I use movies to mark milestones in my life. This year, on the fifth anniversary of our first date — the premiere of the Hoosier-made holiday comedy, Bethlehem — I proposed to my girlfriend, Jenn. I wish we could’ve celebrated the occasion with a trip to the movies, but this was in November, when we were still avoiding indoor crowds due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Writing a top-10 list is my way of creating a time capsule for any given year. But since 2020 has lasted about 12 years so far, that’s proving more difficult now. It’s hard to look back on this year through the haze of anger and dread. I think less about the films released and more about our morally bankrupt leaders, this virus they allowed to spread, the Black Lives Matter movement they’re hellbent on stopping, the incoming administration they refuse to acknowledge.
This year has been a mess, but I’m going to take this time right now to sort through it via the movies I watched. I’m going to trace the fucked-up evolution of this year — from the nice, normal times when we could go to theaters without masks and the looming fear of death to the present day when we’re hunkering down to watch big event films like Wonder Woman 1984 … on HBOMax.
Sorry to be a Debbie Downer. Let’s cheer up with a virtual trip back through the year in film.
NIGHTS OUT AT THE MOVIES
The first film I saw in the theater this year was the big-screen adaptation of the truTV reality series, Impractical Jokers, which Jenn and I watch every time we stay in a hotel. It’s the kind of show you find through channel surfing and quickly enjoy as junk-food entertainment. If only we knew how much TV trash we would end up consuming in the coming months.
In the theater, we turned to each other and cringed, recognizing that these pranksters are best enjoyed on a small screen with a plastic cup of cheap wine. But in the end, the film reached a cinematic intimacy that the show never has. It revealed the heart behind the hijinks. A quietly moving scene finds one of the jokers calling his parents after enduring their prank on him. It’s a disarmingly sweet and sincere moment. As I wrote in my review: “A lesser film would’ve dwelled in the discomfort rather than pulling back the curtain to reveal the loving people behind the prank.”
My next theater outings were The Assistant and The Invisible Man, both timely takes on toxic masculinity and poignant portraits of women fighting back. I appreciated the sci-fi horror spin on the latter and the painful realism of the former. While I longed for more cinematic confrontations in The Assistant, I ultimately realized how its subtlety makes it all the more achingly real and haunting. As the film shows, actions speak louder than words. From the sordid stains he leaves on his couch to the hypodermic needles he haphazardly tosses in the trash, the villainous studio executive is a human tornado, always leaving wreckage in his wake. The film sends us out into the night shivering at the thought of how long people will keep cleaning up his messes. As the titular character, Julia Garner delivers a quietly implosive performance.
Another memorable moviegoing experience was seeing The Way Back, Ben Affleck’s comeback film after his alcohol relapse and rehab stay. Affleck’s real-life struggles add weight to his performance as an alcoholic basketball coach.
I’m a sucker for sports stories of redemption and I fall for the corniest of clichés. But I appreciated this film’s lack of inspirational locker-room speeches and suggestions that comebacks can be sustained. It shares a realistic message about the depths of rock bottom and the difficulty of rising from the rubble. This was eerie foreshadowing of a year that would see us all getting knocked down and picking ourselves back up again and again. Shortly after the release of this film, COVID-19 hit Indiana, and I didn’t see another movie in the theater for the rest of 2020.
QUARANTINE, STREAMING AND CHILL
Bad Education felt like the first big streaming release of the year — or at least the first one to consider for IFJA awards. For me, it delivered with complex, empathetic performances from Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney, a sharp and surprisingly funny screenplay from Mike Makowsky and slick, confident direction from Cory Finley. Not only did this film come as a cinematic pick-me-up, but during a year in which daily bombshell stories left our crooked leaders unscathed, it arrived as a refreshing reminder of journalists’ ability to crack down on the corrupt.
Capone seemed like a film aiming for awards consideration, but it turned out to be a greasy carnival ride under the guise of a polished prestige picture. It felt like a dude-bro response to The Irishman. You could picture writer-director Josh Trank watching Martin Scorsese’s film and muttering, “Oh, yeah? Well, my movie’s gonna have a dying gangster farting!” Having said all of that, it’s fun as fuck. I watched the Capone trailer so many times that I memorized all of the dialogue in it. This batshit crazy biopic did not disappoint.
Watching The Trip to Greece was a bittersweet experience. I saw the first Trip film in an arthouse theater during a surprise visit with my brother in Philadelphia. I then grew attached to the stars, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, and their antics — constantly competing in singing, performing impersonations and spitting out trivia amid exotic backdrops. I went on to dutifully see the sequels in similar arthouse theaters to capture the experience of discovering the original with my brother. The release of each film in the series felt like a warm reunion. Watching this final installment at home during a pandemic felt a little sad, but vacationing vicariously through the characters was also wonderfully refreshing.
THE SUMMER OF HANKS
With many movie theaters closed and new streaming selections sparse, revisiting old favorites was probably a pastime we all shared this summer. Partly because he was the first big celebrity to come down with COVID-19 and then overcome it, Dave Gutierrez and I decided to dive into the filmography of Tom Hanks, everyone’s favorite movie star — well, not Dave’s. At the inspiration and encouragement of Evan Dossey and Nick Rogers, we swung our dukes at each other via two dueling essay series — Hanks for Everything, Tom! and Hanks for Nothing, Tom!
We both dug deep. Dave wagged his finger at the racism of The Green Mile while I pointed out the purity of Big. He explored the self indulgence on display in The Polar Express while I reflected on how Hanks reminded me of my father in Road to Perdition. And in our climactic confrontation, Dave compelled me to reassess the problematic nature of a childhood favorite, Forrest Gump.
This year, Evan and I had the honor of partnering with Heartland Film to curate Heartland Horror, a new category for their shorts and feature festival. Evan and I are both horrorhounds, so this was quite a treat during a nasty trick of a year.
Like all great horror films, our selections tapped into timely fears. With its hospital setting, La Dosis conjured up our collective fear of becoming COVID-19 patients. Conceived and filmed long before the pandemic, Darkness in Tenement 45 arrived at an eerily apt time to present an ensemble of characters struggling under quarantine conditions. Shot via Zoom during the quarantine, Host uses a virtual séance as a springboard for an exploration of our desperation to connect beyond cyberspace. And those are just a few of the films from a diverse set of selections spanning the globe.
Best of all, Heartland provided not only virtual screenings but a safe way to see these films on the big screen at the Tibbs Drive-In in Indianapolis.
All right, here we go. The obvious “Oscar season films” came late this year, at least for me. Sorry, but the uncomfortably broad courtroom spectacle of The Trial of the Chicago 7 felt like a parody of an Aaron Sorkin film, complete with a finger-wagging judge straight out of Adam Sandler’s comedic universe.
Speaking of finding disappointment in the work of a filmmaker I usually love, David Fincher’s Mank stank. The praise seems to boil down to: “The film looks great. It transports you to the Old Hollywood era. I appreciate the history behind it.” Sorry, but that doesn’t cut it for me. Mank relies far too heavily on the weight of that history to carry it. Sure, I could drift off and ponder on that history and thus better enjoy two-plus hours of a miserable drunk meandering around. Or I could be honest about what Mank is, which is what I’m doing now.
There. I got that off my chest. OK. On to the good stuff. Athlete A was the first film of the year to make me cry. Seeing the survivors of former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar look their abuser in the eye and speak out in the face of evil was an unforgettable inspiration.
Soul brought out the tears as well with its upfront depiction of death and life-affirming message about cherishing the time leading up to it.
The Twentieth Century cast a spell on me with its bizarre blend — Batman Returns meets Mister America by way of My Winnipeg. Although it’s fantastical, this tale of a self-consumed clown desperately seeking validation through political office also feels all too familiar and timely.
The Nest swept me away with its portrait of a marriage on the brink of collapse. Another relationship drama, i’m thinking of ending things, stood out with its inventive depiction of a weak relationship in its infancy. It captures how scary it can be to move on to the next level with someone to whom you’re not sure you want to commit. We’ve all been there at some point in our lives. I’m grateful I’m with my soulmate now.
Another Round gave me the sense of movie magic I’d been craving all year. It’s beautifully raw, human and intimate in a way only movies can be. Let’s be honest; a lot of us probably self-medicated with alcohol to get through the clusterfuck of 2020. So this film’s balanced depiction of drinking was a relatable relief. But it’s not merely an ode to alcohol. It’s a broader celebration of losing inhibitions and living in the moment. No one in the ensemble of characters succeeds at being present in their lives. They’re all consumed with their midlife crises. A little bit of liquid courage helps them at first, but it also hurts. What starts off as a relatively breezy dramedy emerges as a film with no easy answers or tidy resolutions. The ending is simultaneously tender, tragic, sloppy, elegant and exuberant — like life itself.
Dick Johnson is Dead wrecked me by capturing the surreal nature of caring for a parent in the last years of their life. I have experience in that department, so it hit close to home. Seeing your parent in a vulnerable position is scary, but it can also open you up and make you face what’s important, make you say what you really want to say, make you let your guard down and bare each other’s souls. As director Kirsten Johnson shows in the end of this film, lament gives way to a celebration of life.
Da 5 Bloods was the last 2020 release I watched. It ripped my heart out with its depiction of a racist, corrupt America that’s been that way for far too long. Fortunately, we have filmmakers like Spike Lee fighting for change.
Screener season culminated in a boisterous year-end IFJA Zoom awards ceremony, the winners of which were covered in Variety!
So, in terms of cinematic adventures, it wasn’t a bad year. Hopefully in 2021, my fiancée will be my wife, this virus will be gone, theaters will feel safe and we can all see each other at the movies.