Weird year, right?
Silver lining: Midwest Film Journal did its best numbers ever, and I didn’t even have to piss off Guatemalan DCEU fans to do it.
We published 13 new commentary series:
- All We Do is Vin
- The Cat Takes the Screen with Mr. Dossey
- Deck the Gyllenhaals
- Dog Days of Summer with Mr. Ringenberg
- Endless Summer
- Hanks for Nothing, Tom
- Hanks for Everything, Tom
- Happy Valley
- Keanu World Order
- My Guy
- Oscar Gold
- Serial Consumer
- Tilda Break of Dawn
We continued some ongoing series:
Nick resurrected the Class Of column, looking at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversaries.
In lieu of an actual summer blockbuster season, we created the Endless Summer blockbuster tournaments — for which we had a 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s edition. They proved popular enough that we just finished up a Fall Blockbuster Tournament series for each decade. And we’re moving on to the Winter / Spring series and a few more knock-down drag-out box-office Battle Royale tournaments next year.
And collectively, Midwest Film Journal posted more than 100 movie reviews in an “off-year,” which is pretty cool. Quite a few good new movies this year!
So, as always, thank you for everyone who contributed. It’s been a wonderful year at Midwest Film Journal.
My Top 9:
Look. I’m missing a lot of movies regarded as the year’s best on my list. I don’t care. A lot of those are overrated anyway. Prime cuts off a rotten calf. These are the 9 films that meant to most to me this year, in a year where viewing movies was mostly a solitary experience behind my computer screen.
The Twentieth Century
Biopics are inherently hagiographic. It’s the nature of the form. Political biopics tenfold; the art of being a politician is, after all, selling yourself and your ideas with narratives mostly spun from half-truths and vague ideations. Our greatest political satirist is Armando Iannucci (Veep, The Thick of It, The Death of Stalin) because of how he embraces the trivial absurdities of the political process; Canadian filmmaker Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century takes that level of satire a step further, depicting the life of former Prime Minister Canadian Mackenzie King by means of a bizarre, expressionistic dreamscape.
It’s visually absurd, at times offensive, pulling from King’s own diaries and shaping a story that may not be factually accurate but certainly feels like a more truthful depiction of a mind pursing political power than, say, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. There are other great filmmakers Rankin could be compared to (such as Alejandro Jodorowsky, expressionist to expressionist), but it’s an astounding achievement to have a debut feature feel so precise with a style so wild. “Obsessions and bewilderments at the dawn of an extreme age,” indeed. (VOD)
Song Without a Name
Song Without a Name was my favorite film at the 2020 Heartland Film Festival, and it remains a standout experience even as the months have passed and I’ve watched dozens of award-chasing hopefuls with big names and bigger budgets. This is the debut feature for director Melina León, who meshes a gritty, real aesthetic with unique visual flourishes. The black and white cinematography brings to mind Roma, but it emotionally reminded more of last year’s disorienting The Lighthouse. The story follows a poor Peruvian woman named Georgina, whose child is stolen at a free medical clinic and her efforts to find that child. It doesn’t end well. How could it? That isn’t a spoiler. I tear up just thinking about it. León’s patient gaze and actress Pamela Mendoza’s authentic portrayal of Georgina make this story about small people being swept up and forgotten so, so crushing. I loved it so much. (Viewed at Heartland, availability TBD.)
Director Chloé Zhao’s work holds a special place in my heart after her 2018 film, The Rider, made me cry uncontrollably, so Nomadland‘s release this year was greatly anticipated. Zhao teamed up with Academy Award winner Frances McDormand to tell the story of modern-day nomads, real people who have dropped out of the economy and live minimalist lives on the road from one makeshift community to another. Zhao’s first two films meshed documentary and narrative largely by shooting the real subjects of her stories as fictionalized versions of themselves. Nomadland features real nomads but smartly constructs a narrative about their lifestyle through the eyes of McDormand’s character, a woman who came to the lifestyle partially because of larger forces but also partially because she chose it. In creating an understandable motivation for the latter, Zhao and McDormand make this more than a story about America’s economic decline and its human detritus. Instead, it’s a portrait of loss, grief and the spirit of finding our own way to continue living in the aftermath of unspeakable sadness. It is vital and true. (In theaters February 2021)
Dick Johnson is Dead
Director Kirsten Johnson’s father, Richard, has dementia, and the thought of losing him drives the two to create cinematic depictions of how he might meet his ultimate end. A car accident caused by his dementia? An unfortunate fall due to his old age? How about Richard acting out his own funeral? Richard is in good spirits about the experiment and Kirsten uses their time together to craft a movie that speaks to the fundamental fear of losing a parent or loved one. It’s frequently funny and never feels artificial. 2020 was a great year for documentaries, and across 12 months full of dreading and contemplating death because of the raging pandemic, Dick Johnson is Dead may be the most essential of them all. (Netflix)
Assassin 33 A.D. (aka Resurrection Time Conspiracy)
I watch plenty of bad movies every year, and certainly few in 2020 inspired the critical ire of the Indiana Film Journalists Association’s Best Original Vision nominee Assassin 33 A.D. (aka Resurrection Time Conspiracy), a movie that launched dozens of aghast think-pieces and came to my attention thanks to Nick Rogers. I insisted he watch it, too. Immediately. I didn’t love Assassin 33 A.D. — a gonzo faith-based film in which time-traveling atheists dome Jesus of Nazareth — because I felt like I could do better, artistically or morally. I loved it because I enjoyed the fact that despite its incredible sacrilege, Assassin 33 A.D. still tries to teach us all a lesson about the love of Christ. Other critics bitch about the fact that it’s clearly filmed after-hours at a community college and that the lead hero’s costume during the climactic moments is merely a bathrobe. Sure, some of the religious depictions are problematic. But Assassin 33 A.D. Is the movie I most enjoyed this year with my friends, trapped in our homes. I schlock socially, and there were few other such opportunities this year. (Amazon Prime)
There was quite a bit of behind-the-scenes debate about Athlete A before our Indiana Film Journalists Association awards this year. The story behind Athlete A has its roots in the intrepid reporting of a team of Indianapolis Star journalists, so the hometown connection is clear, but to whom … would you give the award? Filmmakers Jon Shenk and Bonnie Cohen, who skillfully wove together the year’s most harrowing true crime documentary? The investigators themselves who broke the story? The survivors, whose bravery in speaking out finally brought down Larry Nassar’s decades of abuse and those that protected him for so long? Our solution was to award the film itself, just as Athlete A is a stunning result of each of their efforts. (Netflix)
Da 5 Bloods
The late Chadwick Boseman is fantastic in Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, but I think his smaller role in Da 5 Bloods was more powerful even before his tragic passing. Spike Lee’s blown-out war picture tells the tale of four former military squad mates who return to Vietnam to find a treasure they’d buried while serving in the war. The same fateful firefight that led to Norman (Boseman) dying in action led them to losing the treasure, and his spirit haunts them. Flashbacks show the older men as themselves without any CGI or double-casting. It sticks out, but Norman appears just as himself, eternally young, full of fire. Like most big-name directors, Lee is able to tell a large, sometimes saggy narrative with little artistic constraints. In general, this has been a problem for Netflix’s big auteur marketing scheme, but in Lee’s case it allows him to tell a big, messy war picture about a big, messy war. Delroy Lindo’s performance as Paul is also a standout of the year.
The Last Out
The Last Out is a bold documentary that explores the intersections of international commerce, exploitation and entertainment. Major League Baseball is not allowed to recruit players from Cuba, so Cuban baseball players are often geographically laundered through Central America before they can sign. The film follows three such players as they’re shepherded by an ambitious American recruiter who is also an ex-con. They leave their families behind, train together and then find paths forward whether or not they’re recruited. The recruiter, Gus Dominguez, developed a way to get rich the American way: This isn’t a world of their choosing, and unless they produce for him, they’re worthless. The Last Out explores the underbelly of the American dream via the darkest aspects of its favorite pastime.
I’m an avowed fan of Gerard Butler’s work. He’s a face I trust to bring me a consistent level of visceral entertainment. I can’t remember the last time he was in a great movie, but his paychecks are cashed to the tune of my bemused chortles, and sometimes that’s all a man needs to get through the evening. Greenland is Butler’s best work in years thanks to the uncompromisingly grim vision of Ric Roman Waugh, a working-man director whose other films never lit much of a fire in my heart. I sat down with Greenland expecting Butler v. Asteroid, and what I got instead was a depressing, ceaselessly tense melodrama about inescapable doom. It made me feel fucking awful, and not for any enlightened reasons — just the result of an end-of-the-world adventure crafted with depressing, manipulative precision. (VOD)
- 76 Days
- Another Round
- The Assistant
- Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
- Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
- The Half of It
- I’m thinking of ending things
- Never Sometimes Rarely Always
- One Night in Miami
- Palm Springs
- River City Drumbeat