I’m Your Woman (Julia Hart, 2020). Set in the nineteen-seventies, I’m Your Woman casts Rachel Brosnahan as Jean, whose small-time-crook husband (Bill Heck) goes missing not long after he presents her with a baby acquired under mysterious circumstances. For their safety, Jean and the child are squired away from their comfortable home to live a new life on the run. Director Julia Hart (who is also co-credited on the screenplay) brings smart, lean storytelling to the film, judiciously employing the neo-noir trappings. She has a particular panache for understated conflict that lends the material an air of battered accuracy that recalls the grit-and-grime cinema of the era in which the film is set. Brosnahan is very good in the lead role, conveying that discomfort and dawning confidence of a person who was expecting that self-sufficiency wasn’t an attribute she’d be needing in her life.
The Vast of Night (Andrew Patterson, 2020). Director Andrew Patterson doesn’t disguise his influences in The Vast of Night, making an explicit reference to the twisty, sci-fi-dappled mind-spinners that sliced through the static in the early days of television. In the nineteen-fifties, a radio DJ (Jake Horowitz) and a teenaged switchboard operator (Sierra McCormick, who’s terrific) stumble upon a spooky conspiracy that clears its proverbial throat with some screechy noises over the phone lines. The screenplay, co-credited to James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, is smart and snappy, and Patterson films it with vivacious style. Especially in the first half of the film, The Vast of Night suggests what the earliest films of the Coen brothers would have been like had they been more influenced by Rod Serling than Howard Hawks.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe, 2020). Part of Denzel Washington’s dedicated effort to bring all of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle plays to the screen, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom depicts a particular tumultuous daylong recording session undertaken by blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her band, including a hotshot young trumpet player named Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman). Washington produced the film, but it’s a shame he didn’t also direct since his behind-the-camera efforts on the earlier adaptation Fences demonstrated an admirable skill for honoring the sanctity of the original play while giving the material weight as a movie. Instead, George C. Wolfe shapes the film awkwardly, showing a surprising uncertainty in the storytelling rhythms, interweaving stories in ways that disrupt narrative momentum and veering between staid shots and visual fuss. (A legendary stage director, Wolfe’s filmography is decidedly less impressive.) What can’t be undercut is the production’s strength as a showcase for the actors, with Davis and Boseman predictably delivering knockout performances.