squiggles, suffers from some rather laborious world-building. Once Joe is back on terra firma, however, Soul takes off. New York’s humid bustle, from streets to subway cars to a joyfully rowdy barbershop, is sublimely rendered; the colour palette is rapturously autumnal, the leaves glowing orange before they crinkle and fall.
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Most of the script’s ideas are recycled – or rather, reincarnated – from A Matter of Life and Death and All of Me, but Soul has its own visual elegance, and an appealing line in pet-based humour. I’ll treasure the image of the sprawling feline cat-spreading in its subway seat more than I will the “life’s what you make it” message, or the vocal contributions of Graham Norton and Richard Ayoade, which introduce notes of smugness into the Pixar soundscape.
Lady sings the blues in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (18 December, Netflix). Adapted from August Wilson’s play, this chamber-piece imagines a 1920s Chicago recording session by the mighty Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), all belligerence and blusher, her voice the only bargaining chip she has in the face of white capitalism. In his final role, the late Chadwick Boseman plays her twitchy trumpeter, Levee, caught in a cleft stick as he tries to assert himself among his band mates without treading on the boss’s toes. Boseman’s dialogue is often close to the bone (“Death’ll kick your ass, make you wish you’d never been born!”), though his performance, with its exposed nerve endings, would be impressive in any context.
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The Prom (11 December, Netflix) has promise: a clutch of luvvies (Corden, Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman) in search of a cause to boost their profile descend on the town where a teen has been banned from taking her girlfriend to the school dance. The necessary comic culture-clash never materialises, largely because there’s no culture for these showboaters to clash with. Ryan Murphy, creator of Glee, displays zero interest in character, location, pace or atmosphere; he’s more salesman than director. I kept gawping at this prom, with its grisly, charmless show-tunes and crash-bang choreography, and thinking: where’s Carrie and her bucket of blood when you need them?
Far more harmonious to the ears, and eyes, is American Utopia (14 December, various platforms), Spike Lee’s film of David Byrne’s Broadway concert. While no Stop Making Sense, it’s still thrilling to see the singer and his 11-strong band, barefoot in their grey wool suits, romp through Talking Heads favourites, solo hits and a churning Janelle Monae protest song (“Hell You Talmbout”) complete with Black Lives Matter slide show.
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The strongest new films may be the least consoling. County Lines (now streaming, BFI Player) concerns a schoolboy (Conrad Khan) drawn into drug-running by a predatory kingpin (Harris Dickinson). Despite its torn from-the-headlines story, the tone is humane and level-headed. Perhaps the ideal end-of-year choice, though, is Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (24 December, Curzon Home Cinema), a documentary with a salty, Bukowski-esque mood. As a Las Vegas bar prepares to shut up shop, its regulars assemble to pay their respects. Sorrows are drowned, fists waved, advice dispensed; Michael, 58 and pickled, tells a younger drinker: “You gotta get out of here,” while a send-off cake is produced bearing the message “This Place Sucked Anyways”. Isn’t that the perfect goodbye to 2020?
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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special