2020. Let’s end it, yeah?
As of this writing, I’ve seen 142 films released in 2020. (I’ll see a few more. Yeah, the number is down. Don’t care.) Only six of those were at an indoor theatre: Underwater, Bad Boys For Life (which I saw twice … learn why below), The Turning, The Rhythm Section, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) and The Invisible Man, the last of which was on Tuesday, Feb. 25. (After that? Only Tenet at Indianapolis’s Tibbs Drive-In and snippets of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Dawn of the Dead (1978), Death Race 2000, Easy Rider, Grand Theft Auto, Jaws, Over the Edge, Phantasm, El Topo and Vanishing Point that played behind the band Local H during its June 25 Bound for the Drive-In concert at the Harvest Moon Drive-In Theatre in Gibson City, Illinois.)
Overall, I’ll have watched more than 400 films total in 2020 — including 52-plus directed by women, 39 horror outings for Letterboxd’s annual HoopTober celebration, a handful of concise gems at our safely social-distanced outdoor Fuck, Yeah! Film Festival and — in what became an unexpected binge — 21 films starring Jackie Chan. Throw in 600-plus episodes of TV on top of that (including a full-series rewatch of The Sopranos). And I also listened to more than 650 new albums or EPs from 2020 (and bailed at the halfway point on another 350-ish more).
This seems like the atypical pop-culture experience of someone largely confined to their home for most of the year. It’s really not that far off my usual. (Yes, I walk a few miles every day. Yes, I stay up late.) But it does feel more hollow because of my inability to share and discuss it face-to-face with people. It’s almost unfathomable to think that there was an Oscars ceremony this year. At which Parasite won Best Picture. After which friends who hadn’t yet experienced it joined me to see it in a theatre. After which they ENTERED MY HOME while we made drinks and discussed it.
The next time I watch one inside that isn’t at my house and with someone other than my lovely wife and my patient dog, it will likely have been more than a year. Given my voluminous complaints about the state of the contemporary moviegoing experience and their genesis in people’s inconsiderate behaviors, what has happened feels like a social inevitability. And it feels like an individual irony to me. Here’s hoping that we can all enjoy a movie together indoors someday soon — even if you’re the asshole dicking around with his phone too much. When I give you a hard time about it again, we’ll know that nature is healing.
The following article includes:
- My top 10 documentaries of 2020
- My top 10 needle-drops of previously recorded music on a film’s soundtrack
- My top 10 scenes of the year
- 10 pieces of garbage that I will regret on my deathbed
- A handful of solid recommendations
- My top 25 films of 2020
You can find all of my formal reviews here at Midwest Film Journal and, if you’re so inclined, follow me on Letterboxd for real-time rankings and repartee. I’ve listed where you can (or soon can) watch the good stuff, starting with subscription streaming services first where applicable. And yes, I reserve the right to add to and reorder all of this later.
Here’s hoping the decade’s remaining nine years suck less ass than this one.
TOP 10 DOCUMENTARIES (1 to 10)
1. DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD
Damn close to perfect, even at its twee-est, because it finds a way to pop the balloon on conversational stigma for something we all must face but rarely face in an existential sense. Director Kirsten Johnson takes to extremes the way we try to wave or stave off the topic while also finding a deeper measure of peace if we can address it as prelude and preamble. It is as much for her to capture the moments of her father’s life as it is for him to corral his thoughts around it. It’s also a playful and accessible intersection of artifice and art through which we try to forget that death comes for all of us — emphasizing the inherent absurdities of the thin systems that keep us breathing without ever getting too morose. It’s a wise emphasis over the decline that most such documentaries would follow. Is it a manipulation of where your mind might go? Of course, but so is the process of grieving death, and the title character’s part-bemused, part-beatific personality pops through in every moment. In a year where death has been shoved in our face by way of formalized policy (or a lack thereof), here’s a necessary effort to supplant our shame of mulling it over. From its huh-what introduction to its sweetly mysterious final moments, here’s a film that reminds us, without ever getting maudlin or sentimental, that to grieve is to have fully known someone. What a treasure life is. (Netflix)
2. BOYS STATE
As is often the case for any given year, something wearing another genre’s clothes is the best horror film of 2020. (Even the institution of Boys State doesn’t understand the meaning of “Born in the U.S.A.”) It’s smart to mine complexity in even those whom you think will be the most dunderheaded would-be politicians (and herculean in its construction given that its filmmakers couldn’t have known the narrative — or on whom to focus — before they showed up for the convention). It ultimately affirms that toxicity is never really cleared from the playing field; there are always trace levels. You will come away from this fearing that you’ve not seen the last of one particularly unctuous, odious and manipulative butthead blathering on about perceived bias against conservatives. In the spirit of all the meme-ing going on: Tag yourself. I am the raccoon crawling into the trashcan in hopes of avoiding most of these young men down the road. (AppleTV+)
3. CRIP CAMP: A DISABILITY REVOLUTION
Remarkable both as a remembrance of a necessary revolt against prejudice built into physical and social architecture, as well as its recollection of a rich tapestry of individuals’ promise and pain. Someone had the foresight to chronicle all of this yes, but it was not for any eventual posterity or completed project. It was to offer a voice, instill confidence, encourage open-mindedness and inspire the pursuit of civic freedom that takes up the second and third acts. It’s rooted in personhood rather than victimhood, as it should be, and how that is what can cover the vast gap between legislative fiat and how people really see you. Hard for me to see how some people could see this as something so straight down the middle with such a wide, fierce and genuine embrace of the personalities at its center. (Netflix)
4. ATHLETE A
Both straightforwardly devastating in its most direct subject matter and surprisingly intricate in its indictment of the competitive power structure unique to gymnastics — a byproduct of communist hardlining and capitalist soft-pedaling. This is the sort of shit for which we would censure and condemn “lesser” countries. Make no mistake: Even the women who aren’t abused in this sport are products to sculpt, use, objectify and then toss. Power and control are baked into the bottom layer here. The moment when Rachael Denhollander levies a long, soul-capturing look at Larry Nassar is unforgettable. (Netflix)
There are plenty of fantastic educational documentaries about how America’s legal system disproportionately punishes people of color and the poor. In just over 80 minutes, Time offers a wellspring of deeply explored emotions, bureaucratic hustles, heartbreak that this became the industry in which the Richardson family could find some semblance of authority and so much more. The story follows Sibil Fox Richardson (known as “Fox Rich”) in her endeavors to free her husband, Rob, from a 60-year sentence without the possibility of probation, parole or a suspended sentence. The film never tries to make you sympathetic about the armed robbery Rob perpetrated (in which Fox Rich was herself an accomplice), only to the pointlessly punitive response relative to the crime. Time and again, Fox Rich throws herself at the mercy of a system that will rarely bother showing it to her. Perpetually prostrating herself before civil servants, it’s like watching someone take a jeweler’s chisel to Mount Rushmore. The film attunes you to the conversational rhythms of resignation and disappointment she has developed over the years — the passive-aggressive accusations on the other end of the line, the awkward defense-mechanism chuckles, the erosion of congenial conversation in the face of derision and scorn. At the same time, director Garrett Bradley complements Fox Rich’s copious amounts of self-filmed footage with a present-day narrative that lets us see the deleterious effects of this decision on the Richardsons’ sons, who have entered into noticeably image-conscious endeavors. They’ve seen the playbook. They can only hope to run a little corner of it themselves. You’ll find yourself doing the math of just how long the Richardsons have spent together as a family. They get four hours a month. That’s 48 hours a year. Rob’s been gone 20 years. That’s 40 days. The election happened 55 days ago. Wrap your head around that. There’s a moment where a call from jail ends just as Rob starts to articulate that accrual of time. It’s like the universe is working against them … until it starts to shift. When the wave finally crashes, it is a mighty feeling of marital friskiness, family fortitude and a firm pursuit of what’s fair. There is no other way to explain it beyond that it feels like a rebirth, but one that also knows Time is more than just a double-meaning title, it’s a monolithic presence you can never gain back. (Amazon Prime)
Ontological discourse about popular culture like this would be catnip for me even without the depth that you get here. Even in breezing through more than a century of trans representation in filmed entertainment, there is no shortage of necessary, robust and persuasively delivered arguments about what creators have done, what they’ve learned, how even the best-intentioned messages from within the community can be perverted, and how far there is to go. But it also doesn’t lose sight of individual experiences, which avoids the trap of lumping all famous trans personalities into a collective. (Netflix)
7. THE LAST OUT
A thoughtful, engrossing look at the intersections of geopolitical reality, cutthroat industry and human frailty, through lives that feel like endless auditions whose success literally rests on the difference of one-hundredth of one second. For each of the three hopeful Major League Baseball players featured, their loved ones often are left with only what their fans will have (should their best-case scenario come to pass) — memorabilia rather than a tactile presence, and the filmmakers let sink in both the exploitative weight of the hustle to get them signed and the obvious heroics they represent to the families who support them. Among all of the key figures, the parallel tracks are both perilous and poignantly expressed; some of the footage here is a truly wowing marvel of verité urgency. (Festival circuit; distribution forthcoming)
8. TOTALLY UNDER CONTROL
Let’s give Alex Gibney reason to take a brief vacation in 2021, OK? (Hulu)
9. MISS AMERICANA
It’s not necessarily breaking any new ground in its portrait of the artist as a young woman struggling to simultaneously compartmentalize her emotions and commodify her creations. However, like the best of her pop songs, it’s a little sadder than she means it to sound. The aftermath is pretty bracing when she recalls her own personal experience with misogyny and assault. She also confronts the expectations of sociopolitical equivocation that come with the country-music territory for women even as she shed that musical label long ago. (Plus, this movie doesn’t even cover all the Scooter Braun / Scott Borchetta stuff.) You also feel her sorting through the persecution and the privilege, realizing that no one is born saintly and that she is, of course, a multimillionaire. Miss Americana also understands that as a woman forced to perpetually reinvent herself in ways that her male counterparts don’t, Swift has thought more deeply about reallocating her considerable resources into reaping a better reality. That doesn’t mean there aren’t endearing moments of genuine elation and humor (such as when she feels in her bones that “Me!” is going to be a mammoth hit or her “Fuck it, I don’t care” response to her publicist’s insistence that her tweets will rile Trump.) About the only thing that keeps it from a higher rating is that parts of it feel like a remedial primer for parents who might not listen to her. But it’s also a primer on the minefields their kids face online as magnified through their favorite pop star. What elevates this documentary is Swift’s realization (and inspiration) that her fans have an opportunity to make the world in their own image rather than the oppressive one in which her industry initially trapped her. (Netflix)
10. WELCOME TO CHECHNYA
Thankfully, a sense of empathy and ticking-clock urgency on personal and political fronts of a group that helps members of the LGBTQ community in the repressed Russian republic propels this documentary forward rather than an over-reliance on horrific recovered footage (although there is enough of that to elucidate the immediacy of the missions undertaken here). It may seem like an odd thing on which to fixate, but the digital masking of faces here adds to the poignancy both in how skillfully invisible it is in some cases but also how noticeable it becomes. Unsurprisingly, even that choice plays into a beautiful decision at the end of the second act. (HBOMax)
10 FAVORITE SCENES OF THE YEAR (alphabetical order by film)
- Retaliation from the back seat in Alone
- The finale of Another Round
- Jesus Christ getting domed by a time-traveling mercenary who has renounced Christianity in Assassin 33 A.D. aka Resurrection Time Conspiracy
- Filing a complaint with Human Resources in The Assistant
- The motorcycle-helicopter chase in Bad Boys For Life
- “I have a baby inside of me and I need you to take it out” in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
- What’s outside the closet door in the last shot of Dick Johnson is Dead
- The ballet sequence in i’m thinking of ending things
- Dinner cut short in The Invisible Man
- The questionnaire sequence in Never Rarely Sometimes Always
10 FAVORITE NEEDLE-DROPS OF THE YEAR (alphabetical order by song)
“ANSWER ME, MY LOVE” by NAT KING COLE in NOMADLAND
The scene: Fern reminisces over photographs from her past.
Key lyrics: “If you’re happier without me, I’ll try not to care / But if you still think about me, please listen to my prayer”
“DON’T LEAVE ME THIS WAY” by THE COMMUNARDS in THE NEST
The scene: Unsure of what’s next, Allison gets drunk and dances alone at a nightclub.
Key lyrics: “You started this fire down in my soul / Now can’t you see it’s burning out of control”
“GODSPEED” by FRANK OCEAN in THE OLD GUARD
The scene: Nile tries to find audible comfort after a shocking development.
Key lyrics: “This love will keep us through blinding of the eyes (oh) / Silence in the ears, darkness of the mind (oh, it’s ’til it’s time we die)”
“LONELY ROOM” from OKLAHOMA!, performed by JESSE PLEMONS in i’m thinking of ending things
The scene: Jake addresses an audience of his adoring fans.
Key lyrics: “The floor creaks / The door squeaks / And the mouse starts a-nibblin’ on the broom / And the sun flicks my eyes / It was all a … PACK OF LIES! / I’m awake in a lonely room”
“SILLY GAMES” by JANET KAY in SMALL AXE: LOVERS ROCK
The scene: Things get intimate and communal on the dance floor.
Key lyrics: “ ’Cause every time we meet / We play hide and seek / I’m wondering what I should do / Should I, dear, come up to you?”
“SUGAR MOUNTAIN” (LIVE AT CANTERBURY HOUSE, 1968) by NEIL YOUNG in CRIP CAMP: A DISABILITY REVOLUTION
The scene: Former campers return to the site of Camp Jened, now just mounds of dirt.
Key lyrics: “Now you say you’re leaving home / ’Cause you want to be alone / Ain’t it funny how you feel / When you’re finding out it’s real”
“WHAT A LIFE” by SCARLET PLEASURE in ANOTHER ROUND
The scene: Martin loses (but perhaps also finds) himself in an exuberant celebration.
Key lyrics: “I am so thrilled right now ’cause I’m poppin’ (Whoa!) right now / Don’t wanna worry ’bout a thing / But it makes me terrified to be on the other side / How long before I go insane?”
“WHAT’S GOING ON? (A CAPPELLA)” by MARVIN GAYE in DA 5 BLOODS
The scene: Paul heads off into the jungle alone.
Key lyrics: “Talk to me / So you can see / What’s going on / What’s going on / Yeah, what’s going on / Tell me what’s going on”
“WHITE FLAG” by DIDO in BAD EDUCATION
The scene: Frank fantasizes about what could’ve been at Roslyn High School.
Key lyrics: “And when we meet, which I’m sure we will / All that was there will be there still / I’ll let it pass and hold my tongue / And you will think that I’ve moved on”
“WOMAN” by KESHA FEAT. THE DAP-KINGS HORNS in BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN)
The scene: Harley and Cassandra enjoy the perfect egg sandwich … and some freedom.
Key lyrics: “Don’t buy me a drink, I make my money / Don’t touch my weave, don’t call me “honey” / ’Cause I run my shit, baby”
If you want to know the worst needle-drops of the year, Spenser Confidential and The Midnight Sun tie for gross uses of “Sweet Caroline” for inane / stereotypical reasons. Did Netflix get that song on sale this year?
SCREW THESE MOVIES: THE 10 WORST FILMS OF 2020 (least to most offensive)
Although not as terrible as Man of the Year, the “aw shucks, everybody!” attitude of Jon Stewart’s slick, professional and perilously toothless political satire feels as antiquated now as Barry Levinson’s did in 2006, when Stewart and company were at the peak of their powers. Irresistible suggests we can all rally behind a grift of good nature. But from a guy who once staged a Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, that’s an awfully naïve response to America being stripped for parts. The most persuasive argument in Irresistible is that Stewart skedaddled from the satire circuit when he did for good reason because he no longer has much worth saying.
The Village, idiot.
If I am to remember anything about Desperados several decades from now, it will be the unexpected uptick in times I’ve had to consider dolphin genitalia (up a notch to two; Radiolab is a popular podcast, after all). Such things are hard to forget in capacities of public radio or public nuisance. How else to describe a CGI dolphin slapping Nasim Pedrad’s face with its greasy penis after it sexually rubs against her? There are also jokes about human semen — specifically that of a 12-year-old boy after an inadvertent frotteuristic encounter with Pedrad. Does someone get a faceful of vomit? Absolutely. Does a man injure his testicles and exclaim “Ow! My balls!”? Well, some people think we’re actually living Idiocracy now, so why not?
SONIC THE HEDGEHOG
In case you didn’t think the shitshow that is 2020 had room for terrible white-savior journalist crusades, there are still some things on which we can rely.
Presented in a vegetative state not dissimilar from the plants Mark Wahlberg spoke to in The Happening, peppered with classic rock pulled straight off the saddest and shittiest TouchTunes bar jukebox you could find, and profoundly boring even for something with the seemingly invincible premise of watching Wahlberg get pounded to a pulp every 10 minutes. As for Wahlberg, this is him at his beef-a-roni worst. He’s got crack comic timing when he gives a shit. Here, he’s got all the buoyancy of a cement-shoed corpse at the bottom of Boston Harbor. (In case you didn’t know this was set in Boston, the first song is “Long Time” by Boston, there’s a fight scene set to “Sweet Caroline” at a bar called Slainte, and the film’s closing song is “Sweet Emotion.” Oh, and Spenser smush-smushes his caustic old flame to the tune of “Feels Like the First Time.”) Taking its time to move the fuck on, indeed.
Look, you rent something called Final Kill because you chuckle at the presumed collective marquee value of Dr. Drew Pinsky, Danny Trejo, Randy Couture and Billy Zane. It’s hard to imagine a less-appealing pivot than the one Final Kill takes into a chamber piece of one colorless conversation after another between a mercenary and the milquetoast married couple he’s protecting from the mob. It also has that tinny digital-washout look and editing (by someone named Crash Buist) to incorporate endless shots of empty spaces after characters exit the frame. At least it’s fun to watch Billy Zane transform into Joe Pantoliano for a few minutes.
If you’re one of those people still earnestly using the phrase “teamwork makes the dream work” to inspire your colleagues, please know that phrase has also been used by John Cena, voicing a polar bear named Yoshi, to celebrate a group effort to remove bagpipes from a dragon’s clogged asshole. Voicing a tiger named Barry, Ralph Fiennes also laments the striking of his tiger testicles by screaming “Ow, my Barry berries!” Will Arnett is a rabbit who asks “Did Dolittle do a little doo-doo?” Robert Downey, Jr. clearly re-recorded all of his dialogue, like a live-action version of Mike Myers’ late-stage decision to make Shrek Scottish. Oh, and if you’re worried that all of this will be too over the heads of the family’s youngest children, there are some Godfather references and people being roasted alive by dragons. But hey, if one Rami Malek film can win a Best Editing Oscar for simply resembling cinema, why not this?
If the 700 Club ever funded an action film, it would resemble The Insurrection, an ineptly filmed, interminably talky incursion of conservative trash-bin ideology into a bargain-bin Seagal narrative. Writer / director / cinematographer / editor / composer / moron Rene Perez posits a conspiracy that uses popular entertainment to diminish masculinity, disparage marriage and promote transgender acceptance among other things. An opening photo montage rattles off the usual bogeyman (Obama, the Clintons, Pelosi, AOC), but their pixilation suggests what spooks Perez most is the specter of legal action. And yet for all of its vile invective, The Insurrection is so inert that the only potentially worrisome violent response from a viewer is the volume of a snore. Ultimately, it feels like something to pair with Plandemic in the feature-and-a-short version of a lunatic-fringe Criterion Channel. When someone is told their revelations will be made to look like “the ramblings of a Hollywood failure who’s jealous and spiteful,” you’ll think: Yeah, that seems about right. A king-dipshit movie for a king-dipshit year.
SOLID RECOMMENDATIONS (alphabetical order)
Sturdy, confident, stylish and engrossing enough that the only real knock is that it’s way too obvious which of his two usual functions Anthony Heald is going to serve when he turns up at the midway point. (And were those … honey and goat cheese sandwiches he was offering? I mean, I guess if you’re hungry.) Props to Marc Menchaca for affecting a psychotic Jason Sudeikis look as the tormentor. Given that his last three films are a surreal JCVD action outing, a salty baseball comedy and a simple survival thriller, John Hyams is clearly striving to be as tough to pin down as his dad has been. Good on him. (Spectrum On Demand / VOD / Blu-ray)
ASSASSIN 33 A.D. aka RESURRECTION TIME CONSPIRACY
Did Tenet feature Jesus getting domed by a time-traveling modern-day merc / lapsed Christian? Sure as hell didn’t. (Amazon Prime Video / Tubi / VOD & DVD)
Basically Election with a master’s degree in school administration, it’s a mussless, fussless and straightforwardly engaging story in the usual HBO Original Movie mode — right down to the Walk of Shame when everybody in the school, even and especially the students who IRL probably couldn’t give less of a shit, turns to stare at the disgraced central figure as he walks into work. Hugh Jackman’s intelligent internalization of what second-ran success means elevates it into a more adroit meditation on the malevolent manipulations of a white-collar goodfella. Even in all his malfeasance, he’s settling for secondary status (at best): “It’s not perfect, but it works and we hope we can keep it that way” and “We’re No. 4” ring out across all of this. Jackman embodies Frank Tassone like some sort of glad-handing, baby-kissing, dead-eyed evangelical preacher whose recollection of past students’ glories feels more like a handling tactic than an honorable teaching memory. Watching him try not to lose his cool over a sycophantic plea from a helicopter parent — and a mispronunciation of “accelerated” — is unforgettable, as is the artfully done conclusion (which includes the cleanliness, polish and harmonious tinkering of an era-appropriate pop song that this guy would let speak for him. Solid, even as it could have dug in deeper for some societal self-incrimination a la I, Tonya. (HBOMax / VOD & Blu-ray / DVD)
BLOW THE MAN DOWN
Although this story about the salty spray of secrets in an oceanside Maine town could use a bigger boat for all of its characters, there’s enough gale-force velocity to prop up this film from writers-directors Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy. And there’s no reason to complain about a film that gives Character Actress Margo Martindale (as BoJack Horseman would say) her feature-length due. She’s wound up and turned loose in the right ways as Enid Nora Devlin, framed in one shot to look like she alone is blighting the sun on Easter Cove. That wasn’t Enid’s intent when beginning her brothel business, but it’s grown to feel that way. Martindale excels in her usual mode of matronly menace but also gins up no small amount of sympathy for a devil who knows she can only get so far in a socially stratified system stacked against her. Through Enid, Blow the Man Down communicates its main thesis about the many women onscreen: If you can face a stiff wind long enough, you’ll find comfort in the chill while everyone else clamors for warmth. (Amazon Prime)
Endorphins Have Fallen. The most relentlessly depressing mainstream disaster movie in recent memory, mostly used to its advantage with anxiety-triggering audio cues, a ruthless invocation of Murphy’s law and, most of all, the domino effect of poor choices induced by panic. Quite honestly, this is the tone Tom Cruise’s War of the Worlds thought it was striking with three times the budget. Thankfully, Ric Roman Waugh’s latest forgoes the pornographic approximation of actual apocalypse visuals for interpersonal intensity. There’s really only one traditionally superfluous razzle-dazzle visual-effects sequence 90 minutes in, and even that focuses on people being cut down by interplanetary debris. Props, too, for perhaps the best character Gerard Butler has ever had in these things of his. He lets the weight of what his Scottish-accented everyman is forced to do slump structural engineer John Garrity’s shoulders, and it even gives some context for what would otherwise be a just-because moment of random heroics he attempts late in the film. He’s just an average guy who has made the same shitty decisions that a lot of other people have. Tough to make a compelling character out of such a thing, but Butler does it. To paraphrase a line of dialogue, most Butler movies are made of farts. Not this one. (VOD; coming to HBOMax in early 2021)
It’s clear that the filmmakers have kitchen-sinked this in the event that their intended Indonesian superhero cinematic universe never comes to pass. Based on this calling card, they should get it. To be clear: This is neither Headshot nor The Night Comes For Us, let alone another Raid. But for a superhero film, film, the noggin-knocking violence comes pretty close. (And that’s before Cecef Arip Rahman shows up to give our titular hero fits.) The villain’s plot — to prenatally pervert the purity of babies before their born — is simultaneously one of the most fascinating and ridiculous the genre has ever seen. If the film didn’t earn its bonafides about real-world corruption and mea culpas burbling through Indonesian culture, the whole endeavor would be a lot easier to dismiss as a Netflix Daredevil knockoff with subtitles. (And as it turns out, the absurd debate over a potential vaccine for the bad guy’s plot feels … well as dumb as the debates we’ve seen all year.) (Hoopla / Hi-Yah / VOD / Blu-ray & DVD)
THE HALF OF IT
The low-key approach allows for a greater deal of emotional honesty and power than such De Bergeracish cross-up shenanigans generally allow. And it tracks because this is a story that’s more about desperation (not only romantic) than duplicity. You care about all three people at the center. The movie doesn’t take an easy out by making one of them an asshole. And the more flirtatiously charged sequences rest less in a fear of what may transpire than the details those involved may someday forget. Writer-director Alice Wu is also well aware of all the happenstance and heated feelings that we try to will into becoming love, and that enriches the tale rather than enervates it. (In that way, it’s a less flippant Love, Simon.) And while Leah Lewis’s star-making turn offers not one false note, the same can’t be said of the inevitable turns in the third act — which lean on emotional improbabilities that feel even more acute given the quality of what’s come before. (The occasional slapstick interludes also feel slapped in from a different movie altogether.) Still, a lovely film about realizing that sometimes the low points — and the high points — are just places through which you pass. (Netflix)
“Don’t say Christmas.” Amen. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose on this one. The verisimilitude even extends to parents who need perpetual help with printers and routers. And the ease with which this shifts into real movie from holiday hijinks is best summed up by the way in which it deploys Dan Levy — like the film’s analog to Tom Green in Road Trip until he actually has a reason to show up and that reason … goddamn, he is an international treasure. The rest of the cast is terrific, too. I haven’t seen The Intervention but Clea DuVall definitely has the necessary instincts to elicit the best from this bunch. (Hulu)
A thriller shipped with familiar parts but designed with a flair for character work as well as careful consideration of the consequences that come from blindly following codes rooted in carnage. It’s packed with scenes that effectively operate on several layers of subtext and / or subterfuge. It’s got a cast strong enough to keep you thinking about what each person knows and all they’re trying to withhold. Plus, the credits placement of a research consultant ahead of a second-unit director lets you know where director / co-writer Andrea di Stefano’s head is at — more the verisimilitude of violent lifestyles than how vivid the blood that is shed. Shot in 2017 and shelved until 2020, di Stefano’s adaptation of a Swedish crime novel moves with the ticking-clock horsepower of a Harlan Coben thriller and, quite honestly, more heft than you’d expect. Scenes crackle both with the energy of actors tearing into dialogue and each other, and the thrilling sensation of characters’ territorial pissing on jurisdictional and moral grounds. If not for the Pavlovian chirps and chimes of cell phones, The Informer could just as easily take place a half-century ago — a compliment to its general smolder that remains immersive and immediate as its protagonist’s predicament escalates. The Informer indulges just a smidge of disbelief to resolve itself. Then again: Every kettle’s got to whistle to let you know it’s at full boil. (VOD)
Great lead performances from Jude Law and Carrie Coon, and disarming direction from Sean Durkin to make it feel like a stately horror film. There’s a brief moment where Coon’s character is trying to arrange furniture and it’s nerve-wracking precisely because Durkin forces you to focus on just how much space there is. And Durkin is shrewd about how these parents’ rituals repeat or reposition on a new continent. But his surprisingly dull screenplay offers nothing to engage beyond the binary possibilities of this story ending in tragedy or resignation. I’m sorry: I can’t go any higher than 3.5 stars for a movie about a bullshit artist hitting the end of the line in which the central visual metaphor is a dead horse that won’t stay buried. At least you’re rubbernecking at a lot of pretty things. (VOD)
Indulge a world of pretend in which everything intended for theaters, no matter how minimal the run, didn’t just go to VOD. Rogue would be a front-runner for VOD film of the year — with crackling humor, convivial camaraderie, concussive action (that opening sequence is one of the year’s best) and convincing badassery from Megan Fox as the conductor trying to bring rhythm to the retreat her merc team beats from equally bloodthirsty human traffickers and an escaped, abused lion. Rather than pretend such things never happened, director / co-writer MJ Bassett leans into Fox’s history of Hollywood objectification, and the actress feels like she’s definitely channeling the constant churn of predators no matter how deeply (or doggedly) she has steeled herself to them. “You can do anything you need to survive,” she tells one of the girls she saves. “You’ve already made it this far.” Context like that carries Rogue through its, well, visible cash-flow problems whenever that lion is onscreen (although Bassett credibly stretches the dollars in her action sequences). There’s even a bit of serene majesty a la the brontosaurus scene in Jurassic Park with a cute elephant … right before a lion rips open someone’s chest. Good stuff. (Hulu / VOD / Blu-ray & DVD)
SOUND OF METAL
Most of 2020 has been accompanied by a nagging sensation of ringing in my left ear. It’s not tinnitus. It sometimes goes away. Some days I don’t sense it at all. It’s not new but it’s also not lasted this long. I’ve seen an ENT specialist. I’m getting old. That’s part of it. At his suggestion, I’m taking lipo-flavonoids. (He thought they sounded like bullshit, too, but they helped him and they seem to be helping me.) Long way around to saying the moment in which Riz Ahmed’s character loses his hearing altogether — with a distinct pop I will never forget — fucked me up. Too much of Darius Marder’s film after that feels rooted in rhythms of redemption that feel … well, easy. But as a plummet into a nightmare that is often a personal worry for someone who would also wonder whether life would be worth living without hearing music or dialogue in films, it’s almost unrivaled. Plus, Ahmed’s justly heralded performance culminates in an unexpectedly calming bit of serenity. (Amazon Prime)
No, you won’t foooool mutagen of the revoluuuuution! It may amount to little more than a frugal approximation of Denis Villeneuve and Ridley Scott. But I enjoyed the creature’s evil-Dobby mannerisms and the metaphorical and visceral upheaval. (Hulu / VOD)
WONDER WOMAN 1984
Most fling-everything-and-see-what-sticks superhero movies suck. The trick is that WW1984 only feels that way because it’s 151 minutes long, instead allowing its four leads (Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal) to entertainingly shred very specific targets. It’s also because it dares to be campy and cheeky, although not insubstantial, in the spirit of the era in which it’s set rather than the environment in which it was (finally) released — which is to say in a genre too often full of self-seriousness and always subject to nit-picked continuity. Why on earth would anyone want a simple copy of the origin film’s dramatic vibes in a neon decade? Who cares if the visibility of Diana Prince’s heroic deeds contradicts Bruce Wayne’s seeming difficulty finding info on her while scouring the public record during Batman v Superman: Whatevs? Remember: This is a canon with concurrent Joker timelines. None of this interconnected narrative shit matters in the DCEU. So what does? Pine and Pascal’s Big Gomer Energy (of which superhero movies could generally use more these days). The idea that a magical wish stone isn’t a far-cry cipher for the idealized notions to which we sometimes, often detrimentally, hold up people. The appropriately outsized and often kooky excess. Just loosen the belt a notch for this meal and enjoy. (HBOMax until Jan. 24, 2021 / simultaneous theatrical release)
TOP 25 FILMS OF 2020
This is easily the year’s finest animated film, framing an accessible and enchanting story of tolerance in geopolitical and conservational terms, and with some remarkable two-dimensional storybook animation in the process. Pay attention to the shots of large areas, which seem to spatially stack people atop each other and invoke the rigorously hierarchical drudgery under which they live. It’s a primal, evocative symbol for the churn of caste society that shiny 3D verisimilitude just could not provide. As far as that competition goes, Soul and Wolfwalkers actually share a significant second-act turn. Here, it’s rooted more in a sensible exploration of identity politics and leads to adept characterization of the roles and traps into which we’re often led against our better inclinations. (AppleTV+)
24. BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN)
Carnival geekery with just enough context to carry it, which offers a bright, bombastic brushoff to the bloviation of Joker and the straight-up badness of Suicide Squad. The Deadpool-ish structure robs too much propulsion from the full presentation, plating its pleasures in more of a piecemeal fashion. (Outstanding work, per usual, from Chad Stahelski’s 87eleven stunt team.) But at least there’s a reason for it here beyond puckishness. How else would an addled Harley Quinn tell this story besides anarchically, as she’s been alienated from what’s familiar in her life? It also lets Harley Quinn’s arc land with an appropriate amount of entropy rather than with some discordant tidiness. You either latch onto it or be left behind. Even if it works for you (as it did me), you’ll lament how it leaves out opportunities for Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosie Perez, Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Ella Jay Basco to collectively kick ass together. All of them are a blast, particularly Winstead — criminally underused given the immediately believable truth she brings to the social ineptitude of someone raised as she was. It’s refreshing that there is no narratively useful man, but what a great time Ewan McGregor is having in this — crossing the flamboyance of Paddington 2‘s Phoenix Buchanan with the sadism of Road House‘s Brad Wesley. His catchphrase is “WOOOO!” His apoplectic outbursts are hilarious. He even gets to shimmy a bit in a dance scene that could be likened to “Moulin Rough!” Villain of the year. (HBOMax / VOD & Blu-ray / DVD)
23. ON THE ROCKS
Sofia Coppola’s most featherweight film so far is nevertheless abetted by her commitment to a sort of generational and interfamilial anthropology — deep in the folds of how we’re molded and the creases those can create in relationships we think are otherwise going smoothly. It also doesn’t try to apologize for, or altogether dismiss, Felix’s bad behavior in the past. Coppola and Bill Murray are too emotionally intuitive to let this rest with the usual blowout-then-reconciliation. Murray’s work in a confrontation of his abandonment of Laura (Rashida Jones, a fine foil for him throughout) is right up there with his best for Coppola and Wes Anderson — a cad realizing in real time the degree to which time has caught up with him and seeing it not as a reason to lament what he lost with his family but try to impart the wisdom of what he gained to his daughter. It also has the best talk-your-way-out-of-a-ticket-in-a-fancy-car scene since Scent of a Woman. (AppleTV+)
22. BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm goes a few rounds longer than its immediate predecessor. But at least it finds Sacha Baron Cohen again connecting his punches as a potent comic lead, a definitive rebound from the sitcom synthetics of The Dictator or the desperation heave of Grimsby. Of course, Cohen has put himself back into well-layered, and well-lawyered, territory — crafting plenty of bits that required six signatures and initials while appropriately weaponizing Borat, now well versed in the ways of the west, for the weary woes of today. You can imagine how a scene that starts with “I have a baby inside of me and I need to get it out” becomes a yes-and buffet of improvisation for Cohen and Maria Bakalova, exhibiting her own go-for-broke gall as Tutar. Indeed, Cohen is smart enough to turn entire segments over to Tutar — who wastes no time catching up on the bombardment of bad and barbaric ideas that America’s patriarchy gives to women about their bodies and their opportunities. “What your daddy has told you about is not the real world,” Tutar is told in a line that stands well outside any absurd illustrations in Borat’s manual on how to raise a daughter. Meanwhile, Cohen and company capture moments of revulsion from everyday women that only reinforce why America’s ruling party resorted to pleading with suburban females to like them ahead of the 2020 election. The whole existence of a second Borat film constituted an October surprise, and the film closed with an entreaty to vote that played both like a funny joke and a deadly serious warning. Cohen isn’t so naive to believe that cheekiness alone will cut with any clarity. Through Tutar and her pursuit of independence, Subsequent Moviefilm reminds us that strong women are the future we need — and will get if we don’t mess it up. It also makes us feel OK about chortling through this hellscape because maybe we aren’t hopelessly screwed … at least not yet. (Amazon Prime)
21. BILL & TED FACE THE MUSIC
It would have sufficed for Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves to revive their dopily delightful proto-Jay and Silent Bob friendship. The actors are certainly here to endear, but for this (presumed) final go-round as Bill and Ted, the pair also locks into a soul-sick woe of pals who have pursued their passion and purported purpose for so long with so little to show for it. (Middle-age ennui is an entirely different air guitar, one that’s tough to keep in tune.) With so many swirling subplots Face the Music is easily the franchise’s busiest installment. And while its biggest plot turn is obvious from 15 minutes in, it’s nevertheless resonant and rooted in the sort of wisdom that can only come from the age and experience that Face the Music’s actors and architects have accrued since the early 1990s: It’s not about always saving the day but always pointing the way. That might lack the enduring zing and zip of “Be excellent to each other,” but Face the Music definitely delivered the smile-inducing sweetness that this shortened cinematic summer sorely needed. (VOD & Blu-ray / DVD)
20. ORDINARY LOVE
In some ways, Ordinary Love does nothing you haven’t already seen in umpteen cinematic tales of cancer. But it also expresses them with an admirable delicacy and defiance of theatricality that usually accompanies such things. Indeed, it’s a film that wrestles with our paradoxical uncertainty about the certainty of death but also understands, through some somber details about the couple’s past, that the end of corporeal existence doesn’t erase the connections that give strength to those left behind. It’s also not so much concerned with how cancer ravages the body — although there are moments of treatment that feel simultaneously like sympathetic solidarity and cattle in the chute — as it is how the diagnosis can mutate things like a sense of humor and stiff resolve into seemingly futile coping systems. Such a shift is only possible thanks to the perceptive performances from Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson, in which he lets his largeness grow little and she sees her diminutive stature become more dominant. They establish the sort of plainspoken playfulness that’s easy to pinpoint in a real-life relationship, one that realizes such moments aren’t flashpoints but emblems of intimacy and friendship. Each actor also lets us see the moments when their characters consider the worst thoughts; early on, there’s a beautiful moment where she sees him ruminating in a waiting room but he doesn’t know she’s in the hallway, and you see each silently considering what life would be like without the other. At a trim 86 minutes before credits, Ordinary Love is more easygoing than elegy and wades into more of a pleasant pace for the home-stretch, which would only be disappointing if that anti-profundity weren’t part of the entire point. A body that fails us isn’t a betrayal, it’s an inevitability. Death is a trouble that befalls us all. In that sense, Ordinary Love is of a piece with Dick Johnson is Dead to gently explore a chaos, comfort and commonality we all share. (Hulu / VOD & DVD)
19. SONG WITHOUT A NAME
Peruvian filmmaker Melina León’s stunning feature-length debut is a story of personal loss and political pain, in which surreal aesthetics accentuate a scuttling of dignity at a system’s cruel hands. Even something that you are certain is a fade-out instead represents a painfully, devastatingly slow passage of time and desperation for a mother whose newborn child is ripped from her without explanation. Other movies would ramp up the tension or snap into action in a teaming up with a reporter to try and find the child, a binary choice of kineticism or melodrama. León knows that there are barely any victories to be found under such oppressive circumstances. Sometimes it can only be beating on the walls erected to stop you harder, louder and longer than those in power would prefer to hear. The titular tune does not need a title by which to be remembered. Sadly, it’s an elegiac melody for time immemorial. (VOD)
18. THE FATHER
To look at the label of The Father would be to expect a standard-issue Oscar-season wine pour: Pop the cork on a couple of generational titans like Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman as (respectively) a fiercely independent curmudgeon losing his faculties and his frazzled care-taking daughter and watch them go at each other with gusto. Instead, director Florian Zeller imbues his adaptation of his stageplay with the most effectively insidious aspects of Ari Aster — repetitions and desperations, rage and resignation and, most unnervingly, the vast gap between reality and recall. On that last point, the formalism Zeller brings to bear for his screen vision is nigh diabolical in how it consumes you right along with Hopkins’ character. You, too, will get lost in the seemingly minuscule details that seem to shift in the one-flat setting, thanks to truly diabolical production design from Peter Francis. And yes, this is unquestionably Hopkins’ greatest performance since The Silence of the Lambs — a nigh physical transformation that, in line with the film’s slippery structure, seems to happen both instantaneously and incrementally. There can’t possibly be any computer trickery going on in Hopkins’ big climactic scene, but the way his head hangs relative to his body … it’s a contortion that simply looks both unholy and inevitable and it’s all in how Hopkins lets the weight hang on him. There is also an early moment where he tenderly trails his fingers across someone’s shoulders that makes you wonder which of his character’s mood swings represents the truth — the wrath or the warmth. Take your pick of the unmooring moments here relative to what you’ll fear might await you. Mine was the use of “like a hotel” as some sort of selling point. Jesus, that’s what it might boil down to, right? The familiarity of four walls and a ceiling but absolutely nothing else. A drab dribbling away into nothingness. What would otherwise be a prototypical downer instead becomes an atypical downer that evokes a feeling of mental claustrophobia without any unduly comforting conclusion. (Coming soon to theaters / VOD)
17. POSSESSOR UNCUT
Sci-fi purists might demand more expository remarks about “charring,” “false psyches” and what the “interface anomalies” might be. I get it, but this should be, and is, something more than just Inception on Special K. Those conversations are all just diagnostics disguising themselves as dialogues anyway. Brandon Cronenberg rebounds strongly from the obvious, flashy and facile satire of Antiviral for something that comes to feel like capitulation to capitalism as an obsessive-compulsive disorder; the hooks of loyalty, to brands or your job, plant themselves deep and it only takes a small yank for you to willfully degrade yourself or diminish your own desires for what you think is socially prude. And from the wild opening sequence until the blood-soaked finale, Possessor is a raw evocation of the often inexplicable grip that depression and addiction can hold on someone. He also combines giallo heat and his dad’s cool precision in the hallucinatory visual scheme, which works for the characters’ suspicion of intimacy and panic of attention paid to them. This is its own distinctly downbeat head trip, rooted in delusion, betrayal and denial. Are you married to the person or the worm, indeed. (VOD & Blu-ray / DVD)
16. PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN
More than any communal moviegoing experience lost to COVID-19, this is the one I lament the most. This story of rage and remediation that split Midwest Film Journal’s core group straight down the middle, sparking vigorous and thoughtful dissents that I certainly understand and respect even if I may disagree. But oh, to have hashed out this film’s provocations heatedly, respectfully, in person. In some ways, writer-director Emerald Fennell’s is a soda-pop Se7en shimmying along the edge of a grindhouse cleaver (and to the tune of “Stars Are Blind,” no less). But it distinguishes itself with a clear-eyed awareness of how automated America’s response to a woman’s accusations of assault have become. Seeds of doubt, shame and defamation are sown so easily, and Fennell illustrates that with choices as shrewd and subtle as they are popped in neon (such as how an academic office of old-white-guy paintings looms even over the smallest allocation made for progress). So the task of rectifying that, radical as it may seem, falls to someone who finds difficulty in working against the grain in a society that measures rarely, cuts always. “I don’t wanna look at that,” one character tells Carey Mulligan’s Cassie at a crucial moment. We never do, do we? “You should really think about this,” another tells her. Her reply: “I cannot begin to tell you how much I’ve thought about it.” Mulligan’s climactic speech is a stone-cold, attention-commanding summation of all that has been sucked out of Cassie’s world, and yet it’s still propelled by a light that still glistens rather than all the darkness that has enveloped. And then that ending. It might stun you. It might make you roll your eyes with its embrace of the very institutions it’s trying to tear down. Either way, let it be enough for Hollywood to finally retire “Angel of the Morning.” To me, I see it saying — with a scream in its heart — that only when faced with shame, powerlessness or something more irretrievably permanent will the systems meant to prop up this putrescence do anything to change. Any victory might feel pyrrhic. But those are the cornerstones on which the putrid system is built. (In theaters now; coming soon to VOD)
15. BAD BOYS FOR LIFE
In 1995, I saw Bad Boys with my best friend Josh. We were 15. It’s not as if we hadn’t gotten into plenty of R-rated movies by then. We just hadn’t encountered a snooty box-office clerk who refused to sell us tickets even though my mom had already dropped us off. Thankfully, two adult strangers offered to purchase tickets for us with our money. The clerk glared at them. And us. In the theater, we sat several rows away from those two. The clerk comes in, scowls at us and says: “If they’re your guardians, you have to sit with them.” So we did, which prompted us and these strangers to laugh at how much of a dick the clerk was being. In 2003, Josh came to visit me in Springfield, Illinois, where we saw Bad Boys II. I was wrapping up my first year of full-time work as an adult at a newspaper there. Josh would regularly journey from our hometown to visit me there over the next five years. So it was only fitting, 17 years later, that I make the 4 ½ hour drive back home to see Bad Boys For Life with him. I knew there would be a blizzard. Did I cancel? Nope. I rented a Dodge Durango and set forth with my dog in the backseat. The drive took something closer to 6 ½ hours, with stops for the dog and severely slowed traffic. The next day, we caught a matinee, enjoyed dinner and each other’s company — not knowing it would be the last time we’d see each other in person for lord knows how long. Bad Boys For Life features Martin Lawrence manning a turret gun in a sidecar. Bad Boys For Life has corpses falling from great heights onto cars for comic relief. Bad Boys For Life incorporates characters named Booker Grassie and Zway Lo. Bad Boys For Life has a timeline that basically shreds the previous’ films canon. Bad Boys For Life ends with a badass helicopter explosion. Bad Boys For Life is dumb as hell. Bad Boys For Life is fucking awesome. I will love it forever. (Starz / VOD & Blu-ray / DVD)
14. FIRST COW
Easily Kelly Reichardt’s most accessible film, which is saying something for a two-hour whisper-quiet thriller about whether two men’s nocturnal cow-milking will be discovered. But it also moves faster than anything else she’s made, for even as there’s an emotional distance and remove from the lead characters, it’s wrapped up in a necessary reminder of the violence inherent in commerce, that crime and collateral are (as the movie says) roughly equivalent, how humiliation and initiative are two sides of the same brittle coin, and how deeply you can delude yourself that bad times won’t come for you, too. (Showtime / VOD & Blu-ray / DVD)
13. PALM SPRINGS
Andy Samberg lowest-key five-year A-game of smart / smort (as Jake Peralta might say) comedy of anybody out there? He makes the ennui look effortless — which, of course, is part of its continual allure — while Cristin Milioti gets the overdue film breakthrough she deserves. Andy Siara’s screenplay shows that you can break free of that ’90s movie with which this has things in common to offer your own spin on that story — one that more or less acts as a closed loop all on its own. The travel lengths to which Samberg says he went to try and stop something is one of the year’s biggest laugh lines. Minor quibble: Could’ve just cut straight to that last scene at the party as a sharper ending. (Hulu)
12. THE OLD GUARD
Life essentially boils down to the decisions we make with the best information we possess at the time. Good, bad, it all culminates in the ultimate and universal intel: We all die someday. So we mostly endeavor toward a meaningful metier — to families, communities, friends, ourselves — hoping that at the end, we can reflect on the choices made and find it a life well lived. The Old Guard is an uncommonly soulful and somber-minded superhero movie, one that spans the Kübler-Ross continuum of grief. But it also counters the weary with plenty of wry. There’s also the rollicking respite from real-world rot that comes from watching Charlize Theron bury her battle axe in a bunch of bad guys’ bodies. Sunken, sallow and stripped of all sexiness, Theron makes Andy a worthwhile addition to her action-hero gallery alongside her work in Atomic Blonde and Mad Max: Fury Road (the latter getting a brief, amusing visual shoutout). Theron also continues to embrace fight choreography that feels not only laser-focused on the realities of her physique but a distinctly female body language of rage. Meanwhile, Kiki Layne (as her protégé) contributes strong character work as a woman who tethered her life to a legacy inextricable from mortality and morality and now must wrestle with how to carry on when the letters “im” alter the definition of those notions. Greg Rucka’s script has no room for empty-gesture martyrdom, not when there are regular reminders of how much of these immortals’ lives have been spent in chains, man-made or metaphorical. He also writes a full-throated and full-hearted declaration of love that is the most romantic thing you’ve ever heard, or might ever hear, in superhero cinema. Theron’s mantra of “whatever it takes” reflects weighted uncertainty instead of fist-pump oorah. And it’s not pointlessly overloaded with action, making its climactic clash exceptionally exciting and engaging. It’s a thrilling, moving story about immortality — one that understands the strain of emotional comorbidity, illustrates how kindness and conscientious choices truly reverberate and, it bears repeating, features Charlize Theron burying battle axes in people. (Netflix)
“What’s remembered lives.” “Maybe I’ve spent too much of my life just remembering.” Scripted ethnography rarely gets more empathetic and expressive than writer-director Chloé Zhao’s follow-up to 2018’s dazzling The Rider. The film follows people who inhabit an itinerant existence in America — living out of their vehicles, taking seasonal jobs for subsistence, stockpiling and bartering. Similar to The Rider and perhaps somewhat less effective, Nomadland features real people portraying lightly fictionalized versions of themselves, but it also features central and supporting turns by recognizable icons like Frances McDormand and David Strathairn. They integrate seamlessly into these communities of everyday folks without sacrificing the upper echelon of sensitivity and craft you expect from them. The people of Nomadland are those for whom forward momentum and a friendly smile count as currency. Zhao tells their story in a way that combines visual wonders of the land’s natural splendor with the warmth of human connectivity. It’s all layers and insights, artistry and instruction, neither lamenting nor lionizing the lifestyle and realizing it’s so often rooted in choice rather than necessity. There is a feeling that Fern, McDormand’s character, has been robbed of some comfort in this decision but also complacency that, deep down, terrified her. There is pain in Fern, but McDormand (for the first time in a long time) gives her a full complement of joy and effervescence, and the film’s meditative final shot finds her coming to peace with the unspoiled beauty on geographic and emotional horizons. (Opening in theaters February 2021)
10. ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI
There’s a Million Dollar Quartet feel to One Night in Miami, a historically speculative gathering of Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) after Clay’s surprise defeat of Sonny Liston for the WBC Heavyweight Championship in February 1964. Narratively, it’s about Malcolm X’s bid for celebrity endorsement in a pending break from the Nation of Islam. But in the hands of Regina King — an actress making her feature-film debut as a director — Miami becomes a treatise on the unique challenges that face Black icons of art, athletics and advocacy, namely where they must find the sweet spot between meaning and message that generally need not concern their white counterparts. A prologue before this meeting reminds them of those burdens, with respective encounters of distraction, aggravation, degradation and desperation. Of the many 2020 films adapted from a stage play (adeptly here by original playwright Kemp Powers), Miami escapes its proscenium most effectively, with trips to roofs, parking lots, phone booths and convenience stores that extend beyond a boxed-in hotel room. (The connotations of the fireworks they watch from the roof, and how far away King frames them, is a contemplative marvel.) At the same time, King doesn’t betray the intimacy of this story’s genesis, with dynamic direction that hones in on the inward reflections of outsized personalities and makes clear the clashes of principle and pleasure between the four of them. She also gets the year’s strongest ensemble work from Hodge, Goree, Odom and Ben-Adir — with Odom in particular delivering the year’s best supporting actor turn and Ben-Adir finding human notes of doubt within the oft-portrayed Malcolm X that others have not yet mined. A final montage set to Cooke’s signature Civil Rights song, “A Change is Gonna Come,” avoids an easy comfort with which the song could be associated, instead affirming a more difficult truth that all four men come to realize — that the performative gestures for which they might sometimes feel a sense of cultural shame are part and parcel with the powerful messages they had to offer the world. (in limited theatrical release; premieres Jan. 15, 2021 on Amazon Prime)
9. THE INVISIBLE MAN
By reimagining a Universal Monsters classic to tackle the universal monster of domestic abuse, writer-director Leigh Whannell’s film certainly constitutes a two-hour trigger warning. Thankfully, it’s also two hours of trigger discipline. Along with persuasive work from his cast and visual effects / stunt professionals, Whannell successfully eliminates his assailant from visible space. But never for a second does he let you forget how large he looms, even when he’s not posing an immediate, and often merciless, threat. This movie needs not escalate into horror. It lives there from the outset. And while a modern-day explanation for the villain’s method of invisibility is certainly important — sensibly updated for a post-fact, deep-fake world without getting in over its head — the contemporary context of this remake matters more. After a near-century of adaptations of H.G. Wells’ work, here’s one that fixes its gaze not on a man who loses his mind and body, but the woman who lost herself to said man’s mind and body well before any scientific breakthrough. Not an easy watch for anyone who has endured abuse of any stripe or shape, or known someone who has. But it’s grounded by insistence on emotional authenticity, character detail and respect for how shock, stress and suffering crash over people in waves that wane but never fully withdraw. Casting Elisabeth Moss also helps, as few actresses could more effectively swing the pendulum between reclamation and relapse. The film thrives on her mixture of humane nuance and believable ferocity in her eventual retaliation. Whannell ramps up his second act with bonkers elan, deploying 2020’s finest oh-shit moment and a frighteningly fluid third-act scene of havoc. It ratchets the tension right into an unexpectedly noirish conclusion — both a moment of reverence for James Whale’s 1933 original and a resolution that’s staunchly in a societal here and now. Neither as misanthropic or maniacal in its body count as Whale’s film, Whannell’s work nevertheless finds a happy medium between entropy and empathy. It feels like the right ground to claim for a shrewd, sleek and truly scary story that knows trauma can’t be erased but it can be empowering. (HBOMax / VOD & Blu-ray / DVD)
PLEASE DON’T END THAT WAY AND INSTEAD DISTINGUISH YOURSELF FROM THE FAREWELL.
PLEASE DON’T END THAT WAY AND INSTEAD DISTINGUISH YOURSELF FROM THE FAREWELL.
PLEASE DON’T END THAT WAY AND INSTEAD DISTINGUISH YOURSELF FROM THE FAREWELL.
See? Some prayers are answered! (Perhaps more cogent thoughts when it opens wider in 2021.)
7. ANOTHER ROUND
Breathe deep. Through your nose. Smell that? It’s the shitty American remake of Another Round percolating right now among prominent comedians. Did Will Ferrell learn his lesson with such things on Downhill (aka Force Majeure)? Maybe. Did Vince Vaughn take his lumps from Delivery Man (aka Starbuck)? Well, that answer is certainly more amusing than anything you’ll likely find in any anglicized adaptation of this story about four Danes (the inimitable Mads Mikkelsen among them) who test a theory of increased social and professional performance while maintaining a .05 blood alcohol level at all times. It will not surprise you that feeling “all fired up and laid back at the same time” does not necessarily end well for all of these men. What’s certain to be lost in any other telling of this tale is Another Round’s acute anthropological exploration of addiction — as much to FOMO as to alcohol, for they are often culturally intertwined. Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg turns the film into less of a melodramatically cautionary tale and more of a referendum on alcohol’s everyday role in calibrating communities. These guys think they’re trailblazing experimenters out on some bold new frontier. They’re frail, vulnerable and codependent on something, just like most of us. All of this is complemented by the best performance Mikkelsen has yet given in a film (for nothing can quite match his small-screen Hannibal Lecter) as Martin, a high school teacher who believes he has already told everyone any story worth the oxygen about his life and who discovers … well, that he might be right. Martin’s crisis culminates in the greatest ending to any fictional film of 2020, in which he resurrects some long-dormant skills from his past as much to lash out as to stand out. It’s an astonishing sequence that allows you to choose your own interpretation. To some, it may feel superficially glib. To me, it felt like a dark resignation to larger forces that some people can only fight so well for so long — a flight or a fall captured in an astonishing flash. (VOD)
6. THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
“The conceit of this film is that Canada might just be totally fake in this person’s head. And this film is about his head.” Bravo, Matthew Rankin, for a truly inventive and idiosyncratic comedy that alternates between a dosed-drink roadhouse all-nighter celebration between Monty Python and the John Lee-Vernon Chatman PFFR crew and a rather clear-eyed meditation on the mania inherent to the pursuit of political power. This is spitfire surrealism and midnight-movie madness at its finest — so joyously bizarre and yet, by the end, strangely beautiful in how it evokes the loss of self for the perceived greater good … while also featuring a decapitation with ice skates and someone impaled on a giant narwhal horn. Don’t read anything else about it. Just give it a shot. Make sure you have your maple walnut ice cream handy. (VOD)
5. THE ASSISTANT
A breathtakingly bleak, macabre mood piece about all-too-common degradation, The Assistant is among the precious few films that approach workplace harassment and sexual assault with such a mercilessly anthropological eye. Writer-director Kitty Green, an Australian documentarian making her fictional-film debut, casts a nigh-Romanian pall over a distinctly American story about a menacing, manipulative movie-studio master of the universe. The parallels to Harvey Weinstein are unmistakable and the timing to ongoing deliberations in his rape trial uncanny. But don’t mistake that for an exploitatively empty shell or finger-wagging flimsiness. (Wisely, The Assistant doesn’t try to achieve visual fidelity to its proxy pig — never showing his face and only lending him the voice of veteran character actor Jay O. Sanders in a few crucial moments.) In other words: Green doesn’t waste time trying to make us wonder what’s really going on or how bad it might be. Heaven help us, we know how bad it is. These days, the awareness of venal rot and our visceral revulsion with it— microcosms of the macro havoc so many men wreak — resides in our bones now. The Assistant wonders what the hell we are going to do about it, if we can do anything. Green delivers a captivating, convincing condemnation of how complacency helps cultivate this behavior, but also a sobering reminder of the difficulty in liberating yourself from systems with no shortage of limitations or intimidations. Of course, all of this would lack the necessary wallop were Garner to flinch even slightly from an unyielding view into how Jane’s dignity is decimated. She perfectly calibrates the restraint and rage, particularly in a scene where she seems to acclimate herself to the loathsome behavior surrounding her. But what’s obscured is the clarity of what comes next for Jane, and it’s fitting that the film’s climactic scene finds her fixating on a blur in a nearby window. The Assistant is a film that burrows its way under your skin, one malevolent millimeter at a time — a tough, but worthwhile, watch with a slow and quiet penetration that’s no less brutal. Its iciest dagger comes in the final moments after Jane’s banal birthday conversation with her father. We think only of the eventual confrontation weeks, months or maybe even years down the line: What happened to Jane? What was she hiding? Why didn’t she do something? No easy answers to be found in an unshakable conclusion to an appropriately unsparing film. (Hulu / VOD & DVD)
4. DA 5 BLOODS
Spike Lee’s latest crosses a socially incensed Sierra Madre with his own Miracle at St. Anna, given its sleek feel for action (a muscle Lee rarely flexes but does with force) and a slight streak of woolliness in the way it shows how little the world’s woes have really changed. Lee may have wielded his time-flattening sledgehammer of commentary with more confidence in Malcolm X and BlacKkKlansman. But it’s easy to forgive the occasional missteps of someone continually called to emphasize racial history’s repetitions and rhymes in the hope that it might inspire someone to make a change. And oh, the volume of its ideas — chiefly the Vietnam War’s embodiment as a powerful engine of American division that has been rebuilt time and again to add more miles. Whatever recollections of the war remain in the larger Vietnamese culture we see amount to commodified kitsch. But we also experience the madness that ensues whenever someone pokes through this paper-thin layer of monetary mediation. None of the characters here literally killed any of the others’ mothers, fathers, sisters or brothers, but they pulled triggers and that makes them complicit. Da 5 Bloods also showcases the greatest performance in any of Lee’s films since Denzel Washington in Malcolm X. The first thing we learn about Delroy Lindo’s Paul is that he voted for “President Fake Bone Spurs.” And while there are the expected jokes afterward, the script never trolls Paul. It’s hardly apolitical — after all, this is a Spike Lee Joint — but it’s also not the easy assignment of agitation that you might expect. Without underlines or excuses, Lee shows us see how Paul misplaced this political trust by devoting a good chunk of its time to psychologically probing Paul’s fear and desperation over loss of control that has plagued him since the war. He’s a man whose entire emotional response has been permanently pounded into paranoia beyond all measure of practicality. A reliable character actor for numerous decades, Lindo delivers a revelatory turn in the lead role of a man irreversibly hobbled by shame, rage and their irrational, erratic byproducts — especially the bleakly curdled love for his son. There’s a monologue during which Lindo’s face fills the screen in a way that bores a hole right through you, and Paul’s discovery of forgiveness that has eluded him — a crucible of fixation forged by societal forces larger than him or any of us — is the film’s emotional apex. Quite simply, Lindo owns Bloods in a way you’ll never forget. This might not be Lee’s most focused and fully realized wellspring of wrath for racial wrongdoing. But the unexpectedly topical conclusionis a cage-rattler — establishing a poetic meter of discord somewhere between Make America Great Again and “Let America Be America Again.” As a lament for places and people who have only known loss and lethality, it might be uneven. It may be unwieldy. But it’s also unmistakably Spike Lee. (Netflix)
3. SMALL AXE
I wrote at length about Steve McQueen’s masterful five-installment anthology of tales from London’s West Indies communities circa the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Only two of these installments (Mangrove and Lovers Rock) would make my individual top 10. But as I noted before, assessing these individually is beside the point. You can’t take one piece out and get a better result. And you might be wondering whether this is more TV than it is cinema. Who cares? It’s one of 2020’s crowning storytelling achievements no matter how you define it. (Amazon Prime)
2. NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS
Writer-director Eliza Hittman merges the tension of a thriller, the sensitivity of a character study and the urgency of a documentary in this story of Autumn (Sidney Flanigin), a pregnant Pennsylvanian teenager seeking an abortion in New York with assistance from her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder). It’s a sufficiently damning indictment of the frustrating inefficiencies and frightening biases found in American gynecological care for young women. It also throws a scathing rejoinder to the rancid rationale that maybe such lessons should be learned cruelly — such a gauntlet as a womanly rite of passage, completed with only lifetime scars shared with no one. But the film is also a finely rendered portrait of grace and strength in friendship. All those elements are elevated by the verisimilitude of cinematographer Hélène Louvart’s 16-millimeter film stock, Chris Foster’s enveloping sound design, a stealthily heartbreaking performance from Ryder (in her first feature-length role) and an exquisitely detailed lead turn from Flanigan (in her acting debut) as Autumn. Complications in their plan arise, from both Autumn’s stubborn pride and bureaucratic circumstances — but never yank a yoke into the annihilative death spiral of the film’s closest counterpart, Cristian Mungiu’s 2007 Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Days and 2 Weeks. Skylar and Autumn certainly test their trust; there is the feeling, at least early on, that Skylar sees this as much as a cool story to someday tell about how she spirited off to New York as she does a way to help her cousin. But as the situation evolves, Hittman escalates the fear of the lengths to which Skylar will go in a desperate deployment of her wiles. Neither does the film give way to irrevocable anger; indeed, Hittman’s overall gaze on this story is more glowering than grim. By the end, Never Rarely Sometimes Always offers an emphatic plea to realize seeking help doesn’t make you weak but makes you human. Rarely has a visual motif of clasped hands, whether white-knuckle strong or barely touching fingertips, registered so strongly. The scene from which the film takes its title is an emotional, thematic and performative high point. Yes, there are four answers from which to choose. But what should be the selection of those who fall somewhere in between or, like Autumn, feel like life is a flood of every option all at once? Autumn also realizes that, in many people’s minds, “sometimes” and “rarely” are tantamount to “always.” For if something happened once, could it not just be happening all the time? It’s the greatest individual scene of 2020, in which Flanigan lets us see how Autumn’s dizzying reaction to the inquiry finds her pointing an inward finger at all of her choices — for better or for worse, like a confessional without anonymity. Hittman tackles a major subject with visual dexterity, tonal control and an equal measure of care and alarm — an odyssey unafraid to challenge beliefs about the issue at hand. (HBOMax / VOD & DVD)
1. i’m thinking of ending things
Charlie Kaufman’s latest funny, brutal, sad, beautiful and unforgettable odyssey insists that you self-interrogate to a degree unlike any other Kaufman effort before it. To that end, the very act of assessing it seems like self-ensnarement in the fateful traps that befall its characters, like a Möbius strip of analytical misery. Certainly, things is brain-rewiring cinema that twists some circuits together for the better and yanks out others, leaving them forever unplugged and sparking into the ether for … well, if not necessarily, worse, certainly a considerable difference. Certainly, things is a puzzle box in regard to the reliability of its narrator(s) and sometimes in regard to whose subconscious is in freefall. More than that, it’s a parable about our human programming relative to the rest of the animal kingdom. Annihilation awaits us all. Only we have the pain of knowing that, and thus we complicate our response with sweet distractions and delusions — emotional impulses or chemical inclinations that keep us whistling past the graveyard even as that tune devolves into an atonal, howling wind. A more cynical filmmaker would finger-wag such bread and circus. But Kaufman neither begrudges nor bemoans the pursuit of happiness, even if it’s a settled-upon affectation rather than a true state of mind. Instead, he simply demands that you see how joy is often a mirage to someone’s real melancholy and contextualizes the idea with a clarity about death none of us can avoid. And yet for all of its considerable portent, things reminds us that the tortured fella who wrote this thing lives in the real world right along with us, leaving ample room for playfulness with interludes of animation, song and dance, some arriving at a point of intimidation or sadness but always with elegance and artistry. He’s abetted by career-best turns from Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons, expertly matched, illustrating how even the best interpersonal relationships can devolve into pursuits of control and illusions of power, and collapsing a lifetime’s worth of emotions and expressions into one film. (David Thewlis, Toni Collette and Guy Boyd, portraying a pivotal character on the film’s fringes, also help to sell this alternating alchemy of contentment and dread.) Ultimately, Kaufman communicates his commanding understanding of the fables and feelings with which we fill our lives, and fantasies, in the futile effort to somehow live above death. And what is the ultimate Hail Mary for such an effort if not the pursuit of love — even if it’s a love confined to the flights of our own minds? i’m thinking of ending things is a densely internalized work that regularly erupts into relatable moments of wonder and terror that anyone can understand — whether perpetually together or forever alone. Kaufman has not lost his flair for taking the piss, but he’s found a way to take some comfort, too — cold as it may be — and share it with us. (Netflix)