OPINION | SCREENTIME: Screener season has arrived

Jeffey Wright in Cord Jeffersons “American Fiction,” scheduled to open on Dec. 11.
Jeffey Wright in Cord Jeffersons “American Fiction,” scheduled to open on Dec. 11.


Screener season has started at our house.

This is the time of year when the movie studios begin to send out online links and DVDs of the movies of which they are most proud (or for which they have contractual obligations to do so) to critics and others who vote in various polls and for various awards. So all of a sudden, our viewing options are crazy.

Last night, for instance, we watched Cord Jefferson's directorial debut "American Fiction" (which will be released Dec. 22) and a little bit of George Clooney's "The Boys in the Boat" (which is scheduled to be released Christmas Day). Tonight we might watch Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki's "Fallen Leaves." And Sony Pictures just hit up my email box with eight or nine links to their films. And I've got an UPS alert on my phone telling me to expect three -- no, make that four -- packages from the logistics firm that delivers Academy Award screeners this afternoon.

We've been getting these screeners for a long time -- I remember when they used to send out videocassettes -- but it has never really become routine for me. Though the sad truth is that we receive more movies than we can actually watch before we have to vote -- thankfully one of the organizations whose poll I vote in has pushed their deadline back to Dec. 18 this year; it used to be the first weekend in December -- we do make a conscientious effort to see most movies. This year most of the links seem to be working, and it doesn't seem as difficult to get them from the body of an email to the big screen TV.

So for the next three or four weeks, we're really going to hunker down and watch movies. (Hey, an "Oppenheimer" link just popped up.) And by the middle of December, we might have some kind of idea about what kind of cinematic year 2023 actually was.

Two "big" films are opening theatrically this week, Ridley Scott's "Napoleon," which, in a way, is a movie more than 50 years in the making. After the success of "2001: A Space Odyssey," Stanley Kubrick planned for his next project to be a sprawling epic based on the life of Napoleon (to be played by Jack Nicholson) that explored his military campaigns and his tumultuous relationship with his wife, Joséphine. (A dozen or so years ago, a Hollywood type I know managed to get ahold of the screenplay Kubrick wrote and raved about it -- now anyone can read it online at alexcassun.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/napoleon.pdf .)

Scott's film, that stars the always watchable Joaquin Phoenix, isn't based on that screenplay; which Steven Spielberg is reportedly turning into a seven-part limited series for HBO, but it also splits its attention between the emperor's martial and marital campaigns. And Scott says he has a four-and-a-half hour director's cut of the film that explores more of Empress Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby), which will be released on Apple TV+ sometime down the road.

Elsewhere in this section, find our review.

We also have Disney's "Wish" this week; and the reviews for the animated feature have heretofore been pretty average. But it's Disney, and it's a holiday weekend. What are your going to do?

Also opening this week is Emerald Fennell's "Saltburn," for which I've also just received a screener. Too late to write about it, but see the Washington Post's Ann Hornaday's review elsewhere in this section.

Well, on smaller screens, there are some options:

"The Miracle Club" (PG-13, 1 hour, 30 minutes, Blu-Ray, DVD) Set in 1967, this sentimental, predictable drama follows close friends Lily (Maggie Smith), Eileen (Kathy Bates), and Dolly (Agnes O'Casey) of Ballygar outside Dublin, who win a pilgrimage to the sacred French town of Lourdes. Just before their trip, their friend Chrissie (Laura Linney) arrives in Ballygar for her mother's funeral. The women, including skeptical Chrissie, set out on the journey that they hope will change their lives. Directed by Thaddeus O'Sullivan.

"Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy" (not rated, 1 hour, 41 minutes, On Demand) A scattered, curiously constructed documentary about the gifted yet flawed people behind the darkly difficult 1969 masterpiece "Midnight Cowboy," the first X-rated film to win an Academy Award for best picture. Directed by Nancy Buirski.

"Liberty" (not rated, 1 hour, 42 minutes, On Demand) This award-winning drama draws a parallel between animal welfare, respect for fellow humans and the freedoms we take for granted via a story about an idealistic park guide who holds six strangers captive, treating them like caged animals, to deliver his message of freedom to the world by comparing their mental and physical reactions to those of wild animals struggling in captivity. With Nicholas Michael McGovern, Alice Barrett, Olan Montgomery; directed by Phil De Witte.

"Leo" (PG, 1 hour, 42 minutes Netflix) An animated musical comedy about the last year of elementary school as seen through the eyes of jaded 74-year-old lizard Leo (voice of Adam Sandler), who has been stuck in the same Florida classroom for decades with his terrarium-mate turtle (voice of Bill Burr). When Leo learns he has one year left to live, he plans to escape to experience life on the outside, but instead gets caught up in the problems of his anxious students. With the voices of Cecily Strong, Jason Alexander, Sadie Sandler, Sunny Sandler, Rob Schneider, Jo Koy, Jackie Sandler, Heidi Gardner, Robert Smigel, Nick Swardson, Stephanie Hsu, Nicholas Turturro; directed by Robert Marianetti, Robert Smigel and David Wachtenheim.

"Bolivar" (not rated, 1 hour, 18 minutes, Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, Vudu, Google Play, DVD) This twisty drama, shot during the covid-19 epidemic, concerns Maggie (Nell Teare, who also directs) who, three months after her mother's death, is struggling to navigate a failing marriage, a neglected career as a professor, and a father (Robert Pine) who will not engage with his grief. Compounding the situation is her younger brother Sonny (James Walsh) who shows up on her doorstep, unaware of their mother's death. Over the next week, Maggie walks a fine line between acceptance and becoming a tragedy herself. With Tracie Thoms, Chris Petrovski, Alex Désert.

"Scrapper" (not rated, 1 hour, 24 minutes, On Demand) An unsappy twist on the typical parent-child comedy in which Georgie (Lola Campbell), a 12-year-old who secretly lives alone in a working-class suburb of London following the death of her mother, makes money stealing bikes with her best friend Ali (Alin Uzun) and keeps social workers off her back by pretending to live with an uncle. Out of nowhere, her estranged and emotionally tangled father Jason (Harris Dickinson) arrives, which forces both of them to confront reality. Directed by Charlotte Regan.

"Close to Vermeer" (not rated, 1 hour, 19 minutes, On Demand) Suzanne Raes' insightful documentary follows curators, conservators, collectors, and experts in their mission to shine a new light on the elusive 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, revealing the quiet diplomacy required to display 28 Vermeer paintings at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam for four months, the technical knowledge gained by scanning the paintings layer by layer, and the news that one work may not be by Vermeer after all.

"Mister Organ" (not rated, 1 hour, 36 minutes, On Demand) A sinister, darkly humorous and sometimes excruciating documentary about a three-year psychological warfare battle in which journalist and filmmaker David Farrier becomes fascinated by the late-night antics of a narcissistic and completely rogue wheel clamper in New Zealand.

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