Thursday, January 7, 2021

Year in Review 2020: Movies

There's nothing I enjoy more than going to the movies; even when I end up seeing something I don't like, I love the immersion of being in a dark room with a huge screen and minimal distractions. I love physically feeling a film's score pulsing through the room. I find it freeing in a way that watching at home cannot reproduce, so while I still watched a lot of new movies this year, it really wasn't the same. I saw three films in theaters at the very beginning of the year before Covid shut everything down (Birds of Prey, Just Mercy, and The Way Back), and I'm thankful I at least had that.

In spite of practically everything suffering long release date delays, a good number of excellent films were released in 2020 and there remains a number of them that I had no way to see (Minari and Promising Young Woman are the two I most wanted to check out, neither will be widely available until later this year.) 

Aside from those 2020 stragglers, there are a handful of films I'm very excited for in the upcoming year: Robert Eggers' The Northman, Shaka King's Judas and the Black Messiah, Nia DaCosta's Candyman, David Lowery's The Green Knight. Here's hoping I can see some of them in an actual theater! Now let's take a look back at what I watched in the last year. Each tier is arranged in alphabetical order.

Top Tier - My five favorite movies of the year:


Another Round / Druk (Thomas Vinterberg) - A Danish dark comedy/drama with a great performance by Mads Mikkelsen. A look at the lengths we go to to justify our actions; in this case, four high school teachers in midlife crisis using scientific study as an excuse to be perpetually drunk. More than just a cautionary tale about excess gone too far, it's a surprisingly warm film that breaks down the emotional walls men build around themselves and their fear of failure. Even at their low points, there's an outpouring of compassion, chipping away at the social and physical build up of toxicity.


Ham on Rye (Tyler Taormina) - Taormina's feature film debut is a weird, wild, and poignantly real one.
A town's teenage population heads to the local deli to pair up and find their destiny while the deli's surly owner/God figure putters unhappily behind the scenes. A David Lynch-style coming-of-age mood piece focused on the mundane grotesqueness of suburban life in a broken world that either casts you out or grinds you down. Divided cleanly into a day and night half (plus an epilogue) transitioning from very genuine teenage awkwardness to utter, abyssal unease. A whimsical score in the first half gives way to electrical noise and silence in the second.

I'm Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman) - Kaufman's third film walks a similar line as Ham on Rye, showing us an almost-ordinary world that teeters on the edge of painful realism and an uneasy dream state. What starts out as a relationship drama becomes an exploration of memory, loss, and how the retrospective lens through which we view our past can skew our understanding. Love, family, art, and gender are approached as cloudy concepts that we can never quite pin down as the film examines who we are, who we wish to be, and who we're seen as from the outside.

Shirley (Josephine Decker) - An excellent performance by Elizabeth Moss anchors a powerful film that shows utter contempt for 1950's America. A semi-biographical film looking at author Shirley Jackson's life in 1951, Shirley inverts the expectations of the genre, focusing on a hazy uneasiness that shifts from intimate discomfort to a forceful rejection of patriarchal systems of power and upper class academia. There's a deep feeling of isolation here that goes perfectly with 2020's quarantine dread and a deeply blurred line between friend and foe, with a titular character that rejects the ideas of protagonist and antagonist.

Swallow (Carlo Mirabella-Davis) - Another powerful feature film directorial debut, this one by Carlo Mirabella-Davis. A film that feels made for the mood of 2020, Swallow follows a newly married, newly pregnant woman trapped both physically and emotionally in a life she doesn't want. Haley Bennett is outstanding and what could have easily been an exploitative story about illness and craving ends up being liberating. It's incredible that such a grim film can simultaneously feel this victorious in the end. It's also amazing how unappetizing the film makes regular food look! I don't really think of it as a horror movie, but Swallow has that "triumph over a monstrous situation" element that's part of just about every horror movie I like.

Excellent movies worth your time:


Birds of Prey (Cathy Yan) - A much better than average comic book movie that feels nice and personal with no dumb, world-ending stakes. Solid comedy and nicely made, goofy action scenes are punctuated by gruesome moments that don't fit the tone at all; I don't think it benefited in any way from being an R film, but that's my only real complaint. Margot Robbie is perfect and it's a huge improvement over Suicide Squad, which this film serves as a kind of, sort of sequel to. It's not a film that's overly concerned with canon or universe continuity and that's for the best.

Black Bear (Lawrence Michael Levine) - Black Bear is wild; simultaneously bizarre and utterly, uncomfortably real. As with Ham on Rye, the film is cleanly divided into two halves with distinctly different tone and appearance. There are some real Mulholland Drive vibes here and Aubrey Plaza is fantastic, taking on the same character from three very different angles. The film pushes her (and her character) into some really dark, human places that are hard to look at but impossible to look away from. There's a lot to relate with here for anyone who's felt stuck on the direction of creative project.

Color out of Space (Richard Stanley) - A gross, nutty ride and a worthy installment in the Nicolas Cage Goes Berserk canon. Richard Stanley's first film in a decade is a candy-colored piece of madness based on the H.P. Lovecraft story of the same name; we follow the unraveling of a family in the middle of nowhere as a mysterious object from space transforms their world into something unrecognizable. It's a knowingly campy, sometimes trashy film shot with the eye of an art film director, and it's great!

Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee) - Lee's latest is an intense, extremely well-made nightmare collage of dark humor and absolute horror. A frequently surprisingly, powerfully anti-war war film, Da 5 Bloods
is more visceral than usual for Lee, but still manages to carry his sense of humor and quirks. Four aged Vietnam vets return to the country decades later to find a lost treasure and pay tribute to their fallen commander in a story that cuts between past and present and between buddy comedy and war film until the two styles converge in tragedy. Though we're watching old men try to regain glory and absolve guilt, there's a very strong message that it's the next generation that will make the world a better place. There's a great ensemble cast, but Delroy Lindo's Paul is the standout character, a man lost in rage. Da 5 Bloods is also, sadly, one of Chadwick Boseman's final performances.

Honey Boy (Alma Har'el) - Shia LaBeouf wrote an autobiographical film as a form of therapy and plays the role of his father; it's a concept that doesn't sound like it should work, but absolutely does. Directed exceptionally well by Alma Har'el in her directorial feature debut, Honey Boy's story of distant fathers and sons hits home in probably too many ways. It's an uncomfortable film made even more painful by recent abuse allegations in LaBeouf's real life that basically show the sweet little kid at the start of this film never does manage to break out of his tragic cycle.


Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman) - A road-trip odyssey following a teenager traveling to New York for an abortion and her saintly-patient cousin, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a criticism of the undue pressure put on women in need. The burdens Autumn faces are social, financial, and temporal, braving a world where nearly every man she meets is filmed like a horror-movie predator waiting to strike. The most real film of 2020, we watch the mundane details of life fade away into the deepest tension as Autumn meets more roadblocks along the way. From boredom to exhaustion to fear to desperation, every shot of the film puts us deeply into Autumn's mental space as she wholly owns its point of view.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma) - An absolute visual delight, every shot in Portrait is composed in a painterly fashion. This is a beautiful film whose style is its substance; every composition gets us inside the head of Noémie Merlant's Marianne, a painter brought to a remote island to paint a portrait of a reclusive woman who she falls in love with. The film feels simultaneously otherworldly and totally modern. Featuring an almost entirely female cast, it feels like a shock when a male character finally intrudes on this world towards the end. Another good pick for a 2020 Isolation Playlist.

She Dies Tomorrow (Amy Seimetz) - A tightly tense hour and a half thriller, I really wish I could have seen this one in a theater! It's got some moments that are just so deeply oppressive that they belong on a giant screen you can't get away from. An existential horror film in which anxiety takes the form of a psychic virus, this is, again, a perfect film for that 2020 mood. A film whose focus shifts from character to character, giving us a wide variety of perspectives on feeling like your world is about to collapse.

Movies with standout elements:

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (Jason Woliner) - 14 years after the original Borat film became a pop culture phenomenon, Sacha Baron Cohen revives his satirical reporter character in a funny but oddly disjointed sequel. It's a more story-heavy film than the first, as we follow Borat and his daughter Tutar on an American odyssey, and is at times surprisingly heartfelt. Borat #2's jokes are at their best when aimed at people with power, but other times just feel too weightless.

First Cow (Kelly Reichardt) - A love story about baking and wilderness survival, and also a commentary on how the rich will destroy everything you have if you try to take even a portion of their unused wealth. This film follows two men who embody the goodness of brotherly love by defying the cruelty and toxic behavior in the world around them; they aren't interested in brawling and posturing, they'd rather bake and clean. First Cow's search for kindness in an hopeless world can be heartwarming, but honestly it needed more cow.

Just Mercy (Destin Daniel Cretton) - Michael B. Jordan gives an excellent performance as a Harvard-educated lawyer who moves to Alabama to fight for prisoners on death row. The film gives us a look at a few different cases, but most of the focus is on the wrongly imprisoned Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) and the systemic racism found even among people who consider themselves allies. Courtroom drama isn't usually my thing, but this film approaches it with expertise by a cast of excellent actors.

Unpregnant (Rachel Lee Goldenberg) - I watched this back to back with Never Rarely Sometimes Always and that's quite a way to go into it; these two movies follow essentially the same plot in totally different genres. While Never focuses on the grim reality and horror faced by a young woman who needs to travel for an abortion, Unpregnant is a buddy comedy. Never's lead characters struggle to pay for each step of their journey, while Unpregnant's money troubles are fluffier and used as set ups for jokes. They're both good films that approach their subjects with dignity and it's great that this is a comedy that never punches down; the difficulty faced by women in need of care is important to discuss, and having two very different approaches to telling that story is valuable.

All the rest:

Jay and Silent Bob Reboot (Kevin Smith) - A sequel to Kevin Smith's living cartoon comedy Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back made 19 years after the original, this is a very light satire of superhero films and fan culture along with a celebration of Smith's own film history. It's one of the most self-referential films I've ever seen and I can't imagine anyone who didn't grow up with Smith's films finding much here, but it's charming in its audacity. 

The Last Blockbuster (Taylor Morden) - A very light documentary following the birth, growth, and near death of the world's largest video rental chain, focused on what would end up being the last store standing. This same story could be told with a more biting focus on the predatory capitalism angle, but this is purely a nostalgia piece. I certainly related to spending hours browsing tapes and I genuinely do miss that. Kevin Smith's here too, and I liked his scenes. There's way, way too much Doug Benson.

Mulan (Niki Caro) - Far better than most of the Disney live action remakes I've seen, the new Mulan is at least its own film and not a recreation of the animated version. It's a very colorful, pretty film with a pleasantly campy witch played by Gong Li. This is an action film that discards the animated version's musical format, and the action here feels very much in tune with Disney's Star Wars sequels. Kenneth Branagh's 2015 take on Cinderella remains the best of this series of films.

The New Mutants (Josh Boone) - A horror/teen comedy/coming of age drama superhero movie for no one that managed to pull off two impossible tasks: Making an X-Men movie worse than X-Men 3 and Dark Phoenix, and putting Anya Taylor-Joy in a role I disliked. At least she was able to shine on TV this year in The Queen's Gambit.

Possessor (Brandon Cronenberg) - A sci-fi/horror film about corporate assassinations and hijacking people's brains that I expected to like a lot more than I did. There are some cool visuals here, but I felt that it needed to go way weirder than it ever did. A mixed feeling of, "That was gross, but wasn't gross enough to work." The film's posters are more effectively unsettling than the film itself.

Soul (Pete Docter) - Pixar's latest is a film both about and consumed by an identity crisis. We start out following a New York City music teacher, bored with his career, on the verge of making something of himself in the NY jazz scene. It's real, it's gorgeous, and then he dies and becomes a ghost and we've got a typical Pixar odd-couple comedy that once again treats the fantastical as a bureaucracy. For a while, the film becomes a lesser version of Inside Out, until it become a body-swap film in which our black lead only learns to appreciate his life and his community once he sees it through the eyes of a middle-aged white woman. The grounded, human elements of the film are excellent, but they're stuck to a bad comedy with choices that range from dull to baffling.

The Way Back (Gavin O'Connor) - O'Conner reunites with Ben Affleck following their surprisingly fun 2016 action film The Accountant for a story about overcoming tragedy and addiction via basketball. This is a pretty standard sports underdog/recovery film, but Affleck puts in a great performance that elevates the material. It's a good movie, but one that I felt I'd already seen a dozen times.

Wonder Woman 1984 (Patty Jenkins) - Jenkins' first Wonder Woman film, released in 2017, was excellent, among the best of the modern genre. I loved Gal Gadot's take on the character in 2016's Batman v Superman and was excited to see where she and Jenkins would take the character next. I wasn't expecting this. WW1984 is a bizarre mashup of family friendly comedy ala 2019's Shazam! and a lost romance story that weakens its heroine, both physically and thematically. Some of the jokes are good, Gadot and Chris Pine still have the same chemistry, and I liked Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal's characters for the first half of the film. 

The messages here are baffling; it's a romance where our heroes don't care at all that they basically kill a random dude to give Wonder Woman her boyfriend back. It's a story about a man who feels like a Trump analogue until we learn that it's all a front to hide the pain of an abusive childhood. We're then told in a horrendous monologue that Truth is Beautiful, intercut with shots of said abusive childhood. A woman is cast as a villain for beating the hell out of a man who tries to rape her, twice. The world basically ends, until it doesn't, and no one really seems to care after the fact. It's such a damn weird film that it's never boring, and I appreciate the image of a confused Ronald Reagan joining hands with a TV conman to pray for more bombs.

The action, costuming, music, script, everything here is just such a massive step down from the previous film that it's hard to believe the same team made it. There's nothing like the spectacular No Man's Land scene from the first film; instead we get a flight scene that's a little nicer looking than Superman III. The action in the first film and in Batman v Superman has such remarkable physicality to it, but this film feels absolutely weightless. It aims for the campiness of a Raimi Spider-Man or 90's Batman film, but doesn't really get what makes those movies work. Also, it's very obvious that there was supposed to be a romance between Gadot and Wiig's characters but the film ends up being gutless in that regard.

It's a bad sequel to a great movie, but it did give me a lot to talk about without even getting into half of the film's perplexing details (issues of consent, the entire Middle East expedition, a secret super armor that's just sitting around in an office until needed that ultimately doesn't do anything, an 80's film without a single song from the era, hammering the audience with the idea of status quo as a beautiful ideal.) I haven't had such a sense of "What the hell is happening, how did this happen?" since Transformers: Age of Extinction in 2014, which, I've got to admit, is at least better than the "Oh, this again" feeling I usually get from superhero movies these days.

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